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Apsara Dancer

Apsara Dancer. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 2015.

One year ago.

One of the things most amazing about Cambodian culture is that women do this apsara dance so frequently, almost casually. My Cambodian friends would bend their fingers back constantly so that they could do the dance better – and anyone I asked would be able to bend their index finger back far enough that it touches their wrist. Try it – it’s really hard.

This woman by the river had almost no idea I was there. She was I think on drugs, dancing to herself, wrapped in a carpet. It’s really sad, but in black and white it becomes this very elegant scene showing a bunch of contradictions from modern Cambodia.

Tonle Sap River

In Cambodia people catch and release birds to celebrate religious holidays. I live in Phnom Penh fairly close to the Tonle Sap river, and down in a pagoda by that river there’s been a ceremony going on.

Boys who’ve recently finished bathing in the Tonle Sap river.

Woman cleaning bird cages by the Tonle Sap river. These birds are caught and repeatedly released.

The Tonle Sap is magical river. Around the end of the rainy season the river entirely changes direction. If you go stand along the banks you’ll see masses of aquatic vegetation flowing downstream — they were torn up as the water switched course.

A woman and her husband showing me their fishing nets and boats by the Tonle Sap River.

Cambodians celebrate the changing of the river’s flow with an annual water festival. What’s important to understand is that this isn’t a bunch of simple people worshipping an aquatic force. Having watched it and learned about it, I’d probably be worship the Tonle Sap too.

A man showing me how he uses collected chewing gum to patch holes in his boat on the Tonle Sap river.

As the rainy season overwhelms the Tonle Sap river it flows north and fills Tonle Sap lake near Siem Reap. Wikipedia says that the lake fills from one meter deep to nine meters deep. I’ve seen this with my own eyes. Back in may I visited the Kompong Khleang floating village near Siem Reap. At the time the water was so low that our tour was was given in a small longtail boat which frequently ran aground.

In December I went back to Kompong Khleang and barely recognized the town at all. What had been an entire town, spanning many acres of land, was reduced to a small isthmus jetting out into the lake. My motorbike bounced along the dusty road. Crowds of people gathered to see me go by, alternating between signing happy children screaming “alo” in French and older adults viewing me skeptically.

The Tonle Sap Lake fills up so much in the rainy season and empties so much in the dry season that it leaves behind a massive patch of well fertilized land. This fertile land was the driving force behind the Angkor civilization and Angkor Wat.

The same couple and their two boats on the Tonle Sap.

I try to keep this in mind when I’m down on the river watching all the mystery happening. Boys kicking off their clothes to swim naked in the water, women carrying huge cages full of birds, shirtless men crawling into the water with nets and well dressed men standing on the short with fishing rods.

There’s a skeptical side of expats in Cambodia to think that the Khmer people are lazy or incompetent. I live here, I interact with Khmer people every day, and it’s a hard impression to shake.

What I try to think of now is that the Cambodian civilization is the perfect civilization to interact with this river. Seventy percent of their protein comes from the river, rich fertile land makes growing rice easy, and they do what I think I’d do myself if I lived on top of such a natural resource: relax often, pray to it, and not worry too much about the future.

The same couple and their two boats on the Tonle Sap.

S21 / Tuol Sleng

S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng, is a converted school in Phnom Penh where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed political prisoners.

There are hundreds of pictures on the walls. I didn’t visit S21 for my first four months living here. Now that I’ve lived here and assimilated a bit, the faces look just like the faces I see every day. Some of the photos like this one are very well done and life-like. It was gut wrenching to see this. Change the shirt and this could be any of the kids I pass every day on the street.

Updated: January Street Photography from Phnom Penh

I’ve updated this as of 126 with new images.

All of these were taken with a Canon 6D and 28mm f1.8. The sensor on my Leica is very dirty right now, I need to see how to get it cleaned. The 40mm f2.8 Canon lens was narrow and it’s lack of good manual focus was driving me crazy1, so I borrowed a 28mm f1.8 for the day to try it out. I like it.

Apsara Dancer. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Daytime at Orussey Market. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Moto Taxi. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Loading trucks outside Orussey Market. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Worker resting outside Orussey Market. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A woman pushes a hand truck full of freshwater snails. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Cutting fish in the market. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Boys fighting in the back of a truck. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Monks taking pictures of each other. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A man and his monkey. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


  1. The 40mm f2.8 Canon lens is drive by wire. That means the power switch needs to be on and the camera needs to be awake to focus even manually. It also lacks a focus scale on the lens. For shooting when I have time to focus after bringing the camera up to my eye it’s great. It’s also wonderful to carry around. [return]