By: Klaing Kimhuoy, Som Sreypich, Sun Luot
Siem Reap - A tanned Neang sits on the grass near famed Angkor Wat next to her favorite bike. She holds a basket of Chombok nuts, waiting desperately for tourists to buy from her.
The 14-year-old is helping her family during the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. She is one of about 20 young children selling gifts to tourists in the Angkor Wat area, despite the practice being banned by Apsara Authorities. Her mother has HIV and her father died in a motor accident many years ago.
Neang, identified only by first name to protect her identity, has three siblings. Her oldest brother is married and has moved out of the family home. Another brother has been in a prison in Siem Reap province for more than a year over a gang fight.
As selling souvenirs at Angkor is banned, children are forced to hide their produce in plastic bags. If Apsara Authority guards catch them, it will be confiscated.
Life is a struggle for children who sell at Angkor, as they attempt to balance earning an income to support their families with going to school. They sell souvenirs, food, fruits, and nuts to facilitate family life. If they study in the evening, they spend their mornings selling.
"When it’s time to go home, I hurry and change my clothes to go to sell Chambok in front of Angkor until five o'clock in the evening," Neang said.
During Siem Reap’s lockdown, Neang was unable to sell at Angkor. Instead, she picked mushrooms to sell in her village.
Neang is a former scavenger at Angkor and started selling Chombok nuts at the age of seven. She was a fifth grader when her school was closed due to the Covid-19 crisis.
"In order to learn online, I need to have at least one smartphone, but my family is very poor and my mother uses a Nokia 1280", Neang said.
Her family does not own a smartphone, so she is unable to study online like other kids. So far, almost two years have passed and she has been unable to progress in line with her classmates, who will soon start secondary school.
Since schools reopened in October, Neang spends 40 minutes getting therel by bicycle.
"Even though I did not do as well as others, I never thought I would drop out," she said. “In the second grade, I had to repeat the class once because I did not attend the semester exam.”
She recalls how she was unable to sit the semester exam as it fell on the same day as her father's funeral. As a result, she had to repeat her Grade 2 studies.
Similarly, 11-year-old Neath, who is a fourth grader, lives in a poor family. However, she loves to learn and is determined to continue her education until the end of Grade 12.
Apart from studying, Neath, also identified by first name, sells beaded bracelets that she makes herself. She has been selling them in front of Angkor since 2016, before the garden area existed.
"When the red zone was enforced, I couldn’t go to sell as usual, but I was at home reading books and self-studying”, Neath said.
Neath describes her life with tears. She tells how she pities her mother, who is often beaten and verbally abused by her father.
Neath’s mother is 48-years-old. She wears a green shirt, the uniform of cleaners in the Angkor area.
"The Apsara Authority has banned children from selling for a long time, my daughter secretly sells,” the mother said.
She told her daughter, “If the Apsara National Authority catches you, tell them, ‘Uncle! I am selling this to get money to go to school’.”
Apsara Authority spokesman, Long Kosal, denied children continue to sell at Angkor Wat.
“Currently, there are no children selling souvenirs or other things in front of Angkor Wat,” he said.
Without mentioning the children, he said all kinds of vendors of various ages who sell at the site are “very chaotic”. He added it can deter both national and international tourists.
He mentioned parents who allow their children to sell are often due to a lack of understanding that they should keep their kids in school.
Using children to sell things affects the future of the children, Long Kosal said. He added that banning kids from carrying out business in front of the temple area has been in place for many years.
Long Kosal continued, "We encourage children to continue their education. The Apsara Authority has already carried out their work to strengthen children’s knowledge by making them return to school."
Siem Reap Provincial Governor, Tea Seiha, confirmed local authorities are aware of the issue and used to intervene. However, enforcement lies with the Apsara Authority.
“This is the decision of the Apsara authorities,” Tea Seiha said.
Li Samrith, deputy governor of Siem Reap province, also referred questions to Apsara Authority. "This is the responsibility of the Apsara authorities," he said.
(Reporters for this story are from Newsroom Cambodia)