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Once Around The Sun

28575 km


With some Asian cities behind us, I thought I know what to expect from Phnom Penh. Tripadvisor's usual 'Top 10 things to do' is a must of course. Royal Palace, Independence Monument, Killing Fields, S-21, Wat Phnom, National Museum, Central Market... that's the drill. For those who dare the party scene seems to be well present too. But usually there is more to a place than that. What's apparent in Phnom Penh is the amount of litter everywhere, many of the poorest live right on the pavement and the roads are worse than in Laos. The amount of rubbish around reminded me about a photo series I've seen a few years back, from 2005 by Maciej Dakowicz.

Now being here I've found out that the dumpster has been closed and moved further out of the city. Quite disappointing as this is one of those things I always wanted to see with my own eyes. Well, ever since I knew about it. After talking to a few tuk-tuk drivers, I've found out the location of the new dumpster and was ready to pay a visit. On a closer look however is apparent that after Maciej and one of the Magnum photographers covered the issue, local government sees it as bad exposure and while they can't stop Cambodians to go in dumpster diving they can very well stop me. Also I've read that this kind of tourism became a thing, therefore one more reason for a tighter security, I suspect. During the one hour ride from the city I have had some second thoughts, questioning myself, why is it ok for me to raid this place like it was a human ZOO, what gives me the right? I've got nothing in my defence, I was not ready to help, just wanted to see. As always, I wanted to see how people live and what they do. What I didn't expect upon arrival was the drop off scene by my 'experienced in the matter' tuk-tuk driver, Tebe. He assured me that he's been there and knows his way around, yet he tossed me off in the front of main entry gate with the security guard. Since I was there I thought that approach deserves a shot so I asked the boy whether it's ok to go past. 'NO' and a gesture to leave was the reply. I asked whether he would stop me if I went past and did so without waiting for reply. He didn't stop me. But I knew he has buddies. There was no other way but follow the road on which lorries were coming and going, but I had about a kilometres stretch to walk before I even reach the dumpster. I had a feeling that this is not the way and it proved right when I seen two motorbikes coming my way. Long story short, I got denied access, put on phone with someone from city hall who explained the bureaucracy, then I got threatened before I got escorted past the security guard I bypassed. 'I got so close but got kicked out' didn't sound like a great story, so I decided to walk back to the main road and along it to find another way in. After some walking the way in seemed through a muddy paddy field. A good few hundred meters of it. I wasn't going to give up now so I dug in and made my way through the knee deep mud. Finally I was at the foot of the hill that seemed to be made of mainly plastic. Shocking revelation was the proximity of the rice paddy and the toxic paddy at the bottom of the dumpster divided by a thin mud wall. There I was standing on it, between the toxic mud and the the rice field. Security guards threats were not going to stop me but I wasn't going to dive in to that black sludge. Thankfully two girls were coming my way. When they got within talking distance one of the girls revealed a near perfect English. She pointed out my way in, told me about the organisations that thought her English and helps dumpster people to find different options, told me about her daily routine... Turns out I got there a little late as she and her sister were one of few last ones who stayed out this long. She asked me not to go in, explained that I may get mugged and beaten by the guards if they find me, so I went in through a wonky plank of wood over that black sludge and climbed the hill of refuse no one wants. Except of 'dumpster people'. Rubbish for one treasure for other, right?! I've met a few people before I run into a convoy of lorries spiralling into the middle of the dumpster. That's where I noticed the guards and they've noticed me. Finger pointing and shouting followed by me running for it... The guards had it uphill, for me it was mainly downhill. Once I made it out I've decided that I pushed my luck far enough and followed some locals towards the dumpster village, towards the main road.

I didn't get my ass kicked and I still had my camera around my neck, which is quite surprising now that I think back. Although not quite a success, I'm quite happy that I got to see these two faces of Phnom Phen. Modern architecture that someone should be hanged for, luxury cars that would stand out in any metropolis and the other side of the coin with the poorest people making their way through life in any way they can.


​© 2022 by JAN ROCKAR

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