The bird man taps the open, wood cage against the concrete rail overlooking the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers. A woman who paid the man a few thousand Cambodian riel (not much) watches.
Two-thirds of the birds took off within a second or two of the cage door being opened, but a few stragglers aren’t so sure about the free world. Eventually they flop out, open their wings, and off they go.
This is a Buddhist thing. I’ve seen it before in Nepal. The purchaser tries to tip Karma in their favor a bit by freeing the birds. If I were a bird I would much prefer this river setting in Phnom Penh over the gritty chaos of Katmandu. But I’m not a bird. I don’t have feathers and I can swim.
You see, the last bird to fly out swoops down the embankment flies upriver a few 100 feet and then…plunk! A small struggling life in a big river.
I look back to the woman. She’s gone. The bird man saw it and watches, but doesn’t do anything. I don’t exactly spring in to action, but more walk slowly down the bank in the general direction of the bird. I’m not sure what I can do. My bag is full of camera and audio equipment, not to mention my passport. And as much as I hate to see slow-death-to-bird-by-horrible-struggling-drowning, I’m not about to leave my bag on the bank for easy pickings.
Some kids are playing at the water’s edge and I call them over. I flap my wings and point towards the water. They see the bird. From here you can make out its little beak gasping for air. I pull out money from my pocket. They don’t understand or they’re not interested.
What to do now? This is really painful to watch.
That’s when the bird man shows up. He strips to his underwear and in he goes. He reaches the bird, places it on his head, and swims it to shore. It’s pathetic looking in a wet-cat or, I guess, wet-bird kind of way.
I feel better.
Before the man even puts on his pants he approaches me and holds out his hand – no not the one with the bird in it, the empty one. He wants me to pay him.
It’s his bird! He sold it and now he is going to sell it again, and he wants me to pay for it!
I give him a dollar. He’s happy.
Everybody is except the bird.