Cotton kroma scarves at the handicrafts collective:
Last week in Siem Reap I visited the Angkor Handicrafts Association, a cooperative market and open studio for local artisans. They’re out of town, so they don’t get anywhere near as much traffic as the stalls near Pub Street and the Night Market. It gives the venue a nice tourist-free feel, but it’s terrible for their margins. There were one or two people working – at sewing machines, making bags out of flour sacks, running the pottery wheels – but most of the stalls were unsupervised.
Souvenir shopping in Siem Reap, like so many other parts of the tourist industry, runs on a referral system: tuk-tuk drivers and tour guides get a commission to bring their charges to certain shops and markets. AHA doesn’t currently have a cohort of drivers, so it doesn’t get traffic and can’t make sales.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on a mural with the kids at the center. I came up with the idea of using potato stamps to cover the surface quickly, and then experimented with eggplant stamps. as it turns out, an eggplant cut lengthwise does a decent impression of a banana leaf. The results were pretty solid, although we still have some surface to cover. One of the kids who worked on the upper section said his efforts looked “like a peacock:”
This morning I met a friend for a late breakfast in Toul Kork. She and I were in Cambodia together during our first stints in 2009-2010. She was an ESL teacher at a local school, and I was a volunteer English teacher at a local NGO. I was miserable for a lot of that year – exhausted, ill, fighting a chronic infestation of headlice – and she took to bringing me to a favorite cafe for Sunday breakfast. She always paid. We went to The Shop, a Belgian-owned cafe on Street 240, locally famous for its miniature fruit tarts. They had mango-passion fruit crepes on their all-day breakfast menu, and I’d always order one with a capuccino. And then she would listen to me complaining.
This year, she came back to a job at the same school, and I came back for a research project and some part-time volunteering. We decided to meet at The Shop’s new location in Toul Kork, an area near Stung Mean Chey that is rapidly expanding from sprawl into city district. The flagship Shop was small, tucked away in a narrow street of silk boutiques and expat bars. This one sits on a large garden plot, and has a terrace and broad lawn. She and I talked about how we were both doing – much better – and what we hope for September.
I caught the tuk tuk driver who waits outside The Shop, and he took me across a lattice of sidestreets to Toul Toum Pong. A few blocks were still flooded from the heavy rains last night, and he drove the tuk tuk through half a meter of muddy water.
Now I’m at the center, and the rain has started again. There are no classes today, and so my students are out on the front drive playing in the rain.
I’m eating lunch – too much of it – in a nonprofit cafe, upstairs near the racks of books. They were selling dragonfruit muffins downstairs, the color of rose wine, and so I bought one. They taste just like apple muffins, and don’t contain much dragonfruit, but they’re such a beautiful jelly color that it felt worthwhile. There are five tourists from China playing Scrabble in English – one of them got “router” as I sat down, with appreciative murmurs from the rest of the table.
I’m back in Siem Reap after the first half of my fourth round-trip night-bus ticket. This time the employee who handed out wet wipes and asked us to please remove our shoes looked very young; I could see him swallowing a few times and counting down before starting his Khmer-English speech about the duration of the trip and the three provinces the bus would cross on its way to Siem Reap City. Before the trip, he came onboard with an air freshener for the back beds, so the air was a fug of bubblegum and jasmine as we left.
I fell asleep right away, but I’ve still been tired all day. At four I’m going to an NGO for a tour; in the evening I’m hoping to meet someone in town for another interview. Worries about getting traction here have given way to worries about what I’m going to do with all these words when I come home.
The tuk tuk driver who picked me up at the bus stop started laughing when I opened my mouth and said, “Oh! I think you are like man!” and then asked me about my plans to go and see the temples. He was disappointed when I told him I was there for work only; most of the drivers can only make any amount of money through temple fares.
The drivers who go from the bus station have a strict queue amongst themselves, and the driver I had last time told me that they had to pay a dollar a fare (out of three, unless they think they can get five) to the bus company to pick passengers up there. The street for a mile or two in either direction is deserted that time of day, and there are no tuk tuks nearby.
On my last trip to Siem Reap, two friends invited me to visit the floating villages for a sunset boat tour. The trip starts on a van that takes you out to the pier, which at this time of the year boards from the bottom of a long concrete stairway. On the way we were invited to look at the high-season watermark, an ochre stain halfway up the side of a two-story house; and a floating school, currently banked at ebb at the bottom of a deep riverbank. We saw children filing back in on the left side. In the high-water season, the school rises on its shallow wooden float to street level.
Ticketholders board small blue boats, big enough for a small open-air cabin that holds eight plastic chairs, and are taken out to the big boat on the other side of the floating village.
The floating village is a village: houseboats (and school boats, market boats, at least one pub boat, a Korean restaurant boat for Korean tour groups, and a police station boat) anchored along two miles or so of slow-moving river. The houseboats are painted a uniform ocean blue, and the families on the houseboats can be seen doing the things people routinely do in their homes and on their porches.
We saw one woman sitting cross-legged in her back doorway, washing her hair in a plastic tub emptied into and then refilled from the river, and a baby yanked back from the edge of the water when it tried to step onto its family’s rowboat.
The floating village is a popular tourist attraction, and the site of visible NGO activity. I saw several homes – at least, boats that looked like single-family dwellings – that carried on their roofs the large yellow banners of a Korean NGO, also featured prominently at the school. The Vietnamese school had a big blue and white poster announcing a free rice program in English and Vietnamese. On the far riverbank we saw a small white brick church, contributed by a different Korean NGO and painted with a beaming cartoon Jesus hoisting a lamb.
We sat on the Big Boat watching the sunset over the water, and then took the small boat back down the dark river, past the rippling LED display at the prow of the pub boat, pale moths floating up from the prow of the boat like sparks.
This is the first time I’ve visited a tourist destination that is also a collection of private homes. I didn’t go to the dump while it was open; I’ve never visited Silk Island. I have visited a few orphanages and residential schools for research purposes, and was invited to see a few dormitories; once I was invited to look into a class in progress, and join if I liked.
It feels more voyeuristic to look at families in their homes. For some reason, it felt less invasive to see a dormitory – or a collection of children playing in what was their yard and their family room.
You could argue that the people in the floating villages are cooperating in these tours – although I suspect most tourists don’t know the terms of the financial arrangement between the villagers and the tour companies. I suspect that most tourists aren’t concerned about exploitation, and don’t see it as explotation to lead crowds of tourists down a village thoroughfare past families and their waving children.
It might not be exploitation.
But it’s interesting to me that I didn’t feel as though I was dehumanizing anyone until I was faced with a neighborhood on the water. It has been easy for me, throughout my time here, to see an orphanage or residential school as an institution. An institution is a place that belongs to the people who run it. The administration sets policy and draws boundaries. They allow and oversee visitors. The children living there are already living partly public lives, and thus do not have the same right to privacy as the families in the floating village.
I have heard many NGOs and thoughtful tourists talk about the emotional impact of visitors and short-term volunteers – that it is damaging to children to meet kind stranger after kind stranger, to bond with adults who disappear a few days or months later. Many NGOs have instituted ChildSafe policies that govern the contact visitors can have with children – no physical contact, not much physical contact, no “cuddling” the children, no social media accounts, no writing to the children without supervision, no gifts, no taking the children offsite. But to ‘allow visitors’ is still to establish the idea that these residential schools and orphanages are open: that the children in them are on display, not at home.
The floating village was beautiful. I was glad to see it; I’m glad to have met my students. I’m glad to be here. But I was invited to snap a picture of a woman washing her hair, an old man smoking on his stoop, a little girl piloting a kayak to the shore.
Yesterday, I went to my NGO to paint a mural in one of the classrooms. The education director had requested green because she said it would help kids study, so I planned a picture of dark green trees on a lighter green background, with some bright flower accents. Silhouette murals take much less time and planning than a more elaborate painting, and are much easier to complete with housepaint in a few colors. When I was first at the center, I painted two murals of children in silhouette, using photographs of the kids. They’ve held up pretty well in an adverse climate, although the paint is starting to peel where the rain comes down across the gate.
I had to get the paint from a shop on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard. The woman showed me one small catalogue of premixed acrylic paints, and I chose “Ever Green,” the color of oregano, and some smaller pots of dark green and yellow paint. After some pantomiming, I also brought two rollers and a couple of brushes, along with a meter and a half of thin blue PVC pipe and some electrician’s tape to make into an extender. While I was there, one of the workers dropped a can of gold paint off a ladder. I bought the remnant for four dollars because I loved the way his footprints looked on the brick.
I spent all afternoon filling in the background. The ceilings in the classroom are high, and the NGO only had one rickety ladder, its sides held together with a loop of extension cord. I used the extender to coat the walls up to the ceiling. Some of the kids filtered in at intervals and offered to help; they used the brushes to do the detail work.
Later in the evening, a few more kids arrived. We decided that we would paint the other wall as well, because I was afraid to leave any of them without specific tasks, so I assigned the two oldest kids to paint the other wall with rollers and the three smallest ones to re-coat a section of wall with their paintbrushes. It went well, mostly, although it took about three minutes for the littlest little to leave broad streaks of teal paint all over the back of a bookshelf.
We stopped after dinner to mop up the floor, which was covered with spatters and footprints. The small kids washed out brushes and rollers and the older ones used a mop to clean up after them. In the dim light, the green walls looked darker than they will by daytime.
Today, I’m going to try to make potato stamps so that the kids can put in leaves and flowers themselves. I’m not sure if it will be easy to fiind potatoes, so my backup plan is to make potato stamps with green mango.
Two days ago, I walked into a nonprofit art gallery that offers free art lessons to local kids. The gallery is not very big – it shares space with a nonprofit atelier that employs deaf people to make lacquered boxes (and coasters, trays, boxed votive candles, jasmine balm, plaques folded paper notecards). The lacquer is polished to perfect smoothness, like the tension lip of pristine water; the images underneath are brightened pictures of lilypads and statues. These pictures have a too-strict feel, as though they cannot quite be photographs.
The walls of the gallery in the back are covered with watercolors by students and teachers. There are a few larger acrylic and oil paintings – a water buffalo nosing along the riverbank, a boy walking white cows past a stand of palm trees. The founder of the NGO is from the US, and his work is abstract – rounded compound shapes, half human, half pepper tree. In the center of the back wall hangs an armspan painting of a rising rose-orange figure with wide, soft wings against a mossy turquoise background, like a phoenix sculpted in putty.
Kids take drawing instruction at two long wooden tables in the center of the gallery’s single room; the students in attendance that afternoon ranged in age from eight to fifteen. The younger children were learning how to draw a small black ceramic cup with a dent in its center. One of the older boys was working on a detailed pencil drawing of an apsara hand mounted on a wooden block, and there was a group of about six young women working on colored-pencil drawings of pink water lilies near the front.
There was also a television mounted on a dolly at the entrance, where a short video segment about the NGO’s founder and young artists played on loop, scored by chiming, upbeat music that became very repetitive very quickly.
There were several abstract paintings, but most of the artwork related to the temples. There were a dozen watercolors and pencil drawings of the faces at Bayon Temple, and several more showing trees at Ta Prohm. (I’ve heard several Khmer people reference the latter as “Tomb Raider Temple” for foreigner benefit. Ta Prohm is the one with the trees growing out of it. Bayon is the panopticon of giant stone heads. Angkor refers to the temple complex, but also to the main temple, which is the first thing you see as you approach the site.) The draftsmanship and attention to detail were obvious – none of the paintings or drawings were slapdash, and many clearly were created over the course of several hours.
One of the teachers told me that students had been doing the spindly monk and stilt houses watercolors for easy sale to tourists, but that this was too much like a business. He felt that it was contrary to the mission of the gallery: to teach art to Khmer children and encourage their creativity. Kids could drop in to the gallery for lessons any time during the day, for as much time as they had. A few of them were wearing school uniforms.
The children were quite and absorbed in their work. Even the small boys made strict measurements of the edges of the little cup, carefully rubbing out each line until it was a perfect match to the other side.
When I arrived in Cambodia, I traveled to the Phnom Penh city center from the airport in a tuk tuk. Along the way, we passed countless roadside stands – usually just an orange cooler, an umbrella propped over a chair, a cash box, and a few bags of chips. There was also, nearly always, a metal rack full of two-liter Pepsi bottles. The bottles were full of yellow liquid just the color of urine. I thought it was tea.
I’ve seen the gasoline sellers tipping these bottles into rusty funnels to fill tuk-tuk and moto tanks. I still worry about how safe it is to store gasoline in glass bottles on metal stands, but I’ve never heard of any explosion.
The friend who took me to the corrugated loft diner told me that when he first arrived, he looked at these racks and thought, “Oh, those poor people! Drinking that dirty water!”
He used this vignette to make a point about good intentions entering from outside. Many of the people donating money and effort to charity are just as ignorant and just as inclined to fit any picture into a Western frame.
We all have stories like this, some about ourselves and more about other people. I asked my boss if a tuk-tuk driver needed a driver’s license. A donor to our NGO told me how shocked she had been to learn that the children only used squat toilets, because they were too poor to use a seat toilet. Our donors used to send us limited-edition DVDs for thirty dollars plus shipping because they didn’t know about the bootleg stalls at the market. Goodhearted foolishness is a trope in the narrative of nonprofits, both for the onlookers and the philanthropists.
I think that this is accurate, but the problem isn’t only misdirected intention. It’s misdirected ideology. Unfamiliar can very easily become unsafe, unhygienic, or inferior – those squat toilets were a vector, that gasoline became dirty water because the water here is filthy and the people so poor they must drink it anyway.
Last night I met a friend for dinner and drinks before heading back up to the riverside to climb on the night bus (third two-way trip!). He took to Phnom Penh’s own closest analogue to Belden Alley in San Francisco: a bricolage of tiny two-story bars, cafes, and restaurants, all charging twice as much as their counterparts in Boeng Keng Kang and Sisowat Quay. He chose one whose name I can’t remember, but its theme was metal. The fixtures were distressed slate-grey sheet metal, benches with black cushions, barstools covered in wood cut from signboards. There was a motorcycle suspended in chains from the high ceiling above the loft.
The bar was probably called Moto or something, but my friend explained to me that the name and color scheme didn’t matter. This bar and all the other establishments in the alley, eight or more altogether, were all the brainchild of the same landlord developer, who had started with Bar Sito a mile across town. He had sold them off as secret franchises to different owners. The bars all had different concept design – Moto’s garage ambience, a pub called Portsmouth with amber lamps and leather booths, one place all wicker attempting to be French, a cerveceria with wall-to-wall bookshelves – but the same food and cocktail menu. They also seemed to share a kitchen, since our order (“Ozzy” burgers, hamburgers with fried egg and beetroot, and bloody marys in metal mugs) was brought to us from outside.
So this landlord devised a box set of modular restaurants in an attempt to draw several times more custom. I asked if the standardized menu wouldn’t tip off the customers, but my friend said that it didn’t matter: the illusion of choice was preserved, and the alley was its own enclosed venue. And it seemed to be working – Portsmouth and Moto and Juicy Mercy and so on were all lively on a Friday evening, surcharge notwithstanding.