Unkempt little bodies jump from stone to stone. Lithe and agile. Darting now towards, then away from the never-ending stream of tourists flowing over the raised wooden causeways of Beng Mealea. They claim the messy jumble of unrestored stones of this temple, 40 kilometres east of Angkor, on the ancient royal way, as their playground. Nearly nine centuries of heat and humidity have played havoc with the precise placement of the blue sandstone blocks. Gone is the former wealth and glory of the mighty Khmer Empire. In its place poverty reigns.
At each consecutive temple I visit they keep buzzing around me in swarms. Irritating little mosquitoes. Sometimes noisy and persistent, other times quiet and watchful. Even if I try, I cannot seem to avoid their persistent onslaught. “Lady! Lady!” Dirty little hands push tacky souvenirs I don’t want in my direction. I am determined not to make eye contact. I don’t want to see them. “Only one dolla!” I hasten my pace, and keep my face stern. I focus on the beauty and splendour of the temple in front of me. They give up, and turn their attention to their next victim.
The reprieve is short, as they keep popping up in different guises. Lying in wait amongst the scattered stones. Even when they don’t want to sell me something, their presence unsettles me. Their dark, unfathomable eyes pry into mine with what could be an accusation, a challenge or a plea.
“How cute!” a shrill female voice calls out. As on cue, three little barefoot children, clutching clear plastic bags filled with sweets, strike a pose. One with a hand on her hip; the smallest, unclenching the fingers of her left hand to form a victory sign; while the last one just stares ahead, silently sucking a blood red lollipop. As the shutter of the camera captures the moment, their faces stay unreadable.
I voice my concern about these children not being in school. My guide explains that the school day is split in two, and they either go to school in the morning or the afternoon. School resources in Cambodia are limited, and even though most children enrol for primary school, the cost of school uniforms, books and other materials, plus the fact that they often have to travel vast distances, mean that only about a third of these children would start lower secondary school, and even less would eventually finish upper secondary school. What make schooling even more prohibitive are the low salaries teachers earn. As a result, many charge so-called ‘unofficial fees’ for attendance, extra tuition, and examination results. These are beyond the means of the poorest families, and children are simply forced to drop out of school.
While the rising sun pours its golden light into the tranquil water of Sra Srang, a vast body of water, once the sole reserve of the king and his consorts, I watch the slow movements of a lone fisherman gathering his nets. In that brief moment I feel at peace with myself and the world. “You want to buy postcard? Only one dolla.” My heart sinks, as my fragile equilibrium shatters into a thousand pieces. I sigh and look up. Her school uniform is neat and clean. Her voice quiet, hesitant, and her body on the verge of changing into that of a teenager. The beginning of a smile hovers near the corners of her mouth. Cautious, uncertain. I try my best to ignore her plea for money, and to engage her in conversation that goes beyond the mindless exchange of currency. We talk about her school and the future. “I love my teacher,” she confesses.
On a leisurely stroll through Banteay Kdei, a former Buddhist monastery dating from the late 12th century, with the early morning light bouncing off the leaves of tall trees, towering over the half-restored ruins, I stop in wonder and awe at the scene that greets me. A young boy, not older than six, counts on his fingers, pauses, thinks, and scribbles an answer into a notebook. He repeats these actions over and over without turning his head, despite his father trudging past him numerous times with bundles of merchandise he is hoping to sell to the day’s influx of tourists. I am mesmerized by this diligent little student sitting at his ancient stone desk. Framed against the imposing backdrop of the legacy his ancestors left, his tiny body, completely engrossed in his task, appears fragile and insignificant. Yet, in this fleeting moment, I glimpse a better future for him and his family.
My encounters with the children of the Angkor temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia are strung together like precious pearls in a necklace. Each encounter unique and different, yet, invisibly linked with the ones that came before and after. They are a heart-wrenching mixture of despair and hope. An uncomfortable glimpse of the face of poverty, and a reminder that how we travel is as important as that we travel.
Jolandi Steven blogs at http://dreaminginarabic.wordpress.com mostly about life in the United Arab Emirates where she currently lives.