“Mister only one dollar”: facing up to the other side of Angkor Wat (and other tourist sites)

“Please Mister, buy something from me”

“You buy from anyone you buy from me, ok?”

“Maybe when you come back. I remember you”

“Is special good morning price!”

“Lucky for you, lucky for me”

Anyone who has visited Angkor Wat will be familiar with these lines and many others in constant use by the kids who are desperate to sell anything to the passing tourists. As soon as we approached a temple site, whether by tuk-tuk or on bicycles, the children, usually girls, were waiting for us ready to show us their wares in the hope of snapping up a dollar or two from us.

We had been warned about the constant hassle of the hawkers at the Angkor temples before we reached Siem Reap. Stories of begging children clinging to tourists’ legs with parents egging them on, and of not being able to stop to eat without a crowd of children coming round to beg. After a few weeks of no hassle travel we were prepared for the worst.

And I have to say we didn’t get any of the hassle we had expected. Yes, there must be thousands of children ‘working’ the temple sites. Even as we arrived at Banteay Srei, one of the most remote sites, before 7am we were approached by an early bird to ask if we wanted to buy a scarf. But as with almost all of the other sellers, a smile and a clear “No thank you” was enough for them to move on and look for another target.

I do have sympathy with the children, most of who live in desperate poverty. The small profit they make on selling two cans of Coke for a dollar or a guidebook for the same amount can add up to a decent amount for the family coffers on a good day. They see the hordes of western tourists come by, staying in palatial hotels and eating in restaurants they couldn’t dream of visiting, and must wonder why we quibble over sharing one of our many dollars with them. As an ex-pat living in Cambodia pointed out to us, the people there typically have only two exposures to western life: one is the passing tourist, looking relaxed, healthy and clearly very wealthy, and the other is that of the world of TV and movies, where people drive fast cars, drink expensive cocktails and live in beautiful houses. In that context, it is easy to see how we are perceived as having unlimited wealth.

I didn’t find the Khmer children to be as persistent as others had reported, and we have certainly experienced far more aggresive and unpleasant sellers (Egypt was the worst for us). They are still kids, and there was a certain naivety in their selling approach that endeared them to us rather than detracted from the Angkor Wat experience. Although we didn’t buy more than a few drinks from the sellers during our three days there, we did share jokes with the children and by the end were able to repeat their own lines to them before they had uttered them, which brought a laugh all round.

There is a fine line to tread between diffusing a situation with humour and respecting the children’s efforts in trying to make a living in difficult circumstances.  I hope we maintained that balance, but I certainly would reassure anyone visiting Angkor Wat not to be put off by the large number of vendors who will be waiting for them. The local traders are entitled to try and make some money from the tourism boom, and with respect and a smile you can at least get a beaming grin from the local children, even if you choose to pass on the photocopied guidebook or a wooden whistle. And beware of the lady carrying a young infant who shouts “Coca Cola one dollar; water one dollar; guidebook one dollar; baby one dollar”. Rest assured, she is pulling your leg.

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

3 Responses to ““Mister only one dollar”: facing up to the other side of Angkor Wat (and other tourist sites)”

  1. Love this!

    As female travelers, we were starting to get a lot of anxiety over what we have been hearing of the begging going on around Thailand and Cambodia. Thanks to the article, we will now not be apprehensive, but know what to expect in Angkor Wat. Sometimes, hearing a positive perspective is all it takes to turn a trip in the right direction.

    Also, any blogs about how to deal with the Egyptians? Doing research before our trip, I know we are definitely going to be messed with….

    April 8, 2010 at 6:44 pm
  2. Glad to put your mind at rest, ladies. Can’t help with Egypt (was too long ago and only a very short stop) but if you put a note out on Twitter you’ll doubtless get some first hand advice.

    April 9, 2010 at 4:44 pm
  3. Jules Hewett #

    You absolutely should not buy from children.

    This encourages them, and in particular their parents, not to go to school.

    Which is obviously very damaging to the future of the child.

    Better to say to the child that s/he should be at school.

    November 21, 2012 at 10:38 am