“I have the soul of a poet, not a Gila monster.”
The late, great Bill Hicks was referring to douchebaggy LA types when he said this–you know, the kind of guy who calls you in New York on Christmas and brags how he spent the day poolside in 80 degree weather. As an angsty Pacific Northwest artist nutcake, I’ve always identified with this mantra. After all, I came of age in the 1980’s, when surfer and vapid beach culture was shoved down our throats as some sort of national cultural ideal, and even then I hated that shit. Let us not forget that these were the Miami Vice years: Hang loose, bro. Or worse yet: Life’s a beach! If such watered down psuedo-surfer pablum weren’t horrible enough, I remember a disturbing high school trend in which a certain subset of preppy asshats took to wearing aquasocks as acceptable suburban footwear. Aquasocks.
For the love of all things decent and good.
I very much like, even adore the ocean, along with most all of the delicious creatures it contains: It’s just the beach part that does my head head in. I’ve always, in both the back, corners, and front of my mind, considered sunny beaches to be giant salt licks for assholes and idiots. And guess what? After spending three hellish years in Los Angeles, my hunch was confirmed with hard scientific certainty. On any hot weekend in Venice you could just feel the collective IQ drool into the double digits.
Since that time I’ve turned into a real scooter ridin’, guesthouse sleepin’, squatter shittin’, banana-pancake eatin’ traveler type, but I’ve amazingly managed to avoid really long stints of just hangin’ at the beach; when I have gone, it’s usually involved constant activity–snorkeling and diving–none of this laying around catching melanoma for me. I just can’t bask like the others. First of all, my skin just turns bright red and feels like it was attacked by angry ants. More importantly, I just get too hot. Five minutes and my engine is steaming. I feel like a seventies station wagon conked out at Death Valley’s only service station. And later I look like this guy, sans handprint:
I’ve managed to change my beach attitude a bit, in that I told myself, before setting off on this little adventure, that it was okay to do nothing (well, not really nothing, because even during periods of extreme inactivity I’m usually chipping away at a book or crossword). And that I did. Nearly nothing. We just spent six days on outer Otres Beach in Sihanoukville, where swimming and laying were the main pursuits.
Like most everywhere else on this trip, I’d been to Sihanoukville some years earlier: seven to be precise. And yes, it has changed. The sleepy little main backpacker’s beach (dopily called Serendipity) has now been built up with concrete and bars that open late into the night. The area around it is now a hub of activity with tourists of all ages and passport possessions walking its now paved streets. Sihanoukville was much more ghetto, and yes, sleepier, when I stayed those years back. Serendipity Beach was lined with crude hut bars that offered free marijuana to anyone willing to buy drinks there. Hell, some of the places offered a free bed as long as you promised to spend your chintzy gap year cash exclusively at their clapboard establishment. If you were young and broke and wanted and endless beach party, Sihanoukeville was the place.
That supreme beach bum culture still exists, but like anything fringe, it has been forced further out of town, to Otres Beach–which is actually two settlements–we stayed at the one quieter and further out. The aroma of ganja still floats freely on the breeze, and there are plenty of tanned white dudes with ass-length dreadlocks who look as if they haven’t worn shoes in tens of months.
Sihanoukeville attracts these perma-beach bums and has a system in place to maintain their survival. Many of the bars and guesthouses are foreign-owned (usually a wrinkly old dude and his Khmer workhorse wife, though there seem to be more young guys these days…) and openly advertise for Western, English-speaking staff. The young Western workers are paid in food, drink, and bed, and manage to party their asses off the whole time. Hell, if I were twenty three and on a grand tour of the region, I just may be tempted to do so myself.
There are some interesting folks down there. We grabbed most of our dinners at a place with an American young chef working the kitchen. His pasta dishes were just terrific, and the barman, Andrew, was a tattooed dude from Northern Ireland who maybe doesn’t even own a shirt. He had long blond surfer’s hair and was the spitting image of Sammy Hagar with an Ulster brogue. Craig was an emaciated American (yes it is possible) who had taught English in China for six years before washing up in Burnoutville. He did a little website work in exchange for shelter and his one meal a day, but seemed very content just to “curl up on a bench” on the beach of any accommodating owner. I think the tropical sun turned the guy’s brain into a kind of rank curry, and he was obviously in the late stages of a classic Asia Fail.
We’re now in Kampot, a crumbling yet charming town on the banks of a wide river, under the shadow of Bokor Mountain. It’s a couple days break from the beach until we head back to Vietnam’s Phu Quoc Island (which, strangely, is closer to Cambodia than Vietnam) for another week of the same. Let’s hope I can still write afterwards; Hemingway got the “Old Man and the Sea” from his time in Cuba, so the beach can’t be all THAT bad.