Perched on a temple in Angkor, Cambodia, I paused for a moment to adjust my camera’s settings. It was peaceful up here, not a tourist in sight. When I’d told my motorbike driver I wanted to see everything, he hadn’t believed me. Halfway into day three and he was starting to get the picture.
Speaking of pictures, I needed to change film. Sitting down to open the back of my camera I heard a high-pitched, “Mister! Mister!” A tiny little girl was jumping up and down, waving her five-for-a-dollar scarves at me. I already had 20 of the things.
“Mister! Mister! Mister! You want batteries?”
Before I could respond she came flying up the side of the temple. These junior hawkers aren’t allowed to solicit business on the sacred monuments but somehow she’d taken my panicked, planes-are-landing refusal gestures as a yes. I fled down the other side of the temple, hopping down the steep tiers with a six-year-old in hot pursuit. A toothless monk cackled as I passed; it was like a scene from Tomb Raider.
I know I could have just said no, but these kids were professionals and I was a big sucker. They knew it, I knew it and my dwindling supply of US dollars (they weren’t interested in the Cambodian kind) proved it. The day before I’d fallen for the old let-me-show-you-around trick and later that day had found myself trying to outrun a one-legged man because I had no money left to give.
I leapt on the back of the bike shouting, “Go, go, go!” at the rider. The ride to my last temple was hot and dusty and when we arrived I was desperate for a drink from an abandoned-looking shack.
I’d barely sat down when a young boy appeared looking forlorn beside me. “Scarf, lady? Where you from? Flute?” I somehow managed to decline and he planted himself opposite, examining me.
“You buy me a Coke.” It was a statement of fact, not a question.
He beamed at me with a good-natured smile. He was a stunning child with a grin that would do a Hollywood dentist proud.
“You have beautiful teeth,” I told him. “I don’t want to ruin them. I’ll buy you a water. Deal?”
He spoke eight languages, yet had never been to school. His family had come from the south to Siem Reap for the tourist dollar.
He ran off to tell my driver where to take me for dinner that night and when he came back I was scribbling in my diary. I looked up and he gave me the huge smile, then chomped on the piece of sugar cane in his hand. So much for his teeth.
“Can I take your picture?” I asked. He posed for me, sugar cane in fist, but my camera wouldn’t work. I fiddled with the buttons, checked the film was loaded properly. My new friend looked at the camera, then asked, “Lady, you want battery?”
“Yes,” I told him, “I want battery.”