“English, Motherfuckers!” Parisa’s throaty admonishment rolls along the top of the bar and out across the beach. We all go quiet. The dog looks up, wags his tail. I only speak English so I am not in trouble, but all the German speakers half-heartedly switch to English, although the thread and spark of the conversation have wavered. There is an inclusive English-only policy at Sunboo Beach Bungalows bar on Sunset beach on the west side of Koh Rong Samloem. So, after noticing a meandering of German chat Parisa, the boss, yells at everyone – staff and tourists alike. Ten minutes later she is chatting away in German, drinking white wine, the English-only rule all forgotten. Her attention is razor-sharp when directed, like rays of sunshine lighting up a spot on the ground and you see all the dust particles glittering like specks of silver and a moment of magic expands. Then, like a cat hearing a silent noise, she switches onto something else.
When I first met Parisa, she was on the phone, in Sihanoukville, near the Sunset beach supply boat – a shonky, wooden affair in jaunty yellow with a red sun, a lazy grinning captain and two Cambodian engines that looked like engineering experiments on the point of collapse. Parisa was walking up and down the jetty telling someone very clearly and forcefully that those were not the kind of tourists that would enjoy Sunboo Beach Bungalows and they should really accept a refund and try to find somewhere else that did not involve a jungle hike with backpacks. And no, there was no one to act as porter. And if they wanted a porter they would not enjoy the mosquitoes, spiders and lack of hot water. And she really didn’t mind losing the custom. Really.
After the call her attention was on me, flinging my bags onto the boat and passing me a can of beer. The sides of her head were shaved, and she had bright pink and orange hair falling down her back. She moved like a lithe teenaged lion. Parisa and her husband Karlo set up Sunboo through a combination of willpower and physical force. I think they literally built it with their minds and grew it out of the beach and carried all the building materials both actually and symbolically. They invented it. And now somehow it is there, on the beach, with no infrastructure or electricity or wifi, but with hammocks and jazz and sundowners. And after a week here, you realise that those things are much more important.
She makes graft look easy and flowing. She gets up with the cicadas and birds that trill and screech in the early light at 6 a.m. There is no one else on the beach. She sits in the empty bar, smoking a neat spliff, and drinking a black coffee in a tiny coffee cup from Vienna that has delicate gold paint and is as dainty as a granny’s little finger. She writes in a book all the things she has to do and looks out to the sea. When the guests start waking up and come to the bar in search of breakfast, she turns to them with her expansive cheeky smile and welcomes them to the day. She has grimy bare feet and tattoos. She mixes dusty street urchin with old-world civility and charm. She tells me more than once that she is a scrabbling refugee made good. Then she disappears into the kitchen, tying on her apron as she leaves, to cook up European breakfasts with home-made bread. She has created a little Vienna on a tropical beach in a Cambodian corner.
Later, pink-white westerners arrive, sweating from the hike, to check in. Checking in means semi-collapsing under the weight of backpacks and jungle and looking for relief. It is Parisa’s cue. She floats in from the kitchen, smiling her sunshine smile, bathing everyone in equal measure, and asks how the walk was. And she wants to know. She really wants to know the how and who and why of every guest. And if they don’t want to tell her then, she will get it out of them later as she plies them with cocktails at the bar and challenges them face on to tell her everything.
She bows her head in deference to them, and leads them out across the beach to the bungalows which hide in the jungle where the monkeys live. They do not know what it has taken her to be this hostess. They cannot imagine the weather-shaped, generator-shaped, flaky-volunteer-shaped problems she has solved to get to welcome them with such grace.
Every day I was in the jungle at Sunboo, Parisa would sit down with a glass of wine and ice, near the intermittent phone signal, around noon, and make her list. Her list was a mystery to me. The menu didn’t change much, so a printed list of ingredients with tickboxes would have sufficed. But she had a book and wrote a lot in it. I think it was a kind of diary made up of vegetables, fruits and longlife milk. A rumination of life on the beach, hidden beneath orders of shrimps and fish sauce, peeping out from beneath the ice blocks and cans of beer. The way she expressed herself. I slipped a D.H. Lawrence poem into the back of it once.
Suddenly Parisa leaps to her feet and races down the beach with a stick, yelling at a dog that should not be on her stretch, shooing it away as Sunny, her own dog, looks on bemused. She says ‘Fuck man!’ as she regains her queendom. I notice the sun is beginning to blush into orange in preparation for sunset. I notice her orange mane reflecting it back as she turns her back on the sea to retrieve her glass. Half an hour later she walks down to the shore hand in hand with her child and her man, in all the colours, to give the sun her attention as it sinks.
When the mosquitoes come, she sprays her child’s legs and arms with repellent, as the little one holds her breath in the last rays before dark. Then she is back in the kitchen, chopping and preparing, giving orders to the Khymer kitchen boys, willing it all into being. She has no truck with vegans, and vegetarians are only tolerated, yet she makes me surprising pizza with sticks of green peppercorns. She serves meat platters and fish with big bodies and sea creatures with whiskers. She serves good quality wine, and makes deserts like apple pie, which she brings to me and her daughter to taste in the school room, and dishes out freely to everyone. She makes food and friends and things happen.
Somehow in the middle of the steaming, screaming jungle there is this place that blends the rust and ocean-blue palette of Cambodia with Jackson Pollack splashes of verve and fire. Parisa can and will only be herself, and her essence is right there on her sleeve, saying “fuck you!” and “I love you!” in the same breath.
When the kitchen closes, she drinks at the bar, teasing and delighting the tourists, taunting us with outrageous far-fetched philosophical assertions fed by wine and badassery. She chides her younger brother working behind the bar, who takes it silently with a quiet smile, as he refills her glass. Karlo, her husband, raises an eyebrow. We all take it, grinning in the darkness and candle light. She is in her element, calling for shots on the house, calling for more – more life, more fun, more everything. ‘Bring it on man!’ she says to no one and everyone.
If you would like to meet Parisa, then visit Sunboo Beach Bungalows on Sunset Beach, Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia.