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What everyone should know before they volunteer at an Orphanage in Cambodia

We hear it every day from young enthusiastic and altruistic backpackers that have hit Cambodia

‘ We are here to volunteer at an orphanage’

Normally as part of their gap year, possibly as an extension to their annual vacation.

The conversation is always the same, sometimes we catch them before the well-intentioned orphanage visit and manage to talk them around, of course, we often do not catch, hence the reason for this post.

Hopefully, the more people that read this information the better informed they will be.

The truth is that in Cambodia at least, buying a packaged placement to volunteer at an Orphanage often means a very bad deal for those that they are trying to help, the Children.

Chances of having the well-meaning positive impact that the volunteer was expecting are slim when one takes an off the shelf “volunteer package” from any number of operators, let us explain further.

Child Exploitation in Cambodia Is Not A Very Nice Thing To Face Up To

To digress for a moment:

At the recent World Travel Mart Responsible Tourism Day, (an event for tourism operators)  the number of participants in the wildlife protection workshop more than doubled those of the child protection session.

I had to wonder if this was because the tourists or tourism professionals care more about animal rights, or if people were just unaware of the enormous quantity of child rights violations that are being committed by global tourism operators every day?

I concluded that it was probably because animal rights are a lot more palatable than the reality of what is happening to children in third world countries like Cambodia.

Countries I may add that are currently having a boom in the “volunteer tourism sector”

The harsh fact is that these off the shelf volunteer packages often cause much more harm than they do good, and everyone on the ground in our industry knows it.

These ‘harsh facts’ can put you in a pretty uncomfortable space, especially when of course the travel operators that are selling these tours are sat thousands of miles away working in a tour agency with all of the comforts afforded by the modern office cubicle,

Many of the tour operators selling these volunteer tours have never volunteered in their life, many have never set foot in Cambodia.


The Real Impacts Of Badly Planned Volunteer Tourism in Cambodia

A recent TEDxTalk discussed and exposed the extent of the problem, hoping that this may prevent well-intentioned travelers from making the mistake of thinking they are helping as many others have.

Please watch it, it’s excellent and does not last too long. You should certainly watch it if you are a tour operator sending volunteers to Cambodia.

Please do watch it –

I can concur with every point in the video above, it took us over two years to identify an organization in Siem Reap that we could work with to deliver clean water projects, in the end, we chose a local organization that was aware of the issues at a local level.

In Phnom Penh, we have implemented an education funding program that although working and delivering results still has a lot of scope for improvement.

So the key message is to ensure you do your research before you jump into a volunteer placement, or you will certainly stand a high chance of having a negative impact rather than the positive one you were looking for.

Why? Here is why…..



Understanding The Issues Before Volunteering In Cambodia

Child rights violations have increased in Cambodia since the advent of volunteer travel, due to both the good and bad intentions of volunteer travelers.

As the number of tourists increased, the number of orphanage tourism offerings to satisfy the demand of a hungry and lucrative market and subsequently the number of orphanages in Cambodia has also grown.

Orphanages have sprung up with kids taken away from their family just to sit looking dejected and waiting to speak to the friendly tourists that have paid to volunteer and ‘teach’ them.

Statistics show that three out of every four children found in Cambodian “orphanages” have at least one or more living parents.

Horrible orphanages are being spawned by a well-meaning tourism sector that is, in fact, fueling this separation between children and parents.

These children are even being kept out of school, in some cases, they are even made to entertain tourists with a cute song and dance shows that keep the dollars flowing in.

Some unscrupulous adults who are using these children for profit, and for the parents, who are often very poor and uneducated, the orphanage taking the kids on means one less mouth to feed.

Of course this is not all orphanages, there are some organizations that carry out truly excellent and valuable work, but of course where there is a market demand such as “Volunteering at an orphanage” then there are those that will take advantage in order to make some money.

Many of the unscrupulous or the uneducated in this sector are the tourism operators themselves – on some ” responsible ” tourism online travel agents you can list your project on their website and start taking paying customers the very next day.

The background checking, the processes for ensuring quality and child safety is often minimal, but most of the time its just completely nonexistent.

A comprehensive website that details most of the problems related to the institutionalization of children and orphanage tourism can be found at 

However are the number of orphanages in the country, rising by 75% in the five years to 2011, according to UNICEF and as detailed in this article in the so more needs to be done.

The day to day realities are pretty shocking, men with signs that say “visit our orphanage” will earn money if you buy a bag of overpriced rice to feed these hungry mouths.

Of course, the arbitrage profit on the price they buy at the market and what they charge the well-meaning tourist can often be and is often pocketed by the owners running these establishments.

I have heard of bags of rice being ” donated’ for $150 or more, in one case a volunteer purchased a large bag of rice for $400.00 – the market price is between $35 and $65 depending on quality.

The “free orphanage tourism dance shows” are easily found on the bustling streets of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Cute young girls run and grab the hands of traveling visitors. In some instances, foreigners are then allowed to wander through the orphanage centers and enter the rooms of young kids, without any supervision.

This of course in a country known for its bad record on the sexual abuse of children, is not a great idea.

So as a tour operator if you are sending people to these organizations with absolutely no due diligence on your part, I am sorry to say that you are indeed a large part of the problem.


Taking Cambodian Kids Out Of Danger

A micro-documentary explores the issues that surround “Cambodia’s Orphanage Business“.

This film exposes the danger that these orphan children are exposed to.

The filmmaker shows you how he is allowed to remove a group of children to play with for a day, almost the same as checking-out library books.

It is the volunteer travel sector that profits from what is termed “pet-an-orphan” travel opportunities; and it can only stop with more awareness, better standards, and reduced demand.

An American manager from a major volunteer sending company in Siem Reap wanted to find several more English teaching placement opportunities for his list of volunteers in orphanages and schools.

He said that they did not want any other types of volunteer opportunities for travelers because everyone wanted to play with kids. This was the biggest seller for volunteers and tourists.

Because of the high demand, he said that it was necessary to find more placement opportunities for these people.

Watching what is happening on a day to day basis would probably bother anyone that is aware of the double standard when it comes to the rights of children.

As a traveler

Travelers are encouraged not to visit any orphanage that simply allows anyone to walk in off the street and subjects its children to many visiting volunteers or tourists, don’t attend shows, don’t go and visit an orphanage ” willy nilly ‘ at the suggestion of a tuk-tuk driver you have only just met.

These orphanages should not be supported. The global volunteers that think they are helping are completely unaware of the fact that they are fueling the industry.

To add to the issue a stream of tourists. for example, volunteer teachers have absolutely no positive impact to education by simply volunteering for a few weeks for them only to leave and for another volunteer to come in and repeat exactly the same work.

Good teaching needs good and qualified teachers – if you are on a backpacking trip and are placed in an orphanage without secure controls on what you can and can’t do, and with no starting point in a curricula or oversight from local staff it is likely you have wasted the kids time, and your time and money.


The Good News About Volunteering In Cambodia 

Things are getting better, with more education and awareness of volunteer tourism packages from operators that are more interested in money than the rights of children are starting to be avoided.
As more and more tourists and backpackers discuss the negative impacts of orphanage tourism demand can simply be reduced or channeled to more productive and positive impacting organizations.
There are lots of ways that you can positively assist in Cambodia without becoming part of the problem, check out our post on Great Ways To Volunteer in Cambodia.

People need to be made aware of this problem before they book an orphanage tourism experience. 

This information can be spread by placing it on Twitter or Facebook and highlighting that “Children are not tourist attractions”.

Simply inform tour operators that you will no longer make use of their services if they do not remove orphanage tours from their offerings.

This is often a highly effective way of communicating to tours companies that are often unaware of the issues and getting them to rethink their position and actually think about what and how they are selling tourism products.

At the end of the day, this is not a two-week three-star break in Spain that they are flogging; they are dealing with potentially vulnerable children in very complex social and family situations, the kid’s education and futures and most of all their safety.

Being a travel tour operator with a website does not qualify you to make judgment calls from thousands of miles away.

Support the right organizations instead of visiting orphanages that offer free visits.

So when you come to visit in Cambodia please do not visit orphanages on the fly.

Of course, children are not and should not be tourist attractions and with reduced demand and a more structured volunteering mechanism in place to assure standards both the industry, the tourists and most importantly the children will be better served.

Working with children’s rights in mind first we can all ensure that fewer children are taken away from their families and have more opportunity to actually be children and not entertainment attractions at some macabre “feel good factor” human zoo.

If you are planning to volunteer yourself and considering one of the many volunteer tourism travel providers that are touting orphanage tours – then please ensure they are bound to operational standards, or even better approach a reputable NGO and offer your services.



Please consider sharing this post on your Facebook and Twitter Accounts.  It may not seem like a big thing to do but it does make a difference.

About the Author

Mad Monkey is Southeast Asia’s leading hostel operator — born in Cambodia with more properties in Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, Laos, and the Philippines. We pride ourselves in creating meaningful and sustainable travel experiences for our guests, whilst promoting socially responsible tourism.