The Riverside, located at the heart of Phnom Penh, is the nearest and most popular getaway where the city’s residents and expats can briefly escape their polluted, busy life and enjoy exercise and recreation in many forms. However, as midnight approaches, the city resort gradually enters a different world, taken over by denizens of the night. Taing Rinith explores the Riverside area in the wee hours of the night.
At twilight, the capital’s Riverside is normally full of people, which include Phnom Penhers engaging in activities to destress themselves from the pressures their day-to-day work and foreign tourists experiencing the iconic city park on the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong.
Fitness enthusiasts play badminton, while some are jogging while listening to music on their headphones and working out at the outdoor gym. Many are picnicking with street food such as dried squid with papaya pickle or fried meatballs while some others are praying at the Preah Ang Dorngkeu Shrine for wealth and happiness. Those who are not hungry or religious come here to admire the night view of the river on one of the benches or promenade, while enjoying the cool breeze.
To many, the Riverside is an oasis in the middle of the crowded capital of Phnom Penh. The park is a magnet that attracts backpackers, holidaymakers and expats, but like a real magnet, it has two opposite sides.
By the time the clock strikes midnight, most of the visitors and vendors have already left Riverside, but it does not mean emptiness in the park. The benches and promenade which a few hours ago were occupied by lovey-dovey couples and happy families are now resting places for homeless men, women and families.
With long and messy hair and worn or unwashed clothes and using their hands or each other’s limbs as pillows, they sleep soundly – a sight that implies that they are used to sleeping in such conditions. The cold night breeze from the river does not deter them. All they do is curl up and huddle against one another.
Those who are not sleepy yet swig rice wine and try to catch fish from the river for their meal, which they will grill for dinner. They are visibly hungry. A little distance away, a few teenage boys and young men sniff glue in plastic bags to kill their hunger for food. The high makes them forget the cries of their empty bellies.
“Do not talk or try to talk with these people,” says a shop security guard, who asked to be anonymous. “They will beat and rob you. Most of them are drug addicts, and there is no one to protect you if you are alone.”
Several other night security guards say the same thing.
However, Chang Poung, a 65-year-old cyclo driver and one of the people who live in Riverside, says most of them are just beggars, street scavengers or labourers, who do not earn enough to have a roof over their heads.
“We have to wait until very late at night because if we come earlier to sleep here, the police will come and chase us,” Poung says. “But, sleeping here is better than sleeping on the street. We can sleep on benches and there is a public toilet we can use.”
Poung says he used to be a farmer in Prey Veng, but he had to sell his land about 10 years ago when his wife was diagnosed with stomach cancer. When his wife died, he was penniless, so he decided to come to Phnom Penh to find a job and had been homeless ever since. On a good day, he could earn about 10,000 riels ($2.50), but usually he only makes half of that.
“Most of us are just labourers or street scavangers,” Pound adds. “Sometimes, we cannot even earn enough for meals, so how can we rent a place to live?”
Kong Sam, 36, has been living on the promenade in Riverside with his wife and two children since the restaurant where he worked as a waiter was closed 4 months ago. He has been making ends meet from selling garlands on the street.
He says he hates sleeping here and hopes to find a full-time job soon so that he could rent a room for his family. There are mosquitos here and he is always afraid his children will catch a disease.
“People look at us as thieves or robbers or drug addicts, but we are just poor,” Sam says, waving away the mosquitos fluttering around his small son. “It is true that there are of some of them here, but all of us are here because we are poor.”
The Riverside is not only occupied by the city’s homeless at night. In fact, many people come here very late at night to start their day. It is a place where many freelance sex workers come and wait for the night-prowling males seeking their services. Many of them live far from Riverside and they say they do not need to pay for “the pimps or the place” here.
“Maybe society thinks what I am doing is cheap,” says one of them, who calls herself Romdoul. “But, does the society feed me and my family?” she asks.
Meanwhile, some children, barely clothed, are scavenging from the park’s rubbish bins seeking beverage cans and plastic bottles which they will sell for some money in the morning. Among them is 11-year-old Dong, who does not know his last name. His house, he says, is far from Riverside, but his parents bring him here at night because there are a lot of scraps.
“Sometimes I fight with other children for cans and bottles,” he says, wearing a mining helmet with a headlamp which helps him see clearly in the rubbish bins.
Sok Lin, 12, is another child who comes to the Riverside at night to help her family, selling garlands and roses at the nearby Pub Street, an area that only comes to life at night. Her house is in a small village in Kandal, about 10 kilometres from the centre of Phnom Penh.
“My father brings me here at around 11 at night and waits until I sell all my flowers,” Lin says. “I could make quite a lot of money, and some customers give me extra money because they pity me.”
However, life is not easy for this small flower girl. Lin says sometimes she gets beaten by beggars or drug addicts, who want her money. Also, being at Riverside’s Pub Street during that time also puts her at a great risk of sexual abuse.
Yet, she says she is happy to help her poor family, and the income she makes from selling also helps keep her in school.
“In the future, I want to be a nurse,” Lin says, smiling.