BY OLGA KARNAS
The plane touched down in Siem Reap, throwing us into a rice bowl of Cambodia. The teeth-like silhouette of Angkor Wat featured on our on-the-arrival visas dominated our thoughts. We got a chance beyond the glorious monument of the past Khmer empire, stretching over present Vietnam and Thailand, into today’s marked with “whole body massage” at a discount price, Cambodia’s way to return to the maps and minds of globetrotters.
“I tell my son that a crocodile bit it off,” says Tom, who has memories of fighting among the ranks and later against the Khmer Rouge instead of his left arm. His story is just one among many in the country where the war had finished a mere 13 years ago. We take pictures holding Soviet-imported weapons, fascinated by Mr. Kalashnikov’s invention, a trap that too many had fallen in before we did. Tom picks up a human bone from a tank. Shows us a small patch of a minefield, where bodies await their rest. Pictures: of children, adults, refugees, Princess Diana carefully stepping through the land.
Tonle Sap is the greatest lake in the region. The Cold War left its mark there, as it did on the syllabi of the countless college courses. Hundreds of Vietnamese refugees live on boats, as they were not allowed to settle on land. Their loaded boats float on the muddy water, passing by the charity rice dispensary, a church, a school, even a basketball field. The inhabitants of the barges, little boats and wooden marinas have quickly learned the ways to extract money from foreign tourist who come to see the unique floating village, First, two little boys nimbly jump on our motor boat and proceed to giving us an impromptu massages, demanding “one dollah” in return (Cambodia’s currency, riel, is incredibly weak – about 4000 riels equals 1 USD). The horror is yet to come: suddenly a tiny boat swims past, where a girl of no more than six years of age stands and sings. A giant snake wraps itself around her neck, his sly head swaying as she sings. Before we can restrain ourselves, we quickly shoot pictures, and then, as she stretches out her little hand (the one not holding the monster’s head), we give her green notes, rather embarrassed to support such questionable activity, performed by a child. Her younger brother is lying right next to her, impervious to the rhythm of the waves and to our cameras, fast asleep in the boiling sun. We were to see more such girls, each following the very same formula: a snake, a song, a dollar.
That evening we met Daniel. A retired diplomat, he represented the century past, of the leather notebooks and engagement in ideals. The word “security” never slipped out of his mouth. He arrived in the country as a UNICEF envoy in 1992, over a decade after the Vietnamese invasion overthrew Pol Pot’s government in Phnom Penh. He spoke of the ghetto Khmer Rouge communities who prefer to stick together years after the peak of their power, even retaining the elements of Khmer language that were introduced during the regime. He spoke of the country’s education system, which remains in ruins and is rarely prioritized over economic development and the rapidly growing tourist industry.
-What happened? – asked a little girl at the bumper cars place, when my car suddenly stopped.
-Something broke… You speak English?
As it turns out, the 6 year old practices English with her parents and at school, yet she “likes studying Chinese better.” All right, Einstein, here’s a way to intimidate me while I sit in a bumper car that could certainly be bigger.
A group of volunteers in Cambodia launched a campaign “Let adults earn and children learn.” It could not have been a more pressing appeal. Will the girl with a snake-scarf ever learn any English beyond “one dollah please! Lady, one dollah”?
Olga Karnas ’16 is blogging this summer from Singapore as well as her trips to Cambodia and Thailand. Contact her at email@example.com.