The Long Road to Siem Reap: Part III (You No Like Me) / by Heather

(continued from Part II)

It was the early evening and Asia and I had managed to finally make it to our guesthouse in Siem Reap. Thanks to a glowing review from The Road Forks, we chose Prohm Roth Guesthouse as our accommodation and were not disappointed. It’s a family-run business and they do their best to make you feel like part of the clan. After the challenges we had faced in the day, it was so relieving to instantly know you could trust the people here.

We spent a little time recovering in our glorious air-conditioned room, then headed out for dinner on the nearby Pub St, Siem Reap’s main tourist drag. We found a place that I thought had a bit of a mysterious and moody atmosphere…all dark with little candles on each table. We were surprised when halfway through our meal, all the lights and fans suddenly turned on and whirred into action. What I thought was atmosphere had just been a prolonged power outage. The best part was all the restaurant staff jumping around, cheering, and clapping.

After dinner, we headed down to a minimart at the end of the street to try and grab some groceries. We were walking down Pub St, when all of a sudden, a boy, about 10 or 11, came running up to Asia and starting crying out, “Please, you buy me meal?!” Asia and I both immediately cringed because dealing with a child begger is that last thing we both wanted to do right now. That may sound harsh, but truthfully, the best way to help a street child is to not support them, not give them money because inevitably, they have been employed by an adult to sell or beg and none of their profits will go back into improving their lives, but will only encourage the practice of keeping them out of school and on the street.

But this one was flailing around and clutching at Asia, a physical encroachment we hadn’t experienced yet with any other kids. Both of us were exhausted, with half-functional brains and hadn’t the least idea what to do except for keep saying no. But no wasn’t working and he wasn’t leaving. Instead, he grabbed Asia’s arm…hard…and refused to let go.

“You buy me meal, I’m so hungry, please!!”

Asia looked at me, unsure of what to do with this not-so-weak-or-small child attached to her. I helplessly shrugged back and tried to interject, but he pretty much ignored me, his focus on Asia. I could only talk to her in hushed asides as he yanked on her arm, but even though I knew that we should always turn down the street kids, I didn’t know how to make one leave if they refused to take no for an answer. But we kept telling him no and that we weren’t going to buy him a meal, we were going in this minimart.

As soon as we mentioned the minimart, he switched gears.

“Please, buy milk for my baby sister. She needs milk!”

Asia and I looked at each other through weary eyes. This was new and his fingers were curling tighter and tighter around Asia’s arm. We continued to argue with the boy and giving him excuses.

“I’m sorry, but we can’t buy you milk.”

“Why are you are saying sorry?” He kept throwing up questions like this, confusing us….why were we apologizing?

He looked up us accusingly. “You no like me,” his lip jutting out slightly. And suddenly and bizarrely, we were standing there, reassuring him that no, we really did like him, we just couldn’t buy him milk, when really the only thing either us wanted in that moment was for him to be gone. We kept slowly trying to inch away until he grabbed Asia even tighter and then wrapped his leg around hers, so she could no longer move at all. It was ridiculous and our emotional strength was wearing out.

Okay. Okay. We’ll buy you milk.

Defeated by a clingy 11 year old.

Instead of cheering up, he still tugged at Asia’s arm. “You no lie to me?” His eyes got large and round. Sigh. No, we’re not lying to you.

So into the minimart we went, the now placated boy in tow. I didn’t feel good about it and tried talking to him a bit to learn more. He was quick and had an answer for everything. Do you go to school? Yes. What’s your favourite subject? English. How old is your sister? Two months. We grabbed the couple things we needed and then allowed ourselves to be handed a large tin of powdered milk. I tried looking for a price sticker, but there wasn’t one. As Asia checked out and the milk rang up, I nearly choked. $18!! A huge amount by Cambodian standards. I noticed a small smile on the cashier’s lips and at that point, I would have said forget it and walked my cheap self out the door. But Asia is kinder than me and got it over with and the boy said thank you and finally left us.

We didn’t know exactly what had just happened. We hadn’t heard of anyone begging for baby’s milk before and although my gut told me it was bad, it was confusing to know whether it was real or not, especially with the kid’s earnest performance and persistence. As soon as we got back to our hotel room, we looked it up online and sure enough, we got scammed…for the second time that day.

In the tourist traps of Cambodia, street kids and mothers will beg for milk for babies. This confuses tourists like us, who are used to being asked for money, and pulls on the heartstrings. What harm could possibly come from buying baby milk? Well, since the milk is powdered, it can be returned after it’s bought. Once the unwitting tourist gives the tout the milk, they take it back to the store, where the owner puts it back on the shelf and gives the tout (or their adult employer) half the money the tourist spent on it, while pocketing the other half. It’s an ugly scam that plays on people’s compassion and had Asia and I feeling even worse about the day and Siem Reap as a place. However, our tough lesson showed us that under no circumstances should we give money to kids and it prepared for the next day, when the exact same thing happened to us again.

We were on Pub St again, when a small child came out of nowhere (he appeared so fast I swore he materialized out of thin air) and threw himself around Asia’s waist.

“YOU BUY ME MILK!!” The boy was much smaller than the last one, about 6 or 7, and much less well-trained. Instead of pleading and explaining about a baby in need, he just screamed and flailed, squeezing Asia around her middle. We looked at each other in disbelief, but also now with attained wisdom. Asia told the boy no, but he continued to scream.

“YOU BUY ME MILK!! YOU BUY ME MILK!!”

I really had enough of this and got down to his level, looked him in the eyes and said in my firmest voice, “We are not going to buy you milk.” I pried his little arms off Asia and kept telling him we were not going to buy him milk. Frustrated and angry, he started just screaming and yelling incoherently and hitting my arms, until he grabbed on to my wrists with each hand, and stood in front of me. Well sorry little boy, but I have places to be and zero patience for this. So I just grabbed his wrists also and started walking. He pushed back against me and braced his feet against the street (all the while yelling), but as I moved forward, they slid back along the pavement so his body was diagonal to mine and I was literally plowing this small screaming child down the street. It was so hilarious that even in the moment, I was laughing about it. And apparently, this sort of thing doesn’t bat an eye in Siem Reap. Soon, the boy got tired of being pushed along and laughed at, so he let go of my wrists, punched me three times in the stomach, and ran away. Luckily his puny child hands were weak and ineffective, so I could do nothing but laugh incredulously.

Asia and I reflected that if we had gotten this street child the first night, we would easily been able to say no, thanks to his poor technique. But we didn’t, so we learned. And really, that’s the only thing you can do when this sort of thing happens. Consider it like you just paid for some tough education. More difficult to face than your own ruined pride is that fact that you helped support the inexcusable adults who use children to make their livings. Which is why as embarrassing and difficult as this entire experience was for me, from the border to the kids, I felt it was really important to share so that other travelers could avoid my mistakes and instead discourage putting working kids on the street. I am proud that the milk incident was the only time we supported a working child. There are so many in Cambodia, especially around Angkor Wat, with children as little as 3 or 4, rehearsing their lines to sell you a postcard and it can become difficult if you don’t steel yourself and never deviate from a polite but firm decline.

Later in our trip, in Phnom Penh, we were having dinner at a restaurant when an Australian girl and her American friend at the next table over started talking to us. We had noticed them because they had a young street girl (one of the many selling bracelets) sitting with them. The Australian was telling us how they volunteered at a local orphanage and would come into the city on weekends.  She gestured to the street girl and proudly told us that they had asked her how much she makes in a good night ($10) and so they had bought $6 worth of bracelets so that she didn’t have to be out selling and could sit with them instead. I wanted to angrily shake them and say “you idiots….this little girl is not your pet. By buying from her, you are keeping her on the street and supporting the adults that are putting her out there. You can have her sit with you and croon over her and act superior because you have a little ‘local friend,’ but in the end, she is not going to remember you or think of you any differently than the talking wallets you are.”

Sure enough, she was even still trying to sell to them a bit and when the Aussie asked her if she remembered her name as she left, she didn’t. The Aussie also had nabbed another girl, who very small and upon interrogation, shared that she was 5. The Australian girl started demanding, “Why is it 10 o’ clock and you’re out selling? Why are you only 5 and out selling?” She had the little girl by the shoulders, looking her in the face very seriously and somewhat shouting these questions at her, like the girl could answer and when the answer was damn well obvious.

Maybe it’s cynical of me. Maybe I’m being cold-hearted by not trying to befriend the street kids. We tried to be as nice and polite as we could to them when they did approach us, but since we weren’t interested in buying, they weren’t interested in us. Buying their attention and having the novelty of a little ‘friend’ is not helping them and is only making their lives worse in the long run and setting a poor example to other tourists and street kids.

However, as challenging and sad as the art of rejecting children is and as frustrating as my entire day getting into Siem Reap was, these stories aren’t meant to scare people away from Cambodia or other third-world countries. Yes this was the most trying day of our trip and the stress and embarrassment of getting scammed (twice) made me want to cry that night. But as time quickly healed my wounded pride, I actually began to treasure this day. Aside from giving me a dramatic story to share, we found solidarity in almost every other traveler we met in Cambodia, as we swapped tales of persistent touts and trouble at the border. It was something to laugh and shake our heads at. If Asia or I did something displeasing to the other during the trip,  we puff out our lips, and proclaim “you no like me.” We met so many wonderful Cambodians who outnumbered the touts we encountered that my memory of the country is overwhelmingly positive.  And the wisdom I gained would have been lost if we had taken a guide with us or sailed through with ease. You can read about each scam online, but there is nothing like living and learning from one.

In the end, the grand total we were scammed out of that day was about $30 each. In the moment, on a tight budget, it stung a little, but when I took a step back and thought about what I would spend $30 on back in the States, I realized how much it was not worth getting upset over.

Truly, one of the great lessons travel has to offer us in the insight into how we react when put in the most uncomfortable and infuriating situations. Being able to look back and observe that I handled everything well and didn’t mistreat those who did me wrong is something that I value. Knowing that if I had followed my gut, I would have gotten out of each situation taught me that, as always, my brain just needs to take the intuition’s advice first and foremost. And gaining perspective on what other humans in the world have to stoop just to survive gave me extra compassion and gratitude for my own life. To me, $30 is a bargain for what I learned and I’m glad I spent it. And for having these experiences on my trip, I am all the richer.