One of my favorite memories of the temples of Angkor doesn’t involve the temples at all–it involves a sticky plastic seat, a table in the shade, and two hours of conversation. After a morning at a couple temples, I took my driver’s advice and ate at the little restaurant across from Banteay Samre.
Two teenage girls took my order, and their mother brought out a delicious fish amok soup. One of the girls disappeared in the back with her mother, but the other one stayed out with me and chatted. My My, as she introduced herself, was sweet and silly, giggling after every sentence. Her friends, Jo and Tui, joined us, and they talked with me about school–which they sometimes go to and sometimes skip–and boys–one of My My’s friends, age 15 like her, has just had a baby. Tui’s English was almost perfect, but Jo and My My were able to hold a conversation just fine as well. I brought out a packet of coconut crackers and handed them around for everyone to share.
But as with nearly all the friendly conversations I had with locals throughout Southeast Asia, I felt an undercurrent of discomfort because the income inequality was always so evident. All three girls were trying to sell me something over lunch; My My had bottles of water and Tui had little ornaments. For me, the two hours we spent talking over my soup were a midday break, a relaxing lunch, but they were still on the clock. Every so often, one of the girls would break into the conversation with “Buy this one, just one, please help”; Tui, especially, was persistent. I didn’t buy anything til I was leaving, at which point I bought a water from each of them. They were very clear that buying just one water would only help that one girl; is there a system of quotas going on? I’m not sure if I shouldn’t have bought a lot more things, or overpaid by a lot, or if that would contribute to their staying out of school even more often, or what. Not sure what the Good Tourist move was.
But before I bought the waters, My My ran into the back and came out with large pieces of paper. I loaned them my pens, and each girl drew a picture, which they then gave to me to keep. I played several games of tic-tac-toe with Jo and My My showed me how to write her name in Khmer script. They teased me about not having a boyfriend and turned shyly away when I asked them if they had boyfriends. We took a photo before I left, and My My shouted my name as I got into the back of the tuk-tuk and the driver headed down the road.
I was a walking wallet but also a source of fun for them. To me, they were an intimidating reminder of how much I have and how much others don’t have, and also lovely individuals with personalities I can clearly remember now, months later. I hope we were something good to each other and that they had as much fun as I did laughing over soup and crackers.