It was the summer of 1991, a brief lull in the civil war. At that time, there were only weekly flights to Angkor Wat. So the options were to stay for a week or for one day. Backpacking my way around Asia, across the Soviet Union, and through Eastern Europe, at this early point in my trip I opted for one day.
These kids approached me at Angkor Wat while I walked around the ruins alone. They could speak very little English, but knew enough to ask me for something.
It wasn’t food or money.
What they wanted was a pen. Just a regular ballpoint pen.
I had one I’d taken from a hotel in Saigon were I’d stayed before traveling to Phnom Penh for several days. When I’d left Hong Kong a month earlier, I packed very lightly and just assumed I’d pick up plenty of pens on my travels. I was wrong; pens were difficult to find in Southeast Asia. I kept a meticulous diary, but with only one pen I was worried I’d miss out on my writing if I gave it away.
So I told these kids I didn’t have one. I’m a terrible liar and felt like they could tell, which made my guilt feel even deeper. Numb, I stood there, wishing I had something else to give them. But besides my wallet, passport, camera, and pen, there was nothing else.
As soon as I left Angkor Wat that day, I knew I’d done the wrong thing. I’ve never forgotten those kids and how I let them–and myself–down.