Living Treasures in the Ruins of Cambodia

At the gates of the temple there are hawkers selling trinkets: silk and cotton cloths, woven grass bangles, drinks, fruit. Young men offered services as guides. Musicians played and beggars approached cautiously. Proprietors of small restaurants beckoned, singing their wares.

It was probably not much different to the way it was 900 years ago, though we wouldn’t have arrived by tuk-tuk then. Tuk-tuks, called “remorks” in Cambodia (but the common Thai word seems ubiquitous now in Southeast Asia) are a common mode of transport for visitors in Phnom Penh and Siem Riep, and a very pleasant way to travel: a canopied carriage bolted onto a 90cc motorbike, allowing up to 4 passengers (or six little ones) to enjoy breezy ride at a sensible speed. These vehicles would surely attract criticism in regards to safety (no seat belts, no solid sides) but I do appreciate them as a low-cost, low pollution vehicles — alas, they wouldn’t be allowed in the car-crazy first worlds.

At the gates of Angkor Thom

Lax safety tourists can take in their stride, but beggars and persistent hawkers are a bit difficult for first worlders. We get embarrassed; we don’t like to be reminded that we are so much richer and healthier, and landmine victims with their stumps are hard to even look at. Some foreigners shy away from contact, or frown their distress. The opposite approach, of smiling, making eye contact and politely responding, is time consuming and rather emotionally demanding. But it is the best way I’ve found, and it can lead to some nice conversations, and even an occasional wai* or blessing.

At the entrance to a large restaurant near one of the biggest temples we were beset by postcard-selling boys, trying to show their humanity in a few short moments of interaction, as we tramped determinedly towards the coolth of the interior. One boy did manage to make a connection: he smiled into our eyes and said, “My name is Ben. If you want postcards, you buy from me, okay?” Our little group swept by him into the sanctuary of the restaurant, flaccid with the heat, but I remembered his smile and wondered if perhaps I needed some postcards after all.

After lunch my niece suggested we stroll around — and buy postcards from Ben. She wanted to engage with these kids, I thought, who looked about the same age (she’s 15), but with the buffer of an adult presence. I was happy to comply, wanting her to see them as humans, and not buzzing insects.

Ben found us at once, of course, and we quickly transacted our postcards. But Ben’s success drew others who gathered around us. Having no further business to offer them (“No, we don’t need any more postcards, we already have that book”) we could at least give them English practice.

“How old are you?” asked G, my tall, slender, American niece.

“Eighteen,” said Ben. We blinked: he was a head shorter than G, and looked about 14. Another boy, Jai, said at first that he was fourteen, then changed it to seventeen. “Why did he lie?” G asked me. I told her to ask him.

“Why did you lie?” said she, a bright, strong creature from another world, looking him straight in the eye. This was too much for Jai, who smiled painfully and beat a retreat. We walked along with Ben, letting him talk, while a rag-taggle bunch followed us, giggling and chattering.

Ben translated for them. “Your daughter is beautiful!” he said. “She’s my niece, actually,” I replied, but this was beyond his vocabulary pool. So I just smiled and tucked my arm through hers, in what I hoped might be a maternal, protective gesture, and nodded. “Yes, she is.”

More chatter, and then braver efforts. “Lay-dee, Jai likes your daughter!”

This was too much for the red-faced Jai, who swallowed his shyness to protest his innocence. “No, no! He lie you! He lie you!” The other boys insisted that he did, he did, and he grabbed at them, punching them lightly, all of them giggling. We all laughed as the boys jostled each other and we walked on slowly. G looked shy but pleased, and I watched the kids, thinking that this scene had been played out a thousand thousand times, in playgrounds and schoolyards all over the world. I remembered being there once myself, but the names and faces had gone, just the feeling remained.

Child sellers in ruins of the Leper King’s Terrace

There are many child-sellers in the ruins. They carry postcards and scarves and grass bangles and books, and a small stash of English. Some of the smallest have only a couple of words: “One dollah-ah-ah..” delivered in what I guess to be a Khmer accent, trailing off, high and thin, like the caw of a crow.

It is a melancholy sound, and these children are a sad little waifs whom I feel sorry for, though NGOs say you shouldn’t buy from child sellers because it encourages their parents to keep them out of school, exposes them to abuse, sexual predation and the like, and encourages begging… sigh, what’s to be done? Give a little or a lot, think a little or a lot. Try to be kind.

One dogged little girl followed me as I headed back towards my waiting carriage, trying to sell me some grass bangles. I had bought some just like them, last time I was in Cambodia, and told her so, gently. But she wouldn’t be put off.

“Where you from?”

“Australia.”

There was a pause as her eyes went momentarily vacant, then she took a deep breath and sang: “The capital of Australia is Canberra-ah. The Prime Minister is Julia-ah Gillard…kangaroo, koala, g’day mate, snake, crocodile, flower, butterfly-y-y…” She blinked with effort, searching for something to clinch her argument. “Julia Gillard is a lay-dee-ee-ee!”

“That’s um, very good,” I said lamely, getting into my tuk-tuk, thinking that perhaps I did need more grass bangles, after all. I looked in my purse, but I had only large notes, so I turned to my companions, who were climbing in and settling down. “Does anyone have any small money?”

My little seller understood at once the situation, and called up to T: “Mistah-ah, your wife doesn’t have enough money-ey-ey, so you have to give her one dollah-ah-ah!”

I was even more amazed by her sophisticated grammar than by her geopolitical knowledge, and suddenly wanted to abet her. We quickly exchanged money and trinkets, and I said a little loudly, to catch the attention of my American friends, “What is the capital of America?”

They were tired and hot and didn’t want to be bothered, but I hoped they might see her, really see her, and perhaps buy something. Again there was a tiny pause, as though somewhere, far away inside, someone was loading a new file into her computer. She blinked, and said, “Washington…DC!” “Who is the president?” I said urgently: we were about to leave.

This was difficult, clearly, but the answer arrived — I saw the look of relief and pride “Barack Obama-ah-ah!” she cried. “Wow, that’s great!” said the Americans, but the tuk-tuk started up, and we were underway, onward to our next place. I looked back at that smart little person standing in the dust, and hoped fervently that she’d grow up safely and not step on a landmine, for the few decades it would take until she was ready to rule the country.

Although the fabulous remains of the ancient Khmer civilisation fill up your senses and make you dream of golden ages, it is hard to get away from the ugly reality of the landmines in Cambodia. It is one of the most land-mined countries in the world, and 40% of the population have been directly affected.

It is distressing to see the ruined humans — confusing to feel the conflict of revulsion and compassion. To see past the waving stumps into the eyes of a person, clinging bravely to the remnants of a life takes effort, every time. Sometimes it is a little easier: one can feel gladdened by the gay traditional music that greets visitors to the major temples, played by landmine victim orchestras — easier to smile in appreciation and perhaps even buy a CD.

A photographic exhibition at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh, documenting the work of amputee deminers, made me feel more hopeful and more despairing. I remember particularly a black-and-white photograph of a farming family, gathered together on the floor of their house, children crouched by their young parents, who were seated in the centre, their prosthetic limbs almost touching. The man had stepped on a landmine when he was tilling his field. After many months in hospital he was released to the care of his family — still very wounded and in much pain. On the day he was released his wife went to get some painkillers for him — and stepped on a landmine herself, blowing off her leg. “I had to use the painkillers on myself”, she said.

Sunglass seller in Phnom Penh

Some young people sell things from baskets and trays strung around their necks, like copy sunglasses and poorly printed books. When they are landmine victims it is hard not to support their efforts to get away from begging, even if the goods are knockoffs.

Trade is easier than charity – as though we were meeting on a familiar ground, rather than looking down from a high place to those wallowing below. It is a thin charade, but it works, allows us not to be frozen in horror. I bought scarves, books and handicrafts made by landmine victims in various places, visited the Landmine Museum and made donations. It feels paltry, but at least I could keep moving. The Cambodians don’t want us to remember their country with sadness and sorrow. They want us to enjoy our time, to come back, to tell our friends about how beautiful their country is.

On our last day in Siem Riep, and at our last temple, we let ourselves be lured to the rude shack of Lisa, one of the women canvassing for trade in the dusty grounds where vehicles can park. There were not many people around and it was very hot, so we agreed to Lisa’s promises of cool drinks and food, but later, after we had visited the ancient site. She waited an hour until we came back out, then hurried over to claim us, and bustled us to her shack. I can understand why she had been so insistent: hers was the last stall in a row of about a dozen; not many would bother to wander so far.

To make sure we didn’t get distracted as we walked by all the other stalls, Lisa kept up a bright chatter, and when I understood what she was doing, I joined in, trying to make it easy for her. It must be hard to strike the right note of friendliness and warmth, without sounding too pushy, in a foreign language. She recommended noodles for me. “I always love noodles best! And when my body is a little … bad, noodles always make me feel good!” My companions, a little put off by the crude surroundings, ordered only drinks in safe cans. While we waited, becoming cooler and more serene in the shady shack, looking at the jungle and the 1200-year-old stone buildings in the distance, Lisa cradled her nine-month-old niece and talked about her life.

She had owned the stall for six years, she said, having taken over from her sister, who had started another one at a different place. She told us about her neighbour’s wedding and laughed prettily at our jokes, a bright intelligent girl making her way cheerfully through the life she been given. The noodles were brought by an older lady, probably Lisa’s mother, who put them down slowly and carefully in front of me. They were just instant noodles in soup with added meat and vegetables, but I felt they had been made with love and care, such as she might have made for Lisa, if she had been feeling “bad in the body”. Lisa sat politely nearby, in case we needed anything, minding the baby girl.

It was as fine a meal as any I had had in Cambodia. As we stood and said our goodbyes to Lisa, admiring her and not pitying her, she said solemnly, “I’ll look for you in my dreams.”

This is a country full of hope.

Lisa and her niece

* ”wai “, or “sampeah” (Khmer) is a greeting or way of showing respect found in many places in Asia. The hands are placed together in a prayer position while a slight bow is made. The higher the hands are held in relation to the face, the deeper the respect being shown.

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