Families and couples sitting in a row along thatched roof gazebos, high above the river at Kien Svay resort. They are enjoying a meal of roast chicken and grilled fish when an old woman in a shabby blouse and a dirty sarong walks from person to person begging for alms.
The skinny woman in her sixties raises her arms and folds her hands to greet the people before she tells her story: “My grandchildren are starving at home. Their parents went to work as construction workers in Phnom Penh and never send any news or money back home. I am on the way to Phnom Penh to look for them, but I ran out of money to buy food.”
Understanding the hopelessness of the woman’s fate touches all those present, and everybody hands her a few notes of 100 or 500 riels.
Having started the journey to look for her relatives at Prey Veng, 78 kilometres east of Phnom Penh, here in Kien Svay she has come close. 20 kilometres separate her from her destination. It is a distance that may appear very long to a worn-out and frail woman all by herself.
In Phnom Penh at the Sorya bus station near Central Market, a young man buckling an old backpack stands by a bus door and is telling a passenger in the bus about his miserable situation. He was robbed while he was on the way to buy medicine for his ill parents.
The young man does not mention where he came from but people in the bus start whispering about him. They suspect that he might be from Prey Veng.
Why does this province, located 78 kilometres east of Phnom Penh, have such a bad reputation for being home to beggars? The province’s Mesang district is said to be a home to begging culture.
This mysterious legend, of questionable origin, was spread from word of mouth: it is believed that people from that area are cursed to leave their homes and go out begging at least once a year, otherwise they will be struck by lightning.
That belief has been prevalent in the past – amongst people from outside as well as people from inside the region – but is now gradually fading away.
According to Khoem Chhum, the chief of district council, Mesang district has eight communes with 118 villages, of which only people from four villages in two communes leave their homes to go begging in other parts of the country.
The two communes are called Trapaing Sre and Prey Romdenh, each with two villages housing 10 to 20 families who earn their living by asking for alms.
The 64-year-old chief of the district council categorises the beggars in his district into two types: “There are the ones who are really old, disabled or unable to get hired. But there are also the beggars who use to go out and beg because they think it is an easy business.”
Amongst the second category of beggars, the district chief, claims to have seen some who make so much money that they can afford to build big wooden houses with red tiled roofs. Sometimes there was even enough money for a brand new motorbike.
Obscure as the whole situation in Mesang is, the question arises as to how the beggar legend came into being and made such an impact.
“This belief is not derived from a curse from heaven or any evil spirits, as some believe,” says Khoem Chhum.
In fact it is manmade, and dates back centuries when neighbours of that region envied each other for their wealth. Back in these days, a handful of beggars were better off than their neighbours, who earned their living from manual labour.
This aroused great discontent among the hard-working people and they began to curse their idle neighbours, shouting: “You are lazy people! You are born to become beggars! You shall never stop begging and if one day you should, lightning will strike you!”
Powerful and scornful as they may sound, these words have been passed on from generation to generation ever since.
“In the past, some people even pretended to be disabled to arouse sympathy and swindle money from generous people. Others printed fake charity letters or invitations to pagoda ceremonies to collect money from credulous people,” Khoem Chhum recalls. “But the number of beggars and swindlers has dropped rapidly.”
As a result of action taken by local authorities three years ago, beggars became afraid continuing their illegitimate business.
Khoem Chhum says the number of beggars also dropped because of improved employment opportunities. Many young people from Prey Veng travel to the cities to work on construction sites and garment factories, allowing them to send some money to support their parents.
Still, Mesong’s bad reputation as being a haven for beggars persists.
Khoem Chhum recalls, “Whenever I go to an official meeting or a conference, officials from other districts tease me. When they see me, they shout out ‘here comes the beggar representative’ or ‘let the beggar join the meeting too’. That still embarrasses me.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Sou Vuthy at [email protected]