By Ben Groundwater
Plenty of visitors to Cambodia are tempted to give Phnom Penh a miss, which is understandable in some ways. The country’s capital doesn’t have a reputation as a tourist-friendly hotspot. It’s just big and kind of ugly, with a spate of recent development that has destroyed much of its former chaotic charm. A lot of tourists will skip straight to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor, or to hit the beaches around Sihanoukville.
But Phnom Penh is a little like, say, Melbourne, or Berlin – a place that keeps its attractions close to its chest, that makes you work a little harder to find the good stuff. It is worth taking the time to do that though, to discover PP’s surprisingly vibrant café culture, to get to know its hipster bars, and to revel in a gastronomic scene that’s both centuries old and modern-day cutting-edge.
To have fun in Phnom Penh you have to embrace the chaos, you have to get comfortable with almost being wiped out by guys on scooters constantly, by being yelled at by touts, by breathing in scents that range from the delicious to the disgusting. PP is an assault, but in a good way, a South-East Asian capital you’ll quickly learn to love if you just give it a chance.
I get it. I understand. You’re visiting a developing country and you want to do some good; you want to help some of the people who’ve been so kind to you, to give a chance to those who maybe don’t have one.
But don’t be tempted, in Cambodia, to visit an orphanage – even though the practice is popular among travellers. There are several serious problems created in this country by “orphanage tourism”, by well-meaning visitors foreigners whose visits and donations are actually tearing families apart, rather than helping those in need.
To begin with, some orphanages in the country are being run as businesses, with profits funnelled to owners, rather than to children. The existence of orphanages that attract foreign donations also means it can be more profitable for families to place their children in these establishments than to keep them at home, thus separating families who could still be together. And even when orphanages are run the way they should be, the constant cycle of visiting tourists who play with children, give them toys and school supplies, take photographs of them and then disappear forever, has been shown to be harmful to the children’s long-term well-being.
If you want to help local people in Cambodia, that’s great, but you’ll do far better to donate money to a registered charity or organisation that works to keep families in the country together. For a full list of those, go to thinkchildsafe.org.
Find out more insider tips about other destinations: read all the articles in Ben's "One Thing" series here.
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