I often went shopping at the Russian Market on Sundays. Unlike other markets in Phnom Penh, Psah Toul Tom Pong, as it was known to the Khmers, had several stalls selling clothes from the local garment factories that produced goods for the Gap, Old Navy, J. Crew and sometimes Abercrombie and Fitch at bargain basement prices. It was also the place to buy pirated CDs and VCDs and was a favorite among the local ex-pat community as well as tourists. For this reason, it was also a popular spot for beggars.
Weaving your way through the labyrinthine aisles, you would inevitably come across a woman holding a naked, half starved baby, pleading with you to help her. There were dozens of children who would clutch onto you, gently pulling at your shirt, and in a quiet, singsong repeat: "Som loy. Som niam, niam" (please money, please food), until you were numbed by their hollow, hungry voices. Sometimes you would almost trip across the body of a disabled person, their mangled limbs lying in your path. It was a real life horror, a harsh contrast to the ornate silver jewelry, richly woven silks and modern fashions available for purchase.
In the center of the market were a series of food and drink stalls. A trip to the market always included a trip to Bopha's. Bopha sold sandwiches and drinks, but she was famous for her iced coffee, believed by many to be the best in the city. I'd visit her to practice my Khmer and drink her delicious brew. Mostly, I stopped in to find respite from the constant requests for money and food. Like anywhere in the market, however, the beggars congregated here, their droning voices and stretched out hands making you feel guilty for enjoying a refreshment.
Shopping at the market was anything but easy on the conscience. When I arrived in Cambodia, I promised myself that I would never become blind to the poor. I broke that promise. I am ashamed at the times I thrust money angrily at someone just to get them out of my way or refused to give anything at all. I am embarrassed to admit that I was, at times, numbed by the suffering I saw. I am angry at myself for being cold and selfish, for allowing myself to turn my back, look away and ignore. I stopped seeing individuals and only recognized an impoverished mob.
I stared at Bopha's back as the empty chair next to mine moved away from the table, seemingly of its own accord, knowing what was coming next. I really just wanted to enjoy my coffee and savor five minutes to myself. I was drained of sympathy and had given away most of my change. Into the now vacant space to my right slid a body. The man had the dark, tanned skin of locals from the countryside and strong arms which maneuvered his torso into place; muscular from the effort of carrying his own weight. He wore a filthy, ripped shirt and a wide brimmed hat, also dirty. He came into view and where one would expect to see a pair of legs there were none. The end of each stump was wrapped in a colourful krama, the multipurpose cloth of Cambodia, so as not to cause offense.
The man could not afford a wheelchair. He spent his life on the dirty floors of Phnom Penh, pushing and pulling his way along, among the waste and refuse of the city, mostly forgotten, often scorned and seldom pitied. He probably had no home, no change of clothing, no one to love. He had little to look forward to. Yet, despite this, he was a creator of delicate beauty. He was a quiet artist, finding serenity in the world where most of us only find reason to complain.
He placed a packet of cards in my lap before I had the chance to hand him any money. I looked at it confused, pulled it open and scanned the pictures. Each card was a beautifully painted watercolor scene of Cambodian life in the countryside. They were simple renditions of traditional Khmer houses on stilts surrounded by tall palms. Some had small, crude people riding bicycles or tending to fields. Some were of boats in the sunset. One showed a man in a wheelchair in front of a house.
Ly KimLeng was both a victim and a survivor. He had lived though one of the ugliest and most horrific regimes in history. It is almost a rarity in Cambodia to see people of his age group, the majority having been worked or starved to death or executed. I realized why I'd closed myself to the pain I saw; it was too difficult to face. You can not imagine the horror of watching your children beaten, your wife raped, your friends starved. You can not understand what it is like to live your life in the gutter, your legs lying somewhere in a field, detached from your body forever. This is what you see if you look into Ly KimLeng's eyes and even the traces of it are too much to digest. It's easier to look away and silently be thankful that there is someone else carrying such a burden rather than you.
Ly KimLeng asked for 5 dollars. He probably wasn't expecting to get more than 3 for the ten cards. I handed it to him quickly much to the dismay of the other Cambodians watching the transaction. Everyone was surprised that I didn't barter the price, but I didn’t care to. I would have paid more. Beauty has no price.