We booked a flight, but only a month and a half later our fragile itinerary was already crumbling. I’d separated my shoulder. My AC joint was gone and so were our hopes of a stress free departure. Fresh out of college and essentially broke, neither Brittany nor I owned a single trip ready belonging. We’d drifted through college as humble ski bums, and though we had a decent gear collection, none of it would lend itself to dancing along the equator. We saw something refreshing in taking just the basics, but committing to minimalism was proving harder than anticipated. I loved the idea of carrying a 35-liter bag, but it demanded a shorter pack-list and the lighter the bag the heavier my anxiety.
We had done our homework, but no amount of planning could defuse all of the pre-departure stress. I was ready, we were ready, but doubt was building. It was building on added expenses and a dwindling budget, and it was only solidified by trying to hang my strikingly light backpack from my strikingly asymmetrical shoulders. Sweaty palms, and sleepless nights- the product of equal parts excitement and honest apprehension…
New Year’s came and New Year’s past. We were set to leave on the 6th, but on the 3rd when an unexpected health concern had Brittany’s doctor calling our departure date "ill-advised", we decided to hold off an extra week. The brief hold was unsettling, but it also produced a few warped days of calm. Convoluted as it was, it was still an opportunity; a chance to fix problems and tie up loose ends, a chance to do what would otherwise have gone undone. Unfortunately not all snags can be de-snared in a week. On the 12th Britt got the green light from her doctor; our trouble shoot window had passed; it took with it my hopes of a miraculous recovery. The immobility sling was coming with us. A whispering voice begged questions of prudence but where preparation left off determination picked up. We had a vague plan and enough ambition to bridge the gaps. Learning by doing - we were going.
Our flight landed in Phnom Penh at just after 12:00 AM. By that time our sleep pattern was so jumbled the hour was irrelevant, but twenty hours of travel had taken their toll. Excited and loosely conscious we grabbed our packs and pin-balled up the jet-way. Stepping out of the plane the temperature shift was dizzying. Across 20 feet the temperature climbed 20 degrees, and even after midnight the humidity was crushing. Swimming through delirium and dripping air, Britt and I inched forward though the customs line and tried to prepare ourselves for the onslaught waiting outside. Even walking past the baggage carousel we could already hear it; the opening sales line that would become synonymous with taxi drivers: “My Friend, My Friend…”
The hard sell is on in Cambodia. With bright smiles and agonizing persistence they ask and ask until no becomes yes. Negotiation skills are highly regarded, and I was eager to prove my worth but after a 20 hour flight my commitment was wavering. In a moment of weakness I was the easy sell. Brittany, generally far more willful than I, proved equally compliant. We feigned interest in haggling but eventually just accepted the “standard” price for a ride into town.
Deciding against a tuk-tuk* we stepped into an unmarked car and became instantly paranoid that we were already being scammed. As the driver casually cruised through red lights and continually treated laws as inexplicit guide lines, I couldn’t help but feel like we were being driven the wrong way. The city looked seedier and more threatening with every block. The roads narrowed and life receded into the shadows, every alley we turned down pushed the hair at the back of my neck to attention. Time and time again the driver suggested we change our plans. He would turn up an empty street, point to a dark building and add the same simple suggestion: “for you is better.” With Brittany reinforcing my paranoia and exhaustion literally clouding my vision I was not only blind to his suggestions but also positive that changing plans would invarialy lead to being robbed at knife point.
“Stop, no more… No more alleys, no more suggestions! Just take us to Goldie Boutique like we agreed.”
He humored me for a moment, but three blocks later we were crawling down yet another dark side street. This time as we rolled to a stop fear overpowered logic. I blindly began barking orders: “Look man, I wasn’t fu…” Before I could finish forming a thought he silenced my rant with a calm gesture. With his palm up, and his eyes down, our driver extended his hand toward the well lit lobby of a shabby sheik hotel. We had arrived as promised at our overpriced destination. We checked in and were showed to our room. We threw down our bags, fell into bed and happily surrendered to exhaustion.
*a tuk-tuk is a motorcycle drawn carriage
HOLIDAY IN CAMBODIA
Beautiful, inspiring, hectic, overwhelming, and generally fascinating, Cambodia is at times depressing, but always moving. It’s the forgotten gem of Southeast Asia- the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes of the Pol Pot’s rule. Never have I seen people of such resiliency or a culture of such warmth. Bright smiles exist in impossible contrast to the bleak history that has plagued Cambodia. The engaging nature of the Khmer people can be exhausting- no one passes without a smile and a committed attempt a bridging the language barrier, but their extroverted nature is coupled with an easy going mindset that never gets old. From the big cities, to the quiet beach towns and everywhere in between, the signature of Cambodians is their amicable curiosity.
Kep is a sleepy little beach town that was all but abandoned when the Khmer rouge burnt it to the ground in the 1970's. Only now is it reappearing on the map as a Cambodian travel destination. Without a sizable airport, or even a paved access road, Kep has remained lower profile than the coastal towns in neighboring Thailand. Though lack luster in comparison to the Aegean Sea, the water in Kep was still inviting and the Cambodian coast still offered secluded crowd-less beaches. Rabbit Island had warm water and cold drinks, and there was just enough breeze to keep the hammocks rocking. It was as relaxing as it was gorgeous. The bungalows were cheap and the crab traps were always full by dinner.
In Kep the small town vibe was ever-present. Life functioned on a first name basis and the economy worked on the honor system. It was not only an isolated community but also a social one. Town outings in a sling were laughable.
Curious glances followed my every move and I had the same interaction everywhere I went. It felt as though I couldn’t go fifty feet without falling into the same conversation. Concern would resonate from the face of a passing elderly woman or young group of Cambodian kids. They would study my sling from a distance but eventually interest would outweigh their wariness.
“How hurt arm? On Moto?”
I noted the universal assumption that hurt tourists were immediately presumed to have been in a motorcycle accident; it made me laugh every time.
“Not a moto… I fell skiing.”
A look of deep puzzlement always followed.
“Skiing?” The one word question would echo though a gathering crowd.
“Yeah, skiing, you know, like on snow. S-N-O-W… It’s white, very cold… It’s in the mountains.”
Occasionally someone would know exactly what I meant but more often than not my answer fell on blank stares. A Cambodian group huddle would follow, and the charades game would begin.
After a brief council meeting bewilderment would give way to uproarious laughter, “Ahhh…SNOW!” To reaffirm their deduction the new spokesman of the group would exclaim his conclusion from behind charade game snow (vertically gyrating spirit fingers).
“hahaha… yeah, snow.” I would say.
“No snow in Cambodi.” They’d retort.
“No; too hot here… I was at home.”
Nodding acknowledgements were accompanied with a sigh of relief that Cambodian’s were not to blame.
Worm turn hips and fanciful poll plants always seemed to confirm that they had worked it out. More laughter more questions.
After having this conversation a few times my reputation preceded me. By the time I left Kep I was a stranger to no one.
The World through a window
The model Cambodian experience is well observed and absorbed from the window seat of an overcrowded thirty year old bus. It’s not for the weary traveler or the faint of heart, but it offers a window into authentic Cambodian life. Roads are few and far between in Cambodia and in following the bus routes you are following the blood line of the country side. The more established bus-stops are economies unto themselves and they explode into life with the every arrival. Jonestown awakens and young soft-spoken Khmer girls become boisterous smooth talking saleswomen. They flood out of the fruit-stands and bakeries ready to sell you three pineapples, two pastries, and your own shirt. Other so called bus-stops are seemingly arbitrary locations at which the bus driver inexplicably knew to slow down. Sometimes passengers were going home to, or visiting from, what seemed like the middle of nowhere. How the driver knew where and when to stop was often beyond me.
The trip that takes all day would have taken less than 4 hours if the Khmer rouge hadn’t left the country’s infrastructure in such tatters; in pathetic consolation to that fact, ten hours looking out the window of a Cambodian bus will bring you to a lot of calming conclusions. That the land is as resplendent as it is unchanging; that the people here are as resourceful as they are resilient; and that Celine Dion’s heart really will go on…and on… and on… Cambodian bus rides offer an opportunity to connect with locals, and allow a glimpse into the untouched corners of a country misunderstood by the western world. It’s not comfortable travel, but it is certainly memorable.
At 4:50 AM our alarm sounded. We shuffled through dark halls, lumbered out of our guest house, and collapsed into the tuk-tuk waiting outside. Humming across town my posture hung as heavy as my eyes, but we zipped down sleepy streets and quietly drove into the dark Cambodian dawn. Leaving town, trees lined the street and guided the way. They held back the moonlight and cast heavy shadows over an empty road. The morning offered a window of relief from the searing Cambodian heat; appreciating the rarity of the moment I pulled Brittany close and listened to the earliest stirs of a quiet jungle.
Rounding a corner our peaceful morning collided with a hopeless crowd. Hundreds of people massed at the steps of a dark, chain locked building; parents cradled fussy babies, and forlorn families flooded the sidewalk waiting on doors that would not open. Brittany tried to raise question with our driver but his Khmer spoken one word answer provided no clues. Driving on, our tuk-tuk met others and our procession continued. Behind us the crowd shrank into the shadows, and their murmurs soaked into the darkness. On we went with unanswered questions and lingering concern.
. . .
As we approached Ankor the traffic began to build. Our sunrise idea was not a unique one and we were one among the masses now. Ahead of us, flickering tail lights dotted the road for as far I could see. There was nothing but trees and tuk-tuks. Then suddenly the ground fell away and a white shimmer reflected up through a gap in the trees. It pulled my attention into the depths of a starry void. At the bottom, the surface of a dark channel held the re-creation of the starry sky over-head. It shined in the last moments of a brilliantly clear night, but its lustrous glow was only one source of the moat’s brilliance. At more than 26,000 feet in perimeter, its size was all I could think about.
Angkor was the reason we had come to Siem Reap; it was the reason we had come to Cambodia. Now, driving one length of the complex’s moat, anticipation was at a tipping point. We arrived at the central gopura just as the last stars sank from view; we jumped from the tuk-tuk and shuffled down to water’s edge, and as the earliest hints of daybreak sprayed the horizon, Angkor’s enormous silhouette took shape against a gray sky.
The temple was just as I hoped it would be; the dawn photo opportunity was not. Outside of the U.S. the beauty of Angkor is not a secret, nor is the beauty of its photographic sunrise. Each morning thousands of tourists from every corner of the world flock to Angkor Wat to watch the sun rise over the world’s largest religious monument. On any given day two thousand photo snapping tourists can be expected at water’s edge trying to take the exact same photo that is already on every post cards that the Cambodian children relentlessly try to sell you. That morning I missed the sun rise, or at least I missed the cliché sunrise photograph that I had planned on taking. I got tired of wrestling the crowd, tired of fighting to carve out a few square inches to stand in. Instead, I just wandered off. Leaving Brittany to tangle with the mob, I simply gave in and let curiosity guide me. What I found was what I pretty much already knew: Tourists are like moths to a flame. They are so busy trying to make sure they don’t miss what everyone else sees that they end up missing everything.
That morning my wandering took me into the depths of the Angkor complex, and at 6:00 AM I found myself completely alone in the heart of Cambodia’s crown gem. I took it in, wrestling free, in absolute solitude.
When rejoining Brittany, I found her with Ethan and Kasandra (a Canadian couple we had met the night before). Travel savvy and endlessly witty, we liked them as much as we enjoyed listening to them bicker. Ethan arrived with a plan on how to stay ahead of the crowds as well as answers about the sullen crowd we’d seen that morning. Ethan explained that they were patients waiting on an emergency clinic to admit them. (A recent outbreak of Dengue Fever was wreaking havoc.) I slowed to a crawl reflecting on the morbid fact that those men, women, and children now faced the bleak inevitabilities of basic healthcare in an impoverished nation. Mournful, and silent, Brittany and I walked on following our new guides. We followed them through Angkor Wat and the remnants of what was once a prominent empire.
. . .
The magnificence of Siem Reap is rooted in its grand scale, but it shines in its ethereal detail. Ornate engravings cover every visible inch of every hand carved stone. Walking in and amongst the temples is overpowering- as much so as any experience I have ever had. I wrote off that solitary morning wandering around Angkor Wat as being the pinnacle Cambodian experience but Siem Reap has an uncanny ability to out-do itself. Every temple offers something new, something different, something better, and in the days that followed Brittany and I, time and time again, found ourselves alone wandering the raw purity that exists only in the un-restored temples of lesser prominence. Millions of construction hours went into every stone mammoth. Trying to take in multiple temples a day feels almost disrespectful and yet I cannot name structures I've ever respected more. Angkor Thom, Bayon, Prea Ko, the Rolous Group, Preah Khan, Banteay Kdei, Pre Rup, Ta Prohm… The list is endless; the temples unbelievable. Words fail; the photos are a start.