Popular attractions include…

I’m on a bus outside Sai Gon; heading towards one of those tourist attractions I’ve been saying I should visit for months. The journey will take about two hours and there isn’t much to do except look out of the windows. It is an inconceivably boring trip and I am delighted.

I love talking to strangers, especially ones who offer sweeties (don’t tell my mother) and the one thing I dislike about living in Viet Nam is that I don’t share a language with many of the strangers I meet. My Vietnamese is still very rudimentary and doesn’t go far beyond asking about someone’s day and complimenting the cuteness of their children (I can usually stretch this into a five minute conversation because people love talking about their kids and I’m good at nodding and smiling.)

So imagine my happiness to be travelling with a bus full of captive Anglophones, just waiting for me to chat with them! I strike up a conversation with some excitable Canadians with giant bags of M&M’s and Jolly Ranchers – “Would you like some?” they ask. “Oh God, yes!” I drool.

Turns out they are two university students on break, travelling around South East Asia and have loved everything they have done so far.

“Where are you off to next?” I ask, between fistfuls of blue, raspberry flavoured sugar.

“Cambodia! We’re going start in Phnom Penh to visit the Killing Fields, see some Temples and Museums, stay overnight in an Orphanage so we can feed the kids breakfast the next day, and there are also some interesting Royal Palaces…”

Oh damn; they said one of my trigger phrases… ‘staying overnight in an orphanage,’ as in – ORPHANAGE TOURISM. Let’s be clear; no decent children’s home would allow complete strangers to stay overnight with unimpeded access to vulnerable children, in exchange for money. These places use children as tourist attractions and profit from the poverty and misery of the community. And more tourists visit these places and hand over money, the more of these places open up.*

The Canadians had just inadvertently stumbled onto one of my rant-inducing topics and I’m about to go from ‘that nice Aussie we shared candy with’ to ‘remember that deranged Australian that raved at us for a half hour on that bus trip?’

But there is still a chance we can salvage this; maybe they don’t know that orphanage tourism can be extremely exploitative of children and families living in poverty. I ask if they know much about Orphanage Tourism; have they done much research?

They respond that they have heard a couple of bad things about some orphanages in Cambodia, but that stuff is probably exaggerated, and it isn’t like they’re going to do anything bad to the kids and it would be fun to spend some time with them, and they want do some good while they are traveling…

I’ve heard enough and I feel wretched for what is about to happen, I really do, but they displayed wilful disregard for the rights and safety of children and there is no stopping the surge now.

I never remember exactly what I say during one of these tirades; I imagine it is how Bruce Banner feels when he snaps out of Hulk Rage. Though for me, it is more like Hulk Frustration.

I know for certain there are elements of;

“Ask yourself – would you be happy to have complete strangers come into your house, and pay money to stay overnight with your children with only limited supervision?”


“Then why is it okay for it to happen to these children?”

I also like to bring stats in it.

“Seventy-five percent of those children aren’t orphans. They are there because the directors of the orphanage convinced their parents, family members or guardians that the children would be given an education and a better life – but they get neither!”

Maybe I’ll bring their darkest imaginings into it.

“Do you think those unscrupulous orphanages keep the kids around when they’re over thirteen, pimply and don’t enjoying colouring in with tourists anymore?”

“Because they don’t, the children get kicked out onto the streets but they usually find employment quickly because they have some foreign language skills and are comfortable faking affection with strangers…”

I usually pause around this point; I have plenty more to say but they’ve probably had enough.**

You might wonder how this normally calm person went from happily talking about travel plans to Hulk Frustration so quickly; well that’s my secret… I’m always frustrated.

You see, I work in a job that is about advocating for human rights, child rights, women’s rights, migrant rights, and preventing exploitation, trafficking and abuse. I live and breathe this stuff and if there was one practice that encapsulates all these things, it would be exploitative, unethical Orphanage Tourism.

Gentle readers, if you travel and feel compelled to give money to assist children living in poverty; consider helping community-based programmes, which support families and enable the children to live at home. Maybe support the work of medical, nutritional or educational organisations working in the community (of course, you should research them before you contribute). This sort of community assistance probably won’t result in many pictures of you with a couple of cute kids to put on your social media accounts but hopefully the knowledge that you haven’t been involved in the exploitation of children will comfort you.

Even if you don’t give money, you can still travel child-ethnically:

  • Eat at food stalls and small family-run cafes; this gives income to local parents to provide for their kids.
  • Go to shops owned by locals, not foreigners; again this is to allow money to stay in the community.
  • Buy souvenirs directly from the person making them, cut out the middleman. Some guidebook recommended shops and artisan collectives. You’re going to have a better memory of that purchase than just picking something up from a tourist gift shop.
  • Don’t undermine local livelihoods – if people have traditionally been weaving a certain cloth and a foreign factory starts making that cloth at a cut price, the weaver loses work and runs out of money.

These hints are just the tip of the ice berg; I also believe that people should do their research before they travel, but if you can’t manage that then at least exercise some awareness and try to behave around children in the same way you would want people to behave around yours.

* In the interests of full disclosure; I have been to children’s homes in Viet Nam. There have been a couple of places I have visited in a professional capacity on behalf of my organization and also to a Home for Disabled Children where my friend works as a Physiotherapist. I’m glad to say that none of the Children’s Homes I have visited were profit making ventures and the children seemed well cared for.

** I didn’t even mention the damaging effects of children being raised by an endless series of temporary carers (even when abuse isn’t present); it can lead to the inability to form long-term attachments or displaying over attachment to strangers, etc.

Visiting an Orphanage is listed under visiting a Shooting Range in Cambodia.

16 thoughts on “Popular attractions include…

    1. It is a grotesque industry that is very prevalent in East and South East Asia. It thrives on the ignorance of tourists, the desperation of parents, and the innocence of the children.


    1. I’m happy if just a few people know more about this and understand that kids aren’t tourist attractions and children homes aren’t petting zoos.


  1. This is the powerful post. I used to work for an NGO and we asked every expat volunteer or staff for their background/security clearance. Without that, they wouldn’t be able to work with the kids, even as an unpaid volunteer. Then just a few steps away, there was an English center that employed backpackers off the street. Parents don’t even know if the “teachers” are certified or not, and I’m not so sure if anyone asked for their criminal record check.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have had more police checks, background checks and working with children checks than I care to remember. For one job, I had to have all my paperwork signed by an official to be certified, so I went to my local Police Station and the Police Officer remarked that he filled in less paperwork to get a gun. That is the way it should be.

      I believe you about the English Centre employed people off the street. I’ve been asked to be a teacher a number of times and I always respond that I already have a job and I’m not qualified, etc. One person told me that I wouldn’t actually have to teach, just stand around in the admissions office, or in front of doors and windows… Basically, they wanted someone to stand around who looked like a good English Teacher i.e. Caucasian, blue eyes, because it was good advertising.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed reading this post! I think it’s great that you highlight such ‘tourism’. People in their ignorance think they’re doing something good when in fact they’re part of the problem. You get a virtual high five from me 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The brutal truth is that people that are interested in harming children will look for ways to get unrestricted access and orphanage tourism is a fairly easy way to do that. Even if 99.9% of visitors are visiting under a misguided sense of charity, that still leaves 0.1% of visitors going there, seeking to harm the kids. If an orphanage has 20,000 tourists visiting per year, the numbers of abusers gaining access to the children really adds up.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am glad you were informative to the tourists. I would want to know, and am always so sad when I hear how children are not given the care and safety they deserve. I have to say it brings me so much sadness I basically can’t watch the news, etc as I find it hard to compartmentalize it and live with it. I carry it with me and can’t handle the reality. I applaud people who are emotionally strong enough to help… The world needs more good people like you.


    1. Thank you for your comment and compliment, it was very nice of you to say. Children’s rights and protection are issues very close to my heart. The magnitude and scope of the problems are just colossal and it is very common to feel powerless and overwhelmed. But hopefully you are able to change your reaction from being paralysed, to being energised. Maybe consider one thing about your family, community, country or region that you think could be changed or improved and think about a couple of ways you do something about it. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with child welfare or anything that you find too distressing. It doesn’t have to be anything big or time consuming, just something that you care about. Remember that you have more strength, power and influence than you realise.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I knew I had to change something because I was feeling paralyzed (perfect way to describe it!). I would see a family begging with their children and I would break down into tears, so upset. I found out we have a homeless shelter in my town that helps and houses families (which is rare) they specialize in families. I called and the director was so helpful and invited me to tour the the place. She explained that they will house a family for up to a year and teach them life skills to manage money, rent a house, resume writing, etc. It helps give children a feeling of safety, also.

        She also gave me some cards and next time I see a family to give them a card. I finally had something I could do to help. I also volunteered in the kitchen and helped serve a meal, donated blankets and toothbrushes /toothpaste etc. And, I tell everyone I know to help them and donate. It helped me cope better, so your advice is spot on!! I still don’t watch news stories etc. But, at least I can deal with situations I am confronted with. 🙂


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