I spent about $100 in Cambodia, total, for over a week’s visit. That includes buses from Phnom Penh to Svey Rieng (and back) and to Siem Reap. It includes tuk-tuk rides and torre drives and a three-day bike rental. It includes hotel costs and food costs (much of which was admittedly covered by staying with friends and at the girls’ home). It includes luxuries like mango smoothies, trips to the bakery, and a ticket to Angkor Wat.
It’s impossible for me not to think about money while I travel. It’s important to keep track of funds and not to get carried away at markets and eating out for dinner every night. Plus there’s the constant bartering and begging and selling culture that surrounds SE Asian tourism. I bought a sarong in Svey Rieng province and the woman selling it said it cost $4, about twice the price my Khmer-speaking friend told me to expect. When she asked why it was so expensive the woman shrugged. I waited in the dim lighting of the stuffy, covered market for the translation: “She says it’s because western people have money.” She's not wrong, but are we better off for it? Is it better to live in a world of blue skies or brown dirt?
I paid 75 cents this morning for a bag of fruit. To the seller, a dark-skinned Khmer woman with serious eyes, I showed the Cambodian riel I had left and asked her what I could buy. She loaded my bag with tamarinds and this purplish dirty fruit with a large stem. You pinch the peel hard and at its epicenter there’s a sweet white circle of pure goodness. In my gluttony, I also considered the bananas and the money left in my wallet.
“How much does it cost for a tuk-tuk to the airport?” I asked, enunciating “how much,” “tuk-tuk” and “airport.”
She looked baffled and didn’t meet my eyes.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s okay. I—”
Of course she’d never gone to the airport. She probably never would. How many Khmer fruit-sellers have the kind of money it takes to sit in an air-conditioned plane on its way to Bangkok, eating free airline meals with their luggage checked and their passports stamped? Does she even have a passport?
The $100 I spent in Cambodia is an unheard of amount of money for most Khmer—especially when it’s associated with “one week.” Once again I’m in the airport, waiting for my delayed flight to take off. At the departure gate where I’m sitting, there are Koreans, Japanese, and Taiwanese—the rest are white westerners. The only Khmer here are working for security. Angkor Wat was the same—and those were the lucky Khmer, with a steady job.
Unfortunately, most of the best-paid, steadiest jobs revolve around Westerners: tour guides, fruit and souvenir stands at tourist sites, tuk-tuk drivers, banks, hostels, restaurants. It’s just like the sarong seller said: westerners have money.
We do. We have digital cameras and kindles, iphones, ipods, and ipads. We have bank accounts and flight reservations. We definitely have the $5 dollars that woman just asked for the scarf she’s holding, but we talk her down to $3 because we can—and then we brag about the purchase on the ride home, knowing full well it will be forgotten or given away in a mad souvenir-giving extravaganza.
When I was out on West Mebon lake, being paddled along by Seyha, we talked about travel. “How much for your plane ticket to here?” I told him and he almost fell into the water expressing his amazement. “Yeah, it was expensive,” I say inadequately. He told me it takes an hour for he and his mother to get to Siem Reap in the mornings and that he’s never been to Phnom Penh—certainly not out of the province.
He dipped the paddle into the water with soft, splashing plops—the kind you’d never hear in an airport with its rows of metal chairs and vaulted ceilings. The boat wobbled when I turned to face him. “I am very happy,” Seyha said, unprompted. I smiled and watched the water, trying to figure out if it was brown or blue.