About a month ago an Australian friend sent me money for the express purpose of purchasing a bicycle for Paint’s daughter. He is the disabled carpenter building his own home out in a remote village an hour or so from town, whose adopted daughter died from TB early this year. On Thursday we (me via my translator) rang him and arranged for him to travel to town on his moto contraption to purchase a bicycle. Yesterday morning as arranged, he arrived with both older daughters (the baby was home with her mother). We caught up briefly and then went in convoy – my translator and I on our bicycles, Paint and his daughters on the moto-trailer contraption – to a bicycle shop at Central Market.
Central Market is a haze of semi-organised and very polite chaos, with trucks, cars, motorbikes and horses all mingling in together, no real road rules necessary as everyone watches out for everyone else and traffic slowly but surely moves through the crowded streets around the central building. Outward-facing market stalls are connected to narrow laneways leading to the packed inner market area, where one slightly wider laneway leads motos and cycles to a staffed park area under shabby tarpaulins. The narrow laneways are like a maze winding through this huge block-sized undercover market with crammed stalls spilling out into the alleys with all sorts of produce on sale, much of which is unidentifable to me but including fresh meats and vegetables as well as processed packets of foodstuffs and all kinds of non-food produce.
At the bike shop the girls picked a bicycle each, my translator bartered the price a little for me, liaising between myself, the family and the seller to ensure the tyres were pumped, the price was right, the colour was what the girls wanted, etc. The bikes were then taken to the trailer and lifted on, from where Paint, perched atop, secured both bikes with a long nylon strap, leaving enough room for the girls to sit beside their new bikes. After some more discussion about my plans, when I might see them next, etc, we all headed off in our respective directions. A woman was sitting at a large steel bowl filled with live crickets, pulling the wings off them and disemboweling them with a quick pull at the tail, before throwing them into another bowl ready for sale. Fried crickets are a popular delicacy (which I have no intention of trying!). A motorbike with two dog passengers, their heads poking through the sacks carrying them, drove ahead but thanks to the constant gridlock, I managed a photograph before he stole through a gap in the traffic. Win thought the dogs were pets and not headed towards someone’s barbecue plate, but could not be 100% sure because dog is eaten here, although not to the same extent as in other parts of Asia.
We talked on the way home about our cultural differences and I suggested that Cambodians have to be open minded, because of the realities they are exposed to. For example, I had never seen the wings being pulled off crickets before today, nor pigs being transported to their deaths (let alone being transported upside down on the back of a moto!) before coming to Cambodia. I go to the shop and buy my meat with little thought as to how it got there. Whereas Cambodians are well aware exactly where their food comes from and what it suffered in the name of feeding them. Cambodians are also exposed to extreme poverty which is obvious wherever you look. This provides them with a deeper understanding (not necessarily empathy) about the realities of hardship which is difficult to grasp when it is too far removed from our reality.
Last month Thailand’s military forces overwhelmed the government in a coup de’tat which has had harsh consequences on immigrant labourers from Cambodia, who can earn three times as much in Thailand as they can here, for the same work. This explains why the parents of the homeless girls I speak of, spend years at a time in Thailand while their daughters are being brought up by homeless grandparents in dire circumstances back in Cambodia. I wonder if, along with the 200,000 Cambodian workers who have already fled Thailand in the wake of the military takeover, the girls’ parents may reappear? So far about half of all Cambodian workers in Thailand have returned, which is an enormous strain on an already struggling economy as people leave their only income to return home. Sadly there are many reports of violence and arrest by the Thai military towards illegal workers. Due to the prohibitive costs for Cambodians, of moving to Thailand legally, most labourers move there via illegal channels in order to make money which they can use to support their families. It is not big money in Western terms, a few hundred dollars per month, yet the sacrifice made in order to earn this money is beyond most westerners’ comprehension. The sacrifices made by my national colleagues here in Cambodia also regularly shock me – a large number of whom live away from their often very-young children for weeks at a time in order to earn a few hundred dollars per month to support their families.
Some photographs of workers returning to Cambodia, taken from the Cambodia Daily newspaper, are here: