Sunday, June 30, 2013

Glimpses of Poverty and Hardship in Siem Reap

A Squatter's Village on the Banks of the Siem Reap River near Siem Reap's Old Market

In my earlier wanderings through the section of Siem Reap where my hotel was located, I had become intrigued with a rustic collection of stilted thatched huts that sat on the far bank where the Siem Reap River curves to run parallel with Sivatha Street. As I had some time to kill in the afternoon before meeting up with my guide and driver to visit more of the Angkor temples, I decided to walk upriver about 300 meters and take the bridge to the other side so that I could backtrack and wander through the village-like enclave to take some photos. As I walked along the opposing bank’s narrow tarmac path in the direction of the huts, I came upon a Cambodian youth that looks to be in his late teens, or perhaps even early twenties, who was missing one leg at about mid-thigh (no doubt due to stepping on a hidden landmine or a piece of unexploded ordnance) and supporting himself with a crutch. I had remembered seeing him amid the vendors selling tee-shirt, handcraft, ‘krama’ checkered scarf and mass-produced souvenir at Psar Chaa (Siem Reap’s old market) the previous day, as he observed me trying to extricate myself from a group of street children that had encircled me and were begging for handouts; he appeared to remember me given the smile of recognition he flashed as we made eye contact.

Continuing onwards, I next came across a group of three middle-aged men, also apparent landmine victims, who were standing together and talking a little ways off of the path near my intended destination; I saw that the two of the men which were clearest in view of the group were both missing a leg and supporting themselves with single crutches, and that the one that was partially view appeared to be missing part of his forearm. The three slowly swiveled their heads to track me with their gazes as I approached, and as they slipped from my field of view in passing, one of them shouted, “Hello…Hello…Hello…” (In my travel experience, a single ‘hello’ generally indicates friendliness, where as three ‘hellos’ in succession tends to mean ‘I want to sell you something, or hire out my services, or give me a handout, or attempt to lead you into some sort of scam’.) As I did not have that much free time remaining before having to return to the hotel and preferred to use my time taking photos instead of engaging them in conversation, I simply gave a friendly wave and smiling nod in their direction and continued on my way.

At the end of a section of brick wall was a dirt footpath lead from the tarmac walkway to the collection of huts. As I stepped off the tarmac and began to make my way along the path towards the huts, to my surprise two naked, barefoot and dusty Cambodia boys of about 4 years of age quickly rounded the corner of the nearest hut and ran up to me, jumping up and down and running in circles around me while laughing with glee. As the kids continued their display of excitement over a foreigner coming into the midst, I glanced to the left and noted that the three middle-aged amputees that I had passed earlier were now advancing in my direction. As I turn back towards the riverside hutment, I saw what looked to be an impoverished mother coming up the path from the village holding a nude, seemingly under-nourished baby cradled in one arm, and gripping an aged and empty plastic baby bottle in the other. It is then that I realized that what I took to be a photogenic little hamlet surrounded by the more modern structures of suburban Siem Reap was more likely a squatter’s shantytown, and the quaint setting that from a distance had conveyed an almost idyllic quality, had sudden taken on an edginess that put me on the defensive and put out of mind the thoughts of the interesting pictures that I would likely be able to take in the hamlet.

The mother, who said something in Khmer to the two giggly and frolicking kids that prompted them to run back to the stilted hut, pleaded in choppy English for money so that she could feed her baby. Before I could even speak, she pulled  down the neckline her soiled and thread-bare top to just above nipple-level to reveal the contour of her ribs visible beneath the taught brown skin tinned with a sheen of perspiration between her flat and sagging breasts while she looked at me with desperate eyes. “No milk…No milk…Baby not eat!” Seeing that the woman was in dire straights, but realizing that the three approaching men were equally in need and would be hard to dismiss without offering them something, I reluctantly pulled out the first of the 10,000 Khmer Riel (about USD$ 2.50) paper bills out of the front zipped pocket of my cargo pants and handed it to the woman. She then thanked me and then stepped back to watch my dealings with the others that had already converged around me.

Next, one of the middle-aged landmine leg amputees (san prosthetic limbs, as was the case for all of them), approached me and extended his non-crutch supporting hand palm-up; wordlessly, he looked up me with a toothy grin, then looked back down to his open palm before gazing back up at me as he waited for me to place the donation in his hand, thanking me in English when I did. The transaction with the next man, who was missing his left leg, proceeded pretty much the same as the prior man, except before I handed him the money, with the crutch still secured under his left arm pit, he grasped the front left end of his tee shirt and rotated his left forearm up so as to raise his shirt on the left side of his body, revealing a darkly-discolored opened hand-sized depression on his abdomen centered between his waist and lower rib, with the surrounding flesh speckled with small shrapnel scars. “Bomb…Bomb…” he said as an explanation. The final donation made during the encounter (and the final 10,000 Riel note in my pocket) had the most visually dramatic impact. The man was missing both his arms (perhaps setting off a land mine while working in the field?), but the remainder of the arms were not cleanly prepped for future prosthesis. Rather, the forearms were severed along a shallow plane at perhaps about a 25 degree angle to the centerline of the arm, running from the inside of the elbow to roughly just forward of where the wrist should have started, with dark scars where the skin had been sparsely stitched back together. Despite the loss of his hands and most of his forearms and the suffering he had no doubt had to endure as a result of the traumatic injury, he accepted my donation (which his friend took and held for him) with a very warm and pleasant smile and an ‘aw kohn’ (‘thank you’ in Khmer). I ended up distributing all of the cash I had on me (40,000 Cambodia Riel = USD $10) among the four of them in a fairly brief span of time. I glanced at my watch and came to the realization that I was short on both time and the resolve to continue walking into the village to take photos, and decided to head back to the hotel after first taking the above photo of the village-like enclave.

I turned as I shut off the camera and placed it back in my hip pocket, and as I raised my head to start up the trail I met the eyes of the Cambodian teenager with the missing leg that I had seen on earlier my way in. I told him that I had already given away all the cash that I had, and that I was sorry that I didn't have anything left to give him. I’m not sure if he just didn’t speak English or perhaps was deaf and mute, but he silently looked up at me with imploring eyes and tapped the extended open palm of his crutch-supporting arm as if to say ‘please, can’t you give me anything?’ I held up empty palms and shook my head while I again told him slowly, emphatically and loudly (as people often do when visiting a foreign country and only knowing how to say ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘where’s the bathroom’ in the local tongue…as if that would help) that I was sorry, but I didn’t have anything. He gave me a look of disappointment as I stepped onto the thin veneer of tarmac the covers the riverside trail and started the walk back to the hotel. It is only about 10 seconds later that I heard the alternating flop of a sandal and the dull wooden tap of a crutch on the tarmac as he began to follow me. I stopped to reiterate that I didn’t have anything to give him twice more on my way upriver to the Pithnou Street bridge, and at least three more times in the downriver direction along Pokambor Avenue. He even followed me (despite my urgent warnings that it would be dangerous to do so) across the busy Sivatha Street which, given the volume of car, truck, motorcycle and bicycle traffic is tough enough to try to cross with two good legs as it is (sorry…that was pretty crass). I felt terrible by the time I got back to my hotel, as this poor kid had been keeping pace with me for some 800 meters by then. Thankfully, my guide and driver were waiting for me at the hotel so we could tour the temple ruins of Preah Khan, and when I informed them who the person was following me and that I did not have any money to give him, my driver was kind enough to give the person a bit of money to compensate him for following me.

A Similar Squatter's Encampment Down-River as viewed from Sivatha Street

The encounter was more than a little bit eye-opening and sobering for me, hardly the pleasant experience one normally desires and anticipates when on vacation; this is one of the realities of a visit to Siem Reap (and Cambodia in general), and one should be prepared to experience the unfavorable aspects of the country (or any country in the Third World, for that matter) first-hand and deal with it. At times, you are likely to witness scenes of poverty, hardship and the devastating effects of land mines evidenced by the missing limbs of some of those that you encounter on the streets begging for handouts or trying to selling postcards to passing tourists. You may have a single child come up to you on the street and start begging for food or money within the view of other children, and in an instant you may soon find yourself suddenly surrounded by a group of six or more kids with their hands out and begging in unison; as you try to walk away, there’s a fair chance that they will follow along and continue with their pleas for money, making you the center of unwanted attention. Though possibly a well-honed and practiced act meant to evoke sympathy on the part of the tourist, some of the children affect a zombie-like slow monotone voice when they deliver their pleas for a handout, and let their jaws and arms hang slack as if they could collapse to the ground at any moment. Admittedly, if you travel with a tour group and stay in the nicer hotels by the airport or the fancier resort hotels in town with private grounds set back from the public streets and sidewalks, you may not be as exposed to the unfavorable aspects of the city.

The solo male traveler to Siem Reap can anticipate the occasional solicitation by prostitutes on the streets that are frequented by tourists, with the offers extended ranging from the euphemistic ‘massage’ to ‘boom-boom’ or other specific services sometimes conveyed awkwardly using Western slang terms. The majority (if not all) of women offering their bodies for sale on the streets are likely forced to do so out of poverty. I was propositioned several times during my stay in the city, and in conversation would learn one woman’s particular story, which I will give the benefit of the doubt to the teller assume that it was told truthfully.

I was initially approached by Madam S. on ‘Bar Street’ (a.k.a. ‘Pub Street’) during my first evening in the city. She looked to be in her mid to later 30's, of medium height and build for a Southeast Asian woman and what would be considered average-looking, with her reddish-brown blonde-highlighted hair falling in thin permed ringlets about six inches below her shoulders and her relatively light skin suggesting a mix of Khmer and perhaps Chinese or Vietnamese bloodlines. I politely refused her proposition of…er, some ‘glad-handing’, and she amiably accepts my decision and moves on, though the easy smile that she maintained during our exchange doesn’t quite fit with the hint of sadness that her eyes conveyed. Later that same evening, she came up to me again across from Psar Chaa with a proposition of something she claims to be particularly skilled at, but her choice of verbs, adjectives and slang terms, and the combinations thereof, caused me to raise an eyebrow as I fought the urge to chuckle out loud; I countered her offer with yet another polite refusal, telling her that I'm married and not interested in using her services.

The next evening, I again saw her slowly strolling amid the open-air diners in front of the restaurants that line ‘The Alley’, which parallels Bar Street and caters almost exclusively to visiting tourists. Her expression and slightly downcast gaze seemed to telegraph a sense of sadness, uncertainty and disenchantment, and she appeared to be more consumed with her thoughts than she was interested in her surroundings.  When she saw me, she managed a weak smile and nod of recognition as she headed in my direction. I ask her how things were going, and her hints of a smile quickly faded as she sighed and said that things were not going well; she told me that she had not yet been able to find a willing customer since her arrival in Siem Reap over a week ago. She then asked me if I wanted her to come back to my hotel for a massage. I again respectfully and gently declined her offer, as I didn’t want to bring her any further down than she already appeared to be. (Actually, when I returned to my hotel later that night and stopped at the front desk to retrieve my room key, the male clerk behind the counter leaned forward and asked in a slightly lowered voice if I wanted to a have girl sent up to my room.) I imagined the sense of rejection and isolation that she must have been feeling at that point and really felt bad for her, and did not wanting to simply turn my back on her and coldly walk.

I told her that I was going to grab a beer somewhere, and asked her if she wanted to sit with me and have something to drink, and mentioned that nothing beyond a bit of conversation would occur between us. She agreed to a drink under the established conditions, and led me to a nearby restaurant and bar owned by a local woman that she said she had become somewhat acquainted with since arriving in town. We sat at one of the outdoor tables next to a wooden railing that demarcated that boundary between the restaurant and a similar establishment next door, and right off the bat we began to receive some quizzical, if not suspicious, looks from a middle-aged Caucasian couple seated at the table next to us. When the waitress arrived, I ordered an Angkor Beer and Madam S. decided on a Coke. After a brief moment of somewhat uncomfortable silence (made more so by the continual sideways glances from our neighbors to the left, we began what I figured would be a conversation of casual chit-chat and small talk that soon evolved into a sad recounting (if it is to be believed) of how she ended up offering her body for money on the streets.

She told me that she was from a village that was about a two-hour drive north of Siem Reap. She had been impregnated by a guy who subsequently walked out on her; she decided to keep the baby and raise it with the help of her family members, but had a miscarriage later in the pregnancy. History would later repeat, and she found herself again pregnant with a biological father that refused to stick around; she later gave birth to a daughter and had been raising her at her mother’s house. Given the financial hard times that her family was going through, she made the decision to leave her daughter under the care of her mother and move to Siem Reap. She figured that she would make enough as a prostitute to be able send money home to support her daughter and family, but had yet to be hired by a customer. At that point in her story, her voice began to tremble as tears formed in her eyes; she paused, and with a sniff brushed the corners of her eyes with a fingertip. I told her that I was sorry to hear what she was going through, and she responded with smile and a nervous giggle as if embarrassed that she had let her emotions come to the surface.

As if feeling a bit relieved after venting some of her sadness, her mood seemed to suddenly become more upbeat. She talked of her hope that through working the street she would meet a well-off Western tourist that would fall in love with her, marry her and take her away to a better life; she added that she hoped it would be an American, because she really wanted to live in America. As if on cue, and leading me to wonder if her tale of woe was in fact truthful or if I was just being played, she then gazed up at me with bedroom eye and a playful smile and asked if I wanted a massage from her. I told her no, and that we were just sitting here talking over a drink because I was showing her a bit of kindness, and that I was not here to negotiate for her services. As I said that to her, I glanced to my left and saw that the couple at the next table had been listening to our conversation, and were giving us dirty looks. By that time, we had finished our drinks and I had figured that it was time to call it a night and return to my hotel, as I would be up early in the morning to watch a sunrise over Angkor Wat Temple. I paid our tab and we walked out to the street; at the end of the block, we shook hands and I wished her good luck before we parted company. Our paths never crossed during my subsequent final night is Siem Reap, and I wondered if she had yet to close a deal with her first customer, or if she would soon give up and head back to her home village and her family empty-handed.

Despite the continual poverty, lingering hardships and ongoing healing of wounds (both physical and emotional) for the Cambodian people in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge and years of civil war, I found Cambodia to be a beautiful and fascinating country, and the Cambodian people to be warm, friendly and very welcoming to the traveler interested in their rich history and culture.