If I had not been even slightly prepared for what to expect on our journey from Suwannaphum to Siem Reap, Cambodia, Nicole and I would have undoubtedly spent the last five hours in sheer panic, wondering if our overpaid driver actually was taking us to our intended destination.
We crossed the border at Chong Chom/O’Smack, a place not frequented by foreigners, dealing first with overly friendly Thai officials (they offered us delicious fried bananas and made light conversation) and then with the Cambodian border patrol whose first request was money. In hindsight, it was a clear sign of the begging we were about to encounter.
We walked across the borderline, setting our first steps onto Cambodian soil, and were immediately approached by “taxi” drivers eager to take us wherever we wanted to go – for a price. We bargained hard and finally succumbed to sharing a man’s personal car with two other locals.
Crammed in the backseat of a several-decades-old Toyota Camry with poor air conditioning, our bags tucked neatly around the smelly gas tank in the trunk, we crossed our fingers and tried not to think of the worst.
We drove, in awkward silence and sweating profusely, through rice fields on either side as far as the eye could see, passing not one city in five hours.
But we arrived. Safely.
They dropped us at the town center, which was a bustling downtown area packed with restaurants, cafes and bars with tourists strolling every section of the tuk-tuk lined pavement.
Children bombarded us with various goods they were selling for $1 USD – the preferred currency. But unlike the thousands of tuk-tuk drivers also vying for our business, the poor, sweet children didn’t take no for an answer. They followed us down the street and stood at our table while we ate, saying “please, miss, it’s only a dollar,” with sad looks on their faces.
Once, I fell for the little boy who bumped into me in the night, catching me off guard and causing me to scream. He told me he needed money to buy milk for himself and his baby brother. I told him I would take him to the store and buy it for him. He then grabbed my hand, led me across the street to the local grocery market, walked directly to the third isle, bottom shelf and grabbed the largest can of dry, powdered milk they carried.
“No, I’ll buy fresh milk,” I insisted, to which he replied the baby couldn’t have it. The price tag on the canned stuff read $28.00, and Nicole informed me he was just going to come back and return it later. I felt terrible saying no to him after all of that, but I gave him the $3 I had in my wallet and wished him good luck, trying not to think of the starving baby as I walked away (I’m such a sucker).
While we were eating lunch the next day, an adorable little girl came by, selling the book, First They Killed my Father, by Loung Ung. She was quite persistent, and though I really wanted to read Ung’s personal account of the bloodshed she survived during Pol Pot’s regime, I told her no. But when she proceeded to tell me she has to pay $13 each month to go to school and learn English, she hit a weak spot. I traded $4 for the book and made her promise to stay in school.
After reading it (one chapter at a time to prevent tears), I learned the begging started long before tourism did. When you have absolutely nothing, you have no choice. Ms. Ung used to be middle class, before the Khmer Rouge took over her country. She lived in the capital city, Phnom Penh, and even at a young age she remembers giving to the poor street children who had much less than her.
It was unreal to see the reality of Ung’s story first hand. To read a personal account from one of the few survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s Hitler-like actions, and to actually see the things she writes about, such as a glass box filled with skulls from the thousands who didn’t survive (a miniature version of The Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, which we did not have time to see) made my visit to Cambodia both very sad and extremely memorable. Of course, it wasn’t all sad, but those moments tend to leave an impression.
The horror this country suffered not even 40 years ago is devastating, and they are on a very slow road to recovery. As much as I don’t want to support begging children, after finishing the book, I no longer feel guilty for doing so.
In Cambodia, they really do need that $1.