Cambodia

Residents of Phnom Penh’s Thmor San call a cemetery home

BY: David Hutt and Sam Jam - POSTED ON: May 13, 2016

When sand dredging led to the collapse of their riverbank houses, many inhabitants of one Phnom Penh community took the desperate step of setting up home in nearby Thmor San cemetery

Thmor San
A place to call home: the graveyard in Thmor San, Phnom Penh, where almost 400 residents live surrounded by graves and tombs. Photo: Sam Jam

Credence in spirits remains strong in Cambodia, and living in their vicinity can be considered a harbinger of bad luck or even worse. Evil spirits, known as kmoach, are often assumed to be the source of ill health and curses, possibly death.

Thmor San
The grapevine: the inhabitants of Thmor San use tombs for drying washing, storing food and, here, as seating during afternoon gossip. Photo: Sam Jam

Thengseat, 72, is a sinewy matriarch and de facto community leader. Between puffs on a cigarette, she explains that when she first moved to the area in 1986 it was all forest. “I was poor and had nowhere to go… I was afraid of ghosts. But not now,” she says.

Thmor San
Contrasts: a girl clutches a teddy bear as she stands next to a headstone featuring Vietnamese script. Photo: Sam Jam

Most of Thmor San’s residents interviewed by Southeast Asia Globe say they would move away if they had the money. Most arrived because the cost of living surrounded by the deceased is low.

Thmor San
In the home: Prakvanna, 50, peels bitter melons in her modest shop as soup boils away on a tomb. It is not uncommon for graves to be found within homes in Thmor San. Photo: Sam Jam

A five-minute walk along a powdery path leads to where many of Thmor San’s inhabitants used to reside – now little more than a wasteland on the banks of the Bassac river. Years ago – no one is sure exactly when – the embankments gave way, most likely caused by sand being dredged from the river to be used in building projects across the region. With their homes slipping into the waterway, residents were forced further inland.

Thmor San
Silent hours: as night falls, a young boy makes the graves his playground. Photo: Sam Jam

Standing on the riverbank, one can look across the water and see the evidence of Phnom Penh’s inequality. On the other side, construction is underway on the capital’s largest condo project, Diamond Island Riviera. The charge of ‘progress’ means that much of Phnom Penh is hurtling skyward. Meanwhile, forgotten communities such as Thmor San still exist with the subterranean.

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Game time: a quartet of girls take turns playing ‘jump rope’ outside their home. Photo: Sam Jam
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Senior: an elderly resident of Thmor San poses for a photograph. Young and old alike call the small cemetery home. Photo: Sam Jam
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Slumber: a smiling man perches on the grave that he uses as a bed, an indication of the tombs’ utility for the community. Photo: Sam Jam
Thmor San
Innocence: an toddler stands alongside a grave. Poverty means many Cambodian children grow up in unsuitable locales. Photo: Sam Jam

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Residents of Phnom Penh's Thmor San call a cemetery home