When I was doing research on places to explore and photograph in Phnom Penh, I came across some interesting articles and photos about an enormous landfill somewhere in the industrial outskirts of the city. The problem was I had no idea where it was, other than it was called the Stung Meanchey dump. I consulted my map and found an area in southwest Phnom Penh labeled Stung Meanchey. It looked to be about 3 miles away, the perfect distance for a Saturday bike ride. Problem is, Phnom Penh isn’t built for casual Saturday rides. Phnom Penh weekend traffic is madness. The main boulevards were packed with wild-driving Cambodians heading out on family excursions, and the safer side streets clogged with market traffic. So I stuck with the boulevards, where at least you can shadow locals riding their bikes. After 45 minutes of this I reached the dismal neighborhood of Stung Meanchey, where it wasn’t too hard to find the dusty turnoff to the dump.
The Stung Meanchey Municipal Dump is the landfill where the garbage of 2 million Phnom Penhois ends up. About 2,000 people (including 600 children) live in the dump, scouring the hundred-acre wasteland for anything salvageable and recyclable. They usually earn about fifty cents per day.
Also known as Smoky Mountain, the landfill is permanently on fire. Methane produced by decomposing waste burns in inextinguishable subterranean fires, creating noxious clouds of smoke that seep out of the trash and add to the surreal atmosphere of the place.
It looked like a WWI battlefield. The hot, humid air was choked with the fumes of millions of tons of rotting trash. Black, fetid water stagnated in deep trenches. I could only imagine what sort of mess this place would become after a few months of heavy rains. Strange Cambodian pop music drifted lazily from somewhere. Hurrying through the cloud of smoke, I emerged in a clearing where people were wallowing in a sea of garbage.
It was Saturday, so there weren’t many garbage trucks arriving and hence less activity than usual. I felt incredibly self-conscious taking photos, so I didn’t get anything near the quality of some of the other photos I’ve seen of the place.
A few kids took notice and came running up with the usual “hello-what-is-your-name” greeting that is so common with Cambodian children.
They were happy to mug for a couple shots until a few teenagers strolled up and started to inspect my camera and bike with disconcerting interest. Time to leave.
I rode through the toxic cloud past a group of gasping Japanese tourists and up to the summit of Smoky Mountain, where I had a panoramic view of the dump.
Hard to imagine people living in such desolation.