Pushing a cart of sun-cooked, salted liah is an occupation of last resort for many, with long hours spent walking in the sun dodging traffic
In Boueng Trabek’s Village Number Four – a fragrant, fly-ridden slum squeezed in against a black-watered canal – the streets are lined with clam shell beaches.
For years, the shanty town has been a hub for Phnom Penh’s mollusc trade, home to the cart-pushing men and women who traverse the city with trays of the salty, heart-shaped cockles, megaphones often announcing their approach: “Liah Chha-anh!” “Tasty clams!”
Along with the dumped cockles – which spoil after only a day – are other signs of the bivalve trade.
Scattered about are dozens of upturned wooden carts – which the vendors rent for $0.50 a day – and the blackened and rusting pots in which the clams are boiled in salted water before being dried and spiced in chilli, sugar, salt and minced garlic.
And everywhere are the hatted vendors pushing or driving freshly filled carts towards the city to begin their day’s selling.
On a 32 degree day, Houng Sreynet, 23, stood in the sun next to her cart wearing a large, flowery hat for protection. She said she had to spend a lot of time in the sun.
While the cockle vendors boil the bivalves briefly to partly cook them, they rely on the sun’s rays to finish the job, she said.
“It’s better for the taste to do it that way,” she said.Sreynet – who has lived in Village Number Four for 11 years since her family moved from Svay Rieng – said the weather had a major effect on business.
Not wanting to risk the possible consequences of eating uncooked shellfish, on cloudy days hardly anyone bought cockles, and if there was rain, nobody would.
It is not any easy occupation. While some hawkers have motorised carts, most vendors push their clams on foot through the city, often only wearing flip-flops.
Traffic is another stress factor. Because there are few clear footpaths in Phnom Penh and because the vendors try and avoid shade, they are usually forced to walk on the road.
“Sometimes I worry that a motorbike or car will hit me when I walk in the street,” said Men Chea, 58, who also lives in Village Number Four. “So when there is a lot of traffic, I stop and wait for it to pass.”
Another resident of the village, Ny Sreypov, 25, said she had been hawking cockles, or liah, for five years.
She and her husband also moved to the village from Svay Rieng, following relatives. Every night at about 3am, she and her neighbours gather around wholesalers who come to the village in trucks from Kampong Cham and other provinces, where the clams are harvested from ponds and rivers.
Standing outside her home wearing a lightning blue blouse, lipstick and purple dangly earrings, Sreypov said the bucket of cockles at her feet cost 25,000 riel ($6) and she would sell them for 2,000 riel ($0.50) a can. However, she was dubious about her chances of selling them all.
Sreypov and others blame a video shared on Facebook earlier this year for a recent slowdown in business.
The nearly four-minute clip shows a woman’s hands prying open cockles with a knife and displaying to the camera what are claimed to be worms hiding inside the meat.
“People are afraid to eat liah now, and since that video, business has become worse,” said Sreypov. “I tell them that it is only bad to eat spoiled liah.”
Sreypov’s neighbour Lor Sopheap, 48, who has been hawking cockles since she was 18, when she moved to Phnom Penh from Svay Rieng, became visibly upset when discussing the video.
She had not seen it because, like many of the poor vendors, she doesn’t have a Facebook account, but was told about it by the night-time wholesalers around two months ago.
“I don’t like this Facebook post. I am losing business from it. When people watch that video, they stop eating liah,” said Sopheap.
Sreynet said that since the Facebook video (which she also had not seen), business has been worryingly slow. She measures her losses in buckets.
“I used to be able to sell three buckets’ worth of cockles per day,” she said. “Now, from the wholesalers, I only buy one.”
For many of the migrants, hawking cockles is a last resort job – and the alternatives if people stop eating street clams are bleak.
“I am worried about the future of this business,” said Sreynet, who hawks cockles outside Russian Market. “If I can’t do this, I don’t know what else I can do for work.”