Navigating a country where you don’t know how to read the alphabet, let alone speak the language, is always an adventure. Ditto being any place where the color of your skin betrays you as an outsider before you open your mouth. These are important experiences, and it’s important to go with a smile, with calm, and with the assumption that no one intends you any harm; these are the ways of making travel – and general living – palatable.
So, I start with this – things I never knew I wanted until I visited Cambodia:
-pancakes as street food from a cart
-a house on stilts in the water
-many pairs of flowing, tie-waist pants
Things I suspected but of which I am now sure:
-a simpler way of living
We made our way, completely sleep deprived, to the Mochit bus station in Bangkok. This was relatively close to our hotel but still, cab drivers don’t like to go there, so there was mild distress when we didn’t have as much time as we might have wanted to ensure we’d catch our bus. With some navigation, we traded our travel vouchers for tickets and got to the bus in plenty of time for Luke to buy random snacks at the market (surprise me!). I got the only seat on the bus with no curtain. This sounds like a small thing, I know. But this is Southeast Asia, not Sweden, and the sun is fierce and unforgiving and I was trapped in the window seat, unable to move on this ancient bus, packed to the gills with tourists (<— I resemble this) By the end of our journey, I had a mild case of sunstroke and a gnarly heat rash. I get some pleasure from the knowledge that, for large sections of the journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Thunderdome represented on the side of our bus as my jacket and a bunch of carabiners served as a makeshift curtain.
A larger pleasure is Thai street food, available at many gas stations.
The border was fascinating. It reminded me in none of the good ways of walking with Chris, Jacob, and Mike Bennet into Tia Juana in 1995.
People in various states of confusion, distress, and heat exhaustion left the bus and passed in the general direction of what we could only assume was the border. The instructions we received from our bus host (not our driver) were barely audible from the back of the bus, so we hoped for the best; the 40 or so of us would disembark with all of our carry-ons, and the bus would proceed through the border with our luggage. The bus would wait about an hour and then, from what we could tell… tough shit. No one on our bus was left behind, but what a terrible thing that would be!
The border is a series of buildings and walkways on a street filled with shops. We navigated achingly poor people begging, insistent children begging, and became awash with hopelessness. Do you give money? What are you paying for? What are the politics of homelessness here? Of begging? Is this how people feel when they visit San Francisco and witness the vile disparity of the tech industry juxtaposed with our many, many homeless? Literally and figuratively, here is no clear path, and there are few signs. Walking from building to building, hoping that your departure card and hastily-acquired passport-sized photos will be sufficient, following the herd and assuming a lowest-common-denominator travel method; I hope the person in front of me is going the same way.
They were! Exiting Thailand, making our way through vendors and beggars, we come into the office to enter Cambodia, swarms of people, surprisingly organized lines for a corrugated steel building, staying away from the windows where we could have had all of the sim cards and inconvenient, trip ruining theft we could imagine. Passing through, then walking back to the between-area to get back on our bus, stopping at the casino in no-man’s land as the only place to use the restroom.
Relying on others isn’t a particular forte of mine. Indeed, when all but 2 of us were back on the bus, and things remained this way for over 30 minutes, I thought uncharitable thoughts. Were they unprepared? Did they neglect their photos or some other aspect of international travel? Why were we waiting for them? When could we get into the pool? Finally, we were on the remainder of the way, trundling along into Cambodia, just a few more hours to Siem Reap.
Cambodia is gorgeous. We’re heading back through it now. Fields, flats, flood plains, water buffalo with birds resting on them, like in the pictures. Marshes, rice patties, farmers, carts and carts of mobile food, every kind you can imagine and some you can’t. I watched, and was warm, and watched, and finally, we arrived in the center of Siem Reap.
Due to some kerfuffle with communication, we waited around until the 9:00 am (ours was at 8:00 am) bus came in and finally caught a tuktuk to our hotel. We blissfully checked in to the beautiful teak-filled Mayfair Angkor Villa, chatting with the proprietor and wandering out to the pool bar area. Due to the communication kerfuffle we were treated to a bottle of wine, which we drank with the intention of getting food with our dear friend Kinsie when shee arrived.
Oddly, nearly a bottle of wine between two people on an empty stomach while jet-lagged and sleep-deprived rendered us mostly useless and, instead of waiting up for Kinsie’s (delayed) flight and immigration issues (not hers; everyone’s), we fell asleep. The kind hotel manager (we suspect he really runs the place) did indeed awaken us to let us know Kinsie had arrived, and we said our hellos and promptly fell back asleep. This would serve us well the following day, when we awakened at 6:30 to be ready and sated by 8:00 for our day tour. Kinsie met us downstairs, where she (after months on the road) had an American breakfast and we went for traditional Cambodian. We downed coffee and headed out.
It’s decadent, but recommended, to get a driver and a tour guide for the day. We were ushered into an air-conditioned passenger van, and told of Cambodian history as we drove the right-hand-drive streets through Cambodia to Beng Mealea. We parked, slowly getting accustomed to the warmth each time we exited the van, and made our way to the destroyed temple.
There is overwhelming hopelessness combined with beauty here. The destruction of something built in the 12th century, a destruction that occurred within so many of our lifetimes… it angers me. It angers me not just because it happened; of course it happened. People are shitty assholes who aren’t creative enough to come up with other solutions to their issues. But it would be easy to look at objectively (“people were so primitive then”) if it were over. It fucking refuses to be over. We are no different now. We are distracted, disappointing idiots, as nearsighted metaphorically as I am literally. My heart shatters at hordes of tourist with $4,000 cameras who make peace signs in their photos and still don’t see it. As we walk through, the guide telling us about the minefields (the clearing process for this one *began* in 2003), Kinsie tells us about the minefields in Vietnam, the experience of being an American there, how fresh and recent it still is, children still disfigured by agent orange. I am reminded of my family, the second world war still current to them, and the Americans who never fought, whose parents and children who never fought, basking in the luxury of ignorance; they think the Vietnam war ended the year I was born. It is so easy to do this when the war is not on your soil. People in the south are still upset about the war of northern aggression, and there is no one alive there who remembers it. It has been over for 150 years. Imagine if our children were still impacted, an entire generation recovering from slaughter, generations of huge disparity in ages of parents because there just aren’t any men around who are the same age as the women, ad many of them never come back from war. We walked through, pausing, taking photos of course, appreciating the beauty among the ruins, talking. It wasn’t solemn, exactly, but it was certainly thought-provoking.
From there we were on our way to Tonle Sap, but were also hungry, which meant stopping for street food. We jumped on the opportunity for some pork buns and apples, plantain chips fried in sugar. The pork buns were not entirely trustworthy, or we weren’t used to pork buns with non-barbecued pork, so we each threw out uneaten portions. Luke has an iron stomach, so when he said he wasn’t sure about his, I knew that my easily upset insides wouldn’t fare well if he was right.
Sated and on a sugar rush, we continued on our way to the water town. It was dusty and reddish, like driving down a road in sepia tone. There was one dirt road with shops and houses on stilts on either side. Families fished underneath.
We headed down a series of wooden stairs and planks to the water, where a sweet kid navigated our boat through the water. Suspecting there was no indoor plumbing and confirming this, we closed our mouths when the water splashed up. It was an opportunity to see a completely other way of living; isolation by choice (our guide mentioned that the families who lived here were quite wealthy), a small, insular community. We made our way along the water, some people glaring at us, some waving joyously. We made it out into the big open water (the actual Tonle Sap), which is a Vietnamese community. All of the families along the river were Cambodian, and all of the families in the open water were Vietnamese.
The houses were fascinating; some simply boats moored in place, others elaborate houseboats. All on stilts, the water just a few meters deep. Our guide said these families had been here since 1979 (I wondered how long before the Cambodian kids and the Vietnamese kids would get married and have babies and make these water borders irrelevant). The houses were extensive; potted plants, stained glass, a small market.
The most fascinating water vessel was the Vietnamese school on a small barge. This tiny community of 100 families had a school, a Vietnamese school on the water, in Cambodia. We watched as children in uniform went in and out of the school house, waving at us.
On the return trip, we quietly enjoyed the hum of the motor along the water (it was too loud to make conversation, really), making it back to the sweetness of the air-conditioned van, cold pre-packaged damp towels and chilled water. We headed to a lovely, if definitely touristy (there were no Cambodian people there) restaurant on the water. We relaxed, enjoyed our food and, afterward, took a brief rest in the brilliant hammock area in a small building next to the restaurant proper. Up a few stairs, 15 or so hammocks in a row, our guide and driver relaxing, smiling when they saw us. We sat for a few moments, swinging in the shade, then made our way back to the hotel. It wasn’t too far at this point back to the hotel, and when we arrived we jumped into the pool, enjoying the dregs of the day.
The evening brought us to Madame Grill BBQ, a recommendation from the hotel. This is always a risk, as hotels are so often working with restaurants for referrals, and may not necessarily be the best. This was not the case here. Various meats and vegetables were brought to our table and cooked on the grill in front of us. We chatted, enjoying the second-story view, the want night, the street lights, the grilled okra and beef.
New Year’s Eve was an ambitious, full day. We wanted to do the thing you’re supposed to do in Siem Reap, despite warnings of crowds. So, we awakened just after 4 to catch our 5 AM tuktuk to Angkor Wat.
The juxtaposition between the insane crowds; busloads and busloads, packed with traffic for blocks in the dark, hundreds of people lined up for ticket purchase, not even pre-dawn (not that there is much of a pre-dawn near the equator; it just goes from dark to light and back again almost like a switch), and the exquisite and untarnished temples, is striking. Hitting the open coffee stands just across the street, then crossing into the complex in darkness, with flashlights, felt as though it should be illegal.
When we’d asked our guide at Beng Mealea why it was not permitted to climb on the temple rubble, he said it was because it would cost a tourist $5,000 if they broke a stone. What an interesting difference; in the states, they wouldn’t be allowed to climb because the complex would worry about a lawsuit. Angkor Wat is intact, and the grounds are vast.
While there were a lot of people entering the grounds at the same time, we had no problem finding a spot on a wall of the temple to comfortably sit, and watch the sunrise. No one jostled us, or blocked the stunning view.
We bought some scarves, which was a huge mistake. Apparently, in Cambodia, if you buy a scarf, *the vendors don’t go away*. I’ve never experienced this. Most vendors go for the next sale after a purchase, not continuing to hit the button to see if they can cash out more. Kinsie had to tell them “no” quite firmly, which was amazing to see as I’m pretty sure that simply never happens. On our way to the complex, after finally convincing the aggressive saleswomen that, no, we were not purchasing any more scarves, we were distracted and fed an apple to a tied-up horse. Who knows what he’s doing there, just hanging out… at Angkor Wat, well-fed and happy. We strolled. The smaller buildings, the larger ones, the huge, huge one. We looked at the intricacies of the carvings, noting the shiny surfaces of some that had been rubbed over and over and over by human hands. In particular an upsetting rape scene where the stone was shiny. Unfortunately when I went to find a vendor to buy a book on Angkor Wat for $1, there was none to be found. Of course. After several hours strolling and enjoying, taking both appropriate
photos, it was time to head back. We had a moment where we thought we’d go check out some of the vendors along the row of vendors. But, when we stepped within a certain threshold – about 50 feet from the row of shops along the temple grounds – dozens of vendors stepped out and began calling to us. It was so off-putting that we turned heel and went the other direction, vowing instead to not purchase anything, or to purchase later.
We eventually found our tuktuk driver (batman!) and headed back to the hotel, where we had breakfast, and Kinsie and I spent all day in the pool while Luke slept. We talked about life, changes, learnings, goals.
There is a whole spot here for how much I admire Kinsie’s approach to the world – unflagging positivity, assuming the best, always, insistent optimism, and approaching her own self-growth like a marathon that she will win. She’s inspiring. The conversations we’ve had over the last few years of increasing friendship have grown more and more profound, searching, theoretical. I look forward to many more as we continue our journeys; her perspective is one of which the world needs more.
I eventually tried to nap a bit, distracted by my non-functional phone (thanks, “life proof” – that first-time-underwater 3” for 30 seconds really put your product to the test…), and finally gave up. Well, not entirely. I put the phone in a ziplock with some silica gel balls and walked away.
We went out. We shopped. We found a night market. We bought booze for the evening. I bought all of the amazing pants that I could possibly want, in the same style, again and again. An orange cotton and silk Angkor Wat bedspread that I’ll bethrilled to put on the bed. Scarves. A dress for Kinsie. Shirts for Luke. Bracelets. Massages for me and Kinsie, a beer for Luke. The adorable kids at “I ❤️ Massage” in the Night Market near pub street made our whole night.
We headed back to the hotel later than we would have liked, the traffic already getting bad. We changed, my phone working again (thanks to that blog post on the many uses of silica gel!) and got ready to head out. We walked part of the way, then found a tuktuk to take us the remainder of the way to Abba, where we met with Liz, Nathan, and Liz’s friend Phil for dinner.
Liz I have known since we were 19, baby goths in a baby goth world, all sharp edges and faux confidence. I imagine we’d be described similarly as the years have passed. As the edges wear off we find ourselves with a friendship deeper and better with each passing year, a wealth of shared history and similarity that reveals itself more and more with each confidence whispered or texted or shouted. This woman is a treasure, one that has been in my world all along and which I’m slowly discovering.
Nathan has been in the periphery of multiple social circles, and the opportunity to spend some time with him in his stomping grounds, where he’s been out of normal circulation for several years, was rare and wonderful. We both shared joy at the fact that, finally, we were spending time together, and I reveled in the ability to say these things aloud, finally being among people where this is the norm, the coin of the realm.
Phil is a friend of Liz’s with whom I got to spend very little time over the course of the evening, likely because he’s a lot like Luke. I hope he had fun! After dinner, we bought a bottle of Jamesons, some beers, and headed to the banks of the river. Each bridge was decorated with a different set of brilliantly colored lights, and we joyed in the reflections, hundreds of locals gathered around, celebrating in the same way. Bottle rockets flared, we drank, we shared stories, we toasted, we found a countdown timer for Kinsie, and we joyously said goodbye to an incredibly difficult year and hugged as fireworks sprouted from across the river. The old saying goes that the devil that you know is better than the devil that you don’t. Well, I know the devil that was 2015, and can choose to be either optimistic or fearful about what 2016 will bring. Thank goodness Kinsie was there to help tip that scale.
We went around pub street. I found Bar.
(in Phuket, Bar was simply called “Bar”, and it was a trailer on a beach next to our hotel (the Best Western) with benches attached to it, a confederate flag for a roof, and a wild man who cut our pina colada coconuts with a machete. In Belize, Bar was a Bar on the beach that said “Bar” on the roof where, during the day (had it not been raining nearly our entire trip) we could have lounged in inner tubes but instead just had evening drinks there.)
Bar in Siem Reap was a bicycle trailer of mixers with a counter and some folding chairs holding two girls from München. I saw this setup, and yelled for Kinsie – “KINSIE! COME HERE! I FOUND BAR!” She came, I bought coconut shots for everyone, including the employees, and we giggled and drank and said hellos and goodbyes and, finally, joined our friends in the “real” bar next door. Kinsie somehow managed to convince them that we were going to drink the remainder of our bottle of Jamesons while eating their appetizers. She is pure unicorn magic when it comes to convincing people of things, but we still ended up pouring out a lot of Jamesons for our dead homies.
It was time to go. The evening waned and Luke and I had a bus to catch in the morning.
We said our goodbyes somewhere in the small hours, the streets still lively, no one in our crew messy drunk. We got into separate tuktuks with promises to meet up again (Liz in Bangkok? Nathan in Chiang Mai? Kinsie at a meditation retreat?), and the three of us headed back to the hotel.
There are hilarious videos of this journey somewhere. I may post them later. Maybe.
Finally, we slept.
In the morning we packed. I woke Kinsie briefly to say goodbye, and then Luke and I were in a tuktuk, then at the bus, then sleeping and writing and reading on the journey back to Bangkok.