I got a message from my friend, Sonita on the evening of 9th, September. It was short and to-the-point, “pack your bags. I managed to get you a seat to Kep this weekend.”
And yup, that’s how it all started.
The trip started at about 7pm on Saturday, 12th of the same month with 17 people. All of us except three (Panha, Vera and me) are from Lift magazine which is something pretty remarkable. You don’t just get the chance to hang out with journalists (and journalist-would-be’s) that often.
We arrived at Kep during lunch time, and our initial plan was to visit the Rabbit Island. A bunch of us became quite worried because of the gray weather, the crashing waves, and the deceiving calmness of the ocean, and voted to go to Sihanoulk Ville instead. Yet, after a little bit of questioning around, we decided to risk it and go to the island, I mean, it’s a pretty special opportunity.
The boat ride started out pretty well. We were singing and joking until it was not anymore. The waves got larger and larger, and we were all holding to our life jackets for our dear lives. The fact that the boat was made out of wood and was quite small also added to the panic. I think it was mostly because it was the first time most of us ride on that kind of boat that made it this scary. Seawater would splash every time the boat hit a particularly big wave. We would joke around that we all became very religious once we were onboard which was probably true. Right, so we managed to get to the island. The journey took roughly 20-30 minutes at most, but it felt like a lifetime ago. I kept thinking of how my Chinese great-grandfather and grandfather must have felt, travelling on a boat to Cambodia all the way from Guangdong, China, amidst storms and with only an unknown future to hold on to. My thoughts also drifted to the Syrian refugees who are seeking refuges by means of fishing boats right now. How desperate they must have felt with their lives dictated by the wind. Our fears have been washed away like the crabs on the shore once we set foot on the island. I was about to hop down and give the sand a big-ass kiss, but was too distracted by the lovely view of the island.
It was quite a fortunate coincidence that September was an off-season, so there weren’t many tourists around. We practically have got the forest to ourselves. We had to walk for a couple of minutes to get to our bungalows which were WOW! That location would be my ideal house location- crashing waves on the front, with a full green view of woods at the back. There were 6 or 7 dogs hanging out around the place we were staying in, and all of them looked so happy and content. They were super-friendly which made me happy because as Cath has put it, that meant they hadn’t been mistreated by humans before. Seeing super shy dogs just makes me sad because dogs don’t just shy away from humans unless they have learned there’s a reason to.
It was about 2 or 3 pm when we finished settling into our rooms. The others spent the afternoon swimming while I and Natalie were just lazing around on the shore, alternatively relaxing and talking.
There were pubs and restaurants, so if you have money, shortage of food won’t be a problem at all. We stuffed ourselves full and got ready for the night. Because of the rain, some of us decided to stay in, while others got out. I and my roommates went to a next-door pub to seek for shelter and a place to play UNO. Yup. Even though we knew our relationships would break apart, we still risked it. I mean, it’s UNO! Right. So we got in the pub, and what really closed the deal was the fact that was a three-legged dog welcoming us and almost beckoning us to enter the pub. We settled in, and boy, oh boy! UNO becomes all the more intense when you have shots as punishments. The six of us played for about 2 hours or so, and I was really grateful for my days of UNO playing (and UNO losing) at Home Du Pain (my friends over at Home Du Pain are like super fast and smart when it comes to UNO)! I and Sonita only got a shot while some of us got quite many shots ranging from a few to a dozen.
We got bored at UNO eventually, and set out to the beach again. The rain had ceased to fall, so we have got the shore to ourselves again! As all electricity is to be cut off at 10pm on the island, we planned to start a fire and you know, play around the fire. Yes, we did manage to start one (with the help of a lighter and a pinch of gasoline), but it had died out because of the lack of woods just a little before the electricity was cut off.
Some of us were sitting around telling ghost stories, and I was pretty tipsy, so I just slept in a hammock listening to the waves. I and my roommates eventually decided to spend the night on the beach with pillows and blankets from our room. That plan didn’t turn out well because it got colder and colder as the night matched on. At 12 pm, we just couldn’t take it anymore, so we moved back in. The warmth of the shelter greeted me with a hug and I just fell immediately to sleep.
I opened my eyes to be greeted with a small view of the morning-beach provided by a 0.5m by 0.5m window on my side of the bed. Normally, I would wait until 7 to get up, but this was too great a view to pass up, so I went to the shore in my pj’s without a care in the world. It was 6:30 or something, and I and a few of the girls decided to explore the north shore. There were seaweed everywhere, washed by the sea during the night. The pub-workers were actually picking them up, trying to keep the beach clean for visitors. I gave it a try. It was a hard job, but soothing at the same time. There was a pier at the end of the shore, and the view of the island from there was amazing.
I kept thinking about the Sims survival game, beach edition and wondered if I would survive being stranded here. Probably not; with no cooking skills, no fire-making skills, I would probably just die, while listening to the sounds of waves, of course.
I ordered banana pancakes for breakfast which turned out to be very different from the ones I was used to, but hey, it was delicious! Most of us spent the morning relaxing and swimming around until it was time to depart. The sea looked suspiciously calm from the island, there were only a handful of black clouds, so we started out in the highest of spirits… which quickly changed to a mixture of fear and panic when in the middle of the journey, huge waves were crashing in on us. They were bigger than the ones we had met the day before, and more frequent, too. We held hands and jokingly said “I love you guys” to one another. The seawater splashing was more frequent, and by the end of the ride, we were soaked to our underwear! Well, it was the least of our concerns because we landed! We landed! My mind kept thinking back to the Syrian refugees. How happy they must have felt when they landed. How grateful they must have felt, and how crushingly hopeless it must have been for them when they learned they had been turned away from their supposedly host countries.
I tucked my thoughts in, and continued our journey to Kampong Trach, a cave nearby.
Well, it looked wonderful. There were little tour guides around, spurring the same stories of rocks resembling turtles, dragons, and whatnots. Stories of wild beasts and animals echoed through the cave, and none of it made any sense. I asked the kids where they got the stories from, and they just told me it was from an uncle. Well, that uncle must have been extremely imaginative to think of all those animals to resemble the rocks. The stories were quite shallow and so it became quite annoying very quickly. I told them to not talk about all those imagery hallucinations, and just lead the way around. The tiny tour guides were just kids, ranging from 7 to 13 years of age. Because they’re having a break from school, guiding people around this place had become their full-time jobs. They even knew how to tell their stories in English by heart, and yes, they did take English classes. Those innocent little minds, trying to earn a living for their family just humbled me. We gave them 1$ each and wished them the best of luck.
The ride back home was a smooth one with only a one and a half hour long traffic jam around Chomchao.
The day after the trip we found out that there would be floods and heavy rains near the sea of Cambodia because of low pressures from a storm in China. Fishermen were advised to not go out to the sea. That made sense. Our worry for the big waves were not entirely groundless, after all. What was more unbelievable was the fact that on our way home, what held us up at Chomchao for so long was a fatal scene with three traffic accident crashes happening one after another. If we had traveled 10 minutes faster, we would have been caught in the crash. As I am writing this, I am still trying to wrap my mind around the two very close calls we have been through obliviously these two days. Maybe, whatever God we were praying on the boat was kind after all.