While most Phnom Penh residents were cozy in bed in their homes, Chhieng Mom was sleeping out in the cold wind on a sidewalk in front of a villa.
The 34-year-old scrap scavenger and her 7-year-old daughter had only an old, torn mat picked from a dumpsite to sleep on and a ragged, smelly blanket to keep warm. Too poor to buy even a second-hand sweater or coat, Chhieng Mom said she and her daughter suffered through several uncomfortable nights.
“I have not been able to sleep very well since the onset of the windy season, especially in these last few days,” Chhieng Mom said Sunday night. “It’s very hard to stand the cool wind.”
The first cold snap of the season last weekend caused misery to the region’s homeless, as temperatures plunged to 17 degrees Celsius in coastal areas and 20 degrees in Phnom Penh.
Pheng Heng, the municipality’s deputy chief of cabinet in charge of social affairs, estimated 1,000 homeless people were camped outside in municipal parks and in front of buildings. Others estimated there were many more. For the most part, the people were left to their own devices on how to best keep warm. The city can’t afford to give any clothes or other provisions to the street people in the capital, Pheng Heng said.
But city officials, he said, did try to persuade the homeless to go to a municipal center in Stung Meanchey commune, where shelter was being offered in addition to vocational training in such things as vegetable growing and sewing. About 200 homeless took up the offer, Pheng Heng said, but dozens of others preferred to stay on the streets—cold by night and beggars or scrap scavengers by day.
Sebastian Marot, coordinator of the NGO Friends, said the NGO is encouraging street children to go the NGO for shelter, medical care and training. He said that if the NGO gives clothes and food to the homeless children, they will have no motivation to leave the streets.
Late Sunday night, at least 10 homeless people including children were seen huddled on the sidewalks next to Phsar Thmei. Many were barefoot, with only ragged pieces of clothing to keep them warm.
Nin Tha, 40-year-old cyclo driver, reiterated Chhieng Mom’s sentiment, saying that he was unable to afford a sweater. He slept in his cyclo with his head wrapped with a krama.
Seth Vannareth, director of the meteorology department at the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, said the cool weather was caused by a tropical depression in the South China Sea, resulting in drizzle and cold wind. “Now the weather is starting to be normal again,” she said.
Agriculture officials have said previously that about 5 percent of the rice crop was damaged by recent, late-season rains.
Last year, temperatures plunged to 16.4 degrees Celsius in the highlands, the lowest temperatures in Cambodia since 1993.