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The sign of the Cross | by alison lyons photography
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The sign of the Cross

We sit outside a cafe on Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh, while we wait for our boat cruise on the Mekong. We drink half price Margaritas and marvel at how cheap they are compared to home.

 

We think about sunset over the Mekong and all the romance that image conjours up.

 

We join our fellow tourists on the top deck of the ferry. The boat slides out into the Tonle Sap River and we quickly flow into the confluence with the Mekong River.

 

It is pleasant on the river, several degrees cooler than in town. And the sun is setting. Our boat trip takes us across the width of the Mekong, towards the opposite shore, where the land is only just visible from the heart of Phnom Penh on the western bank. “How good is this!” we say to ourselves, smugly, the gentle breeze cooling our skin. The air is clean and clear, away from the all pervasive wood-fire smoke that lingers over the city.

 

On the other side of the Mekong, the shantys, the houseboats and the poor slowly come into focus as we approach the bank. On these houseboats, I see a naked child playing, and a girl in green pyjamas sits, her legs dangling overboard, while she eats a bowl of food. Nearby there is a mother, squatting as she prepares a meal, her children crowded around her.

 

On shore, where the ramshackle houses tilt precariously towards one another on spindly bamboo legs, children play in the dirt. Skinny chickens scurry around and the doleful dogs languidly roam the banks. The whole shoreline, a canvas of poverty and community, is bathed in the warm light of the setting sun. I think about the story of the Three Little Pigs, one puff and the house of sticks would come tumbling down. Silly, how childhood stories can be so poignant.

 

Directly behind me, the view to the west is magnificent, the golden orb of the sun is sinking heavily into the feathery soft clouds of the sunset. The ornate roofs of the temples are silhouetted against the glowing sky.

 

Here on the East bank, however, no-one notices its splendor ....except perhaps, the girl in the green pyjamas.

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Taken on December 23, 2011