"We are calling from a tower, expressing what must be everyone's opinion.
They are going out to bars and they are getting into cars.
I have seen them with my own eyes.
America please help them!
They are child stars, with their sex, and their drugs, and their rock and rock, and rock and rock'n'roll."
Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
In Cambodia gas stations consist of roadside stands where the owner sells one-liter soda bottles of gas, and chances are it’s watered down. In Cambodia you will find people’s retirement plans in their mouth in the form of gold teeth. (You need the determination of Rudie Maddoff to steal that retirement plan). In Cambodia you will find expats who’ve left their homeland for various reasons, and chances are you will find them pickled in a bar—and if you’re in Phnom Penh, chances are you’ll find them in Rory’s Irish Pub. In Cambodia, even the most unattractive man can get a beautiful girlfriend—or three. In Cambodia you will find more limbless people per capita and more live land mines than anywhere else in the world. These land mines were not created to kill, but rather to maim, so as to eat up the enemy’s resources.
In Cambodia you will find extreme poverty and the tragedy of sex trafficking. In Cambodia, you will find more NGOs than anywhere else in the world. In Cambodia, you will find still undeveloped island paradises where you can’t get an Internet signal. In Cambodia, you’ll find a lush, verdant countryside full of rice paddies, coconut trees, and bamboo huts—a tropical Ireland. In Cambodia they have just found oil and the Chinese are heavily investing in the country. In Cambodia you will find kind people and beautiful children eager to give you a smile.
It’s for some of these reasons and more that we found ourselves in Cambodia for three weeks, two more than we had planned.
Koh Rong Island, Cambodia
If you’re looking for an inexpensive, unspoiled island getaway, one that provides turquoise-green waters, dense jungles, coconut and mango groves, scuba diving and snorkeling (although the coral I saw was dead), inexpensive beachfront bungalows, quiet fishing villages untouched by western influences, and miles of powder-white beaches where the only company you’ll find are crabs shuffling about, Koh Rong Island in Cambodia is the place to be. But you better not wait too long.
They say the island of Koh Rong, Cambodia is what Koh Samui, Thailand was like 20-years ago. Word has already gotten out about Koh Rong Island, however, and in 2006, Kithr Meng, Cambodia’s first modern tycoon purchased a lease on the island from the Cambodian government for 99 years. It is said he is so important to Cambodia’s economy that if something were to happen to him, the entire economy could collapse.
Meng’s 20-year plan for Kohn Rong includes building an airport where planes with 15 seats or less can land, a marina, and several 5-star resorts. Sadly, it will become a playground for the rich and famous. When I asked Rudy Schmittllein, the owner of Paradise Beach Bungalows if he thought it was going to be the new Koh Samui, he told me that while the developer has plans to build multiple resorts, the grand plan is to create the world’s first all eco-island…whatever that means.
In the first 1-2 weeks of travel with BJ, he wanted to cover 4-5 countries in less than ten weeks. Originally, Cambodia was to be at the end of the trip where we would try to squeeze it in. He was definitely not convinced Koh Rong was a not-to-miss destination, but I was. As it turned out, it was one of the best stops of the trip, although that’s hard to say because each place in Cambodia offered something different. The only place I could have done less time in was Sihanoukville, the town where you catch the ferry to Koh Rong.
After doing a bit of research we settled on Paradise Beach Bungalows. Within 15 minutes of arriving at Paradise, I was laying in a hammock reading no more than 20 feet from the water’s edge. There were no annoying children trying to sell us bracelets and no restaurant owners trying to get us into their establishments. I even managed to get myself up at sunrise two mornings to meditate.
When I asked the owner Rudy why he settled in Cambodia, he took a deep breathe, raised his eyebrows, and said in his German accent. “Well, for one thing, there’s no natural disasters; no earthquakes, typhoons, volcanoes—or tsunamis,” he added.
Rudy, a German expat who has been living out of country for more than 34 years, is lucky to not only call this paradise his home, but also to be alive. In 2004 he was running a dive shop and a guesthouse in Sri Lanka when the Christmas morning tsunami came ashore taking 43,000 lives with it. Because of the structure of the reefs there was no warning such as the sea receding; instead the wave burst through Rudy’s shop and pinned him against a wall. Out of instinct, he put his arms out to brace himself but the strength of the wave snapped his arms like tooth picks. In the process he broke 14 ribs, both shoulders, both upper arms, both wrists, an elbow, 8 fingers, ruptured his lungs, and spent 17 days in a coma. And so he came to Cambodia to recover, for one thing, because there were no natural disasters.
In the morning at Paradise you are likely to hear Beethoven or Mozart. In the afternoon and evenings you’ll hear groovy lounge music like Saint Germaine or Kruder Dorfmeister. Rudy runs his restaurant at Paradise Bungalows as if he were putting on a rock show; everything from the lights to the music are carefully orchestrated, and all the while a joint hangs from his lips and a cloud of marijuana wafts through the air.
New Friends in Paradise
On our first night in Paradise, BJ and I were playing cards in the restaurant. There was a girl by herself sitting beside us who I had noticed earlier on the beach and so I invited her to play cards with us. Nadja was from Germany and on her way to Thailand where she was about to be employed as a dive instructor. After a few hands of Rummy 500 and a few glasses of wine, we became fast friends.
The following day Nadja lounged on the porch of our beachfront Bungalow while BJ and I went on a 15-kilometer hike along the empty beaches of Koh Rong, through the dense jungle, across rivers up to our necks, up to the highest point of the island, to a fishing village untouched by western influences, and back again to the beaches. I misjudged my footing on a rock and took a small spill in the water. My new camera was around my neck and I thought it was finished. While my quick reaction saved the camera from potential ruin, my foot and hand were the losers in that contest.
That night Nadja showed up to dinner with Maddie. Maddie was Dutch and I had recognized her from two days prior on Otres Beach. I noticed her because I could tell she was in an uncomfortable conversation with a woman who was a travel-clinger—the traveler who latches on and won’t let go. If a person fits into the travel-clinger category, chances are you find them incredibly boring or annoying. Fortunately for us Maddie was neither. When I first met Maddie that night in the restaurant, I told her that from the time I started traveling back in 2006, the Dutch have consistently been some of the most fun travelers I have met. I stand by that statement and she did not disappoint.
Depending on BJ’s comfort level and how he sizes up the person he meets, he will either introduce himself as “BJ” or “Bryan”. BJ is for the people he feels comfortable with, Bryan for the ones he think might give an undesired reaction.
BJ introduced himself to Maddie as “BJ” and as occasionally happens a giggle ensued. He went on to explain how he has been getting the “blow job” comment since he was a kid. He also went on to explain how some of his Spanish friends call him Bejota, to which I could not help but respond, “Oh come on BJ. How many Spanish friends do you really have besides your boss, your housekeeper, and your gardener?”
We drank a lot of wine on Koh Rong, played a lot of cards, read a lot, lounged even more, hung out with our new friends, and realized that our paths (BJ and I) and Maddie’s had been crisscrossing Cambodia for the previous two weeks, and it just so happened she was on her way to Kampot—our next stop. We discovered this when we were talking about people with tattoos of the flag of Cambodia on their body. At that moment Rod, from Rory’s Irish Pub in Phnom Penh came up (since he has a tattoo of an elephant and the Cambodian flag on his forearm) and we all got a laugh at the fact that not only had we been going to the same places, but sometimes staying in the same places. Since our paths were already crossing and since she was heading to Kampot, Maddie joined us. Her sarcasm was a natural fit and her energy just added to the wave of fun and excitement that BJ and I were already riding.
In total, the three of us spent a fun-filled alcohol-drenched 8-day stretch together. When Maddie finally did leave the day after a Halloween party at Rory’s, BJ and I found ourselves recovering from a two day hangover. Of course, I take full responsibility for my actions and do not blame Maddie. The three of us just had too much damn fun together.
Les Manguiers (The Mango Tree) - Kampot, Cambodia
Where to even begin with this one? In situations like this, you find yourself asking, when did the shit show begin? Did it begin when we left our guesthouse the second morning in Kampot? Did it begin when we met Maddie on Koh Rong? Did it begin when BJ and I met 7 years ago? Did it begin when we rented mopeds that morning? Perhaps it began with the first bottle of wine that afternoon.
From Koh Rong we spent a mellow night in Sihanoukville where the three of us had dinner, played cards, and shared a room at the Beach Road Hotel. The next morning we set out early and caught a bus to Kampot. We found a place called Les Manguiers (The Mango Tree) about 2 kilometers out of town, a spacious bungalow that had a porch extending out over the river. It was optimal for reading, writing, or watching the sunset. After exploring the town a bit that first day and night I was ready to move on. As it turned out, it was mostly due to the fact that my body was telling me I’ve had enough. BJ and Maddie started early that night and by the time I met up with them, they were on their way. I just couldn’t hang so I went to bed early while BJ and Maddie got a take-away bottle of wine and finished it on the river while I slept.
Even though every day we said we were going to get an early start, inevitably it never happened, and so despite the late start, the next day we rented mopeds. It was a bit tenuous the first two kilometers out of town, but not before long we were feeling comfortable and opening it up on the 20-kilometer drive to the beach. The feeling of freedom was exhilarating—two friends, old and new, and the open road. We were not just looking at the lush scenery; we were a part of it.
It was a gloriously spectacular day and the freedom we all felt driving through Cambodia to the beach was hard to beat. We were all smiles on the bike and I couldn’t help but just keep saying thank you over and over in my mind. We drove all around that day, had crab at a restaurant on the water, drove through Bokor National Park, and started to make our way toward the Vietnam border when we decided to turn back. We were losing sunlight and still had an hour-long drive home. By the time we reached the outskirts of Kampot, the sun was falling into the Gulf of Thailand.
The previous day my fatigue was so great that part of me just wanted to return home and call it a trip, but the freedom of the fresh air rejuvenated my spirit. Before we headed into town for dinner, we split a bottle of wine at our bungalow, then hopped on our mopeds for the drive into town. (Kids, I don’t recommend this). Again I played the role of mother hen, reminding everyone that we were driving motor vehicles and to take it easy, but it seemed to be a lost cause, and beside that I wasn’t heeding my own warning. I am much better at giving advice than taking my own. What followed was dinner, wine, beer, shots, and several bars.
When you’re feeling good, there’s nothing to take it to the next level like great music and it just so happened that the last bar of the night, which coincidentally was called Maddie’s, was playing it. They also let us pick songs and when given the opportunity, I chose Sympathy for the Devil, by the Rolling Stones, and Weird Fishes Arpeggio, by Radiohead.
By the time the songs came on, we were singing the song out loud, fist pumping the air, playing air guitar, and beaming smiles out into universe like transmissions from a satellite. It would have been hard to be happier in that moment. I was looking around at the environment and looking at my friends, both old and new, and thinking in that moment how much I loved life and these two people. I have had some amazing heights of joy on my trip, but this was a perfect storm of alcohol, music, friends, joy, and freedom. I was high on life and so grateful to be where I was—in a bar in Kampot, Cambodia with two amazing people, listening to some of my favorite bands, and not having a care in the world. The joy was only exacerbated when BJ began crawling on the pool table while imitating the poor cat we were keeping in our possession for a photo shoot, and this may have been the opening shot of what would become a full on photo shoot later in the evening.
We closed the bar down, grabbed a few beers and a bag of ice, which the bar so graciously packed for us in a plastic bag, and headed back yo our riverside bungalow. We all got on our mopeds to leave when BJ realized he didn’t have his camera. I mentioned that maybe Maddie had it but by the time I turned around to ask her, all that remained of her was a red taillight disappearing into a haze of dust and darkness. I went back into the bar to help BJ find his camera but to no avail.
All day BJ was having trouble controlling the bike when starting it up. Inevitably he would start his bike in first gear instead of neutral and it would lurch forward. Before we got on the bike I told BJ to be careful driving home and to follow me slowly since his taillight was out.
“Yeah, Yeah,” he said, brushing off my comment while making fun of me for my constant emphasis on caution. I got on my bike facing the opposite direction of BJ and started it up. I turned my head around just in time to see one of BJ’s finest Keith Richards’s moments. Once again, BJ started his bike in first gear, launching it into several other bikes. The result was a domino effect, which brought down all the other motor bikes, as well as BJ’s own bike coming down on top of him. I turned off my own bike and ran over to BJ and everyone in the bar came running out with immediacy and concern.
Surprisingly they were all cool, helping BJ back up and putting the other bikes upright. All the while BJ assured everyone he was OK. When they all left he said, “I think I cut my foot.”
Oh shit, I thought. With great, tender concern I asked, “Is it bad?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Great. Let’s go,” my concern and empathy replaced with concentration and focus.
I had BJ follow me at a very slow pace for the two-kilometer ride back to town. The hardest part of the drive was focusing on the road while trying not to drive off of it due to hysterical laughter. About a kilometer into our journey homeward, from the side of the road a motorcycle light turned on and a bike peeled out of the darkness, kicking up dirt and dust. The next thing we knew Maddie was driving beside us and once again our inept motorcycle gang was back together.
When we got home, BJ told Maddie that he lost his camera and that he thought he left it on the pool table, “But when I went back in it was nowhere to be found. I think someone took it.”
“Well that’s bullshit!” Maddie said. “Come on. We’re going back to town!”
I think I may have said, do you think that’s a good idea? But maybe I just said that in my mind. Regardless, by this point in the evening my fatherly concern was replaced with the satisfaction of being home in one piece, and besides that. Even more importantly, however, I had already poured myself a Jameson. Maddie was full of piss and vinegar and got BJ fired up as well, and while I stayed home to listen to some music and write, Maddie and BJ took off back to town.
As the story was related to me when they returned, they took off out of our long driveway to the guesthouse and Maddie turned left down a dirt road that lead to another guesthouse. At no point were you actually supposed to turn left. BJ just stopped his bike and waited for her to go down the road. A minute later she came back and said, “I turned too early. Come on! Follow me!”
The two of them were back before I knew it, recounting a tale of storming into the bar with their “guns’a’blazin,” with accusations flying around the room like balls on a pool table. The story seemed to go on and on as they made sure not to miss a detail and I couldn’t help but wonder if the story was actually going anywhere. They recounted how the people at the bar were very accommodating and removed every cushion, searching high and low. BJ thought about leaving a note for the thief to just mail back his memory card figuring it was gone. It was at that point, after every last cushion was removed, that Maddie decided to check her bag one more time, and it was at that point that she found his camera in her bag. They apologized profusely and quickly exited the bar.
“Don’t worry,” the bar owner said. “You’d be surprised. It happens about two or three times a week.”
When they got home, BJ said, “That girl who owned the bar was pretty cool. We ditched her in the middle of a pool game that she asked us to play, we took over her music, I pretended to be a cat on her pool table, then accused her staff of stealing my camera. And she was smiling the entire time.”
It was about two in the morning at this point and we were drinking beer and Jameson, smoking cigarettes, and taking turns playing photographer and subject in a photo shoot that seemed to last for hours. As the night wore on, I could see BJ’s eyelids going to half-mast, and as if we wouldn’t notice, like Peter Cottontail he made his way to his bed in three quick leaps, and in a matter of seconds he was snoring. It wasn’t exactly an Irish exit since he didn’t leave the premise, but being that he did not give notice, it could be in the same genus as an Irish exit. I’m not really sure what you would call it, but I’m open to suggestions.
Once again, Maddie and I were up until the light began to make it’s way into the eastern sky.
Halloween in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh was a place of glamour in the 60s, a place where Jackie Onassis and friends used to hang out, but in the mid-70s the Khmer Rouge came into power and wiped out everyone from movie stars to artists to intellectuals in an attempt to turn the country into a Communist party of rice farmers. It’s got a vibe though, a good one, and it is on the rebound. The next generation is beginning to reemerge with a vibrant art scene and many investment dollars are flooding into the country.
The day before we left Kampot, Maddie called Rory’s to get us all a room.
“Hello Rod. It’s Maddie. I’m coming back to Phnom Penh and need 2-3 rooms. Remember those two boys from Seattle who were in the bar a week ago?”
In addition to Chad and Rod, a bunch of lively expat characters make up Rory’s. The first night I wound up talking with Uli, a German expat in his 50s who did video production. He said he was the precursor to YouTube and owned a bunch of URLs and web “channels.” He had wild stringy hair and wore deep weathered lines on his face like Keith Richards. The more he drank the deeper he got into Chinese Astrology. He was a Goat, I was a Tiger, BJ was a Horse, and Maddie was also a Goat.
“I’ll meet some women and when I find out the their sign I won’t even talk to them. I just know we ain’t gonna work out, man.” I wondered how many times Chad and Rod had heard the stories of the people they served drinks to on an almost daily basis.
The drunker he got the more direct his advances towards Maddie became. “When the two of us get together, us two goats, it’s wild, man. We would have a wild time. I’m telling you, man!” I would lean in and listen to his conversation every now and then and thought for a while that Maddie was actually enjoying it, until she mouthed “Save me!”
Our days in Phnom Penh were spent walking about the waterfront or recovering in our room and our nights were spent mingling with the local expats. On the day of Halloween, Chad was already lit around noon when he announced he would be having a Halloween party that evening and the winner would receive a $20 bar tab.
BJ, Maddie, and I went to a market that day to see if we could find ideas for Halloween costumes. BJ bought everything “I love Cambodia” and went as an enthusiastic Cambodia-loving tourist. Maddie pieced together some of her SCUBA gear, and I saw an Angkor Wat snow globe and decided I would be a fortuneteller.
Over the course of three days and nights at Rory’s, it was a wonderful feeling to walk into the bar and have Rod throw his hand up in the air and yell, “Tim!” It was a crowning moment where I felt as if I was slowly becoming Norm from Cheers! But the best was yet to come.
I spent a good part of that day in my room, as we were all wiped out from the previous week, but when I finally got up, I saw that most people were in costume so I sprung into action. I found a piece of cardboard and wrote on it “Fortune Teller: 1$ or 1 beer,” and used my towel as my swami headpiece. And of course all I needed was my snow globe and a few Jameson to predict the future.
When I came down the steps from the guesthouse into the pub, I was met with a rousing applause, camera flashes, and fits of laughter. I felt like the belle of the ball. The towel on my head was hot, but it helped me see into the future more clearly.
Chad was dressed as an alternative Blues Brother. He had given himself a Mohawk and dyed his hair and eyebrows black. When the time came for Chad to announce the winner, the prize money was broken into two. Chad gave out one award, and when he started to make his announcement for the second, I knew I had it in the bag, just as Chad was already in the bag.
“He came in here this afternoon without a costume. He was searching around the place, asked me for cardboard, wire, a marker, whatever he could get his hands on…” It was my Oscar moment and I didn’t even have a speech prepared.
As a side bar, Katie Flood was the first person I ever made out with. I believe I was in sixth grade and my best friend Michael was in 8th grade. It was Valentine’s Day and I had gotten Katie a teddy bear and wanted to have some alone time in the back of the bus to give it to her.
On the bus ride home that day I had Michael move everyone up to the front of the bus. Katie and I were in the last three-seater in the back. I was nervous and had never kissed anyone before. I gave Katie the teddy bear and then there was a loooonnnggggg awkward, expectant pause before it happened, as both of us knew what was coming but didn’t know how to make the conversion, and so I finally just went in for it.
And she was ravenous.
The kiss was slippery, aggressive, and awkward, and I have since said that if if you wet the suction part of a vacuum cleaner and stuck your tongue in it, it would probably be pretty similar to that first kiss.
Chad had been drinking since probably 8am that morning, and by the time I was presented with my prize money it was a good 12-13 hours later. And so after handing me an envelope with the $10 bounty, he planted a kiss on my lips that was very much in the same manner as Katie did, except Katie didn’t have a 5’o’clock shadow. There was not a hint of homosexuality in this kiss and there was no tongue involved, just the wet exuberance of an expat bar owner who had been drinking for half a day.
After the Halloween party, we changed and headed out to several bars with a crew of about ten. Chad and Rod shut down Rory’s early and came with us. We eventually wound up at a club called The Heart of Darkness where I had found myself two weeks prior with BJ, a Cambodian waitress, and her sister.
The end of Halloween night got a little blurry. BJ made an Irish exit but Maddie and I stayed with the crew until the wee-hours of the morning. We finally made an Irish exit ourselves and by the time we got home light was beginning to unfold in the eastern sky.
My room at Rory’s didn’t have a window and so it was a bit like being in a Vegas casino, except not really at all. I had no idea what time I went to bed that night, but I am imagining it to be between 5-6am. A small faction of the crew went on to have breakfast at the bar at 7am, and when I came down around noon that day, Chad was still been up. He was not looking his best and brightest seeing as he was pushing 36-hours of being awake and still partying.
The hangover and anxiety that ensued the following two days was enough to make us want to escape from Phnom Penh.