In the month since I left the party scene on Koh Phi Phi, swarming with English teenagers making their way through the Southeast Asian party circuit, I had yearned for solitude. Malaysia was so peaceful, full of traveling souls on journeys I understood. And arriving on the Thai island full of obnoxious, obstreperous drunks searching for their next one night stand to the blaring pulse of shitty electronic dance music on the beach, I was already ready to leave. The fact that just about everything I had of value was stolen on that first night only provided the perfect excuse.
While I was glad to find the comfort of a good friend in Phnom Penh, my need to truly get away from it all remained. When I headed down to Sihanoukville, a small beach town on the southern coast of Cambodia, I was quickly overwhelmed again. The dirty town was packed with backpackers and western-run bars and I found a job working for free food, free accomodation, and all the booze I could handle, so long as I was behind the bar. It was too good to pass up and so I planned to make a home in this hectic hostel to save some money and pass the time before Barbara and I were to leave for Vietnam.
But something still wasn’t right. Despite my self-proclaimed alcoholism, I much prefer taking my drinks in the good company of friends and honest strangers, getting to know one another through good conversation and laughter more boisterous as the night and the drinks pour on. Sihanoukville was simply another Koh Phi Phi, only instead of young tourists getting wasted on holiday these folks were six, seven, ten months deep into the endless stream of tequila induced random sex, everyone fucking everyone like a poorly written teenage drama. By midnight on the first night there were five-way make out sessions and boys half stripping on the bar, grunting animalistically and “woo-woo”-ing in some esoteric mating call that was most certainly lost on my ears. By my third night at Utopia I sat at the bar quietly enjoying a glass of bourbon, forced to consistently protest the incessant pressure from random strangers that I get absolutely obliterated. On the fourth day, I headed back to Phnom Penh.
As soon as I got back I began making travel plans to Ratanakiri. One of the most remote provinces in Cambodia, I yearned strangely for the utter isolation I would find in such a forgotten place. The trip to the Northeastern-most province is a long one from the southern situated capital and I decided to break up what I had been told was a two day journey by spending a night in Kratie. Arriving just as the sun had grown tired of hanging high in the sky, it began its restful dip down to the horizon of the great Mekong River.
A small provincial town centered around its large market and famous for its riverside sunsets, each of the seven muddy streets extend only two blocks from the riverfront lined with food stalls before disappearing into the endless, pastoral landscape. Lying on a strip nestled tightly between the banks of the expansive Mekong, is the island of Koh Trong. Still feeling a piece of the desolation that had incapacitated me from Phuket to Phnom Penh, I felt overwhelmed even in the bustling, though still small provincial market in Kratie. The short ferry trip was a world away. The “ferry” of course is nothing a small wooden boat with an outboard motor that seats six or seven people and runs near constantly between the undeveloped island and the provincial capital. The dirt road that circumnavigates the shores of the island is populated only with the square single room shacks on stilts that define rural Cambodian living.
As I pressed the tires of my rented bicycle on down the dirt track with the Mekong to my right and the almost toxicly electric green of rice paddies to my left; it came back: that elusive joy, the curious excitement that had fueled my travels for so long. As I cycled easily on, children and adults greeted me with the one English word every Khmer knows and loves to say: “helllooooooooo!” It chimed from the voices of each and every house I passed as children came running out to greet me. The smiles, honest and unassuming, asking for nothing but a smile in return, brought me back to life.
The unrelenting heat of the stifling afternoon suddenly gave way to a brisk, formidable wind that I struggled to pedal against. I saw the rains enveloping the opposite side of the river like a deep, swarm of slate. Unconcerned for the wind and thankful for the cooling breeze, I continued the loop around the island stopping to play with children and photograph the rice paddies littered with adults and children alike, working in the ancient struggle for survival.
When I made my way back to the town center, I knew I was ready to head out into the country. Despite the charms of the small island village, I still craved the remote, where the market and the internet and the pharmacy are more than just a thousand riel ferry ride away. Though I didn’t know what to expect in Ratanakiri, I knew I was ready for it.