My Dinner With the Cambodian Street Mafia

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Sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to be a nice guy. The ‘Mafia kids’ here prowl the street, selling counterfeit books and trying to charm a dollar or two out of the tourists. I made the mistake of buying a book from one of them and soon found myself to be the sworn enemy of a half dozen others.

“Hello, you buy book?” she asked. About six or seven years old and wearing a dirty t-shirt, she carried the standard-issue, red plastic basket slung over her shoulder, packed full of the same plastic-wrapped knock-off books that you see all over Cambodia. I actually did need a Lonely Planet Guide for my upcoming Vietnam trip, so I looked briefly at the titles. She didn’t have one, so I said “No thanks” and went about my business.

The next kid, a boy of about five, did have a Vietnam edition and I bought it from him for $5, knowing that I could get it cheaper elsewhere but feeling unwilling to barter hard with a 5-year-old. That’s when things turned ugly.

He took the money and left quickly, but the young girl saw the transaction and rushed to my table — she was pissed. “Why you buy from him and not me?!”

I explained that she simply didn’t have the book I wanted, but she wasn’t having it. Apparently, I was supposed to have described the book I was searching for and she would have gone to pick up a copy for me. I said I was sorry, but she retorted with “Sorry no feed me!” After a little back-and-forth banter of this nature, I shrugged and apologized again, then started ignoring her.

This didn’t have the usual effect. Instead of getting bored and leaving, she sat down on the curb next to me and proceeded to say “fuckyoufuckyoufuckyou…” nonstop for the next ten minutes.

My relaxing afternoon of watching the river from a cool, shady spot was turning out to be much less relaxing than planned.

Eventually, she did get bored and leave, but would return every 10-15 minutes to pepper me with a few more fuckyou’s as she passed by. My relaxing afternoon of watching the river from a cool, shady spot was turning out to be much less relaxing than planned.

She must have told all of the other street kids about the situation as well, because I soon had two more young boys crowded by my table, asking why I bought from “him” but wouldn’t buy from them. No answer I gave was satisfactory and they began to hassle me for money “for food”, money that would –of course– go directly to their handler. In a move that I can only think of now as “misguided” at best, I offered to buy them lunch.

In a move that I can only think of now as “misguided” at best, I offered to buy them lunch.

I agreed to buy them a pizza that they could share with a couple of friends. Within seconds, they had pulled an extra chair to the table and their friends appeared — one of whom was my former acquaintance, Princess FU herself. The waitress was glaring hard at me for this, but I promised I’d keep them in line. “Don’t let them stand on the table — they’ll break the glass,” she warned.

I ordered a veggie pizza and a couple of Cokes but this, they assured me, wasn’t enough: I should order at least two pizzas and eight cokes. I told them it would have to do. The next half hour or so was, to say the least, an interesting experience. They took large handfuls of napkins and carefully wiped down their plates and glasses, and chattered back and forth in Khmer, while showing each other poorly-executed slight-of-hand tricks.

I tried asking questions and learning a little about their lives, but they really had no interest in me — I was just a meal ticket.

I tried asking questions and learning a little about their lives, but they really had no interest in me — I was just a meal ticket. When the pizza arrived, they each snatched up their portion and dug in with gusto. One boy scraped everything from his slices but the crust, while two others carefully picked off the mushrooms. They ate quickly and sipped their cokes, while scattering mushrooms, napkins, and broken toothpicks all over the table.

When they were done, I said “Okay, we need to clean up our mess,” and the girl quickly stacked the plates while the boys climbed out of the chairs. She at least said “thank you” as she left, while the boys insisted I link pinky fingers with them as a handshake of sorts. They scattered like monkeys as I was cleaning up. I left the waitress a good tip.

The next day, I stopped at the same place to check my email. Princess walked by and looked my way, but just stared and kept going. One of the younger boys showed up soon and explained that by doing the “pinky shake” with him the day before, I had promised to buy a book from him. My patience was just about spent at this point.

I had regretted not taking a photo of the whole group while we were eating, so I told him I’d give him a dollar if he’d pose for a photo and leave me alone — thus proving that I’m a really slow learner. As I was paying him, another four or five street kids appeared and all started clamoring for “their” dollar. Princess was there and she was the most indignant of them all.

“Sorry, but I can’t give you all a dollar. I bought you dinner yesterday. Doesn’t that count for anything?” I asked. Princess stared back at me, her eyebrows bunched up in disgust.

“You no give me dollar?” she spat. “Then, fuck you.”

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

The Jetpacker May 19, 2010 at 11:05 am

I have friends with kids that treat their parents the same way. And they’re middle-class American.
.-= The Jetpacker´s last blog ..Movie Review: “Letters to Juliet” =-.

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Natalka May 19, 2010 at 11:12 am

OMG that is priceless and sooo true!

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John May 19, 2010 at 11:40 am

Jerk

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Matt Hope May 19, 2010 at 11:55 am

Crappy situation those kids are in. The post was a great read though, thanks!

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Lily May 19, 2010 at 4:27 pm

In Sihanoukville the fruit vendors are exactly the same. One girl told us if we *no buy fruit* her father would box her black and blue. Its a toughie. Beware of the friendship bracelets too, they *apparently* mean a promise to buy (vastly overpriced) fruit. We found the best solution was to befriend a gang and stick with them buying a modest amount daily during our stay. We engaged them with reading, making sand statues and got huge brownie points fixing a horrible leg burn on a tiny child (from scooter exhaust) with tea tree oil. Beneath the hard (scary) front they are brilliant kids.

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wes May 20, 2010 at 10:46 am

I agree — they’re generally really smart and can be very charming. This is the first time I’ve had a really ugly interaction with any of them. It’s the slow season here and they’re all a lot more aggressive than usual…

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Tom Volpe May 19, 2010 at 7:09 pm

This is a really interesting post which covers a dilemma that I think a lot of us feel when travelling in the developing world. Instinctively you want to try and help a child who is in obvious need but of course we know that it is very unlikely that the child does see the money that you are handing over. The other difficult thing is that even though a dollar may be a small amount of money, despite what the children think all western travellers do not have a limitless supply of dollars.

I had a problem accessing my money when I was in Mongolia a few years ago so was on an even tighter budget than normal when travelling, I knew that the money I had on me was most likely all the money that I was going to have until I left for China. When approached by a street kid I felt so sorry for the little guy that I gave him everything I could but then had a crowd of kids around me for the rest of the day. I couldn’t give them any more money even if I did think it was the right thing to do so I got plenty of “fuck you” from them. In the end I ended up feeling terrible, the other kids wasted ages arguing with me and the little guy that I gave the money to in the first place probably never saw any of it.

This experience has left me convinced that the best thing to do if you really want to help is to find an organisation that is working on behalf of these kids and give what money you can there. That way your money isn’t going to handlers with a vested interest in keeping kids on the street begging.

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wes May 20, 2010 at 10:47 am

I totally agree — putting your money in the hands of a reputable charity will do more for these kids than than giving them money or even buying them food.

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Natalka May 19, 2010 at 7:28 pm

I agree with Tom. We donate to the Cambodian Red Cross instead.

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Dave May 19, 2010 at 9:06 pm

I bought a knock off Laos LP guidebook while touring some of the lesser temples in Angkor, but the kids never bothered me to this degree. Maybe it helped that I was with a few other people.
.-= Dave´s last blog ..The Road to Halabajah (Part 6) =-.

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Brendan May 19, 2010 at 9:07 pm

Wow! That sounds like a pretty intense experience, and a million miles from our Malaysian experience. We’ll be heading for Cambodia soon enough though. Sounds like we better prepare ourselves for a lot more hassle than we’re getting at the minute.

Thanks for sharing.

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wes May 20, 2010 at 10:48 am

Don’t let this color your thoughts too much. Prior to this, all of my interactions had been positive. They’d get annoying sometimes, but never actd like this…

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ayngelina May 20, 2010 at 6:28 am

Cambodia is such an interesting country in how its developing as tourism increases.

I was there is 2007 and really struggled with not helping the street kids and like the others came back home and gave to a charity that was building schools in Cambodia, hoping someday they will be able to go to school instead of selling souvenirs.

I don’t want to think about what they do when they’re no longer cute young kids that can sell things by reciting off the capitals or 1-10 in different languages.

If it makes you feel better when I was leaving Angkor Wat a kid came up to me insisting I had agreed to buy postcards from her but I knew I hadn’t and I already had postcards. As I departed on the tuk tuk she yelled at me – you just made a little girl cry.

Ouch.
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..Climbing Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala =-.

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Candice May 20, 2010 at 10:31 am

Damn, I’m a total pushover when it comes to this sort of thing and I definitely would not have handled it as well as you did. Despite their attitudes, I’m glad you bought them lunch!
.-= Candice´s last blog ..The Best Dive Pub Ever Found, the Inn of Olde =-.

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Eric May 20, 2010 at 10:36 am

Wow talk about vulchers and its nice to know they are learning good English phrases to speak to foreigners like FU.
.-= Eric´s last blog ..7 Free Travel E-Books – Help Charity by Downloading Today =-.

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Vincent May 20, 2010 at 10:37 am

Wow Wes, I can’t wait to meet your new friends soon. They sound like a fun bunch of little rascals. ;) I see these types of situations as a challenge.

Serenity now!
.-= Vincent´s last blog ..My Decision to Travel =-.

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Greg May 20, 2010 at 10:39 am

Great story and so, so familiar! I started buying them pizza or snacks as well rather than giving cash because who knows where the money goes. Unfortunately, just as in your case, my feeding them did nothing for rapport and the next day I was just another tourist they were pestering. Lesson learned!
.-= Greg´s last blog ..Tips for Crossing Borders by Land =-.

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Nomadic Chick May 20, 2010 at 10:56 am

I was there in 2003 and the tout system had not filtered to using street children. At least not in droves. I remember gangs of kids in tattered, dirtied clothes hovering by cafes I ate at, hoping I would give a scrap. One time I did, a kid just grabbed it running, the gang following behind. To be honest, not sure what’s worse, my experience or the one you posted. I wouldn’t label them bad kids – they believe we have more than them, thus should be giving it automatically. Stick to charities Wes, not potty mouthed girls. :)
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..How To: Get Rid of Paper =-.

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neha May 20, 2010 at 12:00 pm

This made for a damn good story but I’d never want to be in that situation. Like Candice, I’m a total pushover and the kids would have found a way to traumatize me! Got to feel for them though. It’s not a pretty situation to be stuck in.

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college scholarship May 21, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

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Clareawasw August 17, 2010 at 5:12 am

We are off to Cambodia in December so I’ve been reading all your Cambodia posts with great interest. I’m a total push over but will try not to be when we are there.. there are so many good organisations in Cambodia that you can donate to instead so I will try remembering that.
.-= Clareawasw´s last blog ..PollyPissypants- RT @Not-For-Sale- RT @freetheslaves- California lawmakers have voted unanimously to expand the penalties for humantrafficking http- =-.

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Jeff | Planet Bell December 31, 2014 at 11:54 pm

HA! This is hysterical. And yes, you are a slow learner.
Jeff | Planet Bell recently posted..My Top 10 Photos of 2014: PlacesMy Profile

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