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Extracts from draft chapter about our time in Cambodia in January

We got the boat to the mainland.  Again, it was touristy and busy.  There was the occasional pretty sight; a navy umbrella with silver edges, a burgundy shirt with sequins, the sun catching and making them sparkle.  We went to get a tuk tuk to Otres Village where we were staying, straight away.

I had read about the development in Sihanoukeville, largely Chinese led, in an expats magazine in Phnom Penh.  Khmer owned small shops and restaurants were being sold to Chinese developers and the land redeveloped for hotels and casinos.  Westerners were selling up and moving out, fed up with living beside constant building work, and bemoaning the loss of familiar restaurants, bars and shops, and that the disappearance of the old shop fronts was changing the character.

Sihanoukville was as ‘bad’ as we had feared; one large building site, but fascinating; huge hotels half built, and so many, some covered in green netting.  Others almost done and we could see through the windows to big dormitories of beds; we passed developments of small huts with little space in between, a different standard of personal space to that of Westerners.

In the tuk tuk, the road long and dusty, building work all around, my main concern was dust after so much pollution on the trip.  Luckily, where we were staying was something of an oasis, down a side street and down a path off that.  It had changed names and hands, and was in between style wise.  The huts were wooden and the shower room walls were decorated with wildlife murals.  The toilets must have previously been compost ones, the instructions still painted on the wall although they were now ordinary ones.  There were signs for an alternative pharmacy, now closed.  In contrast the restaurant area looked recently done up, with new metal furniture and cushions, glass topped tables, and a smart looking cream printed menu.

Our wooden hut with beams was open in places, with slight gaps in the ceiling and walls but with a reassuring mosquito net.  On a beam above the door was a bag of weed, some papers and a lighter, left by the previous occupants for the next ones, probably they were taking a flight.

The huts had balconies with chairs, with little bushes in front and dotted around the garden.  Staff looked like they were working on the garden which was half scrubby half beds of bushes.  Everything was in the process of changing.  We saw Khmer people, at our place and in the street, carrying so much, thick bamboo, firewood, poles, long pieces of wood, balanced on one shoulder.

One day I hung my bag on the hook on the back of the shower door, when I took it off I saw that there was a little frog perched right on the end of the hook, luckily I hadn’t touched it with my bag.  I called Anthony to come and look.  ‘We should move it, in case it gets hurt,’ Anthony said.  I moved a bin underneath so it wouldn’t have so far if it jumped down to the floor.  As soon as we went near, it jumped, not down but across and stuck to the door, legs outstretched, feet sticking to the wood.  It was like something out of a David Attenborough programme.

There were three kittens around the restaurant who would play, sit on laps, eat noodles and curl up to sleep beside you.  Not all the guests liked them around them while they were eating though, and sometimes they would be shut in a box at meal times.

There was a tree just beside the restaurant that the kittens used to play in, it had a hole at the bottom.  One kitten was braver and would jump from the restaurant wall into the tree; the others watched but didn’t jump.  The three kittens were very similar size but that one was more well muscled, so it could do more, or was it because it did more?  One day I was sitting on my own in the restaurant having breakfast, coffee, huge chunks of French bread and jam.  One of the kittens was on a nearby table playing with an arrangement of fake flowers, those ones where the heads will pull off the stems, the kitten seemed to know this and managed to pull one of the heads off… so fun.

On the main road were shops, travel agencies and small supermarkets.  Also wooden buildings, bars and restaurants, many owned by Westerners, and almost all with for sale or to let signs up.  We saw a Western woman, blonde, skinny, with dreadlocks, be dropped off by a man on a motorbike.  She had a bloodied face, and her expression and walk made her look like a zombie; we wondered whether she was on Ketamine, which was freely available to buy in the pharmacies.  We watched her for a while, saw that she went into a pharmacy, hopefully for some first aid…  We saw a vegan street stall selling, unbelievably, homemade Vegan Snickers.  Vegan Snickers!  He was a young Westerner.  We asked him what he was going to do.  He said he was thinking about going to the Anderman Islands…

Sitting outside on our balcony I saw a woman walk past our hut a couple of times.  ‘Friend’ I said to myself, and resolved to speak to her next time she passed.  It was the same for her, she said she’d wanted to speak to us too.  Of course at first it’s the outside things:  our kind of age, kind of hippyish in a natural way, no makeup, loose natural hair, a printed cotton smock.

R was Spanish.  As a young woman she had left home and gone off to Osho’s ashram in Pune, India, which explained why my husband ‘recognised’ her; he has known several sannyasins.  She runs workshops in Italy and Spain on family relationships and consciousness raising.  She created a life totally her own that was nothing like her parents’ lives or their expectations for her.  When her mother became ill she returned home to care for her.  She decided to just be herself, ‘Here I am, I run these workshops, I am a teacher,’ rather than try to ‘fit in’ by being inauthentic.  She said it was very hard, going back.  Back, ‘In the collective,’ she called it, the fear comes; security, pensions, savings, all those things she had happily not worried about for years.

We all spoke about our times in more tourist/holiday maker areas.  ‘You can have your own experience even in a party place,’ R said.

I liked watching how R made decisions.  She was going somewhere, then the flight was cancelled, so she thought about it and decided to get a bus instead, break up the journey and go and visit somewhere else halfway.  Travelling alone, living alone, making her own work, collaborating with others, using what she had learned at Osho’s and all learning since, always reading and learning new things too.  People in different venues invite her and if something is put on, people will come, she is known.  ‘I should really work out money,’ she said, describing that she just kind of spends it, treats it with a light touch, it comes and goes.

We often had dinner or lunch together, sometimes at the onsite restaurant but mainly we ate on the main road at a cheaper place, and with lovely staff.  ‘You are an angel,’ R said to our regular waiter on the last day.  ‘You have come down from heaven, an angel.’  She expressed herself so easily, like Renate in Varkala, India who when we said goodbye had said to me, ‘If I’d had a daughter like you, we’d have had such fun,’ whereas I sometimes find my English reserve gets the better of me.

R had a light, a treatment light, like sungazing.  After multiple reassurances that it was safe to do so, I went and had a go.  ‘Don’t rush back, take your time and rest afterwards,’ she said.  I did it in the hut and sat still there afterwards for a while.  The light caused visuals, both behind and in front of my eyes, and afterwards, ideas, a burst of energy, I even felt inspired to do a job search of potential employers near the boat.  A little while later I went for a walk to the beach.  On the road leading to the beach was an insane mini funfair with small rides, stalls of garish plastic toys and brightly coloured balloons.  At a canned drink stall a woman in a pretty dress was semi asleep, she woke and we caught eyes and smiled.  I’d not brought any money so I couldn’t buy anything.  At the beach the vegan man was there but I went past him, I didn’t feel like speaking to anyone.

It was unusual for me to go out alone, and unusual for me to go off and not say anything, the appeal of a bit of interstitial time, unknown, unexplained.  I stood on the beach facing the sea.  There was a big hotel block almost like a skyscraper to the right of me, lit up.  The beach was busy with people.  It was the end of the day, lights coming on, the sea looked pretty.  I was in the moment then.

About the author

Sold house, left job, gave away almost everything else.  With husband went travelling for a year, mostly in India.   Here are my India highlights.  Now back in the UK, living on a narrowboat, and writing a book about the trip, a spiritual/travel memoir, extracts from which appear regularly on this blog.