Monday, 17 December 2012

Cambodia: The Kite Children

Today's post goes in hand with one from October: 'Can there be a Happy Meal for everyone?'. Both began as scribbles during my travels in 2008, and what follows here is from my visit to Cambodia.

Stepping into this country immediately changed me forever...

With barefoot Cambodians struggling as they push splintered-wheeled carts through turbid puddles, I stood there – feeling both dry and guilty – hailing a taxi. Pulling up, the driver eyed grey clouds over distant hills. Tucking my passport away and loading my rucksack into the boot, wedging that trusty bag alongside his belongings, I sank into the passenger seat and buckled in. My view, then, was through a broken windscreen; improvised surgery in way of a chunk of ordinary glass simply glued over the crack.

Grinding the car into gear, we were off along an incredible road, and it was my understanding that this was a commerce route between Thailand and Cambodia. The many trucks gave evidence to this. Leaving Poipet itself and the way was occasionally paved, though soon became nothing more than a dirt track. As sudden as that: from hard surface to soft, as wide as our Western roads… that was where the similarity ended.

The drivers kept – mostly – to the right, appearing to follow invisible lines and their own laws, driving on whichever side they feel like at the time; and with such an uneven surface I made a mental note never again to complain about the condition of the roads back home.

Soon it began to rain, the ground rapidly turning to deep mud. Scooters, cars, trucks and even 4x4s struggling to find traction, everyone's back-end swinging out; dangerously to and fro.

Once the clouds had succeeded in drenching the way before us, they parted for blue sky. With sunshine to brighten the flooded landscape, we carried on.

The sun-drenched scenery eventually opened onto a stretch of heart-wrenching sights. I saw a girl wearing a pretty dress sitting astride an adult’s bicycle, stroking a doll's hair whose arm was missing. The girl smiled, her head following our car as we slowly bounced past.

The cattle looked ill, their bones pushing against taut hide, tethered to trees at the side of that road. There were no intersections, nor road markings and certainly no need for any traffic lights. It was not really a road, yet still the hulks of trucks thundered along, cutting trenches into the mud. There was an occasional road sign in the form of a detour marker, taking us around a semi-constructed bridge.

There were many more children playing. One, on his own and holding a stick, in what I could only assume to be his garden, his house a corrugated shelter and its entrance open to the elements. He was sword-fighting, leaping and turning; defending an attack only he could see.

Further along, there were more children: one watched as the other pushed a toy truck through mud they both sat in. They were barefooted, with the illusion of wearing thick brown socks.

A mother sat on a pile of broken concrete, her clothes a dull brightness against the backdrop of her laundry and a doorway into a cold gloom. At her feet, her daughter gently knocked together a couple of pebbles. It was impossible, due to both distance and the taxi's roaring engine, but I fancied that I heard the clash of those stones. We lurched on by, rattling along the road that was not a road. With the girl out of sight, I could still hear the silent sound of those small rocks held in equally small fists, clacking together.

Next we passed a school, with a dozen children running about; a dog leaping at their feet wagging its tail. My attention was held by a young boy of about ten years. He was in a wheelchair. He had no legs, just an emptiness below the blue shorts he wore. His only arm pointing at the dog. There was no sign of his other arm: nothing visible inside a baggy t-shirt sleeve.

He was laughing.

His eyes shone.

We drove on.

According to the leaflet crumpled in my clammy palm, Cambodia is the most densely mined country in the world. Even though the reign of the Khmer Rouge ended thirty years ago there remains up to eight million landmines in the countryside. There are fifty thousand amputees, and a further two thousand mine victims accounted for every year.

I looked across the charming landscape and wondered how many rusted, quietly lethal demons were out there, just in that one direction, mere centimetres beneath the surface…

One generation later and I saw a child laughing, pointing at a dog as it ran between the legs of his peers. Feet and legs he will never feel again. He was happy. I read such gaiety in his eyes during those few seconds. He was laughing, enthused at the dog’s behaviour.

I left him though he does not – and will never – leave me.

It was the Kite Children I saw next: two of them, again barefooted and jogging together in the dirt. Both boys held crudely crafted kites of sticks and stretched plastic, string trailing behind them. They weren’t flying them, however their faces radiated a delightful glow.

I wondered who it was that made those kites for them. Have they ever – would they ever – play with a computer games console, or toys and merchandise from their favourite film viewed in a cinema complex just round the block? An edge of their world out of my periphery. For these children there is a world out of sight, and one which they will never see. This is their world; their life.

My eyes welled up at that moment, as I stared at those kites grasped in tiny hands. We drove on; my vision blurred.

On arrival at the hotel in Siem Reap and with my belongings beside me, it was a welcome relief from being shaken… and stirred.

There were other things that I witnessed, such as the trucks with absurdly coloured wheel-nuts. I saw a scooter carrying a scooter, tied to the back like it was shopping. I wish to mention my taxi, with tyres spinning arcs of thick sludge, as it manoeuvred around an over-turned truck; its cargo strewn across the road, with the driver sitting on a shattered crate, expressionless.

There are other sights I could mention, but they fail to come into the light, because on that journey I saw so many children who weren't flying their kites.

Author photo (c)Christopher Shoebridge
Mark Cassell lives in a rural part of the UK with his wife and a number of animals. He often dreams of dystopian futures, peculiar creatures, and flitting shadows. Primarily a horror writer, his steampunk, fantasy, and SF stories have featured in several anthologies and ezines.

His debut novel, The Shadow Fabric, is a supernatural story and is available from Amazon.

Twitter: @Mark_Cassell Facebook:


  1. I've done volunteer work and I know what you speak of. Mostly the part of "I left but he never left me." Forgive me a piece of advice. During a training for Disaster Areas Volunteers they told us not to cling on their pain. We're there, we give our best to them, even if it is just a smile or a kind word, and then we let go. If we're going to take them with us in some way, it only must be as in appreciating how lucky we are so we give more to those that are not. A line from "Eat, Pray, Love" summarizes it better. Think of the person, send him (or them) all your love and light and good vibe and then let go. That way your heart will be ready for those ahead. Otherwise, your heart will run out weary and you won't have anything left to give. Nor to you, nor to them. :) My best!

    1. Wise words, Al. Thanks. I learned a lot from my travels, and my heart certainly was ready for those ahead. Best to you, my friend.