The Children of Angkor

During my visit to Cambodia earlier this year, I was affected by the many children begging, selling tacky souvenirs or just playing around the temples in Siem Reap. As a way of coming to terms with what I experienced, I wrote two versions of the same story. One I sent to Your Life is A Trip, which you can read by clicking on the link, and the other one is below.

The children of Angkor 2

They buzz around me in droves. Irritating little mosquitoes. Sometimes noisy, sometimes quiet. They seem to be an ever-present nuisance. Even if I try, I cannot avoid their onslaught. “Lady! Lady!” Dirty little hands push tacky souvenirs in my direction. I don’t want to make eye contact. I don’t want to see them. “Only one dolla.” I fasten my pace, keep my face stern, and pretend not hear them. Maybe they will go away.

*     *     *

UNICEF estimates that there are 600,000 orphans in Cambodia. Of these only 3,000 are in orphanages; 99%+ of all Cambodian orphans are being cared for by their extended family, or their wider community; in a small percentage of cases children are fending for themselves.

*     *     *

Unkempt little bodies jump from stone to stone. Lithe and agile. Darting now towards, then away from the never-ending stream of tourists flowing over the raised wooden causeways of Beng Mealea. They claim the unrestored stones of the temple, 40 kilometres east of Angkor on the ancient royal way as their playground. Nearly nine centuries of heat and humidity have played havoc with the precise placement of the blue sandstone blocks. Gone is the former wealth and glory of an empire. In its place poverty reigns.

*     *     *

Cambodia is still one of the world’s poorest nations and unbelievable, grinding poverty is a brutal fact of life for many people. In Siem Reap province over one third of the population lives below the official poverty line, existing on less than 49 cents per day.

*     *     *

Little fists clench clear plastic bags filled with sweets. Dark, unfathomable eyes pry into mine. An accusation, a challenge, a plea? Under the eternal watch of the stone guardians of the ancient Khmer temples they lay claims on the hearts and purse strings of tourists.

*     *     *

1 in 7 children die before the age of 5.

*     *     *

Skinny legs wade into murky water to pick a lone lotus flower bud. As a symbol of purity and spiritual awakening, the it contrasts sharply with the sense of despair and deprivation that cloak the shoulders of the children aimlessly lolling along the water’s edge.

 *     *     *

A lack of proper sewage and waste water treatment, coupled with poor standards of hygiene, result in many people being forced to drink contaminated water. Both surface and ground water are contaminated in some areas, and in Cambodia 40,000 children die each year, many due to waterborne illnesses.

*     *     *

“How cute!” a tourist exclaims, reaching for her camera. Three little barefoot children, as if on cue, strike a pose. One with a hand on her hip; the smallest, unclenching the fingers of her left hand to form a victory sign; the last just staring ahead, silently sucking a blood red lollipop. There is no glimmer of joy. Their faces are wax masks. Unreadable.

*     *     *

It’s not a normal reaction for any child, wherever you are in the world, to run up and hug a stranger coming in from the street. What seems so lovely to foreigners who are welcomed into orphanages by children holding their hands and hugging them is in fact a sign of the children’s distress.

*     *     *

The sun pours its golden light into the tranquil water of Sra Srang that once was reserved for the king and his consorts. The world is at peace at the break of this new day. “You want to buy postcard? Only one dolla.” My heart sinks. My fragile equilibrium instantly shatters. I sigh and look up. Her school uniform is neat. There is the beginning of a smile that hovers near the corners of her mouth. Hesitant. Cautious. I try to ignore her plea for money, and engage her in conversation. We talk about her school. Finally, a shy smile reaches her eyes. “I love my teacher.”

*     *     *

Teacher’s salaries are only $30 to $50 per month and they cannot survive on this so are forced to charge unofficial attendance fees, or fees for extra tuition, or for examination results etc. Such fees are beyond the means of the poorest families.

*     *     *

He counts on his fingers, pauses, thinks, and scribbles down an answer. A diligent student, doing his homework against the towering backdrop of Banteay Kdei, a former Buddhist monastery dating from the late 12th century. His father, unpacking bundles of merchandise he hopes to sell to the day’s influx of tourists, fail to distract him as he passes by his son’s ancient stone desk. His tiny body is oblivious to his surroundings. I silently pray that his dedication will be rewarded with a better future for him and his family.

*     *     *

Children go to school for half a day, either mornings or afternoons, and a credible 90%+ of children enrol for primary school. Costs of school uniforms, books and other materials, the need to travel greater distances, and unofficial fees, mean that only 1/3 start lower secondary school and just 13% finish upper secondary school.

*     *     *

The constant presence of the children of the Angkor temples is an uncomfortable reminder of the face of poverty. It is a heart-wrenching mixture of hope and despair.  My encounters with them reinforce my travel philosophy: how I travel is as important as that I travel.

*     *     *

All quotes in italics come from information pamphlets distributed by ConCERT Cambodia.

Siem Reap, Cambodia, January 2014

The children of Angkor 5

 

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