Moving Dirt

A lucrative dirt trade is leaving gaping holes in communities

Ang Snoul District, Kandal province – From certain angles, Trach Tol looks like any other Cambodian village. There are a handful of brick houses, a tiny pavilion where religious ceremonies are held, and not much else. Gleaming rice paddies stretch out in all directions. Wedding music rumbles in the distance.

But turn around, look more closely, and the holes come into focus. There are eight of them by last count, including four massive pits brimming with rainwater and God knows what other detritus, and several smaller ones.

The holes have dominated the physical landscape of Trach Tol since they were dug out of the earth, one by one, starting in 2008, when two local businessmen, known as “Big Sok” and “Little Sok,” began selling the dirt on their property for construction landfill. More recently, they have begun to dominate the spiritual landscape as well.


In this excerpt from an hour-long spirit possession ceremony that Veasna and Bunthy held for their daughters, the parents converse with a spirit medium, Yeay Yom, speaking in the voice of one of the twins, Chanriya. They ask the child why she went to play near the hole. “Chanriya” tells her parents that she was enticed by a styrofoam box floating in the water. She says she wants to come back to the world, but cannot.

One day in April last year, 8-year-old identical twins Chhoeurn Chanriya and Chhoeurn Chanlyda were playing together on the edge of one of the holes when they fell in and drowned almost instantly.

The twins were tiny and impish, with round faces and big eyes. They loved music and listened to it whenever they could. When their mother came home, they would rush to her cloth bag, searching inside for cakes and candy. They were polite to older girls in the village, calling them big sister. They were like girls in any village in Cambodia, until they were suddenly gone.

Their mother, Ly Veasna, a soft-spoken 36-year-old garment worker with deep-set, intelligent eyes, has been obsessed with their fate ever since then.

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A hole in Kandal province’s Trach Tol village. (Ben Woods/The Cambodia Daily)
She has spent much of the past year trying to reach them in the spirit world and arrange a smooth passage to their next lives. She borrowed money to hire a spirit medium to reach out to them so that she could hear their voices cry “Mommy!” once again. She gathered dirt from the hole and threw it across her neighbors’ threshold in the hope that one of the girls would be reborn there.

“It totally affects the village,” Ms. Veasna’s neighbor In Leap said of the deaths. “Even myself, on the day the twins died, I fainted several times. If they hadn’t died, they could have been as tall as my own child.”

Development hasn’t made many obvious changes in Trach Tol. There are no luxury cars here, not even a cheap car most of the time. Not even a paved road. Most of the houses here are miniscule, cobbled together from brick and corrugated metal. It’s one of a thousand places in Cambodia that have been scarred by the accelerating pace of economic growth without reaping many of the benefits.

Nobody knows precisely how many villages are marked with these holes. The government does not seem to keep close track of dirt extraction, and no NGOs monitor it closely. But it is clear that the industry is a booming business, and those who work in rural communities report that they frequently encounter dirt-extraction sites.

In the best-case scenarios, these holes can be used as small reservoirs or ponds. In the worst cases, they are little more than gaping wounds in the earth. Unless you live nearby, you don’t really notice the holes until you start looking for them. Then, all of a sudden, they’re everywhere.

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Ly Veasna stands near the hole where her daughters drowned. (Ben Woods/The Cambodia Daily)

Chea Bunseang is one of Cambodia’s most prominent homegrown architects, a small man with a perma-grin who works with his small staff out of a light-filled villa that doubles as a high-end coffee shop. He has projects going everywhere—and dirt, he says, is needed for just about every construction project in Cambodia. It’s used to level out plots of land and raise them above the rainy season floodwaters.

Mr. Bunseang can pull up an aerial satellite image of Phnom Penh on Google Maps and immediately point out dozens of holes that have been dug out to provide construction landfill.

“Excavated, excavated, excavated,” he said, pointing to large empty spaces on the map dotting the southwest outskirts of Phnom Penh.

“Every year, the owner of these rice fields, because they are close to the city, they change their career to motodop and the old people give land to their sons, and the sons don’t like to work in the rice fields, so it’s better to sell the soil. “The city development now is moved this way, so they take this land to fill up this land,” he pointed, “and this land to fill up this land.”

About a decade ago, dirt traders started digging out a massive hole in Dangkao district, near the Royal University of Agriculture. The hole is now so large that it could be mistaken for a brackish lake; its edges are not clearly defined, though, and houses along its banks are melting into the sodden dirt around its edges.

Yi Chhuon, a 50-year-old father of three living alongside the hole, said that local farmers sold their land to a dirt trader around 2004. He then dug a large hole and sold it to another trader, who deepened and widened it. By the time they were done digging, the hole was so deep that groundwater welled up.

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Ouk Odom sits in a hammock outside his rented house on the edge of a hole near the Royal University of Agriculture in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district. (Ben Woods/The Cambodia Daily)

“I’m not happy about the hole. I’m concerned…. Sometimes the grandkids want to go down and play around the water,” he said. “But the city needed to develop.”

Further west, near Prey Sar prison, there is an even deeper pair of holes, so deep that they appear to have been gouged out of the earth by some force of nature—an earthquake or an explosion. They gained brief media attention last year when a military helicopter crashed into one of them, and rescue efforts were impeded by the hole’s steep walls and the dirty water that had accumulated inside it. Those living nearby say they don’t know the names of the businessmen who took the dirt.

“It’s rich people,” said Sambath Reaksmey, whose house looks out upon the canyons, and who struggles to prevent her 4-year-old son, Sophanith, from playing in the area.

“Before I moved here I felt scared, but now it feels normal.”

It is common for locals to be in the dark as to the names or identities of those digging holes in their communities, explained Mr. Bunseang, the architect. Because dirt trading depends on minute knowledge of local conditions—which land is suitable for excavation, which villagers are so desperate that they might be induced to sell their dirt—and because builders want to buy dirt from nearby to save money on transport, the trade is highly decentralized, and there are few large companies involved.

Most traders are individual landowners or small-scale traders like Big Sok and Little Sok. Frequently, they rely on bribing local government officials they are acquainted with rather than seeking permission from the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME), which officially regulates dirt extraction, Mr. Bunseang said.

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One of the Prey Sar quarries (Ben Woods/The Cambodia Daily)
“There’s no company; it’s like a private team. Say I have a 10-cubic-meter truck and I own one, two, three excavators, so I go to dig land, you pay me, and I bring it to your area and I pay for the police along your street and pay the local authorities,” he said.

“It’s supposed to be under MME, but MME on the district level has very low capacity and is powerless,” he added.

Dith Tina, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, confirmed that his ministry is in charge of regulating dirt extraction.

“This is considered as a mineral resource too. So it is regulated by mining law and under supervision of our ministry, except when it comes to digging irrigation system which will be under ministry of water resource,” he wrote in an email.

Mr. Tina agreed to answer further questions on the topic, but did not respond to multiple follow-up messages.

In addition to the largest and most obvious extraction sites, there are also smaller holes dotting the countryside across Cambodia, especially on the outskirts of urban areas, that hardly attract notice, Mr. Bunseang said.

Soum Chankea, the Banteay Meanchey province coordinator for human rights group Adhoc, said the practice is widespread in western Cambodia as well as Phnom Penh. He said there are “many” holes in the area he monitors. One particularly large one, around 40,000 square meters, was dug this year in Serei Saophoan City, he said. Locals complain that it is eroding farmland and collapsing a road.

“They take the dirt for selling at rich people’s homes and to fill up the land that the rich people bought,” Mr. Chankea said. “They dig the earth into holes, and they make the mountains into bald mountains.”

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A view of the hole from above (Ben Woods/The Cambodia Daily)

On Koh Oknha Tey island, a short ferry ride from Phnom Penh, everyone knows Heng Sok Heang. You just have to ask for Heang Doek Dey: Heang the Dirt Transporter.

He wears the evidence of his trade on his body—his sandals are caked in dust, with one dusty pinky toe sticking out of the plastic, and his fingernails are brown—but he makes enough money so that his wife can wear diamonds in her ears and on her fingers, and their 10-year-old daughter can fiddle with a smartphone while wearing a red velour tracksuit with the word “Queen” spelled out in rhinestones.

Mr. Sok Heang has traded in dirt for the past 20 years, using the substance to claw his way out of poverty and into the middle class. After an impoverished childhood in Cambodia’s east, he came to the city in the 1990s and started working with a relative who traded dirt. Eventually he made enough money to strike out on his own, investing in a 2.5-ton dump truck and a small excavator. He was in business.

Now, he works almost constantly. Sometimes he simply rents his truck out to transport dirt from one place to another, but better business, he explained, is to buy dirt directly from poor villagers, then sell it at a profit. He pays from $4 to $5 for a truckload of dirt, then brings it to building sites and unloads it for around $12. Mr. Sok Heang and his wife, a land dealer, also work in tandem to buy cheap plots of land and excavate the dirt. Occasionally he dabbles in trading sand, but there is more profit in dirt these days.

“Dirt is much better than sand,” he said. “Dirt is better business; it has a bigger market. Dirt is used to fill up the land.”

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Crumbling houses, outhouses and other detritus line the edges of the hole in Dangkao. (Ben Woods/The Cambodia Daily)

One day in April, Mr. Sok Heang agreed to show journalists an active dirt-digging site, just a five-minute drive from his house. His 27-year-old son, Heng Im, was behind the controls of his excavator, drunk at 3 p.m. “Sir, sir, sir, I like England, I like you!” Im shouted to a female reporter from the cabin of the machine before setting it into motion again, filling the bed of one of his father’s 2.5-ton trucks in less than five minutes.

Watching intently by the side of the hole was the dirt’s owner, 41-year-old Uong Vuthy, a tiny woman dressed in a mismatched print blouse and sarong. She clutched a small booklet of yellow slips of paper printed with the words, “Bill of Dirt” in red ink. Each time a truckload of dirt left the site, another slip was filled out and signed, making her $4 richer.

When the excavation was over, she would trade in her growing collection of yellow slips for cash from Mr. Sok Heang, and she would finally have enough money to build a new house. The trade-off, of course, would be the two gaping holes in her front yard.

Just behind the two fresh holes, Mr. Sok Heang pointed to another, older depression in the earth. This was his own plot of land, which he purchased to excavate in 2013. Now it was grown over with a tangle of weeds and grass. Mr. Sok Heang and his wife, Sok Maly, explained that they were unconcerned about owning a giant hole, because they believed that over the years the land would regenerate itself.

“Because the land is near the river, the water flows and brings some of the dirt. It is called, ‘the land grows by itself,’” she said.

Sambath Reaksmey lives on the edge of two massive dirt quarries in Prey Sar commune. Her son Sophanith, 4, likes to play near the edge. (Ben Woods/The Cambodia Daily)

Back in Trach Tol, the dirt mining started in around 2008, residents say. First, a landowner known to villagers only as Big Sok dug out several of the larger holes. Then Big Sok ran out of dirt for his own construction projects, so he started purchasing from Little Sok.

At first, the holes were fairly shallow and parents didn’t worry. Children would play and even swim in the water, Ms. Veasna said.

“Those holes and those shallow lakes got deeper after private landlords hired laborers and machinery to take the earth to sell,” she said. “These holes are owned by different people. Some properties with big holes belong to Mr. Little Sok, and some to Mr. Big Sok.”

Although a local man drowned in one of the holes—a suspected suicide—parents still sometimes allowed their children to play nearby, particularly in the shallow fringes of Little Sok’s biggest hole, which was expanding slowly and had plenty of muddy, marshy areas where children liked to splash.

Then, one day in April 2014, Chanlyda and Chanriya disappeared into the waters they were playing in. A pregnant neighbor, Ms. Pao, saw them drown and jumped into the hole to try and bring them up. She said she lost her own baby in the effort, but could not save the girls. She dreamed of their spirits for weeks afterward.

“I saw they were both tied with flaming string and called me to help set them free. In my dream, I used my mouth to cut off the flaming string to untie them, but I didn’t get burned. I feel so sorry for their deaths,” she said.

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Chhorn Bunthy adjusts a tinsel decoration on a portrait of his late twin daughters, Chanlyda and Chanriya, held by Ly Veasna. (Ben Woods/The Cambodia Daily)

Ms. Veasna and her husband, Chhorn Bunthy, were deeply affected. He has been struggling with mental health issues since then and drinking alcohol to forget the memory of his daughters, who were under his care when they drowned. She has taken solace in shepherding her daughters’ spirits to a new life.

The first step was to get the spirits out of the hole, where she believed they remained stuck. Villagers frequently reported seeing the girls’ ghosts playing around the fringes of the hole, especially at dusk.

On a suggestion from Grandmother Yom, a local spirit healer, Ms. Veasna arranged for a ceremony near the hole’s edge to pray to the area’s Neak Ta, a local guardian spirit, seeking authorization to release the spirits of the girls from the hole. Just as the local government regulates residency changes within a village, the Neak Ta has authority over the village’s spiritual landscape and must be appealed to with the proper procedure before a spirit can be released.

An achar, or lay priest, performed a ceremony with two winter melons representing the girls, tying them together with threads and throwing them into the hole, then carrying them out again. Later, Ms. Veasna wrote down the twins’ names on a piece of paper along with those of neighbors who stood in as “village chiefs” and “commune chiefs,” and covered the paper in dirt from the hole. This, she hoped, would be the spiritual authorization her girls needed to emerge from the hole.

A month after the deaths, Ms. Veasna and Mr. Bunthy were still desperate for news of their twins and whether their spirits had left the hole. They asked Grandmother Yom to reach out directly to the spirits of Chanlyda and Chanriya.

Grandmother Yom agreed, and the parents borrowed money to pay for a ceremony during which she became possessed by the spirits of both girls, and spoke to their parents in childish, high-pitched voices. Ms. Veasna was deeply moved that her daughters still called her “Mak”—Mommy—from beyond the grave.

Mr. Bunthy listens to a recording of a spirit medium who channeled his daughters’ voices. (Ben Woods/The Cambodia Daily)

“Mommy, Mommy, I saw a big palm tree! Where is my shoe? Mommy, oh Mommy!” Grandmother Yom cried in the voice of the girls.

“Mommy, I miss Mommy! I wanted to go back and live with you, but mother closed the door.”

Veasna and Bunthy recorded the spirit possession on a cheap mobile phone and listened to it frequently, playing it for visitors. One day last year, a neighbor, Chea Srey Den, 20, pressed her head to the phone and listened intently. Other villagers crowded around. Everybody agreed that they were hearing the voices of Chanlyda and Chanriya once more.

“I believe the voices of the spirits are true,” said Ms. Srey Den. “I remember their voices clearly. I used to play with them and they were so beautiful and very gentle. Never rude. They respected us, and they called me sister, and they loved music.”

From the girls’ statements during the ceremony, Ms. Veasna determined that both children were eager to be reborn. She also became worried that she was offering their spirits the wrong kind of candy, or praying the wrong way. She fretted that the girls were hungry in the afterlife, crowded out by the other spirits of children who died too young.

“They both complained to me that I offered them a kind of candy that was not tasty and bought a tasty one for my husband. It touches my heart so. They told me that they saw me walking around the house and crying almost every day after they had gone,” she said.

After the ceremony, another villager dreamed that the girls’ spirits had been released from the hole and were free to play around their old house, and inside a spirit house that had been built for them. Ms. Veasna was relieved; her children were finally free.

Now, more than a year after the twins’ deaths, Ms. Veasna is at last satisfied that they have reached their new homes. The spirit of Chanlyda, she believes, has been reborn into the family of a co-worker of hers at the garment factory who dreamed of the child last year. She visited the baby and was amazed to find that it had two dimples, just as her daughter did. She suspects that Chanriya will be reborn with another family, the daughter of a neighbor who lives in Phnom Penh.

“I was so lucky to have them, but they are gone now,” she said.

Big Sok and Little Sok are also gone, the villagers say. Having exhausted the supply of dirt that they can extract from their land, they have moved on and are rarely seen around the village anymore. Big Sok was spotted driving a pick-up truck near one of his properties during a visit to the village by journalists, but declined to be interviewed.

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The dirt trader ‘Big Sok’ drives his pick-up truck in Trach Tol village. (Ben Woods/The Cambodia Daily)

The holes, of course, remain.

Not much can be done with them now. Mr. Bunseang, the architect, said that with proper planning, dirt excavation sites could be turned into parks or irrigation ponds. Without forethought, however, the holes are often useless, filled with fetid water and surrounded only by wasteland, or placed in areas unsuitable for farming.

“My concern, or your concern, or everyone’s concern, is what you are going to use this hole for in the future,” he said. “The environmental impact, yes, it will happen; the children of people can drown in there, and waste can also throw in there, and the water stands still and is not treated. In the long run, it causes an environmental issue.”

Ms. Veasna thinks it’s possible that her children were taken from her because she didn’t do enough good deeds—because their combined karma wasn’t great enough to keep them together. She is unhappy at the holes dotting her village, but says she doesn’t blame Big Sok and Little Sok for the deaths. She still prays often at home, and near the hole where the girls died.

“Basically, it’s a very difficult issue,” Veasna said. “We can’t say we are angry with them since that is their private property. But I feel very angry inside, frankly speaking. But I cannot express it against the landlords. That is their land, not ours.”