As we leave Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s frantic, traffic-filled capital on our 7 hour bus journey to Siem Reap, we have some time staring out of the bus window to reflect on what we’ve seen of Cambodia so far. We’ve not been here very long but it’s made a huge impact.
First though the practicalities…if you’re travelling this route by bus we used Giantibis (giantibis.com). Their tickets are about $8 one way and you get a croissant, water, a couple of rest stops and free wifi (albeit slow!) on board. We’d happily travel the route again. Be prepared to be mobbed by tuktuk drivers in arrival though, we’d recommend sorting out your lift before you arrive!
When I’m taking photographs of a place I’m always trying to work out what story I’m telling, what images will best represent how I’ve seen the place or how I feel about it.
You can’t take great photos out of a bus window (yes, I’ve tried, regularly!), so for a change I thought I’d use words to capture what my camera couldn’t.
It’s hot out there so the kids are swinging in string hammocks. They smile widely whilst thin white cows graze in the nearby fields, their ribs on show.
In the heat life goes on underneath houses on stilts, at the edge of the road where tarmac meets dust and scrub.
There are children everywhere here, some you can see from the bus window over the walls are in school, their hundreds of bicycles propped up outside, some are playing, often they are working, carrying bags of earth or helping to fix motorbikes. Welding, selling, dredging even, jobs for six year olds?
We pass mothers washing their children in a bowl outside their houses, or in the city on a street corner beneath a tree. A bottle of mineral water doubling as a shower head, the tree roots as a drain.
As we move further from the city brown earth takes over from broken and missing pavements, greener fields, tall trees and dry grass replace buildings.
The air conditioned petrol station forecourts and motorbike washes are more sparse out here, replaced by vocational training centres for ‘computers and sewing’.
Brightly coloured spirit houses line the roads, offerings of incense gently burning, looking like bird mansions rather than houses. Motorcycles pull trailers from every direction, roads are like a free form dance routine, a moped is the family car with Mum, Dad and the two children all happily balanced zipping along through the traffic.
Got a door to move, or a fan, or a live chicken, or just want to get your bicycle somewhere a bit faster? All can and are moved regularly and effortlessly on the back of a moped. The ingenuity of the Cambodians is wonderful. Motorcycle helmets double as hard hats for building, and treble as welding masks for metalwork.
You notice few elderly people here but signs advertising the Cambodian People’s Party everywhere. The politics are advertised but the corruption isn’t.
Everyone talks about how corrupt the 138th poorest country in the world is. Cambodians talk about education being the only solution. Teachers earning $40 a month take bribes to help children pass exams though.
Taking a series of photographs to capture Cambodia would mean trying to capture the contrasts. A country with huge potential, ingenuity and openness, with beautiful countryside, temples and sunrises. One that’s fighting it’s own internal battle of corruption, frustration and lost opportunities. I’m not sure that our photos will ever do it justice; if you can, I urge you to support sustainable Cambodian tourism, it really is a remarkable country.
(Words by Niki)