Cambodia has more child merchants and beggars than any Southeast Asian country I’ve visited. In Thailand, I have not encountered a single one. In Laos, only on Wat Phussy in Luang Prabang and that was after they finished school. And in Vietnam, only the hilltribes of Sapa.
Sometimes, it was hard not to get annoyed by all the child sellers, especially when they were smart-alecks. However, when I remembered that they are kids just being told what to do, I felt a deep sense of sympathy and guilt. Sometimes you saw kids as young as 3 selling merchandise. But they usually looked very confused and would just look at the tourists while wearing the shirt or bracelet they were supposed to peddle. These children are not living regular lives. They are not playing sports, learning the piano or other things Western kids do. Instead, they are out there asking every foreigner to buy 3 bracelets for $1 or a t-shirt for $5. I really feel sad when I think about this.
I have a soft spot for kids and would often find myself conversing with the Cambodian kids. They are so street smart. I saw one boy go from talking in English, to Chinese, to Korean. I struck up a conversation with him and said, “One, two.” and he said “Three”. “Un, deux”…”Trois. “Un, dos”….”Tres”. “Ein, zwei..”, “Drei”. “Yi, San”…. We continued this until I ran out of languages and I’m sure he knew more. They also learn facts about every country.
Kid: Where are you from?
Kid: Population 33 million. Your capital is Ottawa. You have two official languages, English and French.
The first kid was impressive, but soon every kid is doing the same so you throw them a curveball:
Me: Who’s our prime minister?
Kid: Um..Big smile on face…Give me some candy
All the kids would ask for candy, chewing gum or soda. One boy asked me for candy and I said “No but I can give you some bread.” I had an almost new loaf of bread and the boy’s eyes lit up. I was going to cut him a chunk, looked at him and instead handed him the entire loaf. He gave a huge smile and ran to his mom to share his new food. I couldn’t believe how excited he was and I realized that these are hungry kids. After that, we gave bread to a few more appreciative kids. One time we had gourmet bread from the bakery and gave some to a kid. It was too weird for his palette but to his credit, he tried to eat it.
In Siem Reap, a kid ran to my friend to ask for money and she suddenly picked her up and spun her around. After seeing that, all the kids were asking foreigners to be picked up and spun around. They forgot that they were supposed to ask for money. This was a small moment that my friends and I will always remember. It was a reminder that these kids are just that: kids. Despite all the hard lives they face, they still haven’t lost their quest for joy or fun.