Child Beggars on the Cambodian Border

Profile picture of
Helen Winter

View Profile All Posts
Written by: Hannah Thompson

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.

Visit Cambodia for yourself


Care and Community in Cambodia, Summer 2018

from £1370

14 days


Volunteers make a difference in the lives of underprivileged children by dividing their time between running fun educational activities and...

Volunteer Building Houses in Cambodia

from £267

7 days


Help impoverished families build safe, clean homes in one of the most spectacular parts of South East Asia. During this...

Southeast Asia’s Biggest Adventure – Do the Lot!

from £1620

40 - 365 days

Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam

Do the Lot! The ultimate flexible hop-on, hop-off guided travel pass offering a fun and hassle-free way travel to Thailand,...

In-Class TEFL Course in Siem Reap

from £1145

20 days


Join our 4-week TEFL in-class course in Siem Reap and become a TEFL/TESOL certified teacher of English as a foreign...

China to Singapore Group Tour

from £2375

73 days

Cambodia, China, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thaila...

Travel like a local and experience the wonders of South East Asia, from the hustel and bustle of its chaotic...

In-Class TEFL Course in Koh Kong

from £1070

20 days


Join our 4-week TEFL in-class course in Koh Kong City and become a TEFL/TESOL certified teacher of English as a...

Travel Cambodia & Vietnam

from £1078

24 - 360 days

Cambodia, Vietnam

Go 'Stray' in Cambodia and Vietnam and look forward to an exciting adventure through old world cities, UNESCO temples, ethnic...

Elephant Rescue and Conservation in Cambodia

from £725

7 - 84 days


Observe gentle giants in their natural forest habitat and assist the team in conducting elephant health checks.

Medical Aid in Cambodia

from £610

14 - 56 days


Shadow medical professionals and provide much needed assistance at a local, understaffed hospital in the rural town of Samraong, Cambodia.

Travel Laos & Cambodia

from £1

27 - 365 days

Cambodia, Laos, Thailand

Travel in a loop, with Bangkok as the start and finish point on this comprehensive trip around northern Thailand, Laos...


Northern Lights & Arctic Circle by Rail

from £2199

If it’s a picturesque train journey through wintery mountains and past tiny Scandinavian towns you’re looking for, then check out...

South Africa Expedition: Kruger Walking Safari

from £1675

Brimming with elephants, lions, buffalo, rhino, zebra and hundreds of bird species, Kruger National Park stands tall among the great...

Best of Java

from £764

With a population of 135 million crammed into just under 140,000 sq kilometres, you’d think there’d be no room on...

Budapest to Rome

from £2660

Grand standing capitals and quaint seaside villages, hidden mountain hamlets and a city set on water – eastern Europe covers...

Sailing Greece – Santorini to Santorini

from £847

A yacht adventure is the ideal way to experience what many consider the world’s most beautiful islands: the Greek Islands....

Atlantic to the Andes Experience

from £2449

From the sands of Ipanema to the heights of the Bolivian Andes, this incredible 25-day journey will introduce you to...

Explore Southern Africa

from £2213

Experience southern Africa's diverse wonders on this 12-day adventure. Journey from the glittering beauty of Cape Town to the vast...

Galápagos — Central, South & East Islands aboard the Monserrat

from £2899

There’s simply no better place to appreciate the magic of this precious little blue planet of ours than the Galápagos...

Classic Bali

from £888

Bali and paradise are synonymous with each other. Everyone who visits always has a reason to come back, be it...

Central American Journey

from £969

Get ready for a fast-paced adventure through the best of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. From beautiful...

Find more Cambodia travel articles

[contact-form-7 id="4" title="Contact form 1"]