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Heartbreak Road

Here I sit in my hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on the last day of a three-day weekend celebrating the King’s birthday. There have been fireworks every night that children, sitting in a line on a busy street curb, gape at with wonder on their faces. The faces of Cambodians were far different yesterday, as I traveled by taxi to the Phnom Tamao Zoological Garden and Wildlife Rescue Center, about 25 miles (40 kms.) outside of Phnom Penh. The drive showed me every side of Phnom Penh. There were building cranes, cement trucks and workers at numerous construction sites, adding to the boom that certainly has gone on since I last was here 14 years ago. There were plenty of smaller economic activity, pagodas and farms along the way.

But the sight that really got to me was on the dusty road that leads to the zoo. Lining both sides of it, maybe 40 or 50 feet apart, were profoundly poor Cambodians, most of them elderly and all of them flecked with dust from the road, sitting on the ground. They looked as though they had lived a thousand lives, all of them difficult. As we passed in our car, they either would rise with their arms outstretched and hands cupped, or sit on the ground begging. The people lined the road like shade trees, except of course, there were no shade trees, so they sat in the sun or got a large palm frond and turned it into a tiny awning. They stayed there, through the heat of the afternoon, as hundreds of Cambodians, many as poor as the beggars, looked in delight at the tigers, elephants, lions, bears, monkeys and other animals in the park.

I’ve seen a lot of poverty in a lot of locales around the world, but this road and the Cambodians who lined it, stabbed at me more than those others. My driver said when he goes on that road, he gets a stack of the Cambodian currency, the riel, and gives each person a small donation. He also said the numbers of beggars on that road was increasing. If you are wondering, I did not ask the driver to stop. It was too overwhelming, and I generally do not like to encourage begging. Instead, I donate money to good, local NGOs that help the vulnerable, particularly children. I don’t know, though. I might break that rule if I ever go down Heartbreak Road again.

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