Stop Those Cambodian Witches’ Knickers Flapping

It’s hard to spend more than a few minutes in Cambodia without noticing the appalling amount of rubbish everywhere. There are plastic bag graveyards beside every road, rivers choked full of bottles and cans, and witches’ knickers in every tree.

I don’t think I’ve ever been in a country where people love the sight of discarded plastic so much. You can be strolling through an idyllic stretch of forest and find a lotus flower-filled pond with cows supping from the water, the late afternoon sun glinting away on the ripples, and there’ll be mounds of sun-bleached bags and other human waste blighting the scenery.

Go to a picnic area overlooking some beauty spot, and it’s as if each family has filled the car with every bit of rubbish they or their neighbours can get their hands on, and then chucked it on the ground.

And it’s not helped by the fact that Cambodians seem to use plastic bags for everything. Take the coconut – the perfect drinking device. I saw a guy hawking them the other day in a park in Phnom Penh. Whenever anyone ordered one, he tipped the coconut upside down and poured the liquid into a plastic bag and handed it to the buyer with a straw. When they finished, people just chucked the bags on the grass and then continued their journey in search of more plastic.

A week before that, a Land Cruiser sped past me. A KFC Variety Bucket landed at my feet. I gave a universally-recognised gesture, and there was a screech of brakes as he pulled up sharply at a set of traffic lights. I picked up the bucket and was about to throw it in the bin, when I saw the driver still waiting at the lights. I caught his eye and he opened the window.

“You’ve dropped something,” I said.

He looked confused and then saw his empty fried chicken bucket. I held it out towards him and he quickly became angry, shouted at me, and then sped off. He clearly saw it as his right as a consumer to throw his Variety Bucket wherever he pleased.

My Cambodian friends say it is simply a matter of education – and many Khmers also get frustrated at the sight of rubbish everywhere. Kids see their parents chucking litter about so they do the same and so the cycle continues.

There are messages on Cambodian TV telling people not to litter, and signs on walls telling people to respect the environment, but it makes no difference.

One Khmer friend told me: “When I see a person throwing rubbish in the street, I get so angry. I tell them they cannot do, and think they don’t know it’s wrong, but they just get angry and say ‘up to me!’ Many have no education and are ignorant, others just don’t care…”

There should be fines for littering. Cambodian police are very good at skulking in corners and hiding up alleyways jumping out on anyone who’s not wearing a motorbike helmet, so they would be just as good at catching litter bugs red-handed – if there was a bit of cash in it for them.

And it doesn’t matter how many green T-shirt-wearing workers they employ to clean up the mess, it’s impossible to finish a job that can never be completed. It would be far worse without recycling, of course, when there’s 100 riel or so to be had for each beer can or plastic bottle collected.

But there’s no money to be had in scavenging for plastic bags or takeaway containers. It’s such a crying shame in a country filled with banana trees. Why no-one has made takeaway boxes out of banana leaves is beyond me.

As I say, it must be bad because even the Cambodian government has noticed, and this week sprung into action to get the country tidied up in a bid to boost tourism. The solution? Fines for littering? Education programmes? Taxes on plastic bags? No, officials launched a “friendly competition” to encourage the Kingdom’s cities to clean up their act.

Minister of Tourism Thong Khon said the “Clean City Contest” would assess urban areas on cleanliness and waste management issues – with winners announced sometime in September or October (make that December at the earliest).

Officials also set a goal that each city dedicate at least a fifth of its area to parks and other green spaces – which will no doubt infuriate families who have been kicked out of their homes to make way for developments funded by land-grabbing foreign conglomerates.

Alex Watts

Alex’s new book ‘Down and Out in Padstow and London’ is available to buy on Amazon for kindle.

8 thoughts on “Stop Those Cambodian Witches’ Knickers Flapping

  1. Dermot Sheehan Reply

    Excellent title, and something that bugs me a lot too. I’ve tried pulling up a few people about it and they just act as if I’m crazy for even mentioning it. If you look at old photos from even 20 years ago there wasn’t anything like as much litter around as people just didn’t have the money to be throwing away plastic bags. In previous times banana and other leaves were actually used for packaging, along with old paper which at least decays quickly.
    There are actually fines for littering now, they just aren’t enforced. I think the idea of “Tidy Town” competitions is a good one, at least it’s a step in the right direction.

  2. Devo Reply

    I think the banana leaf packaging is ideal, then they can throw thier ‘rubbish’ on the ground and it’ll recycle itself naturally.

    When we were kids we’d get fish and chips in old newspaper, I can’t see why everyone needs styrofoam boxes and plastic bags these days.

  3. gavinmac Reply

    It’s unfortunate, but it’s just as bad in other third world cities. Kathmandu comes to mind.

  4. Jeremy Reply

    Shouldn’t that be “land-grabbing ofreign conglomerates co-owned by wives of Cambodian senators”?

  5. MoodyMac Reply

    Kicked one of my staff in the backside last week for carefully throwing his empty sugar cane juice bag into a bush down on the riverbank. I apologised for my kneejerk reaction, but he took it well. Looked a bit embarrassed when I asked him how people can say they love their country, and then treat it like a rubbish tip. I think the clean city competition is a good idea. Spot fines probably wouldn’t hurt either.

  6. smokken mirrors Reply

    I’ve been told that three states in India have outlawed plastic bags. Paper shopping bags can also be made from recycled newsprint although there are a lot less newspapers being printed these days.
    Education is key. It was part of our early school curriculum in the west and it needs to be emphasized here as well. Same for spitting on the pavement.
    Enforcement is another story. Perhaps a certain provincial governor could take aim at litterbugs instead of shooting protesting factory workers.

  7. Danae Reply

    We just returned from Cambodia. We also found the litter shocking. Such a beautiful country in so many ways spoilt by plastic rubbish everywhere. Our dependence, all over the world, on plastic bags and other plastic containers shows how removed we are from Nature and the care of the planet. There are alternatives to these bags and containers that are environmentally sound. One of our guides told us how her mum would wrap their lunch in banana leaves. We all need to check our own backyard but we all share the same home. I hope Cambodia and the rest of the world finds a way out of the plastic mess.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *