From the air we see these rice paddies as watery fields. But the rice economy relies in equal measure on another resource.
Every day hundreds of dump trucks, open topped Chinese vehicles that look they were inspired by Mongolian fortress design, ply the roads of Cambodia, delivering their mountains of cargo. It suddenly struck me, one afternoon, that this is the stuff that the Cambodian economy rests on. Not coal. Not iron ore. Not bauxite. But sand.
Sand makes the difference in a land of which 75% lies within one meter of the water level: of being just one typhoon away from being submerged or emergent.
When you buy a property in Cambodia the first thing you do is put up a wall, and then build up your property with truckloads of sand. This will prevent flooding. It will allow your trees to grow. Water won’t pond after a heavy storm, and mosquitoes won’t breed.
Sand builds the walkways that rice farmers use to navigate their paddy fields. Many of these walkways are hundreds of years old, and the work of predecessors who knew the power of irrigation, but also the efficiency of roadways wide enough to carry the harvest.
Sand forms the understructure of the Number 6 Highway that forms the economic spinal column of Cambodia – a two lane blacktop road that, given the floodplains it travels over, is a greater engineering marvel than most of us realise. How much of this goes back to raised sandbanks built a thousand years ago during the Angkor years? There are clues along the roadway, for example the ancient bridges near Dam Daek 30 kms East of Siem Reap.
Sand. Unstable sand. Many of us were raised on the parable of the wise man who built his home on rock, and the fool who built his house on sand. Yet here is a whole Kingdom, resting on the stuff and – so far – proving pretty wise about it. Those trucks keep moving it around, one step ahead of the next typhoon.