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A careless promise, a priceless gift

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He lived deep in the jungles of Cambodia. His black hair fell in all directions from the crown of his head and lay in blunt-ended tufts against the gold-brown skin of his forehead. I don't know his name, but I'll never forget that look in his wide-set, intelligent black eyes.

He was only 8 or 9 years old, but he was in business for himself. He sold cowbells, knives, crossbows and arrows, and guidebooks to tourists who visited Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, or any of the other vast ancient ruins near Siem Reap, Cambodia.

I first saw him from the window of the tour bus my husband and I had taken from Siem Reap to Angkor Thom. He and a half-dozen other youngsters began hawking their wares even before the tourists had descended from the bus. It paid off: He sold a guidebook to one passenger before she had budged from her seat.

The guidebook was the only good buy he offered. I'd have bought one, too, if I hadn't already purchased one in Bangkok - for twice the price.

The crossbows, knives, and cowbells were not worth a second glance. I shook my head at each of these as he offered them. When I got out of the bus, he presented his wares again. With unequivocal firmness, I said, "No."

To me, souvenirs should be things of artistic beauty or excellent craftsmanship that are representative of and indigenous to the place they are purchased. A souvenir must be genuine, preferably something natives buy and use. For instance, a handsome silk sarong I'd seen worn on the streets of Siem Reap. Fake knives left me cold.

I turned my attention to the guide, who had begun his spiel about the famous Bayon, heart of magnificent Angkor Thom. His introduction concluded, we trooped up the steps and crossed the rough stone terrace to admire the bas reliefs of the galleries.

All through the guide's discourse came the hollow "clap, clap" of the bone cowbells and the sound of small voices, "Buy knife, buy cowbell." The young businessmen had followed us.


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