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New in town: What it’s like to move to the big smoke in Cambodia

New in town: What it’s like to move to the big smoke in Cambodia

Cambodia has one of the fastest rates of urbanisation in Asia. A World Bank report using satellite imaging and surveys found that between 2000 and 2010 the population of the Kingdom’s cities grew at a rate of 4.3 per cent a year. Research conducted by the Ministry of Planning pinpoints employment as the most significant motivator for rural-to-urban migration, with education and marriage also playing a role. This week Vandy Muong and Harriet Fitch Little went out into the city to meet some of Phnom Penh’s newest residents – all of whom have been here for under a year – to hear about their experiences, motivations and ambitions for life in the capital

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In my class at [the Institute of Foreign Languages], some of my friends are poorer than me but most of them are rich and from the city, because people from the provinces hardly ever pass the entrance exam. I sometimes worry that I am not as good as them because I maybe have a lower IQ, and the way I dress is different because I haven’t bought new clothes since I arrived here. After school, some of them like hanging out at the mall or the park, but I just go back home. At the beginning of the school year it was difficult. Even though I live with several people in the room I rent, I was so lonely. My parents always called to me to check whether I had food to eat, and it was challenging for me to find the way to school for the first few months. If there had been a good school in my hometown, I don’t think I would have come here. I would like to get a job back near my family, but they only need factory workers. If I could get a good job here in the future, I would call my family to come and live with me in Phnom Penh, but I worry it will be impossible because they are so used to living at home. For now, my parents send me money. Because they are farmers and market sellers, they sometimes send the money late and I borrow from friends. Next year I want to get a job to support myself. Since I moved here, my situation has changed a lot, but I know I can do it.

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I originally wanted to come to Phnom Penh to work in a factory, but I had no identity card or family book, so I wasn’t able to apply for the job. Without the documentation you need to get a normal job, people around me said that sex work was the
only option. Initially my family worried about me because I’d never been to the city before, but when I became a sex worker, they felt like they could not advise me or care about me anymore. When I lived in Kandal province, I worked as a day labourer for farmers because my family had no crop fields of their own. I married and had one child, but since I got divorced my child lives with my parents-in-law and I came to Phnom Penh alone. Here I can get more money, although my income depends on whether I can get customers, and some days there aren’t any. I work around Wat Phnom and sometimes I have trouble with the police trying to arrest me. When I first arrived, I felt lonely living in a small rented room. But now I have met a construction worker and we live together and we love each other. I feel different here, and everything around me is so busy, but I don’t feel like I can go home. I only have enough money to support myself day to day, and I have no land that I could farm if I did return.

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Before I came here, I thought hard about the decision. I used to live in a big wooden house with free space all around me where I fed pigs, chickens and helped with farming. Here in Phnom Penh, I have only a small room. It is uncomfortable, and I share with two other women to save money. The weather is different here, and my work situation and the people I live with are not so good. It’s very difficult for me also because I now live so far away from my children and my husband. I have four children, the oldest is 12, the youngest is three, who are now taken care of by my mother. My husband works as a truck driver so he is often away from home. I ring the children every day. I will go home to visit my families during the holidays, but I’m not sure when I’ll be able to go back to my home village to live permanently – it depends on how much money I can save. I think I will have to stay here for a long time. I get $128 per month and sometimes extra if I work overtime. I send about $100 home. I know it doesn’t leave much for me, but my children are sick, so I have to. When I finish work at the factory for the day, I also help my brother prepare food that he sells to workers outside the gates of the garment factory. I feel quite safe here, but I’ve never actually been into the centre of Phnom Penh – I don’t want to.

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I first came to Phnom Penh in 1995 when I was a teenager. My father took me to live in the house of my aunt and uncle, who had opened a salon in the city. I lived there for about a year and learned how to do make-up from my aunt, but in the end, I missed my parents and cried so much that my uncle took me back to Prey Veng. Last year, I decided to come back because of the better opportunities to find money here. I could still remember some of the skills that I learned from my aunt, so I got a job as a hairdresser. I have learned a lot from living here about how to communicate with city people. When I first arrived, I was dressed up like a country woman, and people didn’t want to talk to me and cheated me in the market, but when I learned how to dress like a city person they stopped. Now I love the way I dress in the city. Life here is very happy and fancy compared to life in my village, where I only sat around waiting for the farming season. I don’t have family to live with here, but I’ve made a lot of friends around the salon because everyone is very chatty – I like them and they like me back. In the future, I’d like to open a salon in my province or in different provinces if I have the resources. My family always encourages me to open my own shop.

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I decided to come to Phnom Penh when I failed Grade 12. My cousin helped me to get a job in the same place as him, as a delivery man for a cosmetics company. At first, I’m ashamed to say, I always lost the way and got fined by the police because I didn’t understand the traffic rules. I was often late with my deliveries because of it, but I never got blamed once I told people I was new. At first, I was also scared to cross the roads, and sometimes I was afraid of the people because I didn’t know them and sometimes they looked strange. I sleep in the delivery warehouse, but I don’t mind being alone – I used to live with my grandmother, so I’m used to being away from my parents. She taught me how to cook so it’s no problem preparing food myself. I’m hardly ever here anyway because I work during the day and study at lunch time – I’m learning Korean because the company I work for is from Korea and I want to understand more about their products. I get $100 per month and sometimes tips from the customers, but I never send back my money to my family because I need to pay for food and school. I’ve already applied to retake my Grade 12 exam this year, and once I’ve got the certificate, I can hopefully go to university.


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