Sunday, April 10, 2011

A body on the beach

(Sitting on Ochheuteal Beach in Sihanoukville in one of what must be a thousand beach chairs, I am reminded of an old Ochheuteal story from more than a decade ago. Back in the early/mid 90s Sihanoukville was quite different than now, at least in terms of tourist development. Sokha was the most popular beach in town, Victory second and Ochheuteal usually a distant third, known for its sand fleas and lack of cover from the sun. Serendipity Beach had yet to be invented. There weren't any restaurants or bars, nor even a single grass umbrella on Ochheuteal, just 3km of empty sand and scrub grass, an MP base and the remains of the UNTAC offices. The only hotels on Ochheuteal were the new Seaside and the Eagle's Nest on the beach road, with Cobra Karaoke next door, Claude's restaurant a couple of doors down and Les Feuilles one road back.)

Early January 1995. 9:00am.

Per my usual weekend morning routine, I was sitting in the Eagle's Nest on Ochheuteal Beach road, eating a 'Big Aussie Breakfast' and watching Collin, the proprietor, clean and groom the beach sand in front of the guesthouse. Suddenly he came running up through the scrub grass and burst into the restaurant yelling "there's a body in the water!" I was the only one in the place so we ran back out to the beach together where I saw what looked to be a garbage bag bobbing in the surf. "Are you sure?" I asked. "Yes, yes" he said and waded into the water without hesitation.

He tried to get hold of it to drag it onto the beach, but it was heavy and pieces of flesh dislodged in his hands. He tried again bellowing a disgusted "Eewwooaarrgg" and "fuuuuck me!," but to the same result. Just as he was about to give up, a series of strong waves tossed the body forward where it belly flopped like a limp sack of wet cement onto the damp sand.

So there it was, a body on the beach, dressed in loose-fitting gray fisherman's clothes, not too bloated, but lacking lower legs, hands and a head. Collin was wide-eyed and pacing in place. "You stand here and watch," he ordered, prodding my arm, "I'm going to call the police." He bounded away, hurtling clumps of beach grass as he headed for the guesthouse.

'Did he think somebody would steal it?' I wondered. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to be watching for, but what the hell, it was Saturday and I didn't have anything better to do. So I plopped down in the sand next to the body and stared at it.

The clothes indicated he was a fisherman. There was no stench of death, no blood, no obvious signs of violence save the missing extremities. I speculated that fish might have nibbled away his arms and legs, but could the fish have also eaten his head?

The skin was gray and wrinkled, making it difficult to tell where the clothes ended and the flesh began. As I sat there, sand fleas started to cover the body. Thousands of them crawled around on his chest, lending an iridescent shimmering effect in the low morning sun.

Sand fleas were a common annoyance on Ochheuteal, but these fleas seemed to have a particular taste for dead flesh. At first they clustered at the exposed bits protruding from the neck and arm holes in the shirt, but then began jumping from the body to me and then back, which was revolting, so I backed off about 5 meters to the edge of the scrub, well out of flea range, pulled up a log and sat down again.

A short time later, Collin trotted up, huffing from his jaunt. He coughed out the news that the phones weren't working (a regular occurrence) and that he had sent somebody for the police. "They'll be here shortly," he sputtered as he sat down on my log, pulling out a cigarette as he parked his rear.

The beach was completely deserted. Not a soul in sight. After a while Collin fetched us a snack from the guesthouse. We sat there alone for about an hour, drinking Coke, eating baguettes with wedges of Laughing Cow (La Vache Qui Rit) cheese and watching little beach crabs pick at the dead guy's stumps.

Midday a small group of beachcombing Japanese tourists from the Seaside Hotel wandered up. Seeing the body, they chattered excitedly amongst themselves, pulled out several cameras and proceeded to take dozens of photos, even posing with the corpse. I figured that this was the 'war-torn Cambodia' that they had come to see, and here it was, a body on the beach, right in front of their hotel. What a story it would make back home. But they soon realized that the sand fleas were attacking their legs and other exposed skin. They began jumping around slapping at their ankles and screeching like a pack of tortured Chihuahuas. They left in a hurried fluster, a couple craning back to take some last snaps as they went.

We sat there for another 30 minutes or so, finally got bored and headed back to the guesthouse to watch a movie. Three hours later the police showed up at the door asking where the body was. Collin pointed at the beach, but upon glancing that direction, we saw it was gone. No body at all. We both looked surprised. The police seemed annoyed, maybe even suspicious. Collin charged out the door and marched down to the beach with the police in tow and me trailing behind.

Where the body had been lay a single vertebra in the sand. 'Curious,' I thought. "It's disappeared!" Collin exclaimed. I was just forming a mental picture of the sand fleas eating it to the ground like a swarm of tiny piranhas when Collin blurted out, "No, there it is!" pointing down the beach. And sure enough, it was bobbing at the edge of the surf about 100 meters away. Apparently the waves had scooped it up and moved it along. The police immediately took charge, shooing us away and clustering around the body.

A bit disappointed not to be included, we trudged back up to the guesthouse to watch the end of the movie. Thirty minutes later, after the movie had concluded, I looked back at the beach to find that the police had departed, but the body remained. We speculated that they were arranging to have it removed, but as the day grew older it became apparent that they weren't coming back. I figured they determined it wasn't anybody important, that there was no profit in it and that the sand fleas were fierce, so they blew it off, leaving nature to sort it out.

Frustrated with the continued presence of a dead body in front of his guesthouse, late that day Collin grabbed a shovel and went out to bury it, but on walking out to the beach the body had disappeared again and was nowhere to be seen. Not even a vertebra remained.

The following morning the body was back on the beach right in front of the guesthouse, a little bit smaller...or perhaps 'shorter' is a better word. The legs and arms were reduced several inches from the previous day. Collin once again tried to bury it, but any attempt to move it resulted in chunks breaking off. Completely disgusted, he gave up. That afternoon the body left again, riding the waves I imagine, this time leaving an arm bone on the sand as a souvenir of his visit. Collin moved the bone away from the water and buried it there deep in the beach sand. Predictably, the body turned up on the beach again the following day, a couple of hundred meters in the opposite direction. As before, a bit smaller.

This went on for almost a week. The body coming and going with the waves, depositing bones up and down the beach - a long bone here, a coccyx there - slowly getting smaller and smaller, like an ice cube in a cold drink on a hot day. Over the week Collin followed the trail of bones up and down Ochheuteal, burying them as and where he found them, until one day the body just didn't come back.

As I sit relaxing in a beach chair on Ochheuteal today in 2011, 16+ years later, I wonder if some remnant of that long forgotten fisherman might still rest under my feet, covered in sand just meter or so below.


  1. What a crazy, wonderfully written, and confusingly disturbing and yet somehow peaceful post.

  2. Damn, that's a great story... why don't these things happen to those of us with video cameras. You didn't take any video? My god man... what are you folks like in Cambodia there? lol... heathens, all... lol...

    I just visited Phnom Penh for the first time and didn't not like it. I'll be back... How long you lived there?

  3. It was 1995, the days of film and video tape. Video cameras were big bulky things that few ordinary people carried. These days I'd just whip out my iPhone and video the whole event.

    Here almost 18 years.

  4. don't be to disappointed dead bodys still wash up from time to time