Sopheap and Phireak.
Despite its notorious reputation, Hun Sopheap feels completely safe at Martini's
Six nights a week, Sopheap, whose tiny, twisted frame reaches no more than a couple
of feet off the ground, sits at the club's entrance. High-heeled prostitutes and
their clients stream past his dwarfed frame, a few responding to Sopheap's high-pitched
request: "Sir, sir, some money?"
"I've come to beg here for eight years," Sopheap, 29, explains. "I
feel confident and good at this place."
Partly it's the club, and partly it's the company.
Just a few steps outside the building, Sopheap's business partner, bodyguard and
longtime friend leans against his moto. Duong Phireak, 42, a motodop, always drives
Sopheap to the club - or anywhere else he wants to go - and waits to escort his pint-sized
Since they met nearly a decade ago, the two men have come to rely on each other and
have formed an unorthodox pairing in a society that offers few safeguards.
"We sympathize with each other," Phireak says. "We depend on each
other - he needs me and I need him."
For Sopheap, the relationship has been particularly beneficial. Though around 10
percent of people in Cambodia are disabled, there are not enough services to help
them all, says Ngy San, program manager for the Disability Action Council. Only injured
soldiers receive a pension from the government and the majority of donor money is
earmarked for landmine victims. Sopheap falls into neither of these categories.
Popular sentiment in Cambodia further handicaps the disabled, San adds.
"In Buddhism, we believe that people are disabled because they committed something
wrong in a previous life," he says. "If a family has a child with a disability,
they will be ashamed and try to hide it."
Growing up in Takeo province, Sopheap knew he had few options. Born with a condition
that left his limbs and torso underdeveloped, he had trouble keeping up with other
kids his age.
"Since I was young, I always wanted to study," he explains. "But it
was difficult for me to understand the lessons."
Most Cambodian schools aren't equipped to handle children with disabilities, San
"Even if a child is just missing a limb, people will think they can't go to
school," he says. "But if you give them a wheelchair, provide good curriculum,
then they can learn like others."
Lacking assistance and encouragement at his provincial school, Sopheap came to Phnom
Penh in 1993. He had decided to become a beggar.
At first, he staked out a position in front of the Cambodiana Hotel. Phireak was
working nearby as a motodop, and it didn't take Sopheap long to single him out.
"I could tell he was a good person," Sopheap says of the rotund driver,
who friends call Pou Mab, or 'Fat Uncle' in English. "I wanted to be his friend."
Phireak was a little less enthusiastic about Sopheap.
"At that time, he slept in front of the hotel gate with no water to wash,"
Phireak says. "He had a very bad smell."
But Sopheap was persistent. He would always sit near the motodop, even when Phireak
told him to go away. Deciding his home near the Cambodiana's gate was too dangerous,
he asked to come live with Phireak's family.
"I told him he couldn't live with us, but I took pity on him," Phireak
says. "So I told him he could rent a room near us and I would look after him."
Eight years - and one move - later, the two men still live less than 50 meters apart.
Sopheap's house, near the Northbridge International School, is more than roomy enough
for his miniature proportions. Generally, he lives alone, though sometimes his brother,
Hun Yuth, 21, who shares a similar disability, comes to stay with him. Out of a family
of five children, they are the only two with handicaps.
Sopheap enters the house with his spidery crawl, pausing to slip off his child-sized
sneakers and tuck his blue socks into the shoes. Rows of calluses mark the backs
of his fingers, byproducts of his unusual gait.
Glossy prints of pop star Britney Spears, leaning seductively toward the camera,
line the small home's walls.
"She is very beautiful, and sometimes I enjoy looking at her," says Sopheap,
with his reedy laugh. "Pou Mab helped me hang the pictures."
But aside from decorating hard-to-reach places, Phireak does little to upkeep the
house. Sopheap cleans and tidies the space, and even cooks his own rice using a small
pot and burner.
"Sopheap is different from other [disabled people]; that's why we're friends,"
Phireak says. "He can do things on his own."
That includes travel. Sopheap makes a good living at Martini's - anywhere from 10,000
riel to $20 a night - and he often uses the extra for trips to Siem Reap or Sihanoukville.
Sometimes Phireak comes along, but usually Sopheap travels alone by bus.
When he arrives at a destination, Sopheap will hire a motodop to take him around.
Though he enjoys the treks, his sight-seeing is limited.
"In Siem Reap, I can only see Angkor Thom from the motodop," he says.
"Sometimes I want to climb on the temple, but I think it would be very difficult."
When he goes to Sihanoukville, Sopheap usually sits on a chair at the beach, watching
At Martini's, he also plays the observer.
Sopheap's smile is illuminated under the red glow of Martini's sign. All night, patrons
stream past him, many ignoring the beggar.
"Hello, hello," he repeats, extending a new baseball cap to customers.
"I try to buy nice clothes, bright colors, to look good. But I always look the
same," he says, a little sadly.
Every once in awhile, regulars will stop to chat and give Sopheap a few hundred riel.
Sometimes they invite him to their tables, and others, they offer him their drunken
"People will have very much to drink and come sit with me to talk," Sopheap
says. "But I don't understand English, so I just nod and smile."
For longtime customers, Sopheap has become a staple.
"He's been begging here for years," says Gerrit Klerx, a consultant in
Phnom Penh. "He's like a feature; he belongs to the bar."
Because he was the first to beg at Martini's - and also as a result of his polite
demeanor - Sopheap is the only beggar allowed to frequent the bar.
It's a lucrative gig. But he doesn't keep all the earnings for himself. Every night,
when Phireak drives him home, Sopheap gives the motodop a generous 3,000 to 4,000
riel for fare. If it's been a slow night, he pays less, but on good nights he'll
often give his friend extra for a tip.
"He's my best customer, but also my friend," Phireak says. "Because
living conditions in Cambodia are so hard, we've learned to support each other."