The truth about child labor in Cambodia

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from travel writer Kristin Addis. 

The piping hot day in Siem Reap, Cambodia, becomes ever more noticeable as the wind stops grazing the skin and the tuk-tuk comes to a halt outside of the gates of the extraordinary ruins of Angkor Wat.  Perhaps you’ve waited your whole life to see these ruins – – I know I certainly had.

Monkeys run across the path in front of the tourists on foot.  A captive elephant carries passengers upon his back through the forests surrounding the temple.  Hoards of tourists flash their cameras at centuries-old rocks.  It is exactly how you had imagined it would be.

That is, until entering the grounds, when a tiny, bronzed hand tugs at yours.

“Miss!” the young girl chides in near-perfect English, “Beautiful post-cards! One dollah, one dollah!”

Another child, this time a boy who appears to be no older than six-years-old, runs up and asks which country you’re from, because he’s collecting coins, and, gee, he would really like to have one from each country.  Could you spare some money, perhaps?

Photo courtesy Sailing “Footprints: Real to Reel” (Ronn ashore) via Flickr Creative Commons

I encountered this scene often as I traveled throughout Cambodia.

On the beaches of the south, children had memorized popular American songs as a way to get our attention and start a dialogue with the aim of selling bracelets.  In the capitol city of Phnom Penh, children hawked everything from guidebooks to drugs.

These images were heartbreaking every time.  As a tourist who can afford to spare a dollar or two, it seems heartless to deny a child this small gift.  So, many tourists buy from them, if only to support them slightly, and to feel a bit less guilty.

Some tourists resist at first, or ask questions to justify the donation.  These children easily produce a laundry list of reasons why they are selling goods and/or begging:

I have to work to help my family, my parents have no jobs.

I am working so that I can pay for school!

Look at your hairy legs! Like a monkey! I’ll thread them for you! Here, I’ll show you, let me try.

Please help me. You have money, you can help me!

Photo courtesy of sebr via Flickr Creative Commons License

The reality is, these children are not going to school.  Their parents may be sitting only a few meters away, ushering their children forward because tourists find it harder to say “no” to children vs. adults.  The children know that if they mess with you, joke with you, and warm up to you, they may just make a sale.

Of course you have a dollar to spare, and you may feel better momentarily for what appears to be the alleviation of poverty.

Regardless, the bottom line is, giving to young workers and beggars directly supports, perpetuates, and encourages child labor.

Even worse, these children are often pawns of larger organizations that traffic children, expose them to drugs, impose exceedingly long hours, and take the majority of the earnings.

As tough and hopeless as the situation may appear, the hope for a brighter future lies in schooling.  Giving to child workers only supports the easy way out – sending children to work so that they can earn now, rather than giving them the opportunity to learn now and earn more in the future.

This shouldn’t prevent us from giving altogether, however.  There are ways to make sure that your money and good intentions go into the right hands.

How you can help put an end to child labor in Cambodia

–       Donate time or money to local organizations that support child education and the betterment of local lives

–       Buy from street vendors who are of age, and tip where it makes sense to – this supports work from those of a proper age and puts money directly into the local economy

–       Check before you donate.  Websites like Concert Cambodia help to keep local organizations accountable

*Cover photo courtesy of Sailing “Footprints: Real to Reel” (Ronn ashore) via Flickr Creative Commons

Guest Posts Responsible Tourism

The faces of Ratanakiri

The little boy’s face in front of me is smeared with dirt, coupled with snot. But, he doesn’t care. Instead, he pushes his tiny, dark face closer to me. Closer to my lens, and smiles big.

A little boy from Ratanakiri


I turn the camera towards him, displaying his chubby little face for him to see and he erupts in a fit of giggles, delighted at seeing his image on the display.

As I move from him and towards other children surrounding me in this dusty village in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri Province, he follows me, jumping into every photo I take and then standing there after, waiting anxiously for me to turn my camera around so he can see his face once again.

Ratanakiri is far off the tourist path (for the most part). It is a bumpy ride 11-hour ride from Phnom Penh, and an even more tretchreous 16-hour drive on mostly dirt roads from Siem Reap. Unexpectedly, I find myself in this village, which has a fine layer of rust-covered dirt blanketing everything from the trees on the side of the roads to the quickly put-together wooden homes on stilts to even the people, including me.

Armed with a bag of clothing and snacks to give to the children, it is only a matter of moments before my boss and I (who are here on an entirely different mission) are surrounded by the village’s children.

For an  hour, we snap photos of them before we head out and stop in another village.

As night falls and my boss meets with someone, I wander off towards a small group of kids. They run around me, laughing, mimicking my movements. At one point, I crouch to the ground with them and place my hands over my mouth, over my ears and then, over my eyes. They do the same.

Speak no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.

I sit and stare at them as they follow my lead, marveling at the lives they lead. There is no electricity in this village. There are no iPads, no televisions, barely a radio. Instead, these children live with nature. They live a far simpler life than the children I have met in my days. And, it is a beautiful thing.

I find myself back in these two villages a month later, as we are en route to rescue elephants. Once again, the children crowd us, fighting to see my camera, to play with my iPhone. And, once again, I feel this sense of peace come over me as I sit and am reminded of the little things in my childhood that would make me happy: afternoons sitting outside with my friends, dancing into the sunset, simple moments of nature.

Despite their dire conditions, despite the fact these children will never know Facebook, or Twitter, or likely Gangam Style, they are happy. Even living in poverty, these children sparkle and exude a warmth I feel very rarely with little ones.

Here are their moments:

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It makes me wonder: if kids in first world countries who have those iPads, the cell phones, the video games, could come here and see how these children live, I wonder if the next generation would be different?

Asia Blog Cambodia

To rescue elephants

It is pitch black when Lek knocks on the door of my room at the guest house.

“Ok, we go,” she says softly through the wood. “The elephants are ready.”

I’m up.

Today — this morning — we are on a mission: to rescue two female elephants from their lives of work and deliver them to freedom at Save Elephant Foundation’s newest project, Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia.

I’ve only slept for a couple of hours, and the travel to get here has been exhausting. But, I don’t care. The tired vanishes from my body as I pull on my clothes and head downstairs.

At 4:30 a.m., our group loads into the van and begins our journey.

“They loaded the first elephants at 3:30,” Lek reports. “She was a bit difficult, but the other girl went on the truck easily.”

Kham Lin's first bath time after being captive

The “other girl” is Kham Lin, the younger of the two elephants. Her previous life was in a small village which used to have 100 elephants. She is the last one. Because of inadequate (read: non-existent) veterinary care, each elephant has been chained up when they have gotten sick and left to die. Her time in the village, thanks to Lek, is now finished.

The villagers walk with the elephant the day before the rescue

The day earlier, we watched as she took her last steps as a captive elephant, flanked by children from the village. Without hesitation, she walked onto the truck. Immediately, my heart fluttered and tears filled my eyes.

This life of work is done for you, Kham Lin.

As we head out of town with the sun just beginning to crack the horizon, I feel that warm feeling move through my body again. I know I am a part of something incredibly special … at least to the two elephants who are being rescued.

Our first glimpse of the trucks with the elephants being rescued

Our first glimpse of the trucks with the elephants being rescued

We pull over on the side of the road a little outside of town and wait for the two elephant trucks to drive by. As they move down the hill, I see our team on the trucks, balanced on wooden boards affixed to the top, covered in blankets to fight the nippy Cambodian morning. They wave to us on the road below.

We drive a little longer and Lek asks me if I want to ride on top of one of the trucks.

My parents would definitely not approve of this.

I agree in an instant, even though I’ve inspected the trucks. The one I want to ride one, the one with Kham Lin, is especially scary for me. The ladder to the top doesn’t even start until above the massive front wheel, and then there is a gap where you have to hoist yourself onto the roof of the cab, and then a step onto the top of the back of the truck.

I’m petrified.

Lauren, a volunteer with us, climbs up first.

“Come on, D, you can do it,” she says, looking down at me from the bench she is sitting on.

I can’t not get on the truck, I can’t not ride with the elephant because I am scared of falling down a ladder.

I muster my little courage and climb up, with the help of two people — one on the ground and one pulling my onto the top of the cab.

Heart racing, I finally make it to the bench and look behind me.

Kham Lin stands in the truck calmly.

After the barge, Kham Lin, one of the elephant rescues, waits for the next leg of the journey

I wish she could understand how much her life is about to change.

Then, we begin our journey to the Mekong.

It’s chilly. Bugs slap my face. Dust settles on every inch of my body. And, I don’t care. Being on top of the truck, seeing Cambodia pass me by like this … there is no place I would rather be.

We drive for two hours down a two-lane, paved road. Around us is eerily quiet at this hour, as the sun begins to cast its golden light onto the (depleted) countryside.

It’s magical and sad at the same time, driving through tiny villages of homes on wooden stilts and tiny shacks which sell goods to the people on the road.

We arrive to the Mekong mid-morning. There is no bridge to take us across the river, only a barge. The three trucks load onto the barge and we begin the 30-minute ride across the river.

Getting ready to cross the Mekong with the elephants

When we are delivered to the opposite side, the world is entirely different. Instead of pavement, it is dirt. Instead of buildings, there are wooden huts. And, the military which greet us and stop us, inspecting our documents and looking through a book Lek has brought which shows photos from Elephant Nature Park and the happy lives of the elephants there. That is her dream for the sanctuary in Cambodia: to give the elephants happy lives.

Military stop and examine documents as we rescue elephants

The military thumb through the book, pointing and smiling at the photos, and then wave us on our way.

That’s when the journey gets more difficult.

One of the elephants being rescued in Cambodia

The road isn’t good. In fact, the bumps and dips make for a difficult time a top the truck. I haven’t gotten comfortable yet, so my feet attempt to brace my body against the back of the cab, and I have a death grip on the wooden bench I’m sitting on. As we drive across Cambodia, my heart begins to quietly break.

Villagers working on the road in Cambodia

All around me is extreme poverty. Animals living under homes that will be meals. Children running with tattered clothing and smeared in dirt. Yet, each little village we drive through, we are greeted with excitement.

An elephant! In a truck!

For most, it is the first time they have seen an elephants  — because today, there are so few left in the wild in Cambodia.

The children run up to the side of the road and wave up to us on top of the truck. They point and smile at the elephants as we zoom by their world.

I wish we could bring these people with us, too.

Before the dust picks up, the view still is desolate

The interior of Cambodia is desolate. Graveyards of forests surround the dirt road. It reminds me a lot of the Las Vegas desert, only there is little life here, thanks to the burning of the jungle.

The remains of a jungle in Cambodia, a result of slash and burn

There are places where the stench of burn sits thick in the air.

The smoke from the fires permeates the air in Cambodia

And then there are places where the fires are so strong, I can feel the heat from them as we drive by. I can hear the crackling of the fires around us.

Sadly, there is little jungle left.

We drive for 16 hours, racing through dangerous areas as we get closer to Siem Reap and closer to the sanctuary. At one point, we get pulled over by police. But, since we’re doing everything above board, the only thing they ask is for $2 from us. I shake my head at this. Two. Dollars. That is nothing, but to them …

Finally, as the sky turns pink, I decide to get back into the truck. I can’t take anymore of the smoke, which has grown even worse.

The last two hours, we trail the elephants in the van and I stare intently on them. Filled with happy that they are going to their new home.

It is well into the night when we get to the sanctuary and there is one last part of the rescue which needs to be executed: the elephants getting off of the truck and taking their first steps into their new home.

The first girl, the one who had trouble getting onto the truck, turns to us and gently kneels down and steps off of the truck.

A small cheer and claps break out from the people who have stopped to watch this scene unfold on the side of the road. Immediately, I feel myself glow, I feel the tears begin to sting my eyes.

We did it.

Then, Kham Lin steps off the truck.

The first steps of freedom for the rescued Kham Lin

Our team leads them into the park as we trail behind, watching them as they take their first steps to the rest of their lives.

“This is just amazing,” I say to Lauren.

“Yeah … I mean … well … you get it … you’re here,” she says.

I know exactly what she means.

We’ve been a part of something so magical. So special. A month earlier, I visited Cambodia with Lek to see these elephants and to learn about them before they were rescued. To know I was a tiny part of something that gave these two gorgeous creatures a better life fills me with such warmth and takes me away from my selfish human needs and allows me to look at the bigger picture.

It’s actions like this that can change the world and change the thinking of people. And, I am so glad to be a part of this momentous occasion. To witness these elephants be brought to a new life. To be at the start of something new with the sanctuary.

In this moment, I could not be happier.

Want more on the elephant rescue? Check out The Diary of an Elephant Rescue.

Asia Blog Cambodia

Daily Wanderlust: The children of Ratanakiri

Beyond, way beyond, the traffic of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and on the border of Vietnam and Laos, is the Ratanakiri Province. Here, paved roads give way to dusty, rust-colored dirt paths, and wooden homes perched on knobby stilts are the norm. One of the least developed places in the country, the people here are a minority, the Khmer Loeu, with a history of slavery.

This area is home to numerous small villages, well off the beaten path, packed with some of the most beautiful children I have ever seen. Unlike the children I met in Nkombo, Rwanda, these children come close to us. They smile with us. They don’t speak a word of English, but it doesn’t matter. We communicate with giggles, photos and play.

There’s much more to come on my visit to this region, but here is a little start …

The children in Cambodia's Ratanakiri Province


Daily Wanderlust: A market in Siem Reap

Cambodia. If you asked me a year ago, I never would have thought I would make it there. But, life changes and as an expat in Thailand, I get to do a lot of things (like heading to Bali), which I originally never thought possible.

In October, I headed to Cambodia for work (Save Elephant Foundation opened a new sanctuary outside of Siem Reap) and got to experience the country for a brief moment.

Sure, I missed Angkor Wat thanks to it being closed for the day, but I was able to wander through crowded markets where the pungent smell of animal flesh permeated the air, and shop owners at the Night Market tried to hawk their various T-shirts, arts and other assorted goods at me. The Night Market reminds me a bit of Morocco’s souks where a whirlwind of colors, sounds and smells attack your senses, but without the pressure of having to spend, spend, spend.

While I was only in the country for a quick two days, one thing is for sure — I will be back!

The market in Siem Reap Cambodia


Daily Wanderlust: Koh Rong, Cambodia

Editor’s Note: While I am preparing to leave Las Vegas, embark on an epic cross-country road trip exploring America and relocate to Thailand to become an expat, I have opened my blog to special guest posts from travel bloggers I love. This is a guest post written by Alexandra Pucherelli.

I am a self-proclaimed sunset junkie!

There is something about them that sucks me every evening. The way the colors change from dull to vibrant. Each sunset is unique yet they hold a common theme: the signal of the end of a day and the beginning of the night.

This particular sunset was sometime last December on the island of Koh Rong in Cambodia. I spent six nights on this tiny island, but this was the only sunset I got to witness. Unfortunately, all the bungalows are on the east side of the island and to watch the sunset you must walk for 45 minutes over the island to the other side.  I highly recommend doing the hike in the morning and than spending the day on your own private 7km brilliant white sand beach and frolicking in the crystal turquoise waters (graeter). I wish I had done it earlier during my stay on the island. Since it is dark by the time you leave, you also need to find a local fisherman to take you back by boat to your resort.

The effort was well worth it. As I was rewarded with one of the best sunsets I saw in Southeast Asia.

Sunset Koh Rong Cambodia

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