Cambodia as a whole is pretty fucking strange, but the islands that run along its coast are so secluded, so completely disassociated from the mainland, that it’s easy to understand why bizarre things often end up happening there. Like when a group of Westerners on the island of Koh ta Kiev lost the run of themselves in a booze-fuelled, karmically-toxic orgy.
Although the islands are the stuff of cubicle daydreams and beer commercials, most are undeveloped and many are almost completely uninhabited, save for a few Cambodian military officers living without electricity, patrolling the jungle in cheap plastic sandals.
Koh ta Kiev, about an hour from the mainland, is nearly deserted, too. A guy who calls himself Johann, an American from Portland, has been one of the only people populating the island for years and runs a small distillery where he makes absinthe, the preposterously alcoholic spirit that always makes you do really stupid things. On the other side of the island from Johann's moonshinery is a campsite and beach bar that caters to expats from the mainland and backpackers on a quest to find themselves by lying around on the beach on Southeast Asia. Those backpackers are Johann's main customers, and they usually manage to keep their shit together in the face of his 85-percent-alcohol concoction, but Khmer New Year was different.
For Cambodians, Khmer New Year in mid-April is the most important holiday of the year, where they celebrate by returning to their home villages, spending time with their families and visiting the local pagodas. Expats use the holiday as an excuse to get out of Phnom Penh and head to the beach, so the owner of the campsite arranged a party for the holiday weekend and called in a batch of Johann's absinthe.
Before moving to Cambodia, Johann had been perfecting his craft making moonshine in the States. He also played in various black metal and gothic darkwave bands, including one that recorded a tribute album to opium. Now, his absinthe is made without any regulation whatsoever.
I met up with Johann after Khmer New Year, when the other side of the island was still reeling from the beach party the week before. Expats in Cambodia are known for being unable or unwilling to adapt to living in the real world, but even among this cohort, Johann stands out. Particularly when he’s shirtless, displaying the scramble of tribal tattoos that cover his lanky back, and drinking whiskey straight from the bottle.
He shows me his set-up, a still in a cleared patch of jungle that can be easily taken apart and transported in case things on the island go pear-shaped. He makes the absinthe without benefit of electricity or running water, or any standard hygiene protocols, for that matter. I take a sniff; it stinks. He sees my face and says, “It tastes like shit...actually, it tastes worse than shit.”
"Why would anyone drink it then?" I ask. He shrugs. “People are inclined to do fucked-up things to themselves, no matter what,” he says and takes a chug from a beer that is clearly not his first of the day.
He keeps joking about how toxic his product is, but it doesn't actually taste nearly as bad as seemed keen for me to believe. The guy clearly takes pride in his moonshining skills, bringing over real wormwood from the States and using a traditional recipe that includes 12 other herbs. What supposedly sets his recipe apart from conventional absinthe, though, is that he adds a Mexican herb called damiana, which is purportedly an aphrodisiac. He says it makes women especially horny.
I'm almost certain that absinthe isn't the kind of thing you're supposed to binge drink, but the group of about a dozen expats, volunteers English teachers and backpackers at the new year party went through nearly four litres of the stuff in a few hours. While attempting to drink it the traditional way – setting alight a sugar cube saturated with the stuff – they ended up setting the whole bar on fire.
As the absinthe started to run low, the party turned to innocent skinny-dipping, which then segued, gracefully, into a full-blown orgy. “They had sex on the dining table, they had sex on the bar, they had sex in a hammock, they had sex in a tent,” the barman said later, sounding like a nymphomaniac Dr. Seuss. It had taken some convincing to get the Cambodian staff to work over Khmer New Year; now they looked on in horror at this beachside cesspool of flailing dreadlocks and beach-bum hookups. When the scene was lit up by an electrical storm, the Cambodians were certain it was a bad omen.
After repeatedly helicoptering his penis in the general direction of the carnal couples, the barman was finally stopped by the horrified staff. "I ended up running up and down the beach naked. One of the staff saw me, brought out a towel and put me to bed," he told me with a little shame peeking through in his voice. The next morning, he had to retrieve his trousers from a tree overlooking the beach.
Despite Cambodian men’s predilection for sex with prostitutes (the country has one of the world’s highest rates of sex worker “usage”), Cambodia is a very conservative society – the kind of place where women still tend to go swimming fully-clothed. Cambodians also see their new year differently than foreigners do; it’s a holiday to be respected, not one to do justify getting blind-drunk and trying to fuck anything with legs in your immediate surroundings. As it turns out, Cambodians aren’t really up for orgies. “It was not a very respectful thing to do on Khmer New Year,” the barman admitted.
I contacted several of the island guests from the orgy weekend and the clash of cultures became all the more apparent. One of the female participants was astounded at how the camp staff had characterised the scene. "It wasn't an orgy. It was five couples making love in beautiful, calm waters with an amazing lightning storm and plankton," she wrote. To the Khmers on the island, though, there's little difference between 10 foreigners "making love" in full view of one another and an orgiastic, Berlusconi-esque fuckfest.
In the days following the Khmer New Year, the staff were all anticipating something awful as a result of the depravity they'd seen. Sure enough, the owner’s boat sank just a few days later. When the replacement boat sank, too, the Khmers became so certain of the orgy’s bad juju that they threatened to quit en masse. In an effort to undo the damage, extra offerings were left at the camp’s spirit house – a shrine for protective spirits – but months of bad business plagued the campsite. Turns out Cambodian spirits shouldn't be fucked with, or in front of.
To appease the spirits, they’ve put the brakes on the absinthe consumption. There’s now a one-glass limit per person and all soft swinging sessions-cum-orgies need to be held on the next beach over.
I asked Johann the absinthe-maker his thoughts on the dreadlocked debauchery. Was the Mexican aphrodisiac to blame? At first he looked disappointed that he hadn’t been there. Then he shrugged; “You drink enough alcohol, it leads to sex.”
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