We’ve been back in Southeast Asia for a month now, and I’ve been thinking a lot about framing—how we convey and interpret pieces of the world around us. A couple weeks ago, we visited the Cambodian coast. We hadn’t traveled to Sihanoukville in years, and we’d heard how much has changed. My first memories of the beach date back 20 years, to a time when tourists were rare but fresh crab was abundant, cooked with Cambodian peppercorns and served at tables in the sand.
I knew things would be different this time. But we still found a little guesthouse on a lagoon with a pool on site and Ochheuteal Beach right across the street. I spent a day taking nothing but pretty pictures—of clean, white sand and coconut palms, and boats beneath a blue sky with big, pillowy clouds.
I took pictures of the squid (yes, even Jerry ate and liked it!) and scallops we ordered as an appetizer, served on an open-face shell with minced bell pepper and baked Parmesan cheese; and the whole grilled snapper we ate with my favorite dipping sauce of black pepper and lime. Jerry ordered a frosty glass of beer and I drank a decent wine. The photos I have of that day and night, I think, portray the seemingly gorgeous side of life.
The next day, I looked the other way. I changed the frame and photographed only the mess I saw amid this city’s monumental transition from little haven on the coast to a Chinese mecca of gambling and vice. Those are the changes we’d heard about, but the sight of it all exceeded my imagination.
In the past few years, several billion-dollar deals between the Cambodian government and the Chinese have resulted in a shining new stop on the One Belt, One Road Initiative that will link the world and transform global trade (with or without America). What this means in Sihanoukville, right now, is that almost every single little beachside bungalow, crab shack, drink shop, family restaurant, and bar catering to foreign and local tourists at the budget and middle-income level is gone. Flattened, razed, quashed, no more. All since the start of the year. Piles of plastic rubbish burn in the streets. Toilets sit on sidewalks. And the rubble looks like a war zone. Going up in its place: an entirely new city of high-rise casinos and hotels. And not just one but many apartment complexes fit to house tens of thousands of Chinese workers in each space.
We watched a guesthouse selling off its wares: every blanket, pillow, mattress, bathroom door, and kitchen utensil for sale. Even the toilets and air conditioners. Customers carted off loot by the wheelbarrow. It’s all happening right now, shifting by the minute.
So I’m thinking about how we crop our views of times and places and the world we interpret. These photos are all of the same place: squalor and splendor in simultaneous measure.
There was chatter recently on social media about the twin events of a royal wedding and yet another atrocity, in Texas, where a teenager shot and killed 10 and injured 13. While Britain rejoiced in the newlyweds’ happiness, in the US, online commenters questioned people’s choice to view the wedding while not dwelling (enough?) on the deaths. But others pointed out: our world is constantly good and bad at the same time. There is beauty and ugliness everywhere, always.
We need to look at it all. At times, it’s important to frame, to crop only what we want to see at the moment. But it’s equally important to remember both, the yin and yang of life, together. If we can’t laugh amid grief, our sadness has no bottom. Beauty, in all its forms, is the only antidote to tragedy—but it does no good if we forbid ourselves from enjoying it.
That is something I learned the first time I ever set foot in Cambodia. And it never changes. This country always breaks my heart, just as I fall in love with it all over again. It is constantly a place of dread and hope.
But Cambodia has taught me that I can mourn all the losses of daily life, and still enjoy grilled fish on a beautiful beach, served by a comedian of a Khmer waiter who makes us laugh with his silly jokes, even as rubbish fires burn all around us. To ignore either side of the picture is an injustice to the other.