I wasn’t new to the sight of child labour in Cambodia. Along Sisowath Quay, Phomn Penh’s touristy riverfront, children as young as 4 or 5 go from table to table at the restaurants selling wrist bands and other trinkets. It’s hard to resist the charms of these rascal, smudge-faced kids, and you have to learn the art of staring impassively, straight over your beer glass, out to the palm trees and dirty brown water. Around some corner is an adult minder, waiting to pocket any money the children make, so I’ve always avoided buying in an attempt to starve their exploitation. However, a couple of nights ago that changed.
I’d been walking back to my Airbnb flat after a day exploring Phomn Penh. Most of the restaurants had closed, so I stopped at a little food stall I knew. The owner was named Om and we had struck up a friendship on my first visit a few days previously. Om and his wife cooked up barbecued snacks served with baguettes, a tradition left by the French, much like in Vietnam. Their friendly welcome was just what I needed.
As I sat on a red plastic stool, munching beef balls, fish sticks and chicken wings, a young girl walked up carrying on her head a tray of plastic wrapped fruits. I was mesmerised by how she balanced the tray with perfect, cat-like poise. She looked 8 or 9.
She came into Om’s stall and sat at a table behind me. After removing the tray from her head, she lent her cheek against her hand and released a tiny sigh. Om’s wife brought her some water in a plastic cup. I smiled and motioned my appreciation of her tray balancing skills. She grinned back. A wave of sympathy suddenly tore through me.
The girl’s tray of fruits was resting on her lap and I pointed to some pineapple and something that looked like strawberries. I gave her a dollar which she dropped into a plastic purse around her neck. Then she stood up and lifted the tray back onto her head. Before leaving she grinned again. “Thank you,” she said in English.
When she’d gone, I congratulated myself on my generosity. But this quickly faded as I began to see more children with trays of fruit on their heads go by. Some were older, others perhaps even younger than the girl. A couple of times, a girl in school uniform walked past holding a pile of books. I began to wonder if she too was a street seller. My barbecued dinner had lost its flavor.
I chatted for a bit with Om and after a while the girl returned. She approached a man standing next to a motorbike. They talked and he seemed to inspect her tray. She opened her purse and counted out the notes inside before handing them to him. I felt sick. I observed how neatly dressed he was, in contrast to the girl’s scruffy pyjamas. As he talked on his phone, one hand casually in his pocket and a confident smirk on his face, my anger grew.
I wanted to do something. I wanted to transport the girl to another time and place. I wanted to punch the man in the face. The urge began to feel real and I had to tell myself it was probably not a good idea. So I sat on my stool and fumed. I thought of asking Om his view about it, being a father himself, but I didn’t know if this was a subject I could talk about openly.
Eventually, the girl and another boy rode away with the man on the back of his bike. Naively, I hoped she would look back so I could give her a reassuring nod. She didn’t.
And then for two days straight it rained. I was sitting in a coffee shop I liked, waiting out the downpour that had been lashing the street for half an hour. I felt down and lost. Just motivating myself to get to the coffee shop that afternoon had been a struggle. As I watched a boy of about 10 pushing a food cart along the side of the road, dodging cars and motorbikes, absolutely drenched, I suddenly said to myself, “Do one thing purposeful, just do one thing purposeful today.” So, I opened my laptop and wrote about what happened at Om’s food stall.
I’d never felt compelled before to write about anything in quite the same way. Why this? Why now? Was I just do-gooding, grasping for a way to feel better about myself? But then I recalled the burning anger and the injustice I’d felt the other night towards the smirking man. No, this felt real, this felt like me. Something in me wanted to speak out.
For months my travelling had slipped into a kind of chaos, alternating between periods of clear intention and self-destructive drifting. I knew I was hungering for meaning, for some bigger purpose. But perhaps it might just always be like this, small moments of doing something worthwhile, tiny motivations for a journey, reasons to make all the lattes and inexplicable shit taste better.
According to child sponsorship NGO Humanium, 45% of children age 5-14 in Cambodia are engaged in labour. Please visit their site below and help out if you can.