Children are everywhere. There are so few old or even middle-aged people. And that’s because of the genocide by the Khmer Rouge during the 70’s as well as the decades of civil war. And I wonder how it could’ve happened to such a gentle people.
Like most developing countries, children have to work to help support their families. These were the ways children made money, that I observed. Selling books, postcards, bracelets, flutes, fabrics and clothes. Peddling drinks. Giving ad hoc tours. Putting a flower ring on tourist hands and asking for a donation. Posing for pictures. Outright begging.
On the first day of the new year, we went to Sras Srang, a ritual platform overlooking a baray, or reservoir, to watch the sunrise. We were beset by children trying to sell us coffee, postcards and bracelets. The sunrise was lovely despite the commercial atmosphere. We walked along the stone-lined reservoir and sat down at various places, to get away from the crowds and view the sunrise at different angles.
There was one boy who sold books who had a smile like one of my friends. He had an open inquisitive confident expression and I thought at that moment that I should talk to him. His name is Chani. And this is part of what transpired.
Wind: Do you live here by the temple?
Chani: My village is over there in the forest (pointing towards the sun rising over thick trees). Where are you from?
You look like Chinese or Japanese.
Well, there are many kinds of Americans. Not just the white ones who come to Cambodia.
Yes, like Black people.
There are many Cambodians who are Americans too.
Yes, many come here. From France too.
Do they speak Khmer?
Yes, no problem. But they’re rich. All Americans are rich. They are lucky.
But they pay money to come here. Maybe you’re the lucky one.
But I can’t travel to America. No money.
Well, this country is very beautiful. I live in a big city with too many people, too many ugly buildings. You have this beautiful baray to look at all day.
Yes. I am lucky too.
When did so many people start visiting here?
Maybe five years ago. (Shrugs his shoulders.) It’s safer now, so more people come every year.
It’s incredible. So many new hotels everywhere. Some are so expensive. You must sell a lot of books.
Yes, but the very rich people never buy anything from us. They look at the temples. Only talk to their guides, not us. So how about this book. It has great pictures of the sunrise. You can have your picture and this picture too (opening to a page of a sunrise over Sras Srang).
It’s a very nice book (looking through it). Where do you get these?
Someone comes here (gesturing to the road), and we buy them.
Do you make a lot of money selling them?
Drivers make more. Guides too.
Really? How much do they make?
I don’t know.
You would be a great guide. You’re very friendly, great smile and your English is good. Where did you learn it?
In school. Our village has an elementary school and a junior high school. But the high school is in Siem Reap.
What do you study there?
English, science, mathematics, history…(he lists a series of subjects). But English is the most important to make money.
So how much is this book? You said $3?
No, only the Lonely Planet Guidebook. Not many pictures. That one’s $12.
Wow, that’s a lot of money. These picture books are $5 in Siem Reap.
Really? Okay how about $10?
Hmm. Well, I enjoyed talking to you. But I don’t need this book. Can I take a picture of you for $1?
You can take the picture for free. I don’t mind. (He looked a bit deflated.)
Well I don’t mind paying.
Why don’t you buy this book, and take a picture. $7. (He smiles mischievously.)
Alright. You got a deal.
We shook hands and I wished him good luck in his studies. Chani had a different approach than other kids. He wasn’t aggressive or gave the sad pleading eyes. He came with a big bright smile, like he was happy to be selling books, happy to be meeting people, maybe to practice English. He laughed at what he thought were our similar hairstyles. And when we started chatting he just sat down next to us and watched the sunrise with us. His English was surprisingly accurate and he understood almost everything I said. If fate had me born in Cambodia he’d be the kind of kid I’d want to be.