I am weak.
Before I even sat down in a beach lounger I’d resolved that I wasn’t going to give any money to the touts that roam the beach in Sihanoukville, a resort town on the beautiful Cambodian coast. Yet here I was, only an hour later, having my toenails painted pink while I picked out friendship bracelets.
You see, the salespeople are a bit of a nuisance in this part of the world. You can barely get a moments peace between the women and children selling tropical fruits, bracelets, pedicures and massages. In addition to being annoying, it’s hard to see small children, sometimes VERY small children, wandering the beach hawking wares. Most of what I’ve read recommends that you not reward them with money, as it only feeds into the system and keeps the kids out of school and on the beach.
So I was resolved not to pour any money into the surf side economy. Yet, after turning away about a dozen people pleading with me to buy something, anything, I finally succumbed. After watching a very nice and chatty woman conversationally threading the legs of the girl next to me, I found myself agreeing to a $3 pedicure. She was a grown up after all, and trust me, I REALLY needed a pedicure.
“You really need a pedicure.” She informed after examining my grimy feet.
“I know, I haven’t had one since I left home six months ago.” She looked at me dubiously then whipped out her box of tools and went to work sanding and massaging.
While she was working a little girl, maybe seven years old sat down next to me. She was wearing a blue jumpsuit and carrying an armful of bracelets. She smiles up at me and I shake my head firmly no. But my feet are on lock down so I have no escape from her friendly curiosity.
“Where are you from?” When I tell her the United States her face lights up, “Your flag is red, white and blue, just like the Cambodian flag!”
She’s so earnest but already a keen saleswoman I can tell. I’m really curious about what kind of childhood someone like her has, so I start in with the questions.
Do you go to school?
“Yes, in the mornings. I work on the beach in the afternoon.”
Where are your parents?
“They work on the beach too. So do my brother and sisters.”
Do you like this job?
“Yes, because I get to meet people and practice my English.”
Her answers sound a little rehearsed to me, but her smile is definitely genuine. She whips out her threads and starts to knit me a friendship bracelet- free of charge. For the colors she chooses red, white and blue. I have to admit I’m charmed by all of this so I do give in and buy about $5 worth of beach trinkets, before she happily skips away.
“Is that your daughter?” I ask my pedicurist as she files my nails.
She shakes her head with a look I can’t quite read. “No. I don’t let MY children work. They are in school.”
As I pink out a light pink nail polish she explains to me that when her husband left her 7 years ago for another woman she had no idea what to do to feed her family. She had 4 children, no education and no English skills. “I found myself walking the beach, offering to do massages or nails. That’s how I learned English.”
Now her children attend not one, but two schools: Cambodian classes in the morning and English classes in the afternoon. Her oldest is about to go to university. “All very expensive, so I work every day.”
I’m so impressed by her hard work and resilience. It makes me happy that while some people, like that little girl, will probably be stuck in this lifestyle, at least this one woman is using the beach business to elevate her family.
So by buying goods on the beach, did I help or hurt the community as a whole? Are the vendors a nuisance or an important way for locals to make money off of growing tourism? Probably all of those things are true. In a place like Cambodia, things really aren’t black and white.