Oct 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

One Dolla Chia

In Cambodia’s west-central jungles lie the ruins of an ancient Khmer kingdom, at the center of which sits the impressive site of Angkor Wat. There are innumerable ruins of palaces, temples, and royal buildings immediately surrounding Angkor Wat, but it was an outpost an hour off to the northeast that initially caught our attention. We had heard stories of ruins still covered by dense overgrowth; a look into what the ruins would have looked like before their uncovering by archaeologists; a place to be discovered by the rays of sunlight seeping through dense vines that hang from centuries old strangler fig trees.

As the road signs indicated Siem Reap 30 miles ahead, we turned Nacho onto a tiny side road that wound through rice paddies and villages toward the North. Soon the villages dissipated and the countryside became a patchwork of jungle and rice fields. And then we arrived at Beng Mealea.

It was late in the afternoon and a lone bus carrying some of the more adventurous tourists departed just as we arrived, and then we had the whole place to ourselves. We found a spot right next to the highly decorated stone promenade leading to the entrance of the complex, and declared a camp site for ourselves.

Given the limited time before sunset, we decided to wait until the morning to explore the ruins. Instead, we locked our doors and walked farther into the jungle on the muddy dirt road on which we’d arrived. The road wound its way into the jungle, past rice paddies and a few stick huts, before splitting. At the fork in the road we noticed a trail heading into the jungle. We had been warned that thousands of unexploded land mines still littered this jungle, but we figured that if we stayed on a worn footpath then we’d probably be safe. We entered the dark undergrowth.

The trail wound its way through the trees for a while, and soon we noticed some half-buried hand carved stone work protruding from the jungle floor. As we walked on through the dense foliage more and more stone carvings were noticeable under cover of vines and half buried in the mud. Suddenly the trail hooked to the left and we found ourselves on an unexcavated stone thoroughfare of some kind, lined on both sides by intricate carved statues of seven-headed snake creatures, ferns, and round columns.

We felt what it must have been like for the first discoverers of this site, to be walking in the jungle and to come upon fragments of an ancient civilization. Our minds flashed back to our accidental discovery near Tikal in Northern Guatemala.

We followed the thoroughfare farther and its condition continued to improve until through the trees we could see an enormous stone wall, partially toppled by the swollen root of a strangler fig. We’d accidentally found our way to an ancient road used to access the complex of Beng Mealea.

We carried on and in the evening’s fading light found ourselves alone in the crumbling ruins, walking through walls decorated by intricate carvings, enormous arches adorned with snakes and elephants and script, and stepping over enormous stone blocks dislodged by roots and toppled onto the jungle floor. After a brief survey of the complex we made our way around to the main entrance and found our way back to Nacho for the night.

In the morning we awoke early. We wanted to be inside of the complex when the first rays of sunlight permeated the jungle canopy and cast columns of light on the ruined walls. At 5:30 we walked down the stone promenade toward the ruins, wiping the sleep from our eyes. Soon we were joined in stride by a small disheveled girl and her disheveled friend.

“One dolla chia?”

She was so cute and tiny, and spoke in such a funny little chipmunk voice. She stared up at us and put her hand out, and then repeated herself.

“One dolla chia?”

“Hi there little lady. You sure are cute!”

“One dolla chia?”

Her tiny mouth formed into the shape of an upside down horseshoe and she made her voice crack as though she were about to cry.

“One-dolla…chia?” she repeated, dragging the last word out for drama and following it up with a sniffle. It became clear that someone—probably her parents—had taught her how to ask foreigners for money. She had taken “one dollar each,” and without a basis for the English language had transposed the sounds to “one dolla chia,” which sounds extremely cute when coming from the mouth of a tiny Cambodian chipmunk girl.

But when it comes to giving away free money to perfectly able-bodied beggars, regardless of body mass, age, gender, or voice pitch, I am heartless and cutthroat.

“One dolla chia? Are you crazy!?”

“(sniff)…One… (whimper)…dolla chia? (whimper, sniff)”

“If I gave you one dolla chia, and then gave one dolla chia to every kid who asked, I would very quickly run out of money. Don’t your parents feed you?”

“One dolla chia?”

“You go back to your parents and tell them that they should feel ashamed of themselves for sending you out here to beg. You should be in school.”

The girl continued to follow us around for ten or fifteen more minutes as we entered the ruins and crawled over the giant carved blocks that were strewn about. Finally she gave up and disappeared.

A few minutes later tiny children began appearing on top of the tall walls of the ruins. They walked about with ease, oblivious to the deadly drops to either side, and they jumped from stone to stone over deep crevasses and over vines. They wore no shoes, and were as agile as monkeys. They were the children of the nearby stick huts, and rather than go to school they roamed around the ancient ruins in packs.

Sheena and I walked along an elevated stone walkway midway up one of the enormous walls, and as we did the pack of children approached from the opposite direction. They marched toward us in single file, and as they reached us they flung themselves like lemmings, one by one, off of the wall to the hard ground below. One-Dolla-Chia was the last one in the pack, and before flinging herself off of the wall she glared deep into my eyes and gave me a colossal stink eye.

The ruins were spectacular, like something that time forgot. The complex was surrounded by a high and thick protective wall, and inside there was a vast collection of rooms, covered hallways, an underground corridor, and various walls covered in elaborate inscriptions. The open spaces were filled with giant trees, and many of the structures were topped by giant strangler figs, named for their creeping roots that seem to strangle the ruins below them, and whose roots grow through the walls and then swell up over time, causing entire walls and columns to topple.

By 9:00 in the morning we had explored the entire complex; we had been there for the first rays of light seeping through the canopy, and in the absence of other people we had seen the place much in the same condition as it was discovered.

On the walkway heading out of the complex toward Nacho, we passed by the first group of tourists for the day. And out of the woodwork came One Dolla Chia.

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  1. grammie

    Absolutely breathtaking!

    Comment by grammie on October 28, 2013 at 2:27 pm

  2. bob

    What a tremendously varied world you are seeing. Thanks for letting us in on some of it.

    Comment by bob on October 28, 2013 at 5:56 pm

  3. Patrice

    Unbelievable photos and so great to see another blog and know you are safe. Pat and Dad

    Comment by Patrice on October 28, 2013 at 6:58 pm

  4. Finally another Nacho fix. Worth the wait!

    Comment by Keith on October 28, 2013 at 8:41 pm

  5. Rob

    Nicely told tale!
    As I was reading this wondered why something like this would be abandoned? What would cause everybody to leave and no one moves in? Not just there either as you saw in Central America.

    Comment by Rob on October 29, 2013 at 12:27 am

  6. Barb Wieber (Sheena's Mom)

    Ancient beauty, breathtaking photos, amazing solitude, and the children so sad but they don’t know any different, it’s their home. .Thank you both for sharing your journey with us all. Love it

    Comment by Barb Wieber (Sheena's Mom) on October 29, 2013 at 1:10 pm

  7. @Rob, there are so many ruins in Cambodia, and particularly around Angkor Wat, that there aren’t enough archaeologists to completely uncover, document, and preserve everything. This is an outlying ruin that hasn’t had the same attention as the more famous ones closer to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

    Comment by Brad on October 29, 2013 at 7:14 pm

  8. […] Read more — here. […]

    Pingback by Angkor Wat and “One Dolla Chia” | Lucid Practice on October 29, 2013 at 10:02 pm

  9. Mom

    Egad! As you were describing your first trek down the ancient trail, I sucked in my breath when I read these words in your 5th paragraph: “…we noticed some half-buried hand….” I dared to read the rest, and breathed a sigh of relief!

    Amazing tale of an Indiana Jones-type adventure! The way you write, I am right there with you. However, a better ending would have been, “Out of the woodwork came One Dolla Chia. We slipped her a quarter and her eyes turned from stink-eye to soft-eye.” But then that’s just me! I know…I would’ve been stampeded by all the other children at that point. What the heck.

    Comment by Mom on October 31, 2013 at 10:44 pm

  10. Randy

    Great write up and amazing photos! Can’t wait to get there myself! Hey quick question about one of the pics with your van in it actually, I’m getting ready to do a similar voyage in my ’84 vanagon also and noticed what looks like outside latches on the drivers side door. Are those addition locks so if somebody breaks in they still can’t open the door or what? Also what would be the biggest tips you could give me before I set off, maybe tips u wished somebody would have told before u left?? Love reading your blog your an inspiration! can’t wait to be out there myself :) I appreciate any tips u could share, be safe and have fun!

    Comment by Randy on November 1, 2013 at 6:19 am

  11. @Mom,

    A couple of people have mentioned the beggar situation, and wondered why we don’t give. I intend to write a blog post devoted especially to this once the blog hits India, but I’ll give a short explanation.

    We were torn on the beggar situation when we first arrived in Asia. Later on, we saw locals giving to the beggars, so we asked them their opinion about it. We asked two different people in two countries, and they gave us the same answer: if the person is too old to work, or if they’re too crippled to work, then begging is their only option, so they give a few cents. If it’s an able-bodied person, then they should go get a job. If it’s a child, they should be in school and their parents should go get a job. Many times we see the parents sitting idly by while the kids roam the streets for money.

    When an able-bodied person approaches us and asks for money, we have to make a decision. Do we give them money, and in doing so tell them that begging tourists for money is an acceptable living, or do we send them the message that begging is not an acceptable means of living, and that they should go get a real job? If the message is that begging is a viable job, then tourists will become jaded about these places and stop enjoying their time there (forecast: India), hence cutting off the supply of unsustainable money, leaving the beggar with no employable skills.

    This is basically the same argument as those against NGOs going into Africa and distributing food, for example. Within one generation the people forget how to farm because food arrives on trucks, not from fields, and then a vicious cycle of dependency is started.

    Someone recently compared One Dolla Chia to us by saying that it’s no different from us raising money to drive through China through Kickstarter, or by having a “Buy Us a Beer” button. In short, this is a poor comparison for one key reason. We provide what we believe is professional-quality entertainment every week–each blog usually takes about 8 hours to produce, and we usually do 2 blogs per week. And for this, we get paid nothing. It’s volunteer work. We give people a means to pay for it if they feel it a worthy investment. This is our “Buy Us a Beer” button. Kickstarter, on the other hand, is a means of funding entrepreneurial endeavors. We wished to write a book about traveling the Silk Road, and allowed people to donate to the cause in exchange for tangible rewards in the end. That’s not begging, that’s a commercial exchange.

    And thus concludes my short summary of why we don’t give to beggars unless they’re elderly or crippled. We stand by our statement: One Dolla Chia should be in school learning how to survive in the world using her brain, not her upturned palm.


    Comment by Brad on November 1, 2013 at 11:23 am

  12. Mom

    I totally get that. I was being tongue-in-cheek about the little beggar girl. It is the same scenario from when I took you and the rest of our class of middle schoolers to the rain forest in the Amazon Basin way back when (1994). We were instructed by the organization in Michigan who organized the trek: when we trade with the villagers, DO NOT to give them items such as plastic beads and yarn. Remember? The reason was we did not want them to substitute these things for what they could harvest (renewable resources) in their own forests for their livelihood. We did not want them to become dependent on us.

    So yes, I agree with your reasoning—absolutely. We would be enablers if we allowed able-bodied indigenous peoples to live off of our handouts instead of seeking their own way to make a living.

    Thank you for the explanation! —Love you, Mom

    Comment by Mom on November 1, 2013 at 11:35 pm

  13. John Collins

    Excellently written, Brad! ( Thinking this is you on the Dolla Chia Story!). I spent
    over 13 years in Thailand and have never made it to Cambodia or the
    ruins of Angkor Wat! Now that we are moving back to the region– I plan on
    visiting that beautiful historic site. Thanks for your comment on dealing with beggars!
    I whole-heartedly agree with you position that we should not enable able-bodied folks in
    this manner. My father used to give pan-handlers an option to come an do work
    at our home in exchange for pay. I know tourists don’t have this option, but I have
    always respected his approach. One time, he helped an older chap get work selling
    insurance. A few months later the guy asked for money to buy a bus ticket to visit
    his ill mother in another town. My Dad helped him out and never saw the guy again!
    Anyway- all that to say — your approach is very mature and well considered! Not many
    people take the “High Road” — they would just as soon take the easy way out and allow
    the vicious cycle to continue. BRAVO! To you, for sticking to your convictions and planting
    Seeds of RESPONSIBILITY! Carry-On Ye “Diplomats of DO-RIGHT!”

    Comment by John Collins on November 2, 2013 at 7:21 am

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