One time, a few years ago, I took to a river in Cambodia in a rented kayak for what I hoped would be a lonely overnight adventure. It turned out to be neither lonely nor overnight, but it was so much of an adventure that I struggled for many years to put it down.
I had recently split up with my long term girlfriend, or rather she had split up with me. An unexpected and unseen crack in my life had opened up and left me in free fall in the darkest chasm I had, up until that point, ever known.
I found myself, at twenty-eight years old, back living with my mother.
I worked as a freelance writer and, without the external pressure to show up at a place of business, it was incredibly easy to lose entire days in a kind of blank stupor. Deadlines were missed, friends were ignored, clients quit. The only moments I remember feeling anything much at all were the times she phoned.
After eight years of growing together, the roots and branches of our lives had become severely entangled, and trying to pry them apart was proving to be incredibly tricky, resulting in more arguments and shouting in two weeks than in the previous two years. Most of it was over the material aspects of our shared time—the house, the car, the joint savings account—and we were getting dangerously close to lawyering up which had thus far been avoided on the principle of mutually assured destruction, given our limited financial resources.
Then, on the third Tuesday following the split, after a particularly nasty phone call where ‘solicitor’ was mentioned more times than usual, I packed a small bag, jumped in a taxi and went to the airport. I left a note for my mum letting her know I’d call and instructing her to tell my ex that I needed a week to get my head together and that I’d be more willing to cooperate upon my return.
The cheapest flight out of London that day that wasn’t to anywhere in Europe was to Bangkok. Two and a half hours later, I was on a plane to South East Asia.
The smoggy, densely packed, barely controlled chaos of the city was overwhelming and I quickly moved to Cambodia, Thailand’s sparsely populated neighbour, making my way to the small town of Kampot, in the south.
It wasn’t small enough. My mind was a post apocalyptic wasteland, a place where hope suffocated in the toxic air. In people’s faces I saw only the selfishness, greed, and anger that were the hallmarks of suffering. It was like I had been given a clear view to the soul of everyone I met, and each one was a filthy, stinking rag hanging limply off an ugly body, reeking of desperation and fear.
Nor was I any different: Every time I looked at my reflection, I couldn’t bare the disgusting vision that stood reflected in the glass. I gave up shaving, showered only every couple of days, and drank. I craved solitude.
After a third monster hangover, I rented a kayak from a local riverside hotel and headed down the Kampot river, taking with me a minimum amount of rented camping gear: a one man dome tent; a sleeping bag liner (a full sleeping bag being entirely unnecessary in the heat); plastic bags of food (enough for at least two days); purifying tablets for water; and a large dry bag for my eReader, and my phone which I was taking for emergencies but intended to leave switched off the entire time, and set off.
The river runs in from the Gulf of Thailand for a few miles before ending in Phnum Bokor National Park, long enough to get lost but not enough to get into any real trouble. Everything changed as soon as I hit the water. These great trunks of loathing and hurt and regret I’d carried with me were left standing on the small wooden dock. They would, no doubt, be waiting for me upon my return, but for now it was good to feel them receding behind.
I love kayaking. I love being so near to the water, hypnotised by the gentle slurping of the paddles lifting out of the water. I love the solitude. I love the wildlife, like the shining blue dragonflies that dart across the surface before coming to rest on the tips reeds, their rod-straight bodies sticking out at right angles to the stalk. I love the space and the sounds, the feeling of the zephyr as I comfortably made my way upstream.
Thin boats slithered passed me, at their stern were small engines attached to long shafts, their exposed rotating blades sitting just below the surface. I heard these engines long before I saw the boats, their loud putt-putting surely deafening the men in old button downs and shorts that sat beside them. If it did, however, they didn’t seem bothered by it, as they beamed big smiles and enthusiastic waves at this strange Western tourist propelling himself along in this ridiculous bright green plastic vessel.
A group of small boys in underpants screamed and yelled at each other, their tiny chocolate-coloured bodies glistening in the sun as they screamed “hello!” and “What is your name?” at me. A few of them climbed on the large overhanging branch, shouted “Hey!”, before jumping into the river with an array of impressive somersaults.
I gave them a thumbs up for their fearless spectacle, jealous of their carefree play and pushing down the bitter thoughts that arose saying: Enjoy it, boys. Your time will come.
At a fork in the river, I paused. In front on me was a flat patch of grass at the point where two large brown cows looked at me dully, chewing on the grass. A little ways behind them, the dense wood started up again.
To the left seemed to be the main route, large and wide, and to the right a thinner tributary contracting further a short distance away. The trees from the woods on either side reaching out to each other and almost touching, casting an eerie shadow over the water.
The mystery was appealing, as was the promise of some shade from the midday sun, but I didn’t want to find myself paddling up a dead end and having to turn back.
I looked to the cows for guidance, but their big empty eyes offered no suggestion as to which way I should go.
“Fuck it,” I said to the cows, and headed down the right.
The air was cool, scented by the smell of wet leaves, with spears of sunlight penetrating the canopy, illuminating the dust and bugs. The only sound other than my paddles was the high pitched sawing of cicadas and every now and then the gentle splash of a fish breaking the water.
After an hour or so, the river widened again, the protective arms of the trees opening and revealing the clear sky again. Gliding out of the shade, the world seemed so much further away than the few hours that it actually was.
I looked for a suitable place to land for lunch. On the left the tree line fell back further from the low bank, revealing a pasture of tall yellowed grasses. I got out and pulled the kayak all the way up on to the shore.
After eating, I lay back and shut my eyes. I don’t remember falling asleep and I’m still not convinced that I did, but when I opened them a few moments later, I found myself staring at a sharp and dangerous looking object.
“Holy shit!” I shouted, panicked, quickly sliding myself back and away.
From my retreated perspective, I looked up to see a strange little man holding what looked like a short spear which he kept trained on me.
He whispered something in what I presumed was Khmer, his voice soft and high, bell-like in its clarity.
“I’m sorry I don’t understand,” I said quickly. Then: “iPhone? I have iPhone!”
“Please come with me,” he said in that same quiet, ringing tone, his English perfect.
“Oh you speak English! Fantastic! Listen,” my voice trembling as I gulped out the words, “I don’t want any trouble. You can have everything. I have thirty dollars and an expensive phone in my boat. You can have it. All of it. Just, let me go.”
“I will not hurt you. Please come with me,” the calmness of his face and voice was disconcerting. “Now.”
“OK, OK. Look, I’ll come. Just don’t hurt me. Please.” I stood up slowly, the weapon tracking me languidly, as if he was trying to keep up a pretence but found the threatening act tiresome.
As I came up to my full height, I realised that I was a full two heads taller than him. I considered this for a moment, but something about his relaxed demeanour in the face of my utter terror made any thoughts of wrestling the weapon from his hands or running away ridiculous.
The only people who are as calm as he is in a situation like this, I thought, are those who are entirely in control of it. In my terrified mind, this meant that he wouldn’t think twice about killing me.
It would later turn out that this assumption was entirely wrong.
He was wearing what looked like an Islamic shalwar kameez that ended just above the knees. It was the colour of khaki, perfectly tailored and without a blemish, and blended nicely with the dry grasses around us. Unusually, he wore no trousers underneath it.
His skin was a light brown but with an odd translucency to it that softened his contours at the edges, like I was looking at the colour through frosted glass. His features seemed to shimmer and shift in the sunlight, as if he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to look like, and his hair was short and black and floated on his head in a way that made me think of a wig on water.
He motioned me forward with the same lazy movement and we headed away from the river and towards the trees, down a thin dirt path that cut through the wood. From time to time, I would glance back at him.
He walked tall—his back perfectly straight, his shoulders square—and gracefully, as if sliding along the ground. He would nod once, slowly and deliberately in response to my inquisitive glances. Each time, his skin seemed to be a little paler until, by the time we reached the village, I could swear that it was almost the colour of mine.
The village itself consisted of a series of small, circular wooden huts, thatched with dried palm fronds, and connected by a series of stone walkways off a central path. We walked down to the far end, where another man was waiting.
He was the same height, wearing the same shalwar kameez-like outfit and with the same translucent skin but this time it was almost entirely pale with only the slightest blush of pink. His white hair and beard floated on his skin with that same strange watery look.
The older man, noticing the weapon, grimaced slightly before looking at me with a broad smile. He opened his arms, holding out one to shake.
“Welcome!” He said, his voice a lower pitch but with the same clear harmonic quality. I gingerly took his hand. It felt cold to the touch. Then, to the man behind me: “Thank you, um, John. That will be all.”
“John” glided quickly away, like he was glad to be done with me.
“I’m sorry about all this,” he said as he put a cool arm around my shoulder and led me inside. My immediate terror had been replaced by a wary confusion. Now that the weapon was gone, there was no real sense of any threat at all.
The hut stood on a concrete floor and was empty except for two wicker chairs situated between a glass-topped table in the centre. On the table were two white mugs and a small steel kettle.
He gestured and I sat down slowly, watching him carefully, as he poured us both a mug of what appeared to be black tea.
“I fear we may have startled you somewhat,” he said as he sat. “I must apologise, but once we heard you were coming, we felt strongly that we needed to speak with you.”
“Clearly,” I said, with more sarcasm in my tone than I intended.
Another grimace flashed across his face. “Yes, quite. It was unfortunate that, um, Jack chose that particular method. Sadly, it has benefits that were important to us.”
“You mean that man that brought me here? I thought his name was John?”
“John. Yes. Quite. Regardless, we are glad that you are here.”
“Who is ‘we’? And why am I here? Am I your prisoner?”
The old man looked as though I’d spat in his face. “Prisoner? No! My dear boy, no. Absolutely not. You are free to leave at any time. No one will stop you, and you simply follow the path back to your boat. I do, however, hope that you will lend me your ear for just a few minutes more.”
I stared at him. The old man’s genial nature and soothing tone coupled with John/Jack’s complete lack of interest in hurting me had replaced my fear with curiosity, with their strange appearance and perfect English. Were they some sort of cult? Hardcore environmentalists? Perhaps their freakish appearance had driven them to hide away from other humans.
“Grand!” He exclaimed, patting his knees with his hands. “I am so very pleased. I presume you have many questions?”
Now I wished I had my phone to take notes. “Yes. Let’s start with: Why the aggression? Why not just ask me to come and see your village?” I noticed my voice was shaky as I asked this, I felt myself growing angry. “I mean, nobody wants to wake up and see a fucking weapon waving in their face. You know? Jesus! Just ask!”
The old man winced at my cursing. “Yes. I very much understand and, again, I offer my most sincere apologies. Unfortunately, we could not have you taking notes on your phone—” I started at this, but if he noticed then he didn’t show it—” nor could we be entirely sure that you would come had we only requested your presence. In fact, this uncertainty about your reaction was one of the reasons we wanted to speak to you. Rest assured, it is not in, uh, John’s nature to harm you. Now that you’re here, it is clear that we erred. You are right, we should have simply asked nicely.”
“Yes, you should of.”
“But you see,” he continued, “a man generally doesn’t come this far up a lonely river in Cambodia seeking company. I’m given to understand that you’ve had some recent…difficulties?”
His question annoyed me. “You’re ‘given to understand’, are you?”
Again, he winced. “I feel we have got off on the wrong foot—”
“Waving a spear in a man’s face tends to have that effect.”
“—but I would very much like to start over. Would you care for some tea?”
“It’s really very good. The best in the world, in fact.” He smiled. “As an Englishman, surely you appreciate the value of a good cup of tea?”
He leaned forward and took a sip of his and I suddenly became aware of just how thirsty I was. The heightened emotional state of the past thirty minutes coupled with the intense heat had left my mouth devoid of moisture.
He smiled and gestured to my cup and I hesitantly took a sip. It was warm, pleasantly bitter and mildly fruity.
Instantly, it brought back a memory of a particular Sunday morning a few years back. I was carrying two mugs of tea into the bedroom and had stopped at the bedside to soak her in. Her peaceful face framed by her long dark hair on the pillow. As she awoke, she smiled upon seeing me and her eyes sparkled with such a sincere and genuine happiness that I felt my heart lift. I realised that this was the first time I had thought about her without anger or malice or bitterness since we split. My eyes filled.
“These difficulties, are you thinking of them now?” He asked gently, I quickly blinked away the tears
“Yes. No. Not really. It’s different,” I felt exposed, disarmed. “This, uh, this tea is really good.”
He smiled. “Yes, the finest. The product of a small group of people who care deeply about their craft. To them, their whole life is in this tea and this tea is their whole life. I believe it was Thoreau who said ‘For the real wealth of labour is knowledge and virtue.’ I like to think that this virtue is what we taste.”
“I think that was actually Emerson.”
“Quite,” he smiled and looked at me with an expression that told me that I was both factually correct but had missed the point entirely.
“So what is this place?” I asked, taking another sip.
“It’s a…sanctuary. For reason. You see, human consciousness is an interesting thing,” he began. As he spoke, I noticed the light in the room gradually dimming. I glanced out through the open doorway—surely it couldn’t be night already?—but the light outside was fading fast.
“It is a mutation,” he continued, “the greatest this planet has ever seen. Ever since those early strands of life sat protected in their simple membranes—absorbing proteins, replicating, mutating—survival has been a matter of chance, the development of offensive weapons and defensive strategies in the never-ending war over resources.
“Consciousness is just another weapon, a tool for the unthinking genetic imperative to use in its struggle. We consider ourselves beings of reason, yet we are driven almost exclusively by emotion, by the desires of something that unconsciously looks way beyond the meagre span of our lifetime. We are a temporary vessel.”
By now the room was almost entirely black, his serene face glowing in the darkness. His voice grew simultaneously deeper in pitch, its bell-like timbre growing clearer, layered with subtle harmonics. His words seemed to bypass my ears entirely, their origin deep inside my brain; the reverberations echoing around my skull.
“Our unconscious biases drive us far from truth,” echoed his voice. “We make choices that we think are ours, but are in fact predetermined in no small part by our histories and our desires. We are actors, our parts laid our for us by so much out of our control, and we will play them. The very best we can hope for is to rewrite a few of the lines, though the effort this takes will absorb a lifetime and involves a relentless internal struggle. Do not run from it. Think of her now.”
I started seeing tiny white spots behind him that looked like stars. They filled the room and I thought of her, without questioning the implications of his command. A brilliant nebula appeared just above his head, a cloudy pink explosion that grew from the size of a coin until it filled the entire room. He seemed to grow in his chair as this formation grew, his face remaining in the centre of it.
A tsunami of emotion burst from my chest and flooded my body, eight years of memories poured into my brain. I grabbed moments as they flowed by in the rushing torrent: us holding hands at the cinema; carrying her on my back in the ocean; a fit of her uncontrolled giggling; her uncertainty at her appearance and my complete inability to express just how perfect she was. Tears flowed down my cheeks.
“Those eight years were a gift,” his voice said, cutting through the tide. “We have an opportunity to move into something glorious; to wrestle control from our origins and steer ourselves in a new and brilliant direction. It is what humanity craves: Understanding that which cannot be understood; describing that which cannot be described. History is a star field, each beacon of light a teacher willing to share what they’ve learned if we would but listen. Life is a hopeless, noble struggle: Don’t run from it but take up arms for this futile fight—it is the only war worth fighting. Seek the scars, the battles, the torments and relish your defeats as victories and forgive your enemies that make you strong. Shun comfort for it is a mirage, as life-giving as a glass of sand. The true reward for virtuous effort will always be a more difficult challenge. Would you like some more tea?”
The world snapped back like a stretched rubber band slapping my face. I blinked at the sudden light—it was still daylight outside—and looked across at him. He sat as he had before, watching me expectantly, legs crossed, hands resting on his knees.
I quickly wiped my eyes. “Um, no. Thank you. I, I think I should get going.”
He nodded. “So soon? Well, that’s a shame, although I completely understand that you need to get back. Please visit us any time.”
He was right. I felt an urgent need to leave, not just his presence, but the entire country and return to England. There was so much to take care of, so much I needed to do. The count had reached eight and if I was ever going to get back up, it needed to be now.
I mumbled my thanks, then stumbled back down the path to my boat.
Looking back, I hope that he wasn’t offended by my sudden and rather rude departure, although something tells me that he wasn’t. My mind was racing, the past and the future had collided with the thunderous ferocity of speeding freight trains, and the reverberations were shaking the foundations of my world.
I paddled back in a daze, thoughts swinging wildly like an out of control wrecking ball between a disbelieving deliberation of what had happened and a buzzing excitement as I wrote a mental list of all of the things to do: clients that needed work and apologies; my mother that needed a reassuring phone call; my dad, who needed a visit from me; and her.
Most of all, her.
Needless to say, the idealism of that trip back—the painting of my life that I’d made from a kayak on a river—was quickly destroyed by reality. Clients weren’t as forgiving as I’d hoped, though a few were placated on the basis of reduced rates, and it took another six months before I was able to see my dad. My mum was glad to hear from me, though.
With her there were some more arguments, especially when I first got back. She was understandably pissed that I had just upped and left, though eventually we did manage a few civil conversations and even a laugh or two about old times. In the end, I took a chainsaw to our lives, conceding more than my friends believed I should have. We parted on reasonably good terms and I hear about her now and then through mutual acquaintances. It sounds like she’s doing well.
I try my best to hold on to the experience of my trip. I wrote down as much as I could remember and I keep a note of something that I think the old man said, though I have a suspicion I might have dreamt it later. Even if I did, I like to think that it was something he would have said.
“Human beings cannot unsee things,” the note says. “It is your duty to become an ambassador for understanding. What I have shown you will permeate your life in ways you can’t even comprehend. It will come out in your work and your life in new and original ways, if you trust yourself.”
And so I try to, but it’s hard and I often fail. I would like to go back there one day and see him again. Thank him.
This is the first time I’ve talked about it. I didn’t know how much he would want me to share, so I shared nothing for a long time. I guess I should mention that although this all happened, it’s only one small part and it didn’t take place in a village in Cambodia.
Perhaps I’ll elaborate at a later date although, honestly, the truth is so much stranger that I doubt you would believe me anyway.