While deciding what to do for my birthday, I headed back for Phnom Penh with the volunteers of “Project Abroad” and chose to book another three nights in the City of Dust. I’m starting to find out just how much of a foody destination this city can be, with literally any kind of food you can think of at your disposal, and generally much cheaper than you can find it elsewhere in the world. American food usually runs in the $5 range, European food is about the same and there are plenty of bakeries to keep me occupied between cream cheese pastries and chocolate-glazed donuts. I found an excellent Indian restaurant on my first morning back called “Mount Everest Restaurant,” and, while abusing their bathroom to little bitty pieces, ate an entire plate of fish tikka masala and butter naan and washed it down with some mango lassi for only $6. It would be cheaper in India, but hey. I’ll take it.
And to tell the truth, that was the only thing that happened in my last couple days in Phnom Penh. I caught dinner with Jules (Indian food, of course) and didn’t make it out to the bar to say goodbye to everyone, instead opting to get a actual night of sleep before heading to Siem Reap really early the next morning.
Siem Reap had been on my bucket list for a long time. It’s the city most people use as a way to tour the nearby temple structures collectively referred to as Angkor Wat. The complex is named after the main iconic temple, easily accessible from Siem Reap by the “highway,” but there are literally hundreds of structures have been discovered in the area which were built between the 12th and 15th centuries, during the Angkor empire’s reign over much of present day Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, and was originally Hindu (and dedicated to Vishnu) before becoming a Buddhist temple complex. Some are easily accessible, and others require a bit of trekking through jungle to reach, but all are spectacular and exquisite in their detail and cultural significance.
When I arrived to Siem Reap by bus, I had made friends with a Spanish student and a Mexican photographer and I caught a ride into town with them. It felt good to speak something other than English for a while and it really helped my mood.
It is common practice in Cambodia for tuk tuk drivers at bus stations and airports to try and convince new arrivals that wherever they’re going is “far out of the city,” “very far away,” or “difficult to get to” in an attempt to justify giving you a hugely inflated price. In Siem Reap, you should never pay more than $3 ($2 if you’re good) for a ride anywhere in the city, and $4 from the bus station. Don’t let them cheat you.
I checked in at “Hak’s House,” into a dorm with six beds and air conditioning for $4 a night. There was a Mexican girl in the room, Gabby, and two Chilean brothers (“I am Roberto and that is Fernando, like the Lady Gaga song!”) that checked in later that night, a New Yorker named Ryan and Henry, a Londoner.
Early in the evening, Gabby and I went to the night market to see if we could pick up anything useful. It happened to be my birthday the next day, so I was on the lookout for a stringed instrument called an erhu. I found some elephant pants of questionable quality and paid $2 for them, and found a cute little erhu that was supposedly made in Cambodia by a family that supports their village in the province with instrument sales. After some haggling the price shot down to $20 and, even though that was STILL high, I went for it and the man who made it threw in a cloth carrying case for good measure.
The cost of one day’s entrance to the temples was $20, and I wasn’t about to spend $40 for the three-day pass when I knew three straight days of temples would kill me, no matter how old they are.
“I was banging this chick for couple days in Phuket,” he started, and I had already lost interest until:
“I rented out this luxury hotel room for like $100 a night which was really cheap, if you think about what you get versus what you pay.” A slow blink from me. “She started totally stalking me, and the third time we had sex she told me she loved me. Like, this girl was crazy. I didn’t know what to do, so I slipped a couple Valium in her drink and when she passed out I literally caught the next flight out of town and came here.”
I wasn’t sure what to say and settled on, “Oh, my god.”
“Yeah man, she was crazy.”
I tried to understand how anyone thought it was even remotely okay to sleep with someone several times, treat them to a good time and when they develop feelings DRUG THEM so you can escape because really the only way adults can talk to each other is through prescription narcotics dissolved in liver poison beverage followed by a frantic escape.
A lot of the time I have been very fortunate to know the people I’ve met and have a good time with them while traveling. Alas, Ryan was not one of those people.
Henry, on the other hand, acted as my own personal pharmacy. Motion sickness hit me in the tuk tuk and he had medication for me. Mosquitos were unrelentingly biting my everything and he had bug spray, and sunscreen for when we visited the temples, and balm for when I felt suddenly ill at lunch.
Soap doesn’t really exist in Cambodia if you don’t bring your own or pick it up at the store, so my hands went unwashed between showers and eating was always a challenge knowing I shouldn’t touch anything with them. Abut midday through our trek around Angkor Wat, we stopped for lunch, and I went through about two bites before I had really severe symptoms strongly mimicking food poisoning that lasted a couple hours before dissipating in the afternoon. I am worried I have something really terrible but I’ll have to wait until I leave the country to receive decent care.
As for the temples, they were incredible. Unfortunately, the rainy season was screwing us and the entirety of dawn was obscured by thick clouds (which thankfully did not rain down on us).
During the Khmer Rouge’s rule, many of the temples were destroyed and the statues were beheaded to show their power and the signify the end of the old religion and culture of Cambodia. Even so, the temples are impressive and we toured several areas, charioteer around by our tuk tuk driver all day and given a little bit of information about each of the complexes before going inside. We even saw some elephants and a couple monkeys!
Lara Croft/Tomb Raider was filmed at a temple called Tha Phrom, which for me was the highlight of the day. Not because of the movie, but because the rubble lay in heaps while leaving several pitch dark rooms open for explanation (I was chased out by a couple bats from one of them, having angered them with the flashlight on my phone). And the enormous trees growing on top of great stone walls added to the feeling of mystery and seclusion hanging thick like a fog that fueled a constant flow of adrenaline.
Henry and Ryan joined me for my birthday that evening around 5:30 (we were at the temples for over 12 hours) and after stuffing myself with delicious curry and naan and honey lassi, I went back to the hostel to nap before going out to party. What actually happened was I completely passed out until 8 AM the next morning.
At that point I had to make a difficult decision. The stress of having every single man offer me drugs and prostitutes and politely turning them down (when I really should have channeled my Dutch friend and shouted “FUCK OFF!” at them), having them try to plant things in my pockets and grab my from behind to get my attention, and fending off he women constantly trying to get me to come into their parlor for a ‘massage’ (read: sex), was getting to me. Ryan had constantly been talking about himself all day and refused to listen to anything anyone else said.
“One time I drank three buckets and six drinks, and then when I came down from the ecstasy my friend gave me a line to snort that I thought was ridalin but it was actually speed. It was speed! Really! Like what the hell! And one time I was sleeping with three girls and none of them knew until I left for a night and they were all hanging out together, so they came up to me at the bar and all hit me at the same time. Also, I booked a luxury spa in Bali next weekend because I think I deserve to treat myself.” I rolled my eyes, facing away from him. “Yeah,” he continued, because he never shut up, “it’s like $300 a night but it’s so worth it. You can pick up any chick if you have a nice room. And I don’t care, I don’t have a budget. I have a job waiting for me when I get back. And I came with the goal of specifically NOT finding myself. It’s going pretty well, so far.”
When we went for dinner that night, a girl he’d met back in the islands of Thailand had magically appeared there for her last night in town, and because he could not resist the idea of having a sex toy, insisted we go to dinner with her and wouldn’t quit getting pissed off when anyone else tried to have conversation with her.
“Oh, I can’t do vegan. I need real food because that’s just not going to do it for me.”
Alright, I need to stop talking about this guy because just thinking about his entitled ass pisses me off.
Except one more thing:
The girl and I were headed for Bangkok the next day (that was my hard decision: leave Cambodia early because everything was terrible and I continued to feel ill with no real means of maintaining personal hygiene and colonies of mosquitos floated like clouds around my body without end) at 7 in the morning, and Ryan thought it would be a great and wonderful idea to bring her back to the dorm room wasted. I woke up at 12am, and they talked constantly for the following four hours.
I usually love people, but there are just some people I can’t deal with. Even so, being around him made me hyperaware of whether I was interrupting conversations and how often I was talking about myself as opposed to learning about others, which I guess you can call a learning experience.
Whatever, let’s go back to Bangkok and leave this terrible experience behind us forever, shall we?