I traveled to Cambodia in the summer of 2009. I’d come from Japan, and was all about experiencing the opposite of the technological octopus I’d just visited.
My flight left Taipei at ten in the morning, and I arrived at Phnom Penh International four hours later. Images of the mighty brown Mekong River were still buzzing round my mind as I paid for a visa at Immigration before being spat out to face a mandala of remork-moto drivers wanting to shepherd me into the capital. I chose the driver with the gentlest face and mentioned a bus station. I knew very little of Cambodia, other than I wanted to get to a coastal destination, ASAP. Upon reaching a transport hub, a middle-aged French hobo accosted me for money. I counted off some local currency and entered the fan-cooled interior where I learned that Sihanoukville was the de facto venue for a seaside holiday.
The ride there was punctuated by flat, open landscapes, hundreds of Cambodian People’s Party banners lining the roadside, and a non-stop video roll featuring two local comedians. When I arrived four hours later, the sky was dusk-colored and I noticed a collage of bedraggled-looking foreigners about. I soon learned they were fronting hotel operations along the beach, and, after hearing that a night’s accommodation would set me back a whole two bucks, I jumped on their bandwagon.
I quickly realized why the room was so cheap – I’d just walked into a rave. I paid my dime, set my bag down in a shaky, plywood box, and walked out onto a music-pummeled beach. The golden sands were beset by young Caucasians, the majority being Australians intent on getting smashed. I ordered a beer and sat at table looking out over the Gulf of Thailand. I was soon joined by a local Khmer lady named Sandy. Following a sweet, eyelash-flitting introduction, she made no bones about being my girlfriend for the rest of my stay. I politely declined, but she was insistent, to the point that I stood up and went over to a table of five guys I knew would happily oblige her.
They were decent blokes, youngsters on a break from Uni. They were green, but that was fine – with them in tow, Sandy had other options of attack. One was all gung-ho about trying a Magic Mushroom shake, which I wished him well with. Night soon fell, and feeling somewhat idle, I mentioned I’d head over to a cluster of watering holes located at the beach’s northern shore. The group thought this to be a good idea, and tagged along. I called veto upon arriving at a cozy bar where a smoldering local beauty sat alone.
Her name was Serainian. It was her birthday, and the group stared wide-eyed as I bought her a drink and said sweet, sweet things. She wore a big, unaffected smile, locks of black hair that fell over strapless shoulders, and effused a warmth that both emboldened and charmed. Things grew suitably merry after my second Long Island Iced Tea, at which I suggested my beautiful cohort and I take a stroll along the beach. My acquaintances had by then found their own ‘niches’, and a collage of winks passed as I left holding Serainian’s hand.
I remember looking up at the sky from a deck chair later, the birthday girl snuggled in close. The moon was completely white then, and the stars about shone dreamily. Serainian was a sweet girl, she like so many young Khmers down-and-out on her luck. Her parents were dead, and she lived with her sister, who worked earning pittance at a nearby hotel. She wished to see the world, and even though she could’ve been fishing, we both knew it wouldn’t happen with me. It was simply her enthusiasm – dashed with doses of innocence and humility – that captivated me then.
The loud music playing midnight tenure at my ‘hotel’ was completely out of sync with our flow, so Serainian and I walked to the beach side road. We somehow found a cottage for rent, and showered and washed each other’s bodies with timeless sensuality. We then lay on the bed and talked for hours, but took it no further. When we woke up the next day – a gentle breeze lifting white curtains into the light – I knew Cambodia was something special.
The days that followed were filled with sunshine, jungle, beaches, and Serainan. Armed with a motorcycle and unadulterated freedom, we rode, swam, slept, ate and loved, our days as beautiful as the long, luxurious dreams of night. Come my fourth day, I knew Sihanoukville was drawing to a close; Cambodia’s other treasures were calling out to me. I told Serainan of this, and she took it gracefully. Come time to board my bus, her beautiful smile had branded itself onto my heart.
The trip to Phnom Penh was bittersweet, the sky outside like a manifest-accompaniment to a strange melancholy creeping over my soul. Conversely, a part of me was buzzing, the wonder of not knowing doing some mind-curdling tricks. Upon reaching the capital, I got accosted by hotel touts, and hopped onto a motorcycle and rode through to a guesthouse located beside Beung Kak Lake, a Phnom Penh treasure that’d been sold to developers who intended to turn it into a luxury hotel-casino complex. The guesthouse owner and I discussed this sore point over some Angkor beers and prime smoke. I found it difficult to sleep that night, my thoughts consumed with how merciless humans can be.
I had a week left in Cambodia, so I bought a bus ticket to Siem Reap in the north. The scenery on the way there wasn’t dissimilar to what I’d experienced going to Sihanoukville, it mostly open and flat, interspersed with wooden houses and political banners. Of noted interest was what they sold at rest stops: Khmers evidently consider spiders and crickets good protein snacks while embarking on overland trips!
I arrived at Siem Reap come 1pm, and it was baking. I picked out a humble remork-moto guy named Barang, and asked him of suitable local lodgings. He took me to a hotel with a jungle-fringed swimming pool where I swam and drank beer before taking a nap. At around three, I met Barang downstairs, and he drove me to Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s premier attraction. It was a holy sight, its immensity matched by a spiritual subtlety that intimated cosmic intervention. It wasn’t too busy then, the touristy legions possibly thwarted by moody rain clouds settling on the horizon. Any hint of inclement weather fortunately stayed away, which meant plenty of legroom to contemplate this terrestrial mind-melter. What registered most then was the pervasive silence about, it both entrancing as well as terrifying. Any ambiguous feelings were eradicated when I walked over the bridge leading out of the complex, the view I encountered upon turning to face it one last time crowned by a rainbow arching over the structure’s ancient spires.
Not unlike Sihanoukville, the days that followed passed by in a glorious haze. Barang continued shuttling me around the insane reaches of Angkor, highlights of which included visits to the Bayon and Ta Prohm temples. While these were impressive, for me it was the simple realization that I was in Cambodia that proved the greatest treat, it a beguiling land that grew better each day. Nighttime proved equally anthropological, the coterie of people and experiences on Siem Reap’s streets like a crash-course in angels-and-demons. I was happy to leave when I finally did, that northern city a whirlpool of energies that can either harden or break you in double-quick time.
Back to Phnom Penh. The route into the city passed a sculpture of a gun with a tied nozzle. Ceasefire, yes, I thought. But at what price? I learned more after setting my bag down at the same guesthouse I’d stayed at previously. They arranged for a driver to take me out the city to the Killing Fields. It’s obviously not a place for a family picnic, and this was rammed home when an illogical, bone-piercing chill arrested me upon arrival. Death is literally sewn into the land there, this soul-straitjacketing graveyard guarded over by nothing less than a pagoda of skulls.
My last evening in Cambodia was spent with the guesthouse owner. Looking over Beung Kak Lake, the past, present and future swirled together from his lips to my heart. I couldn’t deny I’d been gifted a slice of heaven while in this glorious county, it offering a diamond of love in spite of its torturous past. It remains my favorite South-East Asian country, its rawness, honesty, pureness of people, and loopy magic more like an out-of-body experience than a travel destination.