Samaki Village is a congregation of houses built on top of a swamp just outside of Phnom Penh metropolitan. It is surrounded by the infamous textile factories which stood as one of the fragile pillars of the Cambodian economy and where many of the inhabitants find their employment as unskilled labourers. To about 3,500 souls and then some, Samaki Village is home. The people here are not the poorest of the poor, not quite, as the factories give them some form of protection but at the same time locking them away from class mobility and the prospects of a better life.
The road coming into the village has always been bad, from as far as anybody can remember. Going from Phnom Penh, one has to go along the airport road, known for its barren tediousness before crossing to Highway No. 4, infamous for its high death toll and a reputation for being the most dangerous road in Cambodia. Motorbikes, cars and trucks travel at high speeds bordered by vehicles of all sizes travelling from opposite directions. This is before we take a right turn to one of the worst Cambodian bitumen roads, much underserviced and well overused, potholes are commonplace all year round and the roadwork has been ongoing for many years. Trucks travelling from Sihanoukville and other ports will unload their cargo along this street, into the open concrete spaces of the dry docks. The authorities will fix up the roads before the next monsoon hits and its sheer gravity ruins the fresh surface of the roads.
Around the same road, there is a slight opening which at first seems to be a driveway to a factory in an unsuspecting concrete road, but the small inlet is the main access to Samaki Village. I knew the road as a rough dirt road one time, when I came in as a volunteer. We had to hold on to the frame of the tuk-tuk so tight to stop our heads hitting the roof. We share the roads with cows and chickens, sometimes herds and coops of them that it made it hard to go across the other side of the road. It goes without saying that the roads are plagued with their excrement and rubbish of all varieties, coupling the loose farm policies with poor sanitation.
It gets worse during the monsoon. While the bitumen of the concrete road is battered and bruised, the dirt road of Samaki Village becomes flooded beyond recognition. In the unluckier parts, it was difficult to know when the road begins and the drainage starts. An hour or two of heavy rain is more than sufficient to place water in inconvenient places, including places below the road. Because of the blocked drainage and the already flooded school, the sewer water mixes with the flood water to seep through the insides of the school. At this point, there is not much we can do but to shovel the water into buckets with rubbish scoops and emptying the water out, before the water comes in again if the rain lets on to form a vicious but tiresome cycle.
Then there is the dry season, as unforgiving but more predictable than the monsoon. While during periods of dryness, the monsoon cools the village, the dry season is more monotonous in its mischief. There will be no rain, no cool breeze and the power will be cut at a certain point. Those three things are a given. Needless to say, the days are certainly warm that it is difficult to walk longer than ten minutes under the sun. The only uncertainty is how long we’d lose our power by: how many hours, whether there will be at least a puff of cloud to give us shelter for a few minutes. It is hard to teach in the dry season, without electricity, the body feels lethargic making you sweat and there is no fan to cool you down, the breaks are longer because the children cannot concentrate and they become restless, thus reducing our productivity. Some volunteers complain about the weather, but there is not much to be done, but to accept things as they are.
But when the cool season is due and the rain lets off, then Samaki becomes awfully pleasant. During the day the sun is still warm, and the air still humid, so you still sweat a little, but in the afternoon when the breeze comes, the weather cools and the sky becomes more and more red, then there is no other place else you’d rather be. Words do fall short. During the nights when the electricity cuts off, we had to sleep on the roof of the school. We’d wake up to be greeted by a pink sunrise all around and the children standing by the gate.
For all the challenges that the village face, unsafe from the shocks of globalisation and the certainty of testing weathers, I’ve never seen a happier people. The children run around all day, and during some hours after dark, chasing each other tirelessly and literally conjuring games out of sand. Their reflex in seeing a foreigner is always a wave and a hello with a meter-wide grin. The people in here put you first, often in their own expense and you won’t hear a word of complaint from them. I am lucky enough to work with such people and obliged to put myself in their debt.
And for all the desolation and testing conditions, Samaki Village is home. I feel glad when I hit the driveway leading into the market, covered by dust from the road and often wet from a burst of rain. The children see you and call you by name, and you wave back at them. Sometimes I forgot the names of the children because there are so many. Still, it is easy to be attached to them in such a short time. If you do not know their names (Cambodian names are similar and difficult to remember), then you’d know their faces well enough. Similarly, I don’t know the names of the streets of the village given that street signs haven’t gone this far past Phnom Penh yet, but I know the outline of the roads, the lines to weave my motorbike, the bumps and bruises of the roads that keep growing and changing every month, where to go and which route to take when the rain got better off the road.
I will remember these roads as they were and as they are now. The roads keep on changing but the village, as new as it is will stay there for at least a while. Don’t let the conditions of the road deter you taking it. At the end of the road you will reach the school, and the dust from the heat or the dampness of the rain is irrelevant. We will see you on the road.