While street food vending is among Phnom Penh’s most visible cottage industries, proprietors are left in the legal dust as authorities demand unexplained “fines”
Dy Poch, the operator of a mobile grilled meat stall in front of the White Building tenements on Sothearos Boulevard, would rather be farming rice.
“I don’t want my children doing this job,” said the 50-year-old this week, adding that he longs for the easy downtime farmers enjoy after a good harvest and before the onset of rainy season.
While Poch can earn revenue of up to $75 per day, expenses eat up all but around $15, leaving his family with less than $2 dollars each to live on.
Poch also said he must pay bribes to avoid being evicted, which he considered an inevitability.
“I got kicked out by the authorities a few times before being driven to this place,” he added.
While Phnom Penh’s street food scene is a central feature in the cityscape, proprietors complain of a saturated market marred by bribe-seeking officials.
Barely able to feed his six children and in constant risk of legal action, Poch said his initial hopes for a better life in the capital had been misplaced.
With no ability to accumulate savings, the Prey Veng native said he instead felt trapped in a harsh and fruitless work cycle that rendered him virtually penniless.
Even sharecropping, he added, would be preferable.
Sok Khom, a 50-year-old grilled duck vendor across the street from Poch, expressed similar sentiments.She had worked as a silk weaver in the 1990s for an NGO, but the organisation’s funding dried up and she found herself on Phnom Penh’s streets without a livelihood.
Although she preferred her old work, she said it was useless to contemplate a career change.
“I never think of finding other jobs, because this is all I have to live with,” she said, adding that she fears the police may increase their daily cut from the current 1,200 riel.
Like Poch, she complained that authorities often act arbitrarily.
Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association, said the Kingdom lacks laws addressing street food vendors; while not specifically banned, no provisions exist allowing for sellers to operate on public property.
The result, he said, is police demanding “fines” from vendors on vague legal pretenses.
“If they don’t pay, they will kick them out,” he added, adding that some 20,000 vendors – mostly rural migrants – work the capital’s streets.
In Poch’s case, selling food was a last resort after his first job as a construction worker fell through shortly after moving to Phnom Penh three years ago.
While he was initially able to sell meat near his home in Chbar Ampov district, Poch said he found himself targeted by law enforcement ordering him to pay money without citing a specific violation.
Unable to accommodate the payments demanded on his meagre income, he moved around the city until eventually settling on Sothearos Boulevard.
The small but steady foot traffic of comparatively rich foreigners, he said, was finally enough to keep his family fed and the police content – but just barely.
“I started to have more customers than the previous places, and some tourists came to buy from me,” he said.
While he’s able to get away with paying police a few thousand riel when they come by, he’s worried they will start demanding more.
“I am very worried that the authorities will kick us out from one place to another in the future,” he said.
Vendors around the city agreed, with alleged bribe amounts varying based on location and the whims of local authorities.
Ny Na, a 31-year-old sugar cane juice vendor on Sothearos Boulevard across from Meta House, said authorities – some wearing uniforms she didn’t recognise – show up on an inconsistent basis asking for various sums.
The most common bribe-seekers, she said, were local district guards employed by the city to serve as an auxiliary security force.
The payments were small – usually less than 500 riel – but noncompliance resulted in harsh punishment.
“Before, I used to get kicked by the guards, so I would run away, but nowadays we just pay them some money,” she said.
Even if not charged directly, some vendors find more powerful interests competing for use of public space.
Phon Long, a 53-year-old orange juice seller who rents a stretch of sidewalk on the west side of the Russian Market, said he one day found men in dark blue uniforms demanding payment from customers parking on the public street in front of his stall.
“I’m not sure if they’re police or not, but I know that they make money from that parking space,” he said, adding that he doubted the legality of the payments.
“I’d agree with the arrangement if the money that they charge went to the government, but I am afraid it is going to individual pockets,” he said.
Pov said that it was common for land owners to extract payments from adjacent food vendors regardless of property boundaries.
“If they sell in front of other people’s house or in front of a factory, both the owner and police also take money from the street vendors,” he said.
The creation of a clear legal framework legalising street food vendors, Pov added, would be ideal.
He cited Thailand, where laws designate specific legal street food zones, as a potentially useful model for Cambodia.
Pov has also tried to create an association of vendors to “make more voices to let the government hear” their grievances, but he said his main work is educating vendors on how to best cope with authorities’ demands.
“We educate them about how to negotiate with police and how to solve problems, because they always have problems with authorities,” he said.
Despite the hardships, some street vendors have found symbiosis with authorities, even as they make extrajudicial payments.
Sok Sovanna, a 60-year-old street vendor who works out of her house on an alley behind a faded colonial villa on Street 19, has a bustling makeshift sidewalk restaurant and pays $100 monthly for the privilege to local authorities.
While her business had done relatively well in the past decade, her profit has trickled down in recent years to around $12.50 a day against $250 in overhead costs [her relatively large operation employs eight].
She’s had to pay around $75 more per day on food, she said, and has lost customers to newly founded street food joints.
“I think other business vendors have the same problems as me, because when we meet each other in the market, I always hear about the same difficulties,” said Sovanna.
Some vendors are more upbeat – Lorn Modern, a 30-year-old porridge seller near the Russian Market, said selling street food is her best option despite the hardships.
She made a deal with the market authority giving her a protective shield from police in exchange for $2.25 a day. Bribes from police are rarely ever asked for, she said.
“I don’t know whether I could handle this job forever, but I just know that this business is better than farming in my hometown,” said the Kampong Cham native, who is unmarried and has no children to support with her $10-15 daily profit.
“If there are people eating my food, I am happy to continue it – it’s better than working under the hot sun.”
But Poch on Sothearos said he was ready to head back to the Prey Veng countryside – he just needed to accumulate enough savings to make the 90-kilometre trip for his large family.
“I will go back to my hometown, because I cannot continue work like this,” he said.
Multiple Phnom Penh municipal officials declined repeated requests for comment.