Cambodia, a nation reaching for the future, from the ashes of rich, enigmatic and at times troubled past.
Traditional ways are by choice still honoured and by necessity still part of everyday life.
An octogenarian farmer harvesting rice with a sickle, in the tradition of her forebears, straightens from a 3000 year old stoop to answer her mobile phone.
Everywhere Khmer people are juggling. Juggling the injuries and inspiration of the past, while trying to keep pace with the change the 21st Century has thrust upon them.
Kampong Cham – Juggling Better Than Most
Kampong Cham, the 6th largest city in Cambodia is cleaner and more developed than most other cities and towns along the eastern side of the Mekong. There is a feeling of relative affluence and the built up area along a river side corso is probably the cleanest in Cambodia.
However this modernity is not enough for everyone. Many of Kampong Cham’s youth are lured by the regular income paid by garment factories, to leave behind a subsistence lifestyle on the river for a more contemporary lifestyle.
Traditional life is hard. Farming and fishing all day, everyday.
The industry required for a family to survive in this setting, is immense. There is no safety net, no social security, no minimal wage. Simple trust in a timeless way of life.
Teenagers soon discover that city life is also hard. The meagre garment factory salary is consumed by food, lodgings and basic needs. Travelling home to see their family is annual privilege on on week’s holiday. Gone are the spiritual nourishment that the river, the lifestyle and family provide.
When Tradition Is Best
A standout feature of Kampong Cham is the “Bamboo Bridge“, a collision between the tradition and the modern. The bridge spans the Mekong during the dry season, approximately 200 metres wide. Built using traditional materials and traditional techniques, the bridge carries all manner of traffic, thousands and thousands of tonnes of people and produce each day.
It is a chaotic blend of bamboo that at once creakes and sways, yet is able to bear the hefty weight of a dry season economy. Approximately 4 layers of crushed bamboo matt are lain over a intricate criss cross of bamboo bearers mounted on a scaffold of Bamboo posts and stays. Somehow it works, a piece of genius.
Every wet season the bridge is pulled down to make way for the swollen waters of the Mekong and every dry season it’s rebuilt, recycling up to 85% of the materials used in the previous season.
It allows access to the abundance that the life giving Mekong brings, silt, nutrients and the promise of a new crop. Another nourishment from the other side of the great river. Another season of growing, of fishing and collecting and another year of survival.
That Magic Moment
We had come to study the bridge, to understand it’s significance. Our little family ventured out and retreated back as trucks and moto’s traversed back and forth across the river.
The sun was setting, the river and the bridge bathed in another golden Mekong sunset. Two horse drawn carts approached. With flourish the first driver urged his horse faster and they crossed the threshold of the bridge at pace.
As the light faded, a golden moment. A poetic insight had settled upon us.
This man and his horse exploring the future and making the best of this modern Khmer city, still finding strength and utility in the ways of the past.