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More Siem Reap Snippets - Death, damning, departure, and drinking from the tap

CAMBODIA | Sunday, 3 February 2008 | Views [1917]

On being gently and repeatedly murdered:

Every day I spend in Siem Reap I am killed by cuteness.

My hostel has balconies overlooking a busy street. Yesterday I was heading down for breakfast and I stood for a moment to watch the traffic go past. Motorcycles (motos) with girls in long skirts riding sidesaddle. Motos carrying three Cambodians and a baby, all wedged up together. Tiny children on giant bicycles riding to school. Men or women in cone hats pushing carts laden with tiny shellfish, squeezing their little tooty horn to say "tiny shellfish! Get your tiny shellfish!"

I was watching all this when an open truck came past, full of crouching Cambodians, goods and bicycles. These trucks are not elegant traveling solutions: The people are crammed in there, the bicycles are strapped all over, and they drive down the street with their horns blasting to say "big truck'o'Cambodians coming through!".

I smiled. But as if this truck'o'Cambodians wasn't cute enough already, one of the men in the back of the truck saw me smile, and waved at me. It was the semi-automatic wave that you do when you see children in a bus, or when you're watching someone and you unexpectedly meet their eye. It's the wave that you catch yourself doing half way that makes you think "why the hell am I waving?", and then you finish the wave because you're already half way through it anyway. His wave made me smile even more, but then I realised he probably couldn't see my smile, so I also waved awkwardly, but by then he was out of sight.

Killed by cuteness. It's never ending! There's more!

It's the tuk-tuk drivers who jokingly jump on the carrier of your bicycle and then hoot with laughter as you try to pedal both of you down the street, dodging traffic.

It's the girl at the night market who lets you haggle the $4 t-shirt down to $3.50, and then gives you the biggest smile in the world when you decide that 50c isn't actually worth anything to you, and that you'll pay the $4 anyway. Hah! (But you still haggle first because it's your duty to other asshole tourists.) When you've exchanged money she gives you that beautiful gesture of thanks that you see in all these countries: Palms together, fingers at nose level, slight nodding of the head. And it's so cute that you die.

It's the little man at the hostel who is confused by your objection to being called "madame", and who spends the next hour asking what to call a young woman, an older woman, a young man, an older man. It's the look on his face when you tell him to call everyone "mate".

It's the girls at the hostel who greet you with such an enthusiastic "Good morning! How are you?!" each day as you stumble down for breakfast. It's the smiling "yes" which is the answer to everything when they haven't understood you completely.

It's the old man at the temple sitting on the step with his feet in a bucket of water, reading out loud from a book. It's the little girl riding past you on her bicycle as you stand outside the temple looking for photo opportunities who makes eye contact with you and gives you a giant grin and calls out "Hellohowareyou?!" as she rides past, tyres wobbling in the sand.

Every day I'm a gonner.

It's not tiny shellfish, but it was tooting. This is outside the school, hence the little boy with the gender-ambiguous backpack.

Man with his feet in a bucket of water, reading out loud outside Wat Bo. Isn't he cute? Don't you just want to die? I felt like an asshole taking his picture, but you know. I'm getting used to that.

Wat Bo. Doesn't this look like something out of some childhood fantasy?

On ordinary things being made alien:

The other day I was watching Peep Show, and there's a scene where Jeremy and Mark are drinking in their bathroom. Jeremy is sitting in the bathtub, and he adds water to his glass of hard liquor by way of the shower head.

That seemed really, really strange to me. Not because they were drinking in the bathroom. Kind of because he used water from the shower head. Mostly because the idea of drinking anything that comes out of the tap is now so completely foreign to me.

Funny show, by the way. I laugh and laugh.

Similarly: I watched Inside Man because it's been lurking on my hard drive for about the past five months. At the start of the movie they're driving through New York (I think) and I was struck by how completely alien that seemed to me as well. Where were all the motorcycles? Where was the chaos? At the edges of the streets it didn't bust up into dirt and holes and puddles of mud and rubbish... it was sealed. Crikey.

More elucidations on "you're damned if you do and damned if you don't" (or "Aletta rants, again")

I'm thinking about the cello-playing Swiss doctor again. I was talking last night with Barbara the Australian midwife who had been to one of the local clinics to see a friend of hers who was in labour. They had no running water in the delivery room. The various instruments were covered with a cloth but there was no evidence of any sterilisation equipment. She had an IV going into a vein on the back of her hand instead of into her wrist. There's no way you'd get any volume of anything into that vein on the back of her hand if it became necessary. This is what she told me.

So I'm thinking about Mr Cello and his state-of-the-art hospital, and his objection to the ongoing assertion of aid agencies that "first they must learn to wash their hands". Maybe he's right, and maybe the aid agencies are right. Maybe if they tackle one extreme each they'll eventually meet in the middle. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Also earning you a damning either way: Buying from the children who work the Angkor temples and streets of Siem Reap hawking photocopied books, bracelets, t-shirts, scarves, postcards and roses. These kids are master salespeople: There's the little boy of about six who hears you speaking and then chases after you counting to ten in your language. Japanese: "Iichi, nii, san, shii, go..." Italian? "Uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque..." Thai? "Nung, song, sam, sii, haa..."
Then there's the little girl who asks you where you're from. New Zealand. "Capital Wellington, population 4 million, prime minister Helen Clark (but she's not very pretty)." Astutely observed, little girl!

And always they're chasing after you, holding their wares at arm's length with the insistent sing-song "Please can you buy? Please can you buy?" Or they're suddenly appearing at your table while you're eating dinner, clutching a bunch of long-stem roses and wearing a glob of dried snot under their noses and a pity-me face. Or they're tugging at your sleeve when you're sitting at the street food stalls, saying "Hello, hello, hello," and pointing first at your plate of rice, and then at their mouths.

Ex-dormmate Tara worked for an organisation called Green Gecko that takes street children and gives them a safe place to eat, sleep, play, learn, etc, plus support for the families. She rattles off a litany of sins of the parents: They're alcoholics, gamblers, mentally or physically ill or just plain abusive. Some of the children are abandoned by the parents and live on the streets, sleeping around the temples and washing in the river. Some are forced into prostitution. Some are sold into sex slavery. When we'd be out at dinner she'd tell us not to buy from the children who came to our table. She'd ask them if they went to school today. Why aren't you in bed? When I bought books from children (they gave me a great deal!) she told me off.

But what can you do?

On one hand you can be aware that frequently these children are being forced into this work by their parents. That often they're being kept out of school so that they can sell to tourists. That maybe they're beaten if they don't sell enough. That maybe their parents don't bother to work and just send their children out to earn money or beg for food. You can be aware that by purchasing anything off these children, or even by buying them a plate of rice, you're encouraging this behaviour. You can think that if everyone stopped buying from the children, maybe they would all just shrug their shoulders, say "that was nice while it lasted", wipe their noses and trot off to school. (To that I say, yeah right.)

On the other hand, you can't just say that you'll never buy from children. Yes the parents send the children out because the children are much more effective salespeople than an adult. We like to buy from children. We like to see them happy. But not all parents who send their children out to sell are alcoholics or gamblers. Maybe they do work. Maybe they also realise that when they can earn $3 a day working a full-time job and their children can go out there for a couple of hours and bring back $10 in postcard revenue... then it becomes hard to maintain the moral high ground.

If it was me, I'd get busy and start popping out more kids.

Plus the kids are getting a pretty good education on the streets... Being able to speak English will get you pretty far in a town like Siem Reap where it's the lingua franca of all us asshole tourists, and these kids are speaking English all day long.

Am I making myself feel better yet? Not really. Pretty much everyone in this situation is screwed whatever they do. You, the kids, the parents, everyone.

On perspective correction

So, you know, Southeast Asia is cheap. And, you know, Europe is not.

In Southeast Asia I can afford to stay in a private room in a nice hotel with my own toilet and HBO (hallelujah). In Europe I can afford to sleep on the floors of complete strangers.

For those of you who haven't been witness to the grand parade of foreigners through my lounge in Christchurch, I've been a member of Couchsurfing for a while and hosted a few random strangers myself. By "hosted" I mean that I've let them sleep on my floor on the proviso that they cook for me and my flatmates. It's a fair deal.

So now the tables are turned! Now I'm going to be the floor-sleeper and kitchen-slave! I've drummed myself up two Couchsurfing hosts: One night in Bahrain and two nights in Paris. It could be fun. I mentioned to my Paris host that I'm going to be suffering from "Oh my god, this is so expensive!" syndrome when I arrive. He's proposed a grand solution to this problem with perspective: Since I'm arriving at 7am, we'll go out for the most expensive breakfast you can find in Paris. It'll be so expensive that I'll say "Oh my god, this is so expensive, I think I'm going to die," and promptly faint. At this point he'll slap me awake, and, as if by magic, I'll be cured. Everything after that will seem cheap.

Apparently it worked on him when he came back from Bejing.

On leaving, kind of, finally

Yes, I'll actually be leaving Siem Reap this week. I have to fly out of Bangkok on the 11th and I have business to attend to in Bangkok. By that I mean I have to pick up things I've had sent poste restante to me, buy some knock-off jeans, get my teeth checked and my legs waxed.

You should see my legs. I should take photos of my legs. They have never been this hairy before. I think it's a Southeast Asia thing. People come here and they grow their hair long, grow stupid beards, shave weird figures into their heads. Maybe they even dye their pubic hair. I haven't seen it, but I wouldn't rule it out. For me, all I've cultivated is the leg hair. It doesn't offend me all that much. It's a lot nicer than having two-day old stubble. It gives you something to play with when you're sitting watching videos. I imagine I'd feel the same about a beard, but I might need to wait a few years before that becomes possible.

Anyway. Leaving. I might head over the lake and down the river to Battambang and then take the 10 hour bus to Bangkok from there. I should be there on the 6th. Back in the land of the King, in all his yellow majesty.

It'll be good to catch up. I've missed him.

Tags: People

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