Areyksat Village (or Dor Aray Sat) is a Cambodian rural village typical of hundreds across the Kingdom of Wonder. Small, quiet, a few shop houses, a dirt road running through the middle. On hot still days motorbikes and the odd vehicle throw up a layer of dust coating the buildings, the roadside vegetation, and everything else. Sometimes one of the residents will periodically hose down the road in an effort to reduce dust to manageable levels, but eventually time and heat force them to give up.
The village is a stone’s throw from one of the world’s most famous waterways, the Mekong River, it's offshoot, the Bassac, and is at the junction with the Tonle Sap. It’s located in Kandal Province, a flat rice growing land, full of agricultural plantations, and prone to flooding in a country where the monsoon is both too hot and too short. People here farm and fish. Others work long hours in the stifling garment factories springing up which employ hundreds of thousands of Cambodians across the country, mainly young women, in sweatshop conditions.
Areyksat is unspectacular, and not especially unique, except that it’s not hidden away in some far off part of the country. It’s not on the mains grid and not everyone has running water but Areyksat is barely a mile from the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. A bit further as the crow flies from where the country’s prime minister resides on a street lined with houses some of which wouldn’t be out of place in Beverly Hills or among the mansions in Belgravia, and some of the world’s most luxurious vehicles can be seen driving past.
Areyksat perfectly juxtaposes the disparity of Cambodia socio-economically and geographically. The country is predominantly rural and poor, about 85 percent. About 10 percent are urban and poor. They’re on the other side of the river, There is a small but emerging middle class, and at the very top a small clique of super wealthy, who use state institutions to take everything. They’ve even coined a term for it; “Grabonomics”.
This side of the river is Kandal, one of the smaller provinces of Cambodia, re-known for its ancient history completely surrounds, but does not include, Phnom Penh. Kandal is the next stop but one from Vietnam. It’s famous for its many stupas and includes Udong (or Oudong), the former capital of Cambodia from 1618 and 1866 where Khmer kings were crowned. But there’s nothing regal about Areyksat. There is Ta San mosque, though much the worse for wear, and a reclining Buddha. Kandal’s capital is Ta Khmau (literally “Black Grandfather”), an area of black rock, and a day trip 20kms south of Phnom Penh.
Tiny children, their growth hindered by the lack of calcium and protein, some naked from the waist down play on the roadside. Some come out of the shop houses to wave and say “hello”. It’s one of the enduring images of yester year in Cambodia, once often seen and heard even in Phnom Penh, but there foreigners are so frequent that Khmers, like Thais, look through you. You’re no longer unique, unusual or especially interesting. The curiosity has gone.
What’s interesting further about Kandal Province is it’s one of Cambodia’a wealthiest provinces. Yet to view Areyksat you’re seeing the Third World right there in your face. Most people rides beat-up step-through scooters, known in Cambodia as motos, some ride bicycles, the past key mode of transport in Kampuchea, others walk. There are few cars. Illustrative of Cambodia’s lopsided development is the petrol station on the corner of road 380, surprisingly paved, and the side dirt roads that dominant the area. Fuel for modern vehicles sold to people who, for the most part when they buy gasoline, do so from roadside stalls – cheaper and cut with cheap derivatives.
The ferries to Areyksat are drive on, or in my case walk-on. The fare for a foot passenger is 500 riels or about US$0.12. They run from early in the morning until 11pm. The original smaller vessels capable of carrying a few vehicles, 2-3 tutk-tuks and motorbikes with all manner of produce have now been supplemented by much larger vessels made redundant by the new multi-million dollar bridge over the Mekong at Neak Leoung, south on National Route One to Vietnam. These vessels can take entire buses, but there aren’t any bus routes through Areyksat.
The ferry port in Phnom Penh is down a zig-zag road partially sealed found behind Naga World, one of Cambodia’s largest 5-star hotels and only premium casino, where many a gambler has met their ruin. Nearby is Dreamland, a children’s entertainment park. Some people refer to it as Nightmareland given the poor maintenance of many of the mechanical rides to be had there. Proceed at your peril. Also nearby is Diamond Island or or Koh Pich in Khmer. Due to ongoing infilling of the Tonle Sap it’s more of a spit than an island but back in 2010 during the Water Festival, over 300 souls were trampled to death during a stampede on one of the narrow bridges, or either drowned or electrocuted given all the dodgy wiring that also plunged into the water.
Ferry passengers and vehicles wait to one side while the vessel unloads. It’s what’s referred to as “roll on, roll off”. When the last has departed on the city side there’s an orderly procession on board. On the other side, motorcyclists line up like awaiting starter’s orders. I sat on the railing waiting to depart. Many passengers head for the shade under the bridge. Before we left I heard stern orders being barked out in Khmer. I looked up and saw the skipper pointing at me. It was clear passengers, or at least foreigners aren’t allowed on the gunwales of ferries, so I got down and had to stand.
At Chroy Changvar peninsula where the Mekong meets the smaller Tonle Sap you become aware of the force of nature. The Mekong seems permanently the colour of milky tea, filled as it is with the loess soil that made Cambodia and the rich rice fields of the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, or Kampuchea Krom as Cambodians refer to the region. The force of the river’s flow seems to strain the hardworking engine of the ferry. There’s a breeze off the water. You’re aware of how much water traffic there is. There are dredges, cargo vessels, bulk carriers so low in the water they appear to be sinking, and fishers, their boats are also their homes and whole families live, eat and sleep in all weathers on little more than a dug-out canoe.
At the eastern bank of the Mekong the ferry rides right up to the waterline to drop the ramp and tuk-tuks, motorbikes, cars and the odd SUV plus foot passengers make their way up from the water level into Areyksat. Mostly these are locals living along the Mekong, in the village or further afield in Kandal Province. Occasionally, the more curious tourists make their way here.
The main road from the ferry is lined with small family businesses, families selling small consumer goods, whatever they can to get by. Children say “hello” and look in wonder at the tall baranteh (non-French foreigner) walking by. You can see some wearing replica football shirts from the English Premier League, a game they will be familiar with from a country they’ll never visit. I bought water and drank it leaning against a wall in the shade. It was hot and dusty.
The ferry traffic soon disappeared down side streets or along the main road. There was a row of terraced hop houses unfinished. The side of the road is bordered by water covered by thick weed. Between the green weed and the bank, the detritus of modern consumerism, plastic rubbish choking the country.
Along the road under a large tree and facing each across a narrow bridge were the electoral signs of Cambodia’s political parties. They faced each other across a narrow bridge. On the one side the light blue background of the ruling CPP, the Cambodia Peoples’ Party, with its then triumvirate leadership, now reduced to a duo upon the death of Cambodia's number two politician Chea Sim in 2015. At the other end, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, an amalgam of the eponymous Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, with its logo, a rising sun.Of late, some expats are building on this side of the river; Belgians, French and Irish are at least the ones I know. Foreigners owning land is banned in Cambodia, but there are now leases available for 99 years, for the right price to the right person. My friends lived down a dirt road, concrete hard in the dry season, and a quagmire in the wet.
Down the rutted path, a dodgem course in either season with two on a bike, the neighbour’s hounds bark and gnarl. Dogs are less of a problem in Cambodia than in neighbouring Thailand, where they can resemble some mad scientist’s experimentation in cross-breeding, are lazy, or, in pack mentality, downright aggressive, and should be avoided especially after dark. But here in Areyksat, I didn’t expect the galloping hounds to this extent.
The houses were a mix of materials and style. The neighbour’s was wooden at ground level. The French had gone with brick rendered in ochre, a taste of home. My friend’s was recycled dark natural weatherboard, elevated one story off the ground. The height made for storage underneath and a breeze throughout, natural air-conditioning. The view was across sugar palms and mango trees. Here and there was the roof of a house, the spire of a pagoda.
Out here you see Cambodia, the wonderful people and landscape, how the majority live. Yet a mile away is a standard of living luxurious by any measure. This disparity of income and the quality of life and opportunities it provides, is Cambodia’s reality and burden.