Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Some evenings, around 5, when the sun starts to wane and the light gets silky, I like to hop on my bike and meander around town.

I head down my road, past the moto drivers waiting for a fare, past the metalshop, the carwash, the linoleum store, the agriculture supply. At 5pm, the afternoon session of school has ended, work is out, and folks are pouring down the road towards noodle soup dinners and home. On the left, I ride by the woodcarving shop with a noodle table out front, Prasac Microfinance Bank, the Cambodia British Centre where kids on crisply pressed uniforms just coming from school lounge outside on their bicycles waiting for their English class, the newspaper stand with the colorful and uniformly garish fashion magazines. Then the new fancy cosmetics store where they've installed plastic bucket chairs theater-style like those in an airport terminal or DMV, and where, around this time, they pull out a TV on the cashier's counter and unlikely clientele (middle-aged men) will watch sports. I wonder if this element was planned, or just a bit of local color, and I wonder if they ask the men to buy some whitening face cream before they're allowed to slouch down to watch wrestling.

At the corner, there's the Bruins Blue-and-Yellow Hello cell-phone shop, which was constructed and opened since I moved to Kampong Cham. Here my street intersects with the "main drag," a boulevard that I've described before, which appears to harken back from the colonial era -- jaunty decorated lampposts, and nice benches. Later in the evening, there will be the heartbreaking scene of a malnourished teen and two or three kids taking turns sniffing glue from a paper sack. But now, there's just traffic and a man in a jogging uniform walking up and down pumping his arms to an imaginary beat.

Across the boulevard, I pass the Chinese School Market -- bustling in the late afternoon. In front of me, there's a man in garish camo pyjamas and a fisherman's hat with the drawstring strung tight across his neck. There are kids, kids, kids in their white oxford shirts and blue pants, sitting 3 to a moto, or riding on the back rack of the bicycle, some heading for home, but mostly for the riverside where they'll ride up and down in packs, laughing and flirting. There are ladies in Khmer pyjamas -- like the scrubs of nurses who work in a pediatrician's office -- shapeless uniforms with prints of teddy bears or bunnies or bright flowers. Market-going attire.

On the corner in front of the cellphone repair shop run by Rumdourl's brother is my pumelo lady. Perfect green orbs stacked neatly in a pyramid. I pass the meatball stands in front of the Vietnamese Clinic, pass the woman frying bananas in sesame batter, pass the sugarcane press. The men on motorcycle row call out "hello" as I go by, and then I'm passing the plaza with the painted-gold statue of Hanuman the monkey fighting his brother, and then I'm at the riverside.

The bridge is beautiful in the evening light, so I turn right and head down a ways and then stop to look out over the water. The water is way down in dry season and the pylons are bright orange on the bottom where the water used to be. Huge trucks with lumber from exhausted rubber trees and perhaps from as far up as Mondulkiri make their way over the bridge, passing lovers on motos heading the other direction towards the roadside stands where you can lie in hammocks drinking soursop juice and eating fresh cobs of sweet corn, either grilled or steamed.

A bit further down the riverside is a school. There's smoke billowing in the courtyard and spilling out to the street -- it smells sharp like plastic so I try not to breathe in too deeply and wonder how the kids can continue to run around and fly their kites in the middle of the cloud of fumes.

Riverside vendor with his kites and inflatables

I'm feeling especially alive, so I decide to take the path through the Cham village, where it's marketing time. No pigs here, only shiny beef and vegetables and sometimes a random goat. Then I'm past the ladies in their headscarves and the bearded men with turbans, past the huge Muslim Aid banner, and up next to the white mosque, with its silver tiled minarets that glow at this time of day.

A picturesque trash heap right before the Cham village

Kids play in the courtyard of the neighborhood mosque at twilight

I take the quick route back into town, by this time it's nearing dark so I make a careful circle at the roundabout and head up onto the bridge. It's tough going with no gears. The bridge is relatively steep, but I power on until what seems like the highest point, where I get off and survey the mighty Mekong. Across the river, you can still make out the outline of the signal tower. Then there are some disco lights, and behind, the "skyline" of Kampong Cham town. There's always a breeze up here, even on the warmest days and it's pretty much deserted, for which I can thank Cambodian superstition about the ghosts of frustrated lovers who jumped and now haunt the bridge.

The Kampong Cham skyline from the bridge

Riverside at night

Eventually, I head back down, coasting all the way back around the circle, down the street to the Starmart where I head in to pick up some vanilla yogurt -- which always comes with tiny plastic spoons.

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