From our vantage point at a restaurant on stilts above the darkening water, we were drawn in to the quickly changing skyline over stronger than expected cappuccinos, while a cool breeze skipped across the bay and swirled through Koh Kong town like a warning.
Though it was hardly three in the afternoon, night was arriving. Jagged bolts of light severed the sky and cracked the silence that had engulfed us. Each bolt felt like a declaration: an announcement that the storm had set its sights on the town.
In Cambodia weather can be theatrical, grand and swift. Though at first far off, the spectacle before us swept closer with each sip. The languid air began feeling moist; its scent refreshed.
Something like adrenaline, sparked by nature’s sudden bravado, enticed us away from a caffeine rush and into the streets where life seemed to continue as normal. It was like we were the only ones aware of the storm. But the apparent normality was short-lived.
As soon as the rain struck – from all directions it seemed – tuk tuk drivers zipped up their carriages, and even the previously menacing stray dogs withdrew beneath the edge of a roof’s protection.
The storm made people run for cover, but they did so with a bounce that suggested delight, perhaps because of the forced respite from languid routines.
It also seemed to revive an energy, perhaps a memory. I found myself recalling lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins, who shattered the constraints of 19th Century poetry by resurrecting medieval rhythms. Like the Romantics before him he extolled nature and sought to connect with the spirit in it.
For the first time during my internship in Cambodia, it felt safe to walk the streets bare foot – the ground was still warm from the morning’s heat. With stanzas from Hopkins running through my mind I felt myself unwind from six months of press releases: their plaintive, often banal appeals for attention.
And then the pelting rain stopped, rays of light glinted through clouds. Blurred smiles stretched over white teeth as children rattled by on bicycles, clearly engerised by the unexpected break from the heat, the sudden cool in the air. But the chill was not so strong that men buttoned up. Some bared their chests, a storm sheen glistening on their skin.
As we ambled our way back to the water's edge, we noted a contagious spirit of revival had come over those by the shore. Laughter could be heard, and the rev of motor engines reigniting even as the rain, lighter this time, began falling again.
A mighty iron ship whose beauty was in its decay looked abandoned and somewhat shipwrecked as it bobbed ever so slightly in the bay. Then three young boys appeared and began leaping from the boat, splashing in the sea as though the storm had provided a vacation.
After we thought the storm had abated, we took a fishing vessel to Koh Kong Island, and then another storm erupted. Light dimmed, sky darkened, rain fell fiercely.
A storm at sea is less of a spectacle than one viewed from shore. For more than an hour we shivered from the cold rain, dragging our hands in the sea to keep them warm. Hopkins returned:
“And, for all this, Nature is never spent.
There lives the dearest freshness deep-down things.
And though the last lights off the black west went, Oh, morning, at the brown-brink eastward springs…”
The second storm was the last of the weekend, which was the most peaceful of all those I had spent in Cambodia: perhaps because it restored energy drained by months of persistent heat.
It also brought a shift in my perspective that was as dramatic and swift as lightening. I’d told my supervisor I’d be back in the office on Tuesday afternoon and would work late that evening, in exchange for the trip.
On Tuesday I decided the office could wait.