Shades of the city between dusk and dawn
Condom seller Viashna, front left, with his arm around seven-year-old Anin.
hnom Penh nights hold a forbidden promise for those with money: drinks, clubs, karaoke
and vice. Free to all is a reprieve from the heat and dust of day once darkness falls.
But that relief has a hidden danger. While foreigners and the city's affluent cruise
around the city from parties to clubs, poorer Cambodians worry about being out late.
In local terms, that may mean 9 pm. Nighttime they say is "dangerous",
but the inhabitants of the streets are not just loiterers or vendors: they often
have no choice.
People come to the city seeking work or a better life. Many remain here only a few
weeks before returning to their province. But some stay. When they cannot find work
or their money runs out, they end up on the street. It is there that they clash with
authorities or criminals.
"My husband was beaten by the police and then he died," says Chap Wanna,
43, who says she has lived on the streets of Phnom Penh for the last 17 years.
She says her husband was foraging in garbage when the police arrested him. He returned
about a week later with a broken arm and other injuries. Seven months later he was
dead. She gestures to a mound of grass on Preah Sisowath Boulevard where she says
she scattered his ashes.
Sébastien Marot, coordinator for Mith Samlanh/Friends, a local NGO that helps
street kids, says that he has no record of anyone dying on the streets due to police
brutality, but confirms that violence occurs. The extent of homelessness is also
difficult to measure, he says. The NGO estimates that between 200 and several thousand
people are homeless in Phnom Penh.
Wanna is one of them. She is the unofficial leader of her "family" of thirteen.
At 8:30 pm, she settles down with her group to sleep on the sidewalk. She first came
to the city after she sold her home in Prey Veng to care for her sick parents. Wanna's
daughter, Ghan Thy, was born at the beginning of this time.
Thy breast-feeds her own 10-month-old daughter, who is the third generation of her
family to be homeless. Other infants lie on the cloth spread over the sidewalk. They
are naked with half-closed eyes and look thin and frail. Aid groups say that some
infants are sometimes starved in order to get money from sympathetic people or rented
for the purpose of begging.
But Wanna says the group is too poor to move off the streets. They are routinely
carted off to Kampong Speu by the police. Dumped there, they are warned not to return,
but they usually do. It is harder to be poor in the country than the city, she says.
"At least in the city foreigners give us a little money for food," says
However, the municipal government sometimes implements a policy to remove homeless
children from the city, in part because they are thought to commit crimes.
While some street kids resort to petty crime to survive, Marot says violent crime
and muggings are very rare. Muggings require motobikes for a fast getaway and the
very poor can rarely afford them, he notes.
Nuon Chan, 18, who lives on the streets, says he is frightened of police. He too
was beaten for rifling through rubbish. The authorities want to clear up the neighborhood,
he explains, so "all we can do when we see the police is try to escape".
But others treat nighttime in the city as working hours.
Along the waterfront in Hun Sen Park, south of the Cambodiana Hotel, money is changing
hands. Men play an illicit game of cards on the sidewalk. Sellers, beggars and opportunists
gaze at potential customers or mutter sales pitches. Two girls lean over their wicker
trays laden with oily green beans and fruit.
Srey Khou, 18, one of the vendors, says she has sold snacks in the park for six years.
She works from 3 pm to 9 pm every night. She feels safe, but says she will not stay
out later. Her security comes from the number of people around the busy nightspot.
"I don't know about continuing this job-but I have nothing else to do,"
Along the sidewalk, a beggar, Ry, 53 walks past. She has a gaunt but serene face.
Ry says most people who give her money are Khmer. She usually collects about $1.25
a day. Her routine is to walk along the waterfront down to Wat Phnom, where she sleeps
with 13 others in an abandoned house.
"I need to get home by 10 pm. I am afraid if I do not," she says. "After
midnight, the dangerous kids on yaba come out. Yaba scares me."
She may be seeing a rise in the popularity of the drug among the city's youth. A
Friends survey in 2002 found at least 45 percent of the 1000 or so homeless adolescents
in Phnom Penh take drugs. Perhaps a quarter of them use yaba, a type of amphetamine.
In the neighborhood of Tuol Kork, Chan Da sits outside a shack on a footstool. She
is 36 and says she has been a prostitute for only ten days. She says the nighttime
is now for her to make extra money besides her day job as a manicurist.
She came from Kampuchea Krom (south Vietnam) with her husband and three children
15 years ago. Recently, he left with another woman, who is now his wife.
She has no friends in this new work. Younger women lounge in hammocks behind her.
A man staggers out of an alley before stopping to fasten his trousers. Another girl
with unevenly painted eyebrows and a powdered face stands nearby.
"Nighttime for me is hard," says Da. "The first time [I took a customer],
I was so upset. Sometimes my customers are drunk and it's hard to make them wear
a condom when they don't want to. I worry about HIV."
Each time the police arrest her she buys her freedom for 2,000 riel. She says the
little money she has saved will pay her way to Vietnam to see her children. She blames
her ex-husband for her situation. Once you cross the line and sell your body, it
changes you permanently, she says.
"I cannot think about love again," says Da.
Closer to the center of the city, in Neak Bank Tuk Park on Sihanouk Blvd, drug dealers
and prostitutes prowl the sidewalk. Children also mill about though it is after midnight.
Saunin Anin, who says he was born in Year of the Cow, which makes him about seven
years old, is sitting with several female prostitutes and their minders.
He is tiny with big dimples and baby teeth. He wears shorts and a white turtleneck.
On his forehead is a scar like a large lightning bolt. It is new-still pink-and runs
from his hairline to his brow. Along the edge, his pulse is evident through the skin
where he seems to have damaged his skull.
He says he remembers how it happened, but will only say, "I fell off a moto."
Srey Saw, 17, a prostitute who helps take care of Anin, says that he is part of their
"street" family now. She earns nearly $7 a night and sometimes takes yaba
with her street friends. She does not think about her future, she says, or her past.
A 21-year-old man handles Saw's clients and manages customers for three other girls.
He holds their money and charges a commission of 2,000 riel for each client who must
also buy condoms. Conveniently, a bag of them hangs from a nearby tree where a boy,
Viashna, sells them for 2,000 riel each.
The athletically inclined strut their stuff on the river bank in front of the Royal Palace at 5:30am.
"Foreigners come here after clubs and local people come here after karaoke,"
says Choun Sopeak, 21. "That makes them hungry."
Someone points out a military license plate on a jeep and a table of two couples
devouring noodle soup.
"Rich," he says.
Around 2 am that night, next to the InterContinental Hotel at Doeum Ko market, Chum
Rom, 20, is just starting work.
He says he will unload vegetables until 10 in the morning. He may snatch some sleep
in the afternoon, but the work is tiring, he says. He needs money to send to his
family in Kandal.
"Sometimes it is hard to stand," he says. "I don't sleep enough. But
I am strong now. In the future I will have to change my work though because we do
not stay strong forever."
Trucks bring in the produce during the night. By 4 am, farmers are waiting for the
markets to open to sell their produce.
Kum Saomon, 54, waits outside of Olympic market. She has been growing crops since
she first helped her parents in the field almost half a century ago. She started
driving her truck from Kandal hauling bananas and mangos at 11 pm. She says her family
of seven lives off the produce that she sells in the city.
On Sihanouk Blvd, the first hints of sunrise color the horizon. A garbage truck works
its way down the road. Four men jump off the back and rush to grab containers of
trash. Where homeless families and sex workers stood a few hours ago, only litter
Ignoring the truck, joggers run by on their way to exercise in front of the Royal
How Poch, 54, and his wife, Chun Kim Tar, 54, have been exercising there for a year.
"I like the crowds. They are very happy [with a] strong energy," he says
in rapid sentences while pumping his arms and walking.
He says he chose the location because it is secure, not for patriotic reasons.
"We don't care about the King right now," he says. "We care about
our health and our security."
He hurries to join the rows of leaping and walking citizens dressed in white for
the new day.