The sidewalk outside Daun Penh district’s Wat Saravon is covered with filth, littered with trash and swarming with flies.
But according to Ream Chea, 48, life on the streets of Phnom Penh beats living in a house in Svay Rieng province.
“Here is better than in the province because here we can work and buy food,” she said sitting on the sidewalk next to her grandchildren, 1-year-old Men Plaunt, and 2-year-old Men Ngat, who also live on the street outside the Wat. “Over there [in Svay Rieng] we have a place to stay but no food to eat.”
“We live from hand to mouth,” she explained, gesturing to the wall of the pagoda along Street 19, which is haphazardly lined with cooking utensils, lawn chairs and sleeping children.
Ream Chea said she and her family have been living on the streets of Phnom Penh for about eight years. They make money by hauling barrels of water to the market and sometimes by begging. They are often hassled by the police, she said.
Ream Chea and her family moved to the big city from Svay Rieng, but the vast majority of street dwellers near the pagoda are from Prey Veng province, many from its impoverished Mesang district.
“Poorer than Takeo, no rain to plant rice,” said Boo Kay, 39, of his home province. “People come when they have no food. A lot of families come.”
A former soldier who says he fought against the Khmer Rouge under Prime Minister Hun Sen, Boo Kay is covered with elaborate tattoos on his back, chest and arms. He says the tattoos protect him—citing the fact that he still has all his limbs despite his many years in combat.
“I do whatever work I can get,” he says, adding that he makes about 5,000 riel on a good day. His family—a wife and six children-still lives in Prey Veng but occasionally come to Phnom Penh.
“They come, pick some money and go back,” Boo Koy jokes. “I miss them. But I have no money to go back.”
Sin Nim, 40, who also lives outside the pagoda, arrived in Phnom Penh three days ago from Prey Veng, hoping to find work.
“Here it’s better, we can get some rice to eat,” he said. “Nothing to do, no jobs” he said of Prey Veng.
His dream: To be a cyclo driver.
But life is hard, even in Phnom Penh, even on Pchum Ben, says Prak Khoeun, 48, also from Mesang district, who lives nearby on the sidewalk outside the Royal University of Fine Arts’ south campus and who is disturbingly thin.
“I have some food, but not enough,” she said. “There is food at the pagoda, but they close the gate, we cannot get in.”