By Rachel Kurzyp
December 15, 2010
Children skip and run pulling at their clothes, re-adjusting them against the heavy crates hung around their necks. The crates made of wood with material straps are every Phnom Phen child’s fashion accessory. The contents of the crates vary from child to child some piled high with books, others with scarves, jewellery, fruit and even soft drinks. Sticking in groups, the children play, giggle and sing in between their sales pitches and chats with the tourists that fill the pubs on the lake side of the city.
The lakeside is less expensive then the riverside where all the new buildings and hotels have erupted leaving bamboo scaffolding, bricks, cement residue and rubbish at their bases. Its home to the back packers and budget travellers who are looking for the all day ‘cheap cheap’ drink deals and a variety of ‘western food.’ The children congregate in this area of the city not only because selling is easier at midnight when the tourists are staggering to their $4 a night hotels but because they love to listen, play and talk with the individuals who have travelled great distances from a world unlike their own.
The children - often older in age then they look - stand tall, bare feet turned sandy yellow from the dust and dirt they travel on. Those lucky to have flip flops constantly lose them during play, sliding off as they are sizes too big. Most of the children wear t-shirts with tight bands clinging to their upper arms or stretched at the neck causing it to slip off over the shoulder. The boys wear short shorts with pockets ripped off or filled with snacks and interesting items found on the street. Girls wear long skirts, constantly pulling them up so they can follow the boys up and onto the building rubble or onto a stool next to a newly made friend in a pub.
All children are blessed with the smoothest polished brown eyes, deep chocolaty coloured skin and thick frizz-free black hair, ideal for the hot climate of Cambodia. Close up you notice the little imperfections that dot their skin white. The cuts, scratches and scrapes on the knees and elbows assumed to be from climbing the jungle gym created by Cambodia’s building sites and garbage heaps.
The children are left to wander the streets selling and told not to come home until they have sold something. For one girl named Chantrea this is a mango for $1. A mere $1 pays for her ‘moto’ ride saving her a 1.5km walk home balancing the basket of fruit on her head supported by the traditional ‘krama’ scarf. Her daily earnings -throw away money to us- means curried eggs, sticky rice and grass hopper treats carefully picked and savoured in the afternoon’s shadows.
While most of the tourists tell the children to go away or ignore them completely, the curious and the inviting find themselves surrounded by smiling faces, bouts of laughter and the chance to learn who these children really are. Over thumb war games, bottles of Fanta and hair braiding, you discover that most of these children speak and write English at a level that you wouldn’t expect. Say a word and see them spell it in the dust with a stick, or write it on your hand with a pen. Many of the children are sponsored and sent to a private school from 9am-1pm where they learn basic English and Mathematics. Unfortunately this opportunity doesn’t extend to children over 15 years. A 17 year old boy named Han explains how his 13 year old sister has better English than he does: “I’m forgetting how to spell,” he says. His family cannot afford to buy him a bike worth $100 so that he can ride to public school so he no longer goes.
Children as young as six years old challenge tourists to games of pool with the bet being that if they win you must buy an item out of their crate. Most people lose to these amazing children that play like mini pros leaning and stretching across the table to pot the shot. Some individual’s reluctantly hand over money for chilled bottles of Fanta and Coca-Cola or shiny photocopied paged books. Some disgrace themselves and others by refusing to pay and blatantly denying the deal was ever made. Most laugh and congratulate them for their skill, strategy and humour. Han‘s sister Thyda is handed a bottle of Fanta to congratulate her on her win. Beaming with joy she sculls half the bottle in one gulp and then fills an empty glass with the remainder and hands it over to her opponent. “I love Fanta,” she says. Why would she want to share this rare treat? “If I love, you love too.”
What these Khmer children teach you is that Cambodia’s past, filled with unimaginable violence, despair and tragedy are becoming memories, but never forgotten. These children breathe life, strength and most of all hope into their rebuilding country. So, when you see these children skipping towards you, do not be put off by their sales pitch. Sit them down and buy them a drink, and you will gain an insight into a child’s Cambodia.
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