Choosing Your Cambodia

There is an island off the coast of Cambodia called Koh Rong. This is a place where miles of white sand meet turquoise waters dotted with virgin coral and saturated with snorkel-worthy schools of tropical fish. It is a place where a few intrepid entrepreneurs have built modern bungalows scattered amid the lush jungle that sits behind the sands. Guide books use phrases like “sheer brilliance” and “quintessential paradise” to describe the island’s collection of untouched beaches.

I have never been to Koh Rong.

I spent nearly a month in Cambodia doing what I thought of as earning that island.

I collapsed into Phnom Penh after a 40-hour, non-stop journey from a city called Bagan in central Burma, the last place I’d slept since two days prior being the moth-ridden floor of a temple in Yangoon where I fell asleep with a nail-studded stick in my hand because it was 3 a.m. and the pack of feral dogs circling the pagoda did not seem fond of me. In Phnom Penh I shared a bed with a stranger I’d met at the airport. We took a cab to the hostel she’d booked. I, of course, had no booking and they had no rooms. She had a double, which we took to mean a room with two beds. When we saw just the one, we were both too tired to argue and spent the night huddled firmly on our respective sides.

I bussed it halfway to Laos and ambled through the apocalyptic streets of Kratie. I boarded a packed mini-van that was headed further north that was somehow, astonishingly, never full according to the driver. Five minutes after the other two foreigners in the van and I exchanged looks that said, “surely, surely that is the last person we can possibly stop to pick up” the driver welcomed onto our laps a family of four and the two bamboo baskets stuffed with live chickens that comprised their luggage. He stopped a couple more times after that.

In Ban Lung, a town in the far northeast corner of Cambodia, I studied a map of the country and decided that in no way was I to be confined to this idea that one has to backtrack south by bus to transfer to another bus that goes to Siem Reap – the tourist trap of a town that you have no choice but to house yourself in if you want to see the temples of Angkor. And, by the way, you do want to see the temples of Angkor.

This notion might require a bit of explaining about my family. My brother and I spent the majority of our childhood being bounced from one overseas military base to another, while my father pursued his naval career. This upbringing, for better or worse, bestowed upon us a powerful sense of entitlement and independence. By the time we settled back down in the states it was too late for us – we didn’t belong anywhere and certainly didn’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else. This, coupled with my father’s philosophy that with the correct set of words and corresponding number of American greenbacks anything is possible, prompted me to do what I always do when I need to find someone to do something stupid with me: I put on a skirt and went to the bar. Within fifteen minutes I had a Khmer co-conspirator and the next day we were set to drive his motorcycle directly across Cambodia’s northern territories. His explanation, “I think there’s a dirt road now, if not, I know my way through the jungle,” was good enough for me.

For the entirety of the trip, he held my backpack between his knees and reached around it to grip the handle bars. I didn’t quite fit on the remaining portion of the seat so half of my ass hung off the back of the bike as we careened across the country. When we stopped for gas on the way out of Ban Lung, the woman who poured it didn’t believe that we were going to Siem Reap. She laughed and gave a backward flip of her hand as if to say, “whatever.” The guide book I carried describes the province where we spent our second night, Preah Vihear, as “extremely remote” and “genuine Cambodian outback.” It’s stunningly beautiful.

When we got to Siem Reap, I walked into a guest house and the owners stopped what they were doing and spoke a single english word: “wow.” I was covered in dust and mud. My hair and face were orange and what had once been a white shirt was now brown.

In Siem Reap I did, indeed, visit the temples of Angkor. I also came down with heat exhaustion. I decided that the best thing to do the day after recovering from heat exhaustion was to board an open-air boat that would take me eight hours south to a colonial town near the Thai border. I had not considered that it would be hot or that I would need much water. Five hours in I stared stupefied at the river, not enjoying a single aspect of the trip, begrudging the driver for driving slowly so that people could take pictures, and thinking that my misfortune was not my fault in any way, it had been completely unavoidable, an act of fate. I lamely and, incomprehensibly to me now, stole water from a fellow passenger who had gone to the back of the boat for a change of scenery. Wouldn’t he have just given it to me if I had asked? That night I trembled in my bed and considered going to the hospital. The next morning I was okay.

When I arrived at the coast a few days later after a 13-hour bus ride, in my opinion, I had goddamn well earned that island. I’d stay a few days on Otres Beach on the mainland and then go.

I found an Italian-run guest house and rented a bungalow right on the beach. For two days I drank good wine, I ate lobster ravioli. I booked my passage to Koh Rong.

On the third day I took a walk down the beach. I think I walked two or three miles and just before I came to a channel I couldn’t cross – it was too deep to wade through and I had a camera with me so I could not swim – I came to a collection of huts constructed of nothing more than a few boards that served as platforms and tipi-shaped roofs made of bundles of thick, dried weeds. Soon I was consumed with watching Khmer children play amid the huts. A toddler stumbled around, trying out his newly-discovered legs, falling often and harmlessly in the soft sand. I’d find out later that his name is Johnny.

I had the best hut in the place. Do doubt about it. I was perhaps 15 feet from where the water laps at high tide – the only one that near – and my hut was the only one with its own, exclusive hammock. Ox, the owner, winked when he handed me the padlock for hut six and said that he was giving it to me because I was alone. This, by the way, is a great and unthinkable tragedy in the eyes of Cambodian men. When they find out that you are also 30 and unmarried, they are so thoroughly horrified that they react physically to the news. They wince and shake their heads and either selflessly offer up their services or soberly inform you that they hope you find a husband soon.

There were six of us. That first night I sat at the bar drinking with Ox and watching two young Austrian guys playing cards. Ox lit the place up with candles and if you walked toward the water you could look left and then right and not see a thing apart from palm trees and stars. A British traveler had taken over music duties and American blues from the 40s was softly echoing out of two unnecessarily large speakers. Dinner was fish and rice. We all ate together – Ox, his family and the six of us. Heaping plates for each of fish that had been barbecued whole with the eyes and scales still in place. If you asked what kind it was you were told “from the sea.” Ox had caught it earlier that day.

In the morning I picked ants out of my toothbrush and stood near the water brushing my teeth and watching Johnny’s mother, Ox’s wife, swing the tiny boy in a hammock.

Otres is a fine beach. There is sand, there is water, there is sunshine, hammocks are freely available. There are also flies and a little bit of garbage that wades in and cows roaming around doing what cows do. I was supposed to leave for the paradise that is Koh Rong later that afternoon. For the briefest of moments I considered that I would just stay one more night with Ox and his family. I’d go to Koh Rong tomorrow.

It’s seven days later now. Ox has told me all about how he made the money to build his huts. No matter what time of day he encounters me he greets me with an exuberant, “good evening!” There are still ants in my toothbrush every morning.