A TNT Travel Writitng Awards entrant

Author: Vincent Van Ross


As I entered one of the temples at the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia, a little girl came running to me. She must have been five or six years of age.

“Only two dawlaar Saar (only two dollar Sir),” she offered in typical Cambodian accent extending a T-shirt with “Siem Reap and Angkor Wat” inscribed on it.
The T-shirt also had a picture of the main Angkor Wat temple with the five spires printed on it.

I shook my head from left to right and back again saying: “No.”

But, she was not one to take a ‘no’ for an answer. She egged on. “Only two dawlaar Saar.”

I kept brushing aside her incantations.

For the next fifteen minutes she kept following me exhorting me to purchase a T-shirt. The fact is that I do not wear T-shirts. At last I gave her what I thought was the final brush off. I told her: “Look…I can’t buy it. I don’t have the money.” I thought that would put her off.

“You can Saar…but you don’t want to…I know Saar,” she persisted.

“Look…you are wasting your time. Why don’t you try someone else?” I queried.

Disheartened, she walked away.

As I entered the temple, I sort of felt bad about what happened during the last fifteen minutes. And, I made up my mind that I would purchase one T-shirt from the little girl when I come out of the temple. I thought she had spent enough time on me to deserve one sale.

After circumambulating the temple, when I stepped out I found the little girl standing under the shade of a tree some thirty feet away.

I waved to her but she shook her head in a disgusted fashion. Then I took out my wallet, pulled out two dollar bills and waved them at her.
She came running to me with the T-shirts in her hand. “What colour you want Saar?” she asked excitedly.

I picked up a cobalt blue T-shirt. “I will take this one.”

She pulled out an old newspaper from her shoulder bag and wrapped up the T-shirt in no time. Her face lit up as I handed her the two dollar bills. I tell you that sight was worth a million dollars-the beaming face of an innocent child triumphant on earning some money!

Then I sat down on a stool outside one of the shops with a thatched roof selling coconut water. Coconut water is one of my favourite drinks. In Cambodia there are large coconuts which are thrice the size of their Indian counterparts. And, there is so much of sweet coconut water in them that you cannot finish it off in one go.

As I sat there sipping the coconut water, the shop owner told me about the little girl. “She is an orphan and she is illiterate,” She said. That took me by surprise. “Her parents died in an accident.  She doesn’t go to school because she cannot afford to. But, she has learnt to read and write English. She takes lessons from us whenever she finds time. And, we teach her.”

It is amazing. But, she knew seven languages…English, German, Spanish, French, Hungarian, Russian and her local tongue whatever it is called. “How did she learn so many languages?” I wondered. As if in answer, I found her standing next to me. She had appeared out of nowhere.

“You…Indian Saar?”

“Yes,” I responded giving her a curious look.

“Sing a song for me…” she requested.

Now, my voice wasn’t something that was anywhere that could be called melodious. I tried to excuse myself. But, she wouldn’t listen to me. “Sing naa…,” she insisted. That sounded like some Indian language.

I didn’t know how to get out of it. “You give me two dollars…I sing a song…,” I offered.

“I have no dollar…Saar,” she replied.

“No dollar…no song!” I shrugged my shoulders in a gesture of helplessness.

Having failed in this, she opened another front: “Okay, what language you speak in India?”

“I speak several languages…but the main language is Hindi…,” I told her.

“You teach me your language Saar?”

“All right, what do you want to know?”

“What you say for Good Morning Saar?”

“Namaste…,” I said with folded hands. She was familiar with the way I folded my handed and brought them together with a bow.

“What you say for goodbye…Saar?”

Again I said: “Namaste!” with folded hands. She eyed me suspiciously.  She thought I was pulling her leg. But I assured her that I was speaking the truth.

“Tell me spelling Saar,” she said as she pulled out a note book and a lead pencil from her book. And, she wrote “N-A-M-A-S-T-E” as I spelt it out for her.

“What you say for…only two dollars Saar?”

“Sirf dho dollar, Saab,” I told her. She wrote that down as well. She thanked me and she started walking away.

She was back after a couple of minutes. “Now,…what?” I asked her with a smile on my face.

She pulled out a small piece of paper from her note book which was folded in four and handed it to me. I was hesitant to take it. But, she thrust it into my hands with her little hands as she said: “It is free Saar…gift for you Saar…”

I opened it and I found sketches of two flowers and two butterflies that she had made. And, written on the page was this message: “Hello…my name is Corn…this will bring good luck.”

I thanked her, folded her gift carefully and stored it in the safely of my wallet.

As I made to leave, Corn folded her little hands but she was at a loss for words as she had forgotten the Hindi word for goodbye. She pulled out her notebook quickly and read out: “N-A-M-A-S-T-E!”

Tears rolled down my cheeks as I responded to her goodbye with folded hands: “Namaste!”