A policeman watches over beggars on the Phnom Penh riverfront April 30, ahead of a nationwide crackdown on panhandling at Cambodia’s most popular tourist sites.
They’re seen in increasing numbers on the streets of Phnom Penh and other tourist destinations in Cambodia; the maimed and whole, children and the elderly, sometimes a mother, one hand outstretched to passersby while the other cradles a limp infant.
Begging is nothing new to Cambodia, where millions are destitute, but as increasing numbers of foreign tourists flock to the Kingdom, those panhandling for their money have also multiplied and, according to some, are threatening the very source of their livelihood.
“If beggars continue to do what they do, we will lose tourist numbers,” said Minister of Tourism Thong Khon, speaking to the Post on April 29 about the government’s plans to clear panhandlers from tourist sites.
Officials are meeting May 5 in Siem Reap province, home to the famed Angkor Wat temples, where they intend to kick off their anti-begging campaign after a recent surge in aggressive panhandling at the popular Chong Khneas floating villages at the mouth of the Tonle Sap Lake.
There, dozens of beggars have begun rowing boats out to the restaurants frequented by foreigners to ask for money.
When none is given, “they throw water on the tourists … they are creating disorder,” said Khon. “They can do many things for money besides begging from tourists … it leaves the tourists with a bad image and they may talk to their friends about this begging.”
Past attempts to remove beggars from popular tourist areas like Phnom Penh’s riverfront promenade have met with mixed results.
The beggars eventually come back, seemingly in larger numbers and still without any other source of income other than to panhandle.
“I wouldn’t try to get rid of the people – (the government) should try to support the people more, it should change something in its political system to help those people to stop begging instead of just removing them,” said German tourist Roland Wenks, who was traveling in Siem Reap.
This time, the government has embarked on an ambitious campaign not just to simply remove beggars, but also to give them an alternate source of income that keeps them from looking for handouts, Khon said.
“The ministry has asked provincial authorities to take beggars to a place where they can start new jobs,” Khon said.
“We have to provide them with jobs such as selling newspapers, books, selling souvenirs or selling drinks for tourists,” he added.
“In general at tourism sites there should be no such thing as poor people because everyone should benefit from tourists.”
In some popular tourist areas the problem is not as acute.
Downtown Siem Reap, with its hordes of foreign visitors, has relatively few beggars compared to Phnom Penh and visitors interviewed there said they were not bothered by the few panhandlers they encountered.
“To a degree I expect them,” said Australian Rick Stevenson.
“You give the occasional one a bit of money when you can afford it, so at the end of the day no, no problems with beggars,” he told the Post.
But giving money to panhandlers is exactly what encourages more begging, say advocates – particularly those working with street children.
Instead, groups like ChildSafe International are urging greater cooperation among the government, NGOs and travelers to aid those who have been reduced to panhandling.
“We don’t want to be critical of the government – we believe the best way is to work with them,” ChildSafe International coordinator Mark Turgesen told the Post on April 30.
“If we have [government] support to promote ChildSafe to travelers in Cambodia we have a better chance of making sure these beggars have a chance to live their lives off their street,” he added