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By Kate Springer | February 21st, 2016

A travel tell-all with Kate Springer.

As we climb up to the top of Oudong Hill, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the old capital of Cambodia from 1618 to 1866, two little girls run up beside us selling plastic flowers and wooden fans.

We aren’t in the market for either souvenir, but the children stick with us as we climb the stone steps — smiling and laughing all the way, perhaps hoping we will change our minds.

It is 11am on a Friday and these kids, who look no more than 7 years old, should be in school.  As we snap photos of the imposing stupas at the top of the mountain, the little girls look more desperate.

I ask our guide why they aren’t in school. She explains that when parents in poverty see that their children make more money begging, they take them out of school and send them to tourist sites.

Alright, so don’t give the kids money because successful begging thwarts an education. Which means the children have little to no chance of escaping poverty. And the wretched cycle continues. Got it. We keep walking.

But it’s not that simple. If you manage to squash your sympathy and ignore the kids, they go home empty-handed. Their parents might punish them, or maybe that was lunch money and you’ve sentenced them to a day of hunger. Either way, it’s unlikely that they are going to go to school the next day.

Our guide tells us that the average rural family around Phnom Penh makes US$100-150 a month. A MONTH. That’s usually from selling produce in the markets or knicknacks at tourist sites. There aren’t even that many tourists on this mountain, I think. How much could they possibly hope to make today?

I ask her about the kids begging in the city, since we gave a child a dollar last night. That’s even worse, she says. Typically the child beggars in the city don’t keep any money at all, but instead hand everything over to a boss. The organizers are also known to offer drugs to children so that they become addicted, and thus more desperate and pliable.

It wasn’t always like this, though. It’s hard to image that Cambodia was thriving up until the mid-1900s. Even all the way back to the Angkor Era, which started in the 800s, the country was already seeing stellar growth and prosperity. And in the 1500s, this dusty mountain top was a fabulously wealthy kingdom.

After the Khmer Rouge genocides, Cambodia essentially started from scratch. Decades of civil war left formerly wealthy families in financial ruin and left the countryside full of landmines. While a few of the perpetrators are on trial (and others, no joke, are still serving in government with impunity), sending them to jail is just a band-aid. “The only real justice is for children in Cambodia to get an education, and for the next generation to have a better life,” says one of our guides.

Indeed. Education seems like the only way to pull the country out of poverty. But even those who manage to go to university aren’t guaranteed financial security. Some teachers, for example, don’t make much more than US$200 a month. And it’s doubly difficult as corruption, bribes and extortion have come to be expected within almost every sector and industry of society.

But of course, these barefoot kids running up and down the temple stairs have no concept of corruption and simply want to take home a few dollars. And you have to hand it to them — they are tenacious.  Two more temples and some 100 more steps later, the girls are still by our side.

One of the stupas on Oudong Hill, Arthaross Temple, shows the Buddha with four faces — one facing each direction. According to our guide, the faces symbolize the four pillars of Buddhism: compassion, sympathy, equanimity, and charity.

After nearly an hour of wandering the grounds in the intense Cambodian sun, the two girls are still matching us, stride for stride. I don’t know if it’s the right call, but before we turn to head down the mountainside, we hand them a US dollar. They beam.

Such a tiny amount doesn’t seem like it could hurt anything — but it certainly isn’t going to help much either.

In the moment, it’s nearly impossible to ignore a child. But, in hindsight, a viable solution is to research charities and NGOs, and donate to organizations that will send your dollars towards education and community development instead of furthering the cycle.