“Mister, mister, you have money for me?”
“Chocolate man, you buy a bracelet from me?”
“Damn you, chocolate man, why you so mean? You buy from me Obama man.”
I admit that at times I cracked a smile at the ways the kids in Phnom Penh and other parts of Cambodia would approach me to buy things or simply give them a dollar. I smiled at their inventiveness and charm, but was careful not to mock their predicament.
You can Google the numbers. They are staggering. In Phnom Penh alone, there are estimated to be anywhere between 2,000-10,000 children as young as four, working on the streets rather than attending schools. Children as young as 10 have been observed (not by myself) shooting heroin or sniffing glue. Some estimates I read said that over 70% of the street children reported to have had sex with tourists. Tragic statistics for a country trying hard to separate itself from a tragic history.
On my last night in Sihanoukville, Cambodia last weekend, as our tuk tuk driver took us back to the ship, I saw a young Cambodian boy asleep on the sidewalk; no pillow, blanket, not even a jacket for cushioning.
While walking along Pub Street in Siem Reap, a young girl approached my friends and I asking for milk for her sister. She was carrying her baby sister in a sling and said that she did not want money, she just needed milk for her sister. When I told her that I didn’t have money to get her milk, she said to me, “No money, no honey. No dollar, no boom boom.” I nearly broke down and cried at that moment. I couldn’t even stay out that night, opting to return to my hotel.
I saw these things not more than two days after visiting on of the sights where the Khmer Rouge had their killing fields outside of Phnom Penh. As I listened to the audio guide during my tour, I learned the different methods the Khmer Rouge used to kill innocent Cambodians from 1975-1979. At one point, they became conservative with their bullets and decided it would be more cost effective to beat people to death. There was a tree at the killing field and on that tree were 100′s of bracelets. Those bracelets were in memory of the 100′s of children who were beaten to death at the tree.
They were not beaten to death at the tree; they were beaten to death against the tree.
I can no longer contemplate the cruelty of man. I can’t imagine that scene actually happening. How are people who commit such crimes even allowed to live? There are men and women- free men and women- walking around Cambodia right now who committed these acts.
I cannot put into written or oral words how heart wrenching it is hearing about and seeing what children in Cambodia endure. They are not only being exploited by their families, but also by tourists. I hope Cambodia has the death penalty for any foreigner caught engaging in sexual acts with a minor. If they don’t, maybe they can send the tourists over the border into Thailand with a pound of weed strapped to them.
When is society as a whole going to protect our children? What drives people to exploit and commit crimes against children? I know it happens in cities and countries all around the world. It’s just that for myself, I’ve never seen it so in my face before. We’d be stopped at a gas station and the instant we got out of the car, kids would approach us. If we gave money, we’d see the kid go around the corner and then more kids would come from that area like puppets on a string. It was as if there were someone directing them on what to say and do when they approached us.
I think about that sleeping boy. Can’t get him out of my mind. No shoes on his feet. Nothing to lay his head on. His future is already written for him. The little girl with the baby. Does she have a chance? Or will she wind up working at a hostess bar at an age where she isn’t legally old enough to drink?
What will become of these street children? Is Cambodia doing anything to lessen their numbers and educate them and the adults surrounding them?
In future posts, I will tell you how great the food is in Cambodia or how amazing my hotels were. But why should I entice anyone to visit a country that does not take care of its people and improve their lot, not the livelihood of the tourists flooding in from China with their new money.
The street children of Phnom Penh are the children that the gods have forgotten. No way any higher power would allow children to be exploited to the extent they are now. Come to think of it, no way any man should allow children to be exploited as they are now.