What is poverty? When is a person ‘poor’?
When I walk here, with my western preconceptions, I am appalled by the poverty everywhere. Kids run barefooted through the village. They have nothing – no toys, perhaps a rusty old bike. We travel with cabin luggage only but I swear that we carried more with us in one bag then most of these people own.
But they grow their own food. They have rice and chickens, they pick mangoes and drink coconut juice or sugar cane juice so their bellies are full. Education is free so the kids go to school. And they are so happy. Everyone smiles, everyone is cheerful. So are they poor? Or are they just fine?
These two little girls used two empty bottles as dolls. They talked to them, wrapped them and rocked them like babies.
In a country with 31º average temperature, 95% of the population does not have a refrigerator. There simply is no electricity. People use ice boxes and buy large chunks of ice each day. So someone has the job of icemaker and hauls these blocks on his wagon, wrapped in tarps to deliver to roadside stands and other customers.
It is so interesting to see how people carve a living out of their surroundings. As we drove north from Siem Reap to Kratie, some 400 KM, we stopped along a short stretch of road with nothing but stone carvings for sale. A young man was hammering away at one of the giant blocks, turning them into buddhas.
I lose track of how many temples we have visited but all of them have an abundance of stone statues, mostly grey stone but sometimes painted. Often long staircases are lined with figures carrying an enormously long rope or snake. On one side are evil, or mad looking persons, on the other are smiling, good people. Someone has to produce all of these statues.
Many thousands work in the garment industry, Cambodia’s major source of income. A factory worker – often women – earns about $150 per month! That’s for 9 hour days, 5 or 6 days a week (comes to about 80 cents per hour!!). Yet everyone, and I mean éveryone, has a cell phone in their hands. Even in villages with almost no electricity, people have cell phones. A plan is 5.- per month.
As we were driving a very bumpy dirt road, I was just thinking what a poor area this must be, with shacks, uneven planks for walls, rusty tin for roofs. Then our guide said “This is a well-to-do area with larger homes. Tomorrow we will be in a much poorer area…”
Kratie is a bustling city on the Mekong river. From here we crossed that mighty river in a small wooden boat used by locals as the ferry to Koh Trong, an island in the river. With us on the ferry were school teachers and workers bringing supplies. One man brought large ice blocks to sell, others had big bags of produce.
On the other side, we first walked about 400 meters over soft white sand which, in rainy season, is well under water.
Then we walked over to the Primary School of Koh Trong. Within minutes we were in the first grade and I was given a piece of chalk and told to write the English alphabet on the blackboard. The kids all chanted sounds and many knew the “alphabet song”. Education is incredibly important here. It is free for all but the kids need a school uniform (blue or black pants or skirt and white shirt). Teachers used to make a pittance and have to have a second job in order to be able to afford teaching. Now it is getting better, we’re told. Kids learn English in the higher grades. They sang songs for us and we left them lots of pencils, pencil sharpeners and a soccer ball. I really admire my friends Jan and Anne who taught here for many years and really made a difference.
We strolled along one side of the island, up around the tip and back along the other side through rice paddies. We were passed by lots of motorbikes, bicycles and oxen carts. We stopped in one yard to eat a pomelo, got to use the squat toilet at another.
Many people sat in the shade under their homes. Some swept the yard with a bunch of twigs. One had a chair outside and a mirror hanging in the tree with a sign ‘Haircuts one dollar’.
Language fun: Every night at dinner we get asked “Would you like rye with that?” Unfortunately, he means ‘rice’ but doesn’t pronounce the ’s’.
The clerk at the hotel does pronounce the ’s’ even if it is supposed to be silent. As in “You are going to Iceland today.” Me: “Iceland?!”
“Yes, Koh Trong is Iceland,”
Me: “Ah! Island! Yes.”