Saturday, November 22, 2003

Back in Phnom Penh after my excursion to Siem Reap, which was awe-inspiring, if you like crumbling temples. I shouldn’t be such a philistine…it’s a genuine Wonder of the World and all…it’s just that after 2 days of traipsing through the jungle looking at temple after temple, it all becomes a bit of a blur.

While I know they’re only trying to make a living, the crush of women and children hollering “Mistaaaaa – you wan’ buy col’ drink…you wan’ posscard….wou wan’ buy feeelm” at every temple stop became gratingly tiresome. The certain knowledge that I was going to be accosted by the Cold Drink Banshees every time I hopped off the motorbike made me want to carry on going without stopping.

I’ve been left with a mass of sensations – and one very sore stump.

The signs of mass tourism reaching Cambodia are everywhere in Siem Reap….plush new hotels sprouting up everywhere, new tacky souvenir warehouses on every corner, and half the population of Tokyo crawling all over the temples.

The best part of the whole trip was zooming on the back of a moto on the 30km journey out to the temple of Banteay Srei early this morning, passing water buffalo scratching themselves against bamboo trees, kids in pressed white shirts running around their school playground, and families heading out to the rice fields.

While begging from foreign tourists is a fact of life for far too many Cambodians, I have my artificial leg to thank for keeping at least some of the unwashed masses at bay. One look at my milky white skin and the amputee beggars – or chon pika in Khmer – make a crutch-powered bee-line for me, cap in hand. I smile as I roll up my right trouser leg to show off my own war wound. Before I know it I’m usually surrounded by an orchestra of amputees from all corners of the market, cooing and laughing at my prosthesis.

Ethically, I’m not sure what to do. Should I give them money because I know what they’ve been through and can sympathise with their plight – or should I refuse because I’ve lost a limb too but don’t have to resort to begging. It’s an impossible dilemma – our circumstances and places within society are so different that there’s no comparison.

And if I do give to the amputees then what about the street children, disabled kids, mothers in rags with babies in their arms that accost foreigners at every turn.

Begging from tourists isn’t going to improve the quality of life of the estimated 40,000 amputees in Cambodia. The problems run too deep to be solved by a few hundred riels in guilt-money.


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