I spent a long afternoon blowing my mind learning about Cambodia’s incredible history at the National Museum of Cambodia. As I walked back, I followed the meandering Siem Reap River, which flows like a heartbeat through the town.
My pace was initially buoyant but I soon succumbed to a wearisome limp as I fell victim to the claustrophobic Cambodian afternoon heat.
Adjacent to Siem Reap’s infamous Pub Street, and within walking distance of the river, you’ll stumble across a maze of little carts tightly packed together at the roadside’s edge dishing out fresh fruit-shakes, fizzy drinks, ice cones, crepes and tiny water snails sold freshly cooked on the street.
The little carts are attached to motorcycles. Locals, from the surrounding villages, travel into town pulling their carts along before sunrise, closing up and heading homewards late into the night. Siem Reap is a town that rarely sleeps.
It’s not unusual to see whole families sitting aboard these tiny motorcycles, balancing precariously, and clinging on to each other as the bike, swerving to avoid giant potholes embellishing the roads (as the infrastructure creaks under the rate of development), teeters dangerously to one side.
I stop at a little cart owned by a lady named Dara. She tells me that her name means ‘star’ in Khmer. She asks my name, and has difficulty pronouncing it (I tell her not to worry as English speaking people can’t pronounce it either). Smiling at me, she settles for calling me Laya.
Tuk-tuks with foreigners sitting in the back snapping pictures on expensive cameras, and selfie sticks pointing towards their pouting faces, fly past next to us.
Thrusting a sticky plastic menu into my hands, she reels off a range of delicious flavours to choose from. Settling on apple and pineapple, she cuts the fruit up into little chunks and whizzes them up in the blender.
As she pours iced coconut water into the gooey mixture, a lady from a souveneir shop, situated on the sidewalk behind the cart, ventures forward shouting towards Dara. She has a broom in her hand, and knocks a small chair (belonging to Dara) into the road. Dara’s young child, who sits with her all day, runs into the road to retrieve the chair. Ex-pats sit behind laptops, sipping European coffee, in the exclusive hotel across the way pretending not to stare.
Another shop keeper comes out to calm the fracas and leads the agitated shop-keeper back indoors.
Dara spoons 3 sizeable gelatinous dollops of sweetened condensed milk into the drink and switches the blender back on, all the while having ignored the commotion taking place behind her. Backpackers walk past us in their gap-year ‘I’ve found myself and helped the world digging toilets in rural Cambodia and now I’m gonna drink loads of beer‘ pants.
I ask her what’s just happened?
‘What am I supposed to do’ she tells me. ‘I have to make a living. This woman doesn’t like my stall outside her shop but where am I to go’. ‘I have to make a living’ she repeats.
Street vending across developing countries is a politicised issue. As a relatively accessible occupation for many in Cambodia (and around the globe), these kind of economic activities often absorb a significant proportion of women into the labour market. These are women who would otherwise be excluded and marginalised as a result of factors such as: poverty, gender/social inequality and lack of access to education.
In a report by the International Labour Office (on the borders of legality, a review of studies of street vending) it was reported that in Phnom Penh, for instance, almost all of the street vendors were women. And yet, many undertaking these kinds of activities find themselves in a vulnerable position. Their physical space, and entitlement to their livelihood is not guaranteed, and they are left in precarious positions, despite contributing to the state through legitimate taxes, wondering if/when their stall will be closed up or moved on.
I pay Dara the equivalent of about 20 pence for the drink. We say goodbye. Her daughter waves at me.