When we think of the temples of Angkor, some of the images permanently etched in our heads are those of the Angkor children. The kids of Angkor bring life to the temples, accenting the stone ruins with their adorable faces. Young children from the age of two look up pleadingly at tourists with their big dark eyes and ask them to buy postcards. “Sir, 10 postcards for $1. Buy from me.” You hear it over and over again.
These kids certainly are clever even without (or perhaps in spite of) any proper schooling. Responding to economic demands, they have learned how to count to ten and conduct basic transactions in most major European languages and a few Asian ones. At Banteay Kdei temple, Dan tested the language skills of a young girl about six years old. He started counting to ten in Estonian and the girl completed in Finnish. He began counting in Czech and she finished in Russian. He stumped her by counting in Turkish…I guess not many Turks make their way to Cambodia.
Another unique tactic is for the kid to ask where a tourist is from and announce the capital (of the country or state in the U.S.). We never expected to hear a Cambodian kid of six confidently tell us that the capital of Pennsylvania is Harrisburg. Or that Richmond is the capital of Virginia. Most seemed to know Prague as the capital of the Czech Republic, but few knew that a country named Slovakia existed and that its capital was Bratislava. We tried our best to arm them with new facts in case they met Slovak tourists in the future.
Sometimes it’s hard to know the “right” thing to do. Should we buy hundreds of postcards to put money into the hands of these children so that they can contribute to their family? Or does giving money to children keep the parents from sending them to school because they earn too much? We figure the latter. We noticed that some of the children selling postcards were the children of temple employees. The parents had an income, but still sent their children to work. That just didn’t seem right.
There’s no ideal answer as to what actions will help these kids the most. Our approach was to engage them in conversation, give out snacks and share water, but we didn’t give money. Each person will find their own approach.