The Adorable, Trash-Talking Kid Vendors of Sihanoukville

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They are the cutest kids you’ve ever seen, they can swear their heads off in multiple languages, and they can get you to buy anything.

They’re one of the symbols of Sihanoukville, Cambodia – the child vendors selling bracelets on Serendipity Beach.

You will grow to love these kids, who spend their days selling overpriced bracelets to gullible tourists like me.

One-fifty for a bracelet?” I protest to a ten-year-old girl.  “That’s the cost of three beers!

Well, if you drink beer, you’ll get drunk.  If you get a bracelet you’ll love it foreeeeeever!” she says with a smile.

I don’t know,” I say, shaking my head.

No money, no honey!” she sings.  “Open your heart, open your wallet!”  With that smile, how could I tell her no?

I bid her down to two dollars for two.  Massively overpriced?  Yes.  But look at my wrist in the photo above — that’s the wrist of a girl who can’t say no to adorable kids!

Well, don’t let their cuteness fool you — these kids swear like sailors.

Check out the video, in which they sing Pitbull’s “I Know You Want Me” and flip us off in half a dozen different ways:

It’s easy to just sit back and laugh. But I started wondering about these kids’ lives.

After having dinner on the beach, two men, both amputees, approach us.  Like the rest of the disabled men who beg along the beach, each of them has a small child in tow.

For many reasons, I do not to give to beggars — I support local organizations and charities instead.  However, I make an exception for the disabled in Cambodia, since there are so many of them and there are virtually no social services to help them make a living.

The little boy bows to us, a silent request for money.  He’s probably much older than he looks, and he’s wearing the tiniest pair of leopard-print shorts I’ve ever seen.

That little boy is four years old and already working.

I hand the man 1,000 riel – 25 cents – and start dancing with the little boy, whose face lights up like a Christmas tree.

He’s squealing with delight and copying my every move. I’m cha-cha-ing, picking him up, swinging him around.

Ste, meanwhile, is playing with the other child, a little girl, and chasing her all over the place.  They stop to pose for a picture, and I’ve never seen this much joy on a child’s face before.

It nearly makes me burst into tears.  These kids never get attention like this.

What happens to them?

The youngest kids lead the disabled – walking around with amputees or leading blind singers with a cane, bowing to tourists and asking for money.

A few years later, the kids start selling bracelets.  Each of them learns every style of weaving and every sales technique to win over the tourists.

When the kids become teenagers, they often sell freshly chopped fruit salads. Then, once the girls grow up, they offer pedicures and massages.  They could sell squid on a stick and tiny lobsters, but not a lot of Western tourists buy either, and that’s where the money is — Westerners.

The men?  Most often, tuk-tuk drivers.

There are exceptions.  Many of the kids grow up to work in a guesthouse or restaurant, or even open a place of their own.  But many of them never leave the beach.

I want to take all these kids into my arms and hold them.  Beneath their mischievous smiles, beyond the blatant profanity, they’re just kids who want to be kids.

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19 thoughts on “The Adorable, Trash-Talking Kid Vendors of Sihanoukville”

  1. Oh wow… what a story. This is the one part of traveling I truly hate. Beggars are always such an internal conflict for me. Like you, I would prefer to support local charities… but at the same time, being an American with a good job, I have enough money to spare them some. It just rips my heart out. Holly and I had a run in with a little girl in Kathmandu who was begging… she couldn’t have been more than 4 years old. It was just heart wrenching, but I was not at all comfortable pulling out money with so many people around. I relented when my wife started crying because the girl was just following us around. It just feels so cold to tell them no… even though you know you’re ultimately not helping things by doing it.


  2. Kids like that might actually be in school if naive tourists didn’t give them the equivalent of two days wages for a couple of flowers.

    Every dollar they receive goes right to their adult bosses, which incentivizes those adults to put the kids back on the beach, where the kids are forced to interact with creepy sunburned Westerners dudes in Pac man t-shirts who just want a hug.

    1. “where the kids are forced to interact with creepy sunburned Westerners dudes in Pac man t-shirts who just want a hug.”

      Wow, pretty sure that Kate’s friend isn’t a pedo, but way to try and label him as one! I guess that makes Kate creepy as well for dancing with the other little boy. So nice that you interpret their acts of kindness as “creepy”; they probably made those kids’ day. You could have articulated your point without resorting to being a prick, but I guess that wouldn’t have been quite as much fun for you.

  3. I went to the beach resolved not to buy anything and this one little girl totally wore me down with her sweetness and good English skills. It’s such a sad system though and it’s so hard to say no to little kids with their innocent faces and smiles.

  4. “A message from M’Lop Tapang and ChildSafe…
    When on the beaches of Sihanoukville you will meet many children. Please remember that buying from the children on the beaches or street keeps them on the beaches or street. As long as they make an income their parents will send them out to work. They are vulnerable to abuse and they are not safe. The hours they work prevent them from attending Khmer school. No formal education will perpetuate the cycle of poverty that most of their families are in. Instead please let Cambodian social workers do their job effectively by not encouraging children to stay on the beach by giving food, gifts, money or buying from them.”

    “The tourist women were immediately captivated by the little girls. “They’re so cute,” one of the women commented, stroking the girl’s cheek. “How old are you?…”
    A blog entry on naive tourists and child beggars/vendors in Cambodia:
    Creepy Motivations

  5. Great story…this reminds me of Marrakech – A similar situation and the kids love it when any foreigner pays them attention, but they will push you to your limits with their cheekiness!

    After reading your post Im definitely going to be more patient with kids when travelling – you’re so right – kids just want to be kids!

  6. beggars and children are a major nuisance for tourists and the main reason I avoid Sihanoukville beaches.Who the fuck can possibly wish to be pestered by the disturbing vision of those maimered monsters every 5 minutes ?

  7. I also stayed in Sihanoukville for over two weeks and had fun playing with those kids. Its just too bad most of the girls have to work as prostitutes when they are older instead of having a more respectable job in a restaurant. They already know it but they won’t tell you.

    Dig a bit deeper next time.

  8. I wouldn’t cal, these kids adorable at all, it might be easy for a young woman with friends or even older people, but I’m a 22 year old, white solo traveller, and sitting out on serendipity beach I had dozens come up to me within an hour selling bracelets, I already have two on my wrist which I got in Khao San Road in Bangkok and have no desire for more. Upon seeing these the seller (little kid, black hair, smallest of the lot) told me my bracelets were shit, then when I politely declined his he called me a tight-ass and cheapskate, I told him to leave me alone and he called me a cunt.

    If it wasn’t for his family sitting but 10 feet away I would have smacked him so hard round the head he would have woken up in the 60’s. the little shits.

    By the way the better they do selling, the longer they stay out of school, so if nobody bought from them then there would be more children going to school, thus becoming more educated and being able to achieve more as oppose to what you detail at the end of you’re article.

    1. compared to what happened to you, I guess I was lucky to be just told “I hope you die” by a child trying to sell me his junk while I was eating my happy pizza in one of PP riverside restaurants

  9. I’ve just arrived from Sihanoukville, and agree with most of you: they are adorable, you can hardly resist to buy them a bracelet or have a funny talk with them… but they should be at school, and if you buy, they don’t go. After two bracelets bought and 2000 riels given, I change my strategy: I bought the next three kids a piece of meat (a kind of thick hot dog), and so on… maybe better, though not the real solution.

  10. Funny thing about American girls, i have seen US girls dancing with so many beggarchild around the world and heard that phrase “they look so happy, nobody have done this before me”.
    That girl have probably dance more than you have already 🙂

  11. This kids are not cute at all…they’re horrible! When I was at Serendipity Beach they came over to my partner and I when we were playing pool and started mucking around with the balls and ruining the game. They told me I was shit at pool, tried to steal my boyfriends hat and then kept saying my boyfriend had big muscles and small cock! These kids are foul mouthed little shits!

  12. Generally speaking you can always tell the new meat/tourists that have just arrived on the beach for the first time in Sihanoukville as they will have about 5 or more bracelet kids standing around pestering them for half an hour or more. Adorable my a$$. 🙂
    Most of them are narcissistic and they ALL use the same lines on you ;

    You wanna buy bracelet ?
    New meat gullible tourist – No
    No thank you.
    I need money to go school.
    No thank you.
    No thank you.
    You wanna play game ? (usually noughts & crosses – designed to soften you up abit)
    Whats you favourite colour ??
    No thank you. (hearing that question endless times brings on a mild depression)
    Open your heart, open your wallet.
    If you are still polite by now this is when they start getting rude. 🙂

    IMO you should not encourage their narcissistic attention seeking scamming ways. They dont sit on your lap because they like you !!! Most of the younger ones spend their time nicking the candles from the tables or setting fire to the tissues on the sand just for attention. The locals dont pay them any attention for good reason. Everything they say to you is not spontaneous. They say exactly the same thing to every tourist and if it doesnt work the insults start. They are trained and organized to manipulate you.

  13. It`s not an easy matter. If they don`t do the work on the beach they probably end up somewhere in a brothel or a tailershop. Tourism isn`t always great and 90% of the tourists are very naive though without tourism life would be much more difficult for most of them.

  14. Great site Kate,

    The kids are great in Sihanoukville! Life is hard on them but if you get to know them a little bit better they will turn out to be very friendly and nice!

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