A Little Quandary…When do you Donate?


The oldest girl in the group of children, she couldn’t have been more than 13, leveled a sly look my way before stating:

“Lady, you buy our bracelets or who knows what will happen to your bicycles…”

At that point, I think my jaw dropped.

The Backstory

Laura and I rented bikes for a day of exploring the Angkor temples closet to Siem Reap – and after a pretty harried bike ride down a dusty and trafficky road we were grateful to chain up our bikes to a nearby tree with some pretty pathetically thin chains.

Welcome to Angkor Wat

Locals and tourists alike bike around the Angkor Wat temples

As we bent over our bikes several of the children selling information books and bracelets surrounded us and proffered their goods. We good-naturedly tried to joke around with the kids and steer the conversation elsewhere from the buying of yet more bracelets…it didn’t work.

At that point we very firmly (but still smiling) declined buying any of the bracelets, books, necklaces, and handmade knickknacks. We had just finished chaining up the bikes and were ready to head into Angkor Wat when the oldest of the girls sized up the situation and looked me straight in the eye when she hit with that line:

“Lady, you buy our bracelets or who knows what will happen to your bicycles…”

Then, at my shocked and incredulous look she quickly back-stepped a bit:

“Oh no lady, we won’t do anything to your bikes…but if you buy bracelets then we will watch them for you…otherwise who knows what will happen to them…”

Protection from the mad dust and pollution!

Protection from the mad dust and pollution as we tuk-tuked it every other day we visited the temples

The Internal Debate

Laura and I were both pretty taken aback by the situation but quickly recalculated and with a brief glance agreed that one of us would buy the $2 worth of bracelets now and the other one would pick out something when we came back for our bikes.

All of the kids were grinning widely at our sudden about-face and eagerly proffered their colorful basketfuls of bracelets so that we could adorn our arms with several of the light brown bamboo woven circles.

What’s the Solution?

So here’s the conundrum…what would you have done in this same situation? As a traveler I hear all of these opinions:

  • Don’t give to beggars, give to local support organizations…
  • Don’t buy from street children because they should be in school and you only encourage them to sell goods to tourists…
  • Donating to kids on the streets contributes to their exploitation and abuse in countries like India, so don’t give your spare change…

And all of this is well in good in theory. But what about in practice? I caved in this situation and bought goods from the kids – in fact, I bought boatloads of bracelets from the little ones all throughout my time in Southeast Asia…it’s really hard to say no – and in a few cases I bought the bracelets from my niece, but other times purely out of guilt.

Sunset at Angkor Wat

Sunset from one of the moderately crowded temples we could bike to in the evening

It’s just, I don’t know where the middle-ground is…I do have the money to donate to the occasional beggar, and certainly to give a bit of money here and there to the kids. In some cases, I would whip out a spare banana from my purse to those kids begging for food…and about 60 percent of the time they accepted it gratefully; then there’s the 40 percent who just wanted the cash and walked away from the food – it’s those situations that make it all so discouraging and confusing at times.

As far as the kids who basically brokered a soft-core bribe at Angkor Wat for the bikes…yeah, I paid them, which likely means they’ll do it to other tourists too. And while I don’t regret the decision per se, I’m still pretty conflicted about how to deal with these situations on my travels.

Any thoughts?


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