I spent two and a half rollercoaster days of highs and lows in Cambodia. Some of the experiences here are now seared into my consciousness forever changing the way I look at life as well as certain aspects of what I believe in.

In truth, I nearly deleted this gallery as it was painful to recall back the memories months ago, but then that's not going to help the kids here. I hope some good comes to the children from my photos, and maybe someone with financial power can come to help. Does anyone know Bill Gates?

college girl
1/10 sec      f/ 11      iso 200      35 mm
This student standing in the doorway caught my eye. A contrast to my preconceived image of a typical college campus, and highlights why Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world.

1/250 sec      f/ 6.3      iso 200      50 mm


A man burning offerings outside his shop in central Phnom Penh. The main religion in Cambodia is Buddhism for the ethnic Khmers who constitute 90% of the population.

red, white and blue
1/800 sec      f/ 6.3      iso 200      16 mm
The quirky vertical style of the buildings in Phnom Penh with some units only about 3 metres wide and 4 floors high. I was running alongside this mobile food cart and held the camera at waist level to get the low viewpoint and shoot up to frame for the sky and buildings.

past and present
1/80 sec      f/ 8      iso 200      16 mm
A young girl tends a shop stand selling souvenirs at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum also known as S-21, it was a former school turned detention/killing centre when Pol Pot seized power of the country in the mid 1970s.

1/50 sec      f/ 2.8      iso 200      20 mm
Each classroom at S-21 was empty except for 1 bed. Can you imagine lying down on this bed, shackled to this 10 kg iron bar, and waiting to be tortured and executed. The former school had numerous classrooms like this converted to torture chambers. This was the fate of 15,000 Cambodian men, women and children who were suspected of counter revolutionary activities.

1/250 sec      f/ 4.5      iso 200      28 mm
One of the few photos of Pol Pot, the man responsible for genociding millions of his own people, he died in his sleep of old age, a bit of a undeserving end for a mass murderer who was never made to stand trial, and sentiments here in both English and Khmer reflect that.

the killing fields
1/640 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 1000      300mm
Chickens freely wandering about in lush green fields better known as the killing fields. 30 years ago there was death, imprisonment, starvation, now there is life and freedom.

1/125 sec      f/ 5      iso 1000      170 mm


Local kids play games at the site of the killing fields, most likely unaware of the tragedy of what happened in the past.

1/1600 sec      f/ 5      iso 1600      95 mm


A young woman stands over her fruit stall. There are no food shortages in Cambodia, yet there are many cases of extreme poverty everywhere, more so here than in any other country I have visited.


security & friendship
1/500 sec      f/ 4.5      iso 1600      33 mm
When you don't have money to provide you with security, then sometimes being friends like these two kids is just as good. It was pure luck that this boy was wearing a hat with those letters.

1/800 sec      f/ 4.5      iso 1600      16 mm
A portrait of my good friend Yashub's family. Him and his dad Reverend Isiah, his mum, and sis were in Phnom Penh on a 10 day Christian mission. Like a lot of good hearted people they were here to try to help the people of Cambodia by spreading the word of God.

one please...
1/40 sec      f/ 8      iso 1600      22 mm
At a busy local market....the look of anticipation is all over this boys face as he cannot wait to get his balloon

1/25 sec      f/ 8      iso 1600     16 mm
The majority of vehicles used in Cambodia are motorbikes and scooters. Owning a car would be too expensive and not needed when you can already fit a family of four on one bike.

coke or pepsi
1/60 sec      f/ 5      iso 1600     16 mm
There were many things to buy at the side of the street, here is a man selling petrol in old glass bottles next to a stall selling chicken innard noodles.

1/15 sec      f/ 5      iso 1600      26 mm
Time was 6.44pm, I was surprised at how quickly it got dark, at this time the traffic was very busy with everyone rushing home. This was my last shot of the day before walking back to my hotel.

colours and lines
1/8000 sec      f/ 4.5      iso 3200     16 mm

1/800 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 500     35 mm


A monk looking fashionable with a matching umbrella, walks back to his living quarters in central Phnom Penh.

1/160 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 500     18mm
I have a look in the room of this group of young monks and am immediately disarmed by their welcoming smiles.

1/6400 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 500     16 mm

chasing shadows

Catching a boy in mid stride as he tries outrun the camera. The boundless energy and exuberance of youth.

morning shower
1/2000 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 500     300 mm
In a park in central Phnom Penh, this boy was making good use of a water hose. He was not playing with the water, but showering out of necessity because of a lack of washing facilities at home..

WARNING : the following photos I found very painful to shoot, and you might find upsetting

darkness and light
1/1000 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 500     180 mm
Luck shines down on the few who can afford to go to school.

the shame
1/4000 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 500     21 mm
The entrance to the Steung Meanchey rubbish dump. In western countries, rubbish is automatically picked and filtered by machines. In Cambodia the reality is that its done by men, women, and children, who eek out their existence on picking up things you and I throw away.

1/3200 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 500     16 mm
Stretching as far as the eye can see, this garbage dump is the size of several football fields. Nothing but rotting rubbish in all directions.

1/2500 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 500      16 mm
I spotted this baby wandering around by himself, and obviously had no one to care for him. You can see it in his eyes that he just needed someone to pick him up, hold and nurture him with some love. He looked tired, thirsty and hungry, and I felt completely powerless to help.

1/500 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 500      32 mm
Drinking water (no such luxuries such as fruit juice) from a bag, you can see that his teeth are clean never having experienced the simple childhood joys of drinking sugary drinks that rots the teeth of children the world over.

1/640 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 500      30 mm
As this baby looked at me, and I looked back at him trying to get a connection, he never once smiled, and just had this look of survival on his face. I was outwardly smiling, but crying inside.
My sadness turns to anger when I know that people these days are concerned with appearance, buying the latest products to look beautiful and younger. You tell me if you still want to have a younger looking face after this?

behind the smiles
1/1250 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 400      16 mm
Behind the smiles there is sadness, this endearing little girl was helping her mother find recyclable items. I followed 10 paces behind them as I was intrigued to see a young girl have such a strong work attitude. She was trying to pick up things of value to be recycled, but her mum told to her to put it down as it was of no value, it was so painful to see her learning to begin a life of rubbish picking when she should be learning things in school. She softly uttered to me "some riel" and it took me a few times to understand before I realised she was asking for money. It just broke my heart.

1/640 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 400      27 mm
I wanted to stay off talking about sensitive issues like religion, but I saw this makeshift worship alter made out of corrugated iron. It made me wonder about what drives people to think that a higher power exists in such a forsaken place like this rubbish dump.

1/160 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 1250      26 mm
The father was trying to support the weight of his weeping daughter's arm bound in a makeshift splint. She had broken it after falling down from their shack that they live in (built on 3 foot stilts).

1/30 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 1250      31 mm
A mother supports her baby as the little one tries to come closer to investigate me. There is not much hygiene in the houses that the workers live. The flies feed off everything here.

1/25 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 1250      31 mm
With no money to pay to get treated, this little boy's wound has gotten infected and expanded till its now the size of a grape.

rich mans house
1/8000 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 1250      200 mm
The clear disparity between the haves and the have nots. Just one of a number of big luxury houses on the outskirts of the dump.

1/1600 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 640      230 mm

an uncertain grace

She could almost be like any normal shy smiling schoolgirl dressed in a trendy red blouse and hat walking down the street doing shopping, but ofcourse shes not....


the sad reality
1/2500 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 640      70 mm
She needs to work to earn that $1 so that tomorrow she can eat, living day to day like every other child here.

tools of the trade
1/1000 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 640      300 mm
Preparing for the long day ahead. Everyone had these sharpened hooked poles used to spear though and pick up trash.

1/1600 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 640      70 mm
A lot of workers have their heads covered up. The smell from the constant arrival of new rotting garbage was quite overpowering and nothing like I have ever experienced before.

1/2000 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 640      70 mm

lowest of the low

The rubbish compacter emptying all the rubbish causing the driver to be lifted above the dump scavengers. My parents always told me that if you didn't study hard and go to school that you would end up working as a binman driving the rubbish trucks to collect everyone's waste. This was ingrained into my psyche at an early age as being the worst fate known. Now I know better as there are people that pick up the trash that the binman throws away.

1/1000 sec      f/ 8      iso 640      265 mm


A boy toiling in the sun amongst mountains of rubbish emitting methane.

one dollar
1/1250 sec      f/ 8      iso 640      300 mm
Counting earnings for the day, the daily wage here is approximately 4,000 riel or $1 US dollar for 12 hours of work.

into darkness
1/1250 sec      f/ 8      iso 640      300 mm
Facing a future as dark as the thick cloud of toxic smoke they are walking into.

working in hell
1/2500 sec      f/ 8      iso 640      300 mm
A set of tires burn fiercely in the background releasing poisonous dioxins into the air. I've nothing but complete respect for this boy, who would rather work for money than beg for it on the street.

1/4000 sec      f/ 8      iso 640      26 mm
This dump is called smokey mountain for a reason, here a boy tries the seemingly impossible task of trying to not stand on any sharp objects.

1/2000 sec      f/ 8      iso 640      300 mm


Working away in a thick cloud of poisonous dioxin laced smoke. Like a nightmare scene from a Charles Dickens novel, I was coughing really badly had stinging eyes as I followed these kids around.

1/2000 sec      f/ 8      iso 640      24 mm
One by one they emerged from the smoke in this burning surreal landscape.

red and black
1/60 sec      f/ 8      iso 640      35 mm
A deep cut on the beat-up and damaged feet of a young boy too poor to buy to shoes. Here was when I started to question my faith in God's love for children and have a complete disgust for my own material wants as well the wants of those people around me. It now kills me to see money spent on shoes or pedicures for the sake of fashion.

why are you here?
1/320 sec      f/ 8      iso 640      35 mm
Most of them wondered why I was here. I was supposedly on holiday and wondered that too.

1/250 sec      f/ 8      iso 640      16 mm

happy meal

Content....these children have a piece of bread to eat, there is no such thing as food hygiene here.

1/320 sec      f/ 8      iso 640      31 mm

migrant mother

A lot of the families who live on the dump have migrated from the countryside to look for work and a better life for their family.

3 in a basket
1/500 sec      f/ 8      iso 640      16 mm
These are kids just like any the world over, playing normally, oblivious to the bleakness of their surroundings.

discard after use
1/1250 sec      f/ 8      iso 640      23 mm
Amongst all the rotting garbage that the kids search through, there are a lot of dangers like glass, metal, and medical waste like this used needle

1/200 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 500     16 mm
After the dump I arrived at an orphanage called the Centre for Children's Happiness that helps take in kids working on the dump. This woman helps to feed and look after the kids. This is not your typical depressing orphanage with neglected kids. They can only house a limited number, so your financial help is greatly appreciated.

the future is bright
1/250 sec      f/ 5.6      iso 500     18 mm
One of the volunteer teachers (maths) takes rest after class. Here the care and the education of the children is put firmly in the forefront thus giving them what is important....a future.

1/100 sec      f/ 6.3      iso 800      16 mm
It's such a joyous and happy place, a stark difference to the rubbish dump, just 5 mins away from where all these kids came from.

1/40 sec      f/ 4.4      iso 800      16 mm

big brother

The big kid looks after the little kid, the little kid looks after the littlest kid. There's no fighting or bullying here, just happiness!

Srey Mom
1/8 sec      f/ 4.5      iso 1600      19 mm
Later on as I was on my way out, this little girl called Srey Mom hugged my leg like she is hugging this mango tree. So easily giving affection, it really was hard for me to say goodbye as I was starting to bond with them.

I have a dream....
1/2 sec      f/ 2.8      iso 1600      16 mm
Some people dream of human rights like Martin Luther King Jr, some people dream of the latest fashions, some people dream of money, some people dream of looking younger. These kids dream about having enough to eat and being able to have a future that doesn't entail picking up rubbish on a smouldering poisonous hellhole for the rest of their lives.

1/13 sec      f/ 4.5      iso 400      16 mm
It was happy happy time, but a tearful farewell for me.

1/640 sec      f/ 7.1      iso 1600      80 mm

mother and child

The view from my hotel room the next morning, a woman and her baby sleeping out in the open outside some rich mans house. Later on I went down and bought some meat buns, thinking it would be a decent breakfast, but they had disappeared by then.

1/800 sec      f/ 7.1      iso 1000      70 mm

lend a hand

Leaving my hotel to head for the airport, I take this last photo of kids at a school nearby. If you think you can help the orphanage, please do try to lend a hand. The weblink for the orphanage is here.

Credit goes to my good friend and part time sunday school teacher Yashub Isiah without whom I would not have gotten the ticket to go to Cambodia and this gallery would not exist.

I will go back one day, so if you have any old unwanted childrens games, or unwanted sturdy childrens footwear, please hand them to me. Please try to donate some money to the orphanage so that they can take in some more children.

To pre-empt technical queries, I used a Canon 5D, 16-35L lens, 70-300 DO IS lens, and a 50 f1.4 lens. I don't use lens hoods or filters. All photos were shot in raw+jpeg mode.

Thanks for viewing and taking time to read. All comments, questions, and critiques welcome below.

Julian Li
March 2006

photo of Julian courtesy of Wen Sheng


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