Monks on Motorbikes

Siem Reap is a bustling hive of tourism and wealth.  Unless you are not a tourist, or one of the privileged minority benefiting from the tourism, in which case it is a bustling hive of desperation and poverty.  Either way, it is a busy, vibrant place, situated 5km from the historic Angkorian temples made famous by Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world.  Many other equally historic and spectacular Hindu-Buddhist temples are centred around Angkor Wat, built by different Khmer rulers between the 9th and 12th centuries.  For hundreds of years this was the centre of the Khmer Kingdom.  Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site of 400km sq, attracting upwards of 2 million people annually from across Cambodia and around the world, for it’s historic, artistic, spiritual and cultural significance.

In one of the world’s poorest countries, the wealth of Siem Reap has attracted many Cambodian people to the city in hope of penetrating through the glass ceiling of ubiquitous poverty.  Even in the capital of Phnom Penh I have not seen such flagrant and palpable wealth surrounded on all sides by such flagrant and palpable hardship, although it certainly exists there too.  Designer clothes shops, market places filled with souvenirs and beautiful wares of silk and silver see tourists and beggars mingling together.  Some of the sellers and beggars have confronting disabilities such as traumatic blindness and missing body parts.  It is probably safe to assume that most of these are victims of the enduring presence of unexploded landmines, which continue to kill and maim over 200 people per year (mostly young boys).  Cambodia has the highest ratio of amputees in the world, courtesy of mines laid to defend or instil fear and carnage in areas affected by a complicated story of war and violence stretching across three decades from the 1970s, involving Vietnam, America and the infamous genocidal Khmer Rouge regime led by the psychopathic Pol Pot.

I first came to Siem Reap last month on holiday with family visiting from New Zealand and France.  Despite being all-too familiar with the poverty that pervades everyday life in Cambodia, I was confronted by the catastrophic suffering seen here, which exists in such concentration because of the equally visible wealth.  Blind men being led by small boys begging, maimed and mutilated men trying to sell trinkets or books, tiny women with thin babies strapped around their bodies.

To be blatantly affluent in a place like this was, for me, not a comfortable experience.  Pure luck of birth led me to being who I am, where I am, with what I have.  Nothing more and nothing less than pure luck that I was born in a country that happens to have flourished during and beyond my youth.  No country and no population is safe from the devastation that unexpected events such as war, famine and psychotic leadership can provoke.  Prior to the 1970s Cambodia was known as “The Pearl of Asia”, with a prosperous and educated population.  In 1975 the Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh of it’s 2.5 million inhabitants, marching everyone into the countryside and killing anyone with an education (identified by such things as an ability to read, to speak English or French, or merely someone wearing reading glasses).  When Cambodia was liberated (a very generous term for what actually happened) in 1979, only around 300 Cambodians with a higher education remained alive.

One of the people we met in Siem Reap last month is a landmine victim who approached us with a basket of books and postcards hooked over his arm, hoping to sell us something.  We did not want any wares, but we gave him $1 which he exchanged for an A4 page with his story typed out in English.  It was a sad yet uplifting story of hardship and strength, and one which I felt affected by enough to want to engage with him.

We began communicating, first by email and subsequently by texts and telephone calls with my translator.  He has a small family who he struggles to support due to the loss of a lower leg, a lower arm and most of his other hand in a landmine explosion when he was 13 years old.  There is no social security back up in Cambodia, so if you don’t work, you don’t receive money.  As one of my colleagues said recently, “when Cambodian people don’t have food, we die”.  Money is perhaps less necessary in the countryside, where subsistence farming at least provides most with access to rice and other food.  In the cities this is not the case.

After a month or more of brief communications I decided to return to Siem Reap and meet “Kim” <not his real name>.  Part of his story is that in recent times he has been unwell and unable to sell in the streets, where he is often unsuccessful due to the reduced number of tourists in recent years, as well as the police presence which controls his movements near the more tourist-heavy areas.  It transpired during our communications that his wife can sew and has been offered the opportunity to work for someone, but needs her own sewing machine in order to work from home, which they do not have the means to obtain.  Helping them to purchase a sewing machine was an idea I thought I might be able to assist with.

He nominated a meeting place for us and I made my way there at the designated time.  As I was texting to let him know I had arrived, I heard a voice from over the road call out “Hello Madame!”, and turned to find him beaming, with his disfigured arms outstretched towards me.  A group of tuk tuk drivers were lazing on the corner undercover of one of their vehicles, in quiet conversation.  He approached them and after some discussion, returned with one of them, saying “he speak good English”.  I needed a translator and had been concerned about how this might play out, not wanting to breach confidentiality.  Telephone translation with my translator back in Kampong Cham was the solution that I had come up with, which Win had agreed happily to.  But Rav <not his real name>, chosen by Kim for the purpose, turned out to be the perfect solution.  A young and intelligent man who has befriended and helped Kim over the years that they have both been working around Pub Street with the tourists.  The communal spirit which exists in spades between my colleagues, is starting to emerge in my consciousness as a Cambodian spirit of mutual understanding between people who all share and understand the same struggles in life.  The workers around Pub Street clearly also share this strong and uplifting bond.

A very short ride out of the town centre, we pulled into a long driveway behind some local shops leading to a dusty yard in front of a small group of homes.  Kim, his wife and two young children, rent a downstairs room in one of these buildings.  They were expecting us and came out to greet me, welcoming me into their very small, very humble abode.  Outside the door sits the expected wooden bed base on one side and steps leading to the upstairs neighbour on the other, with another entrance door on the other side of the stairs, so three families in equally small spaces all just one wall or floor/ceiling away from each other.  Kim’s home for four people is about the size of my bedroom for one.  String is tacked to opposite walls and suspended across the centre of the room, with a strip of red satin material hanging from it, providing a curtain across the bottom of the bed which doubled as a face camouflage for his shy daughter in my presence.  A bed, a desk, a mattress upright against one wall and a small mobile gas hotplate on the floor was everything they had, plus some clothes hanging on hooks behind the door and two pots for cooking.  A door leads into a small bathroom space.  They purchase bottled water for cooking.

A plastic chair was presented for me to sit on and the others all sat on the floor.  We sat talking about life in general, my life in Australia, my experiences of Cambodia, where they come from, when they came to Siem Reap and why, their landlord who is a good person, where the children go to school, the business owner who wants Kim’s wife to sew for them if she is able to source a sewing machine.  The 12yo daughter showed me her English text book and they explained to me that she is learning to read and write English but cannot yet speak in English.  She goes to the government school in the morning, then a private school in the afternoon for English lessons, which costs money of course.

It was a relaxed and interesting hour or more.  When I suggested that I would like to help them with the purchase of a sewing machine some conversation ensued in Khmer, which Rav then translated to me.  Rather than take my money, they wanted to take me to the shop and choose a machine with me.  All in agreement, the children were left at home and we boarded Rav’s tuk tuk through the crowded streets to a local market across town.  Rav somehow managed to manoeuvre his tuk tuk through the gridlock of cars, bikes, trucks and pedestrians outside the huge market.  He instructed us out before moving into a tiny parking space and the four of us headed into the heaving covered market.  Through crowded rows of clothing, material, kitchenware, fruit, vegetables, fresh meat, jewellery, past sewing machinists who Rav obtained occasional directions from, we weaved in and out of the undercover alleyways, then back out onto a small laneway and over the road, under the protective leadership of Rav all the way, where we found the shop we were looking for.

Many big, old and clunky second hand sewing machines sit on shelves in this tiny shopfront and Kim’s wife identified two as possible contenders.  One was more expensive and made in Japan, the other cheaper but made in China.  I said I was happy to purchase the Japanese one, as I know they are better quality.  Rav then stepped in and while I did not understand the Khmer being spoken, I understood the body language and he was bartering for a better price, pointing to Kim’s disability for sympathy and suggesting they could do better than the discount offered.  Ten percent later a receipt was being written and the address recorded for delivery of the machine, which comes installed in it’s own table.

Back on the tuk tuk we headed out of the marketplace and back to Kim’s home where everyone including the children thanked me with genuine affection.  Mum then turned on the gas hotplate and fried some tiny finger sized fish which she first offered to me before serving the children with a large plate of rice, and they sat on the floor eating with their hands.  It was at this stage of the conversation that I also learned a little about Rav who was born in 1980, a year after the Khmer Rouge.  He is an obviously intelligent young man, who loved school but was only able to attend from 11yo until 15yo, after which he moved to Siem Reap hoping to make money.  He learned English and was good at it, in his school days, and after a short time working as a motorbike driver with locals he realised that he would make better money working with tourists as a tuk tuk driver, which he has done ever since.  A wife and two very young children at home, he has good days “when I take the tourists to the temples” and bad days “when I make no money”.  He has known Kim for a long time and has great sympathy for his plight.

Shortly after we drove back to Pub Street and said our farewells.  The saying that when you help others, the person you help the most is yourself, could not ring more true as I walked away from my new friends feeling like the world had just improved a little thanks to a very simple deed from me, in turn offering me such an interesting and inclusive experience of the real Cambodia.  I may not get to see the temples during this visit to Siem Reap, but I have experienced something at least as worthwhile.

Monks on motorbikes are a common sight in Cambodia
Monks on motorbikes are a common sight in Cambodia
Orange clad monk with yellow umbrella, Siem Reap

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