Ratanakiri

After a long day of field work in Ratanakiri, Cambodia, six of us are piled into a four-door truck heading to a dinner of unspecified meat, Mekong river embankment weeds (green vegetables?) and a hearty helping of rice. We’ve passed through forest with ancient lava lumps, rows of rubber and palm trees (courtesy of Chinese investors), an one-roomed wooden huts on silts. We’re now driving up to a lake in the middle of town, visited by the occasional tourist, meaning we’re seven minutes away from the restaurant, a relief for my growling stomach.

The last husky red rays of sunlight are making the lake shimmer gray. As we bend around it, hotels come into view across it. I don’t have to have go into them to know their type. I’ve literally seen them across the world. Billed as a “fancy” hotel (and maybe were 5-10 years ago), they now sag into disarray as uncreative three-story blocks, someday to be abandoned. There’s probably ineffective toothbrush wrapped in monogrammed plastic whose sophistication is dulled by the layer of aged dirt.

Behind us our truck throws up a continuous cloud of the street’s red-brown dirt. We go parallel to strung-up white lights, giving an almost Parisian atmosphere to the couples, families, and friends sitting on woven plastic mats on the lake’s sidewalk. This tranquil scene continues for a couple minutes as our drive continues. As it ends with the end of the sidewalk, I look to the other side of the road and see not one but two merry-go-rounds.

Merry-go-rounds in the backwoods of Cambodia! A closer look proves that the horses are crudely chopped pieces of wood, colorfully painted, attached not to a pole but strung to the roof with rope. Roof is a loose term here. It’s five not so straight poles coming off a center pole (that is theoretically propped up, but I wouldn’t bet money on it’s stability) with a large blanket billowing where it’s not tied down to the poles.

I look for a motor, an engine, something powering the merry-go-round. As we drive almost out of sight, I see it. I shouldn’t say “it” because, instead, it’s a “him.” A man is running circles, pushing an empty horse that turns the entire contraption. I’d like to say only in Cambodia but just like decomposing hotels and lakeside picnics these are things seen the world around, only the details are different.

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