You shouldn’t give money to beggars in Cambodia, and I’m going to tell you why. This may seem a bit off topic but it is of real relevance to anyone who has been to Cambodia or plans to visit there in the future.
Cambodia isn’t exactly filled to the brim with beggars but they are around. Disturbingly a lot them are children, women with children, disabled people, or disabled children carrying other children in arm slings. Most of them work the riverside and other areas with lots of foreigners, but they also hang around local markets filled with Cambodian housewives and busy intersections where they can beg from bigshots in Land Rovers and BMWs. They are equal opportunity when it comes to asking people for money.
The really bad thing is that most of the people put to work begging actually need money but don’t get all (or sometimes any) of what they collect. That’s because they are put to work by begging networks with bosses at the top who rake things in. Sometimes it is extremely organized with the people at the top buying babies, deforming them or drugging them to sleep, then sending them to tourist hotspots in Thailand or Vietnam to beg for money. There are or at least were some Cambodians begging on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok who were there under such circumstances.
Sometimes the networks aren’t so official. In some case there will be a drunkard dad who sends his kids out to beg all day why he plays cards and downs Anchor beer in between naps. In other cases genuinely poor and desperate people have to kick up money to local cops who allow them to beg. Unfortunately that is a common occurrence as this recent article makes clear.
There are cases of independent beggars too but a lot of them are just doing a hustle that is better than work. One example is the guy with the huge growth on his face who stalked Phnom Penh for years. Several doctors offered to perform corrective surgery on him for free but he just wasn’t interested. Walking around with a growth on his face got him a lot more money than working in a sweatshop so he chose that line of work and went with it.
Some people might not fault the guy, and that includes me. I’m still not giving up any money. I’m not cold hearted. I’ve given money to homeless people back home quite a few times when it was obvious that they were truly fucked up. They probably bought whiskey with the money but I don’t blame them for that either. At the same time I’m not willing to donate to the local corrupt cop beer fund. Fuck that shit.
Some people suggest giving beggars food but that’s no good either. If you feed the beggar kid that just makes things easier for his boss. The boss can take even more of the money since he doesn’t need to drop fifty cents on some rice gruel for his staff. The same goes for buying dead roses, shitty bracelets and bootleg books sold by little kids. If they can see that it’s a fruitful grind they’ll stay at it forever.
There are a few ways to deal with beggars in Cambodia when you don’t want to give them any dough. The easiest is just to ignore them. You could also say “ah-tey”. If you’re a bleeding heart though they can usually tell and they’ll stare into your soul until you hand over some of the loot.
There are a lot of beggars in Philippines and Indonesia where the hustle is the same. I have never seen a beggar in Chiang Mai but there are always some stationed on main thoroughfares in Bangkok and Pattaya. Once in a while you’ll see a beggar in Myanmar or Vietnam but that’s pretty rare.
You would hope that adults who have it together enough to travel the world would be able to suss out which beggars are working or involved in shady underground networks, but my experience tells me otherwise. The facts do too. If hustlers couldn’t swindle money out of guilty people these begging networks wouldn’t exist in the first place!
But then again it’s your money and you can do whatever you want with it. You can even spend it at the worst girlie bar in Phnom Penh if you please.