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Just after 6am I stumble bleary eyed out of my guesthouse and slowly jog along the river. Dawn feels early to me but Kampot is already fully awake.
I cross the old bridge, avoiding the rusty holes that drop down to the river, and continue on the other side. At first the road is paved, if full of potholes. Little shops, not much more than shacks, sell bright yellow petrol in old pepsi bottles, whole green coconuts, and strings of single use shampoo packets. One shop owner is sawing huge blocks of ice to use in cool boxes, more common than fridges in the Cambodian countryside. Outside another dozens of fish are drying on a rack. In simple restaurants workers on their way to the fields slurp their breakfast noodle soup.
I cross another bridge, where a few fishermen are trying their luck, and pass stilted wooden houses at the water’s edge, and green and red fishing boats heading out to sea—the river leads to the coast just 5km away.
The bridge seems to mark the divide between town and country. On the other side the tarmac stops and the road becomes a dusty orange dirt track that will coat my shoes and stain my white socks. It’s the morning commute, mostly done by bicycles and motorbikes. Six year old boys wearing colourful backpacks and pristine white uniforms ride bikes much too big for them; teenage girls cycle three or four abreast, some wearing face masks to protect from the dusty road, or ride three to a bike; a lady cycles past with a bamboo basket of vegetables, stripy red socks under her flip flops; a mobile baguette stand sells loaves to field workers, a legacy of Cambodia’s time as a French protectorate.
The smaller kids shout hello to me as I run past, the straggly dogs bark, and the adults give me the bewildered look of manual labourers who can’t comprehend why I’d be running in the Cambodian heat (25 C even this early) for fun.
I’m deep in the countryside now. Thatched shacks and wooden stilted bungalows stand in the shade of palm trees amongst the rice paddies, dry and golden brown after the harvest. Water buffalo and a few humped white cows graze in the fields.
I reach the salt fields. At first they just look like fields full of water, the burning globe of the rising sun reflected in the pools. A closer look down the narrow mud banks between the clay fields shows that this is salt water that has been let in from the nearby sea and left to evaporate. Around the edges the white salt crystals are beginning to form under the hot sun.
Further down I find a barn full of vast heaps of salt. Workers in the fields are raking the salt from beneath the few inches of water into neat triangular piles. They carry it in two wicker baskets balanced with a pole on their shoulders to the warehouse, walking barefoot through the water. In the early morning light the sun, the salt piles and the workers are reflected in the pools. I feel uncomfortable getting closer to take photos of these hardworking people toiling but it’s too beautiful a sight to resist. What is a breathtaking and fascinating sight for us is a life of hardship for them.
On the way back on the edge of town I pass a cluster of motorbikes that has gathered around a simple market—women sitting on the ground selling piles of bananas, green mango, or durian, the stinky fruit that this town worships. A woman wearing bright pink pyjamas walks through the crowd carrying two ducks hanging by their feet, still with all their feathers. She hasn’t forgotten to get dressed; colourful pyjamas are popular day wear in Cambodia.
The final stretch after crossing back over the old bridge is along the riverfront under frangipani trees and past the French style governor’s mansion, with a detour to the lily pond blooming with pink flowers that only come out in the morning.
I finish my run drenched with sweat and covered with red dust but with a wonderful runner’s high. Running in Cambodia with the heat and humidity hasn’t been easy but this run has reminded me why I do it.