On poverty in Cambodia. The uncomfortable truth.

That’s nonsense of course.  Meaning, that the notion that I might somehow come up with any absolute truth on the theme of poverty in Cambodia.  I can certainly conjure up uncomfortable observations with respect to it, but the idea that I could write anything revelatory about this topic when the issues are huge; the challenges greater; the global complexity beyond comprehension is obviously ridiculous.  My own tiny little snapshot perspective I know to be truly pathetic in terms of capturing the gravity of what is going on, and I appreciate I can’t offer any particular insight that might lead to change.  Even so, however limited my perspective or my capacity to make a difference, I can’t not make reference to what I see.   Poverty is all about, desperate, heart-rending, absolute poverty.  It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t hidden.

The (unanswerable?) question is this.  When you give directly to an adult beggar, do you:

a) collude with their poverty by perpetuating their dependence on charitable giving, thereby diminishing them as a human being?


b) restore some of their self-worth, dignity and humanity but making them visible and acknowledging them as a fellow human being?


c) act out of pure self-interest because their poverty makes you feel bad, you get to temporarily assuage your guilt and then continue on your trajectory of unearned privilege?


d) none of the above?

So, I’ve just got back from a Riverside Break in Phnom Penh.  I just wanted a change of scene for the long weekend for Chinese New Year, and there were a couple of things I’ve been wanting to do at riverside for a while – catch the dance show at the National Museum, and watch the Killing Fields at the Empire Movie House for two.  It saves the hassle of a tuk tuk back and also the novelty of my apartment is wearing thin.  Anyways, upshot was another two-night break at Sary’s Guest House, street 13, right off the riverfront and in that respect a ‘great location’ near the tourist attractions of the Royal Palace and the Central Market and in the midst of all the tourist bars, and girlie bars and party town basically.  It does offer ‘western respite’ English menus, English spoken, and genuinely nice things to do.  I am a tourist, I wanted to see the traditional dance and the Royal Palace is spectacular and the River Mekong (or more accurately Tonle Sap) has a sort of majesty if not exactly beauty.  It is good to do these things, and it would be disingenuous of me to pretend I don’t want to.  However, here, at Riverside, I have felt the contrast between we these bulky, affluent western tourists and the absolute destitution of the people who are trying to scrape a living off the same streets we wander about in a daze.  We must seem like a different species in terms of what we have and how we behave.

So, what have I seen?  Well, the last time I was here and breakfasting outside I felt really uncomfortable as various hawkers tried to ply their trade, and recognised that discomfort is really about me being brough face to face with poverty.  I also noticed at the end of the street whole families had made a sort of improvised dwelling on the street corner. There seem to be about three or four distinct families living there on the pavement. This isn’t ‘rough sleeping’ more like a sort of miniature shanty town.  Ripped up cardboard boxes being used to make a low wall around the area they had marked out as their living area.  A child being washed in a filthy looking old container that had previously contained maybe paint or chemicals.  Cooking preparations going on, older family members lying still on the street behind.  Maybe a raggedy blanket pulled up around them.  They carry out all the routines of daily life under the gaze of passers’ by. I say ‘gaze’ but more accurately they are invisible, people walk through their improvised kitchen without even a glance.  This is no way to live, it isn’t a choice.  The people here aren’t begging either, they are just existing.  Maybe they have jobs, but no accommodation, it’s impossible to know.  What I do know, is that the same families were here in the same spots this weekend, it forces you to ask the question how long have they been there, how long will they continue to be there?  And if that seems bad, it’s probably even worse for them if the area gets more developed and they have to move on, they at least have found a relatively safe spot in the grand scheme of things. Though how they will manage when the rains come and the streets flood I can’t imagine.

Then yesterday, there was the incident when we saw one of the women piling rubbish on her recycling cart, and we went to help.  She was struggling to get a final sack of cans onto this great tower of waste.  Seeing her up close, and seeing her age and her fragility brought me up short. This is a hard way to make a living, and whilst I don’t know how old she actually was, it would definitely be beyond retirement age in UK terms I’m sure.  This isn’t romantic, it’s bloody hard work.  Holding up the bag of cans so she could secure them on her cart, you can feel the trickle of liquid dirt running down your arms.  She’s doing this all day, every day, you would never be clean.  That isn’t just unpleasant, it makes you susceptible to infection and illness, and it’s very uncomfortable.  There are many of these women with their barrows.  I’ve always recognised it as a low-status occupation, but yesterday I was brought up short.


On the way back from our nice evening watching the dance show, it was about 9.00 p.m. I suppose, and we had to wander back along some relatively quiet streets to return to the guest house.  It does seem particularly quiet, I think many people have gone back to their home provinces for the lunar new year.  Cambodian people do turn in early on the whole, and as the sun sets around 6.00 ish those without homes may as well bed down I suppose.  So we are walking along and you see the recycling carts pulled up on the side of the streets. Then I started to realise that behind or alongside the carts are the women who spend their days pushing them.  Sleeping on the pavement, wrapped up in a blanket.  It is shocking.  For a number of reasons.  The vulnerability of these women, they have absolutely nothing, they aren’t even lying on cardboard – which seems ironic when their livelihood is based on collecting and flattening it, perhaps it is better for them to get the cash from selling it on, than the comfort of sleeping on it. At least the families squatting on the street corner have assembled cooking things and improvised a dwelling of sorts, and they have each other.  The cart women (I don’t know what to call them) are alone, completely alone.  No cooking equipment, no resources, nobody to look out for them.  People just don’t live on their own here by choice.  It is incomprehensible to my students that I am both unmarried and childless, and I never did get them to understand I live alone in the UK ‘not with you brothers and sisters either?’  This magnifies the poverty, if you are old and on your own in this society it’s going to be unimaginably hard.  Add in absolute poverty and living on the streets and I don’t know how they survive.  The only thing that maybe makes it more bearable, is that the streets are actually quite crowded with people sleeping out.  Some are what I would recognise as ‘rough sleepers’ – the woman with her cart and nothing else – in that she looked like she would just sleep where she ends up as dusk falls. But the now closed market stalls, that a few hours earlier were busy with barbers plying their trade, or fruit sellers trading their goods are also occupied with slumbering vendors in their hammocks.  Many tuk tuks have people sleeping in them. This is a common day time sight as well, but these tuk tuk drivers seemed settled down for the night.  Likewise the cyclo drivers, who seem generally to be older, wiry, fragile looking men.  Slumbering in their cyclos under thin looking blankets.  The photo below is of a daytime kipper, not a night time sleeper by the way.


All over the city you see people sleeping in the most unlikely and improvised places.  I have often wondered whether this is just daytime nap opportunism or permanent homes.  I increasingly think the latter.  More often than not anyway.


Homelessness is an ever-present threat if not a current reality.  Case in point.  The barman at the guest house we are staying at will in all likelihood lose his job when the bar is sold. The owner has said he will keep him on if he opens a new restaurant as planned, but that probably won’t happen seamlessly.  As if that isn’t bad enough, I discovered that his home is linked to the job.  Now, if I was saying this in the UK, you’d imagine a live-in position, and it might be a bit crap, and possibly overly communal, but there’d be a bed and access to a bathroom as minimum but nope, that’s not what I mean.  What I mean, is at the very top of the guest house building is a flat rooftop.  It is high up and windy.   Old furniture is stored up there exposed to the elements, there’s some sort of generator or oil storage container, it was hard to tell in the dark.   A bit of tarpaulin has been pulled across part of the rooftop area to create some shade.   I went up just to look at the view.  I found out though, this is where the barman/ receptionist sleeps.  Not in a bed, not even a hammock, he just crashes out up there when his shift is over.  It isn’t a formal live-in post, he only works the day shift, but he is allowed to kip here if he chooses, and he does.   He has access to a communal loo on the ground floor some five storeys below, but that’s not got a shower or anything.  I suppose he gets meals on the job.  His clothes were hung up on a make shift washing line that was appropriated electrical wiring.  It’s the kind of place that the idea of sleeping would be appealing for a couple of nights. Cool up in the wind and gazing up at the night sky.  But what about when it rains, what about mosquitoes?  He has nothing of his own.  The point is, this is beyond basic, but his daily reality, and yet he has full-time gainful employment.  He speaks really good English, he is not someone you’d imagine to be so without resources.  He was telling us he was worried about his next job as I paid my bill, but he was smiling.  Beneath that smile though he must surely be really worried.  What are his options?  For the record, the guest house manager is paying him a month’s wages, and hopes to retain him when he opens a new business, but this guy can’t afford to wait.  ‘It may take 3 months for a new business, I must work‘.  I didn’t let on I know where he lives, as I didn’t know if that would be appropriate.  Would he feel humiliated that I knew, or is it not at all a reason for embarrassment because that is the reality of many people who work around the bars and restaurants of riverside?  One thing is for sure, there is no safety net here.  If you are own your own, or ill, you are in a precarious place.  No room for complacency for anyone here.

At breakfast this morning we ate at Sary’s guest house.  We were sat back in the restaurant area, rather than the forecourt.  You can see the view from where we were in the pictures above.   An old woman approached us begging.  I felt terrible, she must be so desperate to do this.  We were tucking in to omelettes, and latte and croissants.  Again, she was on her own and looked old, with weather-beaten skin of someone who has been living rough.  I make it a rule NEVER to give to children, or to buy from children who are begging, they should be at school.  However, I couldn’t bear this.  Interestingly the barman/receptionist gave her some reil and I did too, only about 500 reil which is really nothing (4000 reil to the dollar).  I know the ‘it’ll only encourage dependency’ argument, but I was feeling haunted by the people I’d seen on the streets last night.   Nobody does this out of choice.  I think the children are being exploited begging on the streets for their minders, and that is a different problem.  Education might offer them an alternative life in the future, but for these older people, alone and destitute I don’t know what they can do, their options are limited.  They will have lived through the Khmer Rouge, who knows their history, the trauma they may have seen or even been party to.  They will not necessarily  have had access to education or anything else that might help them access a different future.  All I know is that I wouldn’t want this for myself or anyone I know, and I don’t want it for these people here either.

Interestingly (I thought) a few minutes later two monks appeared and stood like shadows in the doorway. They stared past us to the barman and another staff member who had their heads down over their mobile phones ignoring them.  I find it fascinating that one of them at least gave to the old woman, but not to the monks.  I’d love to have the nerve and communication skills to find out what the thought processes are there.

From the guest house we went to Central Market.  This is normally heaving, but today the streets are quiet, and most of the market was shut for the Chinese New Year.  I’m guessing students are still going to be thin on the ground tomorrow!


On the way we passed the Nasa boutique.  This pleased me.  It was shut, so I don’t know what space-agency sponsored clothes options were actually available, but I like to think it will be selling pimped up NASA surplus astronaut outfits, that kind of thing.


The outer perimeter of the Central Market was open though, with a large area of clothes; belts and bags; fish and food and that was about it.  On a slightly cheerier note (I can’t bear the misery of this post otherwise) there was a stall where I was fascinated with how they were roasting sweet chestnuts in a metal dish with heated small stones to keep them warm. They were $7 a kilo, but we were able to buy just 200 grams or thereabout.  They weren’t as nice as they looked, but the interaction was worth it to see the cooking plan.

There were a lot of beggars around. That is hard.  I did give 2000 reil to a guy that had no hands.  He returned my greeting as best he could.  I don’t know how he lost his hands.  I wondered if it was caught in machinery or maybe from a landmine.  Or was he attacked?  I don’t know.  I had a feeling it was from trauma not from birth, but how would I know.  I just can’t imagine how hard life must be.  It is to assuage my guilt I know, and there were plenty I didn’t give to, but today i did to him.    I did not give to the various women I saw clutching babies – that is often a scam.  I did not give to children.  Then again, I’ve just read an article that says prosthetic limbs are available to all, and that with them it should be possible to make a living, but people can make more money betting. Aaaaargh,  I just don’t know.  Is my act of giving really just perpetuating his poverty, encouraging dependence and diminishing him as a human being?  That’s the downside…

I think for me it is hard but clear-cut with children. They need to be removed from that cycle of poverty. It is never OK to give.  With old people I find it more complicated, I don’t see options for them.  The women carrying babies, I feel reasonably confident that is a scam too, goodness knows where the children are borrowed from.  Then again, I wrestle with our comparative wealth. I’ve made the same moral calculations in the UK to be fair. Regarding to give or not to give.  The accepted wisdom is you should not give directly to rough sleepers and homeless people because in all likelihood you are just feeding their addiction.  But for me it is not so simple.  My next door neighbour ended up homeless and an addict after a horrible cycle of events that demonstrated all too vividly how this can happen to anyone. Because of his addiction, he could not access most support services who would only allow him onto their premises if he would engage with quitting support, which for various reasons he was unable to do.  (Denial, dependency, chaotic lifestyle). This made him extra vulnerable. I’ve not seen him on the streets, he has vanished, I doubt it will end well for him,  but I’ve seen other rough sleepers in the cold.  Nobody chooses to sleep outside in sub-zero temperatures, it is not true ‘there is a place for everyone’, such emergency accommodation is limited, and conditional in many instances.    I know full well the limitations of giving in such circumstances, but I think to place a pound coin in someone’s hand and wish them well is a tiny step in acknowledging their humanity.  It won’t change their immediate situation, but it is a small gesture to indicate that someone has noticed them and thinks that they still matter.  Anyway, it’s not an either/ or situation.  occasional one to one giving doesn’t mean  you can’t contribute in other ways with time; clothing donations to charity shops; cash gifts to relief organisations whatever it is.

The complication is that in Cambodia I don’t know how aid works at local level.  I don’t know who the beneficiaries are of particular initiatives.  I don’t know if it is a scam or an act of desperation to ask for money.  I feel so stupid here, and so ill-equipped.  I know that begging children may have been trafficked; I also know that life is hard and the need is great. Ultimately every traveler will make their own choices, I just hope they are informed ones.  I also hope the rough sleepers are safer here than in London or British cities though, where drunken revellers will mock them or piss on them or set fire to their sleeping bags. I fear that as Phnom Penh riverside becomes ever more concentrated with sex-industry related businesses and drinking-related party venues, the worst excesses of western society will make their way here, including treating homeless people with cruelty, contempt and disdain.

When we came back from the market with our plastic bag of uneaten roasted sweet chestnuts it seemed a waste.  I walked up to the corner of the improvised shanty town.  There was a child scouring the gutter for bottles to recycle.  She ignored me.  I gestured to her mother, was it OK to give the child the sweet chestnuts?  Yes it was.  The child accepted them when her mother said it was alright, and clutching them looked at me with incomprehension. This is a family that is most definitely not begging, they are doing what they have to do to survive.  It is not OK.

Many things in Cambodia are extraordinary, amazing, inspiring, but much is sad, challenging and troubling too.  I don’t have any answers or insights, only subjective observation, but I do feel quiet rage at those who romanticise poverty here.  There is nothing wonderful about living on the streets and on the edges of subsistence.   For my part, I try to spend my money at places with a social enterprise focus; I also am loyal to ‘my’ coffee seller and other individual entrepreneurs.  There is also a sort of fair employment initiave like at Lot 369 in PHnom Penh near the Russian Market, it is good to support such places, though it can work out expensive too.  I don’t give to many beggars, but the old people, it breaks my heart.  I just can’t see their begging as a lifestyle choice, for many of them I think it is too late to seriously believe their cycle of poverty will be broken by the intervention of an NGO.  For people of their age they are surely in the endgame now.   I want to be wrong though, I really do.

Oh no, this is soooooooooooooo depressing.  On a cheerier note. The central market also offered up a new to me product.  Flesh coloured knickers with padded buttocks.  I was genuinely confused by these – though it occurred to me these would have been a real boon to our cycling excursion!  In fact, they are the chicken-fillets of the arse. For people of a Cambodian physique, it seems they long for curves, this is one way to achieve them.  Who knew?  Not me, clearly, the pursuit of new curves has been an absolutely not long-held aspirtaion of mine, I’d happily offer up a few of my existing curves to any willing recipient if only ‘t’were possible.  I don’t think the picture does them justice, but you can probably use your imagination anyway.

Then, also going back to base, my own personalised bit of grafitti. Just to be clear, this isn’t my tag, only my opportunistic photo.


Right, that’s enough cheeriness for one post, you can find further depressing articles about begging and the t’o give or not to give in Cambodia’ debate here:






Sweet dreams.


One response to “On poverty in Cambodia. The uncomfortable truth.

  1. Pingback: Dancing around history – Cambodian Living Arts, Phnom Penh | Cambodia Calling·

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