It's surreal to be reminded that in 1975, the city of Phnom Penh was evacuated, as in emptied out of its citizenry, by the brutal regime of Pol Pot. Everybody out, so decreed the revolution in ridding itself of everything western and colonial. So the people were forced to abandon their homes, trucked out into the fields, and most capital's educated class were killed. Executed. Phnom Penh for five blood-soaked years was occupied by some 50,000 cronies and supporters of the Khmer Rouge madness.
That's less than 40 years ago, straddling our generation. The years of terror affected every single family, through loss of life or ingrained trauma - physical, emotional and spiritual. Two million people died, a quarter of the nation's population. It's unbelievable to know this and not be astounded by what the "Pearl of Asia" is today - a city booming of sorts, buzzing with activity, snarling traffic, abundant markets, industry and tourism. The boulevard running along the Mekong is commonly known as Riverside - and looks for all intents like a stretch of South Beach with its hip cafés and flashy eateries.
Only difference is, the first-world terraces crammed with foreigners swigging iced drinks spill out onto a very third-world sidewalk.
Misery abounds in Phnom Penh, as in the rest of Cambodia, and no where is it starker than on Riverside.
As tourists lounge in rattan chairs stuffing their faces with oversized dishes, children weave between the tables selling handmade bracelets or other crafts, looking to make a measly buck for what took an hour to fabricate.
My heart breaks to pieces every time. I'm not naive to the world's ills and I've seen this scenario play out in Mexico, Egypt, Brazil, and so many impoverished nations. But it never gets easy, and neither should it. Seeing kids toil in drudgery should hurt. I feel guilty by association, seeing a group of European men say something droll in their own language to a young girl hawking travel books and burst out laughing as they shoo her away. I intercept her to look at the titles in her basket, and give her a couple of dollars without buying anything. Her books, knockoffs, cost 3 bucks.
(American currency is commonly used in all Cambodia, along with the national Riel)
Back on the street, headed to my cozy hotel with hot shower and crisp linens, I stopped at a corner where a woman sold books of all sorts from a cart parked in front of a construction fence.
I looked idly at the choices, some pirated others genuine. I was going to Angkor Wat the next day and thought a little background reading wouldn't be a bad idea.
The woman saw me palming a guide to Angkor and raised six fingers.
Traveling with an ipad makes getting my information so easy, so I hesitated.
Just then a girl, a young woman really, comes toward me from around the cart.
"This one very good, with color," she said, pointing at another Angkor book.
"Not copy, original."
She unsheathed the plastic wrapping and flipped the pages to show the quality.
Oh oh, I thought, I'm being reeled in.
I said: "It's very nice, but I don't think I need it. I read things mostly online."
The young woman sighed. "Yes I know. Everything now on internet. Nobody want to read paper no more."
Her English was broken but it flowed easily from her lips. She spoke with confidence, even fierceness, but in her voice was fatigue.
Her name, I later learned, was Seryan. She was the older woman's daughter.
She was short and pretty, with hair pulled back tightly into a bun that stretched her dark almond eyes.
She wore a knitted sweater curled at the neck that seemed far too hot for the steamy night.
"Maybe you read something else, like this, The Killing Fields," she offered, picking one of the main tourist draws from her country's tragic past.
Before I could catch myself, I uttered, "Ugh, no, not that!"
Seryan said, sizing me up, "Oh, okay, you want a fun book? We have books to make for fun good."
To which I recoiled further, eager to show her that's not what I meant. I was no Lance from Arizona State. I wasn't a tourist prowling for a party scene.
"I don't want fun books, no," I said. "I know about the Killing Fields and what your country went through, but I'm just not in the mood to be reading about it. I mean, I don't even want to take the tour to the Killing Fields. It's just too sad."
Seryan nodded that she understood.
And then, suddenly, at a crowded sidewalk squeezed by motorbikes and pedestrians jostling around a muddy pothole, a real conversation began, a real connection with a local.
She grew up on this street, Riverside, pretty much at this corner or the next, shilling books and trinkets since the age of 5.
She's 22 now, with a little girl of 3, born from a fleeting marriage with an American.
The father keeps no ties with either of them, especially since she caught him cheating the last time he was in Phnom Penh.
They've since divorced, but not before assuring the baby got her US passport.
"I don't want my daughter to grow up like this, like me," she said, looking at me straight in the eyes. "I hope she go to America when she 18, and after that I join her, maybe."
But that's a long and difficult ways off.
Seryan gets up every day at 5 in the morning to deliver newspapers that sell for 1000 riel (25 cents) and makes 200 riel profit from each.
She also looks out for her little sister who's 8 and goes to school by day, and sells woven bracelets to tourists by night.
Her mom makes the bracelets, they go 3 for a dollar.
Mom works the book cart every night, and dad is back home in the village, a one-legged man who stepped on a mine two decades ago.
There is no shortage of amputees in Cambodia. There is no shortage of live land mines in the fields, still.
A few years ago, an kind Australian man sponsored Seryan with a year's worth of schooling. "Two thousand dollars!" Seryan said, her eyes open wide. "This is why I can speak English a little now, not good, but with no school, we can not be talk."
I became still as the intimacy of her life unfolded.
"How do I thank him? What do I do? I cannot repay money. So I say sthank you, sthank you."
I said, "That's all you can do."
"Yes," she continued. "I say sthank you."
Up the street, a row of shops with garish neon signs welcome visitors for drinks and girls. They have names like Pretty Lady and Apocalypse Wow. Girls inshort dresses and too much makeup wave hello and bait all white guys walking by.
"Some people want fun only, look for young girls and good time in Cambodia," she said. "Me, I used to think life easy before, just sit back and let money come. But now, I older, with little girl, I know life is hard, and family more important."
The conversation paused and I could see her eyes well up.
She stared in the distance now, looking far into her memories.
"Children, they don't know," she said. "They don't know when man want to give something if it is good. When I was ten, a man take me and give me money and tell me stories, but after..."
She fell silent. Tears ran down her smooth face.
"I'm sorry," she said, as if needing to apologize. I placed a hand on her shoulder and said, sheepishly, "Don't be. I'm sorry."
Sex tourism, child predators, abuse of wealth, it makes me sick.
I often recall that line from The Year of Living Dangerously: 'Starvation is a great aphrodisiac.'
Seryan has remarried, to a tuk-tuk driver. "He poor, but he is good," she said.
Thirty minutes went by and I was filled with myriad conflicting thoughts.
Her daughter had arrived with an aunt. She was stunningly gorgeous, bright, carefree and bubbling with energy.
She swung on my arm like from a tree branch giggling all the while.
I bought a book, any book, and 3 bracelets for 6 bucks. I gave her 10.
Then I handed her another $20, because this was no tourist trap, this was not a concocted story for money. This was her reality. I felt compelled to help, however small.
"Here, buy your daughter something nice," I said.
She pressed her palms together, bowing slightly. "Thank you," she said gently.
I returned the gesture and went off, dazed with emotion.
A couple of street kids had hung around and tagged along as I left.
They were both maybe 10, the girl witty with a smokey voice and sparkling English.
She carried a basket of scarves and floppy silk purses.
The boy was tall and slightly more reserved. She was the leader of this duet.
"You buy me a t-shirt too?" the girl said. "Please mistah, you buy me something too?"
I said no, I had spent all my money.
She looked at me with such disappointment, made me think what a wuss of a father I would have made.
"Ahh, I don't believe you," she said. "Look, there's an ATM there. You have more!"
I did, but where does it stop?
"I don't need anything dear," I said as sweetly as I could.
"So you buy for your wife, your girlfriend, your daughter," she continued as we walked.
I didn't dare say I had none of them, because they had nothing.
She melted my resistance with her lively intelligent banter.
"Where did you learn to speak in English so well," I asked, changing the subject.
"At school. You buy something from me?" she stayed the course.
Her scarves were two bucks each.
I was hooked again.
"Here," I said, pulling out a five dollar bill. "I don't want to buy anything, but you two share this, ok?"
The smiles on their faces were priceless. I'm such a sentimental weakling.
So little represents so much to them.
I wished I could have showered them with gifts, or new clothes, or hope.
I was overwrought and needed a drink, but I settled for a can of coke.
Coming out of the store, they were still there, leaning against the frame of a tuk-tuk.
"Another five dollars!" the girl exclaimed, her hand out. And the boy also chimed in, "Me too, five dollars!"
But before I could object, they both laughed and said, "Joke, only joking!"
Like teasing among friends. We relaxed in each other's company.
The girl let drop her business tone and asked softly: "When you go back to your country?"
I began to blabber some answer when she interrupted me, looking up at me in sweet alarm.
"You cry? Why you cry?"
This tough wonderful kid with soiled bare feet and tattered clothes asked me why you cry, concerned and surprised.
I thought I had wiped my face of tears but she noticed my swollen eyes.
Because I'm sad was the only thing I found to say.
(Jan 11, 2014)