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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - DAWN ’til DUSK


Dancing king

AS darkness falls at Riverside, a small generator is wheeled into a vacant sidewalk space along with an amplifier and two powerful speakers. Neon lights from shops along Sisowath Quay provide a colourful backdrop as a small crowd starts to form.

“We chose this location because we can’t afford club fees and other [public] places are already full,” explains Penh Thavrith, 23, who says that his group of four young Cambodians have permission from commune officials to host exercise classes there each evening from 5:30pm until 8:00pm, seven nights a week.

“The people who come out here [to dance] are mostly 17 or 18, but we have some as young as two years old,” Penh Thavrith says, trying to catch his breath. “As soon as they can walk we will take them,” he laughs.

Asked about older participants, Penh Thavrith says they are welcome to take part, but that the music his group plays tends to attract younger dancers.

“The older people can go down the street and join other exercise classes,” he says, pointing down the sidewalk to another group of a dozen people following the lead of an aerobics instructor. A number of public exercise classes are held outdoors throughout Phnom Penh each evening and most are being led by the city’s youth. Penh Thavrith says they are a great way for him to earn extra money but carry other benefits for his customers.

“This is good for their health,” he says, pointing to the crowd of teenagers, many sporting sweat-soaked T-shirts.

“I want teenagers to know how to dance because those in the Pol Pot regime didn’t [get the chance] to,” he adds as an additional motivational factor.

The dance group says they incorporate pop music into their routine from a music station on TV, drawing a crowd of about 60 people in one night.

“The fee is 1,000 riel per person,” Penh Thavrith explains. “But some people [about 30 percent] don’t pay … we can’t really do anything about that,” he adds, indicating that the group relies on participants abiding by the honour system.

Named LAPdance after Penh Thavrith’s older brother Lap, a back-up dancer on a local TV station who teaches the others how to move, the group earns about 40,000 riel [$10] a night. Members acknowledge that the profits are not shared equally among them as seniority and experience accounts for how the money is split between the various instructors.

Urban mining

Phearith, 18, stands beside a collection cart containing roughly half-a-day’s pay: $1.25 worth of recyclable cans and bottles. Photo by: KENNETH INGRAM

DAYBREAK in Phnom Penh. Like a starter’s pistol, the first shafts of light cast upon the city each morning signal the beginning of a race, as people scour the streets for aluminium cans and plastic bottles. Wheeling collection carts as they sound a plastic toy in their hand, members of this largely ignored workforce squeak by, capitalising on discarded resources.

“You can rent or buy the cart,” explains Phearith, an 18-year-old who says he arrived in Phnom Penh one year ago with over a dozen friends from Kampot province, looking for a fresh start. With no capital, Phearith says he rents a cart each day as part of a business arrangement with the owner of a recycling depot.

“I collect cans and bottles but I must sell them to the [cart’s] owner directly,” he explains.

Canvassing neighbourhoods over a period of four to five hours every day of the week, Phearith says the resources he amasses are weighed at the depot and pay by the kilogram. Managers at the depot say the salvaged material is then forwarded to Vietnam for processing.

“One kilogram of aluminium, or 65 beer cans, is worth 5,000 riel,” says Phearith’s younger friend who stands nearby with another cart. “We buy cans from people at their homes and also collect the ones we find in the street,” Phearith adds, stating that he pays people 100 riel for every two cans they feed his cart and that five large plastic bottles get the same return. Collecting over a hundred metal and plastic containers each morning, Phearith earns about $2.50 on a typical day.

“I think it’s harder as a construction worker,” he says, describing his experience on construction sites in the past as “backbreaking” labour. “The pay was a little more, about 15,000 riel a day [$3.75] but it was too hard on me,” says Phearith, adding that there is a limited selection of jobs for him and his friends in the city. Asked what he would prefer to be doing, Phearith pauses to think.

“I have no higher education and quit school in grade three because I was sick a lot,” he replies. “I have no idea what else I can do.” Taking a moment to rest in the shade beside a large concrete wall in BKK1, Phearith is unwilling to reveal his full name because he says that people who collect cans are looked down upon by others, who see them as poor and uneducated. “It’s better than being a burglar,” says his 24-year-old friend who also pulls a cart for a living. “Collecting cans is easy. Anyone can do this,” Phearith adds, his eyes following a few motorcycles that drive past.

Double identity

TAKING his first shift at 6am, Nob Nora orders noodle soup from a street vendor outside the building he monitors as a private security guard 12 hours a day. Dressed in a dark blue uniform, he looks much younger than his 23 years.

“I came to Phnom Penh [after graduating high school in 2009 in Kampong Thom] to generate money and pursue a higher education,” he explains, adding that his father died almost 17 years ago and he has no living memory of his mother.  

“This job pays me $80 a month if I don’t miss any shifts,” Nob Nora says, adding that there is a $10 penalty for missing a day of work but it is less severe if he provides 24-hour notice. He has mixed feelings about security work, citing a bad experience with another company that posted him near Riverside last year.

“Sometimes I had to wait longer than two months to get paid and had no choice but to quit,” he says, explaining that his wage is enough to survive but not enough to help achieve his long-term goal of attending university to study information technology. In an effort to earn extra money, Nob Nora saved $75 to invest in a metal telephone booth and two cordless phones.

“I had seen someone with a telephone booth set up outside the Night Market last year and there was only one public phone so I decided to give it a try,” he says. Once his 12-hour security shift ends at 6pm, Nob Nora makes his way home only to change out of uniform before heading back outside – most evenings – to run the booth near Phsar Reatrey, the weekend night market located at Riverside.

He has little contact with others despite the bustle around him, except for customers and a few people who take money from him each evening.

“I pay 400 riel to government officials like everyone else along this street,” he explains. “One is a hygiene officer and the other is an order officer, both from the municipality.” Asked if he agrees with the fees, Nob Nora says that it is a part of life in the city and was worse only a few months ago.

“It’s OK but before I didn’t think it was fair. I used to have to pay 1,400 riel a night,” he says, explaining that two private security guards near Riverside used to demand 1,000 riel from him. “I haven’t seen them for a few months now and I don’t know where they went,” he says.

Between 15 and 20 customers visit his telephone booth on an average night, where he makes about 10 cents per minute from local calls.

“I charge 300 riel (13 cents) per minute,” he says, explaining that most customers use his phones to connect with mobile networks that have been blocked by their own providers and that some cannot afford a mobile phone. Most of the people using his phones are Khmer, but Nob Nora says that the odd foreigner has stopped by to place a call.

“It’s mostly the same faces I see here,” he says. Fridays and weekends are the most lucrative for his phone booth, when he can earn between 10,000 and 20,000 riel per day compared to 5,000 and 6,000 riel on a weekday. Inconspicuous and impeccably dressed, Nob Nora stands by his booth until about 11pm before calling it a night.



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