Love has a quota. That’s according to Ricky Lee in his masterpiece “Para kay B.” Only one in every five people who fall in love will have a happy ending. The others might love someone who will not love them back. Or love without learning. Or love hopelessly. And some might not love at all.
These are four stories of love that took place in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam — the three countries more fondly known as Indochina. This is a collaboration of four writers who fell prey to Indochina’s gravitational force. Not everyone came out intact. The quota was true, and some cities became artifacts of the wreckage of their broken hearts.
The Legend of Indochina
There is a legend about a magical forest in Indochina called the Himmapan Forest. Mythical beings lived there, creatures that are very different from the world we have today. Some accounts say it is a “secret place” where creatures were half-bird and half-human.
In this modern age, the Indochina peninsula is still known for its mysterious vibe, a place where perhaps magic happens.
Magic such as falling in love.
BANGKOK, THAILAND: Frisson in Khao San
Written by Jori Pamintuan
Her eyes started to water as she struggled to keep the warm shisha smoke in her lungs. She thought: “Surely it shouldn’t be so difficult to exhale the smoke out of my nose instead of my mouth? I just need to choose the right tract.”
Finally, her tired lungs found the correct route to expel the tobacco-scented air. Like a contented dragon, she smiled as a plume of white smoke wafted out her nostrils. It was a small victory, a party trick to collect oohs and aahs from her gaggle of friends. Or in truth, just this one boy.
They were seated at a dingy table in the middle of Khao San road in Bangkok, three tequila shots into their second humid night in Thailand.
Beautiful, exotic strangers mingled on the street — moths drawn to the neon signs of Bangkok’s hipster heart. But this girl, she gravitated toward the boy she sat next to on the plane, the boy who had asked her to go to Thailand in the first place.
The shisha trick was only the beginning, a smoke signal calling him to her. For reasons she could yet understand, she wanted to be at the forefront of his consciousness, competing with the glorious foreign sights that surrounded them.
As the night wore on, they downed their shots, sucked on the shisha pipe, and posed for the regrettable pictures that drunk people invariably take. All throughout their inebriated antics, she seemed to constantly find ways to touch him: a pat on the arm, a hug, a brush of the knee.
He smiled at her the whole time. And in the end, it was him who made the most brazen move. A kiss. Just on the cheek, but a kiss nonetheless. A friend had dared him to do it, to kiss every girl at the table. But he kissed only her.
Strangely, after a night’s worth of attention-seeking, the kiss threw her for a loop. “Was this what I wanted? Did I mean for this to happen? What is happening?”
She was confused, intoxicated in equal parts by frisson in her chest and the shot of poison in her hand. She tried to laugh it off and they proceeded with their evening. But she withdrew her assault. Focusing on the music pulsating from the bars around them, she let it drown out their laughter and the words they had left unsaid.
The next day dawned and set without incident. They spent it together but apart, navigating their own paths through the seemingly endless strip of shopping malls along Siam Square. Nothing had changed. She mulled over the thought, feeling a conflicting wave of emotion each time she repeated the words in her head.
They said goodbye that night.
She knew he had last-minute plans to leave Bangkok a day earlier than scheduled. There was a dream he needed to chase. During their last dinner together, she asked: “Don’t you want to stay?”
“Of course I do. But I want this dream more.”
So she let him go. In that moment, the air in her lungs found the right tract. Her eyes filled with tears as she wondered if she held her breath and her words too long.
Eight hours away from Bangkok is Siem Reap, Cambodia, the Kingdom of Wonder. A girl was not about to hold her breath nor her words.
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA: Convergence at Angkor Wat
Written by Lian Nami Buan
The night had settled onto Siem Reap when they spontaneously found themselves a little far off the central district where there are no city lights. Just darkness, the contours of the Angkor Wat revealing itself whenever the moon shone above it.
It was quiet and she was clueless, thinking that the most interesting story to take home the next day was how Cambodians love their vegetables. Even barbecues sold at street carts have vegetables in them. She knew this because while their friends explored the open grounds of the Artisan d’ Angkor, she stayed outside with him, shedding a few of their last dollars on endless sticks of Cambodian barbecue.
But that night they were set for a completely different story.
He had not completely sobered up when he motioned for her to come closer. She did so unwittingly because the next day, he would not remember it and she wanted to take advantage of a few moments where she could stop wondering, what if…
“What if I hold his hand right now?”
When she did, it was like live wires coming together. There is a violent resistance at the first split second and then it eased in all at once. There was no need for words. They’ve talked enough in their years of friendship. They’ve talked about the mundane, the profound, and just recently, the distant possibility there may be sparks. He said: “In a parallel universe.”
“I hope we never find that parallel universe,” she said, meaning it all at the time.
Love is something that’s not totally yours; she had become more convinced of this idea. Like Khmer Temples guarded at the gates by ferocious beings against evil spirits and intruders, love is best felt at a safe, but satisfying distance.
He, on the other hand, believes in convergence, a space and time where currents meet. It will be intense and special, but it will also go away as quickly as it came.
It took only two seconds after she held his hand that she realized what was happening: they were having their convergence. Siem Reap had transformed into their parallel universe.
She let the feeling set into her skin, but quickly it started to sink into her nerves, then blood, like virus wildly spreading. Bewildered, she let go, closed her eyes and hoped that the sunlight would come soon to drown out the terrible secrets of that evening.
They traveled by land for hours along the Cambodian countryside in the morning. The closer they got to the Thai border, the more that their convergence, so heartbreakingly beautiful and brief, was coming to its inadvertent end.
She couldn’t tell whether she was okay with it. Of course she couldn’t tell whether he’d also realized they’d dabbled with the possibilities and that things may never ever be the same again from that point. Did he feel the electricity that night, too? Or had he completely forgotten, like she knew he would.
When they reached the Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok, she sat next to him in silence, tired from the trip and the turbulence of her feelings. Somewhere between the whirring sound of planes and voices of operators announcing who would be home in time, and who had to wait a little more, he whispered:
“Be informed, I love you.”
It seemed like the most appropriate thing to say. Of course he loves her, and she loves him. But to what extent, that was the question. The best thing to do was stay quiet, let the words fade into a precious memory. But in retrospect, she stayed quiet because she was coming to terms with the fact that she was prepared for the wretched consequences of overstaying love’s welcome — shoot down the guards at the temple, let the intruders in.
Just as they were leaving, two souls were stepping out of the plane at the Suvarnabhumi airport, about to begin their similar journey of uncertainty.
BANGKOK, THAILAND: The Fall of Siam
Written by Marj Casal
Ernest Hemingway wrote: “Never go on trips with anyone you don’t love.”
But isn’t it just as important, or more important even, to not go on trips with someone who doesn’t love you? If only she had known, she would never have jumped on that plane to Bangkok. He told her: “I can’t reciprocate your feelings.” She rattled her brain and scrambled for memories of what led them to that deserted front porch in their hostel while everybody was deep in their sleep, just the two of them sharing the dark, empty streets of Siam Square with occasional drunken tourists.
That was not what she had expected. She locked herself up in one of the cubicles in the female communal bathroom. And like the first drop of rain after a warm summer, she shed the first drop of tears for the man whom she thought was going to build a temple out of the ruins of her soul.
That’s what they were — a pair of broken souls.
They were once the outliers in the spectrum of people desperately scouring the universe for love. They were each in their own long-term relationships that both ended in a bad light. In this common ground, they found a sanctuary, and in him, her greatest confidante.
But while she knew that she was looking for someone who would make her whole again, he just wasn’t sure if he could ever be. Once she was able to collect herself, she got out of the cubicle, washed the disappointment off of her face and gathered enough strength to live through the remaining days of the trip.
As she was walking weakly back to their dorm room, there he was: sitting with his legs crossed at one of the benches in the hollow, dimly lit hall, wearing the smile she would later realize he only reserved for some people, as if he was always meant to be there, at that exact place, at that exact moment. He said:
“I waited for you.”
Just like that, the memory of that quiet night, in that deserted porch along with the cold, sloppy fries, the half-empty bottles of fruit juice that laid untouched on the table, and the two drunk girls who invaded their little pow wow, suddenly belonged to a distant past.
She woke up to the sound of her alarm going off, the sunlight already piercing through the windows. She caught him peeping through the spaces between their bunk beds. With a tousled hair and sleepy eyes, he smiled and murmured: “Good morning.”
She smiled back, rolled to the side of her bed, buried her face in the pillow, and smiled a little more. Day by day, she grew more and more at home with Bangkok — the spicy food, the tuktuk rides, the street markets, the sleepless nights they spent talking and the intimate secrets they started sharing.
She grew more and more at home with him.
The majestic temples impeccably coated in gold and intricately designed pagodas served as mere backdrop to the long walks and boat rides filled with endless exchange of childhood stories, quirky ideas and thoughtful gaze. They were quickly, subconsciously putting a peephole to let each other see through their sacred walls and what lay beyond as if that was their only chance to do so.
Without any inhibition, they comfortably shared steaming bowls of Tom Yum, glasses of milk tea and even ice cream on a stick, as if all their lives, they had also been sharing a kiss.
Like a pair of artifacts displayed in a museum at the Grand Palace, they were enclosed in their own little glass world, never one without the other but had spectators guessing because the curator had forgotten to put the necessary marker: “So, what are they?”
Looking back, she hoped she had asked, too. If only time hadn’t been ticking, and life wasn’t running its natural course.
As if she wasn’t engulfed rapidly enough in an inescapable quicksand, fate thought of pulling a trick — a few hours before their flight back, he got lost in the maze of stalls in Yaowarat Road. They had no functioning phones or any tool to communicate. They relied solely on instinct and faith in his strategic prowess.
Minutes turned to hours, still no sign of him.
On their way back to the hostel, a friend brought up the possibility that she might have to fly back home on her own but her knee-jerk response was: “I am not leaving Bangkok, no, not without him.”
Send her back to that train station overlooking the Chao Phraya River while the night was slowly inking the sky, over and over, and she would choose to stay. When they finally found him sitting in one of the tables in front of their hostel, with just enough light coming from the nearby street lamp to outline that familiar smile, the air started filling her lungs again, her face no longer pale white from disrupted blood circulation.
At that moment, everyone else just faded in the background — friends, waiters, street vendors, other tourists occupying the tables, the towering skyscrapers. No sound but her own breathing, her heart wildly beating.
The signs couldn’t have gotten any more pronounced than that: she has fallen recklessly in love with him, despite his warning.
Warnings come in many forms, in words, in action and some in physical distance: Hanoi and Manila are an ocean apart, foreboding only trouble and heartbreak.
QUANG NINH, VIETNAM: Free Falling in Halong Bay
Written by Apple Gamboa
There she was at the Hanoi airport; she has just managed to survive her very first solo plane ride. But it was not a solo trip. She had traveled to Vietnam to meet the man she fell in love with in Manila after only two weeks of knowing each other.
Before that, they were locked inside a fortress of trauma and pain from past relationships; barely holding on to a thread of hope that someone will come along and save them. And then they found each other, risking their fragile hearts in a whirlwind romance.
It was something they were determined not to pass them by. So she went to Vietnam where he worked, so they could spend a few days together — figure out their emotions and see where it takes them. She walked past fellow passengers, coming home and going away, wondering which of the two she would do in Vietnam.
There was this certain calmness the moment she saw him standing against a post. When he slowly walked towards her, she felt weak in the knees, dropped her bags, and let herself drown in his embrace as he whispered: “You’re here.”
They roamed around the streets of Hoan Kiem and explored each twist and turn and watched hundreds of people riding motorcycles who were always in a rush. But there they were, warped into a place where time stood still. They had just four days.
They relished the slow and quiet moments: the unconscious clasping of hands, the sheepish smiles with each stolen glance, the whispered inside jokes and secrets, the kisses that were short and sweet.
Maybe Vietnam was her transit. But every time she surrendered in his arms, so close she could hear his heartbeat in her ears, she wondered — maybe, she was also coming home. He sang on the piano for her that night, in the deserted hall of their hotel, while everyone was sleeping.
It was madness, like a tornado wreaking havoc around her heart, making its presence felt just before it comes to cause direct disarray. The trip was also a celebration of his birthday, yet she was the one surprised with a cruise ship in Halong Bay in Quang Ninh the next day.
The cruise staff had mistaken them to be a married couple on their honeymoon. Later she would find out why, he had asked the staff to post photos of them on the walls of their room, photos of that blissful two weeks in Manila — short, yes, but stages of her life that she would like to live in over and over again.
They stayed in each other’s arms for hours on end, as the ship took them deeper to the Halong Bay where it revealed a paradise that masks its demon: he is here, and soon she has to leave.
Other demons were confronted next, as the sun set on the balcony of the cruise ship on their last night in Vietnam. She asked: “Are you still hurt because of what she did to you then?”
“At times when I remember it, yes.”
The truth was, he was still affected by the woman who had hurt him. And she was there, miles away from home to be near him. But this didn’t matter, not when he puts his arms around her, and especially not when he starts to sing, the sweet torture of his voice as she watched daylight succumb to night and she surrendered her heart — all his to break.
How It Ended
There are five rules or precepts to Buddhism. One is to refrain from taking that which is not freely given. They should have known. But they also teach you in Buddhism that the path to enlightenment is something you undertake without the help of the Gods, meaning the journey will be flawed and full of trials and errors. After all, humans are just humans.
How they’ll end their stories that began in the blessed lands of Buddha is a test of this human capability to reach enlightenment.
And there will be no telling if they’d made it, or if they are still on the long, winding, rocky path, desperate for guidance of those who know the way.
BANGKOK, THAILAND: Frisson in Khao San
“There’s a gravitational force that brings people together in Indochina.” He told her, a year, 10 months, 17 days, and one girl later. She didn’t respond; she knew it all too well. For so long, her life orbited around him, a moon just shifting between apogee and perigee. He then said: “I really like you, I’m sure of that now.”
She just nods. “But I don’t want to hurt you.”
She doesn’t answer for a long time, looking instead at the moon, wondering if it will ever escape the Earth’s gravity. Or if it would latch onto another planet if given the chance.
But they’re not heavenly bodies, are they? The moon can’t decide to just stop orbiting the Earth. However, she can choose to stop orbiting him. With enough willpower, she can escape his gravity forever. But she hasn’t. And she won’t. At least, not yet. One last revolution.
She smiles and accepts his hand.
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA: Convergence at the Angkor Wat
To what extent, that was the question in Siem Reap and in Bangkok. They tried to answer it in Manila, inside art galleries, during car rides, over cold burger and beer. She already knew the answer. She had fallen in love with him, wanting something to be totally hers for once.
But that’s the thing about convergence, it will pass, and they have to let it. “I could let you go.”
It was the bravest thing she’s ever said in her life, but at the same time, she was ready that she may be willing to wait for another chance at convergence if he asked her to.
But instead he said: “Okay.”
The storm was long and harsh after that, leaving in its wake tiny broken pieces of their hearts, but soon enough the sky reappeared, the same sky over Siem Reap that fateful evening. A sky they can look up to and see clearly, and definitely, that it was never in their stars.
BANGKOK, THAILAND: The Fall of Siam
Her time was nearly up.
They tried slowing down the last few minutes they had left before taking the train to the airport in Bangkok. She poured him a glass of water as he picked up the guitar and started plucking the strings: “Let me sing you a song?”
She would have frozen that moment and put it in a locket if she could. If she knew that it was the last time he would let her look into his eyes as if she had every right to do so. Her lack of courage coupled with his apparent lack of intention killed any opportunity to clarify things.
When the plane took off, the countdown started. Do it now or never have the chance again. She grabbed his iPod and played Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling in Love on the music player. When it was over, he took it back and played Dionne Warwick’s I’ll Never Fall in Love Again. She unplugged the earphone from her ear while the other piece was still in his – her form of surrender.
It was one of those moments when pain was stronger than fear, perhaps even death. She fell into a dreamless sleep while the plane shook violently in turbulence. She understood then that what they had wasn’t a piece of Bangkok that could be molded into clay and bought off from the rows of souvenir shops at the historic Tha Thien market — she knew she could never bring it home.
Just as they were unbuckling their seat belts when their plane landed in Manila, he turned to her and asked: “Are you ready to wake up?” For so long, she wasn’t.
Now she is.
QUANG NINH, VIETNAM: Free Falling in Halong Bay
She misses him.
It’s hard to be back in Manila, thinking about that last glance as she walked towards the immigration department of the airport in Hanoi, walking away from him and leaving behind the great days they spent together. She came home with a letter he wrote, every word a sturdy stone that forms a path to the future – their future.
One more year to endure, and the paradise of Halong Bay will be theirs without demons. But he had given her his word: “I promise never to hurt you.” And although life had taught her to not believe in promises, he had also taught her that at one point in life, when you’re really lucky, with the right person, promises can and will be kept.
The distance forebodes heartbreak yes, but she was sure that although thousands of miles apart, what they have was built to last.
[Entry 54, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Authors:
Lian Nami Buan is the Associate Editor of SubSelfie.com. She leads the #SubStory and #TanawMindanao segments of the website. She also produces special reports for State of the Nation with Jessica Soho. She wants to shift focus to human rights, particularly indigenous people, women and migration. Whenever she has money, she travels to collect feelings for writing material. Journalism 2010, UST. Read more of her articles here.
Apple Gamboa was an interview and field producer for GMA News, particularly the newscasts Quick Response Team and News to Go. She is currently a producer for lifestyle TV shows and documentaries. Travelling and music is her passion and she takes risks as her personal reality medicine. Journalism 2010, UST. Read more of her articles here.
Jori Pamintuan is a publications and research assistant at the UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies. She was formerly a segment producer for GMA News and Public Affairs’ flagship newscast, 24 Oras, and a writer for the Philippine Star. She splits her free time between working towards her graduate degree, and working on her domestic skills. Read more of her articles here.