There is no doubt that Cambodia is poor: so very poor in so many of the places we have visited, that it is heart wrenching but it is not depressing and we have seen very little begging and a lot of determined, hard work that results in people making enough to eke out a basic existence. There are maimed beggars on the streets of Phnom Penh but very few of them. The street kids, who work and sell trinkets, food, books, toys and mostly “friendship bands”, are the ones that really break my heart. They are a visible force in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. I can’t help but wonder if these working street kids ever have time to play and it is obvious that they will never go to school. It strikes me that it is ironic that many are selling toys for other children to play with.
Remembering the Child Safe Travel rules we refuse to buy from them but it is so hard to say no and not even give them food or money. If they are able to earn their keep they will never be taken off the streets. I know that. It is always better to buy from the many charities that sell products made by parents so that their children can go to school. Nice reasoning but seeing those skinny kids with dirty faces and imploring eyes, is a different story.
In Battambang we saw more homeless people and more outright begging than in any other place we have been. It is impossible not to wonder about a communist system that has no safety net for its citizens. At the bus station and around the market place, young women carrying babies stand silently before you and wordlessly beg for handouts. We saw young boys openly sniffing glue and others sleeping in the street and yet there are as many NGOs and aid agencies operating there as anywhere else in the country. Why the greater numbers of people who are vulnerable, and disadvantaged? I cannot explain it.
Although there is wealth in Cambodia, there is also glaring poverty. Still, desperately poor, elderly people smile, sometimes with black lacquered teeth and continue to work and be productive members of their communities. Retirement is not a known concept as far as I can see. I actually don’t think they would even understand why it exists. Instead they sell flowers at the temples, run stalls in the markets, weave bamboo and rattan, man the shops when someone needs to dash out, sell bottled water from roadside ice-chests and are the primary child minders, as is the case in many Asian societies.
Young children wave and shout hello at every available opportunity. A couple of days ago a couple of kids walking home from school as we rode by on bikes shouted "Hello Vietnam! Happy New Year!" I can only assume that they had a Vietnamese delegation visit their school and were taught to say that. Speaking of schools we have seen so many children who do not have the chance to attend school here, even if they are not working. What is their future, if they never get an education? How must they feel watching others attend school and knowing they will not?
As we have bussed around the country we have noticed the many newly built schools often funded by Korean or Japanese agencies and seen hoards of school children going to and from schools in even the most remote of villages. There is a wide variety of different types of schools and at least Khmer, English and Chinese medium schools as far as we have seen, but still some children simply fall through the net and never get there. Those that do attend seem to understand that it is a privilege and they have been proud to speak to us and answer our many questions in their halting English.
73.9 % of the population aged 15 and over can read and write according to The CIA World Fact Book statistics. (Why should I trust that source and what other stats are actually available?) The New Internationalist claims it is officially 85% but more likely 70%. Even that figure is better than some and worse than other countries in the region, with Myanmar at 92.7% according to The World Fact Book, and Laos at 72.7% and Bhutan at 52.8%. I personally see Myanmar and Cambodia to be similar in terms of literacy levels but what do I know. I have only my subjective observations to rely on. I am forced to doubt that the stats reflect anything of the real situation in most of these countries. They don’t seem to paint an accurate picture and may be based on nebulous data. Regardless it still means those children, who don’t get an education are even more disadvantaged.
Not for the first time in South East Asia we are shocked about the plight of many of the children and wonder just how anyone can change that. How much does it cost to send a child to school? How unattainable is that figure when the lack of the child’s own income is also factored in? I don’t have the answers.
It is obvious that the vulnerability of these children is often exploited and the government agencies are trying to implement policies to provide protection but it just doesn’t seem to be making progress. There are also numerous international agencies working here to bring about lasting social change by empowering the people and providing training and the necessary skills to enable them to improve their lives and earn an income with which they can support their families, but I wonder about how successful they are in the long term and how far reaching their impact is.