Location: Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Much of Koh Rong’s Khmer population has migrated from Sihanoukville; when asked why they moved, they talk of leaving the city for better business opportunities on the teeny island. It seems like a paradox; clearing out of the big city and heading to a remote island for prospects. But Sihanoukville is troubled. You can sense it from the moment you step into the dusty city. You can see it in the starving eyes of the street urchins, in the reflections of windows on half-built, abandoned buildings. There are miles of moldy cement fences surrounding empty plots of weed-covered land. Many areas look like they’ve been bombed out. Immaculate hotels cast shadows on nearby tin slums. The villagers of Koh Rong talk about the rampant ice (crystal meth) usage in the city, gang problems, violence, and poverty.
The scenes painted on the beachfront reflect this pain; there is a seediness underlying the paradise fabricated for tourists. The beige sands, lapping waves, the mood lighting cast by red candles and the cheap food menus all feel a tad sordid when you realize that your waiter can’t be older than sixteen, the girl serving you food is maybe seventeen, and a nine year old boy is setting up your table and cleaning off empty plates. And every few moments while reclining in one of those comfy bamboo lounges on the sand a child will come up to you begging or selling bracelets and fireworks.
One black-haired girl, maybe seven years old at most, slurped an iced coffee and shoved herself into my lounge and onto my lap. Her ankle-length skirt, once pink and white, was now a dirty gray, her stash of braided bracelets slung over her shoulder. She sang the first few lines of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and gave me a high five. As the caffeine soaked into her system, she began poking me repeatedly with a fork and falling into giggle fits whenever I pulled back. We ended up buying a couple of bracelets off of her; they were pretty and she let us haggle her down to 50 cents a piece (I still feel uncomfortable that we bought stuff off her, perpetuating child labor in Cambodia). She was really bright; she could remember what country each of the eight people at the table were from off the top of her head. She was also so excitable I kept thinking I should pour out her coffee when she wasn’t paying attention. Another street boy was sitting at the table; he’d sold several bracelets and was now trying to get us to guess what countries other customers in the restaurant were from. He stayed until an older boy wearing a hat that read “I’M THE BOSS” across it came by and muttered something in Khmer to him. We figured it was along the lines of “make the sale or go away.”
Then a boy in red pajamas with green buttons came by and asked us to buy bracelets off him. He was maybe eight or nine and already had a sour look on his face. When one of my friends told him we already had bracelets, he told her, “go fuck your mother” and wandered off.
At the end of the night, the little girl in the dirty skirt hitched a piggy back ride from one of my friends back to the spot on the beach where her boss and the rest of the street urchins were stationed. She grinned and waved as we left.