Children of Angkor
Siem Reap, Cambodia
The children of Cambodia are a strange commodity. Parents only coddle a child until it is three or four, after that the child is like a kite that is cut. They run the streets, form little gangs, hang out on street corners and peddle the tourists for cash. There are no such things as child labor laws and all children in Cambodia work in some way, even if it is just by being cute.
Street beggars are usually accompanied by their children and training starts early. Every child learns to say 'hello' as early as they learn to say 'mom'. Parents prod their children to talk to the tourists and as soon as they learn to hold out their hand and look forlorn, they are contributing family members. Proffered little hands. The children of Southeast Asia bring in a lot of cash. The average Cambodian makes $30 a month. Every time a foreigner pushes a dollar into a child's palm it is the equivalent of her father's twelve hour work day. Household income can easily be subsidized by a child's influence on western visitors; chubby cheeks draw a dollar ten times faster than a missing limb. In Laos an outstretched hand is always accompanied by a gleeful, “Sabaidee! Money?” In Vietnam a child babbles on and on in Vietnamese while tugging at your sleeve, touching your hands and generally patting you down. But in Cambodia, begging for cash is pure art.
There are child beggars everywhere in Cambodia, but there is no better demonstration of the art of soliciting tourists than at the Temples of Angkor. The temples themselves are gorgeous: A crumbling, ancient relic attesting to the greatness of an empire lost. But behind the brick columns, wandering the galleries and leaning against the bas reliefs are hundreds of kids: book-laden, post-card-carrying children who demonstrate how sales training from the age of two will breed superb pushers.
By the second day of touring Angkor the temples are starting to blur and blend. Outside of the main gallery is a cluster of kids with fistfuls of postcards. They follow on my heels, imploring in their child voices, “You buy from me? Ten postcards. One dollar.” I settle onto a fallen section of wall in a crumbled courtyard and this is an invitation. They gather around forming a semi-circle from my right elbow to my left and begin their pitch. It is a cacophony of tiny voices that after a few minutes begin to synchronize into something like a child choir. They are counting their ten postcards. “1, 2, 3…” They progress from one to ten, first in English, then French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Thai. I am amazed. I point to one tiny girl standing in front of me and ask her to sing a solo. I pull out my camera and record her counting in her child's soprano. She goes through every tongue and I start her on another: Vietnamese. She gets as high as six and falters. She cannot remember seven. I tease her and laugh and she cocks her head shyly and puts her ear on her shoulder. She has not yet perfected her sales pitch; she can only count as high as her age in Vietnamese. I purchase her postcards.
In every temple there is a different crew of kids selling stuff. Once the temples become monotonous and similar, there are children waiting everywhere to liven things up with their friendly chat and offered goods. Walking between temples on the third day I encounter a little girl who begins with the usual, “Please, sir! You buy from me, sir! Only one dollar! Sir!” She sings her sales pitch and ends every sentence with a little upward kick to her voice so she sounds like she's chanting. I ask her questions and she doesn't cease with her begs while I'm talking, she only continues on. I ask her, “Why aren't you in school?”
“I go to school already in the morning. Please, sir! You buy from me sir!”
“Where are your parents?”
“My parents working. Please, sir! You buy from me sir!”
“I don't want ten bracelets.”
“Okay, you buy only one, I give you nine free. Please, sir! You buy from me sir! Only one dollar!”
She follows me for a kilometer with her voice trailing out behind us and before she finally turns back I think if her creativity and innovation, determination and persistence were applied in my world, she would be a smashing success.
But she lives in Cambodia where kids are free agents and if you start asking, `Where are the parents?' the most likely answer is: They're working. Just like the kids. Of course, working in Cambodia isn't the same as it is in western countries. There are no morning lattes, traffic-jam rides to the office in a hulking SUV or pesky managers that are incessantly dive-bombing your cubicle to “make sure you got the memo” in Cambodia. Work in Cambodia is pure Maslow. Westerners have met every survival basic, including the need for Play Station and Cosmo, and are still wallowing around the third tier between love/belonging and status/esteem needs. Of course, there is the occasional glance up at self-actualization/transcendence, but for the most part there is contentment in having an ultra-green lawn and a deck to admire it from. For Cambodians it's first tier: Air, water, food and sleep are still priority number one. Cambodian children are fighting for the basics at the first tier while being sledge hammered from the second tier where their safety is being constantly undermined by their value as members of a profitable group; they are children and in Cambodia, kids still bring in a lot of cash.
Update: As one of our readers pointed out, this story might not be clear in stating the negative effects of giving money to child beggars. We strongly encourage others to contribute in more meaningful ways that help end the cycle of poverty rather than encourage it.