Journalist | Phnom Penh, Cambodia

When Cambodia’s Capital Burns

By Alex Consiglio

Photo essay for The Diplomat here.

Thick smoke was billowing out the backdoor of a Phnom Penh shophouse when two firefighters suddenly staggered onto the balcony, coughing and spitting as they recovered from smoke inhalation.

Neither firefighter had a mask. Their solution: squat, because the smoke rises and squatting is the only way to escape its grasp.

Life as a firefighter in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh can be a tough gig. The Phnom Penh Fire Service mostly operates using donated, used equipment. Sometimes the proper gear isn’t available.

For years, the fire department has been plagued by rumors that its men first take bribes before putting out fires, which they vehemently deny. But when large fires break out, both the firemen and local residents frantically fight them.

Not all of the department’s trucks are operational, and those that are struggle to access the narrow passageways where fires often occur. Without nearby water sources, firemen and villagers drag lengthy hoses from the trucks toward the blazes. These hoses almost always have holes in them and a firefighter can often be seen blocking the hole with his foot or tying a plastic bag around the leak.

Once the battle begins, the firemen tend to keep to the perimeter while desperate residents fill the gap, yanking hoses away from firemen and risking their lives within burning rubble or atop weakening structures. In the past few years of chasing fire trucks, I’ve found residents using garden hoses, buckets of water, and even blocks of ice to buttress the department in its battles against blazes.

One moment has always stuck out, however. As dozens of residents and firemen battled a large inferno that would claim nearly 40 homes, a lone woman sat in the neighboring pagoda, praying.

Faith is often needed when a Phnom Penh fire sparks.