Two Beach Boys Find Paradise Lost in Cambodia

by Richard Collins

I came to Sihanoukville, Cambodia, looking for the party. I had endured six long, wintry months of teaching at an all boys’ campus in the remote outskirts of Dalian, China. I missed that South East Asian magic: the sun, the mischief, the cheap insatiable food, the drinks served in buckets and sipped through straws, the ability to watch YouTube, the sense that time does not exist unless you want it to, the girls, the hedonism. I wanted it all.

The school year ended. My friend Isaac and I ditched China and headed straight for the Cambodian beach, for the sleepy coastal town we had read about with great frisson. Golden, thriving beach fronts; we were coming.

It may have been the weather, but upon arriving at the bus station we found that our paradise was not what we pictured. The Internet had lied to us. We hoped for idyllic postcard scenes, but what we saw were grey and wet skies, businesses closed, construction sites everywhere, the roads full of sludge and holes. We told ourselves everything would be alright at the beach. The beach was all we had talked about for months. The beach was everything.

We found a tuk-tuk driver and hit the roads – the annihilated-by-machinery roads – and it was an assault course of pain, as each unavoidable pothole made us jump and smack our heads on the roof. As we drove our dreams slowly came apart. This was no easy, sleazy, slacker backpacker paradise. It was a ruin. The bustling promenades we expected had been flattened and replaced by wasteland. Standing tall in the devastation were giant, neon illuminated buildings, decorated in glitzy Mandarin. The casinos had taken over. We were still in China, somehow; we had fled China seeking our foolish paradise but we could not escape.

Isaac and I shared a grave look.

Our driver introduced himself, “My name is Rain. First time in Sihanoukville?”

“Yeah,” Isaac responded, “it’s not what we. . .”

“The Chinese. They come to Sihanoukville. They build casino, bar, restaurant. No Khmer, no western. They take all the money. Khmer people, they lose the money. They must go from their home”

He sighed and shook his head.

The Chinese construction had spared nothing. The heavy vehicles had stomped the roads into mash. The few remaining local buildings sat in swamp water. Our hotel was no exception.

The owners, who could not do enough to make us feel welcome, repeatedly apologised for the decay. They warned us the electricity might cut out, indefinitely, due to the relentless construction work interfering with the power. At this point anger set in. For months I had dreamed of escaping China and lazing on the beach. They were ruining it. My holiday, my slice of pizza. But I soon saw that I was not the victim. I, the tourist who had come to Cambodia to find my own selfish haven, had lost nothing. My home and livelihood had not been destroyed. I had lost only the pay-off to my indulgent fantasy.

We walked around, trying to find a part of town that had not been destroyed, a bar that was not filled with Chinese Mafia and prostitutes. We found nothing.

The next day Isaac banged on the door of my room. He had his phone in his hand.

“I’ve found it man. Koh Rong. An island, quick boat ride away. No roads, no casinos, and before 2012, no Internet. This is it. This is the paradise we came for.”

I was still half asleep and mumbled . . . “Nothing can Koh Rong now.”

Few places have captured my beach boy imagination as quickly as Koh Rong, with its rustic wooden huts, shaded by verdant palms, in a warm bed of sand. All smiles and no shoes. The grey clouds remained but they did nothing to dampen our moods.

We passed the whole day in hammocks. When night came, we were ready to party. We had searched for the party, had crossed the land, sky, and sea for it. We were so close.

We did not need a map to direct us to the party. From our cabins, we could hear it. Beneath the sounds of jungle life, the chirping and squawking all around us, we could hear bass. It was calling us. 

Isaac’s hands started shaking, “I can hear the party man, can you hear it?”

“I can hear it man, relax.”

We hacked our way through the jungle darkness, along the slippery wooden walkways, through the puddles, through the brambles and branches. I had never worked this hard to get to a party before. The music got louder. I could not shake the fear that we would reach the sound and find a casino.

We were getting close, then Isaac slipped and slammed his face on the ground. This was no place for humans. We would have to fight the elements to survive. As I bent down to help him up, another hand appeared on his shoulder. I heard a French accent say, “Keep going, you are almost there.”

We were not alone in the jungle. Our pilgrimage had gained followers, thirsty party-goers. Now we had numbers, and nothing could stop us.

The thumping got louder, pulling us towards it. The light illuminated our path. We were so close. We stopped tiptoeing through the thickets; we soared.

When we reached the end of the jungle, the sky roared rain on us, but it did not matter now. We had found our garden of hedonism. A sheltered wooden bar, full of people. Lights, booze, dancing, an air or revolution. None of us moved for a while. We stared in awe.

The rest of that night, and that week, involved lots of Klang beer, tequila, fire shows, shirts ripped off and thrown around in abandoned euphoria, promiscuity. East and West cultures blended through one of the few universal languages: the party. A celebration of being young, dumb and lucky.

In the end, we got what we wanted. Don’t go to Sihanoukville.

After over three years of working and travelling in Asia, and rather enjoying writing about it, Richard returned temporarily to the UK to complete a master’s degree at Bournemouth University. He writes novels, scripts, articles and short stories. You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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