I knew it wouldn’t be long until I found the backpacker commune in Cambodia. In all these Southeast Asian countries, where life is cheap and foreigners can live in drunken carefree abandon, the young itinerary-less travellers tend to naturally gather somewhere.
In Cambodia, this somewhere is the beachside resort of Sihanoukville.
They’re not looking for culture or a connection with the country. It’s more about where they’re not than where they are. They’re not a home, where the kind of lifestyle comes with a financial cost. They’re not a home, where a level is acceptable behaviour is expected. They’re not at home, where the stresses of life can be like shackles on bohemia.
The commune of backpackers here at Sihanoukville are not the hippy type, though. They won’t be content just relaxing and letting the world go on around them. They need to create an environment with social interactivity, events and purpose. Finances, behaviour and employment are just as present here as at home… but it’s on their terms.
It’s called Serendipity Beach but there’s nothing serendipitous about ending up here. It’s the centre of action and this is where most young travellers naturally gravitate to. Along the sand is a long line of bars and restaurants, each one almost indistinguishable from the next. During the day the establishments put out deckchairs and sunbeds for people to use (while they buy food and drink, of course). Cambodian vendors wander amongst the tourists, trying to sell them snacks, sunglasses and manicures. It seems reasonable that local people would come here and try to make some money from the foreigners. What I don’t understand are the young foreigners who join the locals peddling their own wares.
Young men and women, usually uncovered on the torso except for a bikini or tattoos, trudge along the sand handing out flyers promoting restaurants, hotels and bars. They’re not rude or forceful and often they’ll stop for a chat with someone who catches their eye. But in some ways they are just as annoying as the Cambodian woman who keeps telling me I have too much hair on my shoulders to be attractive (probably a true statement – but an unwelcome one nonetheless).
But this is what gives meaning to the months they choose to spend in Sihanoukville. It gives them employment, in a sense, because they get free accommodation and drinks in exchange for the spruiking. It gives them interactivity, because they can invite the new arrivals to the parties that are happening that evening. And it gives them events, because the nights at the bar will now have the regular long term crowd and the novel addition of some sunburnt fresh arrivals.
When you go to the bars along the beach in the evening – which is inevitable if you want to experience tourist Sihanoukville properly – you can see the cliques which have formed with the long stay backpackers. They exchange tales from the night before, claim their free drinks, and try to create tales to share the next day. But even then many of them are still working. They’re trying to talk the new arrivals into a booze cruise (from which they presumably earn some kind of commission) or explain why one bar is better than the other. Like with the jobs they have or will have back home, it’s hard to sometimes switch off.
Now, I’m sure these people have a good time and it’s not for me to judge. I am concerned about their livers and the mental health, considering what they do to their bodies night after night, but that’s not the point I wish to make. What I find odd is the attraction in coming to a foreign country just to work – and work for a bed worth a few dollars a night and some drinks worth about the same at that! Added up, it’s probably less than they would earn in an hour waiting a table back home.
So it must be something more. True, there’s the beach and the sun, which would be very attractive this time of year for the northern hemisphere travellers (which most seem to be). But I think the core of it must be able the issue I referred to earlier – being in control of the society. They’re not working because they have to pay the rent, they’re working because it makes them part of a community where the biggest stress of the day is whether they should hand out the next flyer to the cute blonde or the cute brunette.
I knew it wouldn’t be long until I found the backpacker commune in Cambodia. They have existed for decades and they always will. Some people travel to see the world – some travel to create their own.