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Child’s play in Cambodia

by Julie Baxter | 25 January 2017

Six sets of serious, sad eyes stare up at us as we step off the bus. Beguiling faces with big brown eyes the size of walnuts imploring us with their innocence as small dusty hands reach out to us with a fists full of postcards, fridge magnets, bamboo pipes and assorted sundries we really don’t want.

They are small and endearing, and so, so serious. Cambodian kids who are politely persistent and oh so earnest with a sales patter in broken English that is quite simply irresistible. The line that finally has me reaching for my purse is: “I like you. Help me go school”. It’s a deal, I’m in, magnets, postcards I really don’t care what, please, just let me hand over my money. I’m smitten and I have, in short, been had.

Of course I have been but I really don’t mind. I am part of a tourism ‘game’ and the joy of watching those serious youngsters go to work on me and my fellow tourists is one of those authentic experiences independent travellers crave - the type that makes you smile months after the encounter is over. They make their serious desperate sale and then moments later they are laughing and smiling, jumping on their smart bikes and back to their game of footie.

These kids aren’t hungry, not even poor in relative terms. They live close to a popular tourist temple and are well-rehearsed, professional trader apprentices, getting their practice in just feet away from their stall holder parents. When I ask our guide why they aren’t in school, he reminds me of the time. We’ve been up since before dawn to see the sun rise over the temples – school doesn’t start for at least another two hours, so it’s not that they can’t afford to go, these kids are just doing their chores - cleaning us out of our spare dollars before the school run routine begins.

And this gentle and delightful ‘scam’ kind of sums up Cambodia. You think you’re seeing one thing, then suddenly something completely different is revealed.

You think, for example, you’re looking at solid ancient ruins, then you realize, that’s not rock it’s a massive deeply embedded live tree trunk. You think you’re being offered a grubby, charred stick you really don’t want, then you realize it’s a hollowed cane packed with a deliciously sweet sticky-rice street treat.

You think you’re looking at the poverty of ramshackle, chaotic stilt villages set along the river, then you realize many have satellite TV dishes and the kids passing by boat are immaculately dressed in the freshly laundered white shirts and navy skirts of their school uniform. You think you’re chatting to a charming, well educated successful professional guide, then you realize he, like so many in this country, is carrying the scars of a traumatic and desperate past as he talks to you in hushed tones of Pol Pot and terrible loss.

Tourism is a life force pumping energy and enthusiasm into a nation whose heritage assets are as awe-inspiring as its traumas have been awful. At its heart is the vast temple complex of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world (402 acres) – which does not disappoint. And alongside are other honeypot sites such as Angkor Thom, complete with giant smiling faces carved in rock; and atmospheric Ta Prohm, reclaimed from the jungle; there are the floating villages of Tonle Sap lake and the shocking memorials of the Killing Fields.

All are fascinating in their own way and all are driving on an entrepreneurial spirit and a nation’s lust for a better future nowhere better symbolized by those cheeky child traders whose crafty dark arts of commerce actually made my day.

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