In March 2008 I visited a place that changed my life. Of course, back then bracing myself for every bump in the dusty road I had no idea where the rusted bus careening wildly along the highway from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville would lead. At the time, I was living in Ho Chi Minh City when a friend asked if I wanted to spend the holidays in a cheap beachside location. The Sihanoukville peninsula in Cambodia was an 11-hour bus ride away and would only cost a handful of dollars to get there: it suited our needs.
Getting off the bus, a cantankerous vehicle that had broken down multiple times along the way, we were greeted with a stunning tableau of white palm tree-fringed sand lapped by the Gulf of Thailand. I liked it immediately. Shabby tin shacks lay scattered across the beach, while limp, tanned bodies lounged across rattan armchairs and in hammocks. Beautiful bikini-clad girls frolicked with golden Adonises amongst the frothy waves. It was the scene I had read about in an Alex Garland novel long before I ever travelled myself: a backpacker utopia – everything that Thailand had ceased to be.
Serendipity: Finding Something Valuable by Chance
I met the love of my life on that beach. Although the beach is called Occheuteal, the northern tip where we met is nicknamed Serendipity. It was the perfect coincidence: I found my partner and my happy place where I least expected. For the next decade, I romanticised Serendipity; it became the ideal place in my mind where I had found the perfect love. At least, I thought so.
Now, once again life showed me that it has its own agenda. In February, after 10 years together, he walked out on me: no discussion, no looking back. Less than two months later, he had already moved on to somebody else. It broke my heart, not only because he was gone, but the sting was all the sharper because he took my happy place with him.
Idealising the Past
It’s strange how a place that you visit can have such a profound effect on you, but Serendipity beach lived in my heart for ten years. It was never the most beautiful beach in the world, but to me it was perfect. Recently, I came across an inspiring TED talk by Guy Winch in which he explains that most of the pain of heartbreak is caused by idealising what was never really there. It made sense to me that rather than missing my ex, I was missing the way I felt when I met him.
In the comments below the video a poster named, Mercy wrote something that also made perfect sense:
“Not being able to get over a break up is…less about the person and more about how that person made you feel in that particular period of your life…You use that overall feeling of that period and project it on the individual you were in a relationship with.
When it is over, you start to idealise that time and make it even more intriguing and appealing. Then your memory and feelings confuse that idealised version of life with that particular person when, in fact, it was a combination of things that made you feel like that and that person was just playing their part. That is why a lot of people get stuck in the past when it comes to relationships.
You think that only that person will be able to make you feel a certain way when, in fact, that person can only make you feel what you already had as part of yourself. It is your own emotion that needs to be awakened again”.
I don’t know who Mercy is, but their words rang entirely true. I realised that the only way to get over my breakup would be to return to Serendipity.
Revisiting the Past
Some might say that returning to a much-loved place, especially in a country like Cambodia where things change so quickly, is self-castigating; but I was struggling to find closure. I needed to bury some ghosts, and where better to release them than where they came from?
I stood in the place where the dirt track used to be, the well-trodden red dust now buried deep below ubiquitous hard, cold tarmac. I recalled how tuk-tuks – the only vehicles that could make it up the path – used to struggle with the cavernous potholes and steep gradient. These days, it is a smooth, congested road leading to an ugly concrete pier. Monstrous hotels and soulless casinos, choked by the exhaust fumes of ugly SUVs, loom where dilapidated shacks used to stand, their delicate palm frond roofs waving in the breeze. The signs on the building boards are written in Chinese, not Khmer.
— RunawayBrit (@RunawayBrit) July 31, 2018
Utopia, the once fun guesthouse where we celebrated New Year, lies derelict: shrouded behind scaffolding boards, waiting to become yet another high-rise hotel. As I stood looking at its skeletal remains, I thought of the day they finished building the swimming pool. We were the first people to swim in it. If I listen hard enough over the sound of car engines and building construction, I can hear the steady beat of music and ripples of laughter echoing across the years.
When the Past is No Longer as You Remember
Over the last few years, Cambodia has opened its doors to extensive Chinese development. No doubt, it is bringing a great deal of money to the country, but at what cost to local businesses? You can read the article ‘No Cambodia Left’ that sums up what happens when foreign investment and mass tourism reach far-flung places like Sihanoukville. The place I loved has been destroyed.
I walked to the beach. The bars have all gone. There are no loungers; no tree houses; no music; no backpackers: no signs of life. Today, it is merely a place to take a ferry to the islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem (go before they also fall to the bulldozers). Backpackers skip Occheuteal in favour of Otres – a beach I visited when there was only a herd of cows and a single coconut stand. Nobody stays on Serendipity anymore. Serendipity has gone forever.
Taking a deep breath, I bid goodbye to the place I have visited a million times over in my imagination, to the place that I have idealised for so long. With it, I said goodbye to my relationship, vowing to see it as the broken thing it had become and not what I idealised in my mind. Then I turned my back and walked away, knowing that there is no return to either of them. I had seen that once the bulldozers move in, there is no way back.
I have not yet recovered from my breakup; this was only the first significant step. It was a painful personal journey, but a necessary one to teach me that my happy place is not in my past. It needs to be in my present, and in my future, and only I can construct that.
Have you ever travelled somewhere to come to terms with your past? Tell me about it in the comments below. Or share your breakup stories with me, whatever!