Staring out a Window in Cambodia

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March 17th 2014
Published: March 16th 2014
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Cambodian KidsCambodian KidsCambodian Kids

A group of children peddle along the roadside in Cambodia.
The bus begins to pick up speed, we are crossing into Cambodia - I take out my laptop and begin to type what I see - large and relatively well maintained casinos, only slightly down the road they give way to the slightly less well maintained casinos, and then the casinos with no windows and no cars in the parking lot - someone may or may not be working inside of there - and then a building no larger than a sports bar with a sign reading 'casino' and offering 'money lending services,' down the road abandoned casinos with barren dirt lots in the front, scrawny dogs wandering about the dust with their noses to the ground. Highway 1, the same highway we had followed from Thailand to Phnom Penh a year and a half previous, there are only two lanes on this 'highway' – north-east bound toward Thailand and south-west bound toward Vietnam, Phnom Penh somewhere along the way – a dotted line separates the two lanes of traffic, lanes which include dogs, chickens and buffaloes, kids on bicycle and on foot, rovers and wanderers, motorbikes, cars and freighter trucks, buses, tractors and everything in between. Our bus roars up
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Tara caught this shot of two kids watching us pass.
on the tail of a freighter truck, ready to pass but pulls back, a large tractor is approaching in the opposite lane, kicking up dust, pulling a small flatbed trailer behind it, branches serving as side bars for the dozen or so ski-masked laborers in the back. I look left and then look right - I see a little roadside stall and I can already smell the powerful stench of the sun-dried fish, snakes and frogs. About thirty-five people are gathered around this stand, no one is eating, few are buying and fewer are selling - one is struck by the sense that time is moving very, very slowly. A little boy in a red t-shirt jumps off a flat bamboo pad and goes sprinting down a dirt road toward a gathering of raw-boned cows.

Big signs begin to pop up for Angkor beer and also Anchor Beer, and plenty of scrubby little bushes along the side of the road, trees of various size and make - not so different from what you might find in upstate New York, interspersed of course with the iconic tall palms that grow straight up – their trunks more staunch than most –
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Exemplifying the landscape
capped with stumpy little crowns, half green and ascending straight toward the sky, the other half brown or in the process of becoming so, sagging woefully downward in acceptance of the inevitable. There are some giant banana plants too and then the vegetation clears and a gigantic field opens up - wide as the eye can see - and there is plenty of trash strewn throughout, buffalo in the distance, the monotony of the scene broken only by those desultory palms. Up ahead there is a sign for the Cambodian People’s Party on bright blue metal, massive stacks of bricks appear on the side of the road though positively everything seems to be made of wood, with only the most well-heeled structures using corrugated metal, and every once in awhile a great and gigantic beauty of a house made with concrete and stucco, painted with vivid colors with a towering metal fence surrounding. A small school with two buildings, cows grazing amongst the trash in the court yard, a small stream surrounded by green, a man walking naked beside it, clothes hanging from makeshift fences flapping in the wind, blue sky, vegetation - green but dry, overgrown temple walls and
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Since I didn't have my camera out, most of these photos are not specifically from this bus ride, but we took them all on various roadsides throughout the country.
archways once painted in vivid colors, now left to the elements, a strange Hindu like shrine alone in the middle of a field, scrawny chickens pecking around in gravel driveways irrigation ditches run parallel to the road, brown as the clay fields, roadside huts made entirely of trees with dried palm fronds serving as wall and roof, a blue sign – The Cambodian People’s Party, traffic now surprisingly thin many of the houses built on stilts some fifteen feet tall, the less fortunate neighbors with the corrugated metal shacks, covered in rust – a bit of paint if they are fortunate. A man squats over his rice field staring endlessly down, more strange statues and monuments in the middle of nowhere - distinctly Khmer, more signs for the People’s Party, a lumber yard constructed completely of corrugated metal, a decent selection of wood, some roadside welders. And for the second time on the side of the road a cruel contraption – a motorbike with a flat bit on the back and curved steel rods coming up from both sides, a pig laid flat on it’s back with front legs pinned against it’s head, back legs forced awkwardly out the back, locked firmly in place by the steel jaws, unable to so much as wiggle and then strapped even more with elastic bands, I hope Tara doesn’t see it. Suddenly giant lakes appear - perhaps they are simply flooded rice paddies - and disappear just as quickly, a woman peddles up the side of the road, she looks about eighty, she has a red basket on the back of the bicycle with a few vegetables inside - a basic skills center but it looks abandoned, the first monks I’ve seen in quite some time with bright orange flowing robes (I had seen only one in Vietnam) and then a beautiful massive and open walled temple in the distance with monks sitting in meditation, beautiful stone and concrete architecture is all around now, in the form of bizarre statues, archways and mini-pagodas, all in various states of disrepair and some signs for the Cambodia People’s Party too, two women chatting roadside with an infant sitting alone on a bicycle seat so high that it seems as if it might fall to it’s death, holding itself in such a matter that you might suspect it to just peddle off over the horizon, and a family of five on a motorbike too. An ambulance rushes by - it is a van with about seven seats and no beds, a small flashing orange light attached to the top and a green medical cross to the rear, we pass another school, a beautifully rugged complex with orange tile roofs in the traditional temple style with cream stucco walls and open air windows, young girls in bright white uniforms lounging against the outer walls in the shade of the trees, another archway with lotus style pagodas on top, painted a surreal aqua blue, next door a house made completely of straw and a primary school with a main building and a barn. A group of young children sit on a bamboo platform with their mother, the three youngest are naked, the mother staring off into the distance, no toys for the older two who sit patiently beside them, the fields are everywhere, one great countryside of flat, flat fields, rice, cows and muddy ditches, a lonesome farmer, every once in awhile some graves appear in the middle of a field and every few miles the houses go from richer to poorer, with some stretches of homes barns and businesses made from absolutely nothing but dried trees, a black dog wanders in front of one of them - looking like a crazed African jackyl, just up the street a woman sits at a lonely stand with a dozen mangoes and a scale, a small irrigation ditch full of lotus to her left.

This is farm country at it’s most basic, fundamental and brutal, nothing to sustain life for vast stretches except that which can be cultivated from the earth, petrol is sold out of small glass bottles on rusted racks and the only form of machinery for miles are the air compressors to fix torn tires. We pass a one-room school house with open windows, about 100 students inside, some sitting and writing at their desks, others standing and staring out the window, every now and then we come across a small town - rows of metal shacks and a few market stands with dirt floors and tarps for cover, raw meat hanging out in the mid-morning sun, random assortments of produce strewn about, a few small plastic tables and chairs, a clinic, a motorbike repair sauce, some dried fish, a noodle vendor – less than thirty seconds and it is all behind you, just one single strip along the highway, and then back to nothing – a buffalo, a wooden fence, a clothes line, a statue, a CPP sign.

All of a sudden the skies open up and sheets of rain come pouring down, so intense now that I can not even see the hills beyond the fields, then the bus becomes enveloped by the grey mass – to my left I look up above the grey and the sky is still blue, with bright puffy white clouds, to the right a great mass of grey – the blood of the land pouring from the sky, bringing life to the world below - the downpour begins at 10:23 am, by 10:26 it has slowed to a trickle, at 10:27 it is done, and at 10:28 we drive over roads which are completely dry, students are peddling on their bikes without raincoats and the sun is beaming down - I can see the dense shadows of the trees against the pavement, there isn't a smokestack or industrial park in sight and we are finally back in Cambodia.

Above: Our video montage from Cambodia. From 0:18 - 0:49 is footage taken on this trip and will give you a real sense of what a ride up Highway 1 is like.

Additional photos below
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19th March 2014

Reminds me of Bangladesh
Your description of the Cambodian countryside remind me of my trip to the countryside of Bangladesh. It amazes me what people can do with so little. I am also reminded of how wasteful we Americans are. Thanks for sharing!

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