Before visiting Angkor, we had heard many tales about the children at the site. They are, so the story goes, as ever-present as mosquitos on the Mekong, aggressively selling trinkets and postcards to all comers. We mentally prepared ourselves for this feature of Angkor, knowing that these little faces begging us to part with “just one dollar” would be utterly heartbreaking.
We also did a little research on these kids. As we suspected, NGOs and people in the know universally advise not to give money to children selling on the streets.
It ensures a thriving labour market for young children who should not be working, many of whom are not from Siem Reap at all but brought in from other provinces to work the streets. Worse yet, working on the streets not only impairs their education, it exposes these children to predators: traffickers, drug dealers, and child sex tourists. Quote from Travelfish
Despite these warnings, we knew it would be tough to say no a thousand times to angelic little faces. To make it easier, we decided that instead of giving out dollars at the site, we’ll give $5 to Room To Read for each kid who approaches us.
Now the only problem will be trying to count all those kids.
Having been thus forewarned, we’re pretty surprised when no children come up to us outside of Bayon, the second most famous temple after Angkor Wat. From high up on the ruins, I spot a gang of kids playing on the grounds. When we leave, instead of taking the official Way Out, we follow the little path to where these kids sit.
They shout hellos as we get closer and I stop to have a chat. We throw around a few English phrases and then I encourage them to show off their counting skills. All of them, even the littlest one, can count to ten in English. We get them to teach us one to five in Khmer, since so far our pathetic attempts have only taken us up to three.
These kids aren’t selling anything, they’re just hanging out at the temples. I like to think that their mothers are the nearby grounds workers at Bayon, who are currently currently busy sweeping up stray leaves from around the ruins.
In a quiet moment aside from the rest of the group, the smallest boy tries to get Stephen to give him a dollar, but it never even occurs to the other kids to ask.
Still, these 6 kids will be the first on our list.
Losing Our Resolve
At lunch, which we have at 10am due to our early start, a girl of about 14 shyly approaches our table. She is almost beyond the age when her cuteness can sell stuff. In a year or two she will be a full-blown knockout of a young woman, and we hate to think what might happen to her then.
She quietly shows us the postcards in her basket, naming each temple as she flips by it.
“Angkor, Angkor, Angkor, Bayon, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Ta Prohm, Angkor, Bayon, Ta Prohm.”
It takes her about 12 seconds to sell us a pack of cards.
So much for our steady hearts and our resolve not to perpetuate an insoluble problem.
After she leaves, we wonder where that dollar goes. Does she get to keep the whole thing? Does she give it to her parents or her school? Is she supporting little brothers and sisters this way? Is there a Fagin-like character lurking around the corner, ready to snatch up whatever she earns?
Even though we have already given her a dollar, we add this girl to our list. That’s 7.
The Gang Of Ten
It is not until we stop at the tiny temple of Chau Say Tevoda that we are confronted with the salesforce in full. As a swarm of red ants attacks our feet and legs, a swarm of kids surrounds us too. Each one carries a ratty plastic basket filled with postcards and the ugliest fridge magnets you’ve ever seen.
They start a sales chorus, flipping through the postcards so blindingly fast we don’t even get a glimpse of what’s on them. “Angkor, Angkor, Angkor, Bayon, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Ta Prohm, Angkor, Bayon, Ta Prohm,” they assure us. When we say we already have postcards, they start showing us magnets one by one by one.
The more we resist, the more whiny the tone becomes. Desperate even.
I am reminded of the feeling I used to have during the yearly fundraisers for our school band when I was supposed to sell chocolate almonds door-to-door to raise money. I would walk up the steps to those cold faceless houses, my stomach in knots, feeling sick at the thought of approaching a stranger and asking for money.
My dad always ended buying the whole case.
I wonder if these kids know that sick feeling, or if this is normal for them.
By the time we slip inside the temple, where the children are clearly not allowed to go, we have lost count of the kids who approached us.
So many more children try to sell to us over the course of the day we completely lose count.
That Boy Can Count
The next day, we enter Angkor Wat by the back door, locking our bikes outside the temple gate. No one is around this early in the morning. When we leave, there are still only a few tourists around the back door. A terrible territory for selling postcards.
Still, a little boy of about 8 years old comes running up to us. “Hello sir. Buy postcards. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,” he says all in a rush, while expertly rifling through the postcards for us to see. “No thanks,” we say. “We don’t want any postcards.” He keeps selling and we keep no-ing, in a routine that he must perform hundreds of times a month.
As we unlock our bikes, he keeps going. “Postcards only one dollar,” he whines. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.”
“What comes after 10?” I ask. At first he doesn’t get it. “Ten postcards,” he says. “And after ten comes…,” I prompt.
And then he is off. Counting in English as fast as he can, which is pretty darn fast. He rattles off the numbers all the way up 29 perfectly. After that, he counts thirteen-one, thirteen-two, thirteen-three.
“Nope, that’s not it,” Stephen says. “It’s thirty-one,” I tell him. Then he’s off again, counting and counting and counting. For just a few moments, he forgets he’s supposed to be selling us something. But as we make to ride away, he falls right back into his spiel.
“No, sorry, no,” we say, barely having the heart to resist.
“I need the money for school,” he whimpers.
We suspect this is probably true, and it is the most depressing truth of this whole situation. In Cambodia, public school isn’t free. Almost every kid we meet out here wants to be in school, learning, so they don’t have to spend their whole lives selling crap to tourists. But because they can earn, they are here instead of getting educated.
The majority of the sellers at Angkor are girls, many of whom are earning money to send their brothers to school. An educated son is seen as more valuable, so the girls work while the boys learn.
A couple of young teenage girls approach us as we get off our bikes at Kdei. They carry the same baskets as the younger kids, but they have a much more sophisticated sales pitch. Instead of starting off with the hard sell, they make nice.
“Where are you from?” they ask Stephen, knowing instinctively that he’s the soft touch.
“Canada,” he answers.
“Canada. Capital Ottawa,” they answer in unison. We are impressed. I’m sure most American kids (and adults) have no idea what the capital of Canada is. Clearly these girls have been finding time for their schoolwork as well as their selling work. They offer us some postcards and when we decline, they continue to chat.
“You speak English and French in Canada, right?” one girl says. Amazing.
It is clear that as much as these kids work hard, they also study hard. There is hardly time for them to be kids at all.
Having arrived at Ta Prohm through the back door, we have no idea what awaits us upon our exit. Ta Prohm is the mother of all sales grounds, with dozens of women trying to entice us into buying their baggy elephant-print pants and souvenir t-shirts, others offering us cold drinks, and lots and lots of kids with their baskets.
We weave through the melee, trying to find a place to stop for lunch. As soon as we sit down at one of the little restaurants, three girls are upon us.
Two give up quickly; it is hot and they are clearly tired of tight-fisted tourists.
The third girl settles in for the long haul.
She counts her postcards, lists the attractions, displays her fridge magnets. We smile and refuse. Our kindness is useless to her and we kind of want to just empty our wallets into her outstretched hands, though we’re not sure she would even take the cash without giving us the appropriate amount of merchandise in exchange.
Except for that first boy at Bayon, who was not selling anything, not one kid has asked us for a handout. I don’t know if it’s pride or part of the rules, but it seems that outright begging is not done.
As we wait for our lunch, I decide to see how much English this smudgy faced girl actually speaks. I start asking about her life.
Her name is Su and she is 10 years old. Her mother is at home right now, but she and her little brother come to Ta Prohm every morning to sell from their baskets. Every afternoon – she smiles proudly as she tells me this – they go to school.
Soon, she remembers her sales pitch and gets back to it. As Stephen and I converse, she continues to lift items out of her basket and repeats “One dollar, one dollar, one dollar.”
During a rare pause, I ask her, “How much?”
“One dollar,” she says, looking at me as though I am a crazy person. I laugh and explain the joke.
“I already know how much it is since you have told me a million times already!”
She laughs and I realise that that’s about as much as I can do for her today. Stephen has other ideas.
When our plates of noodles arrive, Stephen asks for an extra plate and tries to give Su some noodles. She won’t take them, even though it looks like she really wants to. We ask if she’s not allowed, but she either doesn’t understand the question or doesn’t know what to say. It seems pretty clear that it is against the rules: we just don’t know who makes those rules.
As we eat, the girl moves away to a nearby shady patch and sits, waiting. In Asia, you never disturb people during a meal. I think she secretly just wants to take a break in the shade, and forget about her job for a moment. The second Stephen finishes his last bite though, she is back.
“One dollar one dollar one dollar,” she repeats until we finally get on our bikes and ride away.
Our last stop of the day is to a little teaching garden and a model Cambodian stilt house near the edge of the Angkor grounds. We pull our bicycles into the parking lot, and the only other people there are a couple of Cambodian families sitting in a circle having their lunch.
One tiny boy with no shirt on leaps up and screams with joy when he sees us. Just utter chaotic joy. Though his mother scolds him a little, he sprints over to where we are taking off our bike helmets. He stares in awe.
Hey kid, I want to say, there are 10,000 visitors to Angkor Wat every day. What makes us so special?
Another little boy, who isn’t wearing pants, runs over to join us, so I bend down and start talking to them. Of course, I snap a few pictures.
When I show them the result, the boys scream again, running around and around with glee. Then they run back to their moms, explaining the magic that has just happened.
We ride away with smiles on our faces, hoping we’ve given as much joy to this family as they have to us.
Room To Read
By the end of our second day at Angkor, we have learned just how ludicrous it was to think we could count how many kids have tried to sell us things, how many kids have smiled and waved, and how many kids we’ve seen playing by the sides of the temples.
What we do know is how smart they are, how full of joy and life, and how ready they are to take on the world, if they just get a little push in the right direction.
Stephen and I have made a $200 donation to Room To Read.
Imagine a world in which every child has access to an education. Room to Read is doing our best to make this dream a reality, one child at a time.
Today reminded us how lucky we are to have been born in Canada, and how important it is to support good charities like Room To Read. We are extremely happy that we are able to help, in our own modest way. ♥