As we were leaving the temple of Angkor Wat a boy who looked to be about ten years old sidled up alongside us. It’s hard to guess someone’s age in Cambodia, where the people are slight, even by Asian standards. His little legs matched our stride as he walked with us and offered to sell 10 postcards for a dollar.
After touring Asia for two months we’ve grown accustomed to aggressive hawkers, so we usually put on our game face and stoically work our way through the throngs selling everything from t-shirts to ginseng to who knows what else. But we hadn’t been approached by a child vendor before.
We had heard stories of child beggars and seen a few in Bali, where they congregate at major intersections pressing their imploring faces up to the windows of taxis at red lights. Our driver there shook his head sadly and said to ignore them, that it’s organized begging controlled by local criminal groups, that some parents even hire their children out for the day.
In the streets of Siem Reap, the local town for Angkor Wat, a meal at a sidewalk café is often interrupted a few times by children, some looking as young as 6 or 7, selling postcards and souvenirs. Both restaurant owners and diners treat them as another nuisance to swat away, just like the mosquitoes borne on the humid air. Everything we had read advised us not to give handouts on the street but to make donations through approved groups instead, pretty much the same advice we get back home.
Back at the temple though, something about the pint-sized postcard vendor made us hesitate. He wasn’t begging, he was offering something in return. Caught off guard, we somehow didn’t associate what he was doing with large corporations employing child laborers in sweatshops.
We thought we were pretty street-savvy but this kid was even more so and could sense our ambivalence. He tried to engage Michael in conversation and asked if he was from England.
“England?” Michael responded, “No way.”
The child replied, “If I can guess where you from buy some postcards.”
He ran through an impressive list of countries before finally settling on the United States. As Michael nodded his head the child eagerly continued, “US, capital Washington.” The kid certainly knew his geography.
Michael bought the postcards and we went on our way. After we slid into our taxi Michael asked our guide if it was okay to buy the cards. He said it was. But as we drove away we couldn’t help thinking, “Shouldn’t that kid be in school right now?”
Travel creates moral dilemmas that are amplified by vast cultural and economic differences. We still don’t know if we did the right thing or not.
What would you have done?
This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 22, 2012.
Click the link for more stories about our travel to Cambodia.