It’s been a long hot day temple-hopping around Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, one of the nation’s many treasures.
I pause for just a moment to take a brief breather and seek solace from the blazing sun.
I feel a little tug on the side of my rather sweaty caftan and turn around to see a little girl smiling at me. She couldn’t be more than eight or nine. She stares at me intently, preparing herself for the interaction ahead.
“Ten for Two!” pops out of her mouth in perfect Chinese, French and then finally English as she waives a set of ten postcards in my face.
I turn around to my new little friend and politely decline her offer. She continues to stare at me. She has big, beautiful brown eyes.
I ask, “How old are you?”
“Nine”, she quickly replies in English. I am sure she knows how to say this in Chinese, French and Khmer.
We exchange pleasantries, she asks me how old I am and so the conversation continues. I find out she loves to read Khmer, Chinese and English books.
Our exchange lasts barely two minutes.
To her credit, she gives it one more go; “Ten for Two!” is her parting remark as she smiles at me and skips away.
This scene is regrettably common across the South East Asian region.
On the surface, a cute as a button child would melt any person’s heart and encourage them to provide any assistance they could, even buying “Ten for Two.”
However, in reality if I choose to buy “Ten for Two” I do this little girl who beams with potential the greatest disservice. She clearly has an aptitude for language and the confidence to approach a stranger. Just imagine how an education can put these talents to good work.
By buying “Ten for Two”, I become part of the problem. I become part of a system, which continues to provide the incentive for parents to send their children to the streets and temples of Angkor Wat instead of to the local primary school. I continue to encourage structural inequality and dependency when what I should be encouraging is sustainable development.
Being an ethical tourist in a region stricken by gross inequity and poverty is something I have and will continue to struggle with as I travel this marvellous region.
Eat, drink, sightsee and travel with local companies, and support the work of NGOs. This has become my mantra.
However, I have come to realise that most tourists are oblivious to this goal. Otherwise benevolent people with good intentions continue to encourage unequal structures, which have adverse outcomes for the local people.
For instance, visiting an orphanage in Phnom Penh and making a donation appears on the surface to be a positive contribution to improving orphan’s lives. But taking photos with cute and vulnerable Cambodian children strips them of their agency and reduces them to animals in a pen.
I have found that travelling in Asia is at times challenging but mostly exhilarating. However, I implore all those considering travelling here to educate themselves about the impacts of their role as tourists.
And always think before you buy “Ten for Two”.
If you would like more information about how to travel ethically in Asia please visit ChildSafe at http://childsafetourism.org/actions/