A Beggars Banquet

There are a lot of beggars in and around Siem Reap and many of those are missing limbs, have been blinded or have other significant injuries as a result of incidents with land mines. Some mine victims prefer to play music rather than simply beg for a living and there are others who have small portable stalls selling pirated or second hand books. These book vendors have signs declaring that you should buy a book from them because they would rather work than beg. This is a sentiment which I am happy to support so I returned from Cambodia with several books that I otherwise would not have purchased.

Begging is a skill and the extent with which some people will go to gain your attention and sympathy is really fascinating. Most beggars use some type of prop to attract the potential benefactor and favourite props are small children either naked or dressed in rags or small cuddly animals. These are nearly always carried about in what appears to be a drugged like state and the person doing the carrying usually has a look of abject misery on the face and talks with a whining, ingratiating sort of tone. Talk about working out the psychology of the affluent tourist!

Children are sent about to beg at all the popular venues and at any hour, if they know that tourists will be there, you can be sure that they will turn up, cap in hand, “please mister, you give me some money, I hungry”. I’m a kind person and the sight of dirty downtrodden people pulls on my heartstrings, but after three days of constant harassment it all starts to wear a bit thin. The final straw happened on the Boxing Day Sunday just outside the old markets in the centre of the town.

Landon, Lisa and I were walking around searching for a place where disabled people are taught to make crafts that can be sold to tourists. As usual I felt a tap on my arm and looked down to see a man on crutches hobbling along after us proclaiming that he was starving and could I please give him one dollar to help him feed his family. His body was twisted in a hopeless fashion and he looked up at me beseechingly as his useless legs trailed along and he struggled to keep up with us. He had his cap in his hand which he continually thrust under my nose while thanking me in advance for anything that I could give to help him get through another day.

As I said previously, I was at the end of my tether with beggars and indeed with people selling all of the usual tourist junk. Anyway, I had already given all of my local currency to a small family that I met whose father was a mine victim (well, he had a leg missing and a lot of holes in his other leg). So I told this guy firmly “No, I’m sorry but I can’t help you today”. He persisted and persisted and I kept saying no until we crossed over a road and lost him in the traffic.

As it turns out, I’m very glad that I did not give this guy anything because I happened to glance back and noticed that he was walking away a whole lot faster than when he had been badgering me. Intrigued, I kept watching and moved so that I could observe him further. Lo and behold as he went behind the cover of a tourist bus a miracle took place. Instead of the limp he was able to take his crutches in one hand and walk upright, in fact he lit up a cigarette and puffed away on it as he strode off in search of another victim.

This episode simply serves to reinforce my opinion that I need to be thoughtful about who I give my money to and not simply be suckered in by a carefully rehearsed routine. The problem that remains is how to decide who is in “genuine” need.