Phnom Penh Pathos Part 1May 15, 2012
Wild Turkey Man was a real grifter: he had some great tricks going. He’d hit the front of the palace running at 7.25 sharp, just as the first tourist coaches arrived. Wow, were those guys green, they’d just hit Cambodian pavement for almost the first time outside of their fancy hotels, and he could play them like a pro.
It was amazing to see the sympathy he caught. Any of the destitute locals begging or even trying to sell wares would be completely ignored, but somehow he could catch visitor’s eyes. “Do you speak English?” was his usual classic opening line. He would then recount a hard-luck story which could get many eyes watering.
Imagine a poor honest fellow being robbed and left to the dogs amongst all this wretchedness? They had already seen how awful this place was, what with guys with burnt off-faces harassing you for a few cents while severely disabled people on gurneys are chasing you around for a shekel, and that’s when there isn’t someone dragging their twisted-out-of-recognition body up the street on a tiny wooden sled, grabbing at your ankles and moaning.
Eric was quite a player too. He had the appearance of some pitiable lost child. With a deep gash that had almost sliced his thumb off festering and leaking pus he was made. So he refused any offers to bring him to a clinic- that would have ruined his gig. “Why don’t you just give me the money instead?” he pleaded, but not everyone was that naive.
With his hard-luck story he managed to con a long-term resident into lending him ten dollars one time. A few days later he tried to hit the same guy with the same story. Unfortunately for Eric this guy might have had a big heart, but he wasn’t about to let anyone make a fool out of him. He demanded the money he’d already lent back, and when it wasn’t forthcoming he demanded Eric’s shirt and pants. He grabbed these and threw them straight into the river, so Eric had to wander around in underwear for a day or so until he managed to get some other clothes. He looked even more pitiable wearing the crap embroidered flared jeans and tank-top that were decades out of fashion.
What were people thinking about giving money to these scam-artists? They most likely thought about their own lives and this nasty and unpleasant place. Perhaps in these people they could see themselves, in hell.
They felt sorry for them because they wouldn’t want to get in trouble here either. What a terrible fate that would be. So they stuck their hands in their pockets, and paid royally. None of your 500 riel rubbish that you might throw a ghost-lady who floats up to you in a Caltex forecourt, this was five, ten, even twenty dollars.
You expect to see impoverished locals in an underdeveloped country. Seeing a supposedly-poor foreigner here at first seems so strange that it can inspire sympathy that would be absent back at home where junkies and Gypsies are commonplace.
I did feel some compassion myself towards Eric the first time I met him, so I got him to sit down and talk, and I bought him a couple of beers. I stopped feeling so favorably-disposed towards him when, after meeting him countless times, he would still try and con money out of me every time he saw me.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to help someone but it’s disturbing how much more sympathy a person can attract when you share a common background.
Photo by Rakit