I sat in a café on a busy night in Pub Street, the main thoroughfare of the big small town of Siem Reap Cambodia. Tourists flock here throughout the high season to see the famous Angkor Wat temples by day and to wine & dine in the mostly westernised centre of town by night. Here in the third largest city of Cambodia, you can dine at high quality restaurants and choose from almost any cuisine around the world. It’s a taste of the developed western world in the midst of a province where 40% of people live below the poverty line. Some that find what work they can in the rural villages, and some that come here to the town centre to try their luck at a different way to earn money, busking or begging.
The resident buskers of Pub Street are a 7-piece musical band made up of land-mine victims who have lost one or more limbs in a land-mine accident. They play traditional Cambodian music, which tries to combat the sounds of live music coming from the Red Piano, a top-notch rooftop bar located on the other side of the street. I hear a mix of the sounds of a Cambodian string guitar and the echoes of the lyrics to Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ in the background while I sit at the café and watch as hundreds of tourists walk past the band, barely taking one look at the buskers. Instead they avoid the confrontation of an issue that seems too hard to comprehend, or too farfetched to mend. Occasionally a person will stop to slip a $1 note in the silver bowl of donations, but more often than not they stroll past the 7-piece band as if they were invisible, as if their smiling faces full of hope were not there at all.
I sat in the café eating my lavish meal, surrounded by dozens of other people eating their lavish meals, and drinking their lavish drinks, and I couldn’t help but think of the people on the street. I thought of the amount of money that comes through Pub Street every night, spent on food, alcohol, massages, more food, dessert perhaps, yet hardly any of that money makes it into the silver bowl that sits at the feet of the buskers every night of the week. It began to make me think about our perception of money, how we find it difficult to give $2 to a busker but will spend $10 on a meal, how we find it difficult to donate $20 to charity but would easily spend $50 on an item of clothing, how we find it difficult to spend $50 to help someone in need but would spend $100 on one night out on the town. Is our perception of money all wrong? Or is it that we feel so helpless in a situation that we can’t find the audacity to even begin to try. I too walk past the buskers every day and for me it’s a matter of the latter. How can I change these people’s lives with $2? How can I change these people’s lives with all that I can give? I feel helpless in a situation that I feel is out of my control.
According to Oxfam, the annual income of the richest 100 people on earth is enough to end global poverty four times over. So why don’t we do it? Why can’t we eradicate poverty? Why can’t we give more money to the buskers on the street? These are the complex questions of our upside-down world. You can throw words like greed and egocentricity at me but I believe there is much more to the issue than that. For now, I just want to trigger the thought in your minds and perhaps together we can find a solution. Will you look twice at the buskers in Siem Reap tonight, and if so what will your thoughts be?