The most rewarding experience of our trip by far happened in Siem Reap, the town catering to hoardes of tourists outside of Angkor Wat. One thing we have discovered in Cambodia is that where there are tourists, there are hundreds of shabby street children selling everything from postcards to bracelets to bags of sliced pineapple. As we walked around town to shop for souvenirs, children followed us like baby ducks. “Lady,” they would chant, tugging at out clothes, “Lady, where you from lady?” After we would answer “the USA,” they would launch into a diatribe that went something like this, “Capital Washington, DC. Population 311,000,000. President Obama, wife Michelle, two daughters Sascha and Malia, one dog Bo. Obama is my father. You buy me ice cream?” I suspect that many American children may not know as much. We tried our best to politely ignore the children all day and tell them that we already bought so many things.
Later that evening, when Ashley and I were sitting at a street side table at a cafe sipping ice cold mojitos to ward off the incredible heat, the children reappeared. “You buy my bracelet?” Said one of the girls that had followed us around all day. She had an adorable dimpled smile and we could not refuse. “You give me money for food lady? I so hungry. H-U-N-G-R-Y.” We didn’t want to just give her money since we were afraid that her parents might take it away and not feed her, so we invited her to sit with us and we would buy her a meal. As soon as we made this offer, out of nowhere, three other children appeared. “You buy me food too?” After we had pulled up chairs for the four Cambodian street children, they settled in and ordered hamburgers. We discovered their names were Nia (age 11), Nex (9), Tam (12) and Mai (12). Despite receiving dirty looks from a European family sitting next to us, no one seemed to mind that the kids were in the restaurant. One of the waitresses told us that they were having so much fun and it was a very exciting experience for them.
Mai told me that she had never had a hamburger, but that she had seen a picture of one in her school book and wanted to try it. They told us that they had to go to school in the morning, and sell things after school until 9:00 p.m. Before the food came, the kids discovered a foosball table tucked into the corner of the restaurant and grinned from ear to ear as they played. They probably walked by that restaurant every day of their lives, and would never be allowed to go inside. Except that now they were paying customers! It was so heartwarming to watch them just be kids instead of mini entrepreneurs for once. When the burgers came, the kids pronounced them “excellent!” and eagerly devoured them as though they had not eaten in a week. Tam ate exactly half of his burger and wanted to save the rest for his brother at home. When the kids were through, they left as quickly as they had appeared. They were very grateful, and smiled and bowed their thanks to us. Nia, unable to contain her gratitude burst into a hiuge smile and squeezed Ashley with a tight hug – I will never forget how happy the little girl looked.