The streets of Phnom Penh were noticeably quieter Tuesday in the aftermath of the urban exodus to the provinces, where most Cambodians ushered in the Khmer New Year.
On Monday, the neighborhoods around the capital’s major shopping areas were filled with last-minute shoppers, and the main boulevards were a hodgepodge of vans, cars and motos all attempting to reach provincial hometowns.
But amid all the furor exists a section of society that cannot leave or is obliged to stay behind and work just to make ends meet.
Ngim Sina, 48, a gasoline, cigarette and beverage vendor originally from Kampot province, set up her makeshift stall midway through Tuesday morning after praying at a pagoda with her husband.
“For people with money, they get to go home. But for me, I’m broke. And every year I have to work,” she said, adding that her average daily wage was between $5 and $7 a day.
“My observations tell me that most people tend to stop working. But the street sellers, they keep working,” she said.
Ho Vandy, co-chair of the government-private sector tourism working group, estimated that between 50 and 60 percent of those living in Phnom Penh had made their way to the provinces. “As you have seen, not only have the government officials left, but most of the private sector are closing their doors too,” he said.
Other residents in Phnom Penh who have chosen to stay include those who stand to make their biggest annual profits from the celebrations over the festive period.
At Prem Bayon, a Buddhist ceremonial shop near Wat Phnom, the owner, who wished to remain unnamed, said she had already taken a trip to Kompong Cham province to see her family.
“This is our best sales period of the year,” she said. “We stay open because the products we have on sale are in high demand right now.”
She sells tunics and robes for Buddhist monks as well as decorations and statues for pagodas.
As for the tuk-tuk drivers, whose business has been drastically hit by the downturn in tourists coming to Cambodia, New Year’s Day is just like any other. Well, apart from the fact that “there are no passengers,” said Thay Hout, 33, a tuk-tuk driver from Battambang province.
As two Australian tourists jumped into the back seat of his tuk-tuk, he hastily fired up his motor and agreed to a $1 dollar payment for a ride across town.
“I haven’t even made 100 riel yet,” he said prior to payment from the two Australians. “But it’s Khmer tradition. The people must go.”