The smell of diesel lingers long after the little rusty green boat has left. A single file of people walk along the narrow pier, local women carrying infants in their arms and one unlikely white man trailing a suitcase behind him. From a distance their procession unfolds in silence and they eventually disperse among the coconut trees. The scene will repeat itself in slight variations, as the boats come and go throughout the day carrying their respective cargo. Be it a modern speedboat, a dirty old barge or even a traditional junk.
We are on coconut beach on an island off the coast of southern Cambodia. It is rustic. Undeveloped and whimsically romantic. We are staying in little wooden bungalows on the sea front. A dream from childhood realised in middle age. Coconut trees dot the white sand, connected together by hammocks.
As does, alas, the usual plastic refuse, washed ashore, leaving the otherwise paradise-like scene, a little more ordinary. A little more sad. A little more broken.
A discarded mascara pen and a sand dollar sit awkwardly side by side, as do the toothpaste tube and seaweed. In a game of odd-one-out, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell which items belong to this scene. The bright coloured tangles, enmeshed into the natural world, fusing into a depressing hybrid.
These are just a few of the eternal gifts that come from across the bay, from the mainland. Sihanoukville.
Our cabin includes a cold shower. The lights flicker slightly, dim and brighten unpredictably.
Everything remains slightly damp during our stay (due to humidity and lack of A/C). The WIFI connection, however, is unfaltering.
My eldest daughter is envious of the vacationers staying in the hotel next door… “they have a pool” she says with no irony as she swims in the sea which gently washes up to our front steps.
The remark saddens me a little as I conjure a shipwrecked / Robinson Crusoe fantasy. Imagining my children sharing a similar yearning to return to something fundamental and earthy. Forgetting their points of reference are so far removed from my own.
Generation Z clamours not for that which it has never known. Is not nostalgic for a ‘simpler time’.
A poignant idiom against this particular backdrop.
For when has Cambodia ever experienced ‘a simpler time’ ?
The shadow. Kampuchea, the bedrock of so many nightmares. There is an anxiety palpable in the air. A tone, a quality, a feeling… A nation quietly suffering with PTSD. It’s behind the smiles, beyond the beautiful scenery. The taint of blood is entangled in the memories much like the plastic refuse in the jungle. Everlasting, ugly, wrong… but very real and unavoidable.
The road to recovery is underway and takes shape in the form of economic accruing. A double-edged sword if ever there was.
Cambodia’s vulnerability attracts the circling hawks and vultures. Neighbouring superpowers with flash cash come baring promises and poisoned chalices.
Sihanoukville – once a sleepy haven catering mainly to windswept backpackers in sun-bleached shirts – now a devastated landscape of mass construction on a scale unseen and terrifying. 100s of Huge, imposing concrete towers push up towards the sky, overshadowing the shanty towns below.
Chinese-run, sadly local Cambodians find little work in this construction, a Casino city in the making, where the triads rule. They sit and watch quietly, as their home, once again is ripped up, out of their control. History repeats itself in disguise, as a wolf wears a fleece.
It is more than likely my daughters will be the last of their generation to experience the yet guilelessness of this remarkable island. Where the ice is imported on a boat from the mainland and kept in a box. Where the tips for the pizza joint go towards funding the purchase of 2 bicycles which will be given to the 2 best pupils in school as incentives to actually attend! Where the ‘fish & chips’ is entirely dependent on the catch of the day, and where the WIFI never fails.
Before long, the towers, the resorts, the promises, will make their way across the bay too. And the little red cabins and palm-leaf huts will be but simple memories.
Mixed in, along with those of war, and loves long lost…
A simpler time.