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Kampot

This is just a short post. Right now I am in Thailand, having more of a traditional holiday than the usual solo exploration/adventure I usually do. As such, I am not devoting much time to writing or photo editing.

So here goes…

After about a week at Siem Reap, I hopped on a night bus to to Kampot. Many years ago, I took a night bus in the opposite direction, and I recall it being a pretty decent experience. This was to be nothing of the sort…

I was crammed into what essentially was a single bed, except it was for two people. Many years ago, that other person was my wife. This time it was a random Cambodian man.

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Night bus to Kampot

The bus was also not direct. It stopped in Phnom Penh at some ungodly hour and I was herded onto another bus, where my bunkmate was a French man. I managed maybe an hour of sleep before we got to Sihanoukville, where there was a three hour layover before switching to a mini bus headed for Kampot…

Ah well, I am accustomed to the pains of bus travel in Southeast Asia, so it was not that big of a deal. It was certainly nothing in comparison with the shock of arriving in Sihanoukville, an experience which prompted me to write the following 1,000 word diatribe:

Chinocalypse

When I first came to Cambodia in 2012, I fell in love with the place. I spent a week or two at Sihanoukville, some time on Koh Thmei, and then just a day at Angkor Wat. I was enchanted by the place. Sure, it wasn’t perfect… but it was perfectly imperfect. When I got back to China, I dreamed constantly of being in Cambodia. The lush green jungles and bright red dirt held a magical hold over me that kept calling me back.

In 2013 I went to live there with my wife. It was a difficult life, as I should have expected. We ran a small business until our relationship fell apart, and she left. When I left after 13 months, I hadn’t exactly fallen out of love with Cambodia, but it was the scene of the very worst memories in my life. After I was gone, I didn’t much think about going back.

However, in 2016, finding myself in Southern Laos, it made sense to hop across the border and check in on some old friends. First I headed to Kratie, in the north, someplace I’d never been. On the quiet red dirt roads of the backcountry, I found myself again face-to-face with the Cambodia I loved. But when I went back to Sihanoukville, things were harder. I was suddenly in the place where my life had gone catastrophically wrong – a place that was the same as it was when I left, and yet somehow different. Still, after almost a week there, I had stared down some ghosts and felt at peace with the place I used to love.

I decided a few months ago that I’d come back to Cambodia this summer. I had no intentions of visiting Sihanouvkille because, although I had come to terms with what had happened there, there really wasn’t all that much to bring me back. The beaches aren’t that nice compared to those in Thailand and in general the positive things you find in Cambodia are rather missing in Sihanoukville. Instead of friendly faces, you have cut-throat conmen and aggressive tuk-tuk drivers. So instead, I headed to Siem Reap and Kampot.

On my way between these two towns, though, my bus made a surprise stopover in Sihanoukville. I took a few hours to stroll about the town, and I was horrified. I had heard things online about the Chinese taking over – building casinos, funding ridiculous construction projects, etc. I had seen some changes back in 2016, but it wasn’t significantly different from 2014.

This time, however, it was like visiting an entirely different place. For a start, all the businesses in the central area (where my bar was located) had been closed down. Every single bar, café, restaurant, or guesthouse that existed just a few years ago – some of which had been there for more than a decade – were now shut. In their place were Chinese casinos, Chinese hotels, Chinese restaurants, and Chinese shops.

I walked around and around, stunned by this sudden and hideous transformation. Awful little chain restaurants from China had bought up everything in town. Every bit of free space had been purchased and marked for construction, and even at 7am the roads were jammed with traffic as busloads of Chinese were ferried to their casinos.

Sihanouvkille had always been a small town with an edgy charm. It was like the Wild West of the Far East. It was big, yet small. It was sprawling but quiet, with few buildings more than three storeys tall. Now, everything is high-rise and fast-faced. Where once the town, for all its flaws, was exciting and cool, now it looks grey, drab, and ugly – just like all of China.

There is homelessness where locals have been pushed out and their homes destroyed, and the infrastructure is suffering heavily under Chinese wheels. Even little Otres, the hippie enclave on the far outskirts of town, which was at the end of an unpaved road just four years ago, is now just one vast construction site for Chinese buildings.

After I got to Kampot, I spoke to a friend about what had happened to Sihanoukville. He told me that it was far worse than I had seen. It wasn’t just the town center and Otres. Everywhere had become Chinese, as locals and long-time expats were pushed out. Most of the expats had chosen to leave, some losing all their money and other getting decent payouts, but for the locals it was devastating. Rents have soared, and in some cases people have even had their homes leveled by bulldozers.

Sihanoukville is now dead, as far as I am concerned – and the same goes for countless others who knew it and loved it. The Chinese have colonized it and sapped up any charm it once had, crushing it into oblivion. They will continue to do this wherever they please, as it is the next step in establishing their new world order. First it was Tibet and Xinjiang; then came Hong Kong, whose freedoms are already diminishing; Taiwan probably has less than a decade before the C.C.P. backs its absurd claims with military action. All across Southeast Asia, the Chinese have spread their pernicious influence and it is only a matter of time before each government is brought under their control and the cultures stamped out. The Chinese will spread into every corner, eventually outnumbering the locals. It is how they will conquer the world. It is the Chinocalypse.

Long ago, China had its own vibrant culture and its own vast and beautiful landscape. Then along came Mao Zedong and the C.C.P. and they decided that uniformity was best. Nature needed to be paved over, culture obliterated, and a population of billions of mindless drones created to do the Party’s dirty work. They succeeded mightily, and as we watch America collapse in on itself at a terrifying pace as Europe disintegrates, it is clear which way the wind blows. The Chinocalypse is all but upon us, and the future is bleak.

So much for that.

I arrived in Kampot around mid-morning and my anger and sadness at the Chinification of Cambodia dissipated somewhat as I found myself in a sleepy old town that seemed to have changed very little in the preceding decades. It was a happy mixture of local and European cultures with not a single Chinese person in sight. The beer was cheap, the food good, and the air clean.

It didn’t look too bad, either:

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Sunset over Bokor

I spent about a week puttering about. I rented a bicycle one day and cycled many miles through the surrounding countryside, visiting little villages where children ran out to scream “hello!” and everybody seemed to have a smile for the visitor. I also rented a motorcycle and attempted to drive up to the top of Bokor Mountain although…

There was in fact one negative to Kampot.

The weather.

Kampot is rather famous for having horrific weather. It sits between the sea and some mountains, and during the rainy season it seldom seems as though an hour passes without a massive downpour. These downpours are bizarre in that they are confined to very small areas. You can be caught in the heaviest rain you’ve ever seen and then walk 50 meters and find that it hadn’t rained at all…

Despite all that, I had a very pleasant time in a lovely little town, but it was soon time to return to Thailand, and that meant another long bus ride, this time to Bangkok.

Here are a few photos from around Kampot:

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Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Back in 2012, I visited Cambodia for the first time and immediately fell in love. It was Sihanoukville and the nearby coastline that captivated me, but I managed to squeeze in a day at Angkor Wat before heading to the airport and leaving the country. I loved it, and knew that one day I’d return. Indeed, I’ve been back to Cambodia several times since then (once to run a bar/hotel for a year) but last week was my first time back at Angkor Wat.

The bus ride from Bangkok was long and difficult, ultimately taking 14 hours instead of the 7 that was promised. Oh well. No harm done, except to my spine and sanity – and who needs those?

When I arrived at my hotel, the wonderful Tropical Breeze Guesthouse in the quiet southeast of the town of Siem Reap, the friendly lady at the front desk asked me if it was my first time in Cambodia. Skipping over my days in Sihanoukville and a visit to Kratie, I told her that yes, I had visited Siem Reap and Angkor Wat about 7 years earlier.

She replied, “Oh, you lucky. You come before Chinese destroy everything. They so noisy and rude!”

I laughed hard because it’s so true, and yet so few people are willing to say it out loud. The Chinese are awful. They behave like animals back in China but hey, that’s their country and that’s their prerogative. If your culture permits spitting on tables in a restaurant and then shitting on the floor, so be it. If it permits beating children, pushing strangers out of a queue, and shouting at the top of your lungs as a means of conversation, then fine. It’s your country, it’s your rules.

But when they bring their despicable ways with them when they travel, it crosses a line. And boy, do the Chinese like to travel now… Well, maybe like is the wrong word. Travelling is just something they now have to do. They are miserable most of the time, but Chinese society is all about checking the boxes and being seen to do certain things.

But I digress.

I was talking about Siem Reap…

The next day, I set about exploring Siem Reap, which is actually a nice little town. Many people overlook it entirely in order to see more of Angkor Wat, but Siem Reap is not without its charm:

After a day of exploring town, I got a good night’s rest and then woke up early for a full day at Angkor Wat. I rented a bicycle this time, whereas on the first visit I took the more conventional approach of hiring a tuk-tuk and driver.

I set off about 6am, although I had originally planned on 4am in order to see the sunrise. Upon waking, it occurred to me that – A) It’s dark out and cycling with no lights would be dangerous, and B) It’s cloud so the sunrise wouldn’t be that great.

Instead, I cycled and got there about 7am, when there was still good light. It was also pleasantly quiet then. At least, it was quiet for a while. I wandered around Angkor Wat first (confusingly, Angkor Wat is the name of the entire park area, as well as one of the many temples), and then headed on to the other temples.

Here are some of my photos:

I spent the whole day cycling and walking, cycling and walking… According to my phone, I cycled almost 40km and walked nearly 15km! Not a bad day’s exercise.

I was delighted to get some beautiful photos and it is always lovely to see a place of such massive historical importance, but honestly the woman at the hotel had been right – the Chinese ruined it.

There are several “main” temples around the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park and at each of the big ones, the Chinese swarmed like mosquitoes. They were loud and rude and disgusting. They spat in the temples and stuffed rubbish into cracks in the walls. They refused to speak a word of Khmer or English, and instead just screamed Chinese at the baffled Khmer staff, and then threw fistfuls of Chinese money at waitresses after their meals, even though that is not an accepted currency here.

At the temples, they pushed and shoved and acted like idiots. They even insisted on calling everyone around them, “foreigners”!!! One Chinese woman even had the audacity to speak to me in Chinese and then use “foreigner” in English. I refrained myself from using the wide arsenal of Chinese swearwords that I know.

Oh well.

This wasn’t meant to be a rant about Chinese people.

I got stuck in the rain for several hours, which rather hindered my exploration, and then at five-thirty the park closed and I headed back for Siem Reap. It was meant to be a relaxing, happy day, but in the end it was stressful and often unpleasant. Still, there were peaceful moments. There were quiet, lesser-known temples with no Chinese, and moments of serenity in the morning before it was hot and busy. And cycling there early in the morning reminded me of why I loved Cambodia in the first place – the red dirt roads and thick jungles, and kids zipping around on old bicycles.

Back in Siem Reap, I made the most of my hotel’s pool:

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It’s not a bad hotel for $4 a night! Check it out if you’re in town – Tropical Breeze.

Then I explored the town some more, finding wonderful little restaurants selling incredible dishes for dirt cheap prices… not to mention the ubiquitous $0.50 beers.

In the end, it’s good to be back in one of my favourite countries. I’ll just have to be careful and avoid those places the Chinese gravitate towards.

And so… next up is Kampot.

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Long Bus Rides Through Thailand

After visiting Phuket Island, Krabi Town, and Ao Nang, I decided to head on over to the other side of Thailand – the east coast. I have been to Koh Tao several times and each time I passed through a place called Chumpon, which always looked really attractive from the bus and ferry. From what I had seen, it was just long stretches of white sand beaches with no one around. All the tourists just passed through without stopping.

I bought a bus ticket in Ao Nang and got up early next morning for my pick-up. I was crammed in the back of a tiny mini bus which drove to Krabi. From there, I was put on another mini bus to Surat Thani, and then on another mini bus north to Chumpon. The total distance between Krabi/Ao Nang and Chumpon is only about 270 kilometers, yet the journey took nearly a whole day. I was exhausted by the time I arrived, although conveniently the bus stopped only 50 meters from my hostel.

The next day, I rented a motorbike from my hostel and asked the owner for tips on finding a good beach. He wrote down several places on a map, each of them about 40km north of Chumphon. He called them “real secret” beaches that no tourists no about.

I was delighted, and jumped on the bike, zipping off north past the airport and along the coast. It was a long drive but a pleasant one, as the roads were not particularly busy. I stopped off along the way at one random beach, which was completely deserted, but didn’t stop. Instead, I pushed on in search of my “secret” beach.

In the end, I only found one of the beaches because they were incredibly hard to get to. I support that’s what made them so secret. I followed a series of small roads and then footpaths to come to a small bay with nothing there except perfect white sand, clear blue seas, and coconut trees lining the beach. It was everything the guy had told me.

Thailand Secret Beach
My own private beach.

I was about to jump in the water for a swim when a dark cloud suddenly appeared and almost immediately it began to rain. Another cloud joined it, and another… and another… and soon it was pouring with rain and the sky was black. I hid in a cave at one end of the bay, and read my book.

An hour passed.

And then another hour.

Eventually, the rain slowed somewhat, but the skies were still ominous and no longer felt like swimming. It was actually a little chilly with the wind, and I didn’t fancy getting out of the water and not being able to dry off before a long drive back to town.

Instead, I gave up and headed back towards the main road. Along the way, I found that the storm had blown a tree down across one of the footpaths. I had to drag it out of the way, hoping that it had no venomous snakes or spiders hidden in its leaves and branches.

At the main road, instead of giving up entirely and going back to Chumphon, I headed further north in search of another beach. This was not one of the “secret” beaches that the hostel owner had listed, but instead a small, remote public beach. I found it easily and just as I stepped onto the sand, the rain stopped and the clouds began to part.

Secret beach, Thailand
Another private beach.

The water was impossibly still – not even a ripple on the surface – and the beach was just about perfect. There was no one about here, either.

I hopped in the water and then lay on the beach for an hour, reading my book. A few people came and went but it was very quiet and pleasant. When I finally drove back to Chumphon as darkness began to fall, I was pretty satisfied with the results of my day. It had been an adventure of sorts, and pleasant in spite of it not going exactly to plan.

*

That night, I realized the sand flies had got me. On the second beach, I had noticed maybe a dozen of them and brushed them away, but evidently they hadn’t gotten a good few bites in first – maybe a few hundred, in fact. I was covered in what looked like giant mosquito bites.

Mosquitoes don’t generally bother me. They bite me, sure, but if I ignore the itch for a few hours, it goes away entirely. Sand flies, however, will cause itching that is 10x worse and lasts for days and days and days.

After an itchy night, I moved over from my cheap hostel to a less cheap hotel along the road. It was about $22 per night, which I suppose makes it cheap in the grand scheme, but it was more than double what I usually pay in Thailand. The reason I chose this place was because it had a pool, albeit a tiny one:

Cool hotel design, Thailand
My funky hotel.

I didn’t feel like driving for an hour back up the coast and risking getting caught in more heavy rain, and then getting a few hundred more sand fly bites. Instead, I’d just sit by the pool and sip on a cold beer.

The Retro Box Hotel actually turned out to be very pleasant. It is a bizarre design – the whole hotel is made out of shipping containers that have been fitted out as hotel rooms. It sounds awful, but is actually very funky-looking and comfortable.

I explored the town one last time. Chumphon is really not a very interesting place at all, and is only worth visiting if you can get a bike and head out to the beaches. The beaches are all, I believe, utterly stunning. However, the town is a bit drab and boring. On my walk about town, I booked another bus ticket – this time to Bangkok.

*

The next morning, I hopped on big, air-conditioned bus towards the capital. Again, it was a short ride, but again it took an astonishingly long time. The total was, I think, 9 or 10 hours! Much of that was spent battling traffic in Bangkok itself.

Pretty soon I was back on old Khao San Road – the backpacker heaven (or hell) at the heart of Southeast Asia travel. I have always sort of detested it, but this time I finally admitted it wasn’t so bad. It was cheaper than I remember, for one thing. In fact, food and beer were cheaper than any place I’d been in Thailand. Funny, you wouldn’t expect that in the capital city, and I certainly don’t recall it from previous visits…

I spent one night in a tiny hotel room (for just $3) and then hopped a bus to Cambodia then next morning. The ride was supposed to take 7 hours but took 14. By the time we arrived in Siem Reap, I was thinking I’d be happy to never take another bus again in my life.

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Summer 2016 – Backpacking SE Asia

I’m incredibly lucky that, in my present job as a university lecturer, I have a great deal of free time during the summer and winter months. That has allowed me to visit amazing places like North Korea and Southern Africa over extensive periods. This past summer I decided to do my CELTA in Chiang Mai, Thailand, before spending a month wandering freely around Southeast Asia.

Upon completing the CELTA (with a pass!) I flew to Ubon Ratchathani, then took a bus over into Laos to visit the little town of Pakse. The following day, I bused down to Don Det in Si Phan Don, where I spent almost a week relaxing on the Mekong River. I then followed the Mekong south into Cambodia, where I watched the Irrawaddy dolphins and explored the area around Kratie, in the north of the country.

I spent a bit of time in Sihanoukville, catching up with old friends, before flying down to Malaysia for a week in the Perhentian Islands. It was not an easy journey. After that, I journeyed through peninsular Malaysia to Kuala Lumpur, and then flew to Bali, where I spent a day on a motorbike, exploring an island I visited many years ago.

Next, it was on to Gili Trawangan, on the coast of Lombok, for a week of snorkelling and hanging out with some friends on the beaches, before a long, pleasant adventure on the high seas as I sailed for Komodo National Park. Finally, I wound up on the edge of the world, looking for a way home.

It was a brilliant trip, and I look forward to the next one, wherever that may be… Here is a crude map of my journey:

map

 

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A Difficult Journey to the Perhentians

Due to having no internet access on Perhentian Kecil, this post has been delayed by four days. I’ll post updates from the island in the coming days.

Escape from Sihanoukville

After some five nights in Sihanoukville, catching up with old friends, taking care of business, and mostly just drinking beer, I made my move towards the Perhentian Islands. I’ve been obsessed with sharks since I was a child, and in my quest to view them all over the world I discovered that the Perhentian Islands, off the northeast coast of peninsular Malaysia, have plenty of sharks which are easy to see from the beaches.

It seemed foolproof, but of course life is never so simple. First, there was the small matter of getting there – from one out-of-the-way tropical destination to another. How hard could it be?

Leaving Sihanoukville should have been the easy part. I lived there for more than a year and have made the journey from Sihanoukville to the airport at Phnom Penh on many occasions. Yet this part of the journey, much like the rest of it, would be a series of punches to the gut.

I was staying out near Otres, with a rented motorcycle as my transport back into town when the time came to make my move. I had booked a ticket on a so-called VIP minibus leaving from outside Mick & Craig’s, which seemed like a convenient location, as it was just around the corner from my motorcycle rental outfit. However, from the offset, small problems arose. First, my laundry was late in being delivered. (This is the first time on the trip I had someone else do my laundry – don’t judge me.) Then, when it arrived, my bike wouldn’t start. I had to use the kicker over and over to boot some life into the old engine, which was not easy in the fine rain and deep sand, whilst balancing various heavy or valuable bags.

(Several days earlier, when I’d rented the little bike, the owner told me not to worry about it being stolen, which is generally a big problem in this part of the world. “The thieves won’t bother with this one,” he said, confidently. “It’s too old.” That was good enough for me, and indeed until it refused to start at the most inopportune of moments, I saw no holes in the plan. Even the fact that the engine would stop running any time the throttle was released didn’t trouble me – I’ve never been one to go easy on the throttle.)

After I managed to kick some life into the addled Honda Dream, I set off towards town, determined not to stop for fear that the goddamn machine wouldn’t get going again. But the gods had it in for me from the offset and, within a mere thirty seconds of setting off, the skies exploded and an almighty downpour commenced. There was nothing I could do. Thanks to my late laundry delivery, I only just had enough time to get into town and return the bike before catching my bus. Waiting for a break in the rain simply wouldn’t do.

Cambodia knows a thing or two about rain. In this part of the world, every now and then, when it suits the gods in the clouds, they will unleash an unimaginable volume of water, pounding down so hard that it stings your skin, even when you’re not riding into it on a motorcycle. It can rain harder in the tropics than I ever thought was possible back home in Scotland… and believe me when I say Scottish people know a thing or two about rain. When it buckets down in Cambodia, you can fill buckets in seconds. The water hits the street hard enough that it bounces back and gets you on the chin. When it hits water it penetrates like a bullet. Roads turn to rivers, and rivers burst their banks and consume all the surrounding flatland. It comes down so hard and fast that I swear it goes through you – it soaks you so much that even if you went home, changed, and dried yourself thoroughly with a towel, you’d still feel wet for days. Such is the power of a tropical rainstorm.

And it was one of these – one of the hardest and most unforgiving I’ve ever encountered – that commenced literally seconds after I set off from Mien Mien Bungalows on Otres, for a long ride back to Sihanoukville. By the time I arrived, there was nothing on me that remained dry. I was soaked through to the bone. My bags, too, were utterly drenched – everything I had was wet. Somehow, by some minor miracle, my electronics seem to have survived, but my books are mulch, my money and my passport just floppy bits of thin paper, and my clothes all completely drenched.

So, soaked to the bone and with nothing I could do about it, I walked through the driving rain to Mick & Craig’s and stood outside, under a large awning, and waited for my minibus. After forty-five minutes of waiting, I asked a nice girl working at a nearby travel agency to call and inquire about the bus, which then showed up five minutes later, having evidently forgotten about me.

Yes, it was going to be one of those days.

I got into the little bus and had my first break of good luck for the day – it was nearly empty. I had a whole row of seats to myself, so I took off my hiking boots, which were filled to the brim with dirty brown foot-stink water, and spread myself out awkwardly, hoping to dry off a little. The problem with Cambodian buses, however, and indeed buses throughout Southeast Asia, is that they blast their air conditioning relentlessly. The other passenger on the bus was wearing a thick hoody and a scarf, while I shivered in misery for four and a half gruelling hours. I was already fighting a cold, and I didn’t need this to add to my woes.

At Phnom Penh airport, I lost my temper at a tuk-tuk driver. I have little tolerance for these parasitic bastards, and if there is anything I loathe worse than a parasite, it’s an idiot – and this guy was evidently both. After alighting from my bus outside the airport departures gate, the driver approached me and shouted, “’otobike? ‘otobike? ‘otobike?”

“Do I look like I need a fucking motorbike?!” I shouted. “Where do you think I’m going?” I pointed at the airport, but it didn’t seem he understood. “’otobike?” he said again. These people are not all bad, and they’re certainly not all stupid, but most of them are heavily into crystal meth, and that happens to push people a little into both categories. On the twenty meters I walked to the gate of the airport, another half dozen drivers accosted me. The desperation in their eyes as they saw a white man walking outside the airport overwhelmed them – here was a mark they could scam, someone to swindle or rob. Or so they thought.

I went into the airport, leaving the leprous swine behind. First on the agenda was to change out of my sodden boots and into some flip-flops. I checked through my bags and found I had no dry clothes to change into, but that didn’t matter. I was getting used to sitting in these damp clothes and, by the time I arrived in Malaysia, I was sure I’d finally be dry.

Arriving in Malaysia

The flights went quite smoothly, and at 11:45pm we touched down at Kota Bharu airport. I had no idea what Kota Bharu was like; in fact, I knew almost nothing about the town at all. It was just a jumping off point on the way to the Perhentians, as far as I knew. My credit card expired last month and I had been unable to book a hotel, but that was ok… I have a very long track record of rolling into towns in the middle of the night with no reservations and everything turning out just fine.

But this wasn’t going to be one of those times.

The first small problem was that when I got to the arrival gate there were booths for hotels and buses to Kuala Besut – where the ferry departs for the Perhentians – but, sadly, they were not staffed. In fact, as I walked around the airport I saw that it was almost entirely empty. I found a woman who told me there was a hotel nearby, and walked out of the airport grounds and onto a large road with few lights. I walked around for an hour, finding only one guesthouse and a number of pissed off buffalo, but the guesthouse had no one working on the front desk. So I decided I’d return to the airport and either take a taxi into town to find a hotel, or just sleep on the floor in the airport itself.

However, the airport was now closed.

Fuck.

I took stock of my options, and things looked grim. I could try to find someplace to sleep outside, but I’d only just started to feel dry again, and I didn’t fancy the chances of it not raining overnight. In the end, I resolved to walk downtown and find a hotel. My phone battery was almost dead, but the GPS app told me it was maybe 12km along a single road into the middle of town, where there were dozens of small hotels. One of them would surely have staff at the reception desk.

I took off walking along the dark highway, lugging some 20kg of luggage in flip-flops at almost one o’clock in the morning, while the temperature was still around 30’C. Yet the road was not empty. At this hour, in Kota Bharu, evidently the local young men take to the streets for illegal races in ridiculous suped-up cars, firing along the dark road as fast as they can go. For the first few kilometres, though, they just stood about beside their cars, talking, lingering in shadows. There were more than fifty of these ludicrous vehicles amidst a frenzy of testosterone and petrol fumes.

This left me in a nervous state of mind. Besides the obvious danger of being hit and killed by one of these maniacs, there was also the fact that I was a foreigner in this strange land, wandering along the road with all his worldly possessions – or at least a good few thousand dollars’ worth of cash and electronics – in the middle of the night, surrounded by wild-eyed young men in shady groups. Where I come from, this situation would not end well, whether you are foreign or local – except the locals would know better than to put themselves in such a position. We call these people “boy racers,” which is a polite way of saying criminal psychopaths, or the sort of bored idiots for whom A Clockwork Orange is a sort of watered down biopic.

Around three o’clock, halfway to town, I found a small hotel whose proprietor bore an uncanny resemblance to Breaking Bad’s ultraviolent villain, Tuco. Mercifully, Tuco gave me a room for 80RM (US$10), although at this point I would’ve traded him both my kidneys and hoped for a transplant in the morning. I settled into my awful little room and spread out all my possessions in front of the air conditioner, hoping that they’d dry just a bit before morning. It was freezing and the air conditioning aggravated my sore throat, but I soon fell into a deep sleep.

Heading for the Islands

In the morning I slept through my alarm, but woke about 8:30. Tuco said he had no idea how to get to Kuala Besut, and so I continued my walk – this time wearing my soaked hiking boots, which still slushed with every step. My feet were badly blistered from walking so far in flip-flops.

The heat was unbearable even by 9am, and I stuck to the shadows as much as possible. It occurred to me for the first time that I wasn’t that far from the equator. The roads seemed quieter in the daylight, or perhaps they were just less threatening. I noticed that the “boy racer” car – a suped-up little model with a low-slung chassis, spoiler, and noisy exhaust – seemed to be the go-to vehicle for just about everyone in Kota Bharu, and not just young men. Along the road, people stopped for breakfast at little cafes with tables pouring out into the street, and men sat around in dour-faced groups listening to angry Arabic tirades coming from loudspeakers outside various mosques. I saw one or two people who were clearly not Muslim, but it seemed that here almost everyone was. All the women, certainly, wore hijabs and some were even fully covered except for their eyes. It seemed there were three types of social group – large groups of (usually elderly) men, small groups of women, and young families with a single child. There was little mixing of the genders, except for those who were clearly married. This was all very different from what I remembered seeing in Kuala Lumpur, but then this part of Malaysia is devoutly Muslim.

At the bus station, I wandered around until I stumbled upon the bus to Kuala Besut. I kept asking people and getting nowhere. It wasn’t that people were trying to be unhelpful, but rather that they all pointed here and there very vaguely, and told me different bus numbers. I noticed that when anyone pointed, they wouldn’t use their whole finger – I’d heard this was an Islamic trait.

Soon I was on a bus full of women in full Muslim garb, heading on a very circuitous route towards Kuala Besut. It was nice to see this group laughing with one another. In the West, we see very few positive depictions of Muslims these days, and yet here were lots of Muslim women, young and old, chatting and joking and taking selfies just the same as people anywhere else. One young woman of about twenty was reclined across two seats, seductively biting her lip and sucking on her finger, presumably sending selfies to some lucky beau. I suppose Allah is only one of the important men in her life.

At Kuala Besut I walked around the tiny port town and then found the jetty for the fast boat to the Perhentians. At one o’clock the boat took off across the sea, skipping at speed over the waves. I’d been told that the ride would be very wet and uncomfortable, but it was actually incredibly pleasant. Or maybe I’d just become accustomed to wet and uncomfortable rides and this forty minute hop was nothing I couldn’t handle… Besides, looking out over azure waters at the looming islands was enough to put me in a good mood after the difficult journey. I was almost there.

Once again, without a credit card I’d been unable to book a hotel on the island, and so when the boatmen asked me where I was going, I picked a place whose name I’d seen on the wall of a travel agency – D’Lagoon, on Perhentian Kecil. It was, annoyingly, the last stop, and on the penultimate stop someone accidentally took my bag and we had to turn around and find them. At D’Lagoon, the speed boat dropped me on a tiny wooden floating platform and told me someone would come to pick me up soon. And so I stood there, bobbing on the sea, hoping that no wave would tip me over – which would’ve fit perfectly with my luck for the previous few days.

But it didn’t flip over, and a few minutes later a man in a small boat came and picked me up. At reception I asked for a room but they said they only had one dorm bed left. I wasn’t happy about it, but for some reason I’d picked the hotel furthest from any other on the island, and I was stuck with the dorm bed or long hike through mountainous jungle on unknown trails… He showed me to a dark, cramped, dirty little dorm with one fan and a dozen creaky beds. Oh well, I thought, maybe something would open up later.

The Difficult Journey Pays Off

Perhentian Kecil proved to be staggeringly beautiful, and the area immediately around D’Lagoon is particularly stunning. Dense jungle covers the islands save for small stretches of white beach here and there, and a few winding, steep paths lead from one beach to another – although the most common way to travel is by “water taxi.” The seas are an unreal turquoise colour – more like an idealistic painting than a real place. I trekked through the jungle from D’Lagoon to Turtle Beach, a ten minute barefoot walk. En route I saw numerous water monitors, which are thankfully afraid of people in spite of their massive size, some bright red squirrels, and a few long-tailed birds. However, I’d come to the Perhentians for one reason – sharks. At Turtle Beach, which could be used as a set for any movie requiring a tropical paradise, I stood next to the pristine water and looked out over the sea to the Malaysian peninsula, just silhouetted on the horizon. Just then, within a minute of arriving, something caught my eye. There was a small shark just two meters from my feet! It was a baby blacktip reef shark cruising the shallow tidal pools right next to the beach. I couldn’t believe my luck.

And with that fleeting glimpse, a tiny shark in a rock pool undid all the bullshit of the previous thirty-two hours, and made me glad I’d embarked upon this absurd journey. In life, nothing worthwhile ever comes easily.

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The Baby Shark at Turtle Beach
Posted in travel

Return to Sihanoukville

After a few days in Kratie, seeing the famous Irrawaddy Dolphins and exploring the countryside north of the town, I booked a bus to Sihanoukville, via Phnom Penh. The minibus showed up an hour late, filled with Khmer passengers and a large office photo copier crammed in on top. We took a bumpy backroads journey through northern Cambodia to the capital, where I was put on a more comfortable and less crowded coach to Sihanoukville. The whole journey took twelve hours and for most of it my ears were assaulted by the Khmer dance music that seems mandatory for all Cambodian bus companies.

I used to live in Cambodia and so, for me, everything there is filled with a mix of memories. Riding down the “Death Highway,” also known by the more prosaic “Highway #4,” from Phnom Penh to Sihanouvkille was a journey I’d taken many times. Once, I’d done it by motorcycle – a hair-raising ride that, on numerous occasions, nearly proved to be my last. Passing through little villages of tin shacks, wandering cattle, and ubiquitous roadside vendors selling coconuts and petrol, I was reminded of so many trips throughout this fascinating land.

For me, however, Cambodia is not only filled with happy memories, nor terrifying memories of wild motorbike adventures into the jungles and mountains. It was a place I went filled with hope, and where all was lost. It was the scene of the destruction of so much of my life; where everything fell apart and I was left with nothing. I’d long known that I would return to Cambodia, and to Sihanoukville, and yet it was something I mostly dreaded.

Yet as the road bends eastwards after the turnoff to Kampot and Kep, and emerges from the mountain valley and into the coastal plains, by Ream National Park, I felt a sense of excitement – of a genuine enthusiasm to be back. Although many of my friends there had died, or left the country, I still had a few close friends alive and well, and lots of places I wanted to revisit. I felt that, having turned my life around thoroughly in the past two years, it would be good to arrive back in town a different person, having overcome the calamities which beset my life there.

As expected, the bus was running late, and yet as we came within a few kilometres of the town, the driver inexplicably reduced his speed to a literal walking pace, and though I could see the Angkor Brewery, whose gates mark one entrance to Sihanoukville, the bus moved painfully forward. I wanted to shout, “You bastard, get a move on!” but eventually the driver came to a complete stop, opened the door, and handed a basket of fruit to a girl who appeared to be his girlfriend. I told myself I was lucky – this had been the driver’s only personal stop. On some routes in this part of the world, drivers will stop to give gifts to their girlfriends in every town along the road.

We eventually arrived at the Sorya bus station, which meant I could walk to the Golden Lions Circle and find a guesthouse without having to negotiate with the cut-throat tuk-tuk mafia. I shirked a few dozen offers and made the twenty minute trek, sweaty and starving. I checked in at Mick & Craig’s mostly because I knew their food was good. The room was fine, and at $7 for a night was quite reasonably priced. Having gone a whole day without eating, I ordered a steak, a rack of ribs, a chicken kebab, a baked potato, and a beer… and was delighted that the bill totalled only $6.

Ah, it was good to be back after all.

*

A few days passed by in a blur of beer. I caught up on all the changes in the town, including the expected gossip – a list of people who’d recently died, fled the country, or been shaken down by the whores or the cops, or, sometimes, both. This town has a bad reputation in many respects. The tourists who come here have long been the adventurous type – and often adventurous to the extent of being entirely reckless, risking their lives for seemingly no reason. The expats who live here tend to be older, alcoholic, with a propensity for prostitutes, and all-too-often they are plagued by some self-destructive impulse. People don’t last long here, and the talk of the town is invariably someone’s death or a horrific accident. There are also masses of Chinese and Russian criminals who come here, and Cambodians whose life of poverty in the provinces compels them to desperation in a town full of easy marks. It all comes to a rather combustible mix, a place where death is never a surprise, and tragedy a part of the weekly routine as much as BBQ Fridays and All Day Happy Hour Monday.

So it was I heard repeatedly in various bars a heart-breaking story of carelessness, callousness, and a life being ripped away in the night for no reason. It was the talk of the town – the latest and greatest tragic story in local circles. This year’s hottest Sihanoukville Scandal. And, unfortunately, it was a story about one of my closest friends.

After a few dark days ruminating on this sad tale, I moved out of town to Mien Mien Bunaglows on Otres Beach – an altogether more relaxing part of town. Only a few kilometres from downtown Sihanouvkille, Otres is the laidback, hippy mecca of Cambodia. While the parties rage and whores work the streets on Victory Hill and Occheuteal, Otres is usually asleep. It may as well exist on a different planet. In the day it is four kilometres of white sand and wild but shallow water, fringed by palm trees and small beach restaurants, and at night just a sleepy village where the guests head to bed early, tired from swimming, sunbathing, and smoking pot in the sun all day. There are no regulars here; no permanent population except for the few Khmers in the local village. Otres is the new backpacker destination – one of the premier chill-out spots in the whole of Southeast Asia. In any bar there are countless twenty-one year old gap-year students with beards, dreadlocks, and baggy elephant print pyjama pants, talking about vegetarianism and volunteering, eating banana pancakes and trying to haggle the price of a beer down from $0.75 to $0.50. Old women walk the beach offering massages, children sell bracelets, tuk-tuk drivers sleep in hammocks, sleepily raising their head at any passer-by asking, “Tuk-tuk?” and fat stray dogs play in the surf.

Otres, like the rest of Sihanoukville, is busier than it used to be, especially for August. This is the rainy season – the extreme low season when it’s not unheard of for a bar to go several days without a customer. Or at least that was what it used to be like. Tourism in Sihanoukville has been on a permanent rise for a decade now, and the Chinese started to get in the on the act about two years ago, fuelling an explosion of activity. The amount of development that has gone on since I left, just two years ago, is nothing short of incredible, and although I’ve never actually been out there, I’m told things are even wilder on the islands – Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. The buyers are almost always Chinese and most space is being taken up by giant, sprawling casinos. Yet out in Otres it’s still just small bungalow complexes and beach bars. Here, the biggest change is that they’re moving from cheap wooden beach shacks to luxury stone beach shacks, at least at the far end of the beach, known as Otres 2. But it seems Sihanoukville will continue to grow under the influence of Chinese money, and I wouldn’t be surprised to return in another few years and find it spread all the way to the airport, some 12 km east.

My time in Sihanoukville, while difficult, was largely peaceful and pleasant – especially the days spent out at Otres – and I’m glad I returned. I caught up with old friends and said goodbye to a few ghosts. It has been good to see Cambodia once again – a country I truly adored before it became the scene of a great many tragedies for me. Yet Cambodia seems to be that sort of place. A look back through the country’s history is one of near endless human suffering. It seems unfair, almost like the country is the grip of a brutal curse. But there is, of course, beauty here, and peace in places, and beyond the whores and thieves and tuk-tuk drivers there are some incredible people here. And on a personal level I have managed to forge some new positive memories and dispel some of the dark clouds that hung over the town as it existed in my mind.

*

An Addendum

As I write this I am sitting at Phnom Penh Airport, awaiting a flight to Kota Bharu in Malaysia, the next stage in this journey. Yet before I left, Cambodia had one last trick to play on me. I woke up this morning to a light rain, which is hardly surprising given that this is wet season. However, less than a minute after I got my bags loaded up on my rented motorcycle, the heavens opened and an almighty rainstorm was unleashed. I had a bus to catch and a bike to return, so there would be no waiting it out. In a few minutes I was soaked to the bone, and the ride back to Sihanoukville was miserable. It was the sort of driving rain which hits the road and bounces back to eye level; the sort of rain which stings your skin badly with each drop, even when you’re not riding a motorcycle; the sort of rain that floods roads, causes mudslides, and hides treacherous potholes. I rode half-blind to the rental shop and then walked to Mick & Craig’s, where I was to meet my bus to the airport. I waited for an hour before it arrived, and then sat shivering for four hours in the bus’s freezing air conditioning. I should be able to get out of these soaking clothes and open my bag up to dry its contents when I reach Kota Bharu, in some nine hours…

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Kratie and the Irrawaddy Dolphins

I went to Lao to see the incredibly rare Irrawaddy Dolphins and yet in the end I had to leave the country before I was able to catch a glimpse of the bizarre purple mammal. The Irrawaddy Dolphin is distributed in discontinuous populations throughout South and Southeast Asia, with the Mekong having one of the larger and more accessible populations. Some viewing can be done above the border, in Lao, just near Si Phan Don. But the best viewing is in Cambodia, north of the town of Kratie (pronounced kra-chay).

I woke early and headed for Don Det’s north beach, which serves as the island’s port, and waited around for half an hour with a group of travellers until the boats were ready. It was only the first of many irritating periods of waiting that day. The next would come on the other side of the river, on the mainland, when we had an hour and a half to wait for the bus to the border. Of course, this is perfectly normal in Lao. It is incredibly rare for a vehicle to leave or arrive on time, and there is, of course, never an honest explanation given. The journey from Don Det to Kratie took some eight hours, and yet there was only about three hours of actual travel time.

So it goes in places like this. I spent the past winter in Africa, where everything moves at a leisurely pace. But at least there they have the decency to say, “We’ll leave eventually. There’s no rush, man.” In Southeast Asia they’ll always try to bullshit you.

Despite the extended periods of unnecessary waiting, and being ripped off at the border by corrupt officials, the journey went largely as expected, and I alighted from the bus at 4pm on the scenic riverside of Kratie. Once again, I was standing on the eastern bank of the mighty Mekong. The nearest hotel was Oudom Sambath, and I checked in for $7 per night. I knew I could’ve gotten a better deal someplace else, but sometimes you have to wonder whether it’s worth it for what would’ve ended up being only a dollar or two.

I love hotels in Southeast Asia. Outside you so often have a French Colonial exterior, and inside there are remains of the original building – ornate windy staircases and intricate cornices – but then of course it’s also fused with the local flavour, and all too often left into a state of total dilapidation. The rooms are invariably dingy and unclean, yet with just a faint reminder of former grandeur.

**

I woke up at six o’clock without an alarm and headed down to the lobby to negotiate the hiring of a motorcycle for the day. I managed to rent a Honda Dream for $7 and soon I was flying up the road towards Kampi – the little village where the locals thrive on dolphin tourism. It felt exhilarating to be back on a bike again. Between 2013-14 I lived in Cambodia and rode my motorcycle all over the south of the country. By that point I’d been riding motorcycles for seven years across countless countries. You see, I have a major addiction to these machines, and the only reason I don’t ride them anymore is the fear that perhaps I like them too much… There is no greater thrill than pulling back the throttle and bolting along the road, overtaking trucks and dodging cows, potholes, and the like.

I rode a bike last year for a few nights in Thailand, but I was on a small island and I hardly had any use for it. I would just take it out after a few beers and feel the chill night air rush by, taking dark corners and blind hills with the confidence that comes from being on holiday in a strange land, feeling invincible. Here, though, on the banks of the Mekong River, I started off slowly. I had a lot of road ahead of me and after a few kilometres just getting a feel for the bike, I opened it up and started to enjoy myself. Periodically I would slow and take in some of the sights, but the experience of the bike itself was enough to keep me entertained. Roads in Cambodia are notoriously dangerous. Where do you even start in describing the dangers – the dry dust and the wet mud are equally fatal; the drunk drivers, the herds of cows wandering unchecked; the children and adults alike sauntering into the streets; giant potholes and bridges with slats rotted through… I could go on. When I lived here, I’d hear nearly every week of someone who’d died on these roads. Yet a mix of caution and confidence makes these stretches not only rideable, but fun.

Fifteen kilometres north of Kratie I found the dolphin boat dock. It was not signposted, nor did it make itself at all visible. There was only a large empty parking area, which attracted my attention, and then a small stone dolphin. Once inside, I had to ask around, but was eventually pointed to a man in a little yellow boat. He didn’t speak a word of English except for “hello,” which was used every time he wanted me to do something. His long boat was painted bright yellow, with the number eleven painted on the front. I gathered that in the high season, or perhaps even later in the day, there were enough tourists to fill at least that many boats. For now, though, it was just me. I had come early because I figured that’s when it would be best to see the dolphins – on a tranquil river without other boats.

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We puttered out onto the river and headed north for forty-five minutes against the fast flow of the water. It was an overcast day, but beautiful in its way. Ominous clouds hung over the trees on either side. We saw men fishing with large woven baskets. The river seemed high – I suppose this is wet season, after all – and there were seemingly tall trees only just sticking out above the water level. The fishermen used these to anchor their boats or baskets.

Eventually my boatman pointed and shouted “Hello!” which I took to mean there was a dolphin. Indeed, as I stood and steadied myself, I saw a large purple shape briefly protrude above the water’s surface and then slip back into the thick brown water. I hurriedly snapped some photos, but fortunately the dolphins – I believe there were three or more – stuck around for several minutes. The boatman said “hello” again and waved me to the back of the boat, from where I could see clearly. These odd alien creatures took turns breaching and making snorting sounds, then disappearing. Unlike their oceanic cousins, the Irrawaddy Dolphins are shy and don’t seem at all playful. They look more like small, purple Orcas with their bulbous protruding foreheads than dolphins. Sadly, these weird and ethereally beautiful animals are endangered and badly in need of protection. I felt privileged to have seen them in their natural habitat before it is too late.

The boatman seemed content that he had successfully delivered a dolphin – actually, at least three of them – and took me quickly back to shore. It was still early and I had achieved my goal for the day.

So what next?

I point the bike north and continued up along the eastern bank of the river, mostly going slow and admiring the beautiful wooden homes on high stilts, sometimes painted blue, and always in a flurry of activity. Kids, chickens, old women, and cows came and went freely, though all careful to keep out of the rising sun. As I headed north, the roads became quieter and yet more treacherous, in their own way. Though hardly perilous, the thick, wet mud made it a challenge to keep the bike upright, and made the going slow. On several occasions I had to support myself with my feet just to keep from falling over, and my legs were covered with mud up to the knee. I never strayed from the road, yet it was at times very much like off-road biking.

Sometimes, though, I was able to unleash the power of the little bike and whip up the road with the wind in my face, causing streaks of tears beneath my sunglasses, which dried in an instant. There were great big dragonflies in the air and periodically they smacked into my face. Once one got stuck under my sunglasses and nearly blinded me for a moment, and elsewhere, when going fast enough, one crashed into my head just beneath the helmet, and left an small, dark bruise.

I passed through small villages and towns and eventually came to Sambour, where I took some backstreets and ended up at a small temple, called Vihea Kaok. There was a mighty tree stretching in all directions, giving much needed shade to weary monks retiring from the heat. Many child monks were practicing in a building nearby, and a huge golden Buddha sat upright in the main temple building. I moved on quickly, finding another temple – this one evidently more important than the first. Whereas Vihea Kaok was sleepy, this temple was positively buzzing with activity. This was the “100 Pillar Temple,” so-called because there were many pillars holding the building up. A swarm of children begged me for money but quickly gave up and fought each other over a coconut.

I had an early lunch at a street-side restaurant near the temple, where, miraculously, the proprietor spoke enough English to take my order, and then I took off once again, heading further north. The road continued endlessly along the bank of the Mekong. Sometimes it was possible to ride fast, and at other times it would’ve been suicide. Sometimes there were just empty fields or trees, and sometimes more houses on stilts. Always, though, the big brown river to my left, the red road underneath me, the blue sky above, and dark green to my right.

I began to feel the sun had taken its toll on me and, at a random bridge – just one of many I’d crossed that day – I turned and headed back. The thought struck me to put my GoPro on my helmet and film the ride. It had been pleasant – scenic, even – on the way up. I stuck the camera on my head and took off back down the road. Halfway down, I realized it was pointing up at the sky, and then it flopped down and filmed my forehead for a while, but eventually I got it filming straight ahead. Driving in Asia has become so normal for me in some ways. I wonder if in 50 yrs I’ll look back at the insanity and laugh…

My ride came to an end when I pushed the bike too hard on an empty tank and it sputtered and died on another rickety bridge. I was able to roll it off and then push it to a nearby shop, where an old woman sold me a litre of petrol. The bike still wouldn’t start easily, and I had to kickstart it into action.

I intended to go all the way back to the hotel without stopping, but I spotted an interesting pagoda – Sombok Pagoda – on the only hill for miles around, and had to stop and take a look. I brought my bike to the bottom of a flight of about a hundred stairs and climbed very slowly to the temple. It was eerily quiet – or at least it was eerie until I spotted a sign that said this was a place of silent meditation. In any case, there were no people around. I wandered about and climbed yet another two flights of stairs to the very highest point for many miles around – a small pagoda with a few stone buddhas littered about. The view was obscured by trees growing from the hillside, but through their branches you can see for miles over the flat lands surrounding Kratie, and across the vast Mekong.

After the pagoda, I finally returned to my bike and gently encouraged it back to town. It limped and whined and eventually rolled up onto the pavement outside Oudom Sambath, completely empty of petrol and encased in solidified mud. I had dinner at Red Sun Falling and then watched the sunset from the roof of Silver Dolphin.

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Posted in travel

Been There, Don Det

In the middle of sleepy downtown Pakse, I managed to find a small travel agent who booked me on a morning minibus south. The journey, he said, would take three hours. I didn’t believe him, because in Lao there is a terrible tendency to lie about the length of a journey. I remember it from my first trip here, five years ago. An eight hour bus ride turned into fourteen hours. Granted, it was partly because our bus was caught in a mudslide and nearly lost over the edge of a cliff, but this is not merely my own observation – this is the consensus among travellers to the country: Make yourself comfortable, get a good book, and prepare for a long, bumpy journey.

At eight o’clock the following morning I was standing outside my hotel in the baking sunlight, waiting for the minibus. I was prepared for a ten hour ride, squeezed in to a grossly over filled vehicle between sweaty, hungover tourists. Half an hour later, though, I was still standing there, quickly turning red from the obscene sun that simply shouldn’t have been so strong at such an hour.

“Had this been another scam?” I pondered. Was I doomed to stand here half the day, only to find I had been sold a bum ticket?

The little bus eventually showed up a half hour late and it was indeed crowded beyond capacity. I was the last in, which is usually a vile curse, but this time I was given the cherished front seat, and enjoyed my ride in comparative luxury, listening to loud music from my iPhone to drown out the groans from the back. Southern Lao slipped by in all its laid-back glory, and, amazingly, the bus pulled into the small ferry village on the banks of the Mekong at exactly the forecasted time.

Soon we were zipping across the muddy waters towards a tangle of islands. Si Phan Don (that means 4,000 Islands) is located right above the border with Cambodia. Here, the mighty Mekong river can reach 14 km in width and rises and falls between 5 meters from season to season. At its lowest, it is said there are four thousand islands here, hence the name. Accepted wisdom, however, is that four thousand is a generous figure on a particularly special day, and involves counting any rock protruding above the waterline for a moment or two between ripples as an island. But it is wise not to question an Asian nation’s interpretation of an island these days. Between the Koreas, Japan, China, and the Philippines, the smart gambler would bet on the apocalypse beginning right around this part of the world, and on a matter as seemingly trivial as asking what exactly constitutes an island.

When we arrived on Don Det, I hopped off the boat and marched quickly up the small beach. In Southeast Asia, you have to assume that when you disembark from any mode of transportation, you will immediately become beset by an army of tuk-tuk drivers, women selling bananas, beggars, and kids looking to rifle through your pockets while you find your bearings.

There were, however, none of the above. I marched up and off the beach and into “town” – which was a small, unpaved street with a few businesses along either side, all of which appeared to be closed or open but unstaffed. I kept walking south at a brisk pace, partly looking for a place to stay and partly just getting a feel for the island. I really didn’t know what to expect. Some places you can get a good feel for even from guide books, blogs, YouTube videos, and countless other second hand reports; most places, however, are impossible to understand until you’re there.

I passed a few bars and many little convenience stores. It all looked run-down, sad, and dingy. I didn’t have a particularly good feeling, but I was more interested in the island itself – the beaches, the jungle, the hills. I had come here to unwind, to decompress from a month-long CELTA course. I didn’t care what the “town” looked like. All I wanted was a hammock.

After a few minutes of walking down the east of the island, along a little mud path in which I sunk about ankle deep, I was accosted by a voice. A tall, thin white man was leaning over a spade in a garden. “Lookin’ for a room?” he asked in a thick Yorkshire accent. Before I could reply, he continued, “I live with this here family and, if you’re interested, they’ve got a few bungalows right on the water here. Basic backpackers fare, like, nothin’ special. Does the job for me.”

I said I was interested, and he slowly started to move in my direction through the thick red mud. He complimented my Bob Dylan t-shirt. “You like Bob Dylan, do you?” he asked, which I thought was a slightly redundant question. But I suppose there are any number of people wearing Rolling Stones and Ramones t-shirts right now who’ve never knowingly listened to a song by either band.

He showed me a very basic little bungalow – a dirty looking bed, walls covered in hundreds of blood splatters, and an unspeakably evil-looking bathroom. The place seemed to have never actually been cleaned before, and had only ever been swept out once the cobwebs made living there unbearable. There was, however, a little balcony right on the water, with two hammocks and a little table and chair looking out at the Mekong as it slowly wound past on its way to Cambodia. A wifi password was scrawled on a wall in blue marker.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

The man nodded and shambled off in search of the register. He came back with a jumbled pile of papers five minutes later, and took long drags from a joint as I filled in my details. “If you like weed, you’re in paradise,” he said. “You can find it anywhere here. Can smoke it anywhere, too. No hassles on this island.”

I gave Adrian, as he later introduced himself, 40,000 kip ($5) for the room and he shambled off again with the register, muttering something incoherent about coffee. Southeast Asia is full of men just like Adrian. It’s either booze, drugs, girls, or a combination of those three that brings them here and keeps them here. Within a minute of meeting him, I could tell Adrian had been wandering this part of the world for more than a decade, and had burned himself out on near infinite quantities of cheap bushweed. He walked around shirtless, his skin a rough tanned leather from the tropical sun, with the unmistakable confused steps of a man who’s spent several decades getting stoned. When he spoke he did so with conviction, yet rambled incoherently before fading out mid-sentence.

I took a walk down the east side of the island to what Adrian had called “the village” – a sign that said “Don Det” and a half dozen wooden houses. The path there was narrow and muddy from the night’s rain. To my left was the impressive river, or at least a small sliver of it, and beyond it more islands and mountains. On my right were rice paddies and people’s homes on wooden stilts. There was a distinctly unfriendly atmosphere. After leaving Chiang Mai, where in every village it seemed I was greeted with shy smiles and bows, here it was frowns. I’d read online that relations between the locals and tourists had been frosty for a few years, but I didn’t know exactly why. It’s not hard to guess, of course. Don Det has worked its way onto the so-called “Banana Pancake Trail,” and everywhere that trail winds, there follows an attitude of irresponsibility, entitlement, and unbridled hedonism.

Or was that really it? As the day went on I explored more of the island on foot, and found more unfriendly faces. Even in restaurants where I stopped for food or beers, I was greeted with abject coldness. It ranged from a complete disinterest to outright unpleasantness. This was not the Lao I remembered from my previous trip, five years ago, to the north of the country. There were many differences between northern and southern Lao that I could see, but in terms of tourism I did notice one thing that made me wonder: there were innumerable bungalows fallen into disrepair, bars clearly closed for several years, and even in the businesses still open and with a handful of customers, everything seemed dilapidated. Could it be that relations turned frosty when Si Phan Don failed to capitalize on its tourism boom? Did these islands ever prosper from the tourists who’ve caused so much change to this place? On Don Det there is nothing to suggest any wealth was gained here. The people seem impoverished. Businesses are merely hanging on. The resentment in the air, it seems to me, is the same as is felt throughout dozens of towns and villages in Thailand and elsewhere, whose way of life was irrevocably changed by an influx of young Western hedonists, yet in this case there are few benefits to temper the displeasure that arises from the clash of cultures.

Still, it takes more than a cold shoulder to make me feel put out. After a long day of walking in the hot sun, I settled at a small restaurant on the west side of the island to watch the famous sunset. The sky changed colours every few minutes for an hour, as the sun dipped and eventually slid behind the horizon, far over the Mekong and the jungles of Thailand. It started a light yellow, became a fierce orange, and then an impressive purple that took over the whole sky until darkness fell, and thousands of stars shone faintly in the dark jungle night.

*

In the morning I awoke early and sat reading on my balcony in the calm morning air. A voice called from the hut two down, “So you like reading books, then?” If I hadn’t guessed from the Yorkshire accent, the ridiculousness of the question told me that it was Adrian.

He didn’t follow up with anything conversationally useful like, “What are you reading?” but instead he told me that he’d written a book and that he was selling copies. “Come over here and I’ll tell you all about it,” he said. It was an invitation, but somehow not entirely optional.

I walked around to his little bungalow – different from mine only in that he had plants on every conceivable surface – and he told me immediately to sit down. He broke into a long sales pitch, not even hiding the fact that his story was recited from memory. “This is the most unique story you’ll ever hear,” he said. “It’s the most original idea you’ve ever heard.” He went on and on, stopping to tell me things like, “it only took me six hours to write it,” and “writing’s so easy,” and “the grammar may not be, y’know, entirely accurate but you’ll know what I mean.”

I awkwardly flipped through the book, wondering how I could get out of buying a copy. It was absolutely unreadable and, as far as his originality went, as an editor I’ve seen hundreds of these books pitched at me from people who care too much for their own story and too little for the craft or business of writing. He then showed me a small folder in which he’d recorded a copy of every book he’d sold over fifteen years – allegedly a total of more than 7,800. “I even sold one to a Scottish person one time.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just bought a load of books in Thailand and I really can’t buy any more. This looks great though…”

He immediately stood up and stormed off the balcony and into his room. “Alright, then, well you’d best be going. I’m a busy man.”

That awkward encounter expedited my decision to get out and explore, and so I found the nearest bike rental, and rented a small, fixed gear bicycle with two flat tires and a loose chain. The seat may as well have had serrated edges, the basket at the front was torn almost in two, and when the bike moved it let out an ungodly squealing that warned the children on the path to get out of my way, which was probably for the best because the brakes did absolutely nothing.

Although it was hot out, I knew it would only get hotter, so I set off along the east of the island and cycled all the way to the long concrete bridge that leads over to Don Khon. I paid the 35,000 kip admission to the island, and then fallowed a sign for a waterfall. Don Khon is bigger than Don Det, and emptier, too. Like Don Det, it lacks paved roads, and it has only one wide dirt tracking running through the very centre of the island, with a series of small paths running up the east and west coasts. I started down the west, as that’s where the waterfall was located.

When I parked my bike at the waterfall, I wondered about locking it, as I’d been given no lock at the rental shop. I looked around and there were a few other bikes, none of which were locked. I supposed that in a place like this it would be too difficult to get a stolen bike to the mainland. It probably just wasn’t worth the effort.

The Tad Somphamit Falls are not breath-taking, but they are impressive. All around the Mekong moves sluggishly, but here a huge volume of chocolate brown water is forced between the island of Don Det and a few smaller islands, where there is a modest drop, crashing furiously down in a large horseshoe before seemingly collecting and moving on at its own leisurely pace once again. From a few close viewpoints the sound is deafening and the power of the water awesome, yet soon it is back to tranquillity. I stopped for a beer nearby at a small beach, only 100 meters down river, and watched the water roll by slowly, as though its path had been completely unbroken.

I cycled around the rest of Don Khon very slowly, stopping several times to have a beer, take some photos, or, more often than not, fix the chain on my bike. Then I took an unfortunate trek up the east of the island, thanks to my reliance upon the GPS app on my phone. I suppose when tourism to the island was greater, this track may have been suitable for cycling, but now it was tremendously overgrown, and some of the bridges had become downright treacherous. On the absolute worst bridge on the route, where most of the boards were rotted through, I tried to go fast enough that my weight didn’t bring the bike down through the missing and broken slats and into the jungle below, but unfortunately my provocations caused the bike’s chain to slip again and I was stopped, balancing perilously.

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When I emerged from the path less trodden and crossed back to Don Det, I found a small restaurant called Crazy Mama Piang’s. Here, I was finally greeted with smiles and friendly service. I ate a small dinner and watched the family sit around watching a Thai drama on TV. The two small boys played with the family of cats which lived there. They ran around carrying two very tolerant kittens, whose mother looked on sleepily from under a wooden table.

When I stepped outside, ready to return to my bungalow for the evening, I found that the bike was missing. The friendly old woman – who I assume from her wild, unpredictable laughter was the Crazy Mama Piang, or at least one of her equally crazy relatives – told me that someone had just left and had taken my bike by mistake. She showed me the other man’s bike, and it was pretty much identical, except that it had a sign saying it was from a different shop.

“Same, same,” said Crazy Mama Piang. “Bike just same. You take it no problem. Shop not care”

I had little choice, so I rode this bike back to the shop at the north of Don Det. It was the same colour as the first bike, and a similar design, but it was a far better bike. If only I’d had this one on my long ride around Don Det and Don Khon. I cycled it to the door of the shop where I’d rented the first bike and walked hastily away. I saw a woman come out and acknowledge the bike with indifference. I could see on her face that she was thinking, “Same, same.”

After that I returned to my bungalow, where I was met with a familiar voice. “D’you like fishin’?”

I turned to see Adrian standing on his balcony with a fishing rod in one hand and his joint in the other. “Er, yeah…” I said.

“Well I lend me fishing gear to anyone who wants it, like, but y’know I can only really give it to ones who’ve bought me book.”

I laughed and turned to go inside for the night. I could still hear him talking as I closed the door: “So y’know, as much as I’d love to give it to ya, I really can’t. There’s lots of people round here would love to do a bit of fishin’ but I just can’t be givin’ it to everyone and so y’know…” He went on as I turned on the noisy ceiling fan to drown him out.

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Posted in travel

Arriving in Lao

I crossed the border into Lao late this morning. It was the first time I’d set foot in the country for exactly five years, but only my first time in the south of Lao. Last time around I crossed the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge to Vientiane, and then saw Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. This time, however, I’d crossed from Ubon Ratchathani by bus into Pakse, down in the far south, near the border with Cambodia.

It started with an alarm clock at 3:30am back in Chiang Mai, where I’d only just completed my intensive month-long CELTA course. Soon I was flying across the country to Ubon with Kan Air – a company I’d never heard of until I found their ridiculous discounts on Skyscanner last week. From there it was a hop, skip, and a jump to the border on a Nokchaiair bus. Sadly, though, this seasoned traveller was foolish enough to fall for the Oldest Scam in Siam. At the border post, I agreed to pay my visa fee in Thai Baht instead of US Dollars, and consequently overpaid by $6. It’s hardly a crippling financial loss, but embarrassing nonetheless.

By midday I was at Pakse Southern Bus Station, getting fleeced by a tuk-tuk driver for $12 just to get into town. But there was little I could do. I was too far out and too tired to walk. Needless to say, by the time I arrived in Pakse and began looking for hotels and bus tickets to the next place I was feeling like a novice on the road once again.

Pakse is an odd little city spread out across a stretch of land squeezed between jagged mountains and might river. There’s a sleepy little centre to the town where the Xe Don River converges with the big muddy Mekong as it slowly rolls towards the Cambodian border. Here, the European influence is felt in the colonial architecture along the veranda-lined streets of cafes. Elsewhere, the city more closely resembles other parts of Southeast Asia in its mix of traditional Asian and modern cement buildings. Overall, Pakse is markedly different from and more modern than the towns and cities I’d seen in the north.

After walking around a while I settled on the Lao Chaluen Hotel, which offered filthy but air conditioned rooms for about $15 per night, and then had lunch across the street at Xuanmai Restaurant, where I tried the lap lap (or laap?) chicken and a Beer Lao. Beer Lao has long been one of my favourite Asian beers and here, naturally, it is ubiquitous and inexpensive.

After lunch I took a walk around Pakse in the blazing 2pm sun. There was no one else foolish enough to be on the street at this time, and I had the city to myself. Along the banks of the might Mekong, cars had pulled up under the shade of large overhanging trees and drivers awkwardly slept with their feet dangling out of windows and doors flung open here and there. I stopped periodically to stare out over the enchanting brown waters to the mountainous jungle on the other side.

I considered staying another day in Pakse and renting a motorcycle to explore the surrounding countryside, but instead elected to move further south. Although Pakse is small and quiet, it is still too much a city for my provincial tastes. I booked a bus/ferry ride to Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands) for $7, with an alleged 8am start. After four weeks of relentless CELTA studying, I’m looking forward to relaxing in the sleepy environs of remote rural southern Lao. Besides, although Pakse isn’t without its charm, there isn’t much here to keep someone sticking around more than strictly necessary. It’s economy, for one thing, seems centered around transporting people to other places.

After an afternoon nap to escape the remainder of the heat, I ventured out for dinner and found a small hole in the wall called The Lao Restaurant, where I tried a beef and ginger dish that was simply described as “tradistionional Lao food.” I enjoyed it thoroughly, and several Beer Laos, before retiring to my hotel for the evening. On the way home I stared up into the stars, which were far more visible here than they had been in Chiang Mai, and tried to pick out a few constellations. It feels good to be in a place where a man can meander in the streets at night, staring lost into the depths of universe, without reprise.

Posted in essay

Making War Movies in Cambodia

It wasn’t the heat that was getting to me. It wasn’t the seasickness, the overcrowded boat, getting jabbed in the ribs by the butts and muzzles of guns, or even the fact my right knee felt primed to explode.

We had been on the boat for seven hours, just drifting around the Gulf of Thailand, the temperature well above a hundred degrees, and us soldiers wearing itchy woolen shirts and trousers, oversized water-filled boots, and backpacks and guns. The only thing we didn’t have were helmets, which might have helped keep the sun off our heads.

It was important to crouch, though. That was stressed over and over. The enemy was hidden in the trees, possibly armed with sniper rifles, and a stray head above the bow would prove very messy. The heat, the discomfort, and this repetition of what it was we must fear had dragged morale to a record low. After long enough, we were actually eager to jump into the water, run to the shore, and throw ourselves onto the sand. What would happen next, no one knew.

*

Cambodia had fascinated me for as long as I’d been in Asia. It seemed more dangerous, more suited to an intrepid traveler, than the likes of Bali, Phuket, or Goa. The promise of landmines, mob “justice,” ubiquitous AK-47s, its de facto dictator, and the potential for a complete collapse back into civil war and the return of the Khmer Rouge all made it sound so very romantic. The town I’d chosen was famous for sexpats, drugs, corruption, and a freakishly high mortality rate among foreign tourists.

I’d bought an Irish bar in May, 2013, and by October I had hardly gone further than the supermarket. Business was good but my sanity was faring quite poorly. I was actually bored in Cambodia – undoubtedly one of the world’s most interesting countries.

One day I was writing an article for a French magazine when the editor asked me if I’d like to work as an extra in a movie. “Yes,” I said, rather immediately. He went on to say that it would pay and that it would feature well-known actors and directors. He told me that it was a war movie called Le Soldat Blanc (“The White Soldier”) set during the French occupation, and that the scene for which extras were required was basically a rip-off of the opening to Saving Private Ryan.

I didn’t care. I was already sold.

Back then I was working on a novella or novel (it never got finished, and looked like it was heading towards being the latter) about several generations of the same family who had fought on the Southeast Asian peninsula. I had done a lot of research into French Indochina, and it fascinated me. I was also going through a year-long phase wherein I wanted to get into film-making. The opportunity to see behind the scenes on a big movie was too much to pass up.

*

The day before shooting began, I was required to go for costume fitting at a swanky beach-side hotel. I was busy, and in an odd mood – perhaps drunk – and when I arrived there was a queue of drunken Russians outside. These, I soon learned, were my fellow extras. Despite having spent months trying to find suitable candidates in a town with as many Europeans as locals, the casting director had noted that it was nigh on impossible to find someone in this town that fit the criteria of being A) under thirty, B) not fat (ie thin enough to pass as a soldier), and C) believable as a French person.

Long ago, I could speak French very well, but now I hardly know a word. When I arrived the Russians were waiting in the sun, and a handful of French people – looking to be in charge – were standing at the doorway. I walked immediately up to them and barked, “I’m here and I don’t have much time. Where do I go?” It was quite out of character, but I really didn’t have much time and I didn’t fancy standing in line for an hour.

I was taken through labyrinth of hallways to a few joining rooms that had been taken over by the production company. A very flamboyant man gestured at me and spoke in French until he realized I couldn’t understand him, and told me: “Dear, you don’t look like a soldier at all. You’re too skinny. You’re what we’d find if the movie was about breaking into Auschwitz.”

Alas, I was one of the few “French-looking” people they could find, and certainly the only person in the target age-group. The costume department, then, spent the next hour trying to make me look less like a concentration camp survivor and more like a kid who got mistakenly drafted a few years too early.

When I walked out of the building the line hadn’t moved, and my fellow extras stared daggers as I drove off.

*

The following morning, at 4am, I got on a bus with a few of the Russians. The casting director looked about ready to tear his hair out. He had needed forty extras, and had ended up with less than a dozen. It was also a French production, and most of the people on the bus could neither speak French nor English. It had “disaster” written all over it.

The film was being shot in Ream National Park, almost 20km east of Sihanoukville, but a good hour’s drive. The producers had more or less bought the rights to use the beaches and mangroves from one end of the park to the other, and had gone to the trouble of cleaning every piece of trash, leaving it nothing short of idyllic.

We filed off the bus to meet our new co-stars – the Cambodian Navy. Thanks to the impossibility of finding a semi-sober, non-obese, under-thirty Caucasian in Sihanoukville, this part of the script had been rewritten to include more “local” help. What the Cambodian Navy hadn’t been told was that they were actually playing the Vietnamese. No one dared tell them.

Amusingly, all the soldiers from both sides were equipped with supplies clearly labelled as property of the US Army.

From the get-go, I was fascinated by the flurry of activity going on around me, but left somewhat in the dark by my inability to speak much French, or any Khmer or Russian. The casting director, however, seemed eager to keep me – as the closest thing to a believable French soldier – and informed of what would happen.

The schedule was set up like this:

The scene involved a unified Vietnamese-French invasion of Indochina at some unspecified point in the region’s turbulent history. There would be one boat (others would be crudely added through CGI later) and everybody would have to crouch down and wait for the order to storm the beach. The actors would go through their lines as the dialogue was filmed from every direction, and then we’d just jump off the boat.

That was it, except it would take two whole days. I couldn’t believe it. We would probably have hours of free time to roam the beaches….

They say that Rule #1 of making movies is that, no matter how interesting the final product, the process itself is soul-crushingly boring. I didn’t know this, or else I might have thought twice about agreeing to spend several days in the jungle with a film crew.

We began by getting into our uniforms which, outside the air-conditioned hotel room were rather uncomfortable. Before, I had been concerned by the itchiness. Now it was the sweltering heat. I was padded out because apparently being a 50kg man doesn’t make you exactly frontline material, and even at 6am it was unbearably hot.

*

Soon we were crouched on the boat. I kept being pushed to stand next to the lead actors, who went through their lines many dozens of times over many, many hours. My knees were giving way, and people were complaining loudly in their various languages. A woman was employed to put sunscreen on our necks, and another to pour water into our mouths. (We couldn’t be trusted not to hold the plastic bottles on camera.) The real actors handled it well. They were young, wild, friendly, strange people. Mostly it was their unbridled enthusiasm that got me. I didn’t know how they could keep doing their lines over and over. One man, obviously a method actor, positioned himself as leader of the extras, and would scream at us as though we were real military: “Come on, motherfuckers! Let’s take the fucking beach, motherfuckers!” His English was pretty good, though evidently he thought “motherfucker” was a requisite part of any grammatical construction.

In the beginning, I would take cues from the director on how to act. I was just an extra, of course, but in the West extras usually make some effort. It is their job, after all, and they probably hope that it will lead to a speaking role. Here was an assortment of hungover people who didn’t want to be there anymore, mixed with the Cambodian Navy, who were busy sword-fighting with their guns.

At first I would try to convey a look of fear through my face. I never realized acting was so hard. “The enemy is on the beach. They will kill you when they see you,” the casting director – who had the best English – instructed me. I tried to look scared and probably failed miserably, but after a dozen or more takes, I just knelt there and hoped that I didn’t do any long-term damage to my knee.

The boat was spinning in the water as the sun rose, and as the day progressed morale dropped to abysmal levels, and I think the only reason that they stopped shooting was because it had become apparent that most of the extras wouldn’t return the next day if it went on much longer. I was certainly thinking that.

When we got back to the camp, the extras filed quickly onto a bus, where the driver had been sitting since 5am. It was now 5pm, and he’d been enjoying the air-con and doing a bit of karaoke. Predictably, when he tried to start the engine, the bus just spluttered and died.

After twelve hours of sitting in the sun, the extras had to push the bus along a jungle track until the engine ticked over just enough to start, and we managed to slowly wind our way back. It was evident that most people wouldn’t be returning, even to collect the money they were due.

*

The following morning I awoke and got back to the bus to find that indeed the majority of extras had bailed. Film-making isn’t as glamorous as it sounds, and in a town with as many bars as alcoholics, it wasn’t difficult to drown one’s sorrows.

I didn’t really know why I was there except that I’d become reasonably good friends with the casting director and would feel guilty if I let him down. Also, a certain vanity told me that having sat next to the lead actors for their speeches, I’d probably be featured prominently again, especially with fewer white people around. I certainly had no aspirations of a career in acting, but it would be cool to have maybe gotten a line or something to show my parents.

We were told the schedule for Day #2:

  1. Jump off the boat.
  2. Storm the beach.

It was more or less that simple, except that just jumping into the water once wasn’t enough. We’d have to do it over and over in order for the cameras to capture everything just perfectly. We did a few practice runs in our underwear, screaming and running with guns held above our heads, and it was actually fun.

This went on for a few hours, and then a few more. People started complaining about blisters from having water in their boots and everywhere else, and people were slipping on the metal and hurting themselves, or jumping on top of other people already in the water. One of the main actors got cracked in the mouth with a gun butt and bled. It was, fittingly, carnage.

After six hours of jumping into the water and running to the beach (which was only 10 meters away) the director decided that it would look better if the boat stopped at 50 meters out, and we ran from there. In order to ensure that his inexperienced extras looked sufficiently afraid, the director had instructed the effects team to carry out their work secretly, and when the first soldiers were only 5 meters from shore, one man began triggering explosives buried in the sand, while another opened fired with a paintball gun, spraying red paint into the water. People threw themselves to the ground, genuinely terrified, and it was probably the best take of the day.

But then it was back to the boat, and back to repetition.

*

Along Cambodia’s coastline, the water is ludicrously shallow, and so you can sometimes walk a half-mile out into sea. In this case at 50 meters I was chest-deep and it didn’t seem a problem. However, that soon started to change. Between the heat, the weight of the gear, the padding I was carrying to make me “less-Auschwitzy,” my months of drinking and smoking, and having effectively sprinted through water repeatedly for more than six hours, I struggled.

I struggled badly.

I kept it to myself and just did as I was told, but sprinting 50 meters through water is not easy at the best of times. In fact, some people would say it’s impossible. But, when you have an entire film crew watching you, you can’t be the last one there. You can’t trail behind. You have to get it right, or people will be angry.

The extras were carefully spaced and positioned, and for some fucking reason, I was the last man. I was at the 50 meter point, while some were at 15 and 20. As the takes went on, I started to feel light headed. I started noticing myself getting to the beach later and later, and started throwing myself down into the water instead of the sand.

At one point, one of the extras asked me, “Hey man, you okay?”

I couldn’t reply, so I waved his concern away and smiled, but he looked unconvinced. Other people were starting to watch me, too. It was embarrassing.

*

On the next take, I got most of the way to the beach and then woke up in the medical tent, slumped forward on a chair with the casting director and a doctor, and a girl giving me a head massage. (Khmers believe head massages can cure just about anything, and it certainly does feel good.)

After asking a few questions and getting some vague, confused answers, the doctor told me he was sending me back to town. “Exhaustion,” was the diagnosis. The casting director was red in the face, shouting about the director. “I told him, I told him,” he said. “It’s too much!”

I was helped back through the jungle and stuck in the crew’s temporary ambulance. My friend kept apologizing, and then handed me my money. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I got paid for the entire two days, even though I’d made it only one and a half.

We took off back towards Sihanoukville, and I kept feeling a mix of relief and guilt. I didn’t really care much about my lost career as a movie star. I felt bad for the casting director, felt contempt for the director, and quite pleased that instead of getting home at 9pm, I’d be home at 4pm with full pay.

I was worried, too, about my health. Working behind a bar isn’t exactly conducive to a healthy lifestyle. I had dropped a lot of weight and become very sedentary. That thought triggered a memory – one of the first from my time in Cambodia. It was the story of another French production company who had attempted to recruit “extras” from the local expat population. They were shooting a reality TV show that was purportedly filmed in Thailand, but to save money they’d come here and hired local drunks at a fraction of the price. The overzealous director had demanded these random barflies swim from one island to the next – a large distance – and had ignored the protestations of the various crew members, including the doctor. Predictably, one of the extras died. How they expected these poor men to make the swim, I don’t know, but the doctor and the director both killed themselves in shame.

That story was, perversely, one of my favorites when I first came here. It embodied the wildness of Cambodia – the fact that this is a place where anything goes, where everything is tinged with danger. Yet I had forgotten it, and in the end it was the lesson I should have remembered, rather than repeated as a bar story for a few months.

That I survived my own war story is a matter of luck. When you land face down, unconscious, in the sea, a victim of extreme exhaustion, and survive, you have to count yourself lucky. And hey, like I told the casting director as my jeep pulled away, “I think I’ll have the most convincing death scene in the movie.”