A short 30 minute tuk-tuk ride north of Phnom Penh is a bit of Cambodian paradise. Well, perhaps ‘paradise’ is too poetic a word for the oasis of relative quiet that is Silk Island. Whereas the capital of Cambodia is a certainly hustle-bustle, helter-skelter personified, Silk Island is laid back, rural, and green. But for the tuk-tuks and motorbikes it would be quiet as well.
Koh Dach sits in the middle of the Mekong River and is known for its silk weaving industry, hence its name. However, ‘industry’ is too strong a word as standardization, modernization and globalization have taken their toll here, as elsewhere. The country has become another one of the garment industry’s factory locations (as attested to by the new Levi’s cords I am wearing and whose tag states “made in Cambodia”). Nonetheless there are still some weavers operating out of the ground floor of their stilted houses (which guard the home and its possessions from periodic flooding) and led by our intrepid photo tour guide Nathan Horton, we stop at a couple of homes to witness and photograph the women weaving on aged wooden spinners and looms. The work looks both mind-numbingly repetitive and fatigue-inducing arduous. One old granny shyly smiles for the cameras over her antique spinner.
There are several small villages strung out ribbon-fashion along the main dirt (and dusty as it is the dry season) road that runs the length of the island. At Koh Dach Village, the abandoned, roofless Buddhist temple of old Preah Vihea sits above the Mekong and provides wonderful photo opportunities. The colorful paintings and statuary, though faded and tarnished, still retain much detail. Here and there floor tiles have given way to darkness below so care is needed when walking about. In the distance, a lazy 15 kilometers downstream, I can see some of the newest highrises of Phnom Penh. Below, fishermen cast off in their small scows. Ah, the jarring juxtapositions of Cambodia.
Further along we stop to witness a man skimming the tops of large, near-boiling vats of lentil porridge. An army of large caldrons steam under the darkness of a banana tree frond shade structure. He skims the top of each pot and drapes the collection over the rafters to dry out. Methodically he works down the line. Once dried, they are sold to restaurants in the city and eventually reconstituted in soups. The light is really tough to shoot with but the results were worth the effort.
And everywhere the children run and wave and exclaim “Hello!” (There is actually a school on the island that provides English language lessons.) We are provided numerous opportunities to photograph the young, sometimes shy, sometimes boisterous denizens of the island. At one point a group of 10-15 follow us around and eventually break out in a song they must practice at school. They are charming and happy and eager to mug and imp for the cameras.
After the oppression of the depressing morning walk through the Security Prison 21, the afternoon’s visit to bucolic Koh Dach was a welcome respite. The day bracketed by the inhumanity of our species and our essential generosity to humanity. The cipher that we are, in one day. The day’s coda was a gorgeous and glorious sunset over rice paddies, banana plantations and a pond graced with the fortuitous arrival of a fisherman gathering his nets. Truly: what perfection.