“She is not the Alice that fell down the rabbit hole into a fantasy land, but she is the Alice that fell down the poverty hole into the real world.”
“She is not the Alice who after drinking a potion from a mysterious bottle shrunk, but she is the Alice who by nature possesses a shrunken physique because she couldn’t drink nor eat on times and days that she should have been.”… She is Alice, a child of Cambodia.
I met Alice on my second day in Cambodia. I took the 12 hrs bus ride from Vietnam to get to this country that is known for being graced with mystical temples and for possesing a rich and colorful mixture of ancient art and spirituality.
But amidst its bounty and richness for history and cultural beauty, Cambodia is a mother to children of poverty, Alice being one of them.
In Siem Reap, it’s an everyday scene that you meet a lot of kids working as early as 7 years old, they either sell books about temples, souvenirs, bracelets, drinks and jewelries. Of course their favorite spots where to sell are those temples that are well-visited by tourist. To name a few, Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Phrom, Pre Rup, Prasat Kravan, Angkor Thom, Banteay Kdei and Sra Shrang where I met Alice.
What made me so interested to make a special blog entry for Alice is her indifference and uniqueness from other kids I encountered in Siem Reap. Most will come to a point of hustling you to buy their items, sometimes they even beg you to give them money instead if you don’t like to buy. You can’t help but to pop a thought in your head the reasons why these kids are working at such a young age. But what I am sure of is that each and everyone has his and her story to tell, sometimes it’s about how they need to help the family, sometimes how to run for their lives when cops gets into their business, and sometimes their story of not having a family at all and instead working for “someone”. But I fear the most is that it could be a black market they work for or even a syndicate.
Alice, approached me with a beautiful smile, I said “hi” in English and she immediately responded “hello” in a fluent English intonation. She asked me where I’m from and I replied “I’m from the Philippines”. And then she smiled again and murmured in her shy voice “you’re pretty” I knew from that point that she is special and smart, not because she told me I’m pretty (lol) but because I noticed that she was able to deliver the English phrase very clear and correct, and true indeed during our short banter, I found out that she knows how to count and say basic phrases in 5 different languages. Apparently kids in Siem Reap are very smart they can speak many different languages so they can communicate with many of the tourists. They also know many facts about countries, like their capitals, populations, presidents, and even state capitals in the U.S.
After several exchanges of talks, she then offered me to buy some drinks from her and that she has mineral water and Coke, and she asked me this in a very sincere and humble way. I wasn’t really feeling thirsty that time because I just finished having breakfast at the hostel where me and my friends stayed the night, plus I have brought my own mineral water for I know it’s going to be a tiring and hot exploration we will be having. Not to mention I’m on a budget trip and so I try to avoid buying things from touristy area where the prices of stuff are double of what they were suppose to be.
Trying to decline her offer without offending her, I said no and that I already have a drink. Her facial expression didn’t change from the moment she said hello to me, she is still smiling, nodded politely and said she understands. But what surprised me was the next thing she did to me, she took something out of her pocket and gave it to me, it was a bracelet made out of wood, it looks very local, I thought she’s going to sell it to me instead, but she said she wanted to give it to me because I was nice to her. I was so surprise and find this very noble, I took the bracelet and thanked her.
But I still didn’t buy anything from her. At this point AM, one of my college friend I was travelling with that time approached me and Alice, she too was given a bracelet by Alice. AM and I were very touched by her simple did. But still we didn’t buy anything from her (yes… sometimes I can be heartless.. lol)
So we went on to head to the small temple of Sra Shrang, it’s a few feet away from Alice’s store. Enjoyed the view there and took some photos. After Sra Shrang the next destination is Banteay Kdei, where is just in the opposite side, I will be passing by Alice’s store to get there, and so I did, as I walk towards the next temple I suddenly had a change of heart, I headed to Alice’s story and looked for her and there she was, “Ok, I changed my mind, I will buy something from you”. She was so delighted and headed immediately to the cooler box to make me choose from her items. I told her I’ll get one coke and one mineral water.. she offered me the Coke at $1 and the mineral water for $1/2. Her thank you’s were non-stop. So joyous for a new customer, perhaps I’m even the first one for that day. We exchanged smiles and I went on to my next stop.
*photos by Anna Sotto
inspired by “The Children of Angkor, Cambodia” by Joe Owens
*other informative link: http://2backpackers.com/8735/photo-essays/children-angkor-cambodia