I Heart Cambodia – Part 1
Z and I are sitting in pitch blackness on the laterite stairs overlooking the lake of Banteay Kdei, Cambodia, between a sculpted Khmer lion and the light of a Chinese guy’s tripod, some unsightly period before 6am.
Tourist lore dictates that, when experiencing the grandeur of the Khmer god-kings, and the Angkor sights, one sees a sunrise. Holding to the belief that sunrises are best experienced without busloads of fellow travellers, I have picked Banteay Kdei as being less crowded than Ta Prohm.
“You wan’ buy flute?” asks a boy, who is probably in his early teens, for perhaps the fifteenth time.
“No, thank you,” I say, for probably the thirteenth time. “I do not want to buy a flute. I no want flute. Thank you.”
The per capita income in Cambodia is around $2000. When you take the elite out of the equation, it means most people earn very much less than that.
“I make you good price! One dollar!!! For your baby!”
Z, who hates being called a baby, and wants a bamboo whistle about as much as I do, is huddled inside his T-shirt against the breeze from the lake, doing his damnedest to get back to sleep with his head on my thigh.
In fact, could I curl up in the foetal position and make the kiddie hustlers go away and focus on someone else, I would be doing exactly what he is doing.
“You wan’ buy book? I have many books. Fren’, Engli’, German. Take a look,” says Cheung’s bookseller friend, who is fourteen. “I make you good price. Remember, you buy from me only. I see you first!”
Fluteboy is not making great progress, so Twangyboy enters the bidding. Twangy is selling little bamboo instruments with a vibrating end that you hold in your mouth and, well, twang.
I do not want these either.
The trouble began with Cheung.
Due partly to the early morning fug, partly to the backache induced by riding pillion on a motorcycle with one arm securing the nodding child in front of you and the other clinging to the side saddle rails, and partly by sheer horror that children Z’s age or size are up at 5am to hustle to tourists, Cheung’s sales technique had me from hello.
Cheung’s a really bright, sweet kid. They are, in fact, all bright, nice, sweet kids. Kids, basically. Just kids who earn their living by getting right in your face until you spurt some of your incomprehensibly vast supply of greenbacks their way.
She is twelve years old with one of those faces so beautifully defined it looks as though she is wearing mascara and lipstick all the time. She’s tiny — up to Z’s chin — gorgeous, and latched onto us the second we climbed off the bike.
Through her genius sales technique, we (well, I: Z is saying nowt) have agreed to have breakfast at the stall that pays her commission. I have also agreed that we will look at the goods on the stall that pays her friend commission, and buy books only from her other friend.
I have, further, accepted the bamboo bracelets the girls have thrust onto my arm during the walk in darkness from bike to lake.
And, yes, I am well aware that it is this kind of reaction which encourages the exploitation of child labour. But there are worse ways these girls and boys could earn their living.
“Really, thank you, I don’t want to buy a book.” I say.
This is untrue. I would like to buy several books. If her Fagin shares the same supplier of photocopied books as the other Fagins in Siem Reap, she will have at least two in the big box she is carrying around her neck.
When, Christ Almighty, she should be in bed, getting a good night’s sleep before she goes to school. They all should.
The eastern corner of the lake is starting to lighten. I point this out to Z, in my best This-Is-Very-Exciting-And-I-Am-Excited-Too voice. He is underwhelmed.
I chose to watch sunrise at the lake rather than join the hundreds of busloads jostling, football match stylee, for position at Ta Prohm, since sunrise and sunset, like the best thunderstorms and snowstorms, are best experienced in a very, very select group.
It has, however, been clear for some time that this large, quadrilateral body of water, though a wondrous tribute to the craft of millennium-dead Khmer engineers, not to mention the vigour of their overseers, will emerge into daylight as, well, a lake at sunrise, with a small temple in the distance and some sugar palms.
Anyway, we are there, so we wait. The sun duly appears, hovering over the sugar palms like a, well, young, pink, translucent sun, and illuminating the water, if not transforming it to molten whateverness.
Fluteboy disappears round the corner and hands the flutes to another kid, who returns with the same lines and the same crappy whistles in patterned cases. I still do not want the flutes. Or the postcards. Or the books. Or any bangles, no matter whether my dollar buys me one or eight.
On the plus side, I am committed to viewing only one souvenir stall, and I do want to buy a T-shirt, since Z has persuaded me to throw out the “crop top” which was a vest when I was thinner.
I ask the kids about school. Their faces light up with genuine pride. They all go to school.
Cheung is in fourth grade. “You talk to her! She in big grade!” she says. Her fourteen-year-old friend is in eighth grade. She has either been working longer than Cheung or her family has only recently fallen on hard times.
Children here complete grades when their parents have the money to fund them through the year and they reach the required standard. So it’s not unusual to have teenagers and teeny-tinies in the same class.
Some children study in the mornings, others in the afternoons, to ease the pressure on teachers and buildings and, I guess, to allow the less privileged students time to earn their fees.
When it is clear that the sun has done its stuff until it reaches the west, we go for breakfast.
I have coffee. Z has a pancake. The prices are (in a Cambodian context) ludicrous. But I don’t want to haggle with a child.
Then I look at the t-shirts. I even touch one. Big mistake.
Cheung’s friend hands me down the vest top I have touched. It is sized XL. I hold it against me, show it to Z. He looks up from his food, shakes his head.
“That’s going to look like a crop top on you, mum,” he says. He is right.
I glance briefly at some tiny, pretty, draped, cotton-lycra shorts. “You like?” says Cheung’s friend. “Very good price. Five dollars. I make for you.”
“No, thank you,” I say. I tap my backside. “I am too big for these shorts.”
“No, no!” she says, and winches them apart to a size that might just encompass my hips. “They stretch!”
It is the stretch that I am worried about.
A crowd is beginning to gather. The commission-payer, whose naked toddler is peeking out from behind the curtain, pulls down an XXL vest in a vivid, neon orange, with Angkor Wat, Cambodia on it, loud and proud. Without going into the fine points of the cut, it is, quite possibly, the least flattering item I have ever seen.
“I need go school soon,” Cheung’s friend says.
Panic is beginning to rise. I am now feeling duty-bound to purchase something, anything, yet also would rather like to buy something I can actually wear, rather than carry for thousands of miles until I find someone to give it to.
Each time my eyes fall on anything for more than a nanosecond, Cambodian BOGOFs come flying my way. “You like bag? Buy bag and t-shirt. Eight dollars for two.”
I like neither the bag nor the t-shirt.
Aha! I think. Z needs a t-shirt.
I thrust one at him. The kids follow up with more. He shakes his head, mute.
“Buy these two t-shirts for your baby. I make you discount. Five dollars for two! Good price!”
My baby is having none of it. This is incomprehensible to them. It is not as if they have a choice in what to wear, or not to wear.
I cast my eyes over long-sleeved black muslin tops, of a type, if not a size, that I would like to own. Cheung’s friend rips them from the rail. “You try, you try.”
I can tell from a hundred paces that these aren’t going to fit over my shoulders, let alone my upper arms.
I try a pretty, floaty sequined top, with smocking below the breasts, over the top of my t-shirt. The smocking comes down to my nipples.
The girls, with all the aplomb of Selfridges salesgirls, declare that it looks lovely, very nice, is perfect for me. Cheung’s friend compliments my hair. “You wearing two t-shirts,” Cheung says knowledgeably. “That why.”
Angst over child labour, tiredness, irritation and Bridget Jones type neuroses blend into an unpleasant sump. I want nothing more than to get the hell out of there.
I ask for our bill. Cheung’s friend panics.
“OK,” she says, in desperation. “You buy scarf. I make you good price. One dollar.”
I hand over a dollar for my nylon Khmer chequered scarf. Cheung’s friend heads off for school.
Cheung will hustle foreigners till noon, cycle for an hour to school, study until five, cycle home, then fit in chores and homework before bed. Or sleep, at least.
These kids must hate us. They really must.