With a quick six hour mini bus ride from Kratie to Ban Lung, I finally arrived in the mystical province of Ratanakiri, and accepted the offer of a moto driver to take me to the Tree Top Lodge. Living up to its name, the restaurant and deck of the guest house overlooked the tall hills, lush in vegetation, dipping deep into an untouched valley and climbing high on the other side, speckled only with a few small guest houses in the distance. After spending my first day in the sweet silence of my own thoughts, riding an elephant through the jungle and visiting a few local waterfalls, I headed back to the lodge to enjoy a beer and a book overlooking the stunning view.
I was happy again, the overwhelming beauty of nature barely brushed by human development is something that I have voraciously sought since Africa. And here it was again. But it wasn’t long before my sweet silence was interrupted by a small group of French guys arriving on the guest house balcony. Instantly chatting with me about the town and the waterfalls, I was more than happy to entertain their inquisitions.
The three of them were as charming as they were handsome, and in the same order. Attracted immediately to the unspoiled sweetness of Hugo’s kind blue eyes, I silently reconfirmed my vow of celibacy upon learning he had a girlfriend back in Paris. As it was, they were all good company and I was quick to accept their offer to accompany them into the sparsely traversed roads of the mountainous Ratanakiri countryside. On three motorbikes they had hired in Phnom Penh we made our way down the red clay roads, feeling as if the world had just begun here. On our way into the isolated farmlands of the forgotten tribes, we searched for an elusive river and a chance to interact with these tribes we knew nothing about. Pushing themselves hard down the intermittent stretches of firm, dry road the boys sped ever faster, passing each other again and again at increasing speeds.
I was both scared and thrilled and was sure the bikes were fueled on testosterone and adrenaline alone. But as the rocky dirt road turned to thick, slippery clay, the bikes struggled and slid in endless resistance to the will of the malleable mud. I felt akin to each of them, to their unbridled sense of adventure, and their insistence on doing and exploring everything on their own. As it was, I held on tight as the boys maneuvered exhausted through the wet rutted tracks, carved with scars of the heavy rains that pulled the soft mud into minute canyons again and again. Each time the tires lost traction, I pressed my hands harder into Adrien’s waist, my legs clenching each side of his as I dreaded what I thought at the time was the inevitable fall. And inevitable it was.
The first slip from which he was unable to recover landed us in the tall, soft grass lining the sienna clay road. Both of us unscathed by the incident and glad to have avoided being covered in the thick mud, we pushed the bike from the waist high grass and continued on. As the narrow provincial road narrowed further, manageable tracks were harder and harder to find through the deep mud, slipping uncontrollably as if driving on ice. Still riding with Hugo’s brother Adrien, the second fall covered the right side of our bodies in the terra cotta clay that stains your skins for days. Glad to have at least avoided a second painful exhaust pipe burn, we decided I should go with Hugo instead, a slightly more experienced driver.
But the unsteady weight of a second body proved too much for Hugo as well and trying to press quickly through the deeper canyons attempting to find some semblance of traction backfired and we skidded hard against the thin, rocky ridge at the peak of the gashed road. My leg stung and blood became visible through the second layer of caked-on mud. The skin on the top of my left foot was, for the most part, missing, and I sat in a simultaneously sharp, hot, and throbbing pain. After a few moments, Hugo gave me his hand and helped me to my feet, my leg still shaking in shock and pain. But nothing was broken or sprained and so I poured some water on the filthy abrasions and got back on the bike, happy to wrap my arms around his hard and reassuring body.
Hugo was the kind of guy whose good looks go unnoticed by no one. His soft face exudes an innocent charm that is immediately and immeasurably endearing. His pale, periwinkle eyes make it all the harder to not to stare at him with longing schoolgirl naivete. I knew from the beginning that Hugo had a girlfriend, but having already loved a married man who soon left his wife for me (and then for another woman after the most tumultuous year of my life) I am under no illusions about the fidelity of men who are not truly happy in their lives. So I held him tightly, suggestively, and pressed my chest hard and arched into his back as he maneuvered down the long winding ribbon of dirt, at times more a river than a road.
Never taking for granted the overwhelming, indescribably breathtaking country that yawned and stretched in vibrant greens for every direction, this was the real Cambodia. This was the beauty and adventure for which my soul had been begging and though the sharp wind from the ride stung my leg in acid burn, I smiled finally feeling the void in my chest fill once again with wonder. Still scared at times of another crash, Hugo turned his irresistible eyes toward me each time he felt my legs grip him especially tight. And each time he promised in his soft French accent, and smile that could get you to forgive anything, that we would not crash again. And then we did. The fourth crash, not as damaging as the third, dug the rocky mud into my open wounds, and the heavy bike landed hard on my hip. Every part of me was convulsing in shock and pain and when the boys rushed to my aid, asking with honest sympathy if I was alright. I couldn’t hide the tears I attempted to shield in the secrecy of my helmet. If my tolerance for adventure and danger are abnormally high, my threshold for pain is ironically low. And so we made the decision to head back.
Fifty kilometers into the countryside before reaching the elusive tribal villages, the road was seeming only to get worse and we agreed we were lucky to have only minor scratches to show for our quartet of crashes. Slow and steady, and walking through the more difficult stretches to navigate, we made it back to the small town center of Ban Lung without another incident. Hugo spent the remainder of the ride back apologizing with a genuine sorrow for breaking his last promise that I wanted nothing more than to soothe. If ever there was a schoolgirl crush, this was it. And despite the fact that this youthful, clean cut accountant was a far cry from the standard broke, dirty, artist to whom I am usually attracted, I found myself dreamily smitten. That being said, I am well aware of my tendencies to want those men that I know will be nothing but trouble.
Once my leg was cleaned and bandaged the boys took me out to lunch and we headed back to Lumkot Lake, the large, volcanic crater lake surrounded by the kind of ancient vegetation, lazy in its verdant draping that reminded me so overwhelmingly of Africa. I spent three days in Ratanakiri with the three French boys and each day we found ourselves back at the paradisical lake.
On the second night, as an apology for the temporary loss of yet another foot, they took me out to dinner at a charming French restaurant incongruous with the muddy street stalls that define this provincial town.
We drank wine and whiskey into the early hours of the morning and one by one, as everyone found their respective beds, Hugo and I sat alone on the tree top deck of our majestic guest house. I am no stranger to flirtation and I know the glances and conversation that he and I shared throughout the night were far from meaningless. We spoke of his life back in Paris, with his steady job, inspiring only ennui, and the steady girlfriend of four years that goes along with such a predictable life. I shared with him my similar story of my rut in love and work back in North Carolina and the string of events that led me to leave it all behind.
He looked at me then as I was lying long across the broad, wooden table and with an earnestness in his eyes I can’t help but believe was genuine, told me he should leave it all behind and come explore the world with me instead. Naturally, I accepted his offer, still jaded by a string of disappointing boys since I had left Malaysia. And then I saw the glint. The best glint you can ever see, and always, immediately, recognize; he was going to kiss me. Despite my private vow of celibacy until I returned to New Zealand (who was I kidding?) I let his head bend down to mine, and reveled in the first whisper of lip to lip. Cupping my hand to the side of his face, my thumb to his temple, fingers in his hair, he kissed me. He really kissed me.
I won’t be so harsh as to say the last time a kiss made it to the back of my knees, but this one was it. At once teasing and tentative, others unbridled with the shared knowledge of what we knew we both wanted, we made out. There is just no other word for such an epic session of lip and tongue and hand and arching bodies. In a sweet and brief pause he confessed to me that in four years he had never kissed another woman. Simultaneously puzzled and flattered, I inquired as to why it was me, why it was now. But his only response was to say “Je’n sais pas…” and kiss me again, both softer and with more fervor than before. As it was, that night, I did not break my vow of celibacy, but only quietly hoped I might have the chance before we parted.
My last night in Ratanakiri I could think of almost nothing else. As the large group of us sat around the same large table that Hugo and I had laid upon the night before, he discreetly traced his finger along my exposed thigh, hidden in the shadows under the table, now indelible in my memory of Cambodia. Occasionally he laced his fingers in mine and when I brought my eyes to his we knew it became obvious to the rest of the table just exactly what we were thinking. But the desire I knew was unfolding in both of us would never be fulfilled.
Once again, as the night found its quiet end, he kissed me slowly, and with care. This was not the reckless passion that had shook us both the night before. Each kiss of his was a small, silent apology. He had already told his girlfriend back home about me, about our kiss, about his sole infidelity in four years, to which she replied, “Je te deteste et je la deteste aussi!” But for all the anger she felt at the time, we both knew in resigned desire that he would go home to her. His minor transgression would be forgiven and the unexpected spark, the epic kiss, and the flame that burned as fast as it did bright, would drift from our histories as easily as the ash it would inevitably leave behind.