Meet the elderly panhandlers who for years have mystified tourists by their presence on an empty road near the Phnom Tamao zoo
With its large enclosures and well cared for animals, the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre – an hour south of the city in Takeo province – makes for a pleasant day trip. To reach the zoo, you turn right off National Road 2 onto a nondescript dirt road at Tro Pang Sap village. After the turnoff, there are no houses.
But there are people. As cars are forced to slow down on the bumpy, five-kilometre strip of dirt, figures emerge from the ditch that borders the road. Positioned at roughly 20-metre intervals, they are barefoot, coated in dust and with bodies hunched at unnatural angles, some crawling. The vast majority are women and many are visually impaired. All are elderly.
The road has become notorious: photos and videos of the beggars are frequently shared online, and mentioned by concerned tourists who review the zoo on Trip Advisor. The strip has even acquired its own moniker – “Beggars’ Lane”.
At first, the panhandlers were local – villagers from Tro Pang Sap who would walk the few hundred metres from their house to take up a spot along the road. But today, some walk for up to an hour, and others are driven by relatives to try and earn a few riel along the track. On the weekend and during holidays, their numbers swell to more than 100.
Toothless 80-year-old Mei Ith was one of the first to begin begging at the spot 20 years ago when the road was first constructed.
“We met each other at the pagoda, and we gathered each other to find money here,” Mei Ith said, gesturing to the half-dozen women around her.
Back then, she said, those passing would throw her a few hundred riel when they saw her labouring to pack dirt to firm up the raised track. Today, Ith splashes water from a pan as vehicles approach, to dampen down the track ahead of them – a futile endeavour in the face of the swirling red dust.
Since she stopped being able to walk, she is dropped off in her spot every day by her grandson, and works a 12-hour shift. “Some of my children don’t want me to because of the hot weather,” she said. “I tell them that I come here because I am still hungry.”
Tro Pang Sap’s chief, Aom Torn, has long tried to stop the practice of begging along the stretch of road, frustrated with having his village’s reputation tied to its crowds of alms seekers. “I feel so ashamed when I go to meet people in Phnom Penh and they say: ‘Oh, you come from the beggar village,” the 71-year-old said from his mango plantation, which is set back from the road.
“Their children have jobs to feed them, they just don’t want to stay at home,” he asserted, although he also added that there were genuine problems in his village – primarily the lack of a year-round water supply.
Torn said he had in the past tried hiring people to stand at the turnoff and hand out flyers entreating tourists not to give money to the beggars, but it hadn’t worked. Now, he said, the solution was to upgrade the road, so motorists did not have to slow down. “I’ve been asking people to help us build a cement road so that people could not stop to give money,” he explained.
But for some, the problem goes deeper than a question of road maintenance. “In Cambodia, there are really no NGOs helping old people,” said Tum Vira, senior operations manager at HelpAge Cambodia – the country’s only NGO dedicated to working with geriatrics.
“I think it’s because of the donors,” he said of the scarcity. “With children, they will soon grow up so [donors] will get to see the progress. With old people, even if we provide them help with medicine and quality of life, they will die in five or 10 years.”
But Vira emphasised that tackling poverty in Cambodia had to include older generations, especially as parents were increasingly leaving their children with older relatives to migrate to work in the city. “We need people to see that the older generations are part of these future generations, too,” he said.
Speaking last week, beggars confirmed that in the past two decades they had received next to no offers of support. “A while back, an NGO came to the village and built 10 houses for the poorest people, but they never provided jobs,” said 64-year-old Chhit Yam.
“There have been no NGOs coming to this road to help, just individual humanitarians from Vietnam who offered food, soap, shampoo and skirts.”
The majority of the beggars cited children moving away and not sending money as the reason for their poverty, or being forced to sell their plots of land. “If we don’t get money, we will die,” said 78-year-old Chhit Yorn, who begs at a spot 200 metres further down the road from her sister-in-law Chhit Yam. Yorn said that she became a beggar when the cost of an eye operation forced her to sell her 10 square metre plot of land for $20.
Neither sister-in-law held out much hope that the next decade would prove different from the previous two, pointing out that the village chief’s policy of instructing beggars to stay away on days that important delegations were passing meant that their poverty remained unreported.
“It happens a few times a year. They don’t want them to see poor people,” said Chhit Yam, gesturing to the spot where she would doze in the bushes during the clearances. “But since we are poor, we’ll come back another day.”