Day 14-Phnom Penh: Of Passports, Pottery and Pigeons

It’s embarrassing, but true: Ryder’s passport is almost all filled up before he’s even three years old. I’ve made an appointment to get pages added at the embassy. I don’t particularly care for hanging out at the embassy. It’s always a long, boring process in which something is often bumbled and I can’t have my iPhone with me. At least there are play areas. This embassy is unique in that they did not accept credit cards. Nor Cambodian cash. It had to be $82 in USD. Some American guy walked up and came to my aid at $21 short, I gave him riel in exchange.

We walk around the grand market a bit-I buy Ryder a Cambodian outfit-I can’t resist, I tell you, I am backpacking with 20 outfits of his as it is, and yet, still—and I bought a pair of capris so I can ditch my heavy jeans. Both outfits will begin unraveling after only a few wears. The air is so stifling and Ryder’s begging for a drink. He’s out for the count before I have a chance to find him one. I buy a new cord for my iPad which is faulty and breaks same day. In Cambodia, things are cheap, but quality’s almost guaranteed to be poor.

We visit the National Museum but it’s my least favorite kind of museum—statues. If I never see another statue again, that will be too soon. The only thing worse than statues is broken pieces of pottery. I have seen so many broken shards of pots in my life, and there is nothing much more boring to look at. Anyway, Ryder can’t run around in this kind of museum, so we don’t last long other than to gulp down two drinks in a row, each.

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We meander to a restaurant on the river-I’m excited to see tacos on the menu, but honestly, they’re as stale as any boxed Ortiga I’ve ever eaten. I don’t complain. This is Cambodia. Somewhere along the line, I’ve stopped being The Spoiled Tourist. I blush when I think about how, let’s face it, bratty I used to be when I first left fully developed countries. One example: I took our hostel owner down to his basement back in 2009 and demanded he figure out the hot water. I’ve since realized many people don’t always have hot water, unlimited, at their beck and call any time of day. I will still put my foot down if I find something like weevils in my dish, like I did in Ghana—but I managed to tell them, that time, without a fight and just accepted my new dish with a smile. These locals put up with this kind of thing every single day. I can leave, anytime. I am a guest. Patience is numero uno traveler survival trait.

Next we walk along the river. Ryder is chasing some birds, when I see the Golden Treasure: an entire park full of pigeons for him to chase. We cross the street, and buy a couple of seed bags from the first man who approaches us. A little boy follows us for a while, but it’s too late: I already have two. Ryder dumps his first whole bag out in one go. We walk along and the little boy is sticking with us, not saying a word. We come to a couple who are selling toys off of a blanket. I make a snap decision.IMG_3684

Ryder speedwalking towards the toy blanket

I tell the boy he can pick out a toy, and so can Ryder.

I figure what right do I have to buy a toy for my son in front of this waif who works all day instead of going to school, and not get him one too?

He scarcely seems to believe his good luck. He picks out some cars, $3, and races away, to what looks like his family who’s sitting on a blanket in the hot sunshine. He then drops it off, presumably to continue selling his seeds.

Ryder gets a bulldozer.

We lazily scatter more seeds.

I did something you’re told not to do. You’re not supposed to give to children. You’re supposed to give to organized charities. The gift can be exploited. Encourage more begging. Tourists become walking dollar signs. Maybe it gets sold back, like the dictionary in Ethiopia likely was. It was probably a mistake, what I did. But I defy you: Look into a Cambodian child’s face. See their blackened and missing teeth. See their scrawny bodies—Ryder is mistaken for a six year old here. See how old and worn their eyes already look, know that schooling is not mandatory here and many children work for their impoverished parents, and DON’T buy them a toy when you’re with your well-fed, want-for-nothing son.

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All of a sudden, three more boys come running up. They are asking for toys. I hadn’t seen any other children, earlier. The boy must have spread the word. I agree to quickly get them toys, but all of a sudden there’s a throng. They come out of the woodwork. They all want little barking dogs. A seed-selling mom is there, asking for her little one year old girl. I say no at first, but I’m trapped. I use all my money buying toys for the throng. $30. Ryder’s bulldozer somehow gets switched out for a barking dog. Kids follow me all the way down the street. I tell them I don’t have any money left, and to my chagrin it’s true-not even for a taxi. I do have an ATM card, though, so I can finally escape.

Who looks after the children of Southeast Asia? The government can’t do it. So many parents here are overburdened with the struggle for existence already. Childhood in Cambodia, it seems to me, so often is just a mini adulthood from the start.

Noticing I could buy $30 worth of toys to give to children in Cambodia and not even feel it, I found an NGO online and made a commitment to send $30 a month to it in the category of healthcare, chosen since I have never, ever seen such awful teeth as I did in Cambodia. By the age of 6 the average child will have 9 rotting teeth. The NGO I chose is run by a former president of 20th Century Fox International, who left the film business to start this charity after he first visited Cambodia and saw the conditions of the children there. Check out https://www.cambodianchildrensfund.org/ if you are interested.

Kalli Hiller

Article by Kalli Hiller

Kalli Hiller is a voluntary vagabond who, with her husband Jacob, has traveled full time for the last eight years.

Kalli has written 366 awesome articles for us.

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