Cambodia: How I Failed to be Good

When we enter Cambodia, the road we’re on is barely a road. Our taxi driver does his best to maneuver and zigzag the craters and small hills. We drive like this four hours, from Poipet to Siem Reap. The landscape looks infinite, dusty, red. There are wiry copper-colored children with ivory smiles running, keeping up with us because we are going so slow; they’re chasing puddles of rainwater where they poke sticks at tadpoles and rocks. Every few miles, we see ramshackle homes ready for the wet season, tall on stilts.

* * *

Landmine and civil war victims litter the sidewalks of Siem Reap and hold out their hands to us. We drop two hundred riel coins into their palms and frown as we walk away from them toward the outstretched fingers of a child, limbs all intact, who says, Fuck you, when we tell her that we’re sorry, that we don’t have any more money to give.

* * *

The Cambodian sea is a mirror under the aging sky.

At the beach at Sihanoukville in the south, there is a young girl sitting on Beth’s sarong. Yes, threading, please, Beth says when the girl comes to offer us manicures, pedicures, massages, fruit and all kinds of hair removal. The girl is dexterous and her fingers move almost imperceptibly as she wraps the thread around Beth’s hard-to-see light brown fuzz atop her upper lip. Beth is quiet and still under the girl’s arms. Better than shaving, the girl says. She’s slender with darker skin than mine. When she stops working on Beth she asks me if I like the color red. I paint them red, too, she says pointing to my toenails. I nod. Sure, I tell her, Paint them red. Like your bikini, your lips, she says, smiling. I smile too, and wrap my sarong tightly around myself, suddenly self-conscious.

Later, Beth walks into the water. Standing hip deep in silver rambling waves, it looks like she is dancing.

I remove the sarong from around my torso and walk to the water where Beth is watching a young Cambodian girl running wildly into the waves. She wears cutoff denim shorts and a white t-shirt, and when she gets wet, I can see she also wears a bra.

A man (American? British? Australian?) chases her. He’s much taller, at least three or four times her age, and awkward as his legs break through the water, leaving an enduring wake. His belly hangs heavily over his black Speedos and his skin is red from many careless hours in the sun.

He catches her, and carries her like a child in his thick arms. She squeals. I start to walk toward them. Beth is walking also, slower and more tentatively.

He takes her near the sand where his friends put their arms around their own young girls.

I see a white woman around my age ahead of me in the water, also watching. Together we say nothing for several minutes. Then in a British accent: It’s better this way, she says. I turn to her; I’m unsure whether I’ve heard correctly. I decide to keep my mouth shut.

The man drops the girl into the sand. He puts her on all fours and then kneels behind her, laughing and thrusting his pelvis back and forth, again and again.

His friends find the simulation hilarious.

I yell out in anger. But the girl beside me grabs my wrist and tells me to stop. At least he will buy her food and clothing and he won’t beat her like a Cambodian man would, she says.

I hang my head. I walk to shore; I wrap myself in my sarong. I stare at my painted nails. I question the truth in her words, but do nothing.

* * *

The following week, while riding a bus to Laos, I read my travel guide. I learn that the color red can be offensive in Cambodia and that most Cambodians connote the color with several things bad, namely: the Khmer Rouge, communism in general and loose moral parameters in women.

“Cambodians believe that only girls who want attention wear red,” the guidebook states.

I sigh. I’m an idiot.

I read on, read the details of Cambodian human trafficking, read of sex tourism and slavery.

“Report it,” the author suggests.

Report it.

I walked away. I read a guidebook for a country after leaving it.

I put the book away and scratch at the nail polish on my toes. The scene outside my window grows verdant as we drive out of Cambodia’s messiness, out of its misery and secrets that have become my own.

About the author

Dalel Serda is an American renegade who made her way to Cuba over ten years ago to get lost in the backstreets of La…

Read the full bio

Issue 07 · November 2009

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