Throughout Southeast Asia and India, something repeatedly bothered me, fogging my brain with a cloud of annoyance that grew in size with every temple, palace and shrine we visited. While walking through the Silver Pagoda within Cambodia’s Royal Palace complex in Phnom Penh, I couldn’t keep my big mouth shut any longer.

“I don’t understand how this temple can be full of so many gold and bejeweled statutes while people are outside, starving on the streets,” I said, butting into a tour guide’s description of a diamond-encrusted Buddha statue. “Why don’t they melt some of it down and invest it in social programs to help people?”

The guide wasn’t even my guide, but she and her group of four had seemed to be at my heels throughout my own circuit of the room. I could easily overhear her description of every emerald-covered cigarette case and gilded palanquin we passed.

As can be expected, the guide was annoyed by my interruption, and I don’t blame her. Him hadn’t overheard my question, but he guessed what it might concern when he saw the pained look on the guide’s face and noticed my arms gesticulating wildly. He walked quickly in the opposite direction, making a beeline to collect his shoes.

“If we were to just give the money to the poor people on the street, what would we do in 10 years when there are more poor people on the street?” The guide demanded. “And if we did that, why would tourists like you come to visit? They’re not poor anyway. They pretend to be poor.”

The American tourists with her agreed. One, a woman in her late 60s, said I was naive and questioned whether I planned to donate the expensive camera hanging from my neck. This made me sad — and not just because I like my camera.

It’s too late now, but I am embarrassed by my intrusion and apologize. I was only a visitor to Asia, so there is much I still do not know or understand about the culture there. The guide and her tourists made some valid points, not the least of which was, who am I, a “rich Westerner,” to criticize how another country operates?

I certainly don’t have the answer to world poverty. I can only report on what I observed throughout Southeast Asia and India: city sidewalks overcrowded with beggars, decaying buildings sinking further and further into disrepair and trash — everywhere. Punctuating the extreme poverty are elaborately decorated palaces and temples containing row after row of gold and bejeweled icons. The Silver Pagoda is known by that name for the (real) silver tiles covering the floor.

Developing Asia, as that irritated American tourist pointed out, is not alone in its ironic extravagance in the face of poverty. She’s right. I’ve visited countless monuments to western religion displaying massive stained glass windows and gilded crucifixes and chalices. The opulent architecture and precious metals are meant to honor a higher being and serve as important cultural relics as well. They are pretty to look at and encourage tourists — like me — to visit. But wall-to-wall anything is just too much. Couldn’t just some of these items be repurposed for a greater good? Surely God and the Buddha would understand. What, ahem, Would Jesus Do?

Nowhere is opulence as infuriating as a Third World Country. In post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, we saw emaciated men and women without appendages rolling around in rickety wheelchairs and tiny children begging money at hectic intersections. Him and I were absolutely horrified by the living conditions in India. The temples and palaces of India were mostly empty inside, but the pristine grounds provided sharp contrast to the bedlam on the streets. We paid 750 rupees each (about US$15 each) to see the exquisite Taj Mahal. Just outside, school-age children were begging while adults relieved themselves on or near the palace walls (In India, less than half the 1.25 billion population has a toilet at home.) I have to assume our admission fee will go toward purchasing more flowers, paying the ample grounds staff and lining the pockets of government officials. I don’t guess it will do anything to help ensure those street kids get an education and perhaps learn about that monument’s history as I, a visitor to their country, have.

As outrageous as the tour guide’s comment about her countrymen pretending to be poor sounds, it may have some truth to it. As Lonely Planet reports, it’s often the children’s parents (and, sometimes, pimps) who send them out to bring in extra income for the family. Instead of obtaining an education, these children are schooled in the art of begging. In Phnom Penh, Him and I personally watched a Khmer teen demonstrating how she had trained the toddler in her arms to roll back his eyes and go limp. On command, the otherwise healthy-looking child did just that, rendering himself into a pathetic, nearly lifeless form.

Other children work. According to the International Labour Organization 215 million children across the globe are forced to support their families. In Bolivia, there’s even a Children’s Workers Union made up of kids campaigning to legalize child labor. They say they must work to support their families. Throughout our travels, we’ve found ourselves constantly approached by young children — children who should have been in school — hawking everything from postcards to bracelets to pineapple slices. Even in Greece, supposedly a First World country, we encountered children peddling tissues and playing accordions for coins. Instead of handing them money or purchasing their wares (the latter of which somehow seemed wrong, as if we were supporting their absence from school), we shared food and sweets with them.

Lonely Planet warns tourists against visiting “orphanages” offering opportunities to “volunteer” and, of course, donate. Many of these facilities are essentially daycares populated by children with parents very much alive. During the day, the children stay at the “orphanage.” When night comes, they go home. I believe this practice exists almost everywhere. Working for Food For The Poor, an international charity providing humanitarian aid to Haiti and Central America, my colleagues in the field often reported on “orphans” with one or both parents.

So why should tourists bother to help? Why share your hard-earned American dollars and Euros with them, people of a different class and culture? If you follow Lonely Planet’s advice, you won’t, choosing instead to promote the efforts of hardworking, local adults by purchasing their handicrafts and services. Or, as Him and his brother have, give loans to the entrepreneurial-minded through reputable charities like Kiva. You don’t need an orphanage to simply spare a needy child some attention. Earlier this week, in Greece, a 7-year-old girl approached me as I sat on an apartment stoop. She didn’t speak English, so I immediately emptied both my pockets to demonstrate that I carried only cough drops and tissues. But she didn’t seem to care. She curled up beside me and looked at photos of my family. I worried a passerby might think I had nefarious plans for the child, but her parents were nowhere to be found. No one noticed us.

Does not wanting to donate my camera make me a hypocrite? I don’t think so. I believe that statement merely distracts from my original argument, the one about how a nation should want to help its own people. When it comes down to it, those glittering artifacts are on display to attract camera-toting tourists like me. They benefit the Cambodian people only secondhand because most Cambodians cannot afford to pay the Royal Palace’s entrance fee. As the intended target, I can safely attest that I would continue to visit Southeast Asia and India whether the palaces and temples contained 50 gold elephants or 100 gold elephants. I propose using the money from the sale of some of this unnecessary opulence to private collections or and museums to fund school initiatives, reduce the emissions from the armies of tuk-tuk vehicles polluting the air or pay (adult) beggars to dispose of trash littering the sidewalks. In my humble opinion, clean, beggar-free streets would be a much bigger boon to tourism than 100 identical gold elephants gathering dust on a shelf.