Cambodia Travelogue 4
Sunday, January 15, 2012, Phnom Penh
There are three or four stretches of beach frequented by tourists along the coast of Sihanoukville in southern Cambodia, but the most popular one is called Serendipity Beach, a mile-long curved stretch of soft, white sand lined with bungalows and restaurants, each with its own patch of beach with lounge chairs and umbrellas. There is a constant stream of visitors, both Cambodian and foreign, who come to enjoy the kind of clear warm waters and hot sun you can only find in the tropics.
At the center of Serendipity Beach, there is a break in the restaurant/bars that otherwise abut each other in two long unbroken rows to each side. At this access point, daily visitors not staying at one of the bungalows lining the beach can park their cars in the lot along the main road and enter the beach area through a large open pavilion that has tables and chairs to sit and eat and dance at night. As the day ends, you can hear the band tuning up preparing to play traditional Cambodian music, and during the course of the night guests are invited to take turns at the microphone to sing their favorite songs. By night’s end the tables along the dance area filled with people drinking pitchers of Angkor beer and piled with the shells of crab and grilled shrimp cooked on charcoal grills.
During the day, I saw carloads of Cambodian families arrive with coolers of food and rice cookers, sometimes bottles of Hennessey, and spread out at the long tables facing the ocean protected from the hot sub by thatched roofs. The pavilion as a tiled floor that leads out to the beach and makes a walkway to each side for visitors to traverse the line of restaurants and bars. Judging from the numbers of visitors coming and going, Serendipity is a popular destination for Cambodian families escaping the city heat and pollution and noise. Parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles with excited children enjoy large picnic lunches at the tables then refresh themselves in the water usually wearing shirts and long pants. They sit along the waters edge rather than really swim. The water was calm, and there are almost no waves and no real change in the tide, so the lounge chairs lined up about fifteen feet from the edge of the water never have to be moved.
The pavilion area is also where the many venders selling food and fruits and souvenirs, others offering traditional massages, congregate. Most of the residents of Sihanoukville earn their living in some way from tourism. In this way, Sihanounkville is similar to Siem Reap where Cambodia’s famous Angkor temples are located, but Sihanoukville is much less developed, still a destination for “adventurous tourists” and backpackers, so unlike Siem Reap, there seemed to be more poverty. Besides the groups of girls making and selling personalized bracelets and key chains, and mothers and daughters balancing large trays of assorted fruits on their heads, there were rowdy little gangs of young children, I would guess some as young as four or five, the older ones about ten or twelve, but it’s so hard to guess the ages of some of these children who can look half their actual age.
These feisty roustabouts in their ragged shorts and flip flops roamed the beach with old rice sacks slung over their shoulders scavenging the cans and bottles discarded by the mostly foreign visitors. Unlike their more advantaged counterparts peddling sunglasses (an enterprise for fathers and sons) or fruits and souvenirs (mothers and daughters), however, I rarely saw these children with adults. None of the children, both “advantaged” and “disadvantaged,” attended school it seemed. Their days were spent working, pressing the tourists to spend a dollar or two for fresh mangos and bananas peeled to order and served in a small plastic bag with a small bamboo skewer as a fork.
Unlike the “advantaged kids” the can collectors also begged, “500 riel for food,” a sad-faced, malnourished-looking boy asked me with his hand out. They moved down the beach in a group jostling each other, tough kids, but playful. They only had each other it seemed to depend on, and perhaps the one or two poor women whom I would see with them on occasion, who must have fed them and perhaps looked after them in exchange for the fifteen or twenty cans and bottles they collected each day in their rice sacks.
It was on Sunday, the next day, after spending most of Saturday watching and talking with these children (from both groups) that the incident occurred. I had crossed the main street from my hotel and crossed the parking lot and saw a group of the venders at the entrance to the pavilion area shouting angrily at the “foster mother” of the orphan children. In the middle of the group, one of the orphan boys was being attended to by a man in a new yellow jersey. The boy’s face was badly bruised. I strained to understand what the women were saying as they screamed angrily back and forth.
They were enraged and pointing their forefingers threateningly at each other. Apparently, the orphan boy had been hit by the son of one of the venders. I saw this boy
standing off to the side. There was something wrong with him. He slurred his words and looked malformed, dragging one leg behind him.
All I could understand is that the older crippled boy had hit the small orphan and badly bruised his cheek. When the foster mother (in her rage, it looked to me, if she had a knife or gun, she would have used it) condemned the crippled boy for hitting “her child”, the crippled boy staggered forward toward the crowd and slurred in Khmer, “Yes! I hit, they look down me! So I hit!” and he lunged again at the orphan boy protected in the arms of the man with the yellow jersey.
They exchange continued for several minutes between the large growing crowd of venders on one side and the foster mother surrounded by her five or six orphans looking confused and worried on the other. The man in the yellow shirt stood in between and tried to calm them down, but the two women’s rage only seemed to grow. They stepped closer and closer to each other exchanging angry barbs until it looked as though they were ready break loose and pummel each other. Finally, one of the woman venders pulled back her friend, and the foster mother backed away with her charges, firing angry insults at her adversary as she backed through the parking lot toward the main street and disappeared between a ragged row of bushes. The man in the yellow shirt took the injured boy on his moto and drove away. I was told later by one of the boy venders selling sun glasses that he brought the boy to the office of his organization in town that helped the orphan children.
After the crowd broke up and the venders returned to the edge of the pavilion where they normally gathered for lunch or to rest in the shade, I tried to find out more about what had happened. Who was the crippled boy? Who was the man in the yellow shirt? Did anyone see what made the crippled boy hit the orphan boy? I asked the owner of the restaurant where I had spent most of Saturday sitting and writing “Travelogue #3”, and he told me that he wasn’t sure exactly what happened either and that I should ask one of the venders if I wanted to know more. By then, most of the venders had gone back to their routines, while others sat at the edge of the pavilion talking about what had happened. At that point, one of the boys selling sunglasses approached me, “You want sunglasses?” he asked in English.
“No, thanks, I already have some.”
“How much you pay for those?”
“Are they Polaroid?” he quickly asked. (A fine little salesman.)
“I don’t know. I bought them last year when I visited Siem Reap.”
He quickly pulled out a small mirror from his tray of sunglasses and held it up to my eyes. “You can see the fish?” he asked.
“If you can’t see the fish, it not Polaroid. OK, try this.” I handed him my glasses and he handed me one of his to try.
“Now you see the fish?” he asked holding up the mirror again.
“Yes, there it is.”
“Polaroid good for your eyes. When you look in sun, not bad for your eyes.” I scanned the horizon, and there was a noticeable difference between his and my old glasses.
“How much do they cost?” I asked.
“That’s too much.”
“It comes with a nice case. See.” He showed me the case.
“How much without the case?”
“I’ll give you seven.”
Then I started to ask him about the incident earlier, and he explained the situation in impressive English for a boy who looked maybe eleven or twelve and had probably not been to school for the last five years.
“Those boys got no parents, so they look for cans to get some little money to eat. When they see that boy (he pointed to the crippled boy standing with his mother), they alway swear him, like ‘you f- .....’ and he proceeded to impress me with his extensive vocabulary of English four-letter words.
“What’s the matter with him?” I asked indicating the crippled boy. “Is he (I used the Khmer word for ‘crazy’)?"
“No, he not. He have some problem with his leg when he young, but he not ‘crazy’. He (he used the word for fortune teller).”
“He’s a fortune teller?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes, he very good write the number and (he used the Khmer word for ‘calculate’/ ‘predict’). When those boys swear him, he get mad and hit. Those boys not good for Cambodia. They no sell something like sunglasses or stuff for tourists. They just look for cans and don’t know about something to improve.”
I asked about the man in the yellow shirt.
“Yeah, he organization, PPPC. You know that organization?”
I shook my head.
“They try to help those kids, but those kids never change. They jus’ know how to beg for five hundred riel, one thousand. Like that.”
George Chigas, Department of Cultural Studies