Cambodian Conversations Part Two

I am weak.

Before I even sat down in a beach lounger I’d resolved that I wasn’t going to give any money to the touts that roam the beach in Sihanoukville, a resort town on the beautiful Cambodian coast. Yet here I was, only an hour later, having my toenails painted pink while I picked out friendship bracelets.

You see, the salespeople are a bit of a nuisance in this part of the world. You can barely get a moments peace between the women and children selling tropical fruits, bracelets, pedicures and massages. In addition to being annoying, it’s hard to see small children, sometimes VERY small children, wandering the beach hawking wares. Most of what I’ve read recommends that you not reward them with money, as it only feeds into the system and keeps the kids out of school and on the beach.

So I was resolved not to pour any money into the surf side economy. Yet, after turning away about a dozen people pleading with me to buy something, anything, I finally succumbed. After watching a very nice and chatty woman conversationally threading the legs of the girl next to me, I found myself agreeing to a $3 pedicure. She was a grown up after all, and trust me, I REALLY needed a pedicure.

“You really need a pedicure.” She informed after examining my grimy feet.

“I know, I haven’t had one since I left home six months ago.” She looked at me dubiously then whipped out her box of tools and went to work sanding and massaging.

While she was working a little girl, maybe seven years old sat down next to me. She was wearing a blue jumpsuit and carrying an armful of bracelets. She smiles up at me and I shake my head firmly no. But my feet are on lock down so I have no escape from her friendly curiosity.

“Where are you from?” When I tell her the United States her face lights up, “Your flag is red, white and blue, just like the Cambodian flag!”

She’s so earnest but already a keen saleswoman I can tell. I’m really curious about what kind of childhood someone like her has, so I start in with the questions.

Do you go to school?

“Yes, in the mornings. I work on the beach in the afternoon.”

Where are your parents?

“They work on the beach too. So do my brother and sisters.”

Do you like this job?

“Yes, because I get to meet people and practice my English.”

Her answers sound a little rehearsed to me, but her smile is definitely genuine. She whips out her threads and starts to knit me a friendship bracelet- free of charge. For the colors she chooses red, white and blue. I have to admit I’m charmed by all of this so I do give in and buy about $5 worth of beach trinkets, before she happily skips away.

“Is that your daughter?” I ask my pedicurist as she files my nails.

She shakes her head with a look I can’t quite read. “No. I don’t let MY children work. They are in school.”

As I pink out a light pink nail polish she explains to me that when her husband left her 7 years ago for another woman she had no idea what to do to feed her family. She had 4 children, no education and no English skills. “I found myself walking the beach, offering to do massages or nails. That’s how I learned English.”

Now her children attend not one, but two schools: Cambodian classes in the morning and English classes in the afternoon. Her oldest is about to go to university. “All very expensive, so I work every day.”

I’m so impressed by her hard work and resilience. It makes me happy that while some people, like that little girl, will probably be stuck in this lifestyle, at least this one woman is using the beach business to elevate her family.

So by buying goods on the beach, did I help or hurt the community as a whole? Are the vendors a nuisance or an important way for locals to make money off of growing tourism? Probably all of those things are true. In a place like Cambodia, things really aren’t black and white.


21 Responses to Cambodian Conversations Part Two

  1. Monica March 31, 2011 at 11:31 AM #

    I had the same issue in Sihanoukville! I was initially annoyed that everyone was asking me for money and the ladies gathered around my sunbed and sat at my feet, but after I’d just accepted it and starting chatting to them, and got a manicure, I realised they were actually a lot of fun and really interesting people. There are so many really hard working people that are really doing the best they can.

  2. Jess March 31, 2011 at 8:46 PM #

    I enjoyed hearing about this conversation. It’s hard to make decisions about who to buy from and I’ve often wondered about the lifestyles and ambitions of those doing the selling.

    • Steph March 31, 2011 at 10:54 PM #

      I still wish I knew more about what happens to those little girls when they grow up. It seems like a hard cycle to break.

  3. Nicole March 31, 2011 at 9:09 PM #

    Hi Steph – I’ve been reading your blog forever but never comment. I really liked the post and I REALLY loved the one on disliking some travel days. I totally relate, and I feel like no one ever talks about that, so you feel like a misfit for not being totally ON it all the time.

    Safe travels!!

  4. Nicole March 31, 2011 at 9:12 PM #

    PS I also meant to say, I felt like this in India (re: the folks selling you things). I wish I had brought Cliff bars or something like a kids protein bars for the kids, b/c I know you’re not meant to give them money but I felt shitty doing nothing in the face of such poverty. In Mexico recently I gave in and just gave cute kids some pesos – but the culture is different there – they said thanks and ran away, in India that sort of thing would have driven begging folks around you in droves. I guess it depends on where you are. Either way, your blog is so refreshing, keep up the good work!!

    • Steph March 31, 2011 at 10:53 PM #

      Thanks so much for commenting and the kind words! In Cambodia it was very much like India where if you gave one person money you were bombarded with people also wanting money (sometimes even yelling “not fair!”). It was kind of alarming the first time it happened to me.

      I like the idea of bringing granola bars, much healthier and more beneficial than candy.

  5. Sabina April 1, 2011 at 4:05 AM #

    The best massage I had in SE Asia I got on Otres Beach in Sihanoukville. She didn’t have to beg me – I wanted one badly. I managed to avoid paying touts for anything else while at that beach, though. The number of child touts and workers in Cambodia is pretty disturbing. At my guesthouse in Kampot there was an entirely family of working kids. They got me coffee, they got me tea, they cleaned my room. Yet I noticed many other kids in Kampot wearing school uniforms and playing in schoolyards, so a lot of them actually attend school. I guess the laws against child workers are really lax or nonexistent.

    • Steph April 4, 2011 at 12:36 PM #

      It makes me sad that the parents either don’t care about sending their kids to school or need their help that badly that they would deny them education. Same with the kids on the beach, they could have such a brighter future if they were in school.

  6. Chrystal April 1, 2011 at 5:58 AM #

    Hi Steph!

    I pondered upon the exact same questions from your last paragraph when I was in Phnom Penh. So glad I wasn’t the only one as I could see from your post and others’ comments.

    My story goes like this:
    Friends and I were eating our dinner at Sisowath Quay after walking by the Mekong river and the kids were selling photocopied books. We kept refusing them, but finally one kid came up to us and confidently asked us: “Why don’t you want to buy books from me?” We totally didn’t expect that. When we asked him back, “Why should we?”, he said “because I need the money to go to school.” And so, we totally chatted with huge interest (albeit a little awkwardly, cos’ other diners were looking at us) about this young boy and ended up buying 4 books among ourselves. Hahaha. I need to review back the video we took of our conversation. He really just strike as a very smart confident kid.

    But the most memorable part – another boy carrying the same things stood close by and keep telling my friend “It’s not fair”, that we were only buying from the first kid. And he has this long sour face and kept waiting for us. In the end, we felt so guilty that we bought another book. And after that, I became a little pensive throughout the whole dinner. But in the end, I told myself I was just doing what I felt right at that moment.

    I feel a little better now because I love both the books I bought (‘Life of Pi’ and ‘Into The Wild’) which both just reaffirmed my wanderlust and fascination of the world around me through travelling.

    And I just have to say this…I love reading your blog. I find you an inspiration, as I hugely believe in the quote “If not now, when?” Hope I can really go on a longer travel one day.

    Have a good day~ Keep writing and safe travels! 😉

    Chrystal from Malaysia

    • Steph April 4, 2011 at 12:31 PM #

      Thank you for the kind words! And two great books you chose there.

      It’s so hard to say no to the kids, and when they start in on the “it’s not fair” routine they seem more childlike than ever.

  7. Claire April 1, 2011 at 6:13 PM #

    I have found that if I tell myself I will NOT be doing something, no way, no how, that just means that I will probably be doing it sometime in the very near future. For example, in Vegas last year, I said I would never be duped into listening to the timeshare people. You guessed it: I hadn’t been in Vegas 10 minutes when I found myself flipping through the book of all the shows I could see if I would just give them 2 hours of my time. And finally on the last day of the trip when I did cave in and listen, I went through 3 different salespeople until they realized NO meant NO!

    • Steph April 4, 2011 at 12:27 PM #

      Sigh, it’s so true. Tempting fate like that is just asking to get your attitude readjusted. At least you got to see a free show!

  8. Amanda April 3, 2011 at 7:08 PM #

    I think your last comment really says it all — things are not black and white. And this is true in every country and culture, of course.

    The woman you talked to is really quite inspiring. Yes, she’s only adding to the atmosphere of touts in Cambodia. But she’s doing it with really good intentions, trying to make a better life for her children than she has. It’s hard to look down on somebody like that.

    • Steph April 4, 2011 at 4:41 AM #

      So much of Cambodia seems to exist in the gray area, it can get really hard to tell what’s ethical.

  9. Lindsay aka @_thetraveller_ April 4, 2011 at 4:50 PM #

    It’s such a hard question. Alas, buying something off the kids selling stuff in Cambodia on the beach or in the streets is going to bring them food and shelter. You can’t change what their parents allow or even force them to do. I doubt if a child wasn’t making any money the parents would put him or her back in school?… they may just push harder.

  10. Adam April 10, 2011 at 2:09 AM #

    This is how I ended up with a whole stash of cheap bracelets and necklaces. I enjoyed talking to the beach touts on Palolem in Goa, India so much, I couldn’t help but buy whatever they were selling!

  11. Rebecca April 24, 2011 at 4:25 AM #

    Tough question. But I’m very impressed by the woman who gave you a pedicure – she sounds so strong and determined.

  12. Kristen September 29, 2011 at 3:53 PM #

    Great article, this is really a complicated issue. In Africa, I worked with a woman who had built a whole school from scratch, and was housing ten kids who weren’t hers so they could live near the village and get an education while their parents were herding goats in the bush. AND she was doing all this while holding down a full-time job with three kids of her own! Unfortunately, we found out she was pocketing money from the donations meant for the school. So here she is doing an amazing thing, and yet stealing at the same time. Nothing is black and white.

    • Steph October 2, 2011 at 10:22 PM #

      Yeah, I never really realized how blurred the line is before I started traveling in third world places. People just do what they have to do to get by.

  13. Leakhena May 19, 2013 at 5:42 AM #

    Hi Steph,

    First of all, I’m from Cambodia and also very proud to be one regardless it’s one of the poorest nations but a very welcoming and friendly nation indeed. I have gone through many of your posts and all Cambodia-related posts. They are great articles I have ever read. I am amazed that by just spending three days in Cambodia, you could put it all into words. I believe you must have a great experience trip here as many others did. However, I do feel sorry for those annoying activities of small children trying to selling stuffs during your trip, but we just can’t put the blame on them, and I know you won’t too. As you’ve already known that Cambodia has fallen into the zero era of civil war for several years, almost every important resource was destroyed. Those children just in need of money for a living, or they may starve to death, and this is the ugly truth of us. and yeah, many parents or one-parent, who take whatever efforts to support their family but still doing it alone, they cannot help much because some families have up to 7 or 8 children, that’s why they hurtfully letting their children to go on selling those stuffs along the streets, temples, or beaches etc. Luckily enough, I was born in a middle-class family that my parents could support me those basic needs and I did feel like you that whether or not to buy those staffs from those children since a part of my said ”No” due to the fact that I have never wanted to encourage this such of trend but my other part said ”yes” since a little money can save a life, why not go for it? I sometimes did but sometimes didnt, I randomly buy from those who I believe they sell it for good (using my common sense). Last but not least, thank you, Steph, and everyone as well for spending your priceless time in Cambodia, we, Cambodia children, are now doing our best to shape Cambodia to become one of the best tourist destination where you can enjoy your trip to the fullest by just spending very little money comparing to the others. Hope you are coming back again and again soon, and if you have any questions regarding to Cambodia, you can drop me an email if you dont mind, I will do my best.

    Leakhena (a very typical Khmer name) lolz

    • Steph May 19, 2013 at 9:28 PM #

      Thank you very much for the local insight! I found Cambodian people to be very friendly and welcoming.

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