Off the abandoned rail tracks, which some say will be turned into a rail line connecting Phnom Penh to Bangkok one day, the sound of scratching wood and pounding metal drowns out any lingering hopes of sleep for those living in makeshift wooden houses nearby.
It was 8:30 a.m., and though cars sat in heavy traffic just a few kilometers down the road, slowly waking up the city, the street we were on was virtually barren – except for the “kchauv,” vendors, who were busy seasoning their snails to be sold on the streets. The city skyline, or the three hazy glass buildings that make up the skyline, hung like a faded painting in the peripheral.
The vendors were busy, rushing to get the snails onto the streets during rush hour traffic. A large pot of snails sat glimmering in the sun, still wet. They’d come from a second pot, where they were boiled for a quick five seconds to soften the shells.
A woman crouched over the pot, dumping the snails into a bucket where she mixed what smelled like garlic powder and red chili paste together by hand. She mixed the snails like she was giving a child a bubble bath, moving softly but thoroughly covering each shell.
The bucket was passed onto another woman, who put the snails on large wooden planks that were transported by wheels. Vendors began to line up to fill their planks. Further down the road, more snail vendors repeated the process. The smell of cooked garlic and the sea wafted through the air.
“One cup, 2,000 riel,” one vendor, a smiling young man, explained to us. “We sell from Phnom Penh only.”
Fabien Mouret, the Khmer Times photographer I was with, picked out a snail. “Can I try?” he asked, popping it into his mouth. “It’s good,” he said with surprise. By 9 am the snails were finished being seasoned, and the vendors disappeared in different directions down the streets to sell.
But the snails aren’t sourced there. They come from outside Phnom Penh, traveling a long journey that begins at 5 am from a river in Kampong Chhnang province. From there, the snails are brought to Phnom Penh, where they are sold to be seasoned, and then resold on the streets.
Batches of snails are sold by the container, an entire “bucket” costing roughly 30,000 riel ($7.40). Some vendors sell up to 100,000 riel worth of snails per day. But this year, business has been more difficult. Many are only earning between 40,000 and 50,000 riel a day.
“My husband and I almost worked 20 years as shell sellers and the [profits] supported my children’s study,” 37-year-old Kham Kunthear said. “Around 9:30, when the shells are ready to cook, I take them to sell at the market and my husband walks around the city trying to sell. But I think after maybe one or two more years I will stop doing this work.”
The problem, she explained, was a growing public belief that the snails are unsanitary and caused stomach illness.
“Somebody came and took a photo of us selling snails and they posted it on their Facebook page and said that the snails have bacteria with worms,” Ms. Kunthear said. “Now our [profits] are reduced, and we have not earned much more than last year.”
Other vendors are facing similar financial difficulties this year.
“I don’t know who it was that took the photo and shared it on Facebook,” said 30-year-old Raot Tha, who sells her shells at Chhba Ampov market. “They said that our snails had bacteria and warned not to buy them. That’s the reason we earn less than before. Some people are afraid to eat our snails, but I have to pay rent. I don’t know what to do if I lose my income. Maybe I’ll have to go back to my home province?”
Raot Tha, 30, spreads salt on snails as they dry under the sun.
A snail seller finds a customer on Monivong Boulevard.
Kham Kunthear, 37, has been selling snails for more than 20 years, using the profit to pay for her children’s education.
In village number 4, Boeung Trabek, two women remove cooked snails from a pot and prepare to sun dry them.
Thousands of snails spread on the ground in village number 4, Boeung Trabek.
Three snail sellers head to the center of Phnom Penh in search of customers.