The clouds were whipping by and I was having doubts. The feeling was compounded by my ominous setting: I stood at the flat peak of Bokor National Park in the midst of a colossal development project that was set to take off but never did, like a dead bird in an open cage. This collection of structures and points of interest provoked various degrees of depression. A half-empty mega resort whose lobby smelled like damp rice, a waterfall that totally succumbed to the dry season and was instead small pools of sticky green water, and the place where I then stood, outside an abandoned concrete casino. The views of the surrounding hills were painted by a thick curtain of light gray, a daunting canvas in a sky with no beginning.
There are moments in travel when I’m not sure I want to do it anymore. This is a painful thing to write, like saying something unsavory about someone you deeply love. But that unsavory something escapes your mouth anyway, and you don’t regret it entirely.
It was Easter Sunday, and I was people-sick for my mother’s laugh and food-sick for my grandma’s steaming pot of zurek, a thick sour rye soup with hard-boiled egg and smoked kielbasa, so rich it’s practically still smoldering. I wanted nothing more than to hug my dog and take her for a long walk in the mellow spring. I wanted to put on fleece pajamas and play Bananagrams with my siblings. I wanted immediate answers to my most pressing and difficult questions. I wanted to know precisely what I was doing there at Bokor National Park in southern Cambodia, and for the first time my usual answer of “Just to see what’s there” wouldn’t fly. Vulnerable in blinding opacity, in the fog there are no facades to cower behind. And I am too self-aware for most brands of self-deceit.
I filed into the abandoned casino with a dozen domestic tourists who quickly dispersed. I stood in the main hall, a space that was only grand because of what it could have been, like those deep-sea scenes of a rusty Titanic slowly merging into a marvelous candle-lit ballroom, alive with twirling petticoats. The hall had a hollow square dent that once promised to house fires and a tall looming ceiling that oozed a grandeur undeserved. In short, the casino echoed with the subtle terror of unrealized dreams.
I began harboring harsh sentiments towards Casino. I was angered by its futile existence, by its jagged walls devoid of color, its chaotic slapdash blueprint. The thought of this particular project – ill-timed, ill-planned, ill-funded – was suddenly infuriating, the incompetence and waste of it all. I thought of all the avenues that could have benefited from this money but instead sat at the top of this godforsaken mound in the form of ugly vertical concrete blocks glued together in haste and false hope.
What was it doing there? What was it for, I wondered with a furrowed brow. Did it realize how pathetic is was as a building that served no one? I desperately wanted Casino to answer me, and I wanted an answer that was so decent and whole it would relieve me of my own burdens. I stood alone but the room swarmed with my projections.
The air up there in Bokor was alien. Down below, down where water slaps the land, the air was hot and thick and subject to the unrelenting sun, and everything took on an orange hue. Up high the clouds obscured everything, whole monuments even, and you could watch them careening around the mountain like drunks looking for something to hold on to.
One of these clouds came with a forceful icy gust and I rattled in my light beach clothes. I looked in a glass sheet leaning against the wall. If my eyes were murky gray before, they at once looked crisp and turquoise.
I rubbed one of Casino’s dusty walls as bits of debris fell at my shoes and whispered: “I’m so sorry Casino. It’s not your fault you were abandoned.” And I eased my tense shoulders in palpable remorse.
As I walked to my bike the sickness, the demands, the questioning resolved themselves without any resolution. They dissipated like the clouds in which I floated, destined to come and go in the tradition of most things.∗