Each year, millions of tourists gather in Cambodia’s Siem Reap province to visit the Angkor Wat temple. Built as a spiritual home for the Hindu god Vishnu, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is an archaeological triumph that offers scholars an intimate look at Cambodia’s past. Yet alongside the beautiful temples and flashy tourist magnets, a much darker world exists. Let us introduce you to the Anlong Pi dump, a toxic landfill where poor men, women and children must scavenge for recyclable materials every day:
Anlong Pi is the Siem Reap province's main dumping site. Each morning, workers from around the region travel to the landfill in search of plastic, copper and other recyclable materials that they can exchange for money. Using a pickaxe to break apart the mounds of rotting waste, workers sift through oceans of trash, congregating whenever a new garbage truck arrives to unload. To earn one dollar, workers must collect about eight pounds of recyclable material.
Around one third of the workers at Anlong Pi are children, many of whom are as young as 10 years old. Instead of attending school, these kids are forced to scavenge the wasteland from morning until night, often navigating through the piles without shoes, which are too expensive. Because they are light, the kids are able to move deeper into the landfill without sinking into the trash mounds. Sometimes the children collect toys and other belongings from the piles of rubbish.
As if working, and for some living, at the dump site wasn’t horrible enough, these workers also risk their health each day. Anlong Pi is incredibly dangerous to public health: as inorganic and organic materials mix and interact with one another in the landfill, they release toxins into the air, land and local water supply. Men, women and children breathe toxic methane gas as they dig through the muck. Those who live at the landfill face the most terrible conditions, often working through the night as the waste is burned, inhaling a cocktail of lethal gases.
In recent years, Anlong Pi has become something of a tourist target itself. Now, tour buses arrive at the wasteland filled with foreign travelers who come to snap photos of the workers, bringing sweets for the children who beg for money and candy. The locals have recognized their own superficial lure and are now capitalizing on it. Viku Tupse, a nine-year-old boy who lives at the landfill, found a broken Mickey Mouse face and knew that when he placed it on his head, it would entertain the tourists.
Despite the abundance of wealth just miles from the growing landfill, years of civil unrest and internal conflicts have made Cambodia one of the world's poorest countries. While the country's temples draw about 2 million tourists each year, their money does little to help the region's extremely poor rural population. Hundreds live among the trash on less than $2 a day.