The Beggars Dilemma: Why I Skipped Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia

Should we give money to beggars?

That’s the question that lingered in our mind when we decided to visit Cambodia back in March 2014. Travelers often find themselves facing this dilemma whenever they are in third-world countries.

Surely, parting with money isn’t the main issue. Even the stingiest of the stingy must have had their heart melt at least once when they witness the unfortunate dragging their knees around asking for a rice bowl-worth of cents.

Child Beggars in Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

[Image Credit: Csaba Jancsovics]

When I was asked the above question, my initial thought is not to give to those who are young and able-bodied, but will consider for the less fortunate ones. But inside my mind, somehow even that didn’t feel quite right.

What could possibly be wrong about giving? After all, isn’t it the most selfless thing in the world that one can do?

“If you give money to our children, you will turn them into beggars…”
– from a sign in Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

Giving can be harmful. Giving perpetuates the cycle of poverty by creating non-sustainable dependency and giving them a strong incentive to stay on the streets, instead of developing the necessary skill sets to help them feed themselves.

And that’s the best case scenario.

The scary truth often goes further from that. United Nations’ World Bank reported regular occurrences around the world of which forced begging is part of an elaborated human trafficking scheme. And knowing that disabled beggars attract more sympathy, it is not uncommon for these criminal groups to have beggars’ limbs amputated, face poured with acid and God knows what else.

It’s a bleak reality, but one that many of us prefer to disregard. After all, how could you look into those eyes and give a “heartless” no? It’s easier to give in and “feel good” about ourselves afterwards. But by doing that, we’re directly contributing to the root of the problem, creating more harm than good.

When Cambodia Became Scambodia

Now, I find the majority of Cambodians to be friendly and trustworthy.

But when I read the reviews of Tonle Sap Lake in TripAdvisor, I knew this one’s different—it’d be a bumpy boat ride. There are many variations to the story, but most of the times it goes something like this:

Tourists are told they’d be brought to orphanage or school, and they’d be asked to buy overpriced rice bags. Once you leave, these rice bags will be taken back to the store to be sold again. And the kids never get to eat from your rice bags.

Oftentimes, travelers realize that the rice bags they’ve bought are not enough for these kids to share, and when they want to buy more… alakazam, the price has been magically hiked up even further.

And even outside Tonle Sap Lake, there’s the famous baby milk scam. Poor old woman in front of supermarket begs for milk powder, pointing to “her baby”. She later returns it to the shop, and the money is split 50:50.

I find this really unsettling—that humans would resort to psychological manipulation and make gains by exploiting the weak and the poor. I’m sure there’s a good side to Tonle Sap Lake that many of us have never seen, but even if I were to find myself visiting it in the future, it won’t be with these commercial tour organizers.

Give, But Give Responsibly…

As travelers, it’s important to know what you’re doing with your money, and where it’s going to. Does your contribution go to those who need it, or are you financing a horrible business model that exploits the poor? Will your contribution help the local community, or will it promote greed and encourage long-term poverty?

Here are some alternatives which can make a positive contribution:

  • Find a responsible NGO. Make sure your donation actually reaches those who need it.
  • Support local business. This promotes healthy mindset of work ethics and self-sufficiency.
  • Donate to ethically-responsible schools. Instead of giving directly to children who may spend unwisely (sometimes even on substances!), and whom should be in schools and not in the streets anyway, make sure it goes to the right hand.

How do you feel when you’re confronted by those living under poverty? Do you think it’s advisable to give money to beggars? What are the best ways to contribute?

10 Comments Add yours

  1. As a Filipino, I’ve seen my share of beggars, many of them part of a begging syndicate, so my first instinct is not to give, especially when faced with beggars who look like they could have found some work somewhere. There are lots of children in begging syndicates, too, but there’s more of a dilemma there. Giving to NGOs and shelters is generally a more sustainable and best-results method of charity; however, there are many children that these organizations cannot help. Some children, if placed in an orphanage, would just escape. They prefer the relative freedom of the streets and sometimes I feel I cannot blame them. (I would not have wanted to grow up in an orphanage either!) My compromise of a solution is to give, but not money. Give them food that they can eat for themselves and not remit to their bosses. It’s still not a perfect solution but I am hoping it can help in its way.


    1. Andrew Darwitan says:

      Thanks for sharing. I agree, it seems like every method has its pros and limitations. Giving food is definitely one of the good options too.


  2. You brought up some valid points. It is hard not to give because we feel for these people but then if you do, maybe you are not helping them in the long run as giving is encouraging them to continue to ask for money. However, giving it to valid charity or organization where the money will be used to help the poor is probably the best option!


    1. Andrew Darwitan says:

      Indeed, it’s really heartbreaking not to contribute when those who need it come to us, and I’ve taken the easy way out by giving money a few times before, but upon thoughts it probably has done more harm than good. There are better ways to contribute to the local community.


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