There are two small boys, heads shaven, draped in robes of orange, taking pictures of each other. They stand on the cement slope leading down to the muddy Tonle Sap River patchy with clumps of detached riverweeds.
For half the year the riverweeds float south, past the capital. But, the Tonle Sap is fickle and twice a year changes direction, flowing south during the dry seasons and north – all the way to Tonle Sap Lake just south of Siem Reap and the jungle temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom – in the midst of the monsoons. The riverweeds go along for the ride, floating back and forth in indecision.
It is early January and the river is flowing south. After traveling just under a hundred miles, the Tonle Sap arrives here, at the promenade of downtown Phnom Penh and caresses the edge of the city before merging with the Mekong.
The pedestrian boulevard along the riverfront is wide, tiled and made for ambling in the Parisian style. It is perhaps the single grandest architectural relic of colonization left in the developing city. A line of palms runs up the center providing little meaningful shade. When it is cool, in the early morning and evening, the walkway fills: with street vendors – hawking grilled corn and roasted tarantulas, with families out strolling, and with competing aerobic classes dancing out a radio station’s worth of beats.
But now, in the heat of the day, the shadeless quay is empty save for a few wandering tourists and a handful of street children selling bracelets and pirated copies of books detailing the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.
The road along the quay is lined with hotels – high class and sleazy intermingled. Across the doorway to one is hung a large banner: “Welcome Mr. Obama.” There are bars and pubs and an abundance of pizza joints offering “Happy Herb Pizza Specials” in bold lettering.
Across the river sits Diamond Island. A spit of land filled with constructions sites and half-erected buildings that might one day become a complex of luxury hotels. The girls at the dorm like to cruise the island on their motos on days off. Two years ago, while living in Thailand, I first read about the island when, during the November Water Festival celebrating the Tonle Sap’s reversal, a stampede erupted and 350 Khmer were crushed to death under the feet of thousands.
Up river, closer to the ill-fated bridge, a sewer valve opens and putrid canal water, thick and opaque, gushes out into the river.
Boats cruise up and down the river. Large metal barges puffing smoke and shallow fishing canoes with colorfully painted tips. There are few boats of sizes in between. The fishermen pull up along and moor along the riverweeds that are profuse at the edge of the Tonle Sap. There are fishermen too – both men and women – who walk down to the water’s edge with extended fishing poles.