How the capital of Cambodia has changed in the last decade! It is surprising to see how the city has mushroomed; SUVs are everywhere, crowding roads and hogging pavements. Western-style supermarkets have sprung up, where NGO employees, diplomatic staff and tourists can shop in air-conditioned comfort for imported goods from all over the globe. We even saw a Mango (the Spanish clothing retailer) shop being built! Yet it became increasingly clear that the ‘trickle down effect’, which should theoretically accompany this newfound wealth (from tourism, donations from foreign charities and NGOs), is not being felt by all.
In the backstreets of the city, about 10 minutes from the main bus station and the shining new shopping mall, which is too expensive for many locals (we only saw expats and a couple of nuns wearing the blue-trimmed white robes favoured by Mother Teresa), we were confronted with the grim reality of life for the street children of the capital.
A group of boys were huddled together, sheltering from the sun, like a pack of mangy dogs, sniffing glue from plastic bags. They were absolutely filthy and so lethargic between sniffs of glue that they did not even attempt to approach us or beg for money. They seemed resigned to their fate. On another corner more boys were trawling through huge piles of fetid rubbish, looking for whatever that they could salvage.
In Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is located, beggars seemed to be everywhere. Given the huge number of NGOs in Cambodia, which claim to be doing everything from supporting women to increasing literacy, rehabilitating prostitutes and employing amputees, it was hard to understand why there were so many people still going without.
Was it the result of corruption or misappropriation of funds? Was the sheer number of people in need so large that charities could not cope? Were all of the beggars genuine? Probably not. But every evening dinner was punctuated by constant requests to give money, buy postcards and purchase trinkets. Over time it became frustratingly difficult to distinguish the needy from the greedy. Was the best policy to give nothing, no matter who was asking, or should one make a snap judgment based on how disheveled the beggar looked? Should one buy postcards from the school girl in a grubby uniform, or the child in a tattered T-shirt with matted hair? What about the man crawling on the floor, who has had all but one limb amputated?