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VILLAGE PEOPLE

*

My personal urchin was John. His tiny voice followed me around for an hour.

‘Hello, what’s your name?’

‘Mr. Dogster…’

‘Where you come from?’

‘Australia,’

‘Gidday mate,’ he said, sharp as a tack. ‘Kangaloo!’

Then he smiled.

The silk-weaving village.

Everybody goes there. Pandaw began going to the bloody silk-weaving village years ago. Now each week five boats go to the same silk-weaving village. That’s about 3 – 400 people a week. I’ve been there four times. You’d think it’s the only silk-weaving village on the Mekong – but it’s not. It’s the preferred silk-weaving village – which opens up the difficult question of who preferred it.

Follow the money.

The ‘little known Chong Koh silk-village’ has become a living tourist attraction. There’s a school, a rather nice Buddhist temple, a few looms cranking out the goods and some suitably picturesque poverty staring you in the face. The silk-weaving village gives Perfect Tourism.

‘My na’ John,’ he said, his little row of rotting teeth splayed out in a winning smile, ‘you buy?’

‘That’s not your real name, John.’

‘You buy?’

‘What’s your real name?’

‘John my English name. Real name too hard for tourists,’ He told me what it was. He was right.

Click go the cameras – click! Click! Click!

The ship disgorged the passengers. They wobbled unsteadily up the path to be greeted by a chorus line of women and children. Everybody is set to work. Mum sits behind a pile of cloth while the kids adopt a tourist as they arrive. If the child fails to sell they drop away to be replaced by another one – there’s no pushing in. Obviously the system is well worked out. Everybody gets an urchin.

Each urchin carries a pile of scarves. Hardly a tourist doesn’t buy. The kids are too cute, too poor, too persuasive. They’ll break your rich man’s heart.

‘You buy?’

‘How old are you, John?’

He held up six fingers.

‘You are one, two, three, four, five… six, John.’

‘I can count to ten,’

‘Show me,’

‘Wan, doo, free, fo’, fi’, si’, seveneightni’ – ten!’

‘Do you go to school?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why aren’t you in school now?’

‘Afternoon school. I go afternoon school.’

His English was actually very good.

‘Come, I show you…’

He led me over to five classrooms in a row, all filled with children. All the open windows were filled with passengers looking in as the teachers valiantly tried to continue their work. One class sang a jolly song. Click go the cameras, click! Click! Click!

‘You buy?’

‘No, John,’

‘You buy?’

‘No, John.’

‘Please you buy?’

His little eyes filled with tears. He was breaking my hardened heart. Little John knew it. He tried to cry some more.

‘John, you aren’t crying..’

‘Yes, I am. I sad.’

‘No, you’re not, John. You are pretending crying.’

He broke out into a broad smile.

‘Yes,’ he said. I pretending.’

*

‘How is your business today, John,’

‘No good. You don’t buy.’

‘Where is your Mummy?’

He pointed to a youthful harridan standing guard over a pile of cloth.

‘My Mummy,’

‘Hello Mummy’

She snarled at her boy then changed channels.

‘You buy?’ she said. She wasn’t nearly as cute as little John.

‘No.’

‘Why?’

‘Do you make this in this village?’

‘Yes, my family make everything,’

‘They must be very busy,’ I smiled.

This same tourist crap is sold in every shop from Hanoi to Siem Reap, from Saigon to Luang Prabang. It’s mass-produced in China, shipped in and sold at vastly inflated prices to good-hearted fools. First time in this village I bought some too. So did everybody else. We’ve been falling for that line for a decade.

A long way further down the road there’s a man driving round in a Black Mercedes. He imports the scarves, the bedspreads, the tablecloths from China, rents them cheap to the villagers, the villagers train their children to be the cutest of cute salesmen, train them to attach themselves to tourists, train them to weep and cry and laugh, whatever the situation demands. After a season the kids are experts at their trade.

The season runs for forty-two weeks a year. Each week five river-cruises – that’s about 15,000 tourists a year – a captive clientele, every one of whom thinks their unique, home-made souvenir will make a difference.

Follow the money.

The man in the black Mercedes is a very powerful man.

‘You buy? Two dollars.’

‘No John.’

‘O.K. One dollar,’

‘No John.’

‘Please mister…’

He’ll get a thumping from Mum when he gets home.

*

There’s another village up the river, a village that Thomas found. It’s a lazy, little village, full of lazy Vietnamese. If twenty or so tourists clomp through once a week, it’s no big deal. It’s entertainment, that’s all. Look at them, big ugly white toulists. That’s about it. Nobody cares.

Then Pandaw added it to the itinerary, then La Marguerite as well. Two boats will dock side by side simultaneously, the battle to bust the village well in hand.

This is what we came here for!’ gasped the Swiss man. His wife was busily trying to charm a photogenic village child. ‘We’re village people!’ Someone picked her up and plonked her on a bike. Click, click, click.

What is the little girl thinking?

Ma-a-a-a-nee..’

*

A very grumpy monk sat waiting on board.

’Stupid toulists,’ he thought. Anyway, better get it over with. What do you want me to bless? Oh, the boat. O.K., the boat it is. Hang on, you’d better say some prayers. I’ll just sit here.

The praying went on for quite some time. The kneeling toulists hadn’t bargained on it being a full-on Buddha-fest; they were getting creaky. Pam was down on her knees. She glanced at Bob, ensconsced in his armchair.

‘I’ll never get up,’ she whispered. Bob just laughed.

‘Sh-h-h,’ he said, ‘attend to your prayers.’

When the praying was over and we’d all said a few mumbled ‘wa wa wa’s’ the Christmas presents came out. Here’s the look on our monk’s face when he sees the money.

After that he couldn’t be restrained, leapt to his feet like a startled banshee and blessed everything in sight. His little leaft twig was dipping in and out of that holy water in the golden bowl quicker than you could see it – his little hand was a spastic blur as drop after drop of the holy Mekong was rained our heads.

Members of the crew had to calm him down and lead him gently to the railing. He blessed a few more toulists and sighed.

*

She was sweet sixteen, a prom queen from Perfection, U.S.A. Perfect teeth flashed from perfect lips, perfect blue eyes shone from perfect blond hair. She was dressed down for the occasion, surrounded by a bevy of not quite so perfect Cambodian children. They were all having a wonderful time. I heard giggling as they playfully wandered over towards us.

Striding behind them was a solitary monk, his orange robes aglow with self-importance. This was His Highness, the venerable Monk Capone from the Wat Nokor Foundation for gullible American students.

I had to ask.

‘We come from Somewhere Nice,’ she gushed, clasping her Cambodian children in a hug, ‘we’re all here to do Good Things.’

“How wonderful,’ I smiled. This was a bubble I couldn’t bear to puncture.

‘We come here on our Spring break to work with ajahn Capone. He’s our school project.’

‘How great,’ I smiled, ‘I’m glad you’ve found someone to admire. You know sometimes these guys can be a bit… suspicious.’

She got my meaning. A brief cloud passed across perfection, she lowered her voice and eyes.

‘Yes, our school had some trouble last year. We found out our donations from the last monk weren’t really err… making it to the children. We had to let him go. Then we found Al.’

She looked fondly towards her blessed Monk Al, by now laughing with his young sun-burnt disciples.

‘So what do you all do?’

‘We raise lots of money and donate to the foundation then each Spring break we come over here and…’

She paused, uncertain as to what she actually did do, other than spend her parent’s money on expensive, charitable airfares.

‘We play with the kids… we help them… ahh, we…’

Her voice faded away. That brilliant smile never budged.

‘And how many children do you actually… help?’

‘Well, we all thought we’d be really busy,’ she smiled, gorgeous and gormless in equal degree, perfect teeth flashing white against cheeks glowing with goodness, ‘our monk said he had six hundred orphans – but we’ve been here for a fortnight now and so far we can only find twenty-five…’

‘Well, just keep looking,’ I said, ‘I’m sure you’ll find the other five hundred and seventy-five soon.’

She wandered off down The Passage, chatting excitedly with her newest, bestest orphan friends.

In the distance I heard high pitched Cambodian laughter.

*

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