Jun 10, 2019
The warm, hard-falling rain had passed, and the shy sun peeked once again from behind a small spattering of clouds. In the distance near the vanishing point of the horizon, bright stabs of lightning gracefully throbbed in the sky with the frequency of a slow pulse.
This is the beginning of the rain season on Cambodia’s coast. One just has to accept that the warm downpour will soak through clothes in under a minute, its welcome droplets washing away the gradual sweat from your slow-baking body with its cooling comfort. The characteristic red mud on the dirt roads, now wet with the rain will be dry again in less than an hour, and you will be dry in less.
When we decided to start our travels in Cambodia people asked why Cambodia? That’s a good question – I never really had a good enough reason to satisfy people. But now that we’ve lived there for five months, I can say it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. People associate Cambodia with its still fresh genocide (probably due to a lack of knowledge of anything else about it) – and let me tell you, the scars of it are still visible throughout the country. But there is so much more to the little country than just that passing horror. It’s going to be hard to summarise this incredible place in words.
After living in the comforts of a city (in Phnom Penh), we moved to the town of Kep on the coast – a sleepy little place where Khmer people from all around the country take their families to celebrate one of the many national holidays. Indeed, on the King’s birthday the place swelled up – every square centimetre occupied by people – barbecuing and drinking as their kids run around playing. Not one guesthouse had rooms to rent in all of Kep. In the evening, a temporary night market popped up in the central plaza, complete with food, shopping and carnival rides (of questionable safety) for the kids.
Once the revellers subsided, the low tide exposed the regular mix of locals once again. Crab fishermen and their families. Mahogany-skinned white people, often from the UK, Australia or France, frequently with Khmer wives half their age. The beach entrepreneurs: parking women, food cart salespeople, beach umbrella-shaded chair vendors, and the backpacker tourists passing through for a few days.
Every morning I would drive my moto from our guesthouse to drop my son off with a retired Russian woman for the day. One way to get there there was along the beautiful waterfront, where the Indian Ocean’s soft morning breeze would blow a profound feeling of peace through my hair. The other, what my son and I referred to as the “monkey road” (because frequently we would spot macaques), a part of which was a forgotten abandoned highway where I would crank the throttle on my Honda Airblade, flying at 120km/hour on the tarmac with not another living soul around.
And, taking a local fishing boat converted to a ferry, we went to the tiny (2km diameter) Koh Thonsay (Rabbit Island). The word paradise hardly does it justice – the pristine sands of the beach surrounding the island are soft and inviting, and the simple accommodations are exactly the disconnect a modern life requires. Electricity is only available via generator for a couple hours in the evening, and there’s no chance of a wifi signal for kilometres around. If you need a place to detach, grab a beer, lie down in a hammock a couple metres from the rolling waves and contemplate your place in modern civilisation.
But even in this country, there’s places that are unpleasant. The festering cyst on the asshole of Cambodia is Sihanoukville. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it – there are no less than 50 buildings under construction. Of course with all that construction, massive trucks endlessly drive on the roads, and the constant abuse has made them feel like the surface of a massive cheese grater to drive over.
The government effectively sold the city off to the Chinese (a smart play on Cambodia’s part), who are in turn transforming it into a place their citizens can come to relax – everything’s still only partly done, but already some are coming. The skeletons of the usual trappings for the Chinese middle class are going up behind fences covered in Chinese script – hotels with tacky gold lettering, casinos, shopping centres – partly finished in various stages of undress. Seeing how this is all recent (only a year or two old), the local tourist trade seems to behave as if Sihanoukville is still interesting for visitors in some kind of mass delusion.
To be honest the nicest part is the ferry dock that takes you away to the islands, places like Kho Rong Sanloem. Here, resorts line the beach, which also serves as the road, where people walk to get around and nearby boats ferry people and supplies. Thousands of sand bubbler crabs scurry around at low tide, chewing sand to get out the leftover plankton and deposit the fine grained sand itself as tiny pellets. One night, we swam with bioluminescent plankton in the calm waters at night, where every movement of your body results in a swarm of tiny firefly-like pale blue light.
I’m in beautiful Da Nang, Vietnam now – the city of the seven bridges and a white sandy beach onto which the South China Sea tosses its waves. It is charming, its atmospheric emotional scent permeating my thoughts, but despite it all, Cambodia waits there in the haze, calling to me again. I find myself stuck at the same question as before we left:
Why Cambodia? I still don’t know. But I want more.