The Dust Town

by Helen Glenny

A leap into the unknown Cambodia


Kampong Speu, as I know it, is a town of dust. A blip on the road between Phnom Penh and the coast, wealthy holidaymakers whip through without pausing, spitting a curtain of dust at roadside shopfronts. Back from the main road, cracked rice paddies stretch to the horizon. The Speu locals farm rice, but the summer isn't always kind. Unlike Vietnam's lush paddies, Cambodian rice fields are often dry, experiencing just one harvest a year, dictated by the monsoon. Some years the rain doesn't come, the ground stays cracked and red, and the people go hungry. When I arrived in Kampong Speu, it was barren. Men lazed on shop stoops, robbed of their vocation by drought. Emaciated cows picked lazily at plastic on the roadside. The children waited, bored and hungry. I taught English to girls who'd been rescued from sex slavery, a position they'd been forced into by parents who, driven to desperation by drought, couldn't keep them. Back home, a drought meant we were encouraged not to take long showers. We'd hear the troubles of dairy farmers on the news, but our supermarkets would be stocked with beef and milk. In the city, we were so distanced from the environment that it became a leisure venue, and something that could be protected just by buying re-usable bags. We knew in an abstract sense that we were dependent on it, but that dependence existed out of sight. Here, in dusty Kampong Speu, that dependence is visible. Two months after I arrived, I was sitting with some local girls, making bracelets out of recycled plastic to sell to visiting school groups. The corrugated iron roof began to beat, softly at first, then louder. The rhythm was familiar, its identity resting on the tip of my tongue. One girl realised, gasped, and the others looked up. They jumped to their feet and ran outside. Steam rose from the hot earth as the first few droplets hit the ground. Thunder cracked overhead, and the deluge began, soaking everything, and flooding the streets. One girl lay in a puddle, joyfully pretending to swim in the ankle-deep muck. "Wow," I said to her. "You like the rain, huh?" Then she said something I'll never forget. A sentence that echoes in my mind when I'm cursing the rain on my way to a bus stop, when I'm wearing a rubbish bag at a muddy New Year's Eve festival, when my socks are soaked from endless puddles. "When the rain comes, we eat."