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The child vendors of Angkor Wat

by Michael

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.

angkot at child vendors

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?



Barbara April 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm

I feel bad reading about these child hawkers. I can’t say what I would do until I am in the situation. I would go on feeling. This child sounded sweet and incredibly smart. I imagine the luxury that schooling is in Cambodia…
Peace to you.

Us April 29, 2012 at 4:40 pm

School is available but from what we understand books may have to be paid for. Either way it’s a difficult situation.

Doz & Amanda April 30, 2012 at 6:10 am

I confess, we bought the cards too. These kids are quite something though, their knowledge of facts and figures from around the world and their ability to sell you items in at least 6 different languages is amazing. (you can’t get out of it even if you pretend to be German 🙂

Us April 30, 2012 at 10:02 am

For such young kids without formal schooling their language skills are pretty incredible. How wonderful it would be if they had some real opportunities in life.

Sam May 25, 2012 at 9:53 am

What a sad sight. I honestly don’t know what I would have done.

Michael March 24, 2013 at 4:24 pm

It’s a dilemma all right.

Lillie - @WorldLillie March 24, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Thanks for sharing this dilemma. When I was at Angkor Wat I never bought a thing from the child vendors because of all that I’d read about how many of the kids are forced to hawk the goods. The more you buy, the more it’s encouraged in the adults to exploit the kids.

Michael March 24, 2013 at 6:38 pm

You’re totally right Lillie. In the moment it’s hard to remember that.

Bethaney - Flashpacker Family March 24, 2013 at 10:32 pm

It is so hard not to buy from these kids. I have a rule that I either have to buy something from everyone or no one. Usually, I opt for no one and instead try and donate money to a local charity or support an individual from a country I’ve visited through Kiva.

wandering educators March 25, 2013 at 8:56 am

I find it so hard to even do anything, when confronted with this – trying to remember what we should do, while looking at needy kids, is really difficult.

Theodora March 26, 2013 at 7:10 pm

Typical guidance from NGOs as regards child beggars and organised child labour is not to buy from them: when we were at Angkor Wat, we saw the man who was running some of these kids, and they were scared of him.

The problem with buying is that these children pass their cute sales peak at some point in their teens, and are then uneducated and unemployed. That said, I talked to one at Banteay Srei (?sp?) and she did her sunrise shift before going off to school at 7am — we watched a series of them trot off, their work done, to make their 7-1 morning shift at school — so it’s not an unmixed picture.

Terry at Overnight New York March 28, 2013 at 10:27 am

How unnerving to see that Fagin is alive and well in Angkor Wat.

Michael March 28, 2013 at 5:16 pm

Unfortunately this is the situation in much of the world.

Melinda March 29, 2013 at 2:07 am

In 1998 when I visited Angkor Wat, I do not recall any child vendors – instead, these sweet children would follow you around telling you the most amazing stories about the areas within while speaking in excellent English. Their smiles and joy were contagious. They spent two hours with us and we realized about five minutes into our ‘tour’ what was going on. Some of my favourite photos of this trip are of that group of girls and other children we met there. And, yes, we did tip them some Riel as a thank you for a very enjoyable afternoon.

Michael March 29, 2013 at 8:56 am

Hi Melinda,

Interesting to hear how Angkor Wat was before it became overrun with visitors.
Thanks for sharing.

Laurel- Capturing la Vita March 30, 2013 at 12:54 pm

Such a struggle. It is so sad to imagine what is going on behind closed doors with all of this.

Cambodia March 30, 2013 at 1:50 pm

For Angkor Wat..
First, don’t believe this children are poor. All they go to school; real poor children don’t go school and don’t speak fluent english. Siem Reap province is the richest province in Cambodia.
Second, I always buy to adult. If I want buy something, I always looking for adult and never buy to children.
Third, yes it look kind that a child ask you something with fun, but he learn his trick and do the same to everybody.. already small, he learn for be malignant. Not so good.
Please stop to buy from child.

evan April 1, 2013 at 10:11 am

the children of Angkor were different then the streets to myself also. I also met a brilliant child that not only knew the capital city of my country Canada but also our Prime Minister and the population. I didn’t buy from this fellow regardless of his “tourist smarts”. a much more difficult memory for me is the little children of the Floating village of the Tonle Sap Lake (11 km west of Siem Reap) asking for ‘one dolla’ while floating in a cooking wok or a Styrofoam cooler. knowledge that these children do this everyday haunts my memory…

Nate January 29, 2014 at 1:41 pm

I’ve gone to Angkor Wat twice now in my life including in 2009 while working for Kiva in SE Asia. I worked with several local people in Siem Reap as a result and were told to never to buy anything from these youth. They were basically pimped by adults who would get all of the proceeds of the sale. Most of the adults weren’t even their own parents.

I talked to one girl for over half an hour; her English was excellent and she learned it all while selling postcards at Siem Reap. Not in school, because she never went to school. I asked her if she was from Siem Reap and she told me that she was from the other side of the country. Short story: her family was so poor they couldn’t afford to keep her anymore and literally sold her. This girl was a modern-day slave.

What do you do in this situation? I felt hopeless, sad, frustrated. I could tell that she was quick, witty, and very intelligent, but due to her lot in life, was forced into child labor. I decided not to buy anything from her, but instead offered to buy her lunch and a soda. Her face lit up instantly and she graciously accepted. That way, her pimp wouldn’t get anything and she would have a full stomach.

This is a hard situation for everyone, but if I can give any advice for future encounters like this: never buy anything that you know came from child labor. If you do, you perpetuate the demand for child labor and give scumbag adults an incentive to continue using child labor.

Michael January 29, 2014 at 1:47 pm

Thank you for sharing your advice about this difficult situation.

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