In the neon-lit entranceway of a seedy “girly bar” at the end of Street 136 one night this week, the Indian travelling salesman laid out his wares.
One by one, he extracted from a swollen garbage bag a colourful assortment of women’s clothes – dresses for $3.50, skirts and blouses for $2.50 – and displayed them to a half-interested crowd of scantily clad girls.
Receiving no offers, he folded up each item, laid it atop a neat pile on the ground, and pulled out another. After the bar, he would move to the neighbouring one, and the next, working his way down the seamy street like a Jehovah’s Witness evangelist.
Srey Nak, 23, a bar hostess who works on Street 136 said the Indian salesmen were convenient.
“I buy from the Indian guys because it costs the same as in the market and I don’t have much time to shop during the day,” she said.
The home of Sunia Kumlar, 27, is a cramped second-floor apartment near the Sorya Mall where he lives with four other Indian migrants, all travelling salesmen.
“I sell everywhere in Phnom Penh, mostly stuff I buy from the Olympic market,” Kumlar said. “I sell jewellery too.”
Standing in the hall, he said he had left his home in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of the world’s second-most populous country, because he couldn’t find a good job there.
Sitting cross-legged in the living room behind him, his housemates listened to Hindi music and smoked cigarettes on thin mats.
On the ground throughout the apartment lay plastic garbage bags filled with clothing.“I had Indian friends who came before me,” Kumlar said in near-fluent Khmer, while picking through a pile of brightly coloured skirts.
“Business is good here. I can earn from $7.50 to $10 per day. I usually go to buy goods in the market from 6am till 11am, and I go to sell from 4pm to 10pm.”
N Sitlhou, the first secretary at the Indian Embassy in Phnom Penh, said that while the embassy did not have exact figures on the migrants, he estimated there to be “no more than 1,000” here, with the bulk hailing from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh.
“[People from Gorakhpur] are aware that there is a Buddhist country here, and after the Khmer Rouge there was a lot of small-time business opportunities here; these salesmen took advantage and came, first one by one, then two by two, et cetera,” said Sitlhou, adding that there were many Indian travelling salesmen in neighbouring Thailand as well.
Gorakhpur is a city near the Nepalese border, nestled within the foothills of the Himalayas. Known for its Buddhist and Hindu sites, it is also famous for travel.
Since 2013 it has possessed the world’s longest railway platform, and one of history’s most famous wanderers, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, is said to have reached posthumous nirvana in a place 50 kilometres outside Gorakhpur. Today, pilgrims pass constantly through Gorakhpur on their way to the Buddha’s cremation site.
Sitlhou said that after the military coup in Thailand last year, and a subsequent strengthening of visa regulations, there had been a “spillover” of Indian salesmen.
In Cambodia, things were less strict and many of the workers, Sitlhou said, some came here on tourist visas and applied later for a work permit.
But the door-to-door salesmen, many of them who had been here for years, were not known to make problems, Sitlhou said, and they generally obeyed the rules.
He said that if Indian nationals overstayed their visas, the embassy would work with the authorities to help them.
In an apartment on the floor above Sunia Kumlar live seven more Indian travelling salesmen. The $150-a-month space was rented out by a 35-year-old Indian named Balma Saeya, also from Gorakhpur. Self-taught in Khmer, the bespectacled salesmen had been in Cambodia for five years. Most of the money made from his peddling was sent back to his wife and two children in Uttar Pradesh.
Business, while unpredictable, was generally good, he said, adding that most of the salesmen travelled to the provinces to sell in remote and rural areas, sometimes on a credit system, something First Secretary Sithoul said Cambodian salesmen were not wont to do.
But sitting in the comfort of his apartment, Saeya spoke of fresh worries.
“Nowadays, Cambodian law is stricter than before,” he said, referring to a long-ignored work permit law that was now being enforced by the government.
“In order to get a work permit, we need to go to the Ministry of Labour and pay around $300 to $400 in fines [for the period worked without a permit] and then $100 per year [for a new work permit],” he said, adding that he and the others had not yet paid and were dreading to do so.
According to Heng Sour, a spokesman from the Ministry of Labour, work permits could only be acquired with sponsorship from an employer. For the freelancing salesmen, this presents a problem.
“If these Indians carry tourist, business or other visas but are [self employed], they are working illegally,” he said.
According to Saeya, the future remained uncertain for the roving salesmen. “If we can’t get a work permit, we cannot continue our work.”