The initial part of my week on the Cambodian coastline was one of relative solitude amongst an array of characters which tested my own self-doubts and my disturbing relationship I have with my own age. I found myself somewhat lost amongst many young people who themselves were far more lost than me, in a strange beach hostel made of wood and bamboo. It was the beginning of spring and the weather was as tumultuous as my own thoughts, lashing furiously between bright sun and thunderous storms.
Paradise Lost comes to mind – so much sadness and confusion in a place so beautiful, where all they had to live off were the likes of the Instagram snaps their friends back home no doubt clicked in jealousy, unaware of the longing in the eyes of those posting them. On the first night I went to a ‘jungle party’ which was actually fairly decent and continued until sunrise, but other than that I spent the majority of my time here with everybody else silently watching an unending stream of movies on the large communal screen, ignoring the beauty that surrounded us. I swam a few times and played Volleyball once, but essentially did little else.
Run to the Islands
My escape came in part from an unpaid debt which I still fear reprisal for should I ever return to this odd, quiet piece of beach south of Sihanoukville. I stayed for three days sleeping on their sofa, but never checked in or paid for their hospitality, and on the last day after a boat trip I collected my bag and walked off down the beach without paying my tab.(that’s not entirely true, the boat trip was overpriced and we were promised free booze which never materialised, plus I did look for the guy to pay but he had disappeared and I had places to go)
I crashed that night on another sofa at a more welcoming bar further up the beach where I had stayed briefly before and befriended the bar staff. For this free-loading, I was, at least, granted permission. At sunrise, I fled north to Sihanoukville and caught a ferry to a random island called Koh Rong Samloem, upon which I met a friendly young man who was completely broke and going to work as a volunteer at a diving centre so that he could learn to dive. He gave me tips on where to find volunteer work should I ever have the desire to work for free.
For some reason, no doubt influenced by the abject confusion of the past three days I ended up at the most awful westernised tourist trap of a hostel on a remote part of the island, and once again decided checking-in was for suckers.
However, before I had time to find an abandoned hammock to crash in I met three Norwegians who had been drinking for two days straight and I instantly agreed to join them on an aimless trek through the jungle in search of greener pastures. We departed for our epic quest on a rickety fishing boat to the other side of the bay, unfortunately during which time the exceptionally inebriated Vikings decided this was all too much for them and asked the fisherman to take them to a ferry port so they could return to somewhere with electricity and running water.
I was far too sober to make such rational decisions and decided to continue on alone into the wild. The wild turned out to be a ten-minute walk through some palm trees to a small town literally a stone’s throw from where we were. Did I mention it’s a really small island? It’s really small.
I wandered along the beach of this tiny village until I came to an attractive looking bar/hostel appropriately called Chill Bar – so chill that all the staff were passed out and one of the more regular customers was running things. Constance* had been coming to this tiny place on this tiny island for two weeks a year for the past five years as a means to escape the mind-numbing routine of daily life back in some forgotten town in middle England.
She didn’t need to tell me it was her last night there and she was flying home tomorrow – I could have guessed from the sadness and longing in her eyes, a pleading almost, to give her a reason to stay. Tie me to this bar, those eyes screamed…. make me miss my flight! I didn’t understand what she was going back for, she had already served me three drinks while telling me her story – she had a perfectly good job here.
We ended up getting raucously drunk off the free booze of the unattended bar, walked to the tip of the island to watch the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen, got somewhat intimate in the ocean together and then hung out at the bar again for a bit before heading back to her room. Unfortunately, she was sharing her room with a friend so I couldn’t actually sleep there, but luckily found a hammock on the beach after her friend came home. Free booze and accommodation in Cambodia were working out great for me so far!
The next day, despite my insistence that she was making the wrong decision, Constance left that gorgeous piece of paradise to return to another island – albeit a cold, wet, muddy one on the other side of the world. I remained and spent the rest of the day alone on that quiet beach contemplating life and drinking (sadly not free) beer until a boat arrived and I stumbled upon it, completely unaware of what incredible adventures awaited me.
Shortly after leaving the island I discovered this boat was heading back to the mainland, however after suffering engine troubles it had to re-route to the nearby island of Koh Rong (the big brother of Koh Rong Samloem – Samloem presumably meaning “small or “south” due to it being south of the main island.)
I didn’t actually have any intention of spending another day on the islands due to limited time and a desire to visit the temples of Angkor Wat before having to leave Cambodia, but as I sat in the boat at the jetty staring at an inviting looking bar up on a hill something made me decide to get off here. So I impulsively left the boat and stepped onto the pristine white sands of Koh Rong, very short on cash and unsure whether one could actually draw money on an island with very little infrastructure.
Strolling down the beach wondering what this all means, who do I bump into but those two crazy Scots lads from the slow boat in Laos! We had a few beers, chatted about what we had respectively been doing the past month or so and they invited me to join them on a pub crawl they were doing that evening. It started at the bar high up on the hill where we were serendipitously forced to leave our shirts since it was required for all attendees to wear the official pub crawl vest for the event.
The pub crawl itself was quite fun – I was in a very upbeat mood, got involved in a lot of the games, won a bottle of vodka, shared it among everyone, drank most of it myself, and eventually passed out in a hammock on the balcony of the final bar.
In the morning I wandered back up to the first bar to fetch my shirt and decided to stay for one drink. I got chatting to some of the staff and developed a certain rapport with a very beautiful, six foot tall Eastern European girl by the name of Destiny*. We continued to drink and chat as the day wore on and I soon realised I wouldn’t be leaving the island that day.
As evening descended and her shift ended, we decided to go for some dinner together during which she agreed to go night swimming with me. She led me by the hand to a secluded beach far on the other end of the island where she told me she wanted to skinny dip since she had never done so before. After getting naked we swam out into the ocean where she showed me an area full of luminescent plankton that shimmered and shone with each disturbance. We floated on our backs below the exceptionally dense milky way and marvelled as the plankton outlined our every movement in bright blue sparkles.
Destiny had initially come to Koh Rong for only a week, but not letting herself be controlled by the constraints of a schedule like Constance, had decided to stay and take a job at the bar up on the hill where she had been working now for six weeks. Of course, she was five years younger than Constance and so less likely to be bogged down in a career, but then again I was five years older than Constance and I still think ‘career’ is what a car does when it goes off the road. At least that’s certainly what my career’s doing.
Out of most of the people I’ve met travelling, I found I very closely relate to Destiny – neither of us wants stability or structure in our lives, but we are also not carefree enough to not work at all, knowing that we need money to travel and do the things we want. I spent that night with her and we discovered we have very similar tastes in music, people and ideas about life. She convinced me to stay one more night and go with her to the jungle party on the mainland that happens weekly every Wednesday, near to the beach hostel where I had taken liberties with my accommodation.
I was wary of returning too close to the scene of my deceptive behaviour, so we headed first to the relative safety of the friendly bar that had allowed me freeboard previously, and I booked us a bungalow for the night. (I figured I should pay for accommodation at least once this week). We chilled there for a few hours drinking, eating and listening to the awesome DJ in the bar. Around midnight we eventually headed to the jungle party and danced until morning when it started to rain, and then danced even more.
It didn’t occur to me at the time but this would be my final night in Cambodia, and in essence the final night of my entire trip. Fittingly, throughout the night I kept bumping into many of the characters I had met along the way, some people who I had not seen since Thailand, months before. All in all, I was reunited with about twenty friends, many of whom I never thought I would see again.
Eventually, quite a few hours after sunrise, saturated both inside and out, we headed home. During the past few days we had become extraordinarily close considering such a small time span, but sadly neither of our mental states were in a clear place at that time so our goodbyes were fumbled and misspoken, and as I climbed on that night bus to Bangkok and Destiny boarded her ferry back to the island, I felt that ever familiar twinge of regret in my heart, like maybe leaving wasn’t the best idea.
But alas, I had places to be and as destiny would have it we saw each again not long after.
Fortunately, I fell asleep almost instantly on the night bus and slept until the Thai border, where we trudged through the usual customs procedures and then got stranded on some steps outside a KFC awaiting our connecting bus to the Thai capital. And there I found Freedom*.
As is commonly the case with those who should be given attention, I initially didn’t pay much heed to Freedom’s story of lost love and her quest to rekindle it. However, during our inexplicably long journey to Bangkok, I couldn’t help but be drawn in by the honest and genuine innocence of her story.
She had met a man on the muddy island of tea drinkers months before and developed a connection so strong in the space of only an hour that it drew him to come visit her for a week all the way in Northern Thailand. During this time their passion for each other had deepened greatly, so much so that when he eventually had to go home she had resolved to hitch-hike across the world to go be with him – a resolution not wavered by the fact that by the time I met her he had already told her he was with another woman (yet still wanted to be with her).
The absurd irrationality of such a commitment was matched only by her truly authentic believe that what they had was worth fighting for. However despite such trivial matters of the heart, what struck me as interesting about Freedom was the ability to entertain such fleeting and fancy-free ideas, unburdened by commitments or bothersome details such as money and work. I didn’t outright ask, but her never-ending ability to bum cigarettes in a country where they only cost $1 a pack indicated to me that she may not be particularly well off in the financial department. I may have been wrong but either way, it was impressive to have such a free-spirited approach to life, especially considering the story she told me about her upbringing, which was scary to say the least.
Eventually, we arrived back to Bangkok where my trip began, and as clichéd as it is to say I did actually feel like a very different person. I suppose being back in a familiar environment helps to accentuate the changes in your behaviour and reactions. I found myself to be more calm and relaxed, more aware of the locals and people around me, and far less preoccupied with myself. Freedom and her friends had also begun their trip here, so we had to indulge in the ritual of going to Khao San Road for one final party, even though we were all actually continuing our travels but in different ways.
During the night Freedom and I became quite close and in the morning she commented on how I had helped her deal with some anxiety she was struggling with regarding her man back in the UK, which was interesting considering I felt she had helped me deal with similar feelings. We made vague plans to possibly meet up again a week later in Southern Thailand, but during the week we lost contact and I decided rather to return to Vietnam and meet up with Destiny again, who was continuing her travels there.
And so my loop of South East Asia came to an end with one of the most intense, emotional and crazy weeks of my life. What have I learnt during this trip? I don’t know, but it was awesome. Mostly I discovered that travelling is not about where you go, it’s about who you meet. And damn, I met some amazing people…
*names have been changed for dramatic effect.