Compassion In Cambodia: A Traveler’s Dilemna

Friday, August 20, 2010

Compassion comes in many forms. You can give away your life savings, some extra change in your pocket, or a bottle of water to a thirsty child. It’s easy to change one person’s life, but much more difficult to change many. In fact, I think it’s probably near impossible to change everyone’s world, spreading yourself like a thin layer of butter on a large piece of toast: everyone gets a taste but most are left hungry. Sometimes we can — to reform the cliché — teach a village how to make butter.

As travelers (an observed middle-class + decadence) we are inclined to go abroad with a purpose, and we feel a desire to contribute from our excess. In Argentina, I remember feeling pangs of guilt when nibbling on bizcoches — lard cookies –while talking with a group of Norwegian exchange students doing volunteer work. I was self-conscious that I did not give an equal amount of energy to what I graciously received from the cultural experience in while there. Today, however, I look back with no regrets, just happiness that I got to share moments with people, to listen to their stories, and to learn from them and experience a change.

Reading this recent article in The Toronto Star, I can relate to the inner torment of the author who was struggling with these very same feelings of guilt while in Phnom Penh.  A couple of years ago, some friends and I got to spend some time there, mostly just to see Angkor Wat. I remember getting off the plane, slammed with a wall of humidity, and being terrified at how different the atmosphere was.

I had never encountered “the hustle” before, and I felt like I was on the edge of a cultural waterfall. Stepping out of the airport doors, we were drowned in hollers for tuk-tuk rides. The one we bartered for took us to three different hotels, each belonging to a “cousin.” Walking the streets at night, we were followed by kids with knockoff best sellers and saw old, Western businessmen dining with young, Cambodian girls. As the article observes, “A cynic might dismiss the expressions on the beggars’ faces, the sadness in their eyes, as a well-honed skill calculated to rip at the heart and thereby induce giving. In our case it worked, and the looks in their eyes still haunt.”

Yup. Any person with half a compassionate heart would agree.

Still, we did not give money, afraid that we would be inundated with waves of needing mouths. We would give a bottle of water to one girl and her cousin would show up. One book-selling boy we came to know quite well was given the equivalent of USD$0.25 from us for a Popsicle. Within 30 seconds he returned, asking for more to buy his cousin one. We found ourselves struggling to say “no.”

Still, to this day, I do not feel guilty for saying “no” the second time around. This might sound silly, but my only hope is that for one moment — perhaps the time it took for one girl to down a two-liter bottle of water or the 30 seconds it took for that boy to enjoy his Popsicle — these children were relieved of something. I had only so much to give, and I think that even the little bit that I did was something. I’d like to think that compassion can also come in the form of understanding.

[Photo via stock.exchng]

By Brit Weaver


About the Author

Toronto born and based, Brit is an avid leisure cyclist, coffee drinker and under-a-tree park-ist. She often finds herself meandering foreign cities looking for street eats to nibble, trees to climb, a patch of grass to sit on, or a small bookstore to sift through. You can find her musing life on her personal blog,

© 2020