Dragonfruit Muffins


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.


Floating Village

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.

Mural Day

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.

Art Lessons

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.

Racks of Gasoline

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.

Parable of the Talents

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.



I’m in Toul Toum Pong, at the French-Khmer fusion cafe, waiting for the quiche to come out of the oven.

I come down here from Riverside, at the other end of the city, and today I got into an argument with a tuk-tuk driver who wanted three whole dollars to take me.  Drivers here in Cambodia negotiate a flat rate based on destination.  When I first came here, six years ago, a dollar was accepted for short hops to adjacent neighborhoods.  Longer trips were a dollar and a half or two dollars; traveling across the city might cost you three.

Drivers charged more to go from tourist and upscale districts, less from poor neighborhoods.  Drivers typically asked for as much as they thought they could get – five dollars for a two-dollar trip, say, to come down to three.  A trip from the airport cost about eight dollars; drivers would ask for ten or more or try to get a tip at the end.  Motodup drivers charged about half as much as tuk-tuk drivers.  Most drivers charged more after dark.

Now, a short hop usually costs at least a dollar and a half; most drivers will open with a two-dollar bid.  Two or three dollars is normal for a ten-minute trip.  Driving across town costs three or four dollars minimum.  A trip to my NGO is at least four, often five.  Trips from the airport can cost as much as twelve dollars, especially if you want a taxi.  Tuk-tuk drivers will negotiate, but are less interested in low fares.  I have been turned down more often, especially in tourist districts.

Yesterday, I got into an argument with a sugar-cane-drink seller who wanted fifty cents.  In the morning, I expressed shock at a coffee vendor who wanted a dollar for an iced coffee.  I complained about a tailor who wanted to charge sixty dollars for a jacket.  A friend warned me that I might have to pay as much as ten dollars a meter for wool suit fabric.  I turned my back on a man who wanted five dollars to take me across the city, a trip that would take at least half an hour.  I have tried to buy cotton for three dollars a meter and complained about cocktails priced at two for five.

We tend to refer to it as being cheated when Cambodians demand twice or three times as much as they would accept if challenged.  That term might have some merit from expats, who to a certain degree participate in the local economy, although they tend not to be compensated in local terms.

But from tourists, being cheated only makes sense if we are entitled to goods and services at prices far lower than what we pay at home, prices that require labor to be costed out at far lower wages than we would accept, wages that sustain a far lower cost of living than we would accept.  We know that the people providing these goods are services are poor.  Their poverty is visible.  This country is famously poor.

Tourists come to this part of the world because it is cheap – because we expect to pay low prices for low wages for a low standard of living.  We believe that the man grinding sugar cane deserves a few dollars a day, and that the man renting the tuk tuk deserves a few dollars a day.  We believe that the woman cleaning our floors deserves significantly less than a hundred dollars a month, and that the woman serving our food deserves the same.

We feel entitled to luxury on the cheap, and we resent their attempt to bargain for better prices.  We call that dishonest and unfair.  We say that their sense of our resources is naive – that they think we have godlike wealth – even though their judgment of our ability to pay is basically accurate, and even though the prices they demand are typically lower than what we would pay in our home countries.

We travel to tourist dumps and orphanages to offer charity at its most basic.  We travel to the killing fields to commemorate the devastation whose legacy is grinding poverty.  We donate to NGOs attempting to relieve poverty at current and generational levels.

And we get annoyed when a dollar rises to two.

The Least of These

Yesterday, I had planned to visit the city dump site with the founders of my NGO, so I was poised to sit down this morning and write a poetic account of the place for you.  The dump features in the literature of the NGO; the children are referred to as “scavenger children,” and photographs of the children working on the dump are posted on the website and in the literature.  Until a few years ago, an old trash pick was bolted to the classroom wall.

I have never visited the dump.  In fact, there are two dump sites.  The old city dump used to stand on the outskirts of Stung Mean Chey.  It was open to locals and tourists.  Families who made their living as “scavengers,” or people who picked discarded plastic and cardboard off the dump to sell, along with whatever else might fetch money, lived near the dump or at its edges.  They tended to be extremely poor, and lived in small makeshift homes.

Children began to work on the dump when they were still very small, some nearly toddlers.  They searched for plastic and paper in the mountains of trash, and run down to the garbage trucks so that they could search through the newest piles of trash.  Some children followed the trucks as they went along, close behind the back wheels, or reach into the trash compactors to grab at scraps.  The dump itself was pestilential: smoke, flies, and rats; sharp metal, filthy dirt.

This dump, the public site that became a tourist attraction, was closed down in 2010.  The dump site was shifted out of town, fenced off and closed to foreigners.  (Foreigners could visit the old site, but had to pay a fee of two dollars.)  The scavenger families still live on and around the dump, but their homes are much more remote from the town.  There is another tourist dump outside of Siem Reap.

The old dump site has been filled in.  Many families still live there, and some have moved closer to Stung Mean Chey.

I had been under the impression that we were visiting the dump, that is, a hellhole.  I was very excited to get a chance to see this hellhole for myself.  I didn’t think about the contradiction in terms that presents: foreigners can only visit a dump that doesn’t exist any longer.  We were on our way to visit a poor neighborhood in Stung Mean Chey, the hometown of many of my students.  I think that visiting the dump site is important to my research, since it’s charity tourism at its most transactional and dehumanizing, but I was looking forward to the trip like a charity voyeur.

And in the end, I didn’t get the chance to go, because you cannot approach the site by tuk-tuk and I couldn’t take a motodup.

Hello to the whole family.

Last night, I was sitting with my friend Niall outside his bar, listening to the women chat at the lady bar next door.  There was a cheer on the other side of the potted hedges, and then a cockroach ran across our side of the sidewalk, followed by two and then several more.  We stayed in our seats for the first few, but began stamping, and then a roach ran over my foot and I jumped out of my chair.  Niall called his cat to come and hunt them, but she panicked and snuck away inside to hide under a table, where she stared at us wide-eyed.

Meanwhile more cockroaches emerged from between the hedge pots and out of the loose bricks between the gutters and the buildings.  I smashed three or four; Niall brought his foot down on two.  Niall said they had probably sprayed next door, and he went inside to get a can of pesticide to send them back.  The roaches had found their way back into the cracks in our side, and stopped scurrying under our feet, so we sat down and went back to talking.

And then I felt a soft tap on my shoulder, like a leaf from the tree above our heads, and Niall cried, “Jessica – !” and sprang forward to jab at me, and then I heard a rustle by my ear.  I got up again so that I could find it where it had fallen to the ground and crush it before it escaped, but Niall said that it had already flown away.

My second stint at the center, we were delivered three large boxes of donation books collected by a friendly organization.  They were whatever the expats had given up – a small collection of children’s books, a lot of Man-Booker also-rans in trade paper, many suspense and nuclear-threat novels in mass market.  Half were in good condition, but many were fly-spotted and covered with mouse shit and mildew stains, eaten at the corners, paper roughened and darkening.  I traded the healthier books for credit at the used book store, so I could buy some gently used picture books, and we threw away the rest.

(A dozen or so Douglas Preston and Fay Weldon novels have appeared, as though by magic, on the shelves of the NGO library.  I don’t know who brought them or kept them.  They haven’t been touched, and are stationed high above the children’s heads, and each has a thick yellow fronting of dust to match the dust that has settled on the shelf against the bottom edges of their spines.)

In the boxes were also thirty or so cockroaches, which scattered before us when we lifted the flaps back.  We didn’t manage to kill more than a few.  The rest we saw at intervals through the morning and afternoon, carefully making their way into new homes.

Last Night in Siem Reap

Siem Reap still looks more like a village than Phnom Penh – the river winding into the old town center, the lenticular bridges and shallow gutters – and its guest houses play on the village idea – slat fences overcome by bougainvillea, trees in old terra cotta pots.  The lazy scenery is overlaid by a clutter of tourist attraction.  On the way out to the NGO at the village outskirts, I saw mini-billboards at street corners advertising a ‘rhumerie,’ a sombai (rice brandy) distillery, handicraft stores, ‘white bike raise money for charity,’ and any number of guest houses and hotels.

And the schools – village education initiatives, residential schools, orphanages.  I counted four signboards for supported schools on the way to the suburb I was visiting, which was a small village near one of the more remote temples in the complex.

There has been a backlash against residential care in the past several years – and special animus towards ‘orphanage tourism,’ which is when tourists in the developing world visit orphanages to look at the kids.  Some of the time they bring gifts – mangoes, bags of rice, toiletries, toys, books, school supplies – or money.  Sometimes they are asked for donations, including donations of food or for a particular purpose like repairs to the school building.  Sometimes tourist groups will collaborate in a larger donation, like a well for a village or a set of bicycles for a school – occasionally even a building or a bus tuk-tuk.  Sometimes the tourists will just bring a little bit of money, or no money at all, and take pictures.  Sometimes the tourists will be asked to volunteer time as ‘teachers,’ or simply to spend time with the children.  The tourists will spend a few hours or just a few minutes with the children.  Sometimes the tourists are supervised and sometimes not.

The backlash has argued on behalf of the emotional wellbeing of the children, pointing out that this system leaves them open to the worst kind of abuse.  It teaches children to trust and show casual affection towards adult strangers, even pressuring them into physical contact.  More importantly, it treats their affections as trivial – as if they were puppies to be picked up and then returned to their crate.  ‘Volunteer tourists’ are often barely introduced to the children, and disappear when the afternoon is over, never to return.  They assume that they have done good, both by sharing goods and by sharing hugs; the theory is that the children have neither food nor love and thus can do with a porridge of both.  I have heard several people say that the people here, the children in particular, ‘have nothing,’ stand in absolute need, have no parents and nothing to eat.

Institutional settings can be thin gruel – they can leave children feeling lonely and isolated, and leave them with a meagre share of attention and help.  They can also make resident children feel interchangeable, precarious, even when the adults in charge are generous with their time and responsible to their mission.

But orphanage tourism makes children into a commodity, and treats interaction with them as a souvenir.  And it is still very popular in Cambodia, maybe more than in many other countries.  I have also heard people here say that the children and the adults are more affectionate, more ready with their smiles, more ‘open.’  So maybe the children here are popular not only because of Cambodia’s reputation for poverty but also because of Cambodia’s norm of gracious kindness.

Orphanage tourism critics also argue against the idea that a plurality of Cambodia’s children are orphans, pointing out that most of the children who live in orphanages and residential schools have at least one living parent – and that most of them reside in these orphanages because their parent lacks basic income support.

Orphanage tourism extends into other symbolic loci of poverty, and one of these was the city dump in Stung Mean Chey.  The residential school where I worked was built to serve the children whose families worked on the Stung Mean Chey dump as trash pickers.  Many of these children had encountered philanthropy tourists coming in tuk-tuks to snap pictures and give rice.  My first year in Cambodia, my students performed a play called “My Life at the Dump.”  The students portraying tourists acted like paparazzi, bending and twisting around the children playing the children, fingers crooking again and again on imaginary shutters.