As promised, I’m back in Cambodia. Not physically, mind you. No, physically I’m still here in New Zealand enjoying the last of my fading tan, running off countless bahn mi and Thai iced teas. But mentally I haven’t quite left behind the sunshine, exoticism, and isn’t-life-funny moments of Southeast Asia.
I’ve already admitted I didn’t spend enough time in Cambodia; I certainly didn’t see nearly enough of it to come up with a cohesive, well thought-out overall assessment of the country or my visit there. Instead, my time in Cambodia was spent at an endless string of sombre memorials and resplendent temples, all held together by a series of events that have nothing in common but their own randomness.
Caught in a Storm at the FCC
As I mentioned before, Cambodia was where I left my typical backpacker lifestyle nervously behind to see how the other half lived. I was meeting up with my good friend Eli, her mom, and a family friend of theirs to tour Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Eli and the friend had been working in China all summer and were getting ready to head back to the States; Eli’s mom, Lisa, had flown in to meet them for a proper holiday, with hotel rooms and dips in the pool and cloth-napkin dining. I, on the other hand, was clinging tenuously to the very end of my Asia budget (read: the complete remainder of my bank balance) with two weeks left to go and no job waiting for me back in New Zealand. Let’s just say, Eli and Lisa did a lot of sneaking me into their hotels for free breakfasts and poolside lounging while I stalled on going back to my hostels. They made a lot of comments about how cheap things in Cambodia were; I was constantly comparing the costs of Cambodian meals and hostel rooms and museum admissions to their cheaper counterparts in Vietnam and Thailand.
But there was one night in Phnom Penh when I wanted to splash out a little — in my own modest way. I mean, look: no journalism school graduate is going to pass up drinks at a place called the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, even if it is outside of her meager budget. That’s why God created happy hour.
So we hit the FCC’s rooftop bar for half-off carafes of mojitos and a respite from the heat. Now, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you this was an authentic Cambodian experience. This was a bar full of tourists and ex-pats; the menu skewed European and the decor screamed Midtown Manhattan. If my sister were there, I’m confident she would have called the whole experience “kinda bourgie.” But when the sky began to cloud over, as the light suddenly went purple and we saw lighting crackling over the Mekong, it suddenly felt pretty great to be the brokest bourgeoisie in Phnom Penh.
Hey — I Know You Guys
Last summer — before I quit my job, before I notified my landlord of my impending departure from my 97th Street apartment — I made what seemed, at the time, to be a very big move. Sitting in my Manhattan office one day, I signed up to attend an event called “Meet, Plan, Go!” The meeting, whose tagline was “Stop dreaming, start packing,” was supposed to be an informational (and inspirational) gathering for people who were interested in long-term travel but didn’t know how to pull the trigger. Meetings would be held concurrently in cities all over the country, including NYC, that October. But I signed up for the event in San Francisco. The idea was to commit myself to getting out of New York, even if it meant living with my parents in Northern California for a few months while I figured out what my next step would be. My self-imposed deadline worked, and on October 16, 2011, I found myself in the basement of a sporting goods store on the outskirts of SF with a hundred other nervous-looking people.
The whole thing felt a bit illicit: long-term travel may be a pipe dream a lot of people have, sure, but here we were with actual paid tickets to a panel discussion on the nitty-gritty details of it all. We wore stick-on badges on which we’d all written not just our names but our number-one dream destinations. We’d all come prepared with notebooks and ballpoints to record creepy tips on travel insurance and sticky motivational quotes: “Make sure travel insurance covers repatriation of remains.” “A desk is a terrible place from which to see the world.”
Mostly, though, we were there to network. When you’re even entertaining the possibility of a life-change like this, the idea of meeting others who share your unpopular philosophies about travel and life; the concept that there are a hundred strangers out there who won’t think you’re crazy, even when everyone else in your life seems to, is an incredibly comforting notion.
Sitting in the row behind me at Meet Plan Go, scribbling notes and eating chips and salsa, was a young couple from San Jose. He’d just been laid off from his job; she was contemplating quitting her own so they could travel the world for six months. We chatted about the difficulty of explaining to your boss why you needed to leave the job you still loved; we discussed our mutual desire to visit New Zealand. We waved goodbye and never heard from each other again.
Nearly a full year later, taking a breather from touring former prison cells at Phnom Penh’s S-21*, I wandered out into the courtyard and saw two familiar faces.
“Hey — I know you guys,” I called out as I wandered towards them.
“You do? How?” The couple looked at me suspiciously until I pulled off my sunglasses.
“From Meet Plan Go!”
When I’d last seen them a year ago, none of us knew where the future would be taking us, whether we’d commit, whether we’d take the leap and actually set off to discover the world. And now here, in the middle of a former prison on the other side of the world, we discovered that we’d each had it in us after all. Now, when I start to doubt what I’m doing, when I begin to forget the fact that I must have had some cojones to have taken this trip in the first place, I try to think about running into these guys in Cambodia. About how proud I suddenly felt not just of these borderline strangers, but of myself.
*There’s no easy way to put this: a lot of what you do in Phnom Penh could easily be labeled “death tourism.” I’m hardly fluent in Cambodian history and wouldn’t dream of trying to sum up the horrific experiences Cambodians have been through over the last 50 years or so with my limited outsider’s knowledge. So I’m not going to attempt a history lesson here. But any visitor to Cambodia does quickly learn the basics: that in the 1970s, under the reign of the Khmer Rouge, millions of Cambodians were killed in some of the most gruesome ways imaginable. In Phnom Penh, you pay homage to those who’ve died by visiting the Killing Fields (a pretty self-explanatory name) and S-21, a former school turned prison in the middle of the city. I don’t want to gloss over the importance of either place; I also don’t want to cheapen what they represent by offering up descriptions of my own reactions upon visiting them — which is why I won’t be writing about them here. All I can say is, if ever you find yourself in Cambodia, it’s essential to visit both for yourself.
Rat Tails at Sunrise
Remember Angkor Wat? Remember all the temples I saw there on my first day, the kilometers biked, the degrees of heat stroke suffered? Even after all of that, Eli, Lisa and I needed a second day there. To be specific, a before-the-crack-of-dawn, tuk-tuk-driven, caffeine-fueled second day. Because when you visit Siem Reap, you don’t just see Angkor Wat at any given time, pack your bags, and go. No, you go back to see Angkor Wat at sunrise.
Going to see Angkor Wat at sunrise is a process. It involves arranging for a tuk-tuk driver the day before, waking up at 4:00 a.m., elbowing your way through hoards of other looky-loos and their expensive camera equipment, and, finally, hoping today’s the one day this week when the sky will be painted in rosy hues rather than dimmed with clouds. And if you do manage to time it just right, to fight your way down to the reflecting pool in front of the temple, to luck into a clear morning as we did, the show is absolutely spectacular. But I’m not going to tell you about that because — well, because you can read about that just about anywhere. Instead, I’m going to tell you about the sales pitch we got on the way in.
See, as you stumble, half-asleep, up to the gates surrounding Angkor Wat at 4:30 in the morning, you’re swarmed by reps from little cafes scattered around the grounds. “Coffee?” they ask you, in rapid succession, regardless of how you’ve answered the last 10 people who have just come up to you with this same pitch. “After sunrise, when you want coffee, you come to my stand. You’ll remember my name, it’s easy: it’s Lady Gaga.” In a mildly insulting but nonetheless practical stroke of genius, each tout has given him or herself a name like this: Justin Bieber. Taylor Swift. Spiderman. You’re much more likely to remember them, to seek their stand out once your brain starts crying out for caffeine, than you would be if they’d simply told you to come to stand #31 or to ask for them by their Khmer name.
By the third or fourth sales pitch, you kind of stop paying attention. You’re eager to get inside the temple already, groggily rubbing your contact lenses into place, incredulous at the idea of committing to visit a certain coffee stand several hours in advance. You wouldn’t care if it really were Justin Bieber or Spiderman trying to hustle you — you’d ignore them just as readily. One guy, though, caught my attention.
“Best coffee here,” he assured us. “Latte. Cappuccino.” He threw his left hand up, gesturing off towards the other side of the parking lot where, I assumed, his little stand was located. He waved his left arm around as he spoke. It stuck me as… oddly asymmetrical. Most people — the ones who tend to gesticulate when they talk, anyway — usually use both hands at once. Where was his other hand?
I glanced down. His right arm was draped casually at his side, fingers curled tightly around a thin tail. Six inches below, the body of a the largest rat this New Yorker has ever seen hung rigid, its stocky body swinging within inches of the ground.
Caffeine was no longer necessary: I was awake after that.
It is Funny and Happy
Let’s say you’ve gotten into trying new things on a whim lately. You’re walking down the street in Siem Reap one night and you see a sign promising you a “funny, happy” experience and a beer for some paltry sum. You see a giant tank crawling with some unidentifiable fish, encircled by benches. You stop to examine things a little closer, and a nervous-looking guy claiming to be named “Dr. Fish” is suddenly beside you, beseeching you to slip off your shoes, sit down, and stick your feet in this murky pool so that these hungry-looking little creatures can gnaw the dead skin off your soles. You can’t decide if you’re more horrified or intrigued. Do you give it a go?
Probably depends on how much you’ve had to drink that night. And whether or not you can rope someone else into doing it with you for moral support.
So here’s the part where I try to tell you what it feels like having a thousand little jaws scraping away at your feet all at once. Now’s when I attempt to illustrate the extreme discomfort of not just having your feet tickled, but knowing that the instruments of torture are the mouths of aquatic little creepy crawlies that have been starved up to that free-for-all moment when they’re able to gorge themselves on strangers’ foot callouses. Except I don’t know that I can fully explain to you just how awful it is. It’s so bad that I had to beg, plead, and basically triple-dog-dare Eli to pop her feet back into the pool long enough for me to take the above picture. It’s so bad that passersby stopped to see what all our shrieking was about. It’s so bad that the only way I can possibly convey the magnitude of the situation is to show you look of pure terror on Eli’s face as all of this was happening.
And that, my friends, pretty much sums up my time in Cambodia.