Why You Should Never Make a Day Trip to an Orphanage – And What You Can Do To Help

I first visited Cambodia ten years ago, and was very moved by my experience there. The country’s gripping history, thousand year old temples and impoverished countryside make it a place rich for self-reflection. It is one of those destinations that can change the lens with which you see the entire world. 
I always knew I wanted to help, and I knew I wanted my children to have a broad world view, to be open-minded, socially-aware and compassionate. 

I decided to bring the boys on a trip to Cambodia, to show them another side of life, to understand that what we are accustomed to isn’t something we should take for granted, and to instill in them a sense of compassion and empathy, a desire to share kindness, to give and help where able.

Jake was two, much to young to learn anything (he also napped through most of the experiences, tuk tuk rides seemed to put both boys to sleep), but Tyler was four, and soaking things up like a little sponge. 

Tyler soaking in new experiences 

Jake napped through everything

The trip was eye-opening, thought-provoking and also heartbreaking. I had gone with blundering good intent and naïveté, of having the boys donate their extra toys and clothes to children who were in need. I wanted them to have a first-hand encounter, to open their eyes and hearts to the plight of others with whom we share this world. 

We collected about a hundred pieces of clothing, packed up a box of toys which Tyler picked out himself, and embarked on our journey to Siem Reap. 

I narrowed the options to visiting a school, instead of an orphanage, with the purpose to visiting to find out how we can help them. I knew that I didn’t want to go to an orphanage, as orphanage tourism is a very bad thing (it likens visiting children in orphanages to visiting animals in a zoo; visitors wouldn’t be allowed to pop in to gawk at vulnerable orphans in first world countries, so why should it be any different in developing countries?).

After consideration, I decided to work with the local tour guide to choose a village school (SCHOOL, not orphanage – big difference, the best place for children is with their families, not placed in institutional care). I requested for an introduction to a school in a community that needed help, perhaps one that was neglected and off the beaten tourist path, as I didn’t want the kids to be exposed to exploitation. 

We were brought to a rural school near the village of Pluek, which had recently experience an HIV outbreak from infected needles (village Doctors re-used needles due to lack of medical supplies), with over a hundred cases of HIV diagnosed. They are a farming community, and there were 300 children in the school. They needed toilets (there are only two in the entire school), water filtration, ceiling fans, didn’t have a canteen or a playground – but there were 300 shy, smiling and playful little faces. 

What happened next, is something I share, as it’s not what I would recommend anyone do. I left feeling despondent, that our visit was like a drop of water in the ocean. Our aid impossibly temporary – how many biscuits, balls and notebooks can you give? We didn’t have enough for 300 children, and they would be happy for only a day – what happens when all the biscuits are eaten up in two days? In truth, we would have done more harm than good. This is NOT how to help. 

It was also a terrible idea to have Tyler give away his toys. He brought his box of planes, cars and buses. Perhaps it would have been better to hand them to the teacher, we checked – but he gestured that we could hand them out.  Tyler approached the school kids shyly and started handing out his toys. Of course he didn’t have enough, and when he ran out of toys, he felt awful, and I felt worse. He went back to the van and tried to snatch the toy out of Jake’s hand to give to the kids! Who gave us the right to play Santa Claus (no haters please, we learned our lesson). We declined the tour guide’s offer to round up the children for a group photo – they’re not zoo exhibits (did they have a choice?), and how can we take these pictures to look like we actually did help, when we haven’t done anything yet.  

Unless you have the ability to make a real impact, access or means to raise funds or sustainable donations to the school, it can be harmful and misguided to think a visit can make an impact, you could do more harm than good. 

I did more online research on volunteerism during the trip. I was searching for how to help. To be honest, I was disheartened when reading the articles I found. 

The content was correct, what they stated was true, but the tone of most of these articles were damning, harsh and vitriolic, levelled against well-intending people who didn’t know better how to engage and make an impact. 

There were many Dont’s. Don’t give money to street children (they should be in school not trapped in a cycle of dependency). Don’t give money to random orphanages (many are exploiting the children and are tourist traps). Don’t volunteer (it can do more harm than good when you leave after teaching for a month as the children have attachment issues, and are you even qualified to teach?). Don’t spend your money on volunteer tourism (eg painting a school on a paid trip to the countryside as you have no experience, will probably do a shoddy job as a painter, and the money you parted with to go on that excursion in the first place, could have gone to a local painter and helped to feed his family). Don’t ship items from home (Shipping is costly and it would be cheaper to just buy flip flops in the country itself if that’s what you wanted to donate and you could support local businesses, plus many people use these donation drives like a dumping ground and give away shoes and clothes that end up in a landfill)… 

There were so many Dont’s, I combed the articles on the topic, trying to find some with a Do. Most diverted me to a website to donate cash to existing efforts. While that’s a good thing, I knew I wanted to make a more personal impact, and I wanted my boys to be involved, and to learn from the experience. 

I would suggest – you’re welcome to bring your kids to Cambodia, or any country in need of aid, if you want to show them how much help is needed. They can see with their own eyes how different life already is, from where they live. Don’t seek out the orphanages or schools, where the kids are vulnerable, descending upon them as rich foreigners doling out used things and spare dollars – you will do more harm than good to the community.

The only consolation was that we were there to find out how to help long-term. With the assistance of our guide as translator (the principal spoke no English), we were able to discover that their greatest needs were for toilets, water filtration and ceiling fans. We were heartened to hear that they were getting electricity generators by the end of the year. The principal also shared that the children could use more bicycles, as they don’t have a canteen, so they break from 11am to 2pm so the students can go home for a meal. The lucky ones have bicycles, the poor ones have to walk fairly long distances to go home and back to school. I also learned that bicycles were surprisingly costly in Cambodia (US$100 for a new one and US$50 for a used one) as they import them from Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and China (this makes no sense to me, why wouldn’t they have a factory that produces bicycles for locals; there are foreign ones that produce fancy bicycles for export not local use, but it’s what both my Tuk-Tuk driver and our waitress at lunch told me. So even if it isn’t true, it’s what the locals believe – that they have no access to cheap bicycles). 

I would like to help this school, and it’s earnest, barefoot children. In truth, many people want to help those less fortunate, but we mistrust associations and organisations we aren’t familar with, and suspect that large percentages of what we donate are squandered on bureaucracy or internal costs, when what we really want is to put the money in the hands of the needy. Yet, there are many articles which tell you not to give money to the people directly, as it breeds dependency (not good), jealousy in a community if only one family benefits (even worse) and entitlement (worst of all).

I have come to realise through my work in years of dealing with corporate sponsorship and fundraising, that even big companies are often happy to give product, lots of it, but are often reluctant to part with cash. The psyche isn’t much different for individuals, you’ll find plenty of people willing to donate items (eg clothes, toys, bicycles) but if you ask them to part with cash, you’ll find many are more resistant. It isn’t that they don’t want to help, it’s that they mistrust how the funds are spent. People want to give, but on their own terms. We can preach idealism of where and how they should give, but if it doesn’t strike a chord with them, it remains only an unfulfilled wish to help, and nothing gets done.

It’s been only a few days since my visit to the school, and I am still thinking through the best way to help. In truth, if you are reading this story, then perhaps I have already made some small impact. 

Over the next few months, I will have to make another trip, and we hope to do the following for the school we visited:

1. Start a donation drive for lightly-used footwear and clothing for the children (which are climate-appropriate for Cambodia). If you’re donating, please be mindful that volunteers spend a lot of time sorting through donated items and this isn’t a dumping ground, please be respectful of the volunteers and the recipients, and give away clothes your children have outgrown, not what you would use as dish rags. How you can help: if you know any one in freight or logistics who can help us as a collection point and with delivery, I would be happy to have them as partners. Next step would be the actual clothing drive.

2. Start a bike registry where we find a local partner able to give us bikes at goodwill price (less than US$15 a bike, as that’s about the price at which it becomes cheaper to ship donated bikes via container instead) OR start bicycle drive to collect children’s bicycles for the school over here. How you can help: Similar to the Clothing Drive, we would need a logistics sponsor/ partner who is able to help store the bikes in the warehouse while we aim to collect about 50 to 100 bicycles for the school, and eventually send them over to Cambodia once we’ve hit our target, or filled our container.

3. Raise funds or find partners who can help us build the toilets that the school needs. Check World Toilets to see why it may seem like a small thing, but many girls drop out of school for lack of sufficient toilets. 

4. Improve on the Water-filtration system, by building and installing biosand water filters, household units that produce clean drinking water directly from contaminated sources.

5. Install ceiling fans. Start a registry towards items that the school could use, much like a gift registry as I know people don’t like to give cash, unless it translates into something tangible. The fans should of course be purchased from local businesses and installed by local workers, its good to give business to the community, but we could raise funds to help with the purchase and installation. 

6. Courtyard and Playground – Construction of a sustainable , flood resistant multi purpose courtyard that could double up as an assembly area as well as a basketball / futsal sports facility. The kids don’t currently have a playground.

7.  Provide English lessons at the school. I strongly believe that one way to break out of the cycle of poverty is through education. The gift of language is one I believe would help create new opportunity for kids in the rural areas. So many people in Cambodia are enterprising but they lack ability to read and write (can’t email) so that holds them back. Being able to speak, read and write English in a country like Cambodia will open up doors to new opportunities in tourism and hospitality, help them break the cycle of poverty. Perhaps this can be done through technology, virtual English Teachers or programs How to help: Donation of old technology, eg iPads and tablets, and access to programs for virtual learning to teach English could be helpful! 

There are bigger ways to help, but that requires greater resource and investment. More needs to be done with infrastructure, job opportunities provided, local co-ops started, which can provide sustainable employment and training (or maybe a bicycle factory?) etc. I wish I could do all that, but let’s start by making impact with a few, and touching the lives of some we can help, before we take greater strides to help more.

Here are a few articles and links which I found helpful and enlightening.

On orphanage tourism 

Why You should Say No to Orphanage Tourism (Huffington Post)

Child Safe Org (why you should never visit an Orphanage and a list of organisations you can help 

On Volunteering with Kids in Cambodia  (How you can do more harm than good in http://www.movetocambodia.com)

Orphanages in Cambodia are not Tourist Attractions (article by Michael Aquino in http://www.tripsavvy.com)

Thank you for reading my story, and feel free to share any of my links about orphanage tourism and why volunteer tourism can be harmful to the community. Educating others and keeping the children safe, that’s definitely one way to help!

Maybe I have done little so far…

“Yet opening the eyes of those of us wealthy enough to afford the luxury of travel to the realities of inequality is a necessary first step if longer-term solutions to poverty, housing and food insecurity are to ever be found. 

And nothing can bring home the emotional reality of these challenges quite as well as engaging with them for yourself.” 

– Excerpt from Richard Stupart’s CNN article

It’s a good start that you do want to help, to open your eyes and heart to those in need, with whom we share our planet. I’ve always believed touching even a few lives in my lifetime, is better than doing nothing at all. The question was always “How?” 

Let me get the ball rolling. This will be a journey of discovery that may leave you more changed, then even the lives you touched. Now let’s do this together, and help the right way.  If this works for one school, we could do it for many. This is just a beginning…

Please stay tuned!

Glamping at The Canopi 

Yes, the lagoon really is this shade of blue. The Canopi isn’t The Aman, but if you manage your expectations on service and dining options (this is still Bintan, after all), you’ll be just fine! 

We stayed for three days and two nights, and the kids REALLY REALLY enjoyed themselves. The Canopi is extremely family-friendly, with a range of activities for junior, from toddler to teens. 

First up, the tents, which is what this “Glamping” experience is really all about!  The photos on The Canopi website are accurate, the tents and interiors are as they appear. We booked as a group, a Garden Tent (no Jacuzzi), a Lagoon-view Tent and the bells-and-whistles Glamping Deluxe Tent.  

The Canopi is really affordable, with weekday prices starting under SG$200, we booked our stay on Booking.com It does get about 30-40% higher (and much more crowded) on weekends. Take a day off if you can and go on a weekday, we had the whole resort to ourselves on Tuesday (photos coming up)! 

This is the view of our Deluxe Glamping Tent… best of all (IMHO), it came with its own electric scooter for the duration of our stay! 

Fully air-conditioned, comfortable bedding,  our tent was clean and felt pretty new (we stayed in Tent 95). I think it’s part of a new wing at Canopi, because it feels much newer and in better-condition than the Garden and Lagoon-view tent (Tent 12 and 23) that our friends stayed in. The boys enjoying mid-day ice cream in front of Tent 12, which came with a sheltered outdoor Jacuzzi.

On that note, it’s probably not that important to book Lagoon-view as there really are no windows on the tents. They do give more proximity to the lagoon, but that doesn’t make a huge difference as the compound isn’t that large, and the tents at the back (like 95 where we stayed) were allocated scooters for getting around. I have to say I was impressed with the outdoor Jacuzzi bath-tub in our Deluxe Glamping Safari tent (bigger than the one we got when glamping in The Aman hah!). It was massive, and unexpected for a $300 a night room. It was a good-quality Jacuzzi, the kids loved splashing around in it, which was a good option for afternoons when the mid-day sun can get blisteringly hot. 

Yes, it’s open at the top to the outdoors, but I didn’t see any insects or mozzies; it was blissfully creature-free. Just remember however, that you signed up for ‘Glamping’ so do expect that there’s something of the outdoors in The Canopi. 

Next up, and this was one of our favourite things about the resort, was all the various fun modes of transport around the resort! ​

From buggies which took us to our rooms and around the resort…… to these cool vintage-look Ford Model Ts which ferried us to the Activity Centre…… and my favorite was the electric scooters which we were given for the duration of our stay! The kids loved the scooters, they’re electric-powered and capped at a top speed of 20kmh. They do provide helmets, which prudent parents would put on their kids (and on themselves)….  then there are those that love to feel the wind in their hair and prefer fedoras to helmets (don’t judge, please)! 

They are light enough so that I could ride around with my little ones. The scooters were great for traveling with ease around the resort. This is the restaurant where we have the hotel breakfast. The food selection is mediocre, but there’s an egg station and their mini pastries are actually pretty good! There’s also a sandy little playground in front of the restaurant.

In addition to all the buggies, scooters and electric cars, there are also land activities like ATVs and these 2-seater UTVs which you could rent (about $45 for a 40 minute tour). The little ones below 7 weren’t allowed on the ATVs so we had to be content with these buggies, which were also worth a spin, although….

… I must have the only kid who could fall asleep on an ATV! Amidst the dust, roaring engine and bumpy road, my son falls asleep. … he did wake up at the very end, and shouted “That was fun!” Hmmm.  Oh, bring sunglasses, maybe a scarf for the dust, and wear sunblock! The UTVs aren’t for small toddlers, Jake didn’t get to ride at all, but there are plenty other things you can do with the littler ones.

Now we get to the highlight of The Canopi, which is really that azure-blue saltwater lagoon in the middle of it all. You can rent floats (for fun and photos) about $6 an hour and these little paddle boats $10 an hour. … Daddy Shark Doo Doo Doo Doo.

The kids had so much fun, although they tired of the toys after 15 minutes, and by day two, they really just wanted to splash around and enjoy the water. The lagoon was very well-maintained when we were there. They keep it meticulously clean, trawling with nets every morning, and had lifeguards stationed around the lagoon. It was also surprisingly empty. Even on Sunday afternoon, there were never really more than 4-5 groups of other people around us at any point of time, and on Monday and Tuesday, we were often the only people visible in the whole lagoon. 

I do have advice to share on the best times to enjoy the lagoon. It gets blisteringly hot very early on, with the sun in full blaze by 9am. As Bintan is an hour behind Singapore, we started with early breakfast at 730am (830am SG time) and hit the lagoon for a dip at 9am when the activities first open. 

There are inflatable playgrounds and bouncy castles, some are free to Canopi guests and some are payable. These activities are also open to the public under Treasure Bay, but we didn’t see anyone here at all on Monday and Tuesday – like on this insanely fun bouncy water slide with a shallow pool, which was great for toddlers, and no one was here except us! 
It’s very strange that they start their activities at 9am and close at around 5pm just as the weather gets beautiful, they start to deflate all the floats and pack up all the water toys 😦 

My advice is to start at 9am, head back into the shade before 11am as it gets intensely hot and there’s so little shelter around the lagoon (we got burnt as pink as peaches), and to come out again around 4pm. The sun starts to ease off at 430pm so you can hit some activities from 4-5pm and just stay on to enjoy sunset in the lagoon even after they have put away all the toys. 

Apart from the lagoon, there honestly isn’t a whole lot else to do at The Canopi. We scootered around a few times, tried all three restaurants (mediocre at best, plenty of other reviews on these online, so I won’t go there… manage your expectations on dining, like I said), so by Day 2 we headed out to see what else there was to do. 

Five minutes away by car is Lagoi Bay, where you can find the ghost town that is Lagoi Plaza. There are only a handful of shops open in what could have been a really pretty promenade mall. On the weekday afternoon that we were there, there were only two restaurants open (not a great lunch place), but the kids loved the little train ride which only cost about SG$1 to ride. 

We also discovered this awesome lantern park at Lagoi Bay which featured endangered species and sea creatures. It was a magical experience, even for us adults,  with larger-than-life animals and ocean denizens lighting up the park. There were elephants, rhinos, sharks, dolphins, manta Raya and many more. Post check-out on our last day, we made a visit to exclusive resort The Sanchaya next door for ice cream and coffee. We stayed on this property when it first opened three years ago, and found it as posh as ever. Making himself right at home! The Sanchaya is a great escape for luxury lovers, expect to pay top dollar. Having stayed at both resorts in Bintan, I’d have to say that The Canopi is much better if you’re traveling with kids. The Sanchaya is certainly Insta-worthy, but it’s not a place I felt I could freely let my rascals run around without disturbing the other guests.  It’s a pretty place for a stopover, but you need to have your hotel call ahead if you want to make a visit as they don’t take walk-ins. 

All in all, we enjoyed our two night stay at The Canopi, barring the service hiccups, and lack of dining options.  

One last (big) tip on arrival timing – we took the 8am Ferry out of Singapore, and got there waaaaay too early. Perhaps if we had arrived on a weekday instead of Sunday morning it might have been possible for an early check-in. But it seems we arrived at peak occupancy (the Saturday night guests hadn’t checked out yet). We asked for a lift to the activity centre and had to wait over 10 minutes for a ride, there were a few miscommunications, and when we tried to feed the kids at 950am, we were told the restaurant kitchen closes at 10am and that they wouldn’t serve food again until 1130am. I asked where I could feed the kids, and they told us, “Sorry, we don’t have food until 11:30am”. This was so not cool. My suggestion would be to take the noon ferry out which should get you in closer to check-in time, for a more pleasant experience. 

To wrap it up… The Canopi is a great little escape, just manage your expectations… it’s good value for money, and great for Bintan!