This has probably become the most often quoted proposition of my life, courtesy of both the fact that I rarely get propositioned, as well as the flood of multi-lingual tuk tuk drivers vying for foreign custom in Siem Reap. Rav was waiting for me this afternoon in a sea of tuk tuks calling to me hopefully, as I gave the customary wave of a waist-height hand to indicate no, then said “no because my friend is waiting for me”. A jocular driver replied with a teasing and high pitched question as Rav put his helmet on and I climbed into the carriage, “He is your friend?!”. Amused at his sense of the ridiculous I replied “Tya” laughingly. There’s nothing like winning over customers with a good dose of humour.
We drove into Pub St and I was about to text Kim when he appeared from over the road, carrying his basket of books. He got in the carriage with me and we drove over to his small rented room. As we pulled in his wife was sitting at her sewing machine in the open shuttered, barred front window space. Their youngest daughter spoke to me in clear English “Hello, how are you?” as both girls smiled shyly at me from the sides of their mother. We sat on the floor and she spoke to the girls, one of whom jumped up and, bowing low as she walked through the circle, disappeared for a few minutes. She returned with a coconut speared in the centre top with a straw in place and sliced flat on the bottom, placing it like a large cup on the floor before me. Bottles of water were pulled out of the plastic eskie beside the only bed and given to each of the adults. I looked on the wall ahead of me to the unexpected sight of a typed piece of paper taped above the sewing machines which read “Donations by Madame Helen from Australia”!
I asked how the sewing venture was going and his wife held up a small girls’ dress, explaining via Rav’s translation that the dressmaker employing her had brought it to the house this morning and asked her to replicate it with the supplied material. I asked how much she would earn making these elastic-chested sundresses and was told that she would be given 1/3 of the cost, which comes to 500 riel. That is US12c. Twelve cents per completed dress. Cambodia continues to hurl surprises at me on a daily basis.
We sat talking casually for perhaps half an hour, before leaving the family behind and heading back to the tourist-centred Old Market where Rav left me for a few hours of cruising the shops and reading my book under a ceiling fan in a cafe. As I left the cafe, a young woman in rags carrying a baby drinking milk from a bottle came my way and followed me briefly, asking for assistance with “I want to get milk for my baby”. I said sorry and kept walking. Then I thought better of it and walked back to find her but she had disappeared up one of the alleyways. Why is a young poor woman using bottled milk and not breastfeeding, I wonder? Where do they sleep and how does she survive day-in, day-out? What lies ahead for her baby and for her?
At the next corner a hand propelled bicycle-trolley contraption appeared with a walled carriage upon which a message was painted in both French and English about not wanting to beg, then going on to describe in some way, his need. I did not get a clear picture of the driver’s disability from within his carriage, but it seemed similar to the young man I’d seen earlier, walking along on his hands, with small feet protruding from each stumped thigh – the look of a thalidomide disability. Was thalidomide ever used in Cambodia? It is more likely that these are victims of Agent Orange, a chemical used indiscriminately by the American military during the Vietnam War. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, a thickly forested series of jungle pathways extending from North Vietnam, through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam, was used by the Vietcong to transport supplies and troops. America smothered the region with aerial sprays of Agent Orange (named for the orange stripe on the drums it was carried in), to denude the jungle canopies and give their warplanes visibility of human movement. The chemical breaks down into dioxin, a poison which has been linked to many human diseases and birth defects. Decades later, children continue to be born in the areas affected, with serious birth defects. The Vietnames Red Cross claim that a million children in Vietnam alone are living with physical deformities and mental disorders caused by Agent Orange.
The impact of Agent Orange on Cambodia’s people is largely unknown, but the following brief explanation is interesting, as much for the insight into the power differential between countries as for the questionably deviant morals of America’s National Security Advisor during the Vietnam War, Henry Kissinger:
Unlike Laos, Cambodia was not systematically sprayed. There was likely some mist drift into Cambodia as areas close to the border in Vietnam were sprayed. The one recorded direct spraying of herbicides in Cambodia took place from April 18–May 2, 1969, when 173,000 acres of French and Cambodian rubber plantations in Kampong Cham Province in Cambodia were sprayed. 24,000 of these acres were seriously damaged. The spraying took place at night and it was unclear who carried out the spraying, but it was not believed to be by the US Air Force. Evidence points to CIA and Air America aircraft. In 1969, the Cambodian government filed a claim for $12.2 million in damages. Though we never admitted we were responsible, we made plans to pay the claim to promote “broader interests.” Henry Kissinger, at the time the National Security Advisor, attempted to delay paying the claim until FY1972, writing “Every effort should be made to avoid the necessity for a special budgetary request to provide funds to pay this claim.”
While talking with Rav and Kim earlier, I learned that while Kim’s home is a little way out of town, making transport an issue for his work looking for sales in the central tourist area, it is peaceful for his family situation. Others “like him” (disabled), said Rav, live closer to town but they drink alcohol and it’s noisy and not so safe. Kim says that his long driveway, which appears to house at least eight other families in similar small adjoining rooms of two long buildings, is safe and quiet, with a landlord who does not accept disruptive tenants and that this is important for his family life. His girls are neatly presented, clean and pretty, just as most impoverished people here are – a tribute to their parents’ love and responsibility despite such difficult circumstances. Clearly, as with the disadvantaged communities I have worked with in Australia, not everyone copes as well with their difficulties as Kim, with alcohol and hopelessness affecting at least some of the beggars who Rav says “come from other places because of the tourists”.
Perhaps the appeal of Siem Reap is it’s parallels with Central Australia? The absurd blend of humour with hardship, affable yet penniless characters, international tourists alongside local vagrants and the markets of art, craft and entertainment targeting visitors with money.