Monday, November 27, 2006

Beyond Angkor

Marie Claire, Malaysia, July 2006, Global Report


Cambodia is every bit as stunning as the promises in the brochures. The soaring spires, the delicate apsaras and the august bas-reliefs inspire swift intakes of breath and all manner of lyrical waxing.

Unsurprisingly, one million curiosity seekers (and rising) flock here yearly for the ancient temples, but contemporary Cambodia is so much more than that. There is the palm-fringed south coast, the untamed landscapes in the northeast, and the region's last remaining freshwater dolphins near Kratie.

But most of all there are the resilient people whose spirit – and smiles – remain intact despite enduring three decades of bloodshed.


The road linking Siem Reap town to Tonle Sap is only 11 km long, but clouds of dust, the uneven road and the bucking bronco of a tuk-tuk ride makes it feel a whole lot longer than a 45 minute ride. The roadside shrubbery is so thickly encrusted that they seem to be sprouting reddish-brown leaves. The dust is contributed mainly by the convoy of tourist vehicles that ply the Tonle Sap-Siem Reap route daily.


As soon as we alight from the tuk-tuk, a swarthy young chap beckons us to follow him. We tread on soft slippery silt to reach the riverbank, where a fleet of wooden cruise boats are docked. We wade through the murky water and climb aboard one with peeling blue paint.

The young man, henceforth known as our captain, busies himself for our voyage. Then, realising that my friends and I are standing uncertainly, he pulls out two rattan armchairs underneath a tarp. "Come come, take a seat." I feel a bit like a Colonial rajah cruising down a river.


We fall into a conversation about our respective countries. To my delight, Koi (that's his real name) has reasonably good command of English, enough to carry on a meaningful conversation.

He plies me with questions about Malaysia. Do most young people complete high school? How much does a graduate earn? When he learns that a graduate's monthly salary is equivalent to the price of a house on the floating village, he whistles appreciatively.

Before we head back to the jetty, we make a compulsory stop at the snake and crocodile farm. Roughly the size of a coffee shop, it's a floating platform fashioned out of wooden planks with a souvenir shop and food stall in addition to the snake cages and baby crocodile trenches. I wander around distractedly for a bit, politely rejecting the salesgirls' persistent solicitations. Thankfully Koi motions to leave before I succumb to an overprized woven bag.

While walking across the gangplank, I notice some movement at the edge of the platform. From a distance, I make out a little boy sitting in a basin, floating among the tourist boats anchored at the platform.

I wonder how a child can be allowed to play in the water, unsupervised.

I don't give it a second thought when I climb back into the boat and wait for the rest to file back in. From the corner of my eye, I notice the little boy paddling determinedly towards my boat. With a surprising velocity, he maneuvres himself into the narrow passageway between my boat and the neighbouring one parked a few feet away.

I'm perplexed and just a little bit annoyed at his obliviousness. Should the two boats move towards each other without warning, he would be crushed to death.

Annoyed or not, I refuse to be a witness to an accident waiting to happen. I scramble to my feet and stagger towards him, struggling to balance myself in the swaying boat. I flail my arms wildly to get him to move away from his precarious position, but he shows no intention of budging. To my chagrin, he breaks into a wide grin and starts waving back at me instead. By the time I reach the edge of the boat, I am ready to throttle him.

When I'm inches from him, I see the reason for his seemingly senseless actions.

At close range, he looks even thinner, ribcage practically sticking out of his torso. His shirtless torso is soaked to the skin. As for the basin that transports him around the lake, he has ingeniusly stuffed himself into a flimsy vessel that looks barely big enough to fit somebody's puppy. The left arm - or what remains of it - ends in a premature stump a few inches away from his shoulder. So that's why he keeps using his right arm, it dawns on me.

I fish a dollar out of my waist pouch. He leans across to grab it with his wet palm. Something like relief flits over his face, but I can't be sure. In a flash, he has paddled away from the passageway, as quickly as he had appeared.

I sink into my Colonial rajah chair, vaguely aware of revving engines and chattering voices. As our boat slowly pulls away, I scour the surroundings. The little boy is a safe but visible distance away, bobbing gently on the water. He looks back and waves at his accidental benefactor with his good arm.

That beatific smile keeps me company till he fades out of sight.


As the Boeing 747 whisks me away from the dust and the squalor, my mind wanders back to the functional huts and grubby kids at Tonle Sap. I begin to rethink my earlier sentimental righteousness.

I doubt if they are aware that they fall into that category dubbed "hardcore poor." And really, do I have any right to inoculate them with a dose of depressing reality? Perhaps my indignation is misplaced. Perhaps it is not my place to say anything.

One thing is clear. The little boy on the lake may have lost his arm, but not his spirit. If ignorance is the price to pay for a little slice of happiness, it's worth every dollar.

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