poipet town – Visit this town during the rainy season, and you will see people wearing rubber boots to walk down the muddy streets.
To navigate the main street leading to the Thai border is to slosh through puddles of wet, sucking mud. Rain water drains into side streets, where block after block of rickety shacks have been built on stilts, above smelly ponds covered with slime.
Galoshes—a rarity in the rest of Cambodia—are the style in Poipet, seen on the feet of at least one-quarter of the town’s adult male residents on a recent afternoon.
According to town officials, the drainage and sewage problems became much worse as more houses and hotels were built after the reopening of the border crossing with Thailand in 1998
But the government wasn’t solving the problem.
So instead of waiting for the government, local residents are fixing the problem themselves. They have begun building a new drainage and sewage system along a 2.5-km stretch of road on the other side of the main street that continues to the border.
Sok Khoeun, O’Chrou deputy district chief, said he is facilitating the work. But the people are paying for the sewage pipes being installed in front of their own houses. Each pipe, about 1.5 meters long, costs 2,300 baht ($58).
“This construction will get the dirty water out of the main streets in order to beautify the town,” Sok Khoeun said. “It should help attract more national and international tourists to our town.”
The Kheng, a worker at the Bayon guest house and one of several hundred residents whose house is located on the main street, said he willingly paid money to have the sewage system built .
“We have to pay for this sewage works, otherwise we still have such a bad street that would effect our businesses,” he said. “If the town is clean, we will have more visitors.”
Local authorities admit the poor condition of the drainage and sewage systems in Poipet is costing the town money. The local market, for example, has lost a substantial portion of its business to a paved market just on the other side of the border in Thailand that doesn’t flood.
During a recent visit, opposition leader Sam Rainsy lambasted the government for ignoring the area’s infrastructure problems, saying that the conditions put people’s health at risk.
“In this town, the government could get a lot of revenue,” he told about 300 protesters at a land dispute rally. “Why is it they are allowing this main street to be such a dirty pond? I would like the government to develop this area for the sake of health and economic issues.”
Sam Rainsy also called for the cancellation of the 10 baht charge to cross the border.
“The government does not need to charge the poor this fee,” he said. “They must better control smuggling and corruption here, so they can gain much more revenue.”
The crossing fee has the greatest affect on day laborers who cart goods back and forth across the border. The fee is taken out of the already small wages they earn for hauling merchandise. But for many, it is the only job they can find.
Economic prospects for most here are bleak. There is also a growing problem with drug addiction among day laborers who become hooked on amphetamines. And every month brings new cases of land grabbing as powerful officials take property in hopes it will be the future site of a casino or hotel.
Along with bringing gamblers from Thailand, the border serves as a major point of entry for smuggled goods, from gasoline to motorbikes.
Human rights officials estimate that hundreds of women and children are smuggled out of Cambodia through the crossing each year.
The new sewer system won’t solve all of Poipet’s problems. But people here say cleaning up the streets—cleaning up the filth and the stench—is a good start.
“Our life here is like living in a hell because it’s very dirty. Smelling this dirt made us very sick,” said Mom Sarom, a 30-year-old trader. “If we look at the Thai road and ours, it is like heaven and hell .”