Postcard from the rubbish dump: Globalteer reports on life just a few miles from the tourist mecca of Angkor.

We are all familiar with the iconic lotus flower towers of centuries-old Angkor Wat, the smiling stone faces gazing serenely out from The Bayon, and the cheap and cheerful bars and restaurants that line Siem Reap’s lively and aptly named Pub Street.

But one sight that few visitors to Siem Reap will see is the rubbish dump at Anlong Pi, 25km south of the town, where whole families live, work, and eke out their existence, sifting through the burning remains of Temple Town’s cast-offs in the hope of finding a plastic water bottle or a discarded tin can, “trash” that they may be lucky enough to sell on for a princely 2,000 Riels or 50 cents a sack.

The pathway from the village to the dump is littered with useless artefacts of life in the city: Ripped exercise books with neatly pencilled lines of English, a passport photo, cardboard packaging and blister packs from prescription drugs, and bizarrely, a bright red Swissair safety belt, decorated with perfect little white crosses.

Meet the people of the dump

As we arrive at the dump, a group of villagers who spend their days working here are sitting in the shade of a tree overlooking the rubbish-filled chasm. Clouds of foul smelling smoke drift towards them as they await a fresh delivery. It’s been a while since one of the city dump trucks has brought them any potential treasures. Some days no trucks will come, and occasionally, when there’s been a shortage of drivers, or a truck has broken down, eight or nine can come in a single day.

We are lucky they are not busy, and lucky that Nick, Globalteer’s Project Manager for South East Asia speaks good Khmer, and engages the dump workers – mostly women – in conversation. At first they are coy, but Nick’s linguistic skills impress them and they soon warm to us.
They are fascinated by our white skin. Skin whitening is big business here, as in much of South East Asia, so Nick explains that in the west we like dark, tanned skin which is met with much shy giggling.

Looking beyond their filthy clothing, and despite the heat and the stench, the gathering is not dissimilar to coffee break in any other work place. The women joke, tease and play fight with each-other, flashing dazzling smiles at us as they crack jokes we just can’t understand. One of them is casually flicking through the torn and mud-smeared pages of a magazine she has no doubt found amongst the tons of Siem Reap’s detritus.

Looking for buried treasure

But obviously this is not just any work place. Less than 100 yards away two small boys, no more than 7 or 8 years old, are scrambling up and down the mountains of burning rubbish in search of their own buried treasure. It is dangerous work and although many of the children work without shoes, at least they do not have to sort through the filth with bare hands, using instead a wooden pole with a sharp metal hook at one end to filter the good rubbish from the bad.

One of the boys is wearing a T shirt with a locally popular English expression printed ironically and poignantly on the back “SAME SAME”.

Thanks to one local man’s vision and determination, it no longer has to be “same same” for the children and families of Anlong Pi Village. In January 2012, Togh Main opened The Anlong Pi Free school which is currently giving free additional English classes to 350 local children aged 5-18.

Safeguarding the future through education

The school’s aim is to improve the children’s chances of escaping poverty and one day forging proper careers instead of surviving hand to mouth as subsistence farmers or as rubbish pickers at the dump.

Several of the women we met at the dump send their children to the new school. At the moment there are three classrooms, a library and an office. With no water supply, the school has just installed its own well and fresh water pump, and because the village has no electricity, classes have to finish in time for the children to get home while it is still light.

Currently three teachers cater for 175 students each morning and afternoon, so classes are full but at least they are full with children eager to learn, and who relish having a school on their doorstep. Children also attend the state school, but it is a 3 mile walk away so Togh, whose number one concern is making sure the children of his home village are properly educated, has provided barefoot children with shoes to help make their journey to “regular” school more bearable.

Schools like Anlong Pi are especially important in the continuous struggle to keep families and communities together, and in helping to combat the trend for poor villagers giving up their children as they see no alternative to sending them to “orphanages” many miles away.

The school’s location and its difficult timetable make it impractical for Globalteer to send volunteers to help with teaching. However, a proportion of the donations made by every Globalteer volunteer attending any of our partner projects goes towards helping projects like the Anlong Pi Free School. A one off donation from Globalteer helped to make this school a reality.

 To learn more about volunteering with children in Cambodia please visit our Cambodia Kids' Project page.

 

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