Of the poorest countries we have travelled, Cambodia feels the poorest. We saw poverty in other countries such as Romania, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, but the poverty in Cambodia is in our every single interaction with all children, with all women, with all men.
In each and every interaction we have with Cambodians - not only in buying/selling interactions, all people ask for money. Three 15 year old girls and I together climb up Phnom Krom, a hill overlooking Tonlé Sap lake. We are all gasping for breath, they are holding onto my arms, we are all laughing, we are communicating very rudimentarily using my English/Khmer phrase book, and we are enjoying ourselves immensely. After some time at the top of Phnom Krom, in the end, they work up the courage for 1 of the 3 girls to write us in English in their notebook asking for US$ 3 (US$ 1 for each).
Our 2 weeks in Cambodia show me that I do not know how to deal well with poverty, especially when there is a language barrier.
On a lower level of Ta Keo, an unfinished temple typical of Angkor mountain temples, we eat lunch in the midday heat of +40°C. I sit in the shade before following gM up the temple. A police officer sits down beside me. In a quiet voice, he repeatedly asks me to buy separate pieces of his uniform as souvenirs, slowly pointing at each item: badge, hat, emblem on hat, rank designation on shoulder, Cambodia pins, belt, belt buckle, emblem on shirt pocket, the shirt itself. The whole interaction is painfully raw. I try to deflect and distract by asking if he is married and has children, a popular question in South-East Asia. This backfires. He is married and has 2 children, and then supports his case for me buying his uniform piece by piece off his back because he is poor and has a family. Without a common language, I do not know how to acknowledge that, yes, he is poor and how difficult it must be. I do not want to ignore his situation by simply responding "sorry, no need" for the clothes off his back. On the other hand, I do not know if I could have responded respectfully and comprehensively even with a common language.
At Ta Som in Angkor, a man of about 20 years of age asks all tourists in a seemingly hopeless kind of way whether they would buy his postcards, books about Angkor Wat, batteries, or film. Everyone says "no thank you", and that they do not need them. I move across the path to sit beside him. He is physically disabled because a landmine has blown off the lower part of his arm. He says that he cannot work because of this. No one is buying his goods. I explain probably why for each: this temple is one that most people see after the main temples and because it is further out from the main temples, most people have already bought the books and postcards that he sells. Most people come to the temples already with film and batteries that they bought from home abroad or Bangkok. I distract him by asking about his family. He looks more than despondent.
Most of my verbal interactions are with children. All the children we meet sell goods and/or beg for money. To deal with this, I try to distract the child to reach the kid inside.
gM and I are at the 12th century temple Banteay Kdei in Angkor. As with all children who sell, a girl of 10 years of age asks us several times to buy her postcards. I try to deflect and distract by using the English/Khmer phrase book to ask how many brothers and sisters she has. She sits close to me to in order to follow with me in the book to read the Khmer. She communicates that there are 6 children in her family. She stands up to use her body as a measuring stick. She gestures the heights of her 3, 4 ,7, 8, and 9 year old siblings by incrementally moving her outstretched hand up from hip to waist to chest to shoulder to forehead. She ends with herself at 10 years of age, her hand patting the top of her head.
gM bikes to Angkor Wat for 5am sunrise. I bike there for 5:30am with our breakfast in my bike basket. I park my bike beside that of gM. Three boys of 6-7 years of age come up to me. They want to sell me postcards and bottled water. I chattily explain about my husband taking photos, that the other bike is his, that I am bringing breakfast for us, and slowly walk towards the temple with the boys. One boy stops to indicate that I left the breakfast bag in the basket, and one of them says that if I leave it there, it will be gone. One boy, Ratana, gives me a post-it note with his name and a note. I tell them that we will be returning later in the afternoon and that if it is hot and if we do not have water that, yes, I will buy water from them. When we bike back in the afternoon, we have enough water. Therefore I decline their disappointed overtures, explaining that we have enough water. I distract 1 boy by asking him what time he goes home. We both look at our watches together, and he says in 15 minutes. He works from at least 5:30am to 6:30pm.
Again at Angkor Wat, a 6-7 year old boy tries to sell us postcards and bottled water. I distract him by pointing at his watch. I extend my wrist, compare how similar his watch is to my Bangkok watch, he shows me his stopwatch function, I muse about whether I can put my watch in water because it says that it is water resistant, and he says "no" because he did that and his watch became broken after he put it in water.
While the bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh stops for its passengers to buy food, a girl and boy of 6-7 years of age walk around between where the bus is parked at the side of the road and the food stalls where passengers eat. They are both very skinny - you can see their bones, their dirty and ripped clothes are hanging off their bodies, and they have no shoes. They are begging for money. Someone gives the girl some money. She skips away with the money in her hand. She does not put the money into her pocket because in her pocket she keeps a crushed pop can. The skipping is the kid. She is gone long enough to give the money to someone behind a door not too far down the road. She comes back and again asks for money.
Twice, I cannot break through to the kid inside the child.
At the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek outside of Phnom Penh, a girl of 7-8 years of age begs for money. She repeats like a recording "money money money money" in the same tone with no inflection, like she almost is not inside her body. This begging is different than the rest - it feels like the kid inside the child is gone. She seems void. Later, a foreigner gives her and another child US$ 1 to take their photo. She breaks - she smiles and runs away with the money.
At the same place, a girl of 10-11 years of age asks me for money. I distract her by taking out the English/Khmer phrase book and ask her how old she is and how many brothers and sisters she has. You can see in her face that she recognizes that I am trying to say something. We look at the book together, and then she talks nonstop to me in Khmer. I find in the book how to say "I don't understand", and then she draws inwards and repeatedly intones "money money money money" like the other girl.
A 7 year old girl gave this to me. I asked her name. It was something that sounded like "Hong". I told her our names. I wrote out her name and asked her if that was right. I wrote out our names and told her that we were from Canada. These are my most favourite times.