Finding the Darkness: Running From Addiction in Cambodia
Having finished high school, gotten my place at uni and taken a gap year, I was at a bit of a loose end. The thought of moving from my open coastal home to the big city scared me. On top of that, I had a “sophomore-stage” drug addiction, pouring my life away for opium and vodka.
All of this persuaded me I needed a change of scenery. I needed to find myself – the real me, whoever that was. What better place to get away from a burgeoning drug and alcohol habit than Southeast Asia?
As is becoming evident, decision making has never been my strong suit.
After eight months of 50-hour weeks labouring on shitty jobsites, I’d finally made it: Siem Reap, my home for the next month. Stepping off the plane and walking through the airport, I was just struck by the foreignness of it all. The heat and humidity, the beautiful jungle – antithesis of the Aussie bush; even the quaint little airport and its Soviet-style bureaucracy and ceremony.
In a rare stroke of inspired genius, I’d organised to volunteer at a local school and food program. Not, shockingly, as an English teacher, but as a handyman slash farmworker, having worked in construction and grown up on a farm. This was lined up for a month-long stint, and I’d also had the foresight to book an okay private room with an aircon – much less of a culture shock than the 12-person fan-cooled dorm I was accustomed to. Everything was lining up well.
This finding myself thing might actually work, I thought.
At first, I struggled to even dip my toes in the pond of experience around me, let alone immerse myself. I was living my same life: staying in my hotel, on my phone and venturing out for work, necessities and a drink in the evening. After one such drink, I ended up being thrown into the pond, losing my phone in a haze of cheap beer and Xanax. I also quickly learned the difference between paid work and volunteering and began to feel more and more at home in my surrounds.
My time at the school put a lot of things into perspective. It was a 20-minute pushbike ride from town, half on the chaotic Cambodian highway, half down leafy and potholed local dirt roads. Not impressive by western standards, but built with love and dedication. Seeing the energy and effort being put into such a selfless project by both migrants and locals was eye-opening and filled me with hope.
I was also working alongside someone who made $3 a day. I spent the same on cigarettes as he had to feed his family; we did the same work, but I was there for “fun”.
It all made the drug problem and identity crisis I had suffered at home seem very insignificant. But though I had hopes of using this trip to detox and clean myself up, the temptation of dirt cheap opiates, benzos and alcohol made that a laughable prospect. I hadn’t slept sober in month.
I had to do everything in excess, never able to stop at one or two anythings. I wanted to feel good, and in my mind, the best way to do so was to get drunk and high. I was beginning to realise that I needed a chemical safety blanket to get through the day.
In hindsight, I was running from my problems. I thought I’d found the easiest way to happiness, only to become snared in the claws of addiction, then would have to live day-to-day to get through. I was at my happiest during my time spent volunteering; most of the self-loathing started after I didn’t have anywhere to be, which was when the inevitable non-stop “party” began.
As I moved on, both in my travels and as a traveller myself, my destructive tendencies started to rear their ugly head again. After finishing my volunteering stint and wearing out my welcome at every bar and hostel in town, I decided to head to Phnom Penh. Beautiful in its own way, it was the yang to the ying of Siem Reap: plain and simple, a city of sin. A city of drugs, girls and poverty, with enough character to save it from a purely negative review.
I didn’t have a good mindset going in. I’d found myself alright: a hollow wreck of a man, devoid of personality and self-control. I know this clouded my judgment, but I found Siem Reap to have a way of taking people and not letting go of them. The saving graces of the riverfront and the historic tourist sights are just a façade in the city of the lost.
Seeing the dark past of the city in S21 and the killing fields goes a long way to providing some insight into what it has become. A whole generation killed, a culture destroyed. Cambodia is a young country when you take the genocide into account. It’s easy to see where the drugs and girlie bars come from. When everything is lost, you do what you must to survive.
What it doesn’t explain is the charm and warmth of its smaller cousin Siem Reap, with its comparative lack of vice and beautiful people. Maybe it’s the power of the ancient temples, though I think the power of the tourist dollar is probably more accurate.
The difference in the cities could also be attributed to the mindset and lifestyle of those who visit. Travelling can be amazing, sure, but nothing is for free. You have to put effort in; you can’t just find yourself in bars and blackouts.
While I was volunteering, I learned so much and definitely grew as a person. But afterwards, without any structure and framework, my self-determined attempts to find myself left me looking at someone I couldn’t stand. A trip across the ocean doesn’t just melt your problems away. And the chaotic lifestyle of a 19-year backpacker, away from home and left to his own devices for the first time, can have a way of bringing those problems to light.
Cover by Jeremy Paige