Postcard from…Cambodia

Photo by Aditi Frutiwala

As Chea, a tuk tuk driver and tour guide, steers around the beautiful Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, he points out the startling absence of dogs. “Phnom Penh used to have many dogs. Dogs everywhere, in houses, on the streets. But now people have no money, so we have to eat the dogs. We eat anything we can.”

Historically, dogs have been considered unclean meat in Cambodia. However, with the surging food prices, many people no longer have the option to eat their preferred source of protein. Dog thieves motorbike through the city, snapping up dogs with wire nooses and selling them at significantly lower prices than traditional meats like pork and beef. Chea says that when “special meat” is on the menu, most often it contains dog or rodents.

“My brother used to have a dog,” Chea shakes his head, “But now, everyone loses their dog. One day they are playing outside and then they are gone.”

Chea, who has been working as a tuk tuk driver for the last 25 years, marvels at the stark contrast between the tourist-friendly area and real Phnom Penh. He enthusiastically points out the sites of Phnom Penh as he drives to an orphanage outside of the city. “The Royal Palace,” he says, “where you can forget about the poverty of the rest of the country.”

The orphanage is located 15 kilometers west of the city. In 2007 it stood in the city center, a few blocks from the Royal Palace, but the government has since asked all orphanages to relocate outside of the city to improve appearances for tourism.

The orphanage receives no official funding, so the welfare of more than 200 children is reliant on donations from the rare tourist that visits this ill-located place. Chea explains that before the move, the orphanage received a steady stream of visitors that provided the essentials to continue operations. But now, it is lucky to have one or two a week.

And to aggravate matters, the price of these essentials, like food, has tripled within the last six months. The staples for everyday sustenance at the orphanage have become near to impossible to buy. One kilo of rice, approximately 30 cents in January 2008, rose to $1 by April 2008. And for a country in which the average citizen lives on $1 a day, this price shift has had shattering impacts. The food shortage has pushed exponentially more people into poverty. Since January many parents, unable to feed their children, have left them at the orphanage, praying that the organization can care for their children.

As Chea drives through the entrance of the orphanage (a mud patch with thousands of insects) two adorable and friendly children jump in the tuk tuk and scrounge for laps to sit on. Chea comes bearing rice and fruit, the breakfast that he never ate this morning. The children shriek when they hear him coming and run from all directions, almost toppling over the tuk tuk with excitement. Their guiding hands take me through the orphanage, forcing me to feign excitement by the broken double bed that sleeps 14 children and the tiny pot that holds their rice rations for the week.

“I don’t have much to give,” Chea says. “I work as a tuk tuk driver! We are not paid much and driving is very expensive. But we all do what we can, not much, but what we can.”

Aditi Fruitwala teaches English as a second language in Barcelona and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.