Stung Meanchey, the dump in Phnom Penh

Written by on April 3, 2009 in Photo Posts, Photos and Stories in Progress with 18 Comments

I just returned from 10 days in Cambodia with five Japanese volunteers/learners. On our first day we went to a school located near the dump in Phnom Penh. The school is funded by a Japense NGO. Many of the kids used to work in the dump collecting garbage. Afterwards, we visited the dump to see how people make a living there by collecting garbage that can be sold for recycling (mainly paper, plastics, pet bottles, etc.).


I was surprised to see a number of kids working. Their numbers seem to be swelling because of the economic hard times. Recently, Cambodia had a border conflict with Thailand. One result is that Thailand closed it’s border to trucks carrying recyclable garbage. As a result, the rates paid to dump workers were cut by about 60 percent. Everyone is working harder and longer to make the same money to afford food and housing.


Each day trucks flow in and out of the dump in a familiar pattern. When a truck empties its load people gather around to get the first pickings. It’s dirty and dangerous work. Besides the trucks, the workers are also at risk of wandering bulldozers and, above all, toxic fumes. Even so, some dare to live in tents atop the garbage, and there are entrepeneurs cooking and selling food throughout the day. Everyone has to eat.


A women with a scarf tightly wrapped around her face hauls a heavy bag away from the crowded dump site.


Men load giant bags of garbage purchased from workers at the dump. They will take it to one of the nearby warehouses to await recylcling. The border to Thailand is closed, so most of it is probably destined for Vietnam.

People who visit the garbage dump in Phnom Penh for the first time are almost invariably shocked. That’s usually the point of the trip. The truth is that it could be much worse. The people who work the dump have honest work that puts food on their tables and rooves over their heads. They risk health and safety, but they are not the “poorest of the poor.” That may sound callous, but I’ve found it’s a sentiment common among those who live side-by-side with the poor in Cambodia. Considering the intractable problems and challenges, you have to give credit to those who have found some way to live above crime and handouts. Rather than mere pity, they deserve our respect.

On a tangent … there are daily tours to visit the dump and feed the poor for $20 a person. I hate to sound a negative note, and I may pay for it in the comments, but I’ve run into a number of people in Phnom Penh who are less than pleased. The people at the dump are not starving but actually earn money to buy their own food. Does offering free meals really serve? Does it keep children out of the dump? Are there better ways to give some cash for a good cause in Cambodia?

About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .


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  • Good photos, Andy. One of my students is dating a guy who works as a photo journalist,esp. in Africa. You would love his stuff:


  • I can’t imagine the smell, which must hit a visitor like a ton of bricks. What is the hope for these people? I gather that you speak with many of them; and what do they tell you?

  • It’s a dump. Methane gas, fumes, and smoke from smoldering fires within ooze out 24/7. People say it smells, but I guess I’m not that sensitive to it. I really didn’t notice.

    You ask what is the hope for the people. I ask that question about so many in Cambodia. I wish I was a genius at business or had the power to open factories…I just don’t know. All I can say is that God loves them, and he has given people an amazing ability to find a way to live.

    Just the other day I happened to read about a photojournalist who spent time at another garbage dump and showed the life there. He captured families and children playing. I’m sure if I spent much time I’d see the same at Stung Meanchey. In fact, I already have (I’ll show you). There is life and hope there.

    I’ll take a look at the link you posted now. Thanks.

  • Nas

    here’s you paying for it in the comments: I kinda have to agree. I’d say, better than a free meal would be medical care and maybe some form of steady pay for doing a very necessary and under-appreciated service for the country. Though I guess the work pays for itself in the recycle returns.

    Yeah, more important would be some form of medical care for these folks living in toxic conditions, certainly making an honest and respectable wage.

  • Nas, I agree. I met a guy at the dump who is running a small organization that offers a free medical clinic once a week that helps many of the adults and children. On other days they offer English classes and other services for the kids. When I saw the kids working, my first reaction was, “How terrible.” His response was that he understands why they’re out working, because he knows how much their families struggle just to eat. He’s also the one who told me about the falling cost of recyclable garbage, which has driven more children to work (because their parents can’t work fast enough to make a living wage). I think it’s great when NGO’s can offer emergency services (including medical care), practical training, and anything that leads to real job creation. But when NGO’s (and religous workers, etc.) give food and other free stuff just to help people on the spot, they may be undermining those peoples’ long term chances of making it on their own. Unfortunately, the surface level stuff is easy to do and works well with the donors in stories and pictures.

  • Nas

    Andy, would you say that the surface level stuff serves the giver more than the receiver? That’s the thing I am struggling with now: How to give so that two things occur:
    1. The giving reflects and glorifies Christ
    2. The giving actually helps. (which I think is directly related to the first thing.)

    It often seems that we who are privileged feel the need to give based on our warped ideas of living standards as opposed to fulfilling an actual need, because we’re so out of touch with our own needs as opposed to our greeds.

    I dunno. i do know this: Christ is Risen indeed! This is unquestionably good.

  • Mordegai

    I am the guy who Andy is referring to. We do not have all the answers. all we know is that we can just do what God tells us to do. The problem is , if we do not do any thing, what then?? I would rather help every day if I can than do nothing and just want to reason all these things out. Is it not better than help a little than do nothing?? You know, God gives us a small job and if we are ready for a bigger one then we do the bigger, but as for now its a small job and we build relationships with each individual on the dump. By doing that we have a much better footing to do anything. Off course it takes time, but again, must we rather sit at the dump and watch , rather than do something??
    to come to your questions.
    We do not ask people money to see the dump. We do not ask a penny for medicines. We do not ask nothing for prenatals for pregnant women or deliveries, all we ask from them is to come and receive God’s love, even if they do not want it, its ok, no problem. God even love the sinner, why not us. I pesonally think its wrong to ask U$20 to go and feed people on the dump as it do not cost U$20 to feed them. that is only to exploit the people. Wish they want to stop that nonsense. there you are right, the giver recives more than the giver as the pictures are used for support and nothing gets back to the people.
    If we help we must not ask for anything in return. We will get our reward in heaven. Why making business out of helping people.

    Well write me back as I want to share more about this.
    God Bless

  • Mordegai,

    After reading your comment, I sincerely hope you didn’t think I was criticizing your work. My critical comment was directed specifically at the group which charges $20 to feed the poor at the dump.

    I really enjoyed meeting and talking with you. I have been contacted twice in the last two weeks by people interested in learning more at Stung Meanchey, and I referred them to you with positive regards. My impression of what you’re doing was wonderful and humbling. I appreciate that you live next to the dump with the people, even though the air must not be good for your health. I also appreciated your perspective on loving people without a religious motive and telling them if they want to know more. Next time I return to Cambodia I would love to look you up again.

  • Nas,

    I think your heart is in a good place. I don’t think there are easy answers. If so, then I haven’t found them. But let me say one thing. Don’t worry about purifying your heart. Let God work on that. But pray for grace and, in faith, act in love. Learning to love — really loving others — may be the only way beyond captivity to ego.
    The other thing is to serve/love from alongside. I just read a nice blog entry by William Easterly related to this. He wrote a very positive post, and he’s hard to please. He’s not writing as a Christian, but I think he has a great point. I’ll try to post a link.

  • Mordegai

    Not for one moment I was thinking that you criticize our work. sorry for the not so clear note. You did great in posting these stuff. Makes me to look more critical to what we do and how we can improve. Its always good to have someone from the outside looking into what we are trying to do. Please feel free to let us know more about what you think we can do to help. thank you for your honest review of the place. We need more guys like you

  • I’m relieved. This is funny, we are trading both comments and emails to each other in real time in separate countries. I hope you have a restful evening and it’s not too hot to sleep.

  • Mordegai

    My note was relating to the questions that Nas was asking. So please read it in that context.

  • Nas

    mordegai and andy,

    Thanks so much for your responses. Believe me, I’m just trying to understand my own motives, and it really helps to hear from those serving, as your experiences can help me move forward.

    I agree…I’m not going to wait to purify my own heart…that’s strictly God’s job. I’ve been saying the same things to some friends as we try to determine certain areas where we are being called to serve. Also that comment about the giver getting more benefit was really an indictment of my own heart. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

    Thanks again. I am encouraged, and I hope I can someday be an encouragement moving forward. To God be all the glory.

  • JOHN

    Mordegai and Andy what an interesting exchange of views may I add the following

    Prov. 21:13 He who shuts his ears to the cries of the poor will be ignored in his own time of need.

    Luke 10:30 Jesus replied with an illustration: “A Jew going on a trip from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes and money, and beat him up and left him lying half dead beside the road. Luke 10:31 “By chance a Jewish priest came along; and when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. Luke 10:32 A Jewish Temple-assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but then went on. Luke 10:33 “But a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw him, he felt deep pity. Luke 10:34 Kneeling beside him the Samaritan soothed his wounds with medicine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his donkey and walked along beside him till they came to an inn, where he nursed him through the night. Luke 10:35 The next day he handed the innkeeper two twenty-dollar bills and told him to take care of the man. ‘If his bill runs higher than that,’ he said, ‘I’ll pay the difference the next time I am here.’ Luke 10:36 “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the bandits’ victim?” Luke 10:37 The man replied, “The one who showed him some pity.” Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”
    Mat. 25:42 For I was hungry and you wouldn’t feed me; thirsty, and you wouldn’t give me anything to drink; Mat 25:43 a stranger, and you refused me hospitality; naked, and you wouldn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ Mat. 25:44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ Mat 25:45 “And I will answer, ‘When you refused to help the least of these my brothers, you were refusing help to me.’

    Luke 3:10 The crowd replied, “What do you want us to do?” Luke 3:11 “If you have two coats,” he replied, “give one to the poor. If you have extra food, give it away to those who are hungry.”
    The Bible contains more than 300 verses on the poor, social justice, and God’s deep concern .

    It is only through the Grace of God there go I , the Bible has it all covered, but to make money from the poor and disadvantaged well we all have to stand before God there is no escape from that, unfortunately charity is big business and it is not limited to Cambodia. You blokes keep up the good work well done faithful and good servants.

  • John,
    Thanks. It’s very humbling to read the verses you cited from the Bible. Jesus’ calling to love others is so much more radical than my ego cares to admit. I think Mordegai has already stepped out boldly to be with Jesus in a place of suffering and incredible life. I’m just somewhere on the verge occasionally crossing over.

  • mike gurry

    hi Andy I am wishing to use the first photo for a fundraising web site .Can you give me permission to do so, or tell me how I can get permission.The site is designed to raise fund for a charity that works in Cambodia teaching the poor to save. It has been an incredibly successful program. It is called Tabitha . Regards Mike

  • JOHN

    Hi everyone who is concerned about the now closed Stung Mean- Chey garbage dump, I visited there on the 25th of Sept 2009 and no one in allowed entry to the sight as it is considered dangerous. have vision to prove this.Pickers are now working on the new site at Choen Ek. They must have permission and an ID to work there. This applies to all who may want to try and enter, you must apply for permission from the appropriate authorities and produce letter at site entrance otherwise you will be ordered from the site. I was there on the 26th Sept and was ordered to leave. Good luck… nothing has really changed
    ref to Phnom Pehn Post article…
    Also I met the brother of deceased (ref You Tube who works there.
    For those who wish to know more email me address found at You Tube site clip ” Tears for Cambodia”.
    The deceased was Pon Puon 29yrs old and is survived by two daughters 20 month and 4yrs old and a wife of 23yr age.
    They live in an isolated village in Svey Rieng Province and I have just found them. Currently we are setting up a not for profit foundation in honor of Pon-Puon. More information please email.

  • This is my first visit here, but I can already say that I love it! Keep up the great work!