My bunk bed was trembling and I was woken up by the noises from somebody having sex on a lower bed in the dormitory bedroom I was sharing with three other people.
They were backpackers whose chemistry, maybe, sparked on a half-day tour of the Killing Field in Phnom Penh—the place, according to the history, is where thousands of people were killed in the 1975 genocide.
Visitors are required to wear a headphones and listen to the most miserable audio guide humankind has ever made. It’s understandable why most people took off the headphones (the two that were humping each other below my bed in particular), ignored the voices telling stories about their suffering from one of the most important lessons learned for the humanity and proceeded to prowl the area, killing time before the tour guide would pick them up so they could move on and enjoy another trip at the shooting range.
Being young travelers with a plan to stay abroad as long as they can, they were aware that their currency were running low. I’m not a sex expert but lying there while listening to the moaning and squelching sounds I could tell that they were not couple. On top of that the rhythm on my bed is another evidence shown that they were not having fun.
The girl was more self-conscious, blonde, below average European breasts size and was very… young—no older than sixteen or seventeen years old.
‘Come join us,’ said the man when he saw my head stuck out from the bunk bed.
The girl was really embarrassed. I could tell from her movement that slowly came to a pause. I wondered if I had said yes at some point.
It was then that I started to develop a deep personal thought about my trip. ‘Why would I packed my bag and leave my comfort zone?’ I asked myself. ‘Do I just want to know how it feel like to do something before the real interminable life of working full-time begun like these people, or, I was searching for something more?’
That evening I went downstairs and browse for a tour at the hostel reception. There weren’t many choices to choose from. My eyes wandered to an advertorial with the image of a white woman surrounded by Asian school children in their mucky and torn school uniform. The content said to be a rewarding experience. There was a testimonial from a woman name Nicole from the United States that I found captivating.
‘It was my most memorable experience in Cambodia. I spent 20 days volunteering and I fell in love with the school, the kids, and the landscape. They even taught me how to milk a cow! I am grateful for being there even if it’s just a short visit. It makes me believe that everybody is capable of making a difference and enriching other people’s lives.’
After looking at the picture of Nicole several times, I signed up for the trip. The trip costed only twenty dollar and after the trip was made I was feeling little nervous; I didn’t know how to act knowledgeable the way teachers are supposed to. But at least I could do well when it comes to milking cow. This thought kind of putting my mind to rest when I went back to bed that night.
The following morning I was hoping someone else might join me in the trip but when the tuk-tuk arrived to pick me up, it was only me.
The driver was a big guy with short curly hair. He looked old and tired; stereotypically fit the word tuk-tuk driver and wasn’t big of a talker.
We stopped at a gas station that resembling those you seen in American horror movies about a group of teenagers stop for gas and then they’re getting killed, one by one. The driver, without asking for permission, unzipped his pants and make his way to a bush to take a leak. I was left alone in the back seat on this vehicle, thinking this is how tourists got killed. They went to a remote village in the hope that they could make a difference and then they got robbed and killed and appeared on the local newspaper.
The change in scenery offered no relief and I thought about quitting and ask the driver to drive me back to the hostel when a man with a huge buffalo walking to my tuk-tuk and asking for money. The buffalo was ashamed by its owner and it swayed its head in resistance when I was about to give him a dollar. My driver saw the man and he quickly walked back to shoo him out.
‘These fucking worthless people,’ he mumbled. ‘Don’t ever think about giving them free money. This is not Thailand.’
The engine stopped in front of the most modern looking house of the village. The only half concrete, half wooden house in the village, which in contradict to the image of the school I initially adopted when expecting to visit a school in the poorest village.
The tuk-tuk driver was actually the school principle. This revelation came as a big surprise and, bad enough, made me feel an unnecessary self-important afterwards. His name is Tonle, he has the picture of him on top of the staff board.
‘I don’t hire a driver because driving clear my head.’ He told me.
The school is basically another tourist attraction for a do-gooder. A set up place for a white person who, naive enough, just wanted to take picture of them among the smiling brown-skin poor children but doesn’t have enough budget or time or fear they might get AIDS if they go to Africa where they can look even whiter among the dark-skin kids. ‘Here I am, I’m an angel.’ Nicole would think. ‘I’m gonna save these poor kids.’
How did I let the advertorial won over and spent twenty bucks to get here? All I wanted to do was to head back to my hostel but I didn’t know how to drive. I didn’t even know where I was exactly.
As my irritation continue to grow, Tonle took me directly to the classroom where I was introduced to a cute Cambodian teacher who’s just began his lesson. The teacher asked the students to stand up and introducing themselves one by one to me. I felt a sudden joy just standing in front of the classroom. The way some of them introducing themselves manifested some kind of reckless joy found only in innocent kids, that was vastly contagious.
The class was over and it’s time for the kids to play. The noise was something I had expected. The little kids formed a circle and took turn to touch my iPad while I was studying their school books and assignments.
Later I was given a tour around the school by Tonle. The renovation of the back building was about to finish in two months. Nearby there’s a huge field of home-grown vegetable. Not being an expert of plants I asked for what it is. ‘Tobacco, it’s for the whole village.’
‘You must be Sam,’ the Cambodian teacher interrupted, who was teaching in the class earlier, tapped his hand on my shoulder. He smiled shyly at me. It’s the polite manner we often give to the foreigner visiting our country. I didn’t expected to be treated in the same fashion from someone from my neighbor country, especially from someone my age. He has an English name, Michael. A pretty generic English name for an Asian guy. If you’re traveling around Southeast Asian countries you’d be surprised by how many Michael you would have met.
‘Tonle asked me to show you the village.’ Michael said. ‘Come on now, it’s part of the twenty dollar you pay.’
Beyond a vast tobacco land there is a great deal of greenish landscape and rice paddy but not so many farmer. It looked like the plants were in order but if you look closely it was a compost.
We rode our bike side by side along the pathway in the middle of the rice paddy. It was the first time in years since I began college that I pedaled the wheels. Though the scenery is nothing different from where I came from, it’s the thought that I was riding a bicycle in a place where no one knows who I am that made me happy.
‘I’m not from here you know.’ He began the conversation. ‘I grew up in Phnom Penh. I’m a city guy, just like you. You are from Bangkok, right?’
‘Yes.’ I told him. ‘But Bangkok’s making me crazy. That’s why I’m here. I need a break.’
‘How can the city that glamourous making you crazy?’ His curiosity in his dark brown eyes lighten up when they caught the mid-afternoon sun.
‘Too much sex maybe.’ I joked.
But Michael was blushing. Hearing the word sex made him blushed. Like most young polite Asian guys. I sometimes did, too, but I’m now immune to it. I imagined Michael was the one staying on top of the bunk bed in my hostel with a couple having sex on the lower bed. Had he been in my position he’d definitely pretend to be asleep or too embarrass to even climb out of bed and someone has to come up and console him that two naked persons having an intercourse is normal.
‘My God! I have to move there.’ He blurted. ‘I never have…. sex.’
This fascinated me, something I said that originally intended to be a joke being taken seriously. How desperate he sounded. I wondered had he ever talked or had this kind of conversation with anyone before.
‘You must be kidding me. You’re very good looking. How come?’
At this point Michael stopped pedaling. ‘Because I like boys.’
I know that it would be tough if you’re gay and live in Russia and other Islamic countries. But I have no idea that it could be bad in my neighbor country too. For a handsome, educated Cambodian man living in a countryside where the community was quite conservative. I could understand how a discreet gay man would feel, though, for Michael he would have been waiting for a chance to came out with someone he can make sure his secret would be safe. And Sam from Bangkok is one of those people who he can conveniently share this secret because I would be gone by the end of the day carrying his desire he kept underneath his skin with me but never jeopardize his reputation in the village.
‘Is Tonle know about this?’ I asked.
‘No!’ He answered in a hurry. ‘And you can’t tell anybody about this.’
‘This is terrible.’ I pictured him in Bangkok and I am 100% sure he couldn’t handle all the offers he would have get if he goes to a gay bar in Silom. He was charismatic and has a unique character in a way of his polite manner. I would be glad if he finds me attractive to him but I didn’t think so. He took me for a bike ride because it was a thing they offered to tourists when they’re visiting the school not because he found me attractive and looking for a chance to be alone with me.
‘I am a teacher after all.’ He told me. ‘I could lose my job if they know about this.’
People say Thailand is more or less twenty years behind those first world country. Whilst you can have same sex marriage in the United States and some countries in Europe. In Thailand gay is a loveable person, funny, colorful. An impish smile from a stranger is the worst thing a gay person in Thailand can possibly get if you’re a boring kind.
Michael, unfortunately, fit to the latter category.
A merciless downpour and the thunderous cloud forming behind us. It was still ten minutes away from where we were but Michael told me we have to hurry back to the school if we don’t want to get wet or hit by lightning.
The new visitors arrived. The blonde woman accompanied by her husband, they both looked very wealthy, a perfect European couple paying a visit to the school they’re funded as Michael explained to me.
‘Tiffany,’ she introduced herself, ‘and this is my husband Paul.’
I turned to look at Paul who was standing up like he’s the host receiving a compliment at a wine party.
Tonle announced that the class was over and let the kids out of the school.
It was about to rain. One of the students came to me and shook my hand. He was laughing quite hysterically with his friends afterward. Right there is another warm illustration for me to collect in my memory. It was this boy, being the only student left in the class, sitting at the threshold of the door, wearing his shoes that was too big for his tiny feet. Then he stood up and run, trying to catch up with his friends.
When we were alone and the woman began to talk business.
‘Paul and I don’t have much time here. We’re flying off to Ho Chi Minh City this evening. So let’s get to work.’
She acted like she’s the owner of the school, which she practically did. She told Tonle it’s time to start finding the real teacher.
‘We can’t rely on those who come here only for tour. We need someone who can stay here.’
Her aloofness and authoritativeness may have worked elsewhere on other clan but they have failed to work on Tonle who looked pretty laid-back under such a tight situation. ‘I have tried very hard to convince someone to work here. But those kids think they’re too good to work. They don’t want to live in this shithole.’
‘We, well, I… have tried to make it less shithole.’ She said. ‘For you. By next year I will send a team of professional dentists here for everyone in your village.’
Michael sat on the other side of the room and was pretending to grade students’ homework. He would have pull out his smart phone to check Instagram or read Tweets had he been able to buy one. He told me on the rice paddy field that he sent all his income to his mother who will save up that money for him to obtain his master in Bangkok. ‘I have no expenses, I don’t smoke and I don’t drink. I don’t have a chance to take anyone out on a date but that’s totally fine by me.’
This was Michael I know.
I felt sorry for the three of them. Especially to Tonle. He’s basically her puppet who chained himself into this dilemma. I don’t know if there’s a political issue going on behind this but what I saw is the odds for the kids in this school to thrive was so slim. If there’s still a hope for someone it would be for Michael.
He’s the brightest person I had encountered in Cambodia. And a devoted teacher. Good-hearted young guy who abandoned the city life and start working as a teacher in the remote village. He was the only one that I didn’t feel sorry for. He appeared to me like the guy who’s highly attractive and capable of taking care of himself.
It was Michael who gave me the ride back to my hostel. We talked some more about Bangkok on the way back. I told him everything I know, from my little knowledge about Bangkok, and wish to see him make it to Bangkok soon. I gave him my email address and my telephone number. ‘Good luck with the rest of your trip,’ he wished me before he started the engine and drove off.
The guy staying on the lower bed was gone. I must accept that even though it seems pretty easy to make friends when you’re staying in a hostel, but when all the familiar faces are gone. It means that you have spent way too much time in that place. It’s alarming you to move on to the next chapter.
The next morning I was seating on a plane bound for Hanoi.
Three months later I resumed to student mode. I had problems adjusting from the living-the-dream, obstacle-free, nomadic lifestyle to the banal obstructive architectural student life. Then the spring break came and I went to Hong Kong, the next summer break I was doing my internship in Bangkok.
I made a promise with Michael that afternoon in 2012 that I would come back but, of course, I didn’t.
My heart was broken the following semester. I didn’t hear anything from Michael. Not even a single email.
The real reason I signed up for that trip to the school because I had this feeling that I could change things. But what I didn’t know then was that I can’t wish for things to change immediately. If I want to help other people, first I need to take care of myself.
Looking back from where it begins—the advertorial page. Nicole and I ended up having different experiences (they didn’t teach me to milk a cow!) but I finally agreed with her that everyone is capable of making a difference and enriching other people’s lives. It happened to me with Michael and the kids in that school.
It wasn’t perfect resolution. The two westerners were much more capable of making a difference than me. At least the school looked less of a shithole and Tiffany would hire a team of dentists to give free dental care for everyone in the village. That guaranteed no one was left behind in the poorest village of Phnom Penh and I would continue to live on with my life in the big city of Bangkok, knowing the kids are in good hands.
Sam Nathapong is a writer and journalist living in Bangkok. Follow his Twitter @samnathapong