Silly-Boys: Sniffing Glue in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
by Steve Goodman
Some remarkably awful things - like glue-sniffing young boys wandering the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia with impunity - never change (they conduct their self-destruction freely without fear of being challenged by shop-keepers or police) - simply because people are unaware that it is their own indifference to, and tolerance and acceptance of this and other indignity, abuse, decay, degradation and dysfunction that allows extremely obvious tragedies like this to continue for many years and take their terrible toll.
Phnom Penh's "silly-boys", the translated local term for the hundreds of young, poor, shiftless, uneducated glue-sniffing victims who are not only neglected, but whose public self-abuse is readily accepted and tolerated in Cambodia, a country that remains psychologically war-torn and deeply scarred decades after the combat had ostensibly ended and the Khmer Rouge were ousted from their vicious reign of terror.
Glue-sniffers are everywhere in Phnom Penh, out in the open. They've been roaming aimlessly on the streets of Cambodia's capital city for so many years that nobody here takes any visible or effective action directed at stopping this tragic problem. Instead, citizens turn a blind-eye, not only to the needy victims of self-abuse, but also to the greedy "vendors" who (along with the rest of the population) enable this debilitating and eventually fatal toxic habit by profiting at the expense of their customers health and knowingly contribute to their crippled potential and shortened life-spans.
I have encountered glue-sniffing "silly-boys" everyday, year-after-year in Phnom Penh, walking through crowded markets, roaming busy streets, sitting in small street-side cafes, lurking in alleyways and side-streets with their noses firmly implanted in their crumpled plastic bags with an all-too-generous portion of crude glue, sniffing and watching the world and their lives go by with vacant stares and glassed-over eyes. They walk and wander until they pass-out, sleeping night and day on the crowded sidewalks where they are routinely ignored by virtually everyone. People react much the same as if they’d seen a pile of dog-poop on the sidewalk… It’s not my poop, not my dog, not my problem and I’m not going to do anything except avoid stepping on it!
Supporting their low-cost (in monetary terms) habit by begging and petty thievery, these young Cambodians are rapidly wasting away, poisoning their bodies and their minds as they meander about the city; urban zombies who, according to the consensus of local sentiment, are “harming nobody except themselves”.
Glue-sniffing "silly-boys" are a marginalized, unnoticed and openly tolerated casualty and component of the often decayed and degraded scenery in a city where progress and development in recent years has made some very challenging, surprising and impressive strides (all too often at the expense of the poor and powerless), but that continues to struggle to outpace the simultaneous proliferation of social, health, urban-migration and population growth problems that for many years have far exceeded the ability of this small underdeveloped nation to create sustainable new employment and empowerment opportunities.
In this respect the glue-sniffing "silly-boys" are horrifically emblematic of the many pervasive and profoundly sad dysfunctions that have haunted Cambodia for decades.
They are an outrageous and extreme example the vast cornucopia of self-destructive coping behaviors that continue to plague an alarming number of Cambodians who are (often with very good reason) hopeless and despondent due to abuse, abandonment and neglect. It is just one of many stark examples of troubling issues that continue to manifest and fester, decades after one of the most violent and horrific civil wars of the twentieth century.
Aside from occasional scornful looks and angry beatings by citizens who only sometimes find them annoying... nobody seems to be doing much of anything to address the problem in a credible, comprehensive and determined manner... and so it persists without any sign of abatement or even any evidence that the tolerance and acceptance of such degradation is nearing an end.
The glue-sniffing issue is evidently below society's radar, far too low on the staggeringly long and costly list of obvious and solvable problems Cambodia faces, and it remains thoroughly ignored and fatally overshadowed by other pervasive threats (and, to be fair, opportunities) that are virtually ignored in large part due to a systemic lack of care, creativity, capacity and competence in a government and a culture that remain shell-shocked and distorted far beyond reasonable limits.
This small series of portraits shot over the past few years in my neighborhood provides another chilling glimpse of the ravages of that madness called war and of the human cost that continues to be paid; a tidal wave rippling through time and leaving so much devastation and shocking disarray in its wake that there is not even any effort to “sweep it under the carpet”.
The problem of publicly accepted glue-sniffers in Phnom Penh is decidedly a non-issue and as such it is seldom discussed or debated as it holds no currency whatsoever with the local press or in the minds of public servants or the public at large. This is Cambodia.
Unfortunately the existence of many glue-sniffers and their long-standing enjoyment of tolerance and non-intervention by the general public here is a disturbing symptom. It is the prevalence of such dismayingly cavalier attitudes that continues to contribute to the seemingly inexhaustible range of such disgraceful and preventable tragedies that remain common-place in Cambodia.
Glue-sniffing "silly boys" are not hiding, huddled in dark alleys or ramshackle and rundown houses removed from public scrutiny, far from it. Instead they roam freely throughout the city, alone and in groups, and they can be seen every day in crowded markets, cafes and at the street-corner and marketplace vendors stalls who supply them with their poisonous dope. They are right out there roaming around freely among the rest of the population who continue to enable and provide clear and indisputably tacit, if not blatantly explicit, approval of such reprehensible, socially harmful and costly behavior.
As incredible as it may sound things like accepting and ignoring nearly brain-dead glue-sniffing adolescents where you go to buy your fruits, vegetables and laundry soap is simply considered normal here - Status quo, business as usual.
This kind of hard-hearted and short-sighted attitude, in my experience (validated both by many experts and by simply thinking critically and logically about the phenomenon), is also very much the norm in Cambodia today. Solving that larger, more widespread and entrenched tangential attitudinal problem may ultimately prove to be infinitely more difficult, costly and confounding than the mere substance abuse issue that at first blush appears so shocking and in need of immediate attention and action by responsible parties.