The back of my neck is set alight every time our captain stokes the flame that starts to take our balloon skywards. The setting sun kisses the countryside of Siem Reap as we start to soar into the air. Dusty roads are illuminated as golden rays sliver through gaps in the trees. As we start our ascent, kids jump on their bikes and start pedaling along underneath us. The chase is on.
The ride feels romantic and meditative; the world from up here in the sky feels like a Salvador Dali painting. Trees turn into a sea of broccoli as obscured trunks send plumes of leaves skyward in every hue between green and yellow.
As we glide over Siem Reap, our eyes gaze upon fleeting moments in the community below: a man trying to regain control of a stubborn bull, and a farmer resting under the shade of a tree in his ploughed field.
The kids, traveling on foot and bicycle, catch up to the balloon at an expanse of flat farm land. Our captain nudges us and holds out a handful of candy. He motions with his eyes towards the kids below and it becomes instantly clear why they’ve followed us here. Sugar falls from the sky and we watch as small groups converge on patches of dispersed candy, their nimble hands sweep the ground and heads dart from side to side looking for more. From this height, their shirt colors become their only real identifiers and it looks as if we’re flying over some sort of Pacman reality. We watch as all of the colors scurry around, ducking through holes in fences and skipping across shallow rivers.
For ten minutes, they squeal with amusement, shouting up at us to throw more sweets in their direction. As the supply is exhausted, we throw our empty hands up in the air and their excitement turns into cries for $1 as they stare into my lens.
As we descend, I reflect on the beauty of all that I’ve just seen; but I feel on edge. It’s hard to feel relaxed in my enjoyment of the experience. I remember the exhilaration of clicking my shutter as we watched those children run under the balloon. But they were chasing us for the promise of candy, and I wonder whether or not we had just exploited them for our enjoyment. We sent little packages of artificial sweet things down to them, and created a relationship that was certainly manufactured. My balloon mates rationed the number of sweets they threw down at any one time, and delighted in watching five kids sprint towards the same spot. As this scramble happened over and over again, it felt like I was witnessing a micro representation of the struggle any developing country faces – overcrowding and competition over limited resources. And here I was, a foreigner floating above the scene, not really understanding, or needing to understand, what their reality is like.
As tourists we are always striving for authentic experiences, or to experience real interactions with locals. This felt like anything but that. Still, the experience took its place on the mantelpiece of my mind’s eye as one of my most impactful memories from my trip to Siem Reap.
These kids had done this many times before; they were entrepreneurs who had mastered the transactional nature of the tourist economy, making it work for their own benefit.
Although it made me uneasy, it was a powerful thing to witness and realize. When I look at these images, I remember the excitement I felt looking through my viewfinder, and hope that those kids felt the same sort of thrill and excitement as they ran around on the ground below.