After Taiwan, I travel on alone, taking a long, wet bus ride through Cambodia to the gulf. I board a supply boat on a plank, like in a pirate movie. The boat to Kohrang see-saws through the waves with a cracking sound as we hit the troughs, and the Cambodians onboard stare at me, impassive as statues. A grandmother burrows in amidst the crates of beer and forty-pound bags of rice stacked in the prow; there is a motor-scooter lashed to the dock.
The men unload these things on the island wearing flip flops, an astonishingly difficult feat on the slippery patchwork dock. My hat blows into the water and a man with one eye rescues it for me, and then I am on the shore watching the sun slink down in the gulf. There is no electricity, no wifi. My phone, my tether to the responsibilities and obsessions of the rest of my life, is useful only as a flashlight to make sure I don’t step on any geckos on the way to the bathroom. The geckos here grow big as housecats and prowl the rafters of my bungalow; the bartender says you can tame them, that they will eat chicken off your fork. I eat barracuda and walk out into the gulf after dark with some Germans I meet; the water lights up with phosphorescent plankton in our wake.
I don’t know if I have ever been happier. I have been hearing for years that geographic solutions are not the answer, and yet I feel happy here. Cambodia is not an easy place—the Germans and I joke as we make our way back to the mainland about having to walk the tuk-tuk gauntlet anyplace you go, the tuk-tuk drivers desperate to get you into their motorcycle-rickshaws for a few riels. Women walk around in their pyjamas, a comfortably defeated look; nothing says “oh, whatever” more than pajamas at a muddy market stall (Uggs deliver this same message here in New York, by the way). I buy two mangoes and what looks like a peeled and quartered guava in a baggie but is actually a raw potato.
It is a beautiful place, storied and sad: back in Phnom Penh, I visit the Killing Fields, where after 35 years, there are still fragments of bones and teeth surfacing after rainstorms. Signs proclaim things like “166 victims without heads” and ask politely that visitors not walk through the mass graves in English and in Khmer, a language that looks like an intricate series of fishhooks dropped on a page. And yet, there is a school whose yards abuts the property, and I can hear the kids playing Khmer hip-hop music. They are dancing.
No one I meet on the road is in my age bracket. I meet some young ones doing their gap years, or grown-up retirees. Then I meet Mec in Laos. He’s French, and he’s wearing a teeny-tiny bathing suit because we are riding elephants into the Mekong River. I am wearing cutoff shorts and my bra, because swimming with elephants isn’t ever how I thought the afternoon would play out.
I am having the best day of my life, again. The Mekong is chocolate brown, but manages to be rich and exotic looking, the way some women can wear jeans and a tee-shirt and not look drab. I am sitting on an elephant, my legs around her neck; her ears are shockingly muscular, and my knees are pinned against her bristly heat. The river rushes up to them as she wades in deeper.
“You can stand on her back,” one of the mahouts, a slim brown boy tells me. I set my feet and straighten my legs. “Go on. Jump.” He leaps from the back of one elephant to the next, and I follow. Their backs are bony and hard—not the squishy bulk I had anticipated, more like a folding table with a sheet thrown over it. I land badly, and the elephant flings me off into the water.
I flirt with Mec, chasing him through waterfalls, but the day belongs to the elephants. We go to Tat Sae, the limestone falls a series of smooth steps awash in green-gray water, and I swing out over the cataract on a rope and let go with my eyes squeezed shut.
Mec’s English is adorable: “I am against prostitutes,” he says, using the noun for the people rather than the noun for the idea, making it sound like he’s gunning for hookers. He can’t hear the difference in pronunciation between beach and bitch, and uses them interchangeably. At one point, he exclaims, “Beers!” and I think he has found a café, but it is enclosure with sleeping brown bears.
I ask him how to say words in French; four years of high-school French rubbed away by the grubby hands of time, all I remember is reading The Little Prince and how much blue eye-shadow Madame Szubin wore. As we bicycle around Luang Prabang, Mec teaches me words and I forget them moments later. The word for elephant is always elephant–English, French, German. The word for single is celibataire, which I find depressing.
Mec has a girlfriend, and when he kisses me, he vibrates with guilt. We are in a long boat on the Mekong, piloted by a Laotian man who smokes cigarettes and smiles inscrutably behind his Ray-Bans. He has a native phrase for what Mec and I are doing: it sounds like “kicky-kicky.”
After Luang Prabang, something in me is awake and clamoring, the lizard part of my brain that longs for kicky-kicky; the first night I am in Hanoi, I go out with Expat, a gorgeous American and friend-of-a-friend of the variety I have heard described as a “panty-melter.” There is something incredibly sexual about Vietnam—It’s hot, it’s sweaty, and everyone rides around on motos with their arms and legs wrapped around each other. We stop to look at things—a mural, a lake, a statue of Ly Thai To, where Expat scolds me for climbing on the plinth. I didn’t mean to scandalize anyone, I just wanted to see if the emperor was wearing shoes, and what they would look like. I keep putting my face directly in front of Expat’s until he is forced to kiss me to get by.
We go to a bar where we run into the beautiful Vietnamese girl he broke up with the day before, and he keeps looking at his phone as the texts chime in. A group of tourists pours suddenly onto the dance floor; one of them is holding a bunch of helium balloons. The dj is playing Justin Bieber; and I am dancing with this incredibly hot and reluctant guy, sweating and tangled up—I make it home just before daybreak, and am woken up by propaganda announcements broadcast in Vietnamese an hour later. There are speakers posted along the narrow streets for this purpose, and for the next few days, I try to figure out what they might be saying, based on the inflections. Our noble leader is wearing pants. Does anyone know where I parked my scooter? My bathtub is full of seahorses.
It’s a harsh sounding language, made for telling someone to get the fuck out of your way. I am yelled and honked at, and my exhausted brain feels like a pillowcase stuffed with eels. I email Expat with studied casualness, and he ignores me until it’s too late. My friend Rita and I depart for a cruise on Halong Bay, where I will get busy with a spotty Dutch tourist fifteen years my junior who I’m not even particularly attracted to before beginning to wonder if there is something wrong with me.