Cambodia’s heart strings

One of the main places I wanted to visit in Southeast Asia was Cambodia. I wanted to see Angkor Wat, a Hindu (and later on Buddhist) temple built in the early 12th century and rediscovered in the jungle in the 1800s. At its heyday, this Khmer civilization was more powerful and larger than any other in the world.

Since we were so close to the Cambodia border in the Mekong Delta area of Vietnam, we figured out a way to bus and boat ourselves over the border, through the capital of Phnom Penh, and arrive in Siem Reap–home to Angkor Wat–in enough time to have a full day to explore the temple ruins.

I have always heard Cambodia is poor. But I had a hard time watching out the window of our comfortable air-conditioned bus and glimpsing into the life of a rural Cambodian. We were on one of the the only paved roads in the country. One that everyone else traveled too–from couples on motorbikes to horses pulling tractors to old women on bicycles to children running barefoot across it to their neighbor’s home.

Most of the homes were small shacks. Many had electricity. Many did not. Inside, because I could see inside since most did not have front doors, kitchen pots and pans took up one corner of the square straw-thatched house. Hammocks hung from corners. And the only furniture I saw was the occasional TV.

The homes looked a lot like the playhouse Dad built for my sisters and me in our backyard. Exactly the same size. Same materials. Except we didn’t sleep, eat and live in ours.

At the rest stop along the way, young girls sold a chance to hold a Cambodian tarantula.
“Miss. Miss. One dollar,” they said in their ragged clothes and big smiles. Women sold roadside snacks of dried spiders and grasshoppers.

We encountered a lot of children in our short trip to Cambodia and all of them were working, selling fruit or T-shirts or postcards or the chance to hold a spider.

It was hard to know what to do. My camera alone is worth more than the average Cambodian yearly income (roughly $256 in 1999). I could have easily given them money. U.S. dollars are the country’s de facto currency and are used everywhere. But I have a hard time believing that is the answer when the country would be better served by sustainable giving.

At Angkor Wat, children were the only ones working, other than the occasional temple guard who finally shooed us away as the sun was setting.

They hawked their wares at every entrance and exit of the ruins, occasionally sneaking into the temples and surprising you at a corner with a “Miss Miss, postcard? 10 for one dolla.”

At lunch, we sat down with two girls who wanted to sell us a postcard or magnet. They spoke perfect English and could tell us every country capital in the world.

America, we said.

“Washington D.C.”
France. “Paris”

Portugal. “Lisbon.”

“Where you from?” she asked us.

“Tennessee,” she wrote in Cambodian her small tattered notebook that she pulled out of a back pocket.

“Capital?” she wanted to know. “Nashville,” she wrote as I sounded it out.

I wanted to further test her knowledge. Who’s the president of the America?

“Bush.”

“Who is the president-elect?”

“Barack Obama. Bush a bad man but Obama a good man,” she said with the wisdom of an old man. “Vice president. Joe Biden. You want to know secretary of state you buy one postcard.”
As Whit wrote earlier, the country is rife with poverty and sadness, with land mine victims missing limbs asking for change around every corner. America itself secretly bombed the country under Nixon. And land mines are still everywhere in the country, left from civil wars. My guide book said don’t wander off any well-traveled path and avoid all bridges on secondary roads. Yet the people did not seem sad, put out or mad at their circumstances. They were quick to smile and welcome us to their world.

It breaks my heart that a people so kind and friendly could live in such poverty. All because of where they were born. It made me feel sad and blessed to have what I have, and to have the means to see and help the people who don’t.

One thought on “Cambodia’s heart strings

Comments are closed.