A Life Amongst the Ruins

This is a typical story, not unusual or extraordinary in any way. It's the story of an engaging twelve year old Khmer girl called Duong, whom I met whilst wandering amongst the ruins of the magnificent Angkor Wat temple complex. In a country devastated by civil war for the past thirty years and haunted by the spectre of the Khmer Rouge 'killing fields' of the late 1970s, the burden placed on Khmer women and particularly young girls is a heavy one. A direct legacy of Cambodia's recent troubled past is a profusion of women - at least two to every male - with females forming the nucleus of almost every family unit.

Adorable Duong"T-shirt mister, only three dollar" was my first contact with Duong as I took a rest from the sweltering heat at the foot of a steep staircase leading to the upper tier of the 12th century temple. After declining politely, she tried a different tack. "You very hot mister, I have cold drinks, only one dollar". Now I was interested. Whilst I gulped down my ice-cold pepsi, she continued her soft sell of woven kramas, sarongs, sampots, t-shirts and camera film but in such a charming fashion that I temporarily forgot my temple exploration to ask about her life with the aid of my guide and moto-driver, Soydy. In a mix of broken English and Khmer, Duong explained she was twelve years of age and helped her mother on her refreshment stall for part of the day and hawked souvenirs to tourists for the remainder. She was one of four children but as the only girl, it was her duty to help her mother earn enough money to buy basic provisions for the family and to enable her three younger brothers to attend school. In a country where fifty pupils to a class is commonplace and the school day is broken up into three two-hour shifts, boys generally receive preferential allocation of most family resources, especially where education is concerned.

Angkor Wat at sunrise soon comes alive with tourists and souvenir sellers each day.Duong's only schooling is on the hoof. She has skilfully picked up, albeit parrot-fashion, a number of key phrases from the few American and English tourists she meets and is fairly proficient in Japanese, French and German as well. When we met her mother, Soy Chhum, later that day at the family stall on the way out of the temple grounds, she was honest in her assessment that her daughter was just too valuable as a source of income to let her go to school. The family live in a one-roomed bamboo stilt house a few kilometres from the temple, on the edge of a small settlement near the Srah Srang lake. Soy Chhum and her daughter cycle on their highly-prized Chinese-made bicycles to Angkor Wat early each morning, heavily laden with merchandise and drinks to sell. No mention was made of a father so I didn't pry but Duong, in her bubbly and animated way, was more than willing to talk about the future. "I like to marry, have children and be happy" was her simple but overriding ambition, but for the moment she was content to help her mother on the stall and around the temple grounds from sunrise to sunset each day.

The continuing instability in Cambodia, exacerbated by a bloody coup last July has reduced the number of tourists to a mere trickle, so business has been very slow so far this year for Duong, her family and her friends. When offered, she eagerly accepted some photographs of my own family and a few necklaces and bracelets which my step-daughter had given me to hand out. In return, when we met again the following day, she proudly gave me the only picture she had of herself, taken on a family outing to the shore of the western baray a few months earlier. As a parting gift Duong carefully selected a brilliantly coloured silk krama from her bundle of wares and handed it to me with the words, "please remember me if you come back to Angkor". With such an adorable personality and cheeky smile, how could I ever forget her!

Author's Note: This story was written about a young girl who was actually called Noung, at a time when she was just twelve years old. I was concerned for her personal safety so changed her name, some of her family details and substituted her picture for another. I have left the story as I wrote it back in 1998 but you can find out all about Noung and her life in my subsequent visits to Siem Reap. Visit her photo scrapbook here. I hope you can forgive the journalistic license but I was keen to protect her identity at such a young age.

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