Life on the Streets
Diary #1 : May 2000 - October 2000
In May 2000 I found S'kun and Srei Toch were practicing a little gender bending. Srei Toch had completely shaved her head and S'kun had cut her hair very short; both had taken to dressing like boys. I was told it’s because they didn’t want to prostitute anymore and thought maybe if they looked like boys they’d be left alone (though head lice is always another possible explanation). I should mention that in March 2001 when S'kun was informing me about Srei Toch's returning to the sex trade, she made very clear indications that she does not partake in it herself. This is not to say that she never did, because I know she has, but as I've come to know this girl better I'm more inclined to believe that the forays she made into that line of work were infrequent. But for Srei Toch, apparently that's another matter.
On that May visit, I only saw the kids for about an hour on my final day in town. Of the group I saw in March only S'kun, Srei Toch, and Beng Sath appeared. A fourth girl, named Sol, who I had not seen before (or since), had joined the group. Like Srei Toch, she sported a shaved head and clearly had received some schooling. I’d guess she is about 16 years old. On the outside, she is a pleasant, smiling kid. In March 2001 I asked S'kun about her but she didn't know anything.
I had brought along a few prints from slides I took in March, which I planned to give to the kids should any of them materialize. There was tremendous excitement when I appeared with the photos. As S'kun looked at photos of herself she let out an audible laugh. This was followed by a big hug. She then walked around the streets proudly showing the photos to anybody she thought might be the least bit interested in seeing them.
As in March, I bought each member of the group a bowl of noodles. For some reason several of them, especially Srei Toch and Beng Sath, for the benefit of the camera, seem to find it hilariously funny to make strange faces while they eat their noodles and in the process get noodles and sauce all over themselves. After they finished eating, with the exception of S'kun, who of course couldn’t, each one wanted to write their names in my notebook. To do so, Beng Sath decided that in the absence of direct access to my notebook, he'd climb over my back and balance himself on my shoulder while he wrote. Soon after I left, while on a motorbike stopped in Monivong Boulevard traffic, another man on a motorbike pulled up alongside me, looked at me and laughed. I had noodles in my hair.
A month after I last saw these kids, they were apparently rounded up and taken off to an orphanage/drug rehabilitation center, possibly different ones. In late July I checked several orphanages around Phnom Penh turning up nothing, though at one orphanage, upon showing photographs of the kids, both Beng Sath and S'kun were recognizable faces to the caretaker.
Sure enough, S'kun and Beng Sath are wandering around the streets of Phnom Penh again. In mid-October I was riding on a motorbike down Monivong when I approached the scene of a minor accident. A foreign woman driving a car had bumped a local on a motorbike, and while no injuries were apparent, this naturally drew the attention of a huge crowd who had all come to see how much the poor woman would have to pay. Standing at the periphery taking it all in was S'kun. She spotted me - sporting a mile-wide grin, she sprinted down the street in my direction. By coincidence I still had in my bag the photographs I had hoped to give her in July. Giving her the photos, her reaction was the same as it was in May. While she was looking at these photos, a pair of grubby arms sprung from behind wrapping themselves around my waist. It was Beng Sath, as dirty and smelly as ever, but cheerful. S'kun made hand motions as to whether I would buy her some noodles. Unfortunately I had to be somewhere, but I tried to sign language that I'd come back in about an hour - which I did, but they were gone and that was the last I saw of either of them.
diary #1 (May 2000 - October 2000)
diary #2 (March 2001)
diary #3 (April 2001)
diary #4 (July 2001)
diary #5 (September 2001 - November 2001)
All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.