Imagine this: Luscious green tropical trees surround you and the Bahama blue coastline of Sihanoukville at your footsteps. You are sitting under the shady breeze of a bungalow, sipping on some ridiculously fresh coconut juice. Now, picture you and 41 other perky university students enjoying a good time playing cards, eating fresh seafood and exotic fruits and swimming in the super chill Gulf of Thailand. With no worries in the world, you relax and let time fly by. At this moment, you are at absolute peace.
This was no dream.
But just then and there, your concept of peace and your sense of tranquility become tainted to the reality that plagues Cambodia.
Two vehicles loom in the distance comes to a screeching halt. As they step foot out of their plush Land Cruisers, a mushroom of mafia-style smoke hovers over them. (Feels like a scene out of some Tarantino flick)
Their clique had no more than 15 people. All but two were males aged 21 to 25 at most. They had nice, clean, casual clothes. However, the two girls had on some of the skimpiest outfit I have ever seen. (Yeah, even skimpier than the Asian girls at the University of Washington during spring quarter!). Anyways, my instincts rubbed off negative vibes. I had a gut feeling that they were “bad news.”
An hour after their arrival, my instincts began to take form. The first sign–large consumption of alcohol. Contrary to the TV commercial, Red Bull does not give you wings, especially when mixed with Angkor Beer–it just makes you rowdy. Second, excessive smoking. I swear I could barely see their faces in the cloud of smoke they were puffing. And then their irrational behavior. Who in their sane mind would run around the beach yelling like wild baboons? Sure you can argue that these activities and behaviors are common among young adults, and rightfully, that is true. But let me drop in the final variable–guns.
Not one, not two, but I counted them all–13! Everyone had a small pistol stashed at their back, tucked underneath their nicely pressed shirts. This frightening discovery was made when a couple of the guys began to playfully wrestle each other. They pulled the guns out without fear but everyone around the vicinity including us felt uneasy of the situation.
The four of us nonchalantly brushed off what we saw by continuing to play cards. Several more games later, the group got noisier and rowdier putting us on higher alert of our surroundings. Their wrestling’s got more physical and at times, I wasn’t sure if they were playing for real. Out of nowhere, one the guys run to their car. At this moment it felt as though everyone on the beach was cautiously watching the chain of events that was unraveling right in from of our eyes.
“Why is he running off to the car?”
“Is he really mad or what?”
“Or is all of this an act? They weren’t wrestling for real, were they?”
All of us pondered these questions in our mind but we were hesitant to answer them.
I blinked for a second.
Now, all I see in front is a demonically possessed Freshie boy with a large AK-47 in hand. My heart skipped a beat. I had never seen a massive piece of arms in front of my own two eyes until now. I was terrified beyond words.
With the AK strapped around his shoulder, the man came dashing towards the guy who he was wrestling with earlier. One man held him back, as though a fight was to erupt. We all held our breaths.
In the midst of the heightened tension and chaos, I started to ponder the worst case scenario and the well-being of my close friends. The four of us, quietly trying to avoid attention, began to make our refuge. We tip-toed, one-by-one towards the high deck bar for cover.
Another man intervened.
Reflecting back, he was likely the “leader” within the group. I could not make out his words but apparently what he had said squashed the conflict. The AK was no where in sight after I made an attempt to look over the counter.
The tension had dissipated. The four of us convened. It was a group consensus: We need to leave this area now. But night has befallen on us. Our original plan was to sleep on the beach. And our bus had already left to headquarter for maintenance and won’t return until next morning. What to do?
Option B: Talk a stroll (a rather long one) on the beach away from the “gangsters” in hopes that upon our return, the group leaves. In the barely lit beach of Ocheteal, we walked with complaint, catching our breaths and reflecting the earlier encounter. One of my friends had mentioned that prior to the wrestling incident; he caught one of their men playing with a large samurai sword in the back. In addition, another person in our group also noticed a large stash of guns in one of their two vehicles while they were out changing into their swimming clothes.
Over an hour had passed when we returned to our original beach site. The majority of our friends were playing beach games on the sand. I glanced over towards the area where the other group was at and realize that over half of the original number had left. The six or so that remained was still drinking and smoking up a storm. I still kept a watchful eye on them as we sat on the beach chairs catching the breeze. Another 45 minutes or so had gone and too, were the last remnants of the gangsters.
In all of my 25 years, I have never been put in the position where my safety and physical well-being was such at a high risk. In all of my 25 years, I have never seen a gun larger than the size of a hand pistol. And in all of my 25 years, I have never felt so defenseless as I did that weekend in Sihanoukville.
Guest Post by Heterosexual-Khmerican: Phatry.
Phatry Derek Pan is a Cambodian-American freelance writer who has lived and traveled throughout SE Asia. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org