The young boy approached as I sat in my tuk tuk, waiting for the light to change at the intersection of Monivong and Sothearos boulevards. Light changes can take up to 90 seconds in Phnom Penh, providing valuable marketing opportunities for street vendors. The little guy, perhaps eight or 10, was taking full advantage of the captive audience.
He held aloft a string of jasmine blossoms, traditional good luck charms that are sold all over Phnom Penh amid traffic jams by street children like him, and he made eye contact as part of his well-trained sales pitch.
“Pbee poan,” he said. Two thousand riels, or 50 cents.
I shook my head. It’s bad policy to buy from street children, I’ve learned, as many of them are forced into labor to bring money back to older handlers or family. It’s organized crime and exploitation of children at its worst.
He changed tactics.
“Mooey dollar,” he said, resorting to outright begging for a dollar.
Again, I shook my head. “Ott thngaie nih, bong proh towich,” I said gently in my own version of Khmernglish (not today, little brother) shifting my gaze forward.
He went for the kill.
“You want buy me?”
I did a double take and looked back at him.
“Soam thoe?” (I’m sorry,) I said to him. “M’dong thiet?” (Say again?)
Very slowly and very clearly, while looking me straight in the eye, he uttered words that will likely forever haunt me, chill me and remind me of the horrible reality of economic depravation that causes human beings to extreme measures simply to survive.
“You want buy me?”
There I was, a solo baraing (foreigner), sitting bathed in sweat at a red light, my briefcase in tow as I headed back to my office. That’s apparently an attractive profile for the selling of oneself, or else a futile attempt to wrangle money from a stranger at all costs. Either way, the experience turned my stomach.
“Ottay,” I told him. “Khnyom kitt ta neak thoe sala rien.” (No, I think you should be in school.)
It was stupid thing to say, as much rooted in my ignorance of his situation as it was the unlikeliness that his education was on anyone’s list of priorities.
He shot me a dirty look, turned and, penniless but somehow motivated to move on, headed toward a line of cars to sell whatever he could.
I watched him go, a dispirited waif in filthy, tattered clothes, my heart breaking, mouth dry. He will remain in my mind a poster boy for all that’s wrong with this place and testimony to the depths of desperation of human spirit that would lead a young boy to such extremes.
Selling himself to a stranger at a red light on a Thursday morning.
I am painfully aware of the sex trafficking problem in Phnom Penh. I see the anti-trafficking posters, read the stories about trafficking arrests, talk with friends who work for NGOs dealing with the issues about its causes and effects.
When I walk alone by the Riverside – a collection of touristy restaurants and that shoulder up to the seedier side of Phnom Penh – I am routinely offered drugs and sex by pimps and pushers who look for targets among the gawkers, tourists and backpackers.
Although these offers offend me, I normally banter with these guys, choosing the Cambodian path of a smile and easy chatter over irritation and reprimand. They’re often tuk tuk drivers looking to supplement their incomes and they take my rebukes in good humor, even more so once they realize that I can speak serviceable Khmer.
But this situation was very different.
This was a little boy hoping to appeal to a pedophile in pursuit of a few dollars, fishing in filthy waters that repulse, sadden and anger me. As I write the entire exchange literally turns my stomach and makes me question so much about this place that I take for granted.
Gabi and I are mostly unaware of the implications of extreme poverty here. We read the reports and articles, see the beggars and street children and are familiar with the statistics, trends and social programs designed to eradicate these circumstances but are failing miserably.
Truth is, we are among the masses of expats who live entitled existences among those who have very little. We go where we want, dine where we want and involve ourselves with Cambodian social issues when we choose.
We have standing dispensation from the real difficulties of life here. And to be confronted by the reality of this little boy’s desperation has shaken me to my core, made me doubt whether this place can ever really be home for me. It has also made me question how long I can remain among such circumstances.
Over lunch with one of our friends the other day, Gabi got a reality check that reminded us both of how little we truly understand the underpinnings of Cambodia. A journalist with a few years of experience in Phnom Penh, our friend was horrified to learn that Gabi and I love to hang out in the park around Wat Phnom, the centrally located temple atop a tiny hill that’s also one of Phnom Penh’s popular tourist destinations.
“That’s a notorious hangout for pedophiles,” she told Gabi, forever turning our image of the park as the place where Sambo the elephant holds court and the macaques steal food from tourists to a playground where exploiters of human misery prey on their victims.
I wonder what else I am missing, spiriting around the city in a tuk tuk, teasing our driver friend Tony and laughing at our respective poor grasp of each other’s language.
I consider how many people I pass will sleep on the street or in an alley tonight, or – like the little boy at the intersection – will be beaten because he failed to sell something – anything – and bring money back to his handler.
I wonder how many people, like Tony’s wife Paolla, will suffer through an entirely treatable illness simply because as a person of no financial means she simply doesn’t matter.
I lament the presence of hunger, poverty, illness and misery that surrounds us, even more so now that I have been reminded that what I see is very often not what exists.
Like anywhere else on earth the extremes of poverty and wealth, illness and good health, failure and success reside shoulder to shoulder here like bipolar twins, unpredictable and extremely vulnerable. At any time, circumstances could cause a human being to move from one side of the ledger to the other.
As westerners with entitled and free upbringings, we live our lives expecting the presence of basic human rights – of personal choice, safety, integrity and dignity.
In that little boy, barefoot and lost at an intersection he unquestionably knows all too well, I saw it all stripped away from a people who already have little.
And I hurt.