Words || Chanlina Lam
In January, my best friend and I travelled to Cambodia to volunteer with Reach Out Volunteers. We spent the month teaching English to primary and high school students at a local village school and the experience was unforgettable and incredibly rewarding. As we were there for a month, we usually went out with our newly made friends at the end of each week to treat ourselves for our hard work.
Our Destination: Pub Street.
At night, Pub Street was illuminated with neon lights, lined with alcohol carts selling drinks from $1, and filled with people dancing on the street because they couldn’t decide which club to go to. The nightlife was crazy and always brimming with tourists looking to have a good time.
Despite the unbelievable atmosphere of Pub Street, it was almost impossible to overlook the signs of poverty. This was the focus of my poem. As tourists enjoyed their time being carefree, young women often approached them and asked them to buy powdered milk for their starving babies. Since we were living such privileged lives and had the luxury of doing things like buying cheap alcohol, it was no wonder that people felt guilty and obliged to buy the milk. What many of them didn’t know was that the women would refund the milk, the profit would be split between the shop owners and the women, and the milk would be returned to the shelf, waiting to be purchased again.
Even though this never happened to me, a few of my friends said that they had been asked several times but were advised by others to not fall for the tricks. I wondered why this was such a big deal. Obviously, the women were living in poverty and were just looking for some extra money, and it’s not like that extra couple of dollars made a difference to the rich and happy tourists. So, I asked around and heard rumours that the women were part of a much bigger system. I heard that some were sent out by gangs to make money and the babies they carried might have been borrowed or even kidnapped. Even worse, I heard that the babies might be drugged so that they keep still and don’t cry all night.
The locals we regularly interacted with strongly recommended we didn’t get involved. We even saw government brochures for tourists that advised against it too. Since I don’t know what’s true and what’s not, I’m quite sceptical about what to believe and what to think.
I do know, however, that there are better ways we can help the locals. We did our part by working with community schools. Since not everyone can do that, there are so many other things that can be done. So the next time you travel, be a responsible tourist by learning as much as you can about the area so that you know how to help.
Chanlina also sent us a moving poem about the scam she witnessed in Cambodia:
Tourists feel pity
When young mothers desperately
Ask them to buy milk
For their small, starving sweetlings,
So off they go to the shops.
But they just don’t know
That the milk is given back
To the stores and the
Money is split between the
Mothers and the shop owners.
It doesn’t seem bad
But some aren’t even real mums,
And their small babies
Might not even be theirs but
They’re just borrowed for the night.
They’re sent out each day,
Groups of girls and their darlings,
Who look oddly calm.
Some say the babies are still,
Because substances do that.
The next time you’re in
Countries like Cambodia,
Even though it breaks
Your heart, you must tell them “no”,
Or else the system goes on.