Written by Tyler Brooks
In the smoky distance a small girl with her friends is playing jump rope without a care in the world. On an oasis patch of dying or dead grass teenagers stare at the sky, pointing out elephants, cars, people’s faces and anything else they see in the clouds above. A gang of preschoolers stand around with most of them snickering and giggling at the sight of a foreigner photographing them. Some of them hide and play peek-a-boo shyly behind the comforting blanket of their friends. A mother with her child walks up the hill to go get some supplies for dinner to feed her family. This is not a playground, a schoolyard or even a park. This is the Stung Meanchey Dump located in the poorest part of Cambodia’s capitol city, Phnom Penh.
I had been to Phnom Penh many times before to renew my visa while I was living in Thailand. Every five or six months I would fly from my home city of Chiang Mai to Phnom Penh to spend two or three days while my visa processed. On all of my past outings, I had soaked in the city’s sights that mostly comprised of the brutal history that Cambodia is still recovering from. The most well-known sight was the infamous killing fields where countless Khmer people had unwillingly and brutally been murdered at the hand of one of the most evil dictators of all time, Pol Pot. Even more depressing was the Tuol Svay Prey High School that was sadly transformed into the S-21 Prison by Pol Pot’s pawns. At these places and others like it around the country, an estimated 2.3 million people people out of a population of an estimated 7 million were electrocuted, tortured, beaten, shot, strangled and killed at the snap of the finger after the Viet Nam war. I was saturated with these images in my head. My sponge was full. I couldn’t go back to these places as I had before. On this trip to Phnom Penh, I decided that I wanted to go to somewhere that most tourists would not go to: The Dump.
The morning I decided to go to the dump I prepared myself with a industrial grade dust mask that my father had given to me to shield myself from the fumes , Tiger Balm to rub under my nose for the smell, my camera, about a dozen toothbrushes/ toothpaste combos that I had bought at the market the day before to hand out to the people I had heard live at the dump and finally my backpack to keep everything in.
Walking down the street for about 2 minutes I found my cyclo-taxi. Before telling the driver where I even wanted to go, the driver turned around on his motorcycle looked at me through the open cabin and inquired,
“My Friend, you want gun? You want ganja? You want girl?”
That was the all too familiar phrase that foreign males are asked upon embarking in a taxi in Cambodia.
“Not this time, maybe next time!” Was always my reply.
Remembering the name of the dump in Khmer, I stuttered slowly,
Like a perplexed dog, the driver tilted his head to the side and ruffled up his forehead. He obviously had no clue what I was talking about. A moment passed and a look of enlightenment filled his face as he proudly pointed to the sky with a big smile on his face. He retorted,
“You want grenade launcher? You want anti-tank missile? I get you grenade launcher! We go now!”
“No! Stung Meanchey!”
At this point I knew that I was botching up the name and by my guess pretty badly! Again confused, he searched the ground while mumbling under his breath and blinked a few times.
“Aha! You want ganja! Come my friend! We go get ganja and nice girl for you!”
Frustrated now, I said something I knew he would understand.
“Internet! I want go to Internet!”
Finally, after 30 minutes and a trip to the Internet Cafe, I got the point across of where I wanted to go. After negotiating a price of $7 round trip, we were off!
Unhurriedly making our way to the dump, I noticed a large plume of smoke radiating far off on the horizon. The closer we got to the dump, the cloud got bigger and bigger. Before I knew it, I was at the source. We arrived at the end of the road where there was a cul-de-sac “Here is Stung Meanchey!” My driver happily exclaimed. I handed the driver $2 and told him to wait there. The other $5 would be given to him upon returning back to my guesthouse. He turned his taxi around and turned off the engine.
He had dropped me off on the outskirts of the dump. Looking out from the turnaround. I noticed a long wall of trash two stories high with a path engraved on the side, zigzagging to the summit like a mountain road. Before getting out of the taxi, I massaged some Tiger Balm under my nose, put on my mask and readied my camera. I was off! After trekking up the wall of trash for ten minutes, I had made it to the peak of the pile and gazed over the vast alien landscape. My jaw literally dropped as I now saw what was burning and where all the smoke was coming from. It was the dump itself that was breathing toxic fumes and sweating out the most putrid, foul stench that I had ever smelled before. The decomposing rubbish itself at my feet heated up enough that it was in a perpetual state of burning, giving off that brewing medley stench of burning plastic, 10-day old baby diapers, gasoline and any other toxic sludge that was burning. Day and night it burned.
Even though I was armed with my industrial strength mask and Tiger Balm to shield myself from the suffocating emissions, I started to gag. I couldn’t help myself. Before long, my eyes were clamped shut and my hands were rested on my knees as I dry-heaved. I couldn’t help it. I ripped off my mask and lost my breakfast all over the ground. I opened my eyes and could not stop staring at the steaming earth below me. Was that what I thought it was? It couldn’t be! The hair on my arms, back and legs were standing up at full attention. My eyes started to bulge out of their sockets and my skin had goose bumps all over my body. I slowly backed away. I tried to take a deep breath in but I couldn’t, so I held my breath, gawking in horror. Lying in the rubbish at my feet were remains of a human femur bone, broken in pieces scattered across the ground.
I hadn’t been there more than five minutes and already I had seen remains of a human and had lost my breakfast. After composing myself and contemplating turning around and going back home, I concluded that I had come this far and it was too late to turn back. I snapped a few pictures of the bones, reloaded my layer of Tiger Balm under my nose, strapped on my mask and marched on, over the endless sea of garbage dunes.
Exploring the landscape for what seemed like an eternity, I noticed a flat patch of land that had a dilapidated shack thrown together on the horizon a few minutes walk away. I walked closer and closer, being careful not to trip over anything and finally made it to my destination. I was amazed at how simple this shack was. For the walls, planks of decrepit drywall with holes were held upright to vertical beams fastened by rope. A clothesline of raggedy clothes and a sarong hung to the side of the drywall. For the roof, a tarp was tied down with twine to complete the compound. Knowing that people lived on the dump, I decided to investigate the shack myself.
Outside, a woman in green pajamas was squatting down over a fire and was cooking lunch for her family. I made eye contact with her and she politely smiled and stared as though she had never seen an outsider in her life. Walking around to the back of the shack was a girl no older than 13, rummaging through the burning rubbish. In her right hand was a pointed stick. She used the stick to poke and prod the burning ground, looking for anything to salvage. Resting on the ground next to her was a white plastic fruit sack that she was using to collect anything that she could turn around and sell. Next to her, a family member was doing the same. After locking eyes, and making a light bow to say hello, I turned back around and went to the front of the shack. Peeking out of the entrance to the shack like a baby mouse coming out of its den was a cute little girl, no older than 4 years old along with her older brother, no older than 6 or 7.
Remembering what I bought the day before, I knelt down, took off my camera backpack and reached inside my pack to get the toothbrush/toothpaste combo. I removed my mask and held back the overwhelming temptation to gag. I smiled and held out the toothbrush bag, trying to persuade the kids that I was harmless and that I had a present for them. The apprehensive children reluctantly came out with the reassurance of their mother that it was ok. After glancing at their mother for encouragement they slowly emerged. With a warm, welcoming smile I handed both of them a toothbrush and knelt down to their level to make them feel more comfortable.
Both the children examined the toothbrush and toothpaste the same way that a geologist would inspect a stone he thought could be gold. Looking back up at me, the toddler thrust the present back to me, anxiously wanting me to open it for her as her brother looked on. I unwrapped the contents, flung the plastic package on the ground and put some toothpaste on the toothbrush. Handing back the toothbrush to her, she examined it once again and gazed at me the same way a baffled student would look at a test that seemed to be written in gibberish. It then dawned on me: She had never seen a toothbrush and had no clue what it was! Showing her what to do, I smiled while opening my mouth and had her do the same. For the next few minutes I proceeded to conduct a tooth-brushing 101 lesson.
With my two new friends, they took my hand and led me around the dump, introducing me to their family and friends and helped me hand out the rest of my loot. I had the heart warming feeling that Santa Clause must have when he drops off presents for children that don’t have anything. With my new found entourage, they happily played with their new toys and went about as if I was not even there. It was so amazing to see that even though these kids had absolutely nothing that they were happy. They didn’t have any dolls for comfort or any TV, video games or electricity for that matter to keep them entertained. They had the pleasure of breathing in the toxic fumes of degrading trash and playing jump rope with rubber bands strewn together. I parked myself in the rubbish with the kids with the great feeling of knowing that I helped out in a small way to make their lives just a little better.
After snapping off a few pictures and waiving my farewells to my new friends, I tearfully returned to my carriage and headed back to my hotel. Before departing for the hotel, my driver turned around and asked, “My friend, you want gun, girl or ganja”?