“The difference between a good
haircut and a bad one is a week.”
--my Aunt Marcy
You arrive Sihanoukville, in the south of Cambodia, at 7:45 PM. You’ve been on the road since 7:30 that morning, bouncing over barely paved roads and dodging in and out of motorcycles carrying whole families, minivans crammed with thirty people.
You’re tired. You’re two-and-a-half-weeks into your trip and you’re not sleeping enough, not exercising, and eating way too much rice.
You hate this. Not Cambodia, but arriving in town this way, in the dark, tired. Bad enough trying to establish a mental map, locate a good grocer, figure out the logistics of getting breakfast, work through the kinks of your hotel room’s cooling system. But to arrive late at night, exhausted and hungry with a second round of Pol Pot’s revenge on the horizon. The worst.
It probably doesn’t help that Dam, your guide, has warned you and the rest of your group that Sihanoukville can be a dangerous town. “There are pickpockets there,” he says, his baritone unusually earnest. “And bag snatchers. Don’t leave anything alone on the beach.”
And it probably doesn’t help that Sihanoukville has a reputation as a sort of hippy enclave, a place where people who can’t stay sober even long enough to maintain a job at McDonalds go to hang out on the beach and smoke weed until they pass out, waking at dawn with their legs red from sand flea bites. You did your stint in Colorado twenty years back and have only minimal tolerance for people like this, folks who have no loyalty to anything or anybody other than their own high. After seventeen days wallowing in the company of Cambodians whose kindness and humor is unparalleled even by the Thai, you’re not in the mood to spend time with dread-locked pot heads who haven’t bathed in weeks.
At the Holy Cow for dinner, you barely sip your pumpkin soup, your stomach grumbling. Everyone else is thrilled with their food, but when they start talking dessert, you put your spoon down and excuse yourself, catching a tuk tuk back to the hotel. You spend the next twenty minutes on the toilet, head in your hands.
Breakfast sucks. The dining room is hot and crowded, the tables are littered with crumbs and used napkins. The buffet, featuring everything from boiled eggs to lo mein to batter-fried squash, has been picked over. Sihanoukville, a masseuse in Siem Reap told you, is a favorite vacation spot for Cambodians. This sets it aside from many of the beaches in Asia, where the only natives you see are the ones cleaning your room.
But even so, it means you have to stand there quietly, watching the dark-haired lady in front of you take the last six slices of mango.
At lunch that day, you and your colleagues watch as a handsome young man with Irish skin and black hair throws a leg over the seat of a moped. Moments earlier, you watched as this same young man came down the hall toward you, weaving slightly, eyes half-closed, lips parted as though he’s just thrown up, or is just about to.
It’s barely noon.
Now he’s joined by a companion, a lanky boy with sun-bleached hair, expensive dark glasses, and a full bottle of San Miguel in one hand. The two of them settle themselves on the moped and dark hair starts the engine, twisting the throttle. As they lurch off, blonde hair sways back, spine arched, nearly tumbling head over heals onto the sandy courtyard.
He doesn’t though, doesn’t spill a drop of his beer as they zoom off the curb and into the road, veering to miss a gray-haired man on a bicycle.
It’s afternoon now, and you’re at Wat Kraom, high in the hills on the other side of town. You might as well be in another country, it’s that different from the open-air bars and restaurants that line the beach area, all sporting red and white Angkor beer signs.
The wat itself is a typical temple in Cambodia: boxy and rectangular on the outside, with glaring whitewashed walls and a tiled roof with gold trim that rises in ornate flames toward the sky. Inside, the high walls and ceiling are covered with primary-colored paintings of the life of the Buddha, beginning with his birth beneath a banyan tree and proceeding to—well, it’s hard to tell exactly where they proceed to, since they don’t appear to be in any particular order. They swim over and around you, grabbing your eye at every turn, and then grabbing your eye again with the next image, and the next: the Buddha as a child taking his first steps, the Buddha on a journey across India, confronting some sort of deer-like creature that looks a little . . . angry? A huge golden Buddha statue rests on a platform at one end of the tiled floor, surrounded by four white pillars. By the door at the other end of a room, a fortune teller is dolling out handfuls of rice onto a square mat. A slender woman in a white shirt kneels beside him, watching silently, her face anxious.
You’re here with Liesl, who’s writing an article on death practices in Cambodia. There’s a school in the compound as well, and she’s come to interview one of the teachers. Outside the temple, young monks in saffron robes—it’s a cliché, and you know it, but that’s what color they are—sweep the brick courtyard with fronds of grass tied into short brooms. Their heads and eyebrows shaved, they have a slightly startled look. Mostly, though, they look bored. Not surprising, perhaps: they’re teenage boys and as often or not they became monks because in a country where 48% of the country lives below the ninety-cents-a-day poverty line, joining a monastery is the best way for their families to ensure they are fed and educated. One of them, a tallish boy with unusually round eyes, has draped a towel over his head, swinging his broom across the dry leaves with a practiced, easy wave that ensures he remains cool and sweat-free.
There’s a cemetery here, filled with ornate stupas, circular burial structures that spiral toward the sky, sometimes eighteen feet high, sometimes higher. Some are painted red, some are white, some are yellow, but all of them are topped by the same flame-like waves you see on the temple. The flames are meant to purify, someone told you, to lift evil away. Some of the older stupas contain bodies, but most hold only ashes. One of the things Liesl will discover is that in Cambodia, only the very rich can indulge in grief. The poorest just cremate the body and go back to work.
In one corner of the compound stands a small temple. You slip off your shoes, go inside, the tile gritty and reassuring beneath your feet. The news from home has not been good, so you light three joss sticks, bow the same number of times. It can’t hurt. A man comes over, his face broad, his shirt faded and baggy from so many washings. He gestures toward the front of the temple, beneath a low ceiling where a dark-faced carved figures rests cross legged, staring over your head. You follow him and he places you in front of the figure, hands you more joss sticks. You bow your head and he reaches in front of you grabs some sort of long brush, like a butler’s broom. Chanting, he dips it in a bowl and splashes droplets of water over you, again and again, his voice low and earnest.
God, you love the Cambodians.
Whizzing back down the hill in the tuk tuk, you start to feel a little better.
But that night, on the way back from dinner, you pass clusters of Anglo kids, college age and a little older, resting on concrete medians, their heads in their hands. Others drift along the crumbling streets, more like zombies than you thought possible of people who are not partially eaten. A couple passes you, the woman lithe in shorts and a bikini top.
“I got fired from my job today.”
“Yes?” says the man. She barely reaches to his shoulder.
“I told off my boss’s wife.”
“What was your job?” he asks. He sounds German, but may be Swiss.
“I was a receptionist.”
They are holding hands.
You’ve been avoiding the beaches. Partly this is due to your guide’s warning about bag snatchers, but partly this is because some of the people you’re with have come back with reports of wild bars, lunar parties, body painting. You’ve been to Hoi An and you’ve seen pictures of Phuket, and you know what beaches in Asia can be like when they’re not lined with bars featuring fireworks and fire twirling every night. Ever seen The Beach, starring Leonardo DeCaprio? Like that, only: a) real; and b) without a film crew.
It doesn’t help that when you Googled “Sihanoukville,” before coming, you found a half-dozen blogs complaining about the kids peddling bracelets and hair bands on the beaches. You like kids, but you know that in Cambodia parents often pull their children out of school, forcing them to sell to tourists, knowing that only the stoniest of hearts can resist a brown-eye, dark-skinned twelve-year-old who looks no older than six. The problem got so bad that the police in Siem Reap took to rounding up the kids in early morning raids and driving them out into the country where they dumped them, unceremoniously, as far from the hordes of annoyed tourists as possible, forcing them to find their way back on their own—or not. Indeed, the problem got so bad that now there’s an NGO—Child Safe—that papers hotel lobbies and elevators with flyers begging tourists not to buy from children, insisting that poor returns on this practice might lead to parents keeping their kids in school.
Child Safe, it appears, hasn’t had much of an impact in Sihanoukville. Children roam the beaches in packs, peddling their wares. When tourists decline, it’s not uncommon for these brown-eyes, mocha-skinned twelve-year-olds to unleash a string of the foulest words in the English language—learned, undoubtedly, the packs of tourists who used those same words to shoo away the kids.
And they really are pickpockets. Clusters of children will approach an adult, half of them poking them or stroking their skin—“You have pretty skin, lady!”—while their peers dip into your pockets. This sounds Dickensian, you know, but sure enough, when some of your colleagues come back from the beach, they tell stories of being accosted.
“What did you do?” you ask.
“I freaked out,” says one of them. “I told them ‘Get away! I don’t like being touched.’ Then this little girl says, “You no like being touched? But I bet you like it when boy f**k you, right?’”
So you’ve been avoiding the beaches. This morning, though, a friend mentions going to a nearby national park (one thumbs up, one down), mentioning in passing, “If I weren’t doing that, though, I’d probably go to Otres Beach.”
Then later that morning you’re stepping out of the grocery store and a tuk tuk driver says, “Need ride?”
“No,” you reply. “My hotel’s just over there.”
He nods. It’s still early, and the mild panic that will kick in later when the day is growing short and still he hasn’t received a fare hasn’t yet arrived. “Maybe later,” he says, “you find me, I take you to Otres beach?”
You take this as a sign. So later that day, you do indeed find him, and he takes you and some friends to Otres beach.
It is pretty near perfect. There are restaurants and bars, yes, but in this slow season—May is when the rains will start to come—and with a twenty minute tuk tuk ride from Sihanoukville, the stoners and drunks can’t be bothered. The sand is white, the waves are strong enough to be interesting and steady enough to be soothing. Buy a mojito—for a mere three dollars—and you’re allowed to sit all day on a chaise lounge beneath a thatched umbrella. There are venders, but only occasionally, and they seem half-hearted. When a middle-aged mother comes along and offers a massage, you decline, figuring it, too, will be half-hearted, not to mention sandy. But then she goes down the beach and a Chinese woman flags her down, and you watch as the masseuse spends an hour spreading oil over this woman’s body, working every muscle, front and back.
Fishing boats putter near the horizon, passing between small islands. The horizon—no, the sky, the entire sky: there is no sky anywhere in the world like the sky in Cambodia. It’s blue, for one. Rains come once a day, in the late afternoon, and twenty minutes after the first drops, the sky is that perfect shade of—again, with the clichés—azure, like a cartoon movie you watched when you were a kid. And the clouds. They climb, bundling up one over another until they seem to reach miles into the sky. When the sun strikes them you can see every curve, every indentation and pillar and every bend in every bale. You feel like a dork, looking at these clouds, trying to find ways to describe them. You feel like a poet, a bad poet, struggling against cliches.
You sip your mojito, feeling more than a little silly, watching these clouds, trying to find words.
Your friend has booked a three-island tour. You’ve seen men on the beach selling these, flashing cracked plastic binders full of photographs at anyone who will listen to their patter. You assumed, like with the massage, that it was a scam of some sort, which is funny in a twisted sort of way. This is Cambodia after all, not China, not Vietnam. The people here are genuinely very forthright, only sly when they’re teasing you or making a joke. This just goes to show, you think to yourself, how much Sihanoukville seems to carry an air that doesn’t feel like “real” Cambodia: real Cambodia is genuine and brown-skinned and always polite. Sihanoukville—or so you were led to believe, or have led yourself to believe, is fake and pale-faced and obnoxiously drunk.
But anyhow, so your friend has booked a three-island tour, an all-day excursion beginning at 8:30 and including lunch and stops for swimming and snorkeling and lazing about on the beach. You’re not really that interested, but you haven’t seen your friend for a while and you’re not sure what else you’re going to do, so you pay your $15 and tag along.
A van arrives to pick you up and you climb aboard. They make one more stop, along the same strip of sand-blasted road you wandered the other night looking for a restaurant. At a small guesthouse behind a bar, the van stops to pick up three British students lugging their backpacks. They seemed dazed. When the bus stops next at the pier, one of the students climbs out and stands there, swaying as though blown by a breeze. When the group makes its way down to the dock, she drags her backpack behind her, letting it bounce along the pavement. She’s wearing the shortest of short shorts, and you’re pretty sure you’ve never seen quite so much butt cheek on a person who’s technically clothed.
Once on the boat, the trio of Brits collapses on a platform on the rear deck, their forearms over their eyes, their hands on their stomachs to counter the rise and fall of the deck. You go fore, and the boat quickly fills with tourists from all over: Cambodians and French, Germans and Russians. The boat casts off, and one of the Brits—the boy, wearing Harry Potter glasses—leans over the rail and vomits.
The first stop is a coral reef, or what remains of it. Most of Cambodia’s coral was killed off by dynamite fishing years ago. Nonetheless, the snorkeling is pleasant, black and blue striped fish swimming beneath you. Lunch is served and it’s good, pan-fried fish with fried rice. Afterwards, the boat reaches the second island, Bamboo island, and everyone gets off, lugging their gear. The hungover Brits march across the sand to a pair of sun-bleached huts on wooden stilts and you watch, wondering if they’ve loaded their packs with tequila or if they’ve come here to dry out for a while. You find, finally, that you don’t really care.
The beach is nice, the sand warm and clean. Fishing boats bob maybe fifty-yards out, and the whole thing has a made-for-face-book feel to it, and you mean that in a good way.
Nevertheless, eventually you get bored and make your way through the saw-grass to a trail that leads to the other side of the island. You follow a path of moist earth beneath foliage rattling with tree frogs.
You don’t quite get it at first. When you reach the other side of the island, it just looks like another beach. Sure, there’s the ocean, unobstructed by more islands, no fishing boats or tankers on the horizon. Sure, the sand stretches for a half-mile on either side of you, not the white sand that you’ve been told is so precious, but ordinary tannish-brownish sand, regular sand like what you grew up with in your sandbox as a child. Only here it’s flawless: no tidal debris, no seaweed, not so much as a gum wrapper. Brightly colored huts stand back on the edge of the forest, and here or there a cluster of tourists—mostly white, but some brown—stretch out in the sand, talking quietly.
You wander both ways up and down the beach, more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. This makes you hot, though, so you leave your backpack and t-shirt in a pile on the sand—fears of bag-snatchers seem to have faded—and wade into the low, steady waves. The water is warm, but when you dive under and squint into the clear green water, you can feel a layer of sweat being wiped from your skin. You come up, take a breath, then dive back under, not so much swimming as coasting along the sandy bottom, feeling your way with your hands. Coming up, a wave slides by, knocking you back on your heels. You press the salt from your eyelashes, squint toward the shore. Your bag is still there, so you dive under again, and then again. When you come up, your toes dig into the sand and you realize you’ve never felt sand like this before, that it’s rubbery and fine, almost elastic beneath your feet.
Later you’ll wade back to shore and flop in the shade of a tree along the edge of the sand. You’ll lay back, eyes shut, the sun playing through the piney branches above you, warming your skin.
What does it, though, what makes sure you will remember this place for the rest of your life, happens the next day as you’re preparing to leave.
Your bags are packed and you’re standing in the lobby, waiting for the rest of your group. It’s hot outside, and you’re glad to be in the shade watching the world through a plate glass window. Then, across the parking lot, you see a monk strolling beneath an umbrella, carrying an alms bowl. He’s in his saffron robe, of course, and holds a fold of it above his knee so that he doesn’t trip as his sandals scrape over the melting asphalt.
You’ve seen monks collecting alms before. In Phnom Penh, you could sit in your hotel over breakfast and watch as a stream of monks curved up the road, each one stopping, slightly stooped beneath his umbrella, at the same house. Every time this happened, a motherly looking woman in a flowered blouse would emerge, a few riel in hand, bowing deeply before the monk as she hands him the money.
You watch now as this particular monk pads across the steaming concrete in Sihanoukville. He must be taking a shortcut, you think to yourself—surely monks don’t stop at hotels? Surely a place of business doesn’t offer alms, too driven by profit, you think, too . . . soulless, maybe, is that the right word? It’s corporate, after all, made up of a series of individual employees with their own lives, their own homes, their own alms to offer to the monks who come to their own doors. Why would a business give money or food or gifts of any sort to soliciting monks, particularly when these monks trod the same path every day, making the same stops every day?
So you expect to see this monk cut across the parking lot, bypassing the wide, covered entrance of the hotel.
But no. He stops just beyond the line where the front porch of the hotel would offer shade. Standing there beneath his umbrella, his hands crossed along the rim of the coffer in which he makes his collections, he looks neither left nor right. He just waits.
And so do you.
Nothing happens at first. Two women stand behind the huge carved desk at the far side of the lobby, laughing at some joke the hotel manager just made. A porter in a red and gold suit swishes by, rolling someone’s bag.
Still the monk stands there.
You consider, wondering who’s missing, who he might be pausing for. A janitor, maybe, or the boy who hands out towels by the pool?
Then, finally, the door that leads to the dining room swings open and the concierge emerges. He’s a big man, the concierge, especially for a Cambodian, his shoulders filling his dark uniform. He has a face that seems to play at seriousness, as though he wants you to think he’s the epitome of professionalism when really you suspect he has a sly side, isn’t beyond making jokes in Khmer about the clientele, perhaps even when they’re standing right there, uncomprehending.
In his hands he carries two sandwiches wrapped in plastic. His heels click as he strolls across the lobby and then out onto the tiles beneath the veranda. Approaching the monk, he stops, bending at the waist until his head is low, the food offered in front of him.
The monk puts one hand out, hovering over the thick hair of the concierge. He begins a blessing, his voice low, melancholy, melodious in a subdued kind of way. The concierge stays remains bent, his head at the waist of the monk. The monk murmurs, words pouring over each other like stones in an ocean, solid and smooth and tossed by waves. You listen. You watch.
Then the prayer ends, the silence suddenly full again. The monk accepts the food. Placing the sandwiches in his bowl, he nods once and moves off into the heat, his umbrella bobbing above him, bleached by the sun. The concierge remains bowed for half a moment or more, then rises, touching his coiffed hair lightly before straightening the lapels of his uniform.