While the government’s move to crack down on animal defecation in Phnom Penh’s parks will improve cleanliness levels, a much larger issue concerning a shortage of public toilets in the city remains.
The recent introduction of signs in public parks, such as the one to the north of the Royal Palace, saying: ‘Do Not Defecate’ (spelled ‘Do Not Detecate’) is a step in the right direction. However, it is still an all-too common sight to see men relieving themselves against walls across the city, due to the lack of public restrooms.
And many pavements are studded with faeces. As unhygienic as it is unsanitary, it is also pungent and unpleasant, especially to the unsuspecting pedestrian or tourist strolling through the city.
In fact, the city’s only permanent public toilet is on the Riverside, next to the Chaktomuk Theatre. It was provided by a South Korean philanthropist who was known as Mr Toilet, and stands as a high watermark for public lavatories in the Kingdom.
Apart from this, there is a smattering of semi-permanent single-seat facilities: on Street 214, opposite Wat Botum and behind Pontoon nightclub.
The current head of the World Toilet Organization (WTO) and current Mr Toilet, Singaporean national Jack Sim, says it is vitally important for a modern city to have decent public toilet facilities.
“The public toilet is a sign of the social progress status of a modern city. It is the first, daily and last impression of any visitor to a city. The better the toilet condition, the more attractive it is to both tourists and locals alike.”
As the WTO notes, a clean and safe toilet ensures health, dignity and wellbeing — yet 40 per cent of the world’s population does not have access to toilets. According to the World Health Organisation, poor sanitation is linked to transmission of a variety of diseases, such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio.
Sim, who was named a Hero of the Environment in 2008 by Time magazine, says that Japan, Singapore, Korea and Thailand are among the better equipped countries in Asia with good quality public toilets. “Having said that, no country has a perfect situation at all times yet.”
Sim admits that it can be difficult to get people to talk about the need for public toilets. “This is a much neglected area, due to its taboo nature.”
“That is why World Toilet Organization has worked so hard to bring awareness over the last 16 years to transform this taboo into a media darling to give legitimacy to this all-important lifestyle facility.”
Speaking from San Francisco, Sim said that many people in his home country Singapore are aware of the problems in Cambodia. “I remember several years ago, my Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong visited Angkor Wat and had to turn around to go back to his hotel without visiting because there were no public toilet facilities.”
He continues: “Since then, I think things have improved, but perhaps still short of the growth of a population that certainly expects a higher quality of life, including its public toilets, which are an essential service.”
Asked about the ‘Do Not Defecate’ signs, Sim says he doesn’t feel that is a practical answer. “Telling people not to openly defecate is only practical if we provide well-maintained conveniences within reasonable access. In Shanghai they are available within 400 metres in any direction. This would be a good guide for Phnom Penh.”
When Post Property spoke to members of the public earlier this week, it was clear that a lack of public lavatories remains an issue.
65-year-old Net Sarom, a cyclo rider in Phnom Penh said he has been riding cyclo in the city since 1983.
He earns an average 15,000 to 20,000 riel a day, while he has to spend 8,000 to 9,000 riel every day on food and housing, and 1,500 riel on public toilets.
Sitting on his cyclo under a tree near Central Market, Sarom said:
“Living in the city, everything costs money. Even going to the toilet, I have to pay 500 riel per time. Usually I use the public toilet and bathroom at Freedom Park, but even peeing once costs 500 riel, although if I could take a bath, I’d feel better and it saves money.”
“I use the public toilet in front of Botum Pagoda once in a while. The person who tends the toilet didn’t charge me money, perhaps because they saw that I’m a cyclo driver and [they] feel bad for me, but the place is far away from where I have to transport goods for my regulars.”
“I would like for the government to help build more public toilets and only charge 100 to 200 riel.”
Another 81-year-old could be seen waiting for customers to ride on his motordup around the park along the riverfront.
Chum Yi, a resident in Dangkor District, always travels to Phnom Penh early in the morning to ride his motorbike.
When asked where he takes a rest or a bathroom break, he said, “I always go to the toilet in the park along the riverfront or in front of Botum pagoda. We only pay them 500 riel and sometimes I take a shower there. They don’t ask for extra charge. It’s probably because they think we’re only going in once.”
“I think if the government builds more public toilets in Cambodia, it will help with our health and sanitation in general,” he said. “It’s even better if the toilet charges less money; 200 riel is enough.”
71-year-old Chok Chun, born in Chy Kreng District, Siem Reap Province, spends most of his time in Phnom Penh as a motordup driver. He noticed that most of the public toilets or restrooms are around the riverfront, whereas in the heart of the city or on the outskirt of the city, “I don’t see [public toilets] anyway, only in markets.”
Chun said while the public toilets around riverfront are quite nice, he believes they are in place to “show off to tourists”.
Meanwhile, a 50-year-old tuk tuk driver and former soldier who lives in Ta Khmao City, revealed his disappointment in public health.
“We should talk about restrooms or public toilets because it’s also related to human health,” he said.
“I think when the government builds any public infrastructure, such as main roads, bridges or parks; there should also be a restroom. We should be ashamed because even gas stations always have public toilets,” he said.
“Because of the lack of public toilets, people have to resort to urinating in public. We should feel bad for women regarding this issue, too.”
Earlier this year, City Hall fixed the park in front of Botum pagoda while also building another public toilet south west of the park.
According to City Hall, there are more than 60 public parks in the city. As for the number of public toilets, Post Property could not get confirmation from City Hall.
Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Ieng Aunny could not be reached for comment nor could a City Hall spokesperson.