Life and Death in Cambodia

There are places in the world where people go to get away, be away or disappear. This is one of those spots.

Sihnoukville is a town on the coast of Cambodia. Long and without a real center, the town interconnects 4 beaches. Mostly a part/backpacker town, 3 of the main beaches are parties, with beach chairs lined up by day and Bob Marley music and dollar beers at night. Marijuana is highly tolerated here and everyone smokes on the beach or at the bar without fear. Sex industry is rampant here, with gaggles of young girls pawing at you from every bar.

It’s where people go to disappear. It’s a very international town; people from all over the world belly up at the bar. Some have tales of woe, some have tales of travel and adventure and some tell no tales at all, keeping their plans to their breast.

The beach is very fluid. One month ago, the plot next door was empty beach. Now their bar/room business has been open a week. Cement poured, building raised, bar built, beach chair set up, supplied and open for business. After the right people have been paid, no permits are required, no taxes paid, people hired after a beer. It’s a loose and easy way of living and making a living.

My host here, and the owner, is a Polish woman who met a local Khmer guy 4 years ago and build this place 3 years ago.

A Serbian couple sit across from me, enjoying their coffee in the sun. They are building bungalows across the street. A young Canadian and a Swede are building rooms and a bar next door to them. But loose things swing both ways. Last year, the government evicted a mile of these beachfront places and is going to build a park.

Dave is a British guy who lives in Australia. Haggard, with Neil Young sideburns and hair on the way to dreadlocks, he looks to have lived a bit of a rough life. But when asked, he’s a clown. LIterally. He works with Clowns Without Borders and travels around to tiny villages and does a clown show on the side of the road for the kids. I think he might be the most honorable person I have met here. He is about to head out to Myanmar to do 3 weeks of shows for the poorest of children

Israel, Germany, Austria, Dubai, Canada, England, Australia, they come from all over. Many people seem to come here for 5 months a year and just hang out.
Arrive at the cafe at 10, get a tea, sit on the comfy chairs for half a day, with hourly dips in the gentle ocean. They are pestered by the minute with a variety of woman and children selling bracelets, sunglasses, fresh fruit, spicy langoustines and massage. $5 is a high price for a one hour massage on the beach. You get to know the girls after awhile, ambulating the beach every day. They prefer Europeans, Americans and Australians because they buy things. Local people don’t buy anything and so the fair skinned beachgoers are mobbed upon within moments of arrival.

It’s been a strange week.
It’s the week of the Water Festival in Phenom Phen, where very long, beautiful row boats are raced along the river. It’s the busiest holiday in the city and it is mobbed by people from all over the country. At the same time, the cityfolk beat feet to the beach to escape it all. I thought about going to the festival but it’s kinda like going to Yosemite on the 4th of July: don’t do it. So I stayed here to help out with the busy time..
Sadly, there was trouble at the festival. A panic started and 450 people died in the resultant crush. An equal number were injured. It was a sad day for all. We will assume that our traveler friends that went there are ok.

People come and go all the time. Some stay for a few days, others for week and others for years. But mostly it is travelers, coming to smoke and drink and do nothing for a few days, a quiet respite from the chaos of traveling in southeast Asia. A trio of Germans were here this week. One was a tall, lanky version of my brother. He rode is crappy bike here from the Thai border, took 2 days for what I did in 4 hours in a car. Then he is going to ride to Laos. The other 2 were a couple, hanging out and enjoying life. They were having a good time and extended their stay for a couple of days. On the morning of their departure, he hadn’t come home. After some calls and a trip to some hospitals, he was found to be dead. He had been riding a dirt bike at night without a helmet. After a heavy downpour, he crashed on a muddy, rocky dark road. My last conversation with him was hours before when he had been stopped by the cops for not wearing a helmet. He paid the $5 bribe and was on his way.
So we hosted them as they grieved and and made the call home to the parents. They left yesterday to bring the body home. It was one of 5 motorcycle deaths (all foreigners) on this long weekend. I suspect that is a rare spike but it says something.

So today’s lesson is: Wear a fucking helmet, people. And hug your loved ones.

But life continues. The momma dog had a litter of puppies within hours of the boys’ death. We can hear their little mews and they feed on momma. Some will find homes with the new neighbors across the street.

People go and new people come and life goes on.



  1. Wow, that’s heavy. I often marvel at how resilient, yet fragile the human body is. I was hoping you had chosen to avoid the commotion of the festival that day. I’m glad to hear that you are well. So sad that so many lost their lives or well-being on such a festive occasion. I’m sorry to hear about the traveler who lost his life, too. Life is full of signs and warnings if only we will pay attention to them.

    I have booked my flight and will be heading to Thailand and points beyond in February. I will be even more mindful on my journey. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us. I am so deeply inspired!

    Best regards,

  2. Yikes – lesson taken. Thanks for sharing these stories.