Pangs in Phnom Penh
Frangipani blossoms and feelings of guilt in Cambodia
A journey through Phnom Penh's markets can stir up gut-wrenching emotions - by Robert Tompkins (Special for the Toronto Star, Ontario, Canada)
We had anticipated feelings of guilt while staying here at the historic Raffles Le Royal. We had expected an acute sense of the disparity between the comfortable illusion offered by the restored colonial hotel and the world of desperation beyond its doors. We had foreseen stabs of conscience and feelings of hypocrisy prompted by the dichotomy. It took a visit to a market for us to realize we had underestimated the gulf between our expectations and reality.
We had a plan. Our explorations of the city involved visits to Phnom Penh’s three major markets — the Russian Market, the Central Market and Phsar Chas, the Old Market. Lunch at the famed Foreign Correspondents’ Club would break up the day’s outing. We would soon discover there was a factor we had not calculated into our neat itinerary equation. The Russian Market is an immense bazaar, dimly lit and with a maze of bustling aisles. From behind us, a young voice pleaded, “Papa, baby food some money.” A boy of about 10 lugging a child of about three dogged our steps, repeating his plea — “Papa, baby food some money. Mama, baby food some money.” One hand clutched the child while the other was outstretched to receive his alms, which he took without comment. A girl no older than 14 carried a baby wrapped in a dirty blanket. “Baby sick,” she said with outstretched hand. Whacking his baseball cap against his crutch, a one-legged man limped toward us extending his upturned hat.
Anticipating the heat, we had brought a half litre of water each, and soon we were taking the last sips of the now warm and bitter liquid. After purchasing more and while taking a deep sip, a young girl dressed in a filthy white dress approached and pointed at the bottle. When we gave it to her, she drank greedily, finishing it in three long gulps. We gave her the second bottle and she quickly vanished down the crowded lane. Strolling vendors, most of them disabled or very young, wended their way through the welter of constricted passageways. A woman whose face was badly disfigured by burns struggled to smile as she displayed her assortment of postcards. With a touch like a feather, a ragged child put her hand on my arm and gestured to her mouth.
Like water around a rock, the throngs flowed around a mother who had parked herself and her baby in the middle of an aisle, her hand outstretched for alms. Alongside were vendors of grains in swollen bags and fruit sellers with heaps of rose apples, bananas, mangos and rambutans. A vendor of photocopied books pointed at his prosthetic leg and then to his mouth. With a barely audible whisper, a mother carrying a baby extended a battered metal bowl and stared with imploring eyes. Holding out a garland of jasmine flowers, a girl of about six stood expectantly, her face unsmiling and cheerless. Does this child have a childhood, we wondered; does she ever sing?
A cynic might dismiss the expressions on the beggars’ faces, the sadness in their eyes, as a well-honed skill calculated to rip at the heart and thereby induce giving. In our case it worked, and the looks in their eyes still haunt. Displaying a T-shirt with a skull and cross bones and the words “Danger Beware of Land Mines,” a vendor smiled, suggesting, “Cheap souvenir from Cambodia.” Farther down the aisle, a man on crutches dragged himself in front of us, pointed to his missing leg and gave the poignant utterance, “Boom.” At our speechless reaction, he added a solution. “Give me money.” When we stopped for yet more bottled water, a little boy appeared beside us and watched without gesture or word. He accepted the bottle without hesitation.
When we left the immense souk, feeling that we had seen about half of what the market had to offer, but more than enough wretchedness, we heard a familiar mantra — “Mama, baby food some money. Papa, baby food some money.” Outside the market we met two NGO workers who had been in Phnom Penh for just over a year. “You get used to it after awhile,” one observed. “Frequency brings a degree of emotional immunity.”
“You can’t let the poverty gnaw at you,” the other added. “You become acclimatized, almost impervious.” They agreed that money should be given to beggars even though many charity workers disagreed, saying it only encouraged more begging. “Give a little, perhaps one thousand riel (about 25 cents). Make larger donations to the local charity organizations.” They told depressing stories — parents making their children beg instead of sending them to school, organized gangs forcing children to beg and then stealing whatever money they made, the sex junkets from Japan and Korea that exploited the desperation of young girls.
Our minds were plagued with their accounts and the beggar-haunted market. We abandoned our afternoon plans in favour of Le Royal’s alternate world, recalling a line from T.S. Eliot in “Burnt Norton”: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Poolside, in the shade of an umbrella, we sipped our drinks, attempting to purge the morning’s imagery. A pool attendant used tongs to hand us ice cold face cloths. For an instant, reality dissolved into a comfortable surrogate.
And then truth ripped through the illusion. Under the umbrella next to us, was an Australian who visited Phnom Penh for a month every year to volunteer at one of the city’s orphanages. In her arms was a baby of about eight months. “Her twin sister is healthy,” the Aussie lady related. The baby she was holding was not. “The poor dear was born blind and deaf,” she continued, mothering the bundled child with a gentle rocking. With wide open unseeing eyes, the baby was motionless, silent, pale, and without facial expression, living in a world of silence, a world of darkness. “They won’t let me keep her here. I have to take her back every night.” Frangipani blossoms were spinning as they floated down from the trees around the pool.