Every day, up and down. Thin rubber wheels, hole-rutted cement. Nop Penh with a cap balanced between two stumps. He doesn’t need to ask for money. The message is clear. Help.
Twenty years old. Handsome. Gentle, intelligent eyes. Eloquent. Never went to school. “How could I?” he says, looking at his limbless body, at the smooth rounded flesh where his arms abruptly end, at the toes that curl from his left hip, at the perfectly formed foot that emerges from his right. Nop Penh is the youngest of nine children. He is the only one who was born this way.
Cambodia’s social security network is almost nonexistent. Local and international NGOs try to fill the gaping holes, but it’s impossible for them to support every Cambodian in need. Nop Penh was given a wheelchair.
“What work can I do?” he says, “Begging is my only future.” It’s also his only past. For as long as he can remember, Nop Penh has been carried or wheeled by parents, brothers and sisters, their offspring, always asking for money.
He works from 7am to 11pm. Today, his silent 13-year-old nephew eases him through the tourist throngs of Sisowath Quay, the city’s riverfront hub of gaudy and chic hotels, bars, restaurants, cafés. A few massage parlours. Plenty of hostesses. Backpackers munching cosmic green pizza and drivers eternally asking you if you want tuk tuk? Moto? Girl? Killing Fields? Ganja? Boy? Palace? Yama? Shooting range?
Afternoons are the best and Vietnamese tourists fork out the most. Maybe he reminds them of their beggars, so many deformed by America’s Agent Orange.
Phnom Penh’s glittering Royal Palace is Nop Penh’s most lucrative begging ground. No tourist visits the city without seeing it and tourists pay more than Cambodians. But Nop Penh is not the only one who works here. Other beggars often drive him away. “They tell me that this is their area,” he says, “but I never listen. Sometimes they do nothing, but when they hit me with their sticks, I go.”
Nop Penh makes anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 riel a day ($3.75 to $7.50 USD). This might seem like a meagre living, but in a country where more than half of the population lives off less than two dollars a day, Nop Penh nets a small fortune. This small fortune has allowed his parents to retire in their mid-fifties. They stay at home. Nop Penh and his nephew hit the pavement.
“Nothing,” Nop Penh says, “will ever change.”
(For more on Phnom Penh’s beggars, see the January issue of the Southeast Asia Globe.)