Deep in the maze of Phnom Penh, where homes and shops spring from back alleys and side streets, one narrow foot path looks a little different.
It’s paved, drained and swept clean.
“Today the living is very good,” says 46-year-old Kim Ly.
She remembers when it wasn’t always so. In the early ’90s, the slender little alleyway—just a couple meters wide with scarcely room for a car—was a sludge-filled gully of scum. “It was very dirty before the construction,” says Kim Ly, who has lived in this area since 1979. “When the road was dirty, we had very bad hygiene and some of the families were sick.”
Every day, some 50 families trudged through the dregs en route to their homes. Kim Ly points to her mid-calf, showing how high the mud rose.
And then, in 1992, the Australia-based aid group CARE began a project that would change the way these families live and how they think about their environment.
Dubbed HELP, for “Health, Environment and Livelihood Project,” the little trail in Sangkath Psar Depot 1 off Street 221, south of Kampuchea Krom, became a small segment of a large effort to improve conditions in Phnom Penh.
CARE collected $7 from each family for every meter their homes occupied on the alleyway; then subsidized the rest of the project. The NGO hired a contractor, used volunteer labor and set out to clean up a slice of the capital.
Perhaps most important, they also taught the residents about sanitation—why and how to keep their habitat clean.
These days, CARE is on to different work. Most of the officers who ran HELP have since left Phnom Penh, and the venture just vaguely tweaks the memories of today’s volunteers. But it has left a lasting mark in Kim Ly’s neighborhood.
“I learned,” Kim Ly says. “Everyone, all the residents living along this way were trained in sanitation and hygiene.”
Her neighbors echo those thoughts. “The NGO educated us,” says 35-year-old Chan Bora, who has lived here since 1991. “Now my neighbors and I put garbage in plastic bags.”
Indeed, a white plastic bag, tied tightly, sits on her curb. Across the street, green plastic bags sit beside potted plants. An underground drainage pipe lies below.
Last year, fire swept through the area during the city’s factional fighting. But residents have rebuilt and patched what could be salvaged. And it’s still all very clean.
The alley carves a tidy notch into an area otherwise largely unpaved, where ages of garbage lie embedded in moto-worn ruts that turn muddy in the rain.
“Everyone follows the explanation from CARE,” Chan Bora says of her neighbors. The few people who don’t, she says, are temporary renters who weren’t here for the education and don’t understand.
Still, she laments that this project changed only one part of their lives. They still need regular electricity and clean water. It’s only a start, she says.
Today, in a light drizzle, water trickles through the alley’s drains and disappears. Bright red and blue umbrellas gleam in the dull light. A man sells sandwiches from a cart, and a woman sells soup from a corner stall.
That woman is 40-year-old Try Saing Khong. She lives up a block on a similar alleyway that isn’t paved. She started her business here when the pavement went in. She’s made a tidy profit ever since, from residents bustling to and from home.
“All this area, these were the worst roads in the area,” she says, sweeping her arms to convey the vast unpleasantries that once were.
Kim Ly, standing nearby, smiles when she talks of the three years since. She paid $35 for her 5 meters on the walkway. She smiles even more when contemplating the expense. “I was glad to pay this money because we have such a good road to walk on now.”
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)