Lok Tanpa village sits on the corner of street 51 and street 144, or, more accurately, four stories above the street on the roof of a monstrous apartment building. Aside from its size, the building is nondescript: on the first floor, there’s an open-air noodle restaurant, fruit vendors, and the ubiquitous karaoke parlor. On the second, third and fourth floors are apartments. And that’s where the average structure in Phnom Penh would end.
Yet beyond the storefronts and apartments, through a staircase shrouded in darkness and filth, and up 96 steps, Lok Tanpa begins. Although Lok Tampa is just one of 20 or 30 rooftop villages in Phnom Penh, it is by far the largest settlement. Some 1,049 people live in the approximately 242 cramped, overcrowded wood, brick and concrete shacks that comprise the village.
The exposed rooftop village is the most active before the midday sun hits. Children scamper through the narrow alleyways formed by tightly-packed dwellings, laughing and diligently stepping over the intricate network of plastic blue pipes traversing the entire rooftop to deliver water to residents. Vendors selling soap, fruit or fried fish sit in the shade of wooden awnings and women crouch in front of their dwellings, washing clothes and chatting with their neighbors.
The village was formed in the early 1980s, when people who had been driven from Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge were invited back into the capital. The new Vietnamese-backed government allowed returnees to inhabit houses in Phnom Penh on a first-come, first-serve basis in 1979, but there were far too few houses to accommodate everyone. This, in turn, led people to find housing anywhere they could—in Pagodas, in squatter camps and on rooftops.
Key Pheurn, the government-appointed village chief of Lok Tanpa, moved to the village in 1983 and has since seen amazing transformations to the rooftop. “Before there were just houses made of leaves and wood,” Key Pheurn said. “Now, there are houses made of plywood with metallic roofs.”
Only 200 people lived on the rooftop in 1983. That number blossomed to more than 1,000 people, who are packed into the 80 meter long by 40 meter wide space. Also, just four years ago, there was only one public toilet for almost 1,028 people, and sanitation was at the top of residents’ list of complaints. Now, however, many households have their own toilet. Key Pheurn, as village chief, oversees sanitation as well as registration of people coming in and out of Lok Tanpa.
Many villagers are forced to buy water at greatly inflated prices from private vendors who control its release from a single tank on the roof. A complex network of blue, vein-like pipes provides water to the families living in Lok Tanpa at a price of 3,000 riel per 1,000 liters of water. Many villagers forgo costly electricity, using candles for illumination instead.
Unlike many settlements or squatter camps that have been bulldozed or razed by the municipality, Lok Tanpa has not faced threats of forced eviction, said Lim Phai, executive director of the Urban Sector Group, an organization that has worked with squatters in Phnom Penh.
“The government is too busy trying to take down the squatter camps near the banks of the Tonle Sap, they don’t try to take down Lok Tanpa,” Lim Phai said. “In principle, the government wants to stop the rooftop villagers, but they have grown out of their control.”
Although these villages may have escaped the municipality’s control, they are incredibly self-contained, as evidenced by Lok Tanpa resident Kim Khunny, who refers to anyplace not on the rooftop as “downstairs.” Even when she says she is from Kandal, she says, “I am from downstairs Kandal,” as if this rooftop home is the world, and anything “downstairs” is unimaginably far away.
Kim Khunny wrung her hands nervously as she explained how she came to live in the overcrowded village. Her story is similar to many who have come from faraway provinces to find success and riches but instead met the hard reality of city life. Her husband couldn’t support her and their two young children on his policeman’s salary when they first moved to Phnom Penh from Kandal province, so he took a second job as a moto-taxi driver. They searched endlessly for an affordable house or apartment here but found nothing to suit them.
Finally, they moved to Lok Tanpa. “I’m not happy to live here” she said. As she spoke, Kim Khunny kept a watchful eye on three young children running through the alleys. “The people here are poor, and the people downstairs know that everyone here is poor—and people downstairs look down on us because we are poor.”
Like Kim Khunny, Morm Phun came from Kandal province in 1999. But he had no misconceptions about where he would live when he traveled the 15 km to Phnom Penh. His oldest daughter, who is a waitress in a small Phnom Penh restaurant, was living at Lok Tanpa in 1999. So he packed up his six other children from the small farm he was living on in the Khsach Kandal district. He now lives on the rooftop in a small concrete house under a corrugated tin roof with his entire family.
He spends his days sitting in his storefront stall, where he sells detergent, eggs, wine and a host of other products to the hundreds of people living in the tiny area they parceled out for themselves.
The frequent fights that break out near his house, the poverty and his loud, drunken neighbors all give him cause to complain, but Morm Phun takes it all with good humor.
“Life isn’t much different here than in Kandal,” he said. “I was a farmer there and sold crops, and now I sell stuff here. I have a little money from what I sell ,and that’s why I live on the top floor.”