In 1993, Spalding Gray’s monologue Swimming to Cambodia pulled us in. Within a year of watching it, my ex and I left Oregon to live in the beach town of Sihanoukville, Cambodia. We flew there in small Russian airplanes from the capital, because road travel was against our ESL teaching contracts. Khmer Rouge killed Westerners on Route 4.
Dancing in Circles: An Expatriate in Cambodia is my memoir of living in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. My husband and I moved to Cambodia in 1994. Learning firsthand the horrors of Cambodian history, and dealing with the still-active presence of Khmer Rouge, it was a strange first year of marriage. I stayed nearly a decade.
In time, we established a successful publishing company, although military fighting in the streets ensued while we were at press with our first issue. A near-death experience and the encroaching lifestyle of Southeast Asia—its nightlife and women—began to “turn” my husband. Like the Angkor Wat Temple, Prey Rup—turn the body, a funeral term—he turned away from me.
Ultimately, I left everything I had sacrificed so much for and returned to my hometown. Mine is a story of loss, resilience, and adventure. This chapter, “Sihanoukville by the Sea,” details our time in the sleepy beach town. It was our honeymoon year, so it should have been special, and it was. But things fell apart, as the reality of alcoholics, prostitutes, and gun battles eventually drove me away. For a while, however, we were “by the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea.”
“By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea!
You and me, you and me, oh, how happy we’ll be!”
—from Harry Carroll’s and Harold Atteridge’s 1914 song
Ken and I signed contracts, and in January 1995 we flew to Sihanoukville, named for King Sihanouk himself. We usually called it by its old name, Kampong Som, which means “by the sea.” The plane, an old Russian craft, had round windows that fogged up, and the pilot was a round-faced Khmer with a Russian co-pilot, who at that time kept a fifth of vodka nearby. I only know this because on flights, later on, the crackerjack Khmer pilot would invite me to sit on a little jump seat apparatus just behind him and the co-pilot. I told him I was afraid of flying. He would look at me and laugh, and tell me, “Don’t worry, little sister! I don’t want to die either!” The Russian co-pilot, with his pale skin, blue eyes, and red-veined nose had nothing to say but seemed to be watching the flight.
On this occasion, I did not yet know the pilot. I sat in my seat, heart pounding. When we approached the airport, the flight attendant instructed us to fasten seatbelts, which we did. I prayed silently. Looking out into the dry field, I saw a windsock hanging from a pole, and a small building. Then, I saw the water buffalos. At least six of them were milling around the airstrip. As the plane got closer, I noticed that others around me were murmuring and commenting. I clutched the armrest tightly, and it came off in my grip. In the nick of time, the buffaloes scattered, running this way and that. My heart was in my throat. We had landed! Ken and I squeezed hands, relieved.
We were warmly welcomed and assisted by Sebastian, the Dutch branch manager. He had recently begun having disagreements with the director of the school, and Ken and I listened to the complaints. We could see his side, which, at the time, had to do with contracted jobs outside of the school.
One job necessitated traveling to the Angkor Beer Factory to teach English. Another job meant traveling an area with jungle and lots of brush to teach at Ream Naval Base. At Ream, the plan was to teach the Cambodian Navy how to speak English to communicate with the expatriate military who trained them in technical matters.
We later learned a lot more about the frustrations of trying to train Khmer people using just English. It takes a few years of intense study to learn a language. Many of the older, educated Khmers at that time spoke French—which they had learned at various trainings conducted by the French, especially in the field of medicine. Having a proclivity for languages helped many students. While Sebastian was butting heads with the director, we tried to keep our heads down and just teach. Sebastian became a friend and we had good times with him.
After we’d been there for a while, we three ended up on the Russian aircraft flying from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. Sebastian went to talk with the pilot before takeoff, and when he returned to his seat near ours, he had a smug look on his face. We asked him what he’d talked about with the pilot.
“I informed the pilot in no uncertain terms that I absolutely did not want him flying low, just above the ocean, which is something he does. Just make a normal landing, I told him.”
Ken and I looked at each other, raising eyebrows. We were in for a ride. You just don’t tell ex-military how to fly their planes. Sure enough, when we approached Sihanoukville, the pilot suddenly made a hard bank, putting the passenger aircraft on one ear. We heard the other passengers gasping, and we were terrified, but this had been predictable. From the left side of the plane, we looked out our windows at the ocean below, and up to the right of the plane to see other passengers clinging to their armrests.
Next, the pilot righted the plane and flew just above the ocean, skimming the whitecaps. Sebastian jumped to his feet to go give the pilot “what for.” As if on cue, Ken and I made a grab for him, grasping his leather belt and pulling him down into his seat. We landed a few minutes later, and the Khmer pilot smiled and winked at me, tipping his pilot’s cap. We razzed Sebastian about that incident for as long as we worked with him.
One night, Ken, Sebastian, and I went out to one of the beach restaurants. The owner, a handsome French-Vietnamese man, owned it along with his girlfriend. He had the chiseled face of a Jacques Cousteau, and she was fair-skinned with thick, straight, brown hair. They both spoke many languages. The food he served was definitely the finest French cuisine, and we were delighted to spend time there. First, we would have drinks at the robber’s bar, a shellacked wooden, upside-down longboat. The owner explained that robbers had stolen it from him, but he stole it back. It was quite a story. Then, we moved to a table overlooking the beach washing in and out. The night sky was loaded with stars and light music played, something in the French language. None of the mind-jangling disco.
One night, we were having a dinner of roast boar with mixed salad, side plates of crudités—crisp pickles and vegetables in a dipping sauce, and plenty of wine. A car pulled up at a nearby restaurant. Two well-dressed Cambodian men pulled another man out of the trunk, and the three of us began quietly swearing and exclaiming. A man was being pulled from the trunk. He seemed lethargic and heavy, a large man.
“Oh, my God. Do you see that?” I whispered to the waiter. She glanced up, then quickly down. She continued pouring the wine. Nothing was happening, apparently. My stomach churned. Ken and I watched as one man pulled a gun, and we immediately got behind the bar, ducking. Sebastian joined us. One gunshot rang out but was oddly silenced—a staccato punch. We were entirely unnerved at this point. The two men lifted the third man, placing him back in the trunk. Some shrubs gave us cover, along with Robber’s Bar. The trunk slammed shut. They got in, backed up, and drove away.
“Did you see that? Someone just got shot!” I whispered again to the waitress, who was putting the wine behind the bar, moving gracefully by us. No one at the restaurant said a word. Other diners continued eating. Nothing had been seen. People talked and laughed. The beachside murder simply hadn’t occurred. We returned to our table, appetites ruined, paid, then left.
The next day, Ken and I agreed that we shouldn’t get involved in the politics of Cambodia.
“Deb, we can’t go to the police,” Ken said.
“Right. That was a huge villa. It must belong to a higher up, an official.”
“If we go to the police, they’ll want money, and as soon as they see where the crime occurred, they’ll be afraid to deal with the issue.”
“Or,” I said, “the official that lives there will give the police money to find out who told, and then we could be in trouble.”
“Yes. Or, we will be asked for money from the police to investigate, and nothing will happen. The politics here are complicated. Let’s stay out of them.” Ken was right. We’d been there long enough to see how ineffective the police force was. Our friend Suzanne had gotten pulled off her moto and robbed. When she went to the police department, they took away her passport and she had to pay them $50.00 to get it back. Then, she had to pay $20.00 to file the report. When she went back the next day to check on the proceedings, there were new police there. They said the other police were new, but these real police would take more money to file a good report.
The system was so corrupt that it wouldn’t do any good to go to authorities. We had work to do, and we focused on that. The next morning, we went to school and taught our classes. Part of living in the Kingdom of Cambodia in 1995 included completely ignoring really horrible occurrences, and then questioning, did that really happen?
In Sihanoukville, we needed to find a place to live, and according to Sebastian and our expat friends, we needed a maid. In the U.S., I worked full-time and did housework, laundry, shopping, and cooking, of course. While we traveled, and even in our six weeks in Phnom Penh, I hand-washed our clothes and hung them outside to dry. For meals, we went out or bought eggs and bread, keeping it simple in Phnom Penh.
The Asian markets, with the cow and pig heads on display, and the cuts of pork and beef drawing copious flies, didn’t appeal to me as a food source, but they were the place to go for fresh meat and produce. I didn’t mind buying fruit, longan berries with their brown, paper-like shells; the hairy, crimson rambutans; mangoes, pineapples, coconuts, and jackfruit. The durian—which smelled like shit—was not a fruit either of us wanted to try. In Southeast Asia, hotels have signs on the inside doors: no prostitute, no cook in room, and no durian.
Preparing food was complicated, and we didn’t have the hours necessary to buy, clean, and cook food, so the advice from Sebastian was accurate. A maid could do our laundry, go to the market, and cook. She could also keep our home tidy. Also, many young and middle-aged women had no education, no money, and no opportunities to earn it.
In post-UNTAC Cambodia, wages in the country for uneducated Khmer workers were approximately $30.00 per month for long hours. Typically, families shared a roof, and all pitched in their earnings to survive. We decided that if we were going to hire workers, we would over-pay them. Other expats told us they were paying $30.00 to $40.00 per month for a worker who came in for a short period of time daily. We decided to pay $100.00 per month. We reasoned that we would need a lot of help, and, anyway, there were two of us.
While this sounds like very little, it was a tremendous amount then. Sadly, it still is. We also provided food and bonus money on holidays, such as Khmer New Year, and sent Polly’s daughter to school. She became well educated and has gone on to be a television and film star. Now, she is a businesswoman.
Ken and I read about garment factories from the U.S. and other developed countries in Phnom Penh, and young women and children who were locked into these companies, which on occasion burned down. We did our part by helping workers. Later, Ken hired and trained several Khmer staff for the publishing company, and his impact on their lives was tremendous.
By hiring Sebastian’s maid, we would be doing him a favor. He cared about her. She had a beautiful young daughter named Srey Mom, an intelligent girl of about six. The name “Srey Mom” means “Girl Pure,” I think. Srey Mom was a lovely young girl with long black hair and dark eyes, and she laughed and smiled a lot. She lived with us for years with her mother Polly.
Polly had a musical voice, capable of expressing great emotion. Once, I remember standing on the balcony of one of the apartments Ken and I rented. It was early evening, and the cicadas hummed and resonated faster and higher until I felt my brain was humming, too. A banana tree grew just down the block, its leaves hanging languidly and innocently down in the twilight.
“See that tree?” asked Polly. “I saw a man hanging from a banana tree just like that during Pol Pot.”
I asked her to explain, and she said it again and told me he was dead. I shook my head and said, “no good, no good,” clucking my tongue as I’d heard her do so many times.
Polly turned and walked into the apartment, pulling a short broom with wispy straws from the corner. With one hand placed on the small of her back in traditional cleaning posture, she swept the room slowly but methodically. She flipped a cockroach on its back and swept it into the corner, where it lay with its legs twitching. Then she went into the kitchen and began frying fish in the wok, the oil sizzling with a loud crackle when the fish went in.
Ken and I thought we would teach Polly to speak English. In fact, she taught us Khmer—laughing and repeating words until we learned them. She was with us for all the time I lived in Cambodia. And we loved her very much, going to her family’s house, getting to know her kids, and learning to speak Khmer with her. She also taught us about the “spirit world” in Cambodia, and kept an eye out for our safety. When someone drove a nail into the doorjamb entering our home, she removed it. Bad luck. When I showed her the photo of an owl and told her it symbolized wisdom, she stared hard at me, and said, “Oh, no—it symbolizes death.”
One of our young adult students in Sihanoukville tragically died of electrocution. With cables looped over his head and around his armpit, he climbed a ladder to do some wiring. He was discovered hours later, on the floor dead. Polly reminded me of a premonition the day before.
The young father had held his baby, about six months old. The baby, a good-natured little boy, would not stop crying. He cried and cried. The mother nursed the child, used a washcloth on its bottom, and burped it. When she handed the baby back to her father, the baby again began screaming, inconsolable. When Polly came to tell us of our student’s death, she dropped her voice low and asked, “Do you remember the baby crying yesterday? Crying, crying, would not stop?” We nodded. She said, “The baby knew.” It became a catchphrase for Ken and me when we discussed the unexplainable in Cambodia. The baby knew. Even the sound of a baby crying would have Ken and I glancing at each other and sharing a look.
In time, we heard many stories about ghosts and spirits. Ken’s teacher told one story. Ken and I studied Khmer language and culture in Sihanoukville. We made friends with Khmer people who asked to be private students. We exchanged thirty minutes of lessons in English for thirty minutes of lessons in Khmer. This worked out well. Here is the story from Ken’s teacher, who told him many stories about his life during the Khmer Rouge years. Ken listened to the story many times, and we both found it remarkable. This letter is from just three years ago:
June 3 2015
I see that I forgot about one of the emails to you. You asked about Pheng’s Khmer Rouge story… So, in short, Pheng was from Kampong Cham but in 1975 was working in Kampong Thom at the ministry. His family was still in the village in Kampong Cham. He considered himself an educated person and an atheist. Not a casual one, but somebody who had considered and rejected the notion of the supernatural.
When Phnom Penh fell, the Khmer Rouge ordered all personnel from his ministry to assemble at a particular spot at the edge of town, which they did. They were told that they were free to bring their work and personal property with them, as if they were being relocated.
Once there with his co-workers, Pheng got a bad feeling that something was amiss, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He made an excuse to one of the cadres there that he needed to go back to the ministry to pick up his work, and they let him go. He only went a few hundred meters, ducked into a gully and made his way to a hollow tree where he hid. A couple of hours later, more soldiers arrived at the meeting point and proceeded to kill everybody there. There were no survivors except Pheng hiding in the tree.
Then he spent 3-1/2 years in Kampong Thom pretending to be a bumpkin toiling in the usual way for peasants under the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese invaded, the regime fell, and all the guards and soldiers where he was working abandoned their posts and fled. Like so many Cambodians at that particular moment, the middle of January 1979, Pheng decided to try to walk home, which would be hundreds of miles across a war zone. He had no idea how to get home except to start heading east, which he did. Weeks later, half starved and lost, he was ready to give up, when he met a strange old man on the road. He told the man his village name. The man told him to get off the road, that there were soldiers ahead, and directed him into the jungle, saying his village was that way. As he walked away, he turned back to say something to the old man, but he was gone. Pheng reluctantly entered the jungle and became even more disoriented. He spotted a misty blue light ahead, thought it might be a village and headed for it, but it kept moving away from him. He began to believe that it was guiding him, and for lack of any other options, followed it. He came to a river, which he thought was too deep to cross, and thought about trying to make his way to a nearby bridge that he feared might have soldiers guarding it. In indecision, he rested at the side of a pond on the river where the blue light hovered above the water. The blue light floated toward him and then went back out over the water. Unable to swim and for fear of trying to cross the river, he decided to make for the bridge. When he did, the light did not follow.
As he moved farther away, it just stayed there above the water. He decided this was a sign that the light didn’t want him to go to the bridge. He went back to the water’s edge, and the light moved farther out onto the water. In faith, he followed it, walking deeper and deeper into the water until almost at nose level. But it got no deeper and he made it to the other side. He prayed to thank the light, now convinced this was a spirit.
The light moved off into the jungle and he followed it for another couple of days. As they reached a clearing the light disappeared, and he found himself just a couple of kilometers from his old village. There, he found his wife, still alive and well enough. Their young daughter was long dead. But he was home. And has been a believer ever since.
One week, Ken was up in Phnom Penh at a manager’s meeting, as Sebastian had gone back to his home country and Ken was promoted. I stayed in Sihanoukville. While he was gone, Polly told me about Rhatha, a friend of hers who was ill. She would never get married, said Polly. A young death was imminent. I pulled Ken’s copy of Where There is No Doctor off the shelf and started asking Polly questions, but we really needed Rhatha there. I could work my way through the questions in the book, and perhaps we could figure out Rhatha’s malady.
“Bring her over tomorrow,” I suggested.
The next day, Polly’s friend showed up at the door with Polly. She wore a scarf around her neck, covering herself up. I pulled out the book, and we sat down at the kitchen table. She unwrapped the scarf. It was then I saw the carbuncles. I had never in my life used that word, but I knew it. The large, infected boils on her neck and chest were embarrassing to her, and she was uncomfortable and exhausted. Using the Where There is No Doctor, I worked my way through the questions. Swelling? Yes. Inflammation and infection? Yes. Lymph nodes in the area? Yes. After getting to the page with the diagnosis, I saw the words Lymphatic Tuberculosis. Now I was nervous. I needed time to think. My heart raced, and I’ll admit I wanted to bleach the kitchen table. What had I done, thinking I could help? Had I brought disease into our home? I stood up and smiled, telling Rhatha and Polly that I understood the problem now.
“Tomorrow, meet at the hospital at 9 a.m.,” I said. Polly showed her to the door, then came back. We used bleach and water to clean the table, then we went to sit in the living room. Polly and Rhatha knew what tuberculosis was, but they didn’t have the language skills to tell me. As it turns out, what Rhatha needed was an advocate so she could get medicine.
Polly explained there was a free program for people with tuberculosis, but at the hospital, someone was demanding money for the medication. It was expensive, and Rhatha could not afford it. I asked Polly why the doctor at the hospital was charging money for it, and she said the staff did not get paid. They tried to earn money by selling the donated medications. It was extortion, but it was how Cambodia operated. Free medicines to a clinic with unsalaried staff pretty much ensured the outcome.
Polly and I went to the hospital with Rhatha. The front was dismal, with dirty floors and walls. A child cried inside. The person working at the front waved his hands when we asked for the free medicine. “No medicine today. Tomorrow have.” A woman walked out with the baby, which was naked and appeared to be suffering from diarrhea.
We left and stood outside in the glaring tropical sun. Rhatha said that unless someone gave money to the worker, he always said “no medicine.” She was exhausted, and I told her to go home and rest, that we would figure things out. We agreed to meet again at the hospital the next morning. I asked Polly where the director of the hospital lived, and she took me to his house. We went with moto dupes, and she left me at his front door.
“Sorry, I need to go,” said Polly. She was clearly nervous about going inside with me, and it was getting late in the morning. Work was always best done early. She needed to go to the market and shop for dinner. In front of the hospital director’s white cement house were gigantic Century Fan palms to either side. Purple Bougainvillea blossoms cascaded down from pots on floors above, and a trickling fountain stood by the side of a large, carved mahogany door. I smoothed my hair back with both hands, securing it with a hair tie I kept wrapped around my wrist. I would be teaching in an hour, so I was wearing a long dress and simple earrings.
A woman answered the door after I lightly tapped, and ushered me in. She beckoned me to a huge, intricately carved wooden chair, a highly glossed mahogany-colored wood with white stripes. Flowers and trees were carved into the back of it, and the huge armrests curled downward. On a matching coffee table, four plane tickets to Los Angeles from Phnom Penh were fanned out, as if on display. The trip was for the following week.
When the director walked in, I stood and gave a respectful greeting, a “wei” gesture of both hands held respectfully further up toward my nose. The more respect, the higher the wei in Southeast Asia. He smiled broadly, and we sat down.
I was so surprised with the opulence of the surroundings after witnessing the filth of the hospital that I could hardly keep from remarking on it. Still, I presented my case cordially. My friend was ill. Medicine was supposed to be free. The hospital personnel was selling, and she could not afford the medication. The director assured me he would take care of the situation. Then, I paused.
“All the people must have medicine.” I then glanced at the tickets to the U.S. on the table and allowed my eyes to linger on the plane tickets for just a moment. Then, I glanced demurely down as I stood up. I kept face—I didn’t show anger or shame him. I imagined all of the thousands of dollars coming in from donor countries, while the Khmer people suffered from tuberculosis and tolerated the filthy hospital.
“Thank you,” I said.
He stood and escorted me to the door. I had classes to teach and felt dizzy and a bit ill, as usual at that time. I needed to rest for a few minutes and sip fresh coconut water, the only thing that helped me to feel better. I had lost over twenty pounds since leaving the U.S. and pushed myself to function normally. I often felt weak.
Rhatha got the medicine. Over the course of the next several months, I frequently checked in on her. She was steadily improving, and Polly was cheerful in reporting that. When I saw the ill woman after a year, I couldn’t believe my eyes. She was nicely dressed—no more giant scarf—her glossy hair was secured in a ponytail, and her eyes shone. Her skin, while scarred, was clear. Her wedding was planned for an auspicious date a few months later.
One of the perks of working in Sihanoukville was the flight to Phnom Penh we were allowed one time per term. We used the flight at midterms. We had a rough first flight, though. We hired a taxi to drive us to the tiny Sihanoukville airport, but when he overshot it, we realized he was driving us up Route 4! This was Khmer Rouge territory, and I started panicking. Ken wasn’t too happy, either.
We finally got the taxi driver to turn his Toyota Camry around, and headed back to the little airstrip. The small Russian plane was just starting to taxi out to take off, but we went squirreling in, kicking up dust. The small plane slammed on the brakes, opened the door, and a little hatch came down from the body. As we boarded, out of breath and sweaty, we could hear the French people on board muttering, “Americans.” Sheesh!
When we got to Phnom Penh, we settled in at Hotel La Paillote. Then, we were off to Bert’s Books for conversation and books, the post office to use the tiny brass key to unlock our drawer and get letters, the riverfront for food and drinks at the FCC, and Lucky’s Supermarket for some cheese and yogurt to take back.
We taught all of 1995 and most of 1996 in Sihanoukville, getting to know every expat in the community—perhaps ten. A few Australian ex-military fellows lived there, one with a young Vietnamese wife, and a retired ex-military man in a huge villa. He opened the Angkor Arms pub with three other partners. A Dutch couple worked near the hospital as physical therapists, and a British fellow and an Irish man made prosthetic limbs. Someone was volunteering to teach English in a British program, and there was an Italian-Australian entrepreneur who sang karaoke with us. He would turn in his song requests, and if the workers didn’t play his song quickly enough, he threw a fit.
“Hey, fuckhead! When’s my song going to play?” Tony would glare at the young Khmer barman, who was in charge of karaoke requests.
“Oh, Mr. Tony! Your song! One moment, coming soon.” The Khmer workers knew Tony well. Tony would hold a hundred-dollar bill up high, showing the worker. Other singers would be belting out “Love Me Tender” or something by Karen Carpenter. If the song didn’t end in half a minute, the bill would be ripped over and over again, and Tony stomped to the door, his girlfriend looking at me and rolling her eyes in frustration at Tony, shaking her head, the “no good” shake that women share. Ken and I stayed, apologizing for Tony and watching the Khmers in the office, just off the restroom, meticulously trying to tape the money.
Hot-tempered, Tony was a bad influence on Ken. He was good-looking and muscular, and his girlfriend was a beautiful Vietnamese woman with shiny, thick hair hanging straight to her hips. When we went out to sing, she would sit near him, playing with his hair or massaging his shoulders. When she walked, her long, straight hair came alive, cascading around her body in a shiny waterfall. Ken laughed at Tony’s temper and agreed that it was a problem, but I think he admired him and most certainly enjoyed watching his girlfriend.
At that time, people didn’t dare travel Route 4 because of the Khmer Rouge, so we didn’t get visitors. One time flying back from Phnom Penh, a physical therapist brought his sister to visit. When we exited the plane, she immediately fainted. He admitted to me later that she had been terrified to visit Cambodia. Anyway, we were a fairly close group of expats and often spent time having dinners, playing board games, or gossiping about each other.
During the week, Ken and I kept busy. I bought a bike and I rode every day, clocking about five miles. It was a beautiful ride, from near Psah Lua into town, down the road past the Golden Lion Roundabout, then turning into Sokha Beach. I then took a road that skirted an abandoned hotel, which took me past a tame seal that jumped out and scared me, frolicking along after my bike as I put on the speed. Next, I looped back into town, entering in from the north. It was always a hot ride, and I carried water and listened to U2’s Joshua Tree with my Sony Walkman, and sometimes R.E.M., depending on my mood.
At home, we studied Khmer language, read a lot of books, and watched movies on a small television. I let Ken buy the cassette-tape movies down at the market, as I couldn’t stand dealing with the middle-aged Chinese seller who tried to sell me porn videos, smiling and nodding while pointing them out. He had a hairy mole on his face that he’d pull with his fingers, the hair at least four inches. At sunset, Ken and I rode to the top of Victory Hill in Sihanoukville and watched the boats coming in from the ocean. He loved the little twinkling lights that flickered on the ocean’s rounded horizon, like diamonds glittering around the moon during a solar eclipse.
We began running with the Hash House Harriers when some cheerful Australians moved to Sihanoukville. I was the hare of the two of us. Ken did not exercise, although he joined us for beer and feasts afterward. There were ceremonies and speeches at the post-Hash run, and one tradition was the “down down,” with people yelling “down down down!” as a chosen runner downed a large glass of beer. Run first, drink and eat later. It eventually became my turn to chart the running course, and I got a lot of help from the expat guys, especially from Chris, the older ex-military.
“Not too many hills, Deb. We don’t want any heart attacks,” Chris said, and “Watch for snakes, Deb.”
These were called up from his folding chair and cooler down below, as I sniffed out running trails in the dunes. I wouldn’t hear Chris and would run back to the trailhead to get his directions, sweating and panting. God, Chris. Really? He sat in the lawn chair with a beer in his hand. It was exhausting in the heat! The other guys helped me to mark the course, my friend Arunn, a Cambodian gentleman I still communicate with, along with a courteous Singaporean man, and of course, Tony the karaoke singer. We had perhaps ten to twelve people participating, about half of them Khmer staff or friends who were in excellent shape.
Sihanoukville was a quiet place in nature, with fresh seafood and warm ocean waters. When there was nothing to do, a trip to Sokha Beach was always in order. It was only a few minutes away, and by this time, we both had motorcycles. I’d gotten good on my Honda Dream, and rode it too fast. Ken and I took motorcycle rides together often, to Sokha Beach, to Ochateal, and beyond. He loved to go to Ochateal and sit on the beach with me. We often took cold drinks with us, in a little insulated bag, with cheese and crackers. I’d strip down to my light blue swimsuit and jump around in the surf. Ken asked me not to go to that beach without him, as I’d been followed there once and had to deal with a man who wouldn’t leave me alone. I’d been lying on my side near the sea reading, absentmindedly brushing sand off my butt when I heard above me, “Good!” and looked up to see an overweight Khmer guy right above me. It was an isolated beach then. I jumped up and yelled at him to go away, and he did, but after that, I didn’t do solo trips to places without Ken too much.
One day, I was in the kitchen at our apartment in Sihanoukville when Ken came in with an excited look on his face.
“Well,” he said. “Something interesting seems to be going on at the beach.” He paused, waiting for me to ask, “What?” I smiled. There was seldom interesting news, and when news did come, it was a death, an accident, or something political from Phnom Penh. We even got our Cambodia Daily newspapers late down there. The Phnom Penh Post might appear within a week of its publication, or it might not.
“A fisherman’s body has been spotted in the sea, and it is washing onto the beach, then being carried out again.”
“Oh, great.” I was not interested in this story yet. “Did you go down there?”
“No. But I think I will and see what’s going on.” Ken asked me if I wanted to go, but I was getting more than enough exposure to tragedies in Cambodia without gawking at a drowned fisherman.
Ken was back in about an hour, leaving his black sandy tennis shoes at the door, but he had a tale to tell.
“Japanese tourists are down there filming it with their video cameras, and Collin and I thought it was disrespectful to the dead, so we called the police!”
This story was gaining momentum. The police could be counted on to do nothing or to do something strange. As soon as they entered any narrative, my ears pricked up. Ken knew he’d hooked me.
“The police looked, and said, ‘dead,’ and then they just left!” Then Ken laughed, and I did too. Of course they left! While a corpse in the water might be disturbing to authorities in many countries, a corpse in the Cambodian sea could mean only one thing: late to dinner with wet shoes and dirty hands.
Collin and Ken collected the bits and pieces of the fisherman—he was breaking up fast—and buried him up by a palm tree, deep into the sandy soil. That was where Ken saw his first offering to Ya Mao. When he saw the phallus, he pointed it out to Collin, who grinned and asked, “Never seen one of those, mate?”
As it turns out, Ya Mao is a guardian of the Southern Cambodia area. Her husband was a fisherman working on one of the islands, and one day she missed him terribly so she took a boat to spend some time with him. On the way, a storm came up, overturning the boat. Ya Mao drowned. Over time, people came to believe that she was a guardian spirit of that area. At Pich Nil, on the way down Route 4, spirit houses full of hand-made phalluses line the road. Ya Mao is older now, it is said, so offering her fruit is fine too (especially bananas). When it became safe to travel on Route 4, Ken and I took bananas to Ya Mao on our way north to Phnom Penh. Once, to Ken’s delight, I pulled a carved wooden phallus out of my pocket to offer her. He laughed, “Where did you get that?” Of course, it had come from the market. I had bought it to make him smile, and it worked.
DEBRA GROVES HARMAN writes creative nonfiction and is the author of forthcoming memoir Dancing in Circles: An Expatriate in Cambodia. A first chapter excerpt won second place with the Oregon Writers Colony 2018 competition. Her creative nonfiction story “Smoke” won third place in that competition, as well. She has taught high school English for fifteen years, and before that lived in Cambodia, where she and a partner established a publishing company that was highly regarded for nearly two decades. Debra has a B.A. in English from University of Oregon, and an M.Ed. from Portland State University, as well as a Cambridge certification in teaching ESL.
Featured image: Ding Fuzhi, “近代 丁輔之 雜果圖 冊頁 (Fruit),” album leaf and ink and color on paper, 1945, Gift of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, in memory of La Ferne Hatfield Ellsworth, 1986, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.