most recent update: NOVEMBER 2001
Life on the Streets
One day as I was sitting across the street from one particularly well-known Phnom Penh guesthouse, a group of street urchins arrived settling themselves down on the edge of a curb. They promptly produced plastic bags and a can of glue.
There were five kids on this particular day (March 20, 2000) - three boys and two girls. They ranged from maybe age 11 (a girl) to maybe age 16 (the other girl). Exactitudes on the girls weren’t forthcoming - they are both deaf mutes. Unable to speak or hear and completely illiterate, they live a life completely devoid of language in any conventional sense.
More or less lead by a feisty deaf mute (wearing the red jacket) whose friends call "Srei Kor" - which means 'deaf mute woman' in Khmer language - these kids in whatever combination they appear are an on again off again presence around this central Phnom Penh guesthouse. To many people they are an annoyance, begging for money, sometimes fighting among themselves, and often with bags of glue in hand. Solvents are a way of life for these kids and they are happy for anyone to know it. In the beginning it was more difficult to photograph them without the bags then with them. While many of the guesthouse restaurant regulars and more than a few local residents would probably prefer that these kids disappear permanently, I chose instead, to get to know them a little better.
Most of the kids are itinerant, they'll appear for a few months then disappear - to an orphanage, a rehab center, a brothel, or perhaps back to whatever province they came from. One or two may even have died. Longevity and life on the streets of Phnom Penh aren't very compatible.
Although the kids do panhandle for money, they're always grateful for a meal. Feeding them is always a better option than handing them cash which might be used to buy more glue.
Curiously, the first time I offered them food, the group expanded to eight people as two girls of about eleven or twelve years old suddenly joined them. I’ve seen these two girls around the neighborhood, but fortunately, I have yet to see either one with her head in a plastic bag. I don’t think they are homeless, but they do look awfully ragged. I was happy to feed them, too.
Since the first day I met these kids, I regularly feed whatever combination are around but I don't give them money. Beng Sath still sticks an optimistic hand in my face from time to time, usually when S'kun isn't looking as she now scolds the boys if one of them should ask me for money.
Since I first met these kids in March 2000 and began writing this story (it first appeared on this website in August 2000), all the kids except one have moved on - the girl they call "Srei Kor", whose real name is S'kun.
S'kun, called "Srei Kor" by her friends, meaning in Khmer - 'deaf mute woman' is one kid I have to admit I have a lot of affection for. Also called, Ne, or Srei Ne, by her friends (I don't as yet know what it means), she is a remarkably tough girl with extraordinary street smarts and leadership abilities that inevitably find her at the head of any group of urchins that might be tagging along behind her.
I had always referred to her as "Srei Kor" myself, but after learning her real name from her mother in April 2001, it seemed a little more dignified to call her by that instead of "Deaf Mute Woman".
S'kun comes from a large family, her mother, a number of siblings and half-siblings, and sundry relatives live in a dismal little shack in a squatter settlement in a section of Phnom Penh called "The Building".
"The Building" neighborhood is in the southeastern part of the city, so named due to the massive skeleton of an unrealized ambitious construction project that dominates the skyline of the neighborhood. Surrounding this shell are several shantytowns making up one of Phnom Penh's largest slums. Many of the the residents are squatters, their homes illegal.
S'kun goes home periodically to change her clothes and clean herself up but refuses to stay at the house. Aside from being a miserable house to live in, her mother has a tendency to use S'kun as a punching bag.
[Photos: Left: the "building" neighborhood (the 'building' is in the background). Right: an apartment block in "the building" neighborhood. Below: Four images of S'Kun taken on March 22, 2000.]
S'kun acts as the mother/leader of whatever group of kids happens to be tagging along at the moment. When food or money becomes available, it is she who divides it up. If a shirt or other article of clothing is obtained, she decides who gets it. She also acts as mediator, often settling the numerous, but usually petty, squabbles that develop. She comes across as one of the smartest and (usually) sanest of any street kid I've known and communicates quite well with an invented form of sign language they all seem to understand and I'm beginning to understand as well. S'kun, no doubt from the complete absence of any form of language, is an amazingly expressive individual with an enthusiastic sense of humor. Despite the absolute disaster that characterizes her life, she is a surprisingly enjoyable person to watch and interact with.
The Other Kids
When I first met the group in March 2000, there were three boys. Beng Sath, now 15, is a generally friendly kid who says he ran away from his home in Battambang coming to Phnom Penh with another boy. He could offer no explanation as to why he ended up in Phnom Penh or when he got here, but according to S'kun they have been friends for a long time. Cham Nap, about the same age, perhaps a year older, has offered little information on himself. As with Beng Sath, S'kun has communicated to me that they are also friends of many years. In the beginning, Cham Nap was more content to let the others speak while he kept his face in a bag of glue, but later he became more candid when talking with me. A third boy, Sieng Wan, then age 15, (no photo here, but wearing the blue shirt at the top of this page) is about the farthest gone of any glue-sniffing street kid I've met. Unlike the others who could be fairly lucid at times, the constant use of poisonous inhalants seems to have left him a step out of reality, his facial expression implying cerebral matter as organized as a Jackson Pollock painting. I have not seen Sieng Wan since March 2000. Beng Sath pops up regularly and Cham Nap reappeared recently after a long absence. I asked him about it and he said he had gone to Kompong Cham for a while to stay with some friends there.
In March 2001, S'kun had a new band of followers. Beng Sath and Cham Nap were there but three new boys had joined the group. Ko and Jau are younger, maybe ten or eleven years old. I know nothing about them except that Jau has some serious teeth problems - abscesses, many missing or broken teeth. However, bad teeth and glue bags aside, both of these urchins are spunky characters taking life with a smile, bouncing around the streets in a carefree manner. But they sniff way too much glue.
Another new face is the one-legged boy shown below. I only saw him once, watching him hop most adeptly down Monivong on his one good leg. He has no prosthesis and watching how well he gets around, I'm not sure he really needs one. He does however, have a pair of crutches but can't always be bothered to use them.
Bou "Wolf Child"
The youngest girl, maybe 11, had been nicknamed "Wolf Child" by a foreigner who bought the kids meals from time to time and sort of watched out for them, but the boys said her name is Bou. They said she, like Beng Sath, had come from Battambang, having run away after witnessing her father kill her mother. Though a perfectly plausible history, I wonder, given the inability of this child to speak or write, just how they came to know this story or even know her name?
Though all of the kids seem to suffer from various degrees of mental problems, Bou, like Sieng, appeared to be in pretty bad shape. She is a volatile child, prone to violent outbursts that were often directed at Sieng. She was a good photo subject but held little capacity to show much friendliness towards anyone, instead she went around with a perpetual snarl on her face, thus the nickname ‘Wolf Child’.
I've not seen Bou since March 2000, but S'kun has indicated to me that she has now hit puberty and grown quite a bit in the past year. If I understand the sign language correctly she is living in some kind of orphanage now. (March 2001)
A second girl, age 15, goes by the nickname Srei Toch. She, except for the moments following a particularly strong whiff of glue, is a fairly lucid and friendly kid who knows a handful of English words and can manage the occasional sentence. However, her friendly polite demeanor disappears in a flash if something doesn’t go her way. Though I never saw any real outbursts of temper, a few times the look in her eyes and on her face had me wondering if Lizzie Borden might have once looked this way.
I haven't seen her since May 2000 but according to S'kun, Srei Toch's life is a cycle of orphanages, street-living, and prostitution. Srei Kor confirmed in March 2001 with some rather descriptive sign language that Srei Toch is working again, whether it's in a knock-shop or free-lance, I don't know.
Continue further to read about my one and a half-year relationship with these kids, S'kun in particular.
diary #1 (May 2000 - October 2000)
diary #2 (March 2001)
diary #3 (April 2001)
diary #4 (July 2001)
diary #5 (September 2001 - November 2001)
Good Luck, Kid
S'kun "Srei Kor" - March 15, 2001
A Boston Herald story on homeless kids in Phnom Penh dated April 27, 2000.
NIDA/NIH report on inhalant abuse.
Website for NIPC - National Inhalant Prevention Coalition
e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org
All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.