HCMC, Vietnam...and Cambodia

Vietnam Stories
Cambodia Stories
Feature Writing

Back to the World Map!

Kim Hong

Shoeless and half-naked, the local children at temples of Angkor Wat pull at the legs of tourists, selling everything from postcards to bracelets. For Kim Hong, a twenty-year-old Cambodian girl, these are her colleagues, her co-workers and her peers.

Kim lives just outside the gates of the ancient ruins at Angkor Wat, a temple city built in the early 12th century for the King Suryayarman II. Today, the temple structures hold architectural and religious value, drawing tourists from around the world to see this icon of Cambodian culture.

"Angkor Wat, Angkor Wat. You want buy book for Angkor Wat," Kim yells in broken English as American and European tourists walk by. Sometimes, she sells a book for 20 US dollars, but often her customers bargain the price down to half, or even, a fourth of that. In Cambodia, many parents send their children out to sell street items as a second income for the family. Whereas the typical American twenty-year-old may be enrolled in college or starting a career, Kim juggles completing her tenth grade education and providing for her family. At dusk, she will exit the moss covered gates, and bring home her earning to her mother and two younger siblings for food and rent.

As she adjusts the brim of her straw hat, a subconscious habit to block out the scorching sun, she explains her plans to leave her life as a struggling street merchant. Her big dream began on a morning like so many others, approaching tourists on the temple steps, with cold shoulders and rude remarks. After umpteen tourists ignored her desperate sales pitch, one elderly man stopped. This gentleman appeared different; he had a keen interest in the temples, her books, and her fascinating life. With each description of the man she calls "Mister," a beaming smile appears. Dismissing any sinister implications of an elderly man befriending a young girl, Kim believes his intentions are pure, "He says he take me to Paris first, then Australia. Soon America, to California."

According to Kim, Mister will return to Cambodia with this wife and aid her immigration and employment in the United States. "I check email everyday to hear from him," she says, her eyes welling up with tears, "I want real work." At a local internet cafe, Kim spends an hour every day, reading emails from this unique philanthropist from Northern California. The pictures she describes, of his children and grandchildren posed for family Christmas cards, are some of her most prized possessions. While Kim dreads the separation from her real family, she explains that it is her mother encouraging her possible move overseas.

Like her mother, Kim realizes that, in Cambodia, basic human needs are often left neglected. Kim rolls up her dusty Adidas track pants, revealing a jagged scar on her right ankle from a motorcycle accident that never healed properly. She explains that the government will not help pay when someone is injured or sick, and that her mother can barely afford food for Kim and her two siblings, let alone the medicine for Kim's asthma attacks. In America, Kim hopes to find a job, pay for her own medical bills, and send money home to her mother.

But Kim is not the only one with health problems, and a flicker of panic appears in her eyes as she reveals Mister's recent problems. She recalls the email from his wife stating he had experienced a mild heart attack and was hospitalized. Although doctors have assured his wife a full recovery, Kim is not convinced. With the sincerity of a concerned daughter, she contemplates the possibility of his failing health. "I can't sleep. I up all night with worry," Kim says. If his health does not improve, he may not be able to return to Cambodia, and she will lose this opportunity for a new family and a new life.

Despite her worries, Kim's hope never fades. She says she will continue to work at the temples until one day he returns. Her days are filled with haggling with the tourists, and her nights, dreaming of life in America. As the sun sets behind the temple skyline, she reaffirms her belief in, what many might call, a perfect stranger, "He promises he will come back for me. He promised."

Jessica Lee