Jan 30 2013

Siem Reap’s baby milk scam

Published by at 12:46 am under Siem Reap


Streetwise visitors to Siem Reap should know that giving money to begging children is tantamount to giving money directly to the adults who force them to work the streets in the first place. So when a child, or even an adult, approaches you on Pub Street and asks you to buy milk for their baby instead, surely that’s okay. Isn’t it?

Pub Street is a favoured hangout for child beggars

Pub Street is a favoured hangout for beggars and hawkers.

As a city commuter I used to pass a beggar in the subway daily asking for “any spare change”. Knowing that money given to urban beggars often only fuels drink, drugs or gambling habits, but feeling guilty none the less, I decided to offer him some food one day instead. “Er, no thanks”, came the swift reply.

In Siem Reap things are no different, and giving money to the child beggars and hawkers in and around Pub Street is never more than a quick fix and rarely, if ever, does anything to provide a long term solution to children’s hunger, or to equip them with skills to build a decent future for themselves.

So when you feel the tug of a tiny hand on your T-shirt or the prod of a bony finger in your back, and you turn to see the imploring eyes of a child’s dirt-smudged face staring up at you, it is usually with some relief that you realise the child is not asking for money. What they want is for you to buy some milk for the tiny baby lolling in a makeshift sling around their shoulders.

So, you go with the child to the store, you buy a tub of formula milk, and you feel good that you have managed to help without handing over hard cash. Happy tourist, happy kid. But imagine how you would feel if, once you had gone, the child returned to the store to give back the milk, and received a refund of half the cost, while the store pocketed the other half? Happy kid, happy store owner. Duped tourist. Unfortunately if you went to the child and the baby with a bottle full of made-up formula they would simply say, like the beggar on the subway, “er, no thanks”. You might as well just give them the money in the first place.

Baby milk can convert easily to ready cash

Baby milk can convert easily to ready cash

Tourists are gradually becoming aware of this scam — which is not unique to Siem Reap by any means — so it’s little wonder that the children are becoming desperate. When I lived in Siem Reap I was once jabbed in the back by a child shouting, “Why you say no? I don’t want MONEY, I want MILK FOR BABY”; I even saw a young girl poking an innocent tourist in the breast saying “I need milk, MILK FOR BABY”. Remember that while it may be unpleasant for you, it is never the children’s idea to do this — invariably a parent or other adult has trained them to do it with a combination of reward when they do well and punishment when they don’t. It’s just another form of child exploitation, so a firm but polite “no, thank you” is usually enough to deter them, and getting angry with the children would be wrong.

If tourists stopped buying the baby milk — and stopped buying postcards or trinkets from them, or paying them to dance way past midnight in Pub Street — then eventually this kind of activity would become unsustainable. Quite simply, children who are begging by day should be in school, and those who are begging by night should be in bed so that they can go to school without being too exhausted to learn.

But it is only natural to want to help. Even if the baby milk ploy is just another cunning way to get money out of tourists, isn’t there a chance that it might just be spent on food, clothing and shelter for the needy? Perhaps. But there is also a sizeable risk that it won’t. So how can you help?

There are many organisations in Siem Reap who help street children to stay off the streets and teach them skills so that when they become adults they will be able to earn a decent living, without having to resort to the desperate measures that so often are the only options left to uneducated and unskilled teenagers. Do your homework thoroughly before parting with any money as sadly there are rogue organisations out there too, which only serve to perpetuate child exploitation.

The best you can do is donate money through a reputable registered charity in your home country. Being a registered NGO in Cambodia does not always mean the same as it might in the west, although many are totally above board. To be sure you are giving to a reputable organisation, you can consult with Siem Reap-based ConCERT, who can advise you on responsible and sustainable ways to help while you are still in Cambodia.

After all, no one wants to be duped out of their holiday savings, and no one wants to see children walking the streets at midnight screaming out for milk. It may well be a long job, but we have to start somewhere.

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10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Siem Reap’s baby milk scam”

  1. Annieon 30 Jan 2013 at 5:31 am

    I live in Siem Reap and have recently heard about a “buy me noodles” scam along the same lines as the milk one. So, do-gooders beware of any food-buying scammers!

  2. Spartson 05 Feb 2013 at 6:31 pm

    When I was there there was one occassion on which I caved.
    After several nights of these kids begging we gave in and took half a dozen or so of them to the store round the corner. We knew they had been out all night begging so we bought them milkshakes, biscuits pastries etc. We opened all the food and handed it to them.
    They ate it all as though they hadn’t eaten all day.
    I figured that at that time it was the best thing to do and would stand by that now.

  3. Rebeccaon 29 Mar 2013 at 5:18 am

    Very informative article.

    I was recently in Siem Reap and this exact scam happened to me. I was at Pub Street with a few friends when a persistent young Khmer girl kept saying she was hungry. I eventually dug into my pocket and grabbed some spare change. She replied that she didn’t want money, she wanted food, and my curiosity got the better of me. I grabbed a friend and let her lead us to a local shop. She started by skipping down the aisles, then ended up at the baby powder and her story changed slightly. Interestingly, the tin did not have a price displayed below it- one might assume the shop owner does that purposefully so they can put the price right up once you get to the counter. Anyway, my friend pointed out the scam and I told the girl she could accept the riel I was originally going to give her or get nothing so she took the change and left.

    Looking back, I’m a bit disappointed with how we gave money on the trip. We were in a big group, and the children who dance outside The Temple Club end up with plenty of money from tipsy and amused patrons, who are impressed with their dancing skills. The youngest could be seven and really should have been in bed.

    I have since started giving money to my friend’s cousin, who gives books and money directly to the children in the country areas… I remember we had bough cheap toys from the market for them one one visit, and they were so happy with such simple things as an etch a sketch.

  4. Faine Greenwoodon 20 Apr 2013 at 9:41 am

    I whispered that it was a scam to a tourist who was about to buy formula and had the kid follow me extremely irate – actually dug his nails into my arm hard enough to leave a cut. Ended up having to duck into a bar to escape. So, you know, be a little careful.

  5. Ben Jameson 12 Jul 2013 at 12:10 pm

    I gave into this scam. I figured if it was genuine I did a good deed and while I was confident it was a scam (thats why im searching now) i just couldn’t risk it. I’ll be a lot smarter when traveling next time. Buying food and opening the packets if I’m in a similar situation again will be actions if I find myself in a similar situation.

  6. Sarahon 07 Dec 2013 at 5:09 pm

    This happened to me today actually. One very persistent boy on Pub Street would not leave me alone, literally tugging my clothes, following me in the market so I gave in and started to walk toward a store. I realised this was very odd and, as I’m a young woman travelling solo, I just left. The boy came running after me, punched me, followed me further, kicked me and kept yelling ‘f you tourist, f you’. It really upset me. Though it may be through no fault of their own, some of these kids can get very aggressive so be careful and say no from the get go.

  7. […] vorrei fare il guastafeste ma… Siem Reap's baby milk scam | Travelfish on Cambodia una cosa simile era capitata a mio padre in Etiopia, dove si era fatto intenerire da dei ragazzini […]

  8. […] was our cooking table. We had a nice view of the child scam artists working the tourists while we cooked, too. I can’t believe people fall for that (and that we […]

  9. Around Siem Reap | backpackerleeon 06 May 2014 at 6:14 pm

    […] do not fall into the traps that so many people do. In particular, I would warn you of the infamous Baby Milk Scam, and while I did not encounter this myself, literally THOUSANDS of people each year are ripped off […]

  10. […] a begging mother or child milk, the fact is that the “No money, we want milk” plea is well rehearsed gimmick. The reality is that seconds after you turn your back, the kid you gave the formula to is selling […]

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