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.

Black Rivers

It has been pouring rain all morning here.

I slept late and woke up to the sounds of shrieking children outside my window.  The rain that emptied out of the gutter at the corner of the terrace was drumming on a plastic cooler, and two little boys were sitting under the spray.  It’s not supposed to stop raining today.  I have to travel to two interviews, one out of town on a country road that runs along a black river.

Black rivers are open sewers.  A lot of the time, they’re creeks and canals that have become so polluted that they have turned black.  Sometimes, there is no distinction between a black creek and a polluted stream.  The black is a cold, mildewy matte black, like the rainclouds that tumble over the horizon.  Small bubbles surface when the water heats under the sunlight, and the edges of the black rivers are choked with weeds and vines and plastic litter.  When I was here in 2009, I crossed a bridge over a black river on the way to my NGO, and early in the morning a flotilla of soap suds would come skating downstream from the washtubs of the women who hand-laundered clothes for a dollar a kilo.

The black rivers are devoid of fish.  After I had been here half a year, I learned that the fish don’t die of toxins.  They asphyxiate – the fecal bacteria in the water devour all the oxygen.  I also met a young woman doing a science experiment on cleansing black water with plants.  She made old water jugs into ripariums and planted water weeds to see if they would leach out the bacteria.  She showed me three sets of tanks, and said that over time the plants had managed to clear the water to a pale gray suitable for watering plants.  She was working on formal ‘grey water,’ which is odorless and colorless and can be used to wash dishes even though it is not potable.

The black rivers – and there are black pools, black ponds – give off a latrine stink, different from the sour fruity smell of the trash piles.  When I was here the first time, crossing the black river to the school was an ordeal, but not now.

The river outside the hostel is not black but a flat olive green, and since this morning its level is higher.  The paved road along the river is half submerged in coppery brown water, and I can hear motos and cars slashing through it.

On the patio

(I write mostly about patio cafes because I mostly write from patio cafes.)

I’m sitting on the terrace at the guest house – they have a free breakfast with unlimited coffee, which I have costed out at an approximate three-dollar value.  The sky is a pearly gray.  There are wind chimes and wooden mobiles hanging off the roof: parrots with flowers on their wings, hummingbirds with foxed grey feather tails, angel fish, a stand of metal pipes topped with a disco ball, and two swollen bees with torsos made of painted coconut shells.  The bees have black wings cut from old tires.  All of them are jangling in the wind.

There’s also a blue felt board showing some of the children in classrooms funded by the guest house’s affiliated NGO projects, but it’s dilapidated.  Most of the bulletin boards I’ve seen in Cambodian NGOs have been in poor repair – dusty, fly-spotted, out-dated, covered with faded notices in raddled laminate.

The light before the rainstorm makes everything clear and finely-drawn; the sun after the rain clears makes the colors glow against the fine mist steaming up from the ground.

Today I have to go to New Apsara Supermarket to conduct some interviews.  I’m enjoying my time here, but a routine like this doesn’t lend itself to this kind of writing. Go, listen, wear out, come back.  Temples here and there, fish soup and mounded white rice, black sesame ice cream, passion seeds grouping like frog eggs around the plastic straw, no happy hour on a work night, fruit shakes from the stands on Pub Street.

I haven’t been back to Angkor since Sunday; I spend most of my time up here looking down at the still green river or wandering around town in search of dinner.  Siem Reap is smoky at night, and the heat in the city center takes on an iron feel, less like weather and more like a furnace.  The lamps in the restaurants are covered with sarong cloth or gold paper, so the light feels glossy on your skin and the words on the page glow like charcoal.

Carrot Cake, Mango Cake, Peanut Butter, Oatmeal Raisin

I walked into Peace Cafe looking for books – there’s a guest house near here that sells cheap books, I’m sure of it – and it started raining while I was looking at the handcrafted terra-cotta tiger balm pots in their gift shop, so I stayed.  The servers ran out with a plastic basket of tarps, which they slung over the tables and chairs in the patio area.  he cushions they piled onto a blue wheelbarrow to park inside.  Then the rain revved into a drenching shower and the clatter on the tin roof drowned out the noise from the boulevard bordering the river.  I ordered a “local plunger,” or French press for one, that came with a jar of coarse brown sugar and a small pitcher of milk.

Peace Cafe is Buddhist.  They sell vegetarian food and cooking classes.  They also offer yoga for an unspecified fee several times a week, and free “Monk Chat intro to Buddhism” from four to five on Saturdays and Sundays.  They sell xeroxed books of Buddhist thinking in a tall glass case next to the straw purses and pocketbooks, and the tables hold little signboards with slogans like, “If you are depressed, You are living in the past.  If you are anxious, you are living in the future.  If you are at Peace you living in the present,” and, “If you want Peace, stop fighting  If you want peace of mind, stop fighting with your thought.”

Now the rain has eased off and the sunlight is flaring through the clouds again.  The birds overhead have started trilling experimentally into the breezy air.  Earlier today the weather was hot and dusty – the dogs out on the road to the hospital were tinged orange where their fur was white.  I walked back into town from this guest house area, and I passed a sign advertising a Charming Guest House – With a Swimming Pool.


Today I went back to the Angkor temple complex, intending to make watercolors, but it started pelting rain about ninety minutes after I arrived.  In Cambodia, the warning for a rainstorm is unambiguous: a cool breeze that eddies around your ankles.  When it arrives, the rain is only about five minutes behind, and so you need to pack up and retreat inside right away.  I didn’t.  I sheltered in one of the doorways, managing to keep only my watercolor pad from being drenched, and then asked my tuk-tuk driver to take me back into town.

Rain like this slows down the day, and so I saw tableaus from my seat instead of motion: three men playing cards, two boys wiping off sealed ponchos in a drenched basket, a tiny boy sitting splay-legged on a table over a square container of noodles, angling his chopsticks flat across his palm to lift one stray golden thread back to his mouth.

Out on the street.

I met a long-term resident here, a man who has been in Cambodia for five months.  He’s retired, from Oklahoma, and he shared his bacon.  He buys a kilo at the market, he said, and they cook it for him at breakfast a handful at a time.  He asked them to cook some for me, but he was all out – “They usually notify me a day ahead when I have one day left.”

He told me that he had been a teacher in Thailand, and that he had returned here because living in the US was such a struggle.  He also said that it hadn’t rained for months, and that it was supposed to this afternoon, but it looked to climb above forty.  “Just goes to show.”

He also said that there was a man here, an American, who ordered the tuk-tuk drivers around and generally acted like a peremptory jerk.

“He’d say, ‘You wait me here eight o’clock!’ and then he wouldn’t come down til eleven.  And the drivers would ask him, ‘Where you go?’ and he’d say, ‘What’s it matter where I’m going, I’m paying you, aren’t I?’ And they’d want to know because they had a guy to take to the airport in two hours, you know, they couldn’t just – and then he’d be late.  Then he wouldn’t pay them – he’d say, ‘Well, I’m going somewhere tomorrow so I’ll just pay you tomorrow,’ and then he’d give them like ten bucks for two full days of work.  So they’d start saying, ‘Oh, busy, sorry, busy – ‘ and then they’d call all their friends and say, ‘Don’t come, don’t come, he’s here.’  So then he’d come down and nobody would be there, and then he had to go out to the street to find a tuk tuk out there.”



Today I had no interviews, so I went to the temples.

First, though, I clogged my toilet.  I tried to unclog it myself with a bent wire hanger (I’m not sure how to smuggle it out of the guest house – maybe I can take it to Angkor tomorrow and find a public trash bin), but eventually I had to go get the poor maid to come with a plunger.  Plumbing in Cambodia is touchy – all of the hotel, restaurant and guest house toilets face laminated signs pleading, “Do Not Throw The Papertowel into the Toilet,” and, “Please Leave the Feminine Napkin Only In the Rubbish Bin.”  Some of them insist that you not flush toilet paper either, and those are equipped with covered straw wastebaskets that give off a sweetish rank smell in the warmth.

I was afraid that summoning the cleaner would result in a lecture – this hotel room has another laminated sign that reads, “Siem Ream Riverside is an environmentally-friendly establishment.  We ask that you please not dirty the towels.  Touching them to unwashed parts of the body may result in the towels making unhygienic.  Guests will be held responsible for any additional cost of laundry.”  I don’t know what nightmare scenario prompted the owners to write and distribute this sign, but I’m assuming customers of the Siem Reap Riverside don’t start with a clean slate.

They were kind to me, though.


The weather was hot and sunny from this morning, but I found a shady corner in Bayon to paint from.  Two men from America walked past, talking about the temple construction – “I think this is, this is fuckin’ sandstone.  There’s red, and yellow, and this brown – this has gotta be sandstone.”  “These must be the original chisel marks they used to get the stone square.”  “And there’s no fuckin’ mortar, so – ” “It’s gotta take dedication, build something like this, like – were they livin’ in it?” “It says temple, so, I think so, yeah.”

Then they ran into a couple of Australians and the four of them started comparing tattoos.  “This was, straight up, the most painful tattoo I ever had done.”  “It looks great.”  “This one swelled up and it was leaking, and I was just, oh – ” “You have that done in Thailand?”  “No, no, back home – you have to go, there’s a big Ned Kelly right outside to the left – ” “I say this is the most painful.  Some people say, bone, it’s bone, but I’m like no, no, it’s the meaty parts, it’s the fat that really hurts, you gotta have fat on there.  I can do bone, no problem.”  “You got it all the way down, that’s amazing – ” “Yeah, right into the crack.  Right in there.  I creamed it up before, nothing helped.  My toes were just like – ”


I moved to the front entrance later on, and a trio of Khmer kids kept walking past to say hello.  Their littlest brother was too shy to talk to me, and only waved silently ahead as he was walking away.