If you visit the temples in Angkor, it won’t be long before you’re approached by young children selling postcards, bracelets, fruit, or anything that they think tourists will buy. “Buy postcards from me miss!” a boy who looked about 8 said, “This is your last chance.” Of course postcards are plentiful in Cambodia, but you have to appreciate his salesmanship!
I remember overhearing a British couple ask each other “Are these Cambodian children? Shouldn’t they be in school?” I asked my tour guide about this, and he said that a lot of Cambodian families still don’t trust the school systems (remember, the Khmer Rouge killed off the educated when they took over) or are so poor that they need their children to work to help support the family. I had read some literature published by local non-profit organizations that warned against giving money or purchasing from children because every dollar that a tourist gives deprives the parents of the incentive to make sure their kids to school and get a proper education. When a tourist buys from a child or gives them money, candy, or even food, it helps continue their cycle of poverty.
Fortunately, I did find two ways that I could help the children of Cambodia.
My first stop was Marum, a hospitality training restaurant for disadvantaged Cambodian youth. All profits from the restaurant are invested in the students who train there and the social programs that support them. Set in a charming wooden house with a garden for outside dining, Marum was a great place to dig into local cuisine.
When I saw on the menu that the Red Tree Ants, Beef, Kaffir Lime and Chili Stir Fry was listed as both a “Students’ Favorite” and a “Truly Khmer Dish”, I had to try it even though the thought of eating ants makes me shudder.
To be honest, I couldn’t taste them once they were mixed with the beef and stir-fry sauce. I mostly was concerned that their legs would get stuck between my teeth. =/
Still hungry from very cautiously eating the ant/beef dish, I also ordered some grilled frog legs and dessert.
The Cambodian Circus
After dinner, I hopped in a tuk-tuk for a short ride to the Phare, the Cambodian Circus. What’s a tuk-tuk you ask? It’s essentially a cart attached to a scooter, and is the most common method of transportation in Siem Reap.
Here’s a video of me riding a tuk-tuk home during what I assume is rush hour.
Anyway, back to Phare! Phare is a circus featuring the graduates of the Phare Performing Social Enterprise’s Battambang school, which provides free arts education to economically and socially challenged Cambodian youth. All the performers in the Phare Cambodian Circus were formerly high-risk youths. Usually, they are orphans, children from the streets, or from underprivileged families.
Each student is trained for 8-10 years before he or she graduates, and some graduates even go on to perform in shows around the world. I was happy to know that the cost of my admission ticket was going to support a school that provides education to those who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity, incoming or training to develop and showcase their skills.
If you’re ever traveling to Cambodia and want to know how you can help, I would highly recommend Phare and Marum. If these aren’t your style, there are plenty of other organizations that are well-deserving of your contributions.