Cambodia and the Gentle Art of Begging, by James Potter

Posted on October 9, 2012

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Cambodia and the Gentle Art of Begging, by James Potter

“It’s just not fair!” Chhean, a young Cambodian woman who minutes before had been all smiles and patience, was becoming more strident in her demands. “Your friend is spending money at the next shop. Why can’t you buy something from me?”

Angkor Wat mountain temple

It was the age-old story – the tourist as fair game in the world of the souvenir seller – set against the background of the age-old temples of Angkor. These ancient ninth to twelfth century Hindu and Buddhist temples make nearby Siem Reap the number one tourist centre of Cambodia. Their sheer number, size and variety – from the dizzy heights of the central ‘temple mountain’ of Angkor Wat, to the low-rise delicate stonework of Banteay Srei and the enigmatic carved faces of the Bayon radiant in the setting sun – make them one of the built wonders of the world.

Bayon temple

That they were not included in the original count of seven wonders is explained by their disappearance for centuries under the heavy jungle growth of northern Cambodia. That they could easily disappear again became very clear when we visited the temple of Ta Prohm which, with immense entwined tree trunks and thick vegetation threatening to rip temple walls apart, has been left as originally re-discovered in the early twentieth century.

Ta Prohm temple

It had been a long, hot and humid day, and Chhean was not giving up just yet. Finally I snapped: “I’m sorry but there’s nothing in your shop that I want”. Her reply, before moving on, was equally brusque: “Well, being sorry is no good for me!”

This reply set me thinking. The worlds of the tourist and the people of Cambodia could be described as parallel universes. Although Cambodia is cheap by Western standards, the tourist pays substantial American dollars for accommodation, food, transport and entrance fees. The currency in the Khmer world, however, is the riel (with 4000 riel to the dollar). The amount the tourist pays for one night’s accommodation could feed a Cambodian family for one month. Generally in the market-place dollars are not accepted – they are worth too much to be useful in trading.

An ineffective and allegedly corrupt government ensures that virtually nothing of the tourist dollar is returned to its citizens. There is no evidence of money spent on infrastructure. Roads are pot-holed, footpaths are jigsaws of broken paving fit only as car parks (or accommodation for the homeless), rubbish lies uncollected and the persistent smell of sewerage and dust fills the air.

Not unexpectedly then, the Cambodian sees the visitor as a means of survival. So perhaps, we began to realise, an expected role for the tourist in Cambodia is to provide some direct financial support to these people.

The gentle art of begging

As we flew into the country, we wondered how we would find today’s Cambodian. Those who are now middle-aged were, 35 years ago, part of the Khmer Rouge’s ‘new empire’ who would reshape the country into a revolutionary agrarian society. All they experienced, of course, was a systematic destruction of the family unit and a horrifying brutality. What would these people and their children be like today?

They were in fact, friendly and good natured and unlike most Asians, sought to catch our gaze before smiling warmly. There was however, extreme poverty all around us – from the family who collected flowers and nuts from street trees for their food, to the lonely woman who lived under a rubbish skip outside our hotel. Despite this, virtually no one begged. Instead, in a quiet and charming manner they told us their stories, thereby leaving little doubt they needed our help.

Ra, our tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh, had been separated from his parents at the age of nine and spent the next four years at a timber camp sawing tree branches. The old wounds on his left arm showed the many times where the saw had slipped. With a total absence of drugs and bandages, the only solution had been to cauterize the wounds with lighted cigarettes.

A tuk-tuk is a motorized scooter with an attached trailer that sits four or six people. Ra’s vehicle was often in trouble – constantly needing oil and missing a few key parts. He quietly let us know that he could quickly have it fixed by paying him twice the usual rate of $10 a day for his services. Since he had served us well in negotiating the unending traffic chaos of Phnom Penh without incident, we thought this quite reasonable. He had taken us to see the Royal Palace – its grand beauty quite out of place in the noise and dust of the capital city – and the amazing art deco market, Psar Thmei, which depends solely on the skill of its architects to remain cool and breezy in the worst of Phnom Penh’s weather. The riverfront area was another highlight, with its buildings and memories from the old colonial days of French Cambodia.

Choeung Ek killing fields 1

One day Ra took us to the two genocide sites around Phnom Penh. Choeng Ek – one of the many ‘killing fields’ – where more than 8000 bodies were buried in a series of mass graves is some 20 kilometres north of the city. Despite having lost many family members to these unbelievable atrocities, Ra still brings tourists to these grim fields four or five times every week.

Choeung Ek killing fields 2

A monument in the field contains bones and rags dug from the graves. Elsewhere hens scratch amongst remnants of other clothes. But surely these rags cannot be over 30 years old? – a sign perhaps that the Cambodians here may be playing upon the sympathy of visitors. Can anyone blame them? At Tuol Sleng, the infamous security prison (also known as S86) where thousands were tortured and many died, there was no need to do anything to gain sympathy. It was opened as a museum within days of Cambodia being liberated from the Khmer Rouge and the tortured faces in the photographs on display and the cruel cells within what was once a school building, speak for themselves.

Choeung ek killing fields 3

An orphanage near Siem Reap sits next to a landmine museum. Here we learnt that landmines and American cluster bombs are still maiming and killing. An orchestra of landmine victims plays outside a temple. There are many opportunities and many reasons for the tourist to feel obliged to donate their time and money.

Nhhean, a boatsman on the Tonle Sap Lake

Nhhean was our boatsman on the Tonle Sap Lake, a few kilometers from Siem Reap. In the wet season this lake increases in surface area four times, but for us, at the end of the dry season, it was at its lowest level. The first part of the trip required the negotiation of a one metre deep and three metre wide channel cut into the mud bottom. A boat traffic jam under these conditions is worse than road chaos since there is the added danger of being drenched in polluted water by passing vessels. For over an hour Nhhean negotiated this turmoil with great skill to avoid any turbulence.

Floating village with a floating hen house

We were on the way to see a floating village situated on the lake. Desperately poor fisher-people lived in one-roomed floating shacks. Nhhean had been born here but lost both his parents at a young age, when they were drowned while fishing. He guides tourists in the morning, goes to school in the afternoon and sleeps on his employer’s boat at night. He is paid $10 a month which equates to about 20 cents for every two hour trip he makes. It required only modest generosity to ensure Nhhean received a tip equivalent to two month’s pay for a job well done.

Similarly it is very easy to help the bookseller or newspaper seller who receives a few cents for every item sold. The price requested could be handed over without necessarily the need to accept the book. Young girls sell exquisitely made figures shaped out of sugar palm leaves at five for $1. They would take hours to construct. Better then perhaps to pay $1 for each figure and thereby help the girls’ families feed themselves for a week instead of a day.

Unfortunately generosity is not always as helpful as it could be. There is pressure put on tourists to help support schools. Money is not necessarily the answer and it was suggested to us that the provision of food would be more useful – working on the theory that it is difficult to learn on an empty stomach. We hurriedly paid $20 for a 60 pack carton of noodles to donate to a school for orphans. However if we had shopped around at a local market beforehand, we could have bought three times the number of packets for the same price.

We found Cambodia full of many beautiful and disturbing sights. But in the end, it was the people – with their subtle demands to be helped – that dominated our thoughts. I returned to Chhean’s stall three days after my initial visit and ascertained that her schooling cost her $8 each month. I gave her enough money for both three month’s education and an overpriced and unwanted hat. There were thanks without any enthusiasm and no sign of any recognition. But I felt a whole lot better.

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Posted in: James Potter, Travel