On the road from Sihanoukville, 21 September 2016
It is nearly 6pm as we drive northbound. Emerging from in-between Chuŏr Phnum Dâmrei, the Elephant Mountains, we enter the flood plains of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. In the distance, dark clouds are slowly creeping up from behind the mountains, taking the place of the setting sun. And as the traffic slows down, I notice more details on the roadside, the opaque green of dusted trees, the greyed whitewashed walls of abandoned, empty constructions, and piles of plastic and trash glistening in the evening light.
The road stretches 230 kilometres in imperfect north-south fashion, cutting through the provinces of Kandal, Kampong Speu, Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk. It is, for the most part, a narrow dual carriageway atop flood-eroded berms and scattered with potholes. The national Highway 4 is one of Cambodia’s main arteries, connecting the capital, Phnom Penh, to Sihanoukville, the country’s only international shipping port in the Gulf of Thailand. The road was paved with USAid money in the early 1980s after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and then privately managed as a toll road until earlier this year when the government decided to nationalise it in a populist move. There are fears this will lead to a worsening of the already poor condition of the road.
The road gets busier, its porous structure now bristling with motorbikes squeezing through cards, buses and trucks in all directions. “Look at the markets. So many markets!” says Juan peering out the windows of our minivan. As our pace continues to slow, I can see more clearly. There are markets, but only temporary ones. We are approaching a long strip of factories that I noticed a week ago when we were going the other way, but in the daytime they all seemed empty and bleak. Everything was hidden inside. Now it’s early evening and the end of a day’s work. People are pouring out onto the roadside. Stalls pop up at the factory gates, and from them, stretching all along the road, queues of people form, distant stories. A woman folds a newspaper and fits it inside her handbag, changes her posture, folds her arms over her chest, eyes fixated on the floor; a single man on a motorcycle rides slowly along the queue (offering a ride?); a group of three women sitting on a pale blue mat eat roasted meat from a bowl.
I sit in our comfortable air conditioned minibus watching this other world go by: now all is a tangle of buses, motorbikes, cars and trucks. Hundreds of trucks. Open-top, wooden-framed trucks. The trucks are full of people piled up like cattle. Those on the sides are barely able to stretch their hands out to hang onto the edges of the frame, as the wheeled machine embraces the heavily battered road. Some wear masks to shield the dusty evening air, and all look out. Tired looks, their eyes lost in the distance of transit. A growing knot forms in my stomach. I start to feel intensely overwhelmed.
My attention goes back to the queues. Mostly women, with badges hanging tidily around their necks, walk out of the temporary market areas and line up to catch their ride home. There must be a system: how do people know which truck to get on? There are no signs, or stops, and each one surely goes to a specific neighbourhood, town or village, where everyone gets off at the same place. After people pile on, a rope or some other makeshift barrier is tied to hold the last ones in, to be sure they are at maximum capacity. As I watch I find myself thinking of the technicalities, the logistics. Maybe it’s easier that way. I feel powerless and guilty, here as tourists, just getting off a boat from a (polluted but precious) island, resting, diving, ‘disconnecting’ for a short while. I now understand why they call the seemingly simple minivan we’re riding in a ‘limousine bus’.
The denser it gets, the dustier it gets, vehicles drawing up puffs of black smoke and dust as they roar by. The air is beige and hazy, the heat of the day having long dried last night’s rain. Motorbike riders ride past with one hand covering their mouth. As in Vietnam, but less well-equipped, they ride in twos, threes or fours. The strip of factories is interspersed with repeated sets of international schools displaying signs in English and French, and shiny new banks, advertising microfinance opportunities. The markets are busy, selling tonight’s dinner and collections of clothes just off the production line. Further down the road, black hammocks fill in the yet empty cafés. Jobs, consumption, precarity, dreams, and lending…ingredients that sound all too familiar.
We see names of garment factories and industrial parks. The compounds here are in the hundreds. It is an area of the country that is less prone to flooding, and home to the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone which offers tax-reduced opportunities for businesses to set up shop. And lots of jobs. In 2014, workers protested against low wages, but as some labour conditions do improve, at least in terms of safety and working conditions, little attention is being paid to life just outside the factory gates.
After arriving at our destination the knots remain, still tight. So I decide to look into Highway 4 and its garment factories. It is a promising sector, with more and more factories being proposed and built, responding to a need for jobs in a rapidly urbanising country (and the ever insatiable fast fashion industry). I find very few references, however, to life on the other side of the fence, the danger of the factory workers’ daily commute. A few paragraphs buried in recent news of elections and political fallout: ‘Truck carrying garment workers crashes in Cambodia, 54 hurt’.
On the road, the sky now is dark and dust swells up from the busy ground. The dark suddenly becomes a canvas of shapes and textures as a thunderstorm in the distance illuminates the tormented sky.
Elona & Juan, October 2016