Portraits From Cambodia – A Village That Could Be Lost


Winding roads, bumpy tracks and a rickety old bus. I could have been anywhere in the world, until I looked out of the window. Along the roadside, framed by a lush green floodplain, there were houses several stories high, interspersed with street vendors selling all kinds of delicacies. Unlike many other houses, these were raised above the ground on stilts – a key defence against the annual flooding of the Mekong river. The houses all had colourful and ornamental stairways leading up to the entrances. Some had doors, others didn’t. Kids were running around, cows were roaming the streets and people were going about their daily lives. Cambodia is where I am.  

SAMBOR – after what feels like a journey more akin to a bouncy castle ride, the bus is slowly pulling into our final destination. As we drive slowly through this small market village, my eyes are pinned to the window taking it all in. It’s like watching the TV on mute. Soon enough we pull up outside a large Pagoda (a tiered Buddha temple). As I hobble off the bus, my senses are in overdrive. The whizzing of motos along the road, the background noise of the river, the smells of cooking from street vendors and most of all the heat hits me – that damp, humid, mosquito-laden air.

Credit: Nuala McBride

There’s so much to take in. Not surprisingly it’s the glistening Mekong River that captures my attention. Despite following its path over the last couple of days, here it seems to be in its element – surrounded by natural beauty (not concrete jungles) and the picturesque scene of fishing boats bobbing along it.  To me the Mekong River holds this amazing power; as it has such a mixed identity – it supports so many people in a variety of ways. This is mainly through the millions of fish that abide within the powerful river, a quarter of the world’s fish supply to be precise. For the Cambodian people, these fish are the main protein source for their traditional diet alongside the rice that is cultivated during the wet season.

You may be wondering why I have come to this particular village, Sambor, on the Mekong River. The one word answer is ‘Dam’. The longer answer is that Sambor is under potential threat from the construction of a dam, by a large Chinese company. Over the past decade the Mekong river has been increasingly dammed, under the watchful eye of the government, who believe that hydro-electro power is the key to the development of Cambodia. This Dam would mean that most of the village would have to relocate as well as the fish stocks being highly affected. On the surface this seems a small price to pay for the greater good of the country.

Credit: Nuala McBride

Cambodia is very underdeveloped, compared to its neighbours (Thailand and Vietnam), mostly due to the Khmer Rouge government. The Khmer Rouge lasted from 1975-1979 and although precise numbers aren’t known it’s estimated that between 2-3 million people were killed. This regime pushed Cambodia back into an rural, classless society and had disastrous effects on the development of the country. Because of these years the country is trying to make up for lost time – through producing hydroelectric power off the rivers in Cambodia. The government can profit from this abundant natural resource; but at what cost?

On the surface it looks like these Dams bring a chance for development to a country that vitally needs it. The Chinese fund the building of the Dams and Cambodia will get a cut of the profit, when the electricity is sold to neighbouring countries. Plus the local people can benefit from electricity, all of which portrays a perfect picture. But, as the age old saying goes – “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Since this was far from the case in nearly all the previous Dams that have been built in Cambodia and even in other countries. The locals are often not given adequate compensation as their land is rendered worthless overnight with the prospect of a Dam, the electricity is too expensive for the locals to afford and worst of all they are left with no where to go. When your whole community, livelihood, support system and home is taken away, who do you turn to and where do you go?

Credit: Nuala McBride

After disembarking the bus, I started walking towards the centre of the village. The glistening Mekong river was there, winking at me, with its abundance of fish. This river really is the heart of this community. It holds the fish; which provides the people’s livelihoods as well as a food source for this village and the surrounding villages. I walked into the village with high hopes that this village wouldn’t be subject to the same fate as the many others before it. I hoped that this Dam company would be different.

If this story struck you, then do stay tuned for the forthcoming articles which introduce a few faces from the village and hear their views about the potential Dam.

More articles in Portraits of Cambodia
  1. Portraits From Cambodia – A Village That Could Be Lost
  2. Portraits From Cambodia – Mrs. K
  3. Portraits of Cambodia – Mr. J
  4. Portraits of Cambodia – Mr. F
  5. Portraits of Cambodia – Mr. W
  6. Portraits of Cambodia – Mrs. L

Deputy Editor 2016 -2017. I'm a Geography student here at Southampton. Also, an avid adventurer; who is always up for discovering somewhere whether it's new or old.

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