Holiday in Cambodia
It’s significantly cheaper than home and there are very few rules. A huge verandah stretches above the banks of a calm, fresh-water river. Beers are a buck and vodka red bulls are two. Marijuana and food are cheap, freely available and may be acquired from the same source. A huge rope swing dangles from a tree on the bank while a blob helps to propel bikini-clad women into the water. A ping-pong table, a small cinema room and a configuration of chairs and hammocks make up the space on the veranda. People are scattered around the place, lots of interesting young people from various parts of the world.
Sometimes you find yourself in one of these places, places where every want or freedom may be catered and afforded. This is a bona fide paradise for young people with a little bit of privilege, luck and agency. Backpackers’ Paradise.
This particular one is a few kilometres from Kampot, a small (but growing) town in southern Cambodia. This is an area with caves to explore, mountains to climb, rapids to float through and endless fields and rice paddies through which to ride a motorbike.
At the hostel, there is no necessity to exchange actual cash. Instead, you may care-freely (carelessly) run up a tab and pay it the day you leave. You may sit around smoking ganja all day, intermittently ordering pancakes, beef lok lak or chips with gravy, and many do. Others prefer to sit at the bar and order beer after beer, whiskey after whiskey, gin after gin, and do. This is the definition of luxury for many gap-year kids, university students, apprentices, young trades people and working professionals. People play beer-pong, shit-head and bad renditions of Wonderwall.
It is undeniably fun. The receptionists and bartenders are travellers who got caught up in the party and decided not to leave, for a little longer at least. It’s an alternate reality; a parallel universe where fun is God and nobody has any intention of telling you what to do.
“It’s a great place, but I don’t really feel like I’m in Cambodia,” I admit to the bartender on a rare night when things are quiet.
“You’re almost not,” he says matter-of-factly, revealing that he’s been through this thought process already. Realistically, we are in the unashamed depths of the backpacker bubble. As soon as I become explicitly aware of this, I realise that I want something more. I’m suddenly interested in the grit of Phnom Penh, the inordinate street dogs, orphans and amputees, and the history that determined the present. Right here, where backpackers are lazing in the sun, a genocidal regime pulverised Cambodia and its people an alarmingly short time ago.
In 1975 Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge captured the capital and began a totalitarian dictatorship that ruled Cambodia until 1979, during which roughly a quarter of the population were murdered. Pol Pot had this psychopathic idea to return to year Zero. He enacted his plan by killing intellectuals, teachers and non-compliers and forcing urbanites to relocate to rural areas and work in labour camps. The regime was hell-bent on absolute self-sufficiency and as a result, many died of malnourishment, famine and treatable diseases (as well as cold-blooded execution). Schools, hospitals, factories and borders were closed. Banking, currency, private property and religion were outlawed.
Now, in the wake of all that genocide, roughly two thirds of the population are under 30 and don’t remember the war. Many of the older generation are dead and scores of survivors have become debilitated by the regime. But times have significantly changed in Cambodia, and for the better. Tourism is blossoming, with 4 million visitors to the Kingdom in 2013.
If you dig punk, you’ll know that in 1980, the Dead Kennedys released a song titled Holiday in Cambodia. The lyrics juxtaposed the horror of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, with the relatively easy and often apathetic lifestyle of the average college student. Wikipedia describes it this way:
“The song is an attack on a stereotypical, moralising, privileged American college student. Its lyrics offer a satirical view of young, well-to-do and self-righteous Americans, contrasting such a lifestyle with the brutal dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge.”
Jello Biafra, Dead Kennedys front-man and songwriter, intentionally used shocking descriptions and grim irony to criticise the totalitarian regime and the lack of international intervention while it was happening. Moreover, it was a condemnation of educated elites who obsess over their own luxuries and ignore real world injustice. And I reckon Jello had a point.
As it stands, I’m part of the snooty-little-rich-student demographic, drinking beers in the sun by the river with other backpackers. I’m biting at the tits of Centrelink and running up a nice sized HECS tab on my Government. Though some among us believe welfare a pittance and education a right, here in this context, I represent the absolute height of privileged-white-man. I’m exactly the kind of educated fool Jello was criticising in “Holiday in Cambodia”.
This backpacker paradise serves as a reminder not get stuck in opulent comfort or piggish apathy, and to keep searching for what I deem important. Hedonism is lovely for a time, but it’s not particularly rewarding. A holiday in Cambodia may revolve around drinking beer in the sun and sex and drugs with other backpackers, but travelling, for me, involves going a little beyond that bubble. You can fill your stomach, fry your head and drain your libido, but then it’s probably time to learn something, create something or help someone. There are boundless outlets for productive and positive action, especially on the road.
So it must be time for me to finish my beer, get out of this hammock and get creative, before I become another beer-battered, sunburnt slob with an astronomical bar tab and a vague memory of Cambodia.