As the sun set over Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, Nate Darom sipped palm wine with his friends at a popular picnic spot and talked about meth.
They had smoked it that afternoon, as they do most days. The group of twenty-something men are some of Phnom Penh’s estimated hundreds of self-styled gangsters, rag-tag crews who chase thrills from drink, drugs, sex and violence.
“We have to fight with the other gangsters,” the 29-year-old explained, in between slugs of the icy drink. “If we don’t fight with them, they will fight us.”
Darom’s unnamed eight-man gang is one of a number of cherng kang who take part in drunken battles around the capital. Most are over trivial disagreements such as perceived insults during snooker games or fights over who gets to take home a particular sex worker. While some are poor, many are from middle class families.
Some are high school students, while the older ones hold low-paying jobs. They hang out everywhere across the city from the garment factory neighbourhoods of Por Sen Chey to the manicured lawns of Diamond Island. The problem has been around for decades, especially during the turbulent 1990s, but shows little signs of abating.
Darom will soon be in his thirties, and works 60 hours a week as a deliveryman. But he has no plans to leave the violent, hedonistic lifestyle that he adopted as a high school student in Prey Veng province. “I’m not thinking much about the future, or working, or doing anything,” he said.
The cherng kang are no Tony Soprano. While some dabble in drug dealing or petty theft, most gangs are little more than groups of friends who seek out drug and alcohol fuelled fights against rival cliques.
Other than drugs and violence, Phnom Penh’s thugs are different to those in the West. They do not have formal structures, nor are they affiliated with one particular group. Only some gangs have names, and the leaders are usually the members with the most money.
“They aren’t divided between enemy gangs, with one wearing blue and the other wearing red,” said Tong Soprach, an academic researcher and social affairs columnist for Post Khmer, who has studied gang activity in Phnom Penh and Lowell, Massachusetts. He blames the violence on boredom and the ready availability of booze.
“There are not many recreational spots for things like sports, but there are a lot of places for drinking,” he added, pointing out that unscrupulous vendors set up shop near schools to sell beer to teenagers.
NGOs are not much help, he said, since development projects are usually targeted at the extremely poor, while gang violence is at least as common among the better off.
The police force does not keep track of the number of gangsters and does not even have a working definition for the word, according to Choun Narin, deputy Phnom Penh municipal police chief in charge of penal crime. But he recognised a need for the police to “identify those who repeatedly commit acts of violence, and not to confuse them with those that only commit violence once or a few times”.
Darom estimated that there are more than 1,000 young Phnom Penh youths who belong to gangs. Rows break out in bars and clubs when rival groups clash as well as organised rumbles.
Poe Klah, 25, a member of Darom’s gang and from Kampong Speu, lost a few teeth over one of the most common sources of tension. “I went to a nice club and had a verbal conflict with the other gangsters because they were trying to get the same girl to bed, so they hit me with a bottle,” he said as he showed off his damaged grin.
In 2012, the violence extended to the classroom and this inspired high school student and trainee film-maker Soth Chiev, 20, to produce a short feature called Story of a Gangster.
This was based on the lives of some of his classmates. “I asked the kids, and they say gangs will make them cool. They want to fight and be the boss of the school,” said Chiev, who said that his quiet, polite demeanour made the gangsters trust him.
One of those adolescents was Nhean*, the middle-class son of a car mechanic who had slipped into this dark world of violence.
Now a 20-year-old apprentice with a music production company, he spent his nights drinking and getting into fights with other high school gangsters.
“We felt powerful when we were in a gang – no one could just come up and hit us,” said Nhean, adding that he used to carry brass knuckles and knives.
His friends would sometimes fight almost every day, and long nights getting drunk with fellow gangsters became the norm. “My mother would get worried, but I just told her I was sleeping at my friend’s house,” he said. Nhean decided to quit this culture of violence after watching Chiev’s documentary. “[The movie] made me walk away. And I felt nothing more,” he added.
Although Chiev has never been a gangster, he recalls from an early age watching his uncle get into fights at their slum near the Stung Meanchey rubbish dump. It was there Chiev and his parents scavenged trash for a living.
“They’d fight each other on the mountain of the garbage with samurai swords,” he said, adding that he left the dump when he was 11 years old after the community action centre Aziza’s Place brought him under its wing. “I just give advice, and if the young gangster doesn’t listen, you should just walk away.”
For Darom’s gang, who are in their mid- to late twenties, walking away from this cycle of violence is not an option. “For now I can’t change my attitude – I want good times, I want to drink, I want a nice girl,” said Darom, who has three girlfriends and never wants to get married.
Khlah, who comes from Kampong Speu, has burned his bridges with his family. He was arrested when he was 19 years old and sent to jail for three months after punching another gangster who happened to be the son of a military police officer.
“Ten years ago, I was a boy who didn’t cause any problems,” he said. “But now my parents are disappointed in me. I destroyed my dignity because their neighbours do not like the family who has a gangster for a son.”
Khlah’s prison sentence only made things worse. Although there were rehabilitation courses for inmates such as reading and art lessons, the experience left him without the fear of going back inside. “It’s okay if the police arrest me and take me to prison again, because I have the experience already,” he said.
While many gangsters become hardened criminals, others grow disillusioned with the lifestyle. Even Darom and Khlah have ambitions. Darom is hoping to become a nightclub DJ and Khlah wants to start a restaurant. But, above all, they desire respect – and, for now at least, that comes with violence.
“In the future I want to be listened to, for my neighbours to value me, and to be rich,” said Darom. “But I know with my attitude right now, it will take a long time.”
*Name changed to protect identity