Is Christmas the same in flip flops? This was just one of the many questions I mused during that bumpy flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap. I day-dreamed: longing for crunchy, snowy walks through pure white fields; warm, woolly jumpers, Santa hats, crackling orange fires, – roasting chestnuts. I really missed it. Things were different this year though; Zeb had persuaded me to extend my trip and come to Sihanoukville to meet his backpacking pals – Shane and Moe. I envied Zeb: surfing the clouds: snoring away in his aisle seat. His gargantuan bald head slumped forwards, gormless expression on his face: jaw hung open, slack, drooling like a bloated hillbilly. I was about to stick a peanut in his mouth – when the announcement came through the speakers: ‘prepare to land’; it was time for the next leg of our adventure.
I met the same smirking immigration officer from my previous trip to Cambodia; he remembered me too. ‘Mr Dewey, mind your head’ he sniggered as he stretched his stumpy, little arm up: gesturing at my height, sardonically. If he wasn’t about to stamp me into paradise, I may well have punched him. At least I had a tan now: auburn – not pink like Zeb. My hair had grown as well, a rather sun-bleached-quiff, but finally looking like a backpacker: carefree. Zeb now waddled through, wide awake and Zen as ever as he raised his fingers at the officer: showing him his trademark peace sign. I was perplexed by his recent Muay Thai victory. ‘Hurry up Zeb!’ I barked, rather earnestly; ‘coming dude’ he retorted as he returned his passport to his oversized khaki shorts pocket. It was time for a twelve-hour bus journey to Sihanoukville: then we could relax.
It was getting dark when we boarded the sleeper bus, which was packed: shaggy-haired, sun-baked backpackers – lining the capsule beds like tinned sardines. Zeb and I found some beds towards the back of the bus. I felt sorry for Zeb as he was unable to fit in his bed, and had to lie on the floor, squeezed between a group of crisp crunching Swedes. I had to hunch over in my capsule, knees pressed to my chin – looking like a contortionist. It was hell – so I shut my eyes and tried to sleep. The old bus chugged its way out the airport; the bright neon lights and hectic city bustle: steadily drifting away. As we entered the Cambodian countryside: I also drifted away. Thoughts of England overriding me.
‘Wake up dude!’: it was Zeb. ‘We’re here man!’ ‘Cool cool’ I muttered in my dazed morning state; not quite knowing who or where I was. Zeb and I retrieved our backpacks from the bus and caught a moped taxi to our guesthouse. Sihanoukville felt different to the cities, more tropical and laid back. Sandy pavements, sugar palms, and tropical air – smelling of freshly blended spices: helping me forget about chilly old England. Our guesthouse was an inviting little home – with an oval-shaped pool out the back, and a most helpful young man on reception: named Kop. ‘Anything you need – Kop get you’ he announced – as we checked in. Zeb and I simultaneously retorted ‘sweet!’ before hi-fiving one another.
We spent most of the morning relaxing by the pool before deciding to walk to the beach and meet Shane and Moe. Zeb couldn’t keep still – ‘you’re gonna love these dudes’ he announced at a perpetual rate: pacing up and down – chain-smoking and taking advantage of the fifty-cent beers. I tried my best to show an interest by nodding at Zeb; eventually, my neck started to ache so I said – ‘shall we?’ – Zeb’s wide, excitable eyes answered. We downed our beers – deodorised our armpits – high-fived Kop after he sold us some weed, and hastily stumbled down the street: singing the Pogues at top volume.
The afternoon heat clung to my skin, drying my throat. I felt claggy. I could feel myself swaying down the street; never had I craved a frosty hit of nectar so much. I was in luck as the beach bar was in sight; ear-piercing screams of ‘Dude!’ – coming from its bamboo structure. Zeb began to make haste, a kind of portly man’s shuffle – the same I’d seen him do when we went for an all you can eat buffet the previous evening. A similar excitable dog expression on his face, tongue waggling: exultant.
‘It’s them he chirped, ‘Shane and Moe!’ He couldn’t contain himself as he barged through the crowd of wavy-haired, gym bros – wearing fake ray bans: smoking pool cue sized reefers. The pair spotted Zeb, jumping to attention from their chilled card game. ‘My man!’ shrieked the dreadlocked American Shane – ‘Yeah boy!’ followed the long, frizzy-haired Moe – ‘Boom!’ followed the pink-headed Zeb. I said nothing.
The trio appeared to have their own secret handshake and language as they caught up – knocking back beers – yelling ‘chug, chug!’ I felt rather out of place, like an outsider – interloping their company. ‘What’s up, dude?’ Shane asked – his belly invading my space as he leaned across the table and tried to hug me. ‘Nothing mate – I’m fine ok’ I replied. ‘I’m just tired’. ‘You, sick bro’ Moe asked. ‘No, fine’. ‘You want a glass of water’ Zeb asked. ‘Just piss off! – all of you – you trio of fat pigs; shut-up and leave me alone!’
I got up and ran out of the bar – my feet kicking up piles of sand as I made my way to the beach. They were all staring at me as I turned around; I stuck my middle finger up at them and ran to the end of the beach as fast as I could. The onlookers were applauding me as I sprinted through the hot sand: ‘mind your head Dewey’ whistled past my ears. It was the immigration officer: sporting a Hawaiian shirt and Santa hat: I was livid.
I decided the best place to go was the water; calming aqua liquid, cajoling me with its delicate, crystal waves: tickling my blistered toes with light, bubbly foam. I waded in – gazing at the horizon; trying to distinguish between blue water and blue sky: it was mesmerising. After several peaceful minutes, I casually strolled back to the golden sand, feeling revitalized. I noticed the beach was now filling up with more tourists (and locals). The bar owners were setting up their decorations; ready for the festivities. A strong smell of crispy roast hog made my stomach speak as I passed a rotating swine: being carefully glazed in sticky marinade by a jolly bar owner – singing in Italian. I did a double-take: it was him.
‘Ciao! Ehhhhh!’ I exclaimed: it was Lorenzo from Siem Reap (and the plane). His bushy black hair was even bushier, and he looked as red as his hog. His thick, square glasses hung off his face as he leaned forward brushing his spinning meat with a pastry brush; he readjusted them when he saw it was me. ‘Ehhh, Dewey! – how are you, man!’ I immediately jumped into his arms – kissing him on both cheeks; ‘I’ve missed you man’ – ‘ehhhh – you too Dew!’ It was a joyful moment.
He sliced me off some meat, which I devoured, and we caught up over several large, colourful cocktails: soaking up the atmosphere. He told me he’d bought the beach bar, and Nik (from Siem Reap) was going to help him run it after a trip to Laos. ‘You’re welcome anytime, Dewey’ he announced. It was during this announcement that I decided I’d extend my trip even longer.
The sun was setting as the beach filled up; house beats, glow sticks, and fluorescent face paint: glistening in the ocean. In my rather intoxicated state – I noticed three rotund looking shapes staggering towards Lorenzo’s bar: laughing and singing. It was Zeb, Shane, and Moe. As they approached – I leapt up – emphatically announcing – ‘guys – I’m so sorry – Merry Christmas to one and all!’ The three of them smiled at me, magnanimously: rushing towards me and lifting me up. ‘Bro – we forgive you’ – Zeb said – with a huge grin on his face. ‘Merry Christmas bro!’ Shane and Moe exclaimed – harmoniously. They carried me down to the beach where we danced around in a circle, laughing and rolling in the sand. It was a moment I’ll never forget; it was real Christmas spirit.
Shane let me borrow some glow sticks and the four of us danced the night away: arm in arm, whilst Lorenzo brought us frosty beers, and crispy, suckling slices of warm hog. It was paradise.
A.T Hawthorn – 9.11.19