Koh Rong Sanloem

I end up making the ferry to the island with just a few minutes to spare. I have chosen the fast ferry and the boat I am ushered onto is not very big. I make my way to the front of the boat, bumping into everything and everyone with my bags, helmet and other oddities. I am a mess. I sit down next to a Canadian family and the mother says to me in a shocked voice “excuse me, have you seen that your elbow is bleeding?” I look down and see that my elbow is indeed covered in blood. As I look, it drips onto the white leather cushion we are seated on. Drip, drip, drip. Crimson red on sparkling white. I mumble an apology and rummage through my things to find a tissue to clean the cushion with.

I spend the boat right enjoying pleasant conversation with the Canadian family. They ask, of course, what happened and as I explain I am sure to say “it’s not a big deal” repeatedly. I’m not sure who I am trying to convince; me or them. They are fascinated and ask lots of questions, trying to figure out how I, a young woman from abroad, ended up in Cambodia alone on a motorbike. Their daughter is talkative and she mentions that there is one thing currently stressing her out at school. Her teachers are pushing her to start the International Baccalaureate program but she is not sure she is capable. I mention that I am an IB alumna and she is quick to pepper me with questions about work load, extracurricular activities and community service hours. I answer gladly and patiently and as I catch her parents discreetly eavesdropping it strikes me as funny that I am covered in dirt, sand and blood and yet serve as a role model to this young teenage girl. The more I think about it, the more the whole fall begins to become a little bit funny. I am happy for it. Humor always takes the sting out of things.

We arrive at Koh Rong Sanloem and I step off the ferry with the Canadian family. “Thank you for talking to her,” the father says to me in a moment alone. “I can tell she really looks up to you. It was beautiful to see her light up like that. Thank you.” He speaks quietly and has barely finished saying it when his daughter comes bounding up to us, saying her goodbyes to me. He trails off, giving me a look that says: I don’t want her to know I just said that. My eyes reply: Shhh, it’s a secret between you and me. I smile at them both and say my goodbyes. The last thing I repeat to her is: “don’t forget, you are capable of a whole lot more than you give yourself credit for. No matter what you do, I’m sure you’ll be just fine, just make sure you do it for you. And whether you do IB or not, remember to enjoy your time in high school, okay? Life is short, and it’s yours.”

We turn away from each other and I grab my phone, looking at Google Maps. The blue location dot jumps around a bit, finally settling in one place and I realize I have messed up. I have gotten out at the wrong bay. I am standing on the dock watching the boat putter off into the distance, still waving happy goodbyes to the family, and realizing that I am on the wrong part of the island. Oops. I rush to the only other boat on the dock and ask if they happen to be headed to M’Pai Bay. Thankfully they are, and they agree to let me hitch a ride.

I (finally) reach M’Pai Bay and breathe a sigh of relief. I drag myself and my things through the sand to my hostel, The Wildflower. The owners are lovely and there are two puppies – I think I’m going to like it here. First order of business is a shower and a visit with my First Aid kit. I find that the cut on my elbow really isn’t all that big, and I wrap it up to keep the sand out. Next up, I go find my friends.

I find that M’Pai Bay is a small community. There is a row of restaurants, cafes and hostels along the beachfront and it does not take me long to find my friends. Soon enough, I am settling in with a drink and we are catching up on the goings on of the past few days (or in the case of my friend from Laos: months).

In M’Pai Bay our days are slow and easy. We watch games of beach volleyball, float in the ocean and play with the island dogs. Our nights, on the other hand, are a wild blur as we spend them partying at Yellow Moon Hostel (that’s right, the sister hostel to Yellow Sun in Kampot). There is thumping music, hourly deals on alcohol and a blackboard titled “Joss Shot for Your Country.”

We’ll sidestep here so I can explain what “joss” is. “Extra Joss” is an energy powder. It is basically a very concentrated form of an energy drink – in powder form. A joss shot is a shot of vodka which you pour the joss into. It fizzes into a yellow monstrosity and you down it. Alternatively, you can pour the sachet of joss directly into your mouth and then wash it down with the shot of vodka. Your pick. It bears noting that Extra Joss is illegal everywhere except for Indonesia, The Philippines and Cambodia. It is obviously terrible for you. Now let’s continue…

Yellow Moon also has fire shows, a live music night, and various themed nights. It is, quite simply, designed to get people doing things like dancing on the bar. And we do. Every night. It is a drastic change for me, coming from Yellow Sun to here, but for the moment it is fun to engage in the backpacker cliché of getting drunk on an island. And so I laugh, make new friends, and take a Joss shot for my country. Ha! If the Canadians could see me now. 

The waters of M’Pai Bay have bioluminescent plankton, so often at the end of the night, someone will scream “let’s go see the plankton!” and off we will go. The moon is high and bright so there is too much light, but each time I go, I am mesmerized. I splash the water around me; I swirl my fingertips over the surface to create ripples. I wiggle my legs underwater and all the while I giggle in awe at the hundreds of specks of light I create. It is, quite simply, magic.

After a few days I begin to feel a stiffness in my limbs and my bruises begin to appear. It seems I am a little bit more beaten up from my fall than I thought, but I still consider myself very lucky. I limit my complaints and I continue to do my best to keep my elbow clean.

The days have flown by and we begin to discuss whether we are going to stay or go. None of us are keen to say goodbye to our group of friends and so every day we end up saying the words “one more night.” Hostel stays are extended and we slowly run out of money. There is no ATM on the island, but there is a hostel manager who has cash that he gets from the mainland which he will sell to you – for a 25% commission fee. Ouch. The alternative, however, is taking a ferry to the island (which will cost +/- $24 and a couple hours of time). So I log into my PayPal and go to the manager to take out some cash. Laziness comes at a price, folks.

Our drunken debacles are fun, but at a certain point I find myself easing up. There is only so much drinking and silly dancing I can do. Instead of painting myself with neon for the full moon party, I find myself going home early to sleep. Instead of cocktails, I drink water. It is obviously becoming time to go. My friends, it seems, are on the same boat. We have had a great time on our hideaway island of fun, but it’s time to rejoin the mainland.

In addition to our exhaustion, we have all acquired an assortment of cuts and scrapes. As hygiene on the island is incredibly lacking, those cuts and scrapes have turned into infections that have begun to cause us trouble. People are hobbling around on infected legs and feet, throat infections abound and my elbow has been oozing for days. Most of us have visas that are running out and travel plans that await. And so we decide on “one more night” and we book our ferry off the island the next day. We will all leave together.

This means, of course, that I have to start thinking about Jackie again. I have one week left on my visa. I need to get Jackie repaired, drive her to Phnom Penh, sell her, visit the places I want to visit in Phnom Penh and go to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat before flying out to Singapore on March 31st. Even writing it now makes me feel tired. I have put up a Facebook ad already, secretly hoping that I can sell her in Sihanoukville. I use photos from before our accident, hoping that I will be able to get her fixed up before anyone expresses interest. No one does.

I am desperate. My friends are all heading to Phnom Penh together and then some of them are going to Siem Reap. It would be so much easier to just hop on a bus with them and not have to deal with a damaged motorbike and a 230 kilometer drive over potholed roads to Phnom Penh. I spend days agonizing over what to do. I even consider leaving Jackie in Sihanoukville or gifting her to a friend.

On the 25th of March, after 9 days on the island, we pack up and head out as a team. I sit on the boat with my newfound friends and as I watch the waves swelling around me I am suddenly decided and determined. What was I doing, thinking about leaving Jackie behind? A few days on an island and I’ve somehow gone soft? Have I seriously forgotten the rules of the road? No one left behind.

It’s funny, really, how you can feel a connection to an inanimate object. There are some people who will understand it without skipping a beat. There are others who will call me crazy. Maybe both are a little bit right, but in truth, I don’t really care. All I know is that the past months on the road have given me more personal growth than I ever would have imagined. This growth is inextricably linked to these two motorbikes that I have sat upon; it is intimately connected to these two “inanimate objects.”

I have loved this bike and I have cared for her. She has driven alongside me with Michael and Paul, she has driven with me alone. I have gotten her repaired, oiled and washed. I have taken more photos of her than I can count. I love this bike and I owe it to her. We started this together and we will finish it together, and so I am suddenly dead-set in my plans.

I don’t care how, but I am getting Jackie up to Phnom Penh. We will have our last ride together and make it count. And I will find someone who will care for her and who will take her home to Vietnam. I watch the waves and repeat it to myself:

I will find someone who will take you home.

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