It was almost pitch black as I stood outside the dorm, which housed a German named Nicholas who was sporting a fresh one inch thick gash above his left eye, two cuts under his left cheek and one under his right. There was a good chance he suffered a concussion as well from his brutal and unexpected attack inside the bar on Koh Ru Island. Naem (Na-eem, no idea the spelling) from France who was told to leave the bar for good reason after calling out a Cambodian man he believed to have attacked his friend Nicholas was also inside. Both men were highly advised to stay within the dorm to limit the chances of any further confrontation, as Cambodians are notorious for their inability to let situations go and beat people to a pulp for little or no reason, especially tourists. As I stood outside the entrance of the bamboo dorm I noticed a Cambodian man standing in the dark just on the back corner, my spider senses tingled as I approached the man to inquire of his intentions and ask if he’s ok. I can’t recall exactly what he said at this point because it was only seconds later when out of the corner of my eye I saw another man walking directly to the front door of the dorm containing the two travelers in advised confinement. It wasn’t long before I noticed something odd about the silhouette of the man approaching since he was holding a knife so big it hovered just inches from the ground as he walked steadily toward the entrance of the dorm wielding a massive Machete! This entire story is based around this one moment, a moment of terror and panic, a moment of fear I have never experienced to the point of possibly having my life flash before my eyes, a moment where I had to make a choice that could result in severe bodily harm or death. I do not wish however to make this story only about fear because it so much more than that. At the end of the day I am alive and fine, however this was one of the wildest and most terrifying experiences of my life and I am going to attempt to tell the story as if I were an old Indian chief speaking around a fire to my tribe, meaning I’m going to use verbs and such to make it interesting, so pay attention as I bring you up to speed.
It all started earlier that day when I hoped on a wooden longboat to the small remote island of Koh Ru, A.K.A Bamboo Island in Cambodia with my friend Kyle who had spend a month on the island some time ago. He has travelled most of Cambodia and he claims Koh Ru is his favourite place. Our trip to the island was one for the history books since the next day the island was going to close forever as it was purchased by a big French company who will probably turn it into another massive bullshit resort for assholes to come for a week and stay inside their fancy hotel rooms, drink wine on the beach with their prostitutes and not even remotely appreciate the beauty of the place that was once a backpackers paradise. As you can tell I am slightly bitter since slowly but surely money and corruption is destroying another amazing spot in the world and with all the development you can be sure the local Cambodian people will be given a nice shafting and benefit absolutely nothing from the development, and money being generated but anyway. The trip was one hour on a long boat that comically contained my opponent from my fight on Koh Phi Phi Nigel, we can’t seem to stop running into each other but we’ve been boys ever since we shared the worn out ring and tried to knock each others heads off. Upon arrival I clearly saw what the big deal was. The island contains one long beach with a few private huts and dorm rooms that can host about 60 travelers. Hammocks were in abundance and doubled as beds when rooms were full, however many people opted for the hammock sleep on their own accord. The beach was soft, gold sand and the water was clean, it was both simple and stunning! There was only one central location to meet all your needs for food and alcohol, which gave the island an exceptionally intimate feel. The staff was made up of a mix of about a 70/30 ratio of Cambodians to westerners who were all extremely friendly and warm, probably because they were living in paradise and they not only knew it, everyone there whether they could manage a day, week, month or year had a great amount of appreciation for where they were.
I was assigned to bed 27 in the small dorm containing approximately 12 beds and located directly on the beach. The number was significant because it’s unnecessary for you to carry any wallet, ID, or phone on the island since whenever you order anything, which let’s face it is way too many drinks and some food you simply tell them your bed number and they put it on a tab that you pay when you leave, after a couple drinks my number changed from ‘27’ to ‘Matt from Canada’. The island was especially hassle free as many people simply relaxed for hours in the hammocks reading books and taking random swims in the ocean. Life moved beautifully at a snails pace with no rush to do anything. I took advantage of the water and had a swim in some small waves before taking part in a competitive game of beach volleyball where I used my high school gym skill to contribute to my team in a fantastically ordinary way. We continued to play right through a sunset that filled the sky with breathtaking vibrant colours until we literally couldn’t see the ball any longer, we shook hands congratulated each other on a job well done and all proceeded to shower up and meet at the bar to celebrate the final day of an almost surreal island paradise. After taking a shower, as I do on most days I began dressing myself, I reached for my new favourite shirt I got from my time training MMA in Thailand, which was my official Phuket Top Team t-shirt. As I began to walk out the dorm I thought to myself, I’m in Cambodia, all of the staff and locals are drinking very excessively because they are not only losing their jobs, but their homes and way of life as well. Heavy drinking of whiskey compounded by the fact everyone knows when Cambodians are hammered they like to fight helped me come to the conclusion a shirt that promotes fighting might be best left alone tonight and I opted to go for the classic plain white t-shirt, not because I have any fashion sense but because it was the cleanest shirt I had and it smelled the least.
I made my way to the restaurant/bar ordered some food and started socializing with a number of interesting people. My friend from home Kyle had managed to get himself out of bed as he was feeling under the weather and it was around this time I first met Nicholas and Naiem who happened to be sitting right next to us. We all sat on the floor drinking, eating and sharing stories as travelers do getting to know each other. Both guys had been travelling for some time and had the pleasure of seeing many places across southeast Asia and both men like myself were on the island to appreciate it’s beauty one last time before it closed down forever because they too had heard Koh Ru was one of Cambodia’s must see spots. It was easy to see that both gentlemen were stand up guys and I was looking forward to partying with them later in the evening. After conversing for some time we made our way out of the bar and onto the beach where a sign with the words Koh Ru 2013 went up in flames as the final fire show ever to be hosted on the island began. Everyone gathered around iphones ready to record all of the ultra entertaining action. This was essentially the calm before the storm as all of the tourists and staff cheered loudly as the performers wowed the crowd with skill, poise, and creativity. With the final show in the books everyone made their way back to the bar and it was time to get the party started. Music played loudly, people were dancing, socializing and having a great time. Some people were exceptionally drunk for it being only 10pm and thank god I wasn’t one of them, as I’d need my wits about me for the events about to unfold.
The travel universe is a small one as I was standing at the bar conversing with my old friend and opponent from Koh Phi Phi Nigel Nogel from the States. We both found it hilarious we kept running into each other and had fun once again reminiscing our battle in the ring on the island. He had wondered off someplace when suddenly I heard the all too familiar shuffling of feet, yelling, “stop” and words in Khmer I couldn’t understand and just like that a fight had broken out to my right. Having the skill to fight an opponent fairly is one thing, a bar fight another, a bar fight with Cambodians or Thai’s well that’s a whole new world altogether. I have trained martial arts most of my life but as good as my skills are at fighting I pride myself much more on my ability to prevent and or break up fights. I can pretty much talk anyone down, especially if they are trying to fight me since I have nothing to prove and literally no desire to fight whatsoever. Furthermore if I do have to engage someone physically it’s in a defensive manner and using the proper body language has a very strong effect on their reaction to you. I’ve used these skills several times to break up and prevent fights in Canada but this was a whole new ball game. When it comes to fighting Cambodians they lack reason and to be honest they’re fucking cowards. They’ll sucker punch you without warning, they’ll look for any small reason to fight and if they don’t find it maybe they’ll fight you for no damn reason at all. They have no concept of a fair fight, as they’ll beat you down 100 to 1 if they have the numbers, they’ll bottle you during a fight or even when the fight is done. Weapons are common because as I have just stated they are weak, scared, angry, cowards, so to say I wanted to avoid confrontation in any capacity is an understatement. Obviously I am not speaking about all Thai and Cambodian people but I am referring the comments above to the angry, aggressive, dick heads of the country as I have encountered countless more loving and caring Thai and Cambodian people rather then the few I am speaking of. Now that you understand all of that we can continue with the story. I continued watching the fight from the bar and as I always do I simply watch the fight unless I am witnessing someone get unfairly beaten, it is at this point I’ll use my knowledge to attempt to help that person from suffering further harm. As I was watching this fight it seemed everything was going quite fairly, filled with mostly Cambodians with a few westerners tussling and throwing punches for a few minutes until it was broken up. After I took a quick walk around the room to make sure no one was seriously hurt I noticed Nicholas at the bar and it turns out he was the only one who suffered any injuries. He was getting his head iced up since he was bleeding quite heavily from a large gash over his eye and a few more cuts on his face. Naiem was beside him sporting a look of anger and concern as I asked him what happened. With Nicholas battered, bleeding and getting his head iced right beside us Naiem went on to explain he simply got sucker punched, which makes sense because when I was speaking with Nicholas earlier he didn’t give off even a hint of aggression or to be the type of person to provoke such an act. Apparently one of the locals came up to where they were sitting and for no reason went to shake his hand then simply punched him in the face and continued to do so as the fight broke out, had I known this I would have certainly been involved. I took a turn holding the icepack for Nicholas whose face showed an expression of utter sadness and disbelief not pain, you could see he was searching for reasoning for an act where reason was had no place. I began speaking with Nicholas and simply tried to comfort him and assure him his injuries would be fine as I explained the damage on his face and suggested a strategy for getting him to the hospital in the morning, as there obviously wasn’t one on the island. In the middle of this conversation I was interrupted by the same commotion. I commissioned the girl to my left to hold the icepack as I observed another fight from a distance except this time the local western girls had taken it upon themselves to get involved. They were trying to hold some of the Cambodian guys back and by default of being in the situation some of them were getting tossed and hit. I decided I had to jump in and quickly made my way across the bar where about 15 people in total were scuffling. I began grabbing the Cambodian guys by the back of the shirts and throwing them with a good amount of force away from the girls and the fight situation, as they caught their balance we’d face each other a short distance away where I’d bow apologize and request they “please stop, girls” and point to the girls before I’d grab the next closest guy to a girl and fire him out of the group. Each time I’d toss someone from the fight I’d bow and put my hands in prayer position, they’d look at me a little shocked and confused as most people do when they encounter me in a fight, as I explained earlier it’s your body language that decides if you fight and they could clearly see I intended them no harm. After tossing the guys I’d cover the back and side of my head out of fear of bottling and repercussion. The fact I had to do that makes it clear I was in a fairly dangerous situation. What made it even more dangerous is the fact Cambodians don’t like to leave things alone, they don’t fight fairly, and they’re usually not satisfied until they seriously hurt someone, only then do they feel content with the outcome, like I said before they’re viscous cowards.
The music was shut off at this point and most of the westerners where trying to figure out what was going on, it was unknown to most but obvious to me that the tension in the bar had not decreased but rather it had risen. The Angry, beaty, whisky drunk eyes of the Cambodians filled the room except for a few employees that worked at the establishment who were deeply disappointed their last night was being ruined by a few drunk a-holes. A few minutes had passed and there was a small hope it was all over when Naiem made a drunk and very stupid move by beginning to raise his voice, he was upset about his friend and believed he spotted the guy who sucker punched him, as we could see he was heating up everyone was trying to calm him down but before we could his hand reached out with a loud voice and he pointed out a Cambodian man in anger saying “him, he did it” and shit once again hit the fan. Instantly some other Cambodians tried to hold him back as I got a good look at who he thought it was. The man was about 6 ‘1’ huge by Cambodian standard, slender build and more pissed off than a bull with a spear in his side. The boys managed to keep the man at bay for a short while until he made his way to the bar and some punches were exchanged, a crowd of guys got involved once again. In this case Naiem called him out, the guy responded and no one was seriously getting hurt so I stayed out of this one until finally the third fight of the evening had come to an end.
At this point it was clear there would be no resolve as long as everyone was in the same spot so we quickly removed Naiem from the situation and quarantined him to his dorm room. When I escorted him from the bar I looked back to see the Cambodian man clearly unsatisfied with his couple of punches, rage poured from every ounce of his being as he stared us down as we walked away, he certainly wasn’t done, he wanted more and he wanted to make Naiem pay. The bar closed down five minutes after we left as the employees were tired of all of the fighting and feared for the safety of everyone, it was at this point I was informed of some utterly terrifying news, it had come to my attention from a westerner who has been in Cambodia for a couple years that the man Naiem has pissed off was on Koh Ru because he had murdered someone on the mainland and the police were after him. At his point obviously shit got real and we where in a very seriously situation. Naiem was in some deep trouble and I just hoped this guy would leave him alone and drop it but as I have repeatedly stated this is certainly not standard procedure in Cambodia, it’s literally the exact opposite. I stayed with Nicholas and Naiem inside the dorm discussing the events that just took place as you do after situations like that. Nicholas sat on his bunk with the same defeated, bewildered, and genuinely sad look upon his face as I let Naiem rant about why he was angry, every now and then I would agree with him and then explain how things are much different here and he can’t seek justice, he wouldn’t find it, all he’ll find is very serious trouble. He was literally dealing with a murderer (who knows to what capacity this was true, but in Cambodia certainly not out of the question and more likely true than not) obviously the guy has no code of honor, justice or understanding of right and wrong. As he continued to talk I would keep an eye on Nicholas and realized I had to get him some water, I sternly instructed Naiem to stay inside and not be ‘fucking dumbass’ and wait for me to come back as I don’t think he truly understood the gravity of the situation as well as I did.
I walked back to the bar where it was only a small table of about 8 Khmer men and two western women left and the tension was still so thick with each step it was like getting kicked in the dick with negative energy, an awfully uncomfortable feeling so to speak. I approached the table and meekly asked to purchase some water for my injured friend but unfortunately the bar was closed and it was impossible. I was forced to scavenge the bar and was rewarded with a mostly full bottle and brought it back to the dorm. I handed it to Nicholas then talked to Naiem briefly before I asked him to hold on a minute because when I walked in to deliver the water I noticed a man on the back corner of the dorm and I wanted to find out if he was still there and if so what he was doing. I began walking to the only door (entrance/exit) of the building and poked my head outside, I didn’t see anyone so I walked down the steps and started to walk behind the building where very inconveniently there were was no light, it was almost pitch black. As I approached the back corner I noticed a Khmer man eerily and rather sketchily standing in the dark, “are you ok?” I inquired. He mumbled something back and slowly began to approach me. It was when he took his first step I noticed the second man a tall lanky silhouette in the distance. Within a second I noticed this shadow was unique because the mans right hand was long enough to touch the ground but unfortunately he didn’t have one freakishly long arm, he was wielding a giant Machete and he was heading straight for the dorm. His path was definitive, confident, and direct as he walked briskly toward the dorm room containing the two guys. It was this moment that has consumed the entirety of my thoughts for the last few days but as it was happening I didn’t have the luxury of thinking anything through. I didn’t have time to consider all of the things one should consider like the fact this man was hiding from the cops for murder, he was angry, he was hammered drunk on whiskey and when Cambodians are hammered on Whiskey they can be exceptional insane and irrational. I didn’t have time to consider he was looking for a fight, there was no hospital on the island and most importantly he was holding a two and half foot long blade, did I really want to step in front of him for a person who did something stupid that I barely knew? Honestly it was like something out of a movie it was extremely terrifying, I felt one brief insane second of crippling fear but it was a only a split second, almost like the life flash before you eyes feeling, but it went away instantly and I acted. I acted because although I should have considered everything above and made the choice to let him go on his merry way with his big ass blade of death the only thought in my mind was “he’s going straight for the dorm, he’s angry, I don’t know what he’ll do” of all the thoughts that could have filled my mind that was the only one I had. I have discovered once before that without a doubt between my two options of ‘fight’ and ‘flight’ I’m definitively fight, which is why I think it was my unconscious that forced me to take the first step towards him. Only about five paces forward were necessary for us to be face to face and at the same instant I made my first movement I put my hands out in front of me in a defensive manner and motioned for him to keep the weapon down while calmly but firmly saying, “woe, woe, woe, what are you doing with that?” He didn’t reply and kept walking toward me I took one step back for distance “why do you have that? What are you doing with that?” I repeated. Clearly my usual strategy of keeping my distance to stay out of harms way wasn’t going to work and I was now standing toe to toe and face to face with a 6 ‘1’ angry Cambodian man holding a fucking sword that looked so sharp it could have been made by Hattori Hanzo himself, he may have had a slendor build but to me at the time he was more terrifying and bigger than Danny Trejo. By the time he reached me he came into the light and the shape and design of the machete was obvious, it looked like it was brand new with a clean black blade, that reflected the light, the handle was leather and the blade looked so razor sharp it would have absolutely zero issue chopping my arm clean off if so desired. The description of the weapon is only from my peripheral vision as I had my eyes fixed on his and I was reading his body language and actions as if my life depended on it :/ I didn’t think he was just going to start swinging his weapon wildly with intent, his eyes looked clear enough and thank god I had a very brief interaction with him in the bar where we smiled as we passed each other and again in the intermission between fights. Inconsequential you may think but those two very small and insignificant actions demonstrated my attitude and demeanor or even energy, since we are really just animals I think people can read and sense energy. I simply continued talking focusing on his body language but honestly running on pure autopilot, I didn’t have many thoughts in my head other than, ‘this guy cannot get passed me and enter the dorm.’ The entire time this was going on I had one Cambodian to my left starring me down with eyes filled with anger and ill intention and now a new guy over his right shoulder who seemingly came out of nowhere, great I thought, now they have the numbers too, not like they’d need them with that Machete in his hand. Both men were continuously telling me to move and leave, move and leave they kept repeating but I held my ground anyway “Look man my friend made a mistake, I saw you earlier and I don’t think you hit our friend, I think he made a mistake, he’s a dumb ass and he’s sorry, please don’t go in there and use that thing on him” I continued to explain to him how the fight went down, how my friend was drunk and meant him no harm and how I thought he wasn’t the person who injured our friend (I had no idea, certainly could have been him) and my friend simply made an error. “Look he’s stupid please leave him alone” I said and finally I got some response.
“I know it’s ok” he said “it’s ok your friend is just stupid” he said again after simply standing there silently starring at me for about five minutes just letting me talk. The two other continued to tell me to get out of the way and leave but at this point I think the guy and I came to an understanding, dare I say he was able to listen to reason or even be talked down. After we talked for thirty seconds more I said, “promise me you won’t use that on him” he then promised, I continued, “promise me you won’t come in the dorm later” and he promised. I thanked him very much and went to shake his hand, he moved the machete from his right hand to his left so he could shake my hand and once again the man on the right said, “move, get out of here” at this point the large Cambodian man took a look over his shoulder at one man and then over the next at the other man and told them “stop it’s ok we are good” and then proceeded to reach out and shake my hand. I thanked him and he and his two friends began to disappear into the darkness behind the dorm Machete and all.
“Holy fu$#ing shit” I thought to myself as my conscious mind was starting to grasp the choice I just made and the situation I was just in. I was only a few steps away from the dorm and tried to refrain from sprinting back in to warn Naiem since although I got a verbal agreement from him not to chop my new friend to pieces it certainly wasn’t a binding. I quickly made my way across the dorm, my body now tingling from a massive adrenaline dump as I approached Naiem. Instantly he could recognize the seriousness on my face and I warned him of the situation, he was certainly concerned as you can imagine and we decided to switch dorms just in case the man came back. I gave the all clear as we swiftly went from the big dorm to the small dorm ensuring no one saw us make our way and Naiem stayed and avoided trouble in my room for a while until finally needing some sleep. I couldn’t provide a bed for him since my friend was passed out in mine so we snuck back to his dorm in the quiet of the night and he simply fell asleep. Although it was quiet I certainly didn’t feel the incident was completely over so I stayed awake and vigilante given that I don’t think Naiem took the situation as seriously as I did. If the guy murdered or assaulted someone on the mainland there’s a good chance he’s trying to find any excuse to use his weapon, furthermore I’ve heard my fair share crazy stories here and didn’t want him or me to be another one. A few hours later Nicholas woke up and tried to go for a swim because plankton were out and they glow in the dark when you swim it’s extremely awesome, however he was still drunk with a couple good size cuts on his face he didn’t need getting infected. It took a good while to completely convince him not to go and we relaxed on the beach for a bit while I filled him in once again on what had happened and tried to help him feel better. He had never been in one fight his entire life and was still searching for answers; I eventually managed to make him feel a little better before he headed back to bed a half hour later.
Even after all of this the time was only 2:00 AM and the only sounds on the island came from a small gathering of Cambodians behind the dorm . I decided to stay awake and took a rest in the only hammock that was left available in front of the dorm just in case. I managed to stay awake until 5:00 AM or so until I passed out for a couple hours and made my way to breakfast. I believed it was all over as I went to the bar and ordered water and sat down beside one of my new friends Natasha from Canada. Almost instantly she pointed out the man from the night before and said, “Do you see that guy?” I told her that I did and she continued, “He came down to breakfast with a huge machete, it’s in the cooler!” she exclaimed with a voice of concern.
Holy shit I thought once again, I quickly went to find Naiem to tell him to stay in the dorm and not come to breakfast. This guy was serious and looking for any excuse to take the lid off the cooler and use his favourite toy. The entire island was shook from the events the night before and everyone was leaving although we had the option of staying one more night, however almost everyone realized it wasn’t a great place to be at this time especially since the Cambodians were drinking very heavily already shooting numerous whiskey shots before 10AM so we figured tonight would be more of the same. They had to send two boats rather than the usual one because of the small-scale evacuation and both Naiem and Nicholas boarded the first while I waited for the second. Finally with the two guys headed to safety and after a dreadfully long night I was able to breathe a sigh of relief.
In the following days I had time to contemplate my decision to confront a potentially crazy man holding a machete to help someone I barely knew. I have had a chance to tell my story several times since that night and the scariest thing for me has been the fact that the westerners who have been in Cambodia for some time say that there is no chance they’d ever do something like that since the longer you’re here, the more sinister and unbelievable stories you’ll hear. It’s hard to understand the severity of the situation from a Canadian perspective since the chances of that happening at home are so low, where as in Cambodia things like this happen daily and it’s regrettably common. Having the chance to ponder all of the facts like he had already killed someone, he was hammered on whiskey, he was angry and looking for a fight has caused me to believe maybe I made a stupid choice but then again I’m still here aren’t I? I didn’t have the luxury of entertaining a thought process, it was as simple as act or don’t with the only conscious thought in my mind being “this guy is going to hurt someone” and I just couldn’t sit by and let that happen.
Having this experience has brought to light yet again the fact that this life is not given, it’s temporary and the old cliché of everyday being a gift is not so cliché to those who truly understand it or at all for me personally these last few days. When our time comes our lives will be judged not by the thoughts we had but by the choices we made and the actual things we did. I flat out refuse to live a life of fear and truly believe understanding your mortality will help you have a fuller and more liberated existence. This experience has not changed the fact I will continue to make the conscious choice to live a life focused on love and compassion because life is too complicated, dark, difficult and troublesome for any other perspective.
“Where fear is, happiness is not” Seneca
P.S if you ever encounter a man holding a Machete, run away real fast 😉