One of the things The Girl and I were very conscious about when planning our trip to Cambodia (and later India) were “child safe zones”. Guest houses, hotels, and places advertising to be a place free of child prostitution. I hadn’t paid too much attention to human trafficking until I was in Cambodia and I still think about it. I’m ashamed to to say there are great organizations I could work with in my back yard but I simply haven’t moved off my entitled butt and volunteered. Even after India and the squalor of Agra, this scene we came upon at Angkor was the most nauseating and difficult thing I’ve ever witnessed and I hope I’m forgiven for staying silent. I couldn’t even write about it until May 2011.
Tida, our guide, was leading us towards the parking lot and I was surprised the usual gaggle of children weren’t following us, imploring us with their scarves, puppets, and bracelets. The unspeakably hot Cambodian afternoon was promising to be a close evening : “Perhaps they just can’t be bothered in this heat,” was my first thought as I noticed a group of people standing off the side of the path in the shadow of the trees:. A middle-aged white man was lounging in a hammock,; a Khmer girl was sitting on the ground in front of him, her back turned to him and her head bent down as she sewed. An older woman–her mother maybe–stood behind the hammock watching the man as he raised his hand and placed it on the young woman’s head.
“You really should untie your hair. It’s too beautiful to be hidden.” His upper-class British accent unctuous and oily, filled with what can only be described as an illegal intention. My stomach churned he was the type of tourist the Cambodians decidedly do not want in their country. Hadn’t he seen the billboard in Siem Reap warning his kind would be jailed twice, first in Cambodia, as well as convicted in his own country if he abused or exploited a child?
I caught his eye and yet he persisted reaching out to to stroke the young woman’s hair. The girl’s relative moved slowly forward as she saw recoil under the touch of his hand. I have no doubt Tida also sensed our mounting discomfort since she urged us along the path towards our waiting car. I felt helpless. I did not want to make a scene and was unsure how to call the police from the middle of Angkor Wat. The billboards asked people to call the authorities if they saw a child being exploited. It was the socially responsible thing to do. I considered myself socially responsible when we booked only places with “child safe” designations. But I failed the test as I mutely stumbled to the car trying to blame the heat and local fry for the queasy feeling in my stomach.
We rode quietly to our next stop, a contemporary temple, where Tida invited us to be blessed by the nuns. I didn’t feel terribly worthy of a blessing at that moment: I had just witnessed a sleazy old guy coming on to a child and had done nothing about it but walk away. As the nuns chanted over us, I prayed for protection over the girls’ lives that despicable man was touching every day of his hateful life. I prayed the older woman whacked him with her broom or threw rocks at him or chased him away from that girl. And I prayed if I ever came in contact with that man or another like him I would be the one throwing rocks, shouting and chasing him away.