monks pause in phnom penh

Robes in Season

Monks in saffron,
though cliche,
are rare here.
Instead they wear robes the colour of navel-oranges
that have something of the look
of polyester.

Or,
a little less often,
the colour of red grapes –
of wine grapes –
deeper
and more self-aware.

Then today I saw one
the colour of pink grapefruit
on the back of a motorbike in thick traffic.
He did not look very transcendent,
but then, nor did he look polyester.
He flamed, incandescent, in the grey of that Phnom Penh street.

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Unfortunately I didn’t manage a photo of the monk in the pink-grapefruit robe, my hands and mind being taken up with riding my own motorbike at the time. But he was like no other monk I’d ever seen, and I wish I could have got a snapshot. 

Out of Season

It’s unseasonably wet, and Sihanoukville is quiet –
the tourists are staying
indoors,
or just
away.

At the beach
vendors of sea-shell necklaces,
coconuts,
and skewered prawns,
play with their children,
eat rice porridge,
or just stare at the half-full tour boats.

Painted in reds and teals,
they putter
back
and forth,
on the iron grey sea
that bleeds into the silver sky,
so that the more distant islands
drift
                    on the
                               breeze
                 that
           ripples
                       the horizon

Cambodia Is

Cambodia is a white cow in a green rice field,
framed by palm trees
and towering white thunderheads.

Cambodia is dozens of gilded roofs
of temples
and monks in bright orange, walking in the heat.

Cambodia is a nine-year-old girl
pulling a cart of rubbish behind her,
while her little sister plays amongst the cans and bottles.

Cambodia is a huge black Lexus
slowly forcing its way through a sea of little black motorcycles.

Cambodia is a textured oil painting of Angkor Wat
in the dim corridors of Russian Market,
rolled and sold to a tourist.

Cambodia is the cool breeze off the Gulf of Thailand
piling up clouds on Bokor Mountain.

Cambodia is a street-vendor selling pork and rice each morning,
who knows her customers’ orders
even if not their names.

Cambodia is the killing fields,
and genocide,
and corruption, still the corruption, always the corruption.

Cambodia is a homeless woman drugging her baby
to beg more money
from good-hearted, ignorant tourists.

Cambodia is afternoon rain,
and evening thunder,
and hot airless nights.

Cambodia is a red, white and blue flag,
a gold palace,
green money,
red earth and black water.

Cambodia is a fleet of fishing boats in the dying light,
thud-thud-thudding their way down the Kampot river
to the sea.

Cambodia is a slum built on a creek full of rubbish,
that floods in the wet season,
sweeping away houses,
and sometimes children.

Cambodia is making do.

Cambodia is people moving to Phnom Penh for work,
renting a tiny room,
and sending their wages back home.

Cambodia is a cool breeze that breaks the heat
and brings neighbours to their front doors
to breathe and sigh and laugh.

Cambodia is the Mekong River,
wider than my dreams,
and as slow as real change.

During Hot Season

The sun
has been pressing down on us
for weeks,
its two thousand trillion
trillion
tonnes
driving us to the ground,
sealing up lungs
and minds.

In the market, the brown-dirt ground burns white,
the bananas turn brown,
the flies swarm.

The buzz of motorcycles rises
and falls
and leaves behind only
heat.

There is sweat on my face, under my shirt, on my skin,
running down my chest, my arms.

In the afternoon the sky falls slowly
pushing down harder
threatening and promising rain
that does not come.

Finally the sun sets,
taking its weight from us,
and the earth and our homes
leak out the heat
so the night thickens with it.

And fans whir and buzz
and the sweat rises from our bodies or sinks into our sheets,
until the sun
rises again.

Soft Grey Morning

I woke when the sun cleared the horizon enough
to wake the people sleeping in hammocks under the house,
and they began talking. Their voices
rose through the gaps in the floor-boards,
and I sat up,
feeling the aches of a night spent on a wooden floor.

The light came in through the open front door,
so soft that the world was almost black and white,
and bodies, curled under sheets,
or sleeping in their clothes,
cast huddled shadows like a pride tumbled together through the night time.

At the top of the stairs,
holding the door frame and blinking,
I stared for a while at the Mekong,
feeling the first hints of the heat of the day
drifting, and building.

The click and hiss of my gas stove,
and the clank and rattle and bubble and huff of my espresso pot
died away
leaving the smell of coffee
which was one familiar thing.

I walked across to the edge of the low cliff opposite the house,
the coffee scorching my tongue just right,
and stood watching the river.
There had been a dead dog floating in it the evening before,
bloated.
Our host had pushed at it with a pole
until it drifted away
as we tried to keep our children’s eyes averted.

Now the water ran silver-grey in the brief cool,
indifferent,
running down from mythology
toward the far-away sea.

Before the Wedding

The road was the kind of fine white sand
that will grab a motorcycle’s tires
and twist
throwing the rider to the ground like an animal
dragging down prey.
And the rice-fields on either side were brown and dry,
bleak
in the heat while we dozed in the shade,
or talked softly
as mangy chickens scratched for bugs in the piled straw.

Then the women came out of the house,
shining in the lowering light,
puffs of dust
rising from their heeled shoes
at each step.

We started the motorcycles –
a roar, a cough, a sputtering puttering –
and the women sat side-saddle behind
in bright gowns that glittered with sequins.

The sun turned orange and rested on the palm trees as we rode out,
minds stretched tight,
grips loose
on the handlebars as we rode over the sand
that had turned pink in the evening.
And the five bikes crested the rises in the road
like boats on the ocean,
our tiny
fleet
in
file.

Out in the fields
white cows ate the dried-up stalks,
and hundreds of swallows twisted in the air above them,
snapping at insects in their wheeling and banking
in the cool, liquid, dying of the light.

Refuelling

We stopped for fuel on a dusty highway
halfway between Mui Ne
and Nha Trang.
Ahead of us would come mountains
so green
they were almost blue
but all we saw were low-tumbled rocky hills.

“Sang?” I asked a woman in a shop-front,
then, trying again,
“Xang?”
She nodded and pulled forward
a rusted hand-pump on metal wheels,
and it clattered and rumbled as it rolled,
empty.
She said something to me,
three or four quick syllables
that I immediately forgot,
and pointed at a plastic bottle,
twenty-five lurid-green litres of petrol.
I thought of the slim men I’d seen lifting things like this
with apparent ease,
though their pale-brown forearms and fingers
were taut as cables,
and I decided I would not drop it.

The fuel poured out into the pump over a long minute,
the same green as the ice-blocks we kept in the freezer when I was a child,
rushing evenly from the bottle,
the liquid surface creased
like a fast-flowing river,
before splashing and gurgling
into the metal
funnel the
seller
held.

My body and arms ached
from the unfamiliar weight
and I felt so happy
that it was like feeling well.

It’s easy to become accustomed to life just about anywhere I guess, and after less than two years, I find Cambodia very familiar now, so I don’t notice things they way I did when we first arrived. However,  I travelled to Vietnam this past month for a holiday with a friend, and we rode motorcycles around the South of the country for nine days. It was really wonderful to be somewhere that was different again, and to be reminded of the new experiences this part of the world has given me as I’ve lived here. Amongst other things, it’s led me to look again more closely at Cambodia, and try to really notice it again.