The Sad Reality of Street Children

South East Asia has evolved into almost a rite of passage when it comes to the backpacker community. And anyone travelling through South East Asia will at some point be forced to formulate a viewpoint on the phenomenon of begging.

There are a range of responses to this heart-rending affair, the most common being that the best way to help beggars is not to give them any money. The idea here is that this eliminates any benefits they reap from the practice and it no longer becomes a potential source of money. This is what the guide books tell you to do, and it makes a lot of sense when considering the problem from the safe and comforting confines of your own home. But compassion and empathy for fellow humans can often override this advice, whether in the tube in London or a market in Hanoi.

When travelling in Cambodia and Vietnam, my previously strong resolve to not perpetuate the beggar’s plight by giving them money was certainly tested. The widespread use of children as beggars in general, and at one place in particular made me realise that this practical and sensible suggestion is often difficult to follow.

The journey ahead

I was travelling around the area with four friends during the summer break from university and we had decided that we needed to balance out the debauchery and stink of Bangkok with the cultural feast of temple-packed Cambodia. This involved an overland crossing of the border, at Poipet. We had become fairly confident travellers by this point, having spent time in the above-mentioned city doing little in the way of serious travel, so thought nothing of the day of travelling before us. We purchased bus tickets from Bangkok to Siem Reap using our usual strict criteria (the cheapest one going) and eventually boarded the bus with few more philosophical thoughts in our minds about the moral correctness of seeing sex shows in Bangkok (this, incidentally, became a moot point as our eventual attempt to see one failed after falling for multiple tuk-tuk scams. A welcome escape I expect, but that’s a different story...)

Crossing the border

Upon arriving at the border for the usual process of visa checking and waiting around, a representative of the travel company that we had so rigorously chosen warned us all to be wary of the beggars in the border area, particularly the child beggars. I heeded this warning in my usual, blasé manner and with a certain degree of scepticism. ‘Child beggars?’ I thought. ‘I’ve survived Khao San’s street hawkers, I’m sure I can handle a few children.’ I proceeded to disembark the bus.

Now, travelling in a five-strong gaggle of hormonal girls invariably entails a certain amount of waiting around, and it was while I was waiting for the rest of my posse to get their stuff together that I saw a scrawny girl aged around 8, with a baby sibling strapped to her person, duly living up to her terrifying reputation.

Personally, I’ve never been one to see the merits in wearing a bumbag, but I thought that the jolly Canadian chap wearing the offending item probably didn’t deserve to have his valuables stolen from out of his, not least by a child. I warned him of the impending theft, and received a smack on the arm from the Cambodian girl for my troubles. The girl then ran off and joined a large group of children, all similarly sibling-clad and preparing to appeal to the hearts and minds of the bus-load of rich Westerners for money.

We carried on our way, coursing between the various immigration buildings and ruminating on the bizarre spectacle of a small girl very nearly succeeding to rob a large man. The surreal events of the day increased for me when I got split up from the rest of my group en route to having our passports stamped. After standing there looking a bit lost and gormless, a second child of similar age approached me. However, instead of trying to hustle me for dollars, she pointed me in the direction of the building I was supposed to be headed, in flawless English. We both went our separate ways, me wondering if that had actually just happened or if my mind was simply jumbled by malaria drugs.

The lessons learned

It is not often that the bureaucratic process of border crossing inspires deep thoughts about inequality and deprivation, but the juxtaposition of the day’s events struck me. On the one hand, the innocence and youth of these children is used by whoever it is that controls them as emotional blackmail over tourists. But then the children must also survive on the streets, presumably care for the siblings that they carry, have a working knowledge of English and be persistent and convincing enough to make some kind of living. This strange juxtaposition becomes even more vivid once you spend some time talking to the children. It is then that you realise that all they want to do is chat, play or get their hands on novelty items such as biros or a stick of chewing gum.

It soon became clear that the advice to simply ignore these unfortunate child beggars was not the easiest thing to do. It seems that, at the very least, the responsible traveller has a duty to consider this problem when they encounter it and accept that while they may reap the benefits of a certain country, the effects of their presence run deeper than just lining the pockets of rich tour companies.