Fringe dwelling: Phnom Penh’s hazardous homes

Fringe dwelling: Phnom Penh’s hazardous homes

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These belongings are the only evidence that this room is also home to some of the 20 men working on the site. Photograph: Sreng Meng Srun/7Days

A decrepit mansion. A water-bound wooden shack. A dusty building site. These places are home to the city’s most desperate people. Julius Thiemann and Phak Seangly went inside three of the unusual houses found in the capital.

The construction site

The heat is stifling in the building site on street 370. The stench of paint thinner lingers, and clouds of fine cement dust billow.

This is the workplace of 20 weary-looking construction workers – and also their temporary home. Hammocks are tied to the scaffold on the roof and the inside of the ground floor. Next to them lie and bundles of clothes and cookware stuffed between bricks and iron rods.

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Three different groups of six to seven men each work on the site of what will soon be a residential house. One group pours concrete into the foundation, another lays bricks for a pool, and another plasters the walls.

Noem Sina, 42, belongs to the group of plasterers. He works with five other men. All of them come from Prey Veng province and travel from construction site to construction site together – wherever they find work.

Their daily routine is simple. At 6am, Sina and his men wake up to music they play on a mobile phone. Half an hour later they have a breakfast of rice porridge before work starts. Work finishes at five, with one quick break at lunch for rice porridge again.

Then the workplace becomes their home.

They shower with a simple hosepipe. It also serves them with drinking water – which they don’t boil. “I don’t get sick, but sometimes I have kidney problems,” says Sina. A corrugated iron sheet hut is the toilet.

In the evenings the workers do their laundry, sometimes phone their families and cook together.

The circumference of Sina’s upper arm is probably smaller than that of a big plastic bottle of water. He earns 30,000 riel a day, and sends home 20,000. The remaining 10,000 buys a meagre diet for a grown man who does hard labour for 10 hours a day.

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Sina (L) and two other workers from his team. Photograph: Sreng Meng Srun/7Days

Each group occupies a different part of the house as sleeping berth. The group that pours the foundation and the pool builders stay on the ground floor. Sina’s plaster group spends the night on the unfinished roof where they can stretch out their hammocks and mosquito nets.

He and the other men from Prey Veng didn’t previously know the others. “On the construction site you meet new people,” he says. But they don’t socialise much. “We don’t have time to play cards.”

Sometimes they are unable to make their home on the site. When they first arrive at a site and there is no place to fix hammocks, or when a house is nearly finished and the owners don’t allow them to stay. Instead, they stay in tents outside.

“It’s uncomfortable and causes problems especially in the raining season,” Sina says. Whatever the weather, the tent has to serve as a bed and a place to store their belongings.

For all the time construction workers spend building houses, it seems they never live in one.






Home on the river


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The floating village lies on the eastern shore of the Mekong, opposite Naga World. Photograph: Sreng Meng Srun/7Days
Foul-smelling water dries in the sun on the eastern shore of the Mekong. Plastic rubbish sticks out of the thick mud. Tiny children play in the shallow brown water. The floating Vietnamese village lies on the “other side”. Its shores stare directly at Naga World.

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Vietnamese fisherman Sien Kim Sok, 34, lives with his wife Moeung Try Be, 32, and four children, aged between one and seven, right by the shore.

Their floating house must be less than 150 centimetres high with a living space of about three square metres.

Kim Sok says that it floats on 200 bamboo stems and is tied to the land with ropes.

He has lived in it for 20 years. Up until five years ago, they were moored by the Japanese Friendship Bridge but were evicted and forced to move on.

The water is both their life-source and a deadly threat.

“When you live on the river doing the washing-up is easy and clean – we just throw the rubbish into the water,” Kim Sok explains. It is also the water they bathe and defecate in – and they drink it too.

“We don’t boil it because we are all used to it.”

Around three times a month the house is flooded. Except for the oldest son, the children cannot swim. “We have to quickly bring the children on the land so they don’t drown. We never leave them alone,” Moeung Try Be, their mother, says.

At around 2pm the family hunkers over the fishing net and disembowels today’s catch. “We catch around 30 kilos of fish a day and make $25,” Kim Sok says.

That big a catch is only possible during the fishing season from December to January – for two months a year. During the rest of the year the family eat the small amount of fish they catch and buy rice from their small savings.

They are unable to save money to buy land to live on.

Sien Kim Sok believes that they will also be evicted from the place they stay now. If that happens, he and his family will float the house further downstream and tie it to a place where they are left in peace – for a while, at least.

“We would like to live on the land, but there is no space for us,” he says.


New home in an old mansion

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Huot Sophea (C) with his family and a visitor. Photograph: Sreng Meng Srun/7Days

The squatters in a colonial building near to Wat Phnom don’t fear eviction by police.  

The 10 people from the provinces who call the dilapidated colonial ruin their home are volleyball players for the police and army teams. Their practice courts lie in the backyard of the three-storey mansion.  

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Around 100 men stand in the backyard, many bare-chested. Training sessions take place there all day.

“I am very lucky I can stay here,” says Huot Sophea, 32, a volleyball player from Kampong Cham province. “I don’t pay rent and can save $ 70 from my $130 monthly pay.” He is the only player who brought his family from the provinces to live with him on the ground floor of the French colonial ruin.

When he’s not playing a game, he and his son Narak, three, cuddle on a stained mattress and watch TV. Their toys, clothes and furniture are coated in a brown film of dirt – as are the walls, ceiling and floor.

Electric cables that lead to a tangled mass of more cables outside are spun across the walls. Water has to be fetched from a tap on the outer wall of the building.

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“It is much more comfortable than in the provinces, and I don’t pay for electricity either,” says Sophea.

The floors above his room are inaccessible: the winding wooden staircases are rotten. A harsh scent of urine is in the air. “Cats live in the upper levels,” says Sophea. “The smell doesn’t bother me any more.”

In places, elaborate red tiles with white ornaments, decades old, are still visible. Wrought-iron entrance gates and remains of carved wooden window frames that might have been green recall the wealth of the house in its earlier days.   

Sometimes the homeless come looking for shelter but the volleyball players chase them away – as they do other unwelcome visitors.

“At night the monkeys from Wat Phnom come and search our room for food, but we kick them out,” says Sophea.

His wife Maly, 29, works as a street vendor. In the mornings she is out on the street and Sophea takes care of their son. In the afternoon he is on the volleyball field.

At around noon, Maly comes home and small family gathers around a tray of food on the filthy floor.

Next door, five other players, also inhabitants of the ground floor, use the lunch break to gamble with cards. Sometimes they visit Sophea’s family to watch TV or talk, but they mostly stay among themselves.

The five other men live like comrades. Their camp-beds covered with mosquito nets stand close together. Outside at the tap their toothbrushes sit side by side. They eat together at a heavy wooden table. They look angry to have company and do not talk.  

Sophea says he happy to live in the colonial ruin but when asked what life he wants for his son Narak, he replies: “I hope that my son will be so educated that he can choose for himself.”


To contact the reporter on this story: Julius Thiemann at [email protected]



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