Cambodia’s Transport Acrobats

In Khmer, there are more than a dozen words that mean “to carry.” There are also three words to describe transportation by vehicle. This fact becomes unsurprising when you thumb through the pages of “Carrying Cambodia”–a light-hearted book of photography strictly focused on the many forms of vehicles, passengers and cargoes found in Cambodia.

The book’s photographers Hans Kemp and Conor Wall set out to capture what the introduction describes whimsically as “some of these great Khmer engineering feats.” They then photographed 181 common yet astounding sightings on Cambodian roads.

In one shot, a man drives a motorbike as a lady passenger sits behind holding his intravenous drip. In another, six people squeeze onto a motorcycle, one standing up. On almost every page huge beds, fridges, pigs, dozens of ducks are seen ingeniously strapped to different vehicles.

“Carrying Cambodia,” which was released on Feb 22, is a follow-up to Mr Kemp’s previous book, “Bikes of Burden,” which documented the hectic motorbike culture of neighboring Vietnam. Mr Kemp, a Dutch photographer, spent the last 22 years in Asia and founded the Hong Kong-based company Visionary World Ltd, which is publishing “Carrying.”

His collaborator, Mr Wall, is an Irish electric engineering graduate who self-confessedly came to Cambodia by mistake when his Thai visa expired during a six-week stopover en route to Australia. That was four and a half years and 16 Cambodian visa extensions ago, Mr Wall said.

Mr Wall, who now earns a living from freelance photography in Cambodia, met Mr Kemp on the job. It was two Royal Plowing Ceremonies ago in front of the National Museum.

“I could see we were both drenched in sweat and tired. We just got talking and thought we’d go for a beer…. And that was it,” Mr Wall said. Last year Mr Wall was collecting images for a book depicting various loads in Asia by Mr Kemp when “Carrying Cambodia” emerged as an idea.

“After seeing the variety of Khmer transportation techniques, Hans decided to scrap the original book idea and instead concentrate on Cambodia,” he said.

The self-explanatory photos entirely fill the pages of “Carrying Cambodia,” which are without text. The images are ordered by modes of carrying, or what is being carried. Although there are photos of women holding flowers and babies tied to bikes, the most engaging ones remain those of overloaded trucks and motorbikes.

Most of the photographs in “Carrying Cambodia” were also taken while the photographers were being carried on the back of motorbikes through traffic.

“It is always an amazing experience to ride through traffic in Cambodia, never a dull moment even though it did hurt sitting for hours on the back of motorbikes,” Mr Kemp said. He focused on photographs in Phnom Penh–indeed the photos are mainly cityscapes–although Mr Wall took trips to the provinces too.

“Cambodians love having their photograph taken,” Mr Wall said, adding that there were no lack of smiles for the camera.

“Then it got to the stage when sometimes they smile too much and it doesn’t look natural,” he added. Therefore he had to start photographing people unawares.

Photographs featured in the book are shot from behind, the side, the front and even above the subjects. A low shutter speed was also used to capture the motion of the wheels spinning even if some of the photos arguably look quite static.

While the photographers’ celebration of the acrobatic balancing acts of cargoes and vehicle is entertaining, one should not forget that Cambodian roads are very dangerous.

In 2009, road crashes resulted in 1,717 fatalities, an average of 4.7 fatalities per day, according to provisional data from Cambodia’s Road Safety and Victim Information System.

Such risky and innovative ways of transporting goods will not last forever, though.

Motorbike use has boomed in Cambodia since its introduction during the French colonial period, according to “Transportation in Cambodia” by Kem Sonine.

Published by Reyum Institute with an accompanying exhibition last September, “Transportation in Cambodia” provides a contrasting social history of the country’s culture of transportation.

Inevitably, as cars and trucks become more accessible and affordable, modes of transport will become safer, which in Mr Kemp’s opinion also means more mundane.

“The book is capturing a moment in time that may well disappear with so-called economic progress,” he said.

“Carrying Cambodia” will likely appeal to visitors to Cambodia, perhaps as a memento of roads they have traveled and the impressively loaded vehicles that passed them.

To coincide with the book’s launch, a month-long exhibition of photographs from the book will begin on Sunday evening at the FCC on Sisowath Quay. The photographers will also be on hand to sign copies, which are priced at $22, and are already on sale at Monument Books.



Related Stories

Latest News