01.08.2007 - 21.08.2007
Cambodia! The realm of pain and suffering, war and poverty. Another example of how fanatic ideology can destroy.
First days in Cambodia are disturbingly unfamiliar and shocking. Trying to soak up the reality of life in Cambodia, I hardly found the strength to speak. In Phnom Penh, I watched with disbelief bare-feet begging children being kept away from our table by the security guard. Even at the presence of the security guard, the children managed to get the leftovers on our plates and happily walk away with some food. Food is a luxury in Cambodia.
At the riverfront where mostly tourists and affluent Cambodians hang out, children are publicly exploited and put to work. Some children sell copied books, some sell postcards, others sell t-shirts, hand-made bracelets and other accessories, but these are "lucky" kids who have enough English skills to haggle with foreigners, who can afford the 10$/month English schools. The less fortunate kids, who don't speak any English, have no choice but to simply beg for money and leftover foods.
In Sihanoukville, at the serendipity and Ocheuteal beaches, kids as young as 4 years old carry a plastic bag and beg for empty cans of soda. 2 cans of soda earn them 10 riel, or 0.0024 dollar. To earn a dollar, the kids must collect 800 cans. But that would be an impossible task because of the number of the competition also in search of empty cans. A lucky and very hard-working kid will be able to collect 50 cans a day the most, or 2500 riel, hardly enough for a meal. A local dish (such as fried rice) at an average restaurant costs about $US2.50. Only tourists and few wealthy Cambodians can dine out at such restaurants. Children and adults looking for valuables or food in the garbage dumps is commonplace. And you won't fail to see one since every street corner in Phnom Penh is a dumpsite filled with trash.
Street sale in Cambodia is a ruthless job. Some children do it in a sweet way but some children go to any extreme to make a sale. They harass you, stalk you, and make you feel guilty until you buy something.
At Serendipity beach in Sihanoukville, a 10-11 year old boy walked up to me carrying a tray of hand-mad accessories. Here's our conversation:
Kid: Hello miss, do you want to buy a bracelet?
Me: No thank you.
Kid: How about a necklace?
Me: No thank you.
Kid: These are nice. Look. Buy a bracelet.
Me: No thank you. I've bough many bracelets here. I have enough bracelets now.
Kid: But you didn't buy from me! That's not fair.
Me: I can't buy from everybody. There are so many of you.
Kid: Look! This one matches your shirt.
Me: No thanks. I have exact same one.
Kid: How about this one? This one matches your skirt.
Me: No thank you. I don't need more bracelets. I have many.
Kid: Buy one for your friends.
Me: I have bought for my friends too. I bought 15 bracelets since I came here. I don't need more.
Kid: but you didn't buy from me! Remember yesterday when you came here I asked you first. But you bought from someone else. That's not fair.
Me: I don't remember. And I don't need more bracelets. Thank you.
Kid: maybe later?
Me (happy to finally be left alone): Maybe some other time, bye bye.
Kid: ok, bye.
Next day, the same kid found me in a café reading a book.
Kid: Hello miss! Do you remember me?
Me: Hey! It's you again!Of course I remember you!
Kid: Yes me!
Me: How are you?
Kid: I'm fine. You buy a bracelet from me?
Me: No thank you. Remember? I said I've bought too many bracelets.
Kid: No yesterday you promised you buy one from me....
Me: Me? No I never promised to buy another one!
Kid: Yes you did! I said later you buy a bracelet, you said yes!
Me: No no! I said maybe some other time! I never said tomorrow I'd buy a bracelet from you!
Kid: No you promised! You can lie to me, but you can't lie to yourself!
Me: I never promised!
Now at this point I was getting agitated and wanted him to leave me alone. But he's too persistent to let go.
Kid: Here, I give you a special price. This one for 2 dollars.
Me: but I have 15 bracelets.
Kid: How about a necklace?
Me: I don't like these necklaces. They're not my style.
Kid: No! They're nice! look, you can resize it.
Me: How much are they? (big mistake!)
Kid: 5 dollars! You buy two I give you one for half price!
Me: 5 dollars? That's expensive! Your friend sells them for 2 dollars!
Kid: No these are different! These are longer. Look!
Me: No, they're expensive and I don't need a necklace anyway. Thank you.
Kid: but you promised you buy one from me.
Me: I never promised you to buy. I said I have everything I need. Now please leave me alone.
Kid: I'm not going away until you buy this from me.
Me: If you don't go away I'll have to tell the restaurant manager.
Kid: He can throw me out but I'll come back.
Me: Then I'll ask him again.
Kid: I will come back. I will wait for you outside until you leave.
Me: But then you won't make any money. You need to find someone who would be interested to buy something from you.
Kid: No you promised me you'll buy from me. You can lie to me but you can't lie to yourself.
Me (aggravated): I never promised you. Please go away.
Kid: I'm not going anywhere. Buy a necklace.
Me: ALRIGHT! I'm leaving then.
I paid the bill and left the restaurant. He followed me. I met Scott outside, unlocking the bike.
Kid: If you don't buy, you'll have an accident.
Kid (banging his right fist into his left palm): An accident. I promise.
I looked around. Some Cambodian men were looking at us with a smile. Or grin?
Me: You're making me very angry now. Go away.
Kid: You'll have an accident. You'll see.
Me: GO AWAY. Scott, please tell him to go away.
Scott: Go away young man.
The boy walked away. He turns around, again banged his fists into each other and smiled.
But there is a bright side to Cambodia too. Angkor Wat temple complex is one of the greatest accomplishments of humankind. The temples are far away from each other so we hired a tuk tuk for the day who took us from one site to the other and waited patiently while we visited each temple. Just like the Great Wall of China, just like the Pyramids of Egypt, Angkor Wat is very old, historic, huge and it's a proof of our ancestors' intelligence, resourcefulness and resilience. I couldn't help thinking how in earth they managed to build this enormous structure with no tractors and no cranes. There is so much detail carved on the walls and ceilings; it takes days to see all the temples, as each one is different. Each corner is a magnificent piece of art. But most of all, Angkor Wat is spiritual and humbling. Standing in front of this astonishing architecture of the 12th century, I felt so insignificant. It reminded me that life is so much bigger than my little world of worries, insecurities and dreams.
At one of the temples, I saw a 14-15 year old mute boy in scruffy clothes and no shoes talking in sign language to a monk burning incenses in front of a Buddha. Later the boy came to me and pointed to a bag of chocolate hanging out of my purse. I gladly gave him the box, smiled and walked away. He put his palms together in front of his chest and under his chin, the gesture of thanks and appreciation in Cambodia. Few minutes later, he ran to me and handed me a piece of paper. He had drawn two flowers beautifully tangled around each other. He smiled and walked away. I smiled and thanked him with tears in my eyes. The young stranger had touched my heart. "I wish I could help" I thought. But I don't know how.
Cambodians must be one of the friendliest people in the world. They never fail to smile and make you feel welcomed. It's amazing how forgiving there are to foreigners, who bombed them, left them alone in their misery, and ignored the genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime. No one helped them, no one cared. But that doesn't stop Cambodians from smiling at strangers and being warm and hospitable.
Cambodia must also have the friendliest stray dogs, cats and cows. They're literally everywhere going about their business without being bothered, harassed or abused. The only time I saw a Cambodian man shooing and scaring an animal away was when a cow decided to take a bite out of a short, young, newly planted banana tree in front of our bungalow. The man yelled and the cow gently walked away. It was funny to see a bunch of cows sit and chill in the middle of the road in Sihanoukville and nobody seems to mind. The cows sat there like glamorous celebrities for as long as they wished, and no one bothered them. Cats and dogs come and go as they wish. People share the little food they have with the animals. Tourisits feed them too. Stray animals in Cambodia live a good life.
And just when you think things can't get any cheaper than in Korea, you find yourself paying only a buck for a pack of cigarettes (8$ in Canada, 2.50 in Korea) and 50 cents for a pack of tampons (7$ in Canada, 6 in Korea). Your money goes a long way in Cambodia.
And one last thing: I was amazed at how fluent the children and adults speak English. Whether it's because of their job, or because they see many tourists everyday, children as young as 5 years old speak English very well. My conversation above with the boy who was trying to sell me a bracelet is an example. Some university students in Korea study English at elementary school, middle school, high school, university, hagwons and with private tutors for 15 years and still can't utter a word. When I got back to Incheon airport, too tired to ride a bus to Masan for 5 hours, I decided to take a plane to Pusan. I went to the Korean Air customer service desk and asked: When is the next flight to Pusan? The girl stared at me with wide-open eyes like I was speaking an unknown language. Wouldn't you get frustrated?