Cambodia Has No Highway Patrol
I call this photograph Cambodia Has No Highway Patrol. I've taken several pictures of vehicles loaded up with cargo well beyond their seeming capacity, not to mention breaking point, but nothing I've seen or photographed cames close to this Guinness-Book-of-Records stack of mattresses. In Cambodia it seems like the more stuff on a vehicle the older the vehicle is, and in this case the springs and chassis of the pickup truck are well worn indeed, not to mention how limited the windshield visibility. Still, no law enforcement would stop this vehicle or others like it from traversing Cambodia's highways, such as they are. Yes, there is no highway patrol here, and in this and many other ways I guess Cambodia is a libertarian's dream.
When we think of Cambodian history two things typically come to mind: the Khmer Rouge era and the antiquities of Angkor Wat. The former modern history; the latter, seemingly, ancient. So it may came as a surprise that it was the French who instilled the consciousness of Angkor Wat and kings such as Jayavarmin VII back into the Cambodian psyche. The Khmer people themselves had long forgotten Angkor and could not, for instance, decipher the inscriptions on the monuments. What we know of Ankor Wat is a recent invention, a contemporary idea, even a sort of virus. It is a kind of baggage Cambodians and the rest of the world carries around, like the mattresses on the pickup truck.
The French expanded their empire to include Indochina in the late 19th Century, and in 1863 made the kingdom of Cambodia a Frech protectorate. The French were more or less invited in by then Khmer King Norodom I, who realized that Cambodia as a country was about to be absorbed by its more powerful and expanding neighbors and age-old enemies, the Thai and Vietnamese. France vouched-safe the borders and set about creating a new national identity for Cambodia, one that would also glorify the French and help ensure their interests. French adventurers and archeologists had begun pouring over the magnificent ancient ruins of Angkor Wat for some years. From the knowledge they were obtaining, the French introduced the Cambodians to their own seventh wonder of the world, right down to the sequence of kings, a lineage long forgotten. As contemporary historian David Chandler in his book The Tragedy of Cambodian History puts it, "As they created something known as Cambodia, the French bequeathed to the Khmer the unmanageable notion that their ancestors had been for a time the most powerful and most gifted people of Southeast Asia." 1
This invented form of exceptionalism multiplied in the Khmer consciousness (as all things taught to us potentially do) so that eventually images of Angkor were everywhere, from the labels of beer cans to the Cambodian flag to the frontside of 1000 riel banknotes. The hubris of exceptionalism was also greatly in the mind of the Khmer Rouge leaders. As Pol Pot once boasted, "If we can build Angkor, we can do anything." 2
What else can we see in the photograph of the truck and mattresses? , David Chandler has a telling sentence: "The amalgam of trust, fatalism and laissez-faire that had held the kingdom together had dissolved." 3 The dissolving Chandler wrote about was the beginning of the civil war in the late 1960s that eventually culminated in the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975. This sentence also fits as a description of the photograph, a kind of trust, fatalism and laissez-faire that such haphazard ropes could hold so many mattresses together (not to mention assorted fans, boxes and rooster cages). These words also combine the feeling of walking down the Cambodian street at just about any time of day, the kind of anything-goes atmosphere of commerce that business and other human activities take place in.
This is not to say there are not limits or rules. Though it may not be written down anywhere, vendors in the market each have their own allotted space on the street (and it is a public street that becomes the market) and there are precise boundaries between them, just as the pickup truck with mattresses is only partially liminal. The other half is dependent on the physics of ropes, the combustion of gasoline, and skill, the ways that people get good at handling something when they have to handle it all day long. Take for instance the sugar-cane juice vendor I visit on my after-lunch walk, a nineteen year-old entrepreneur with a pushcart and gasoline engine which drives a device to extract the juice from four foot lengths of cut sugar cane. The vendor has ice inside a cooler that improbably stays unmelted all day in the heat. The pushcart has a car battery lashed to it so the vendor can illuminate his product at night. Gasoline, electricity, cut sugar-cane-stems, plastic bags, cups and straws, ice and human manpower are the inputs for this marvelous vehicle of laissez-faire capitalism that delivers delicious juice for 1000 riel.
Needless to add, there are no city health bureaucrats coming around to inspect the sugar-cane juice pushcarts.
This is one of a series of essays under the overall title, Cambodia 2015. - Bill Scheffel