Dinner on the Beach

Rien with bracelets

We’re at the Sea Dragon restaurant in Sihanoukville, just a few feet from the South China Sea. The waves lap against sand, and little kids pass through the restaurant, selling bracelets. That’s their job. Dozens of them do it every day, every night, making money for their parents to buy food, pay rent or send the kids to school.

Tonight we meet Mao, 12, and Rien, 7. They chat with us for several minutes until our crab comes — a big, succulent crab, broken and fried in lemongrass and red curry spices with whole garlic cloves, onion and green pepper. Then comes the grilled fish with lime and meric (among the world’s best black pepper, grown in Kampot province). Mao taps his brother on the shoulder and motions for them to leave. “Their food is here,” Mao says. He doesn’t want to disturb our dinner.

But their story has already marked our dinner because I eat that crab and fish and think of how Mao and Rien work each night until they’ve sold $5 worth of bracelets (10 in all). And if they go home empty, Rien says, their mother hits them. He makes a fist and points it at his jaw, for emphasis.

This is not an unusual story. We’ve heard it time and again.

When we finish the crab, the boys pass by to say good night. We stop them to ask more questions. They no longer go to school, but Mao doesn’t remember when he stopped. They work every day and will return to the beach tomorrow morning at 9 or 10. Their mother drives them on a moto from spot to spot, so they can hit as many tourists as possible in one day.

We tell the boys to take our dessert, a plate of pineapple and banana, and they look around like they’re sneaking something they shouldn’t. When Jerry says it’s OK, they can take the whole plate, they quickly sweep the fruit into their shirts and rush away.

“Wait!” I have one more question.

They return to the table.

“Did you eat dinner yet?” It’s nearly 9 p.m.

“No,” they answer in unison, then clasp their hands in a Buddhist sompea. Thank you, thank you, they say before vanishing into the salty nighttime air.

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