The OBSERVER (Dunkirk, New York, USA)
"You buy. Jus' one dolla'."
I think these are the first words most children are taught in Siem Reap, perhaps in most of Cambodia. Staring up at you with big olive eyes, their little rosebud mouths repeating this phrase desperately, tourists are welcomed by beautiful children holding whatever thing their parents tell them to carry: postcards, bracelets, snakes ...
It's nearly impossible to say "no" to them. I thought, "It's just a dollar." But I quickly learned that it was not good to encourage their begging. A dam opens up once you give one of them money. More and more and more children drop out of trees, wiggle out of crawlspaces in walls, run down the street, each clutching their prized knick knack.
"You buy! You buy! Jus' one dolla'!" They chant. After a few minutes, all of the children began to blur into one compound child, afflicted with itself, betrayed by itself.
"They're parents keep them from going to school," one of our tour guides explained. From the time a baby is born until about 12 years old, their parents put her or him on display, all day in the heat and sun, in order to make quick cash. After that - after the child's cuteness runs dry - they roam the streets jobless, hungry, uneducated and entering puberty.
Our first full day in Cambodia was one of the heaviest days of my life; never have I witnessed such extreme poverty.
Siem Reap is famous for being the gateway to the many breathtaking temples of Angkor. Thankfully we were there during low season so the streets weren't packed with tourists; we got to experience a more authentic atmosphere.
The muddy, pothole streets started bustling around 7 a.m. with people keen to run their errands before the hot sticky hours of afternoon cascade into thick humid nights. There was a sweet, mousy smell of urine, jasmine flower, earth, illness and fried food in the air. The sun snuck like a bright rodent into the smallest and grimmest holes, sizzling all of these scents from 10 a.m. until about 4; one wears an ocean of sweat wherever one wanders.
Many of life's joys and afflictions were on parade there: a woman with a knife wound recently delivered to her chest by a jealous lover; a man in a straw hat holding the elbow of a pregnant woman; two men exchanging staccato accusations, while their hands made small slashes in the air; a motorbike with two substantial burr-like puffs on either side: live ducks strung together by their feet, on their way to market; a mother several years my junior sitting in the shade of a banana tree off the side of the road, nursing a baby (whose mouth appeared to be cleft lipped), in her eyes the narcotic of her love.
Christina and I (Song went to Bangkok, Thailand to catch a flight back to South Korea) arrived to Cambodia around dusk on Wednesday. For only $21/night we stayed at the luxurious Wooden Angkor - a four-story hotel resembling a palace. To enter we walked across smoothed white stones, pathed down the center of a gold-fish pond. Once inside we were received by staff with wide smiles on their faces, palms pressed firmly together in front of their chests, and slight bows. They took our bags, provided us with cold, drinkable, water and tiger balm-infused cold cloths.
Because of two long days of hellish traveling from Koh Samui to Cambodia, Christina and I celebrated our safe arrival with a seafood feast and two-hour full-body massages (which cost us $20 total).
After a night of much-needed relaxation and sleep, the following morning we signed up to take a boat tour of the floating village, Chong Khneas.
The country's Great Lake, Boeung Tonle Sap, is the most prominent feature on the map of Cambodia: a huge dumbbell-shaped body of water stretching across the northwest region. In the wet season, it's one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia, swelling to 12,000 km2. During the dry half of the year (this time of year) the Lake shrinks to as small as 2500 km2.
At the edge of the lake, closest and most accessible to Siem Reap, are towering stilted houses, huge fish traps, markets, clinics, schools, and restaurants ... all of which are floating on gravy-colored water. At first it was visually stunning: the bright yellows, greens, blues and reds; the villagers oaring here and there. "What a peaceful life," I smiled to myself, "living literally on the water." But my naivete was nipped the moment we docked.
Three children - two girls and one boy, all around six-years-old - floated toward us in what appeared to be large tin bowls. They wore straw hats and were carrying nets of various wildlife: a baby crocodile, a cobra. They were meant to impress us. Again they implored for just a dollar. Even though I knew better, they plucked my heartstrings and I gave them each 1,000 riel (about 20 cents). Apparently this was not sufficient; the eldest, a girl, ripped the bill into bits and repeated, "You bad person."
There is a code of basic facial expressions that all humans share - happiness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust - which are recognizable to people from different cultures, who speak different languages, who've never met, who have nothing in common. It was this moment that I realized that the people of Cambodia looked at us one of two ways: with excitement (You'll give me money!) or loathing (You're the reason I live this way).
Floating on a boat nearby was a beautiful young Vietnamese mother and her 1-year-old. She scooped up a handful of water and brought it to her mouth to sip, and then her son's. She removed his dirty cloth diaper and rinsed it in the same water - the Lake triples as drinking water, bath, and latrine. The two then made their way to a different tourist boat filled with Japanese people. She handed the boy a net of bananas and sat him at the tip of the boat, right near the ledge so they could get good pictures. He looked adorable, she begged.
I still don't know what my facial expression was at that moment.
Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to email@example.com