March 4 — March 12
Cambodia was a roller coaster. The kind of roller coaster you want to exit ASAP. Of course, it's a roller coaster you decided to go on for specific reasons and so it had its high points but it was a doozie. I'll recap per theme, the way I did for Vietnam, with a short, factual, chronological recap after that.
Being sick and taking water seriously: Before being sick in Cambodia, my understanding was that water in developing countries could sometimes be bad enough to make you queasy, give you diarrhea and maybe a little more. I underestimated how much trouble local water could be for a western stomach. It doesn't take sewer water to make you sick to your stomach. Tap water that looks clear and harmless can be nasty enough to put you out of commission for a couple of days. I didn't drink tap water outright, I knew better than to do that, but I figured that using tap water to rinse your mouth after brushing your teeth couldn't possibly do much harm. The fact is that I still don't know for sure where my illness came from, but I can tell you that I certainly won't run the risk or using tap water for anything more than rinsing my skin from here on out. The night before actually throwing up, I knew I was in trouble. I could feel it in my gut, quite literally. I took some pepto bismol to help me get through the dinner with Lina and Michael, but it only delayed the inevitable. The nausea I experienced before evacuating everything was so intense that, even after it all, I feared the simple idea of eating. I was finally rid of nausea, why take the risk and give up that fleeting comfort? Unfortunately, we have to eat to move on with life — it's not really a matter of choice. I chanced something light, a salad, which actually worked for that day. We dedicated the following day to traveling from Phnom Penh to Siam Reap. I had kept my food intake to a minimum and figured that I was out of the woods. Everything I had that night came straight back out. This time I knew what I was in for. Not wanting to suffer through the same thing again, I forced myself to evacuate until the nausea relented. Throwing up is a traumatizing process if you're not used to it — at least to me it was — so your tendency is to avoid it unless absolutely necessary. This is a mistake. Give your stomach what it wants and you can move on with life! I spent the next day paying particular attention to avoid anything pungent, potentially washed or prepared with tap water as well as alcohol. It left me longing for the days where I could indulge in a fat burger, overeat without regret and not constantly monitor my bowels. It’s crazy to think of how much I took for granted back when my stomach worked normally. That seems like a long time ago now. All in all, a lesson learned the hard way, despite the volumes of literature found online.
Poorly lit streets: Asia overall feels incredibly safe. Be it India, Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia, you barely ever feel at risk going in places that seem completely foreign, with little to no white folk (which your mind has a tendency to associate with “not a place a tourist should be”). That said, Cambodia felt noticeably less safe than Thailand and Vietnam for reasons that I had a hard time pinning down. I concluded that it mostly came down to the varying degree with which certain streets were lit. It's a subtle difference because street lighting isn't exemplary in most places in south east Asia anyways, but the fact that certain lamp posts were out, or spaced out a little more, or had dimmer light than what you might be accustomed to makes a subtle difference that made me feel more leery of my surroundings. Whether or not it was justified is another matter altogether, but the whole experience was a good insight into how simple things we take for granted (like street lighting) can alter your perception of a place in meaningful ways.
Prostitution: we were warned about this going into south east Asia, but it was striking in Cambodia to an extent that it wasn't in Thailand. What really struck me was open it was. Of course, you could see prostitutes in the streets of Bangkok, including in rather affluent, hip areas. You might see them walking with someone down the street but they would almost look like a normal couple, and she would look almost like a regular Thai girl, just a little more lightly clad. In Phnom Penh, you would see multiple women with a single man lounging on sofas and terrasses right out on the street. The whole enterprise is so casual, and so little effort is made to disguise that it’ all the more jarring. With that comes a slew of new questions:
What percentage of women in a given age bracket have resorted to this?
Are they well compensated?
Do they work alone or have protection?
How far do they go with a customer? How often does it go beyond company at the bar?
Do these women have families? If so do they know about what they do? Is it frowned upon or is it accepted to some extent?
How bad is Cambodia’s economy for so many women to need to resort to prostitution?
Food: being ill didn't make it easy to enjoy the food in Cambodia. If anything, it made me want to eat things I knew my stomach could handle, i.e. Western food. I did however have a few Cambodian dishes which were decent but didn't blow my mind. The beef lak lok with the pepper sauce was probably the best one I tried. I tried some food on a stick at a street market, which was appalling and I suspect might have made me sick. After that, I sadly didn't have the courage or the time to try much more. All in all, I would pick Vietnamese food over Cambodian food, and Thai food over both of them any day.
Dust and grime: this is a recurring theme for Asia from what I've experienced so far. I want to write about this because it's a big part of your experience in any Southeast Asian country, but it's sadly quite simple to cover: trash collection is sporadic, street cleaning non existing, the engines and exhausts are old, low quality while the heat and humidity make the pollution accumulate and sit above a city. Whether on a bike or in a tuk-tuk, you are hit with the full brunt of the dust and pollution every time you want to go somewhere. At first it's a little surprising, and ultimately you just deal with it, but it ends up being a veil that tints your entire stay. It grabs you and forces you to imagine what is must be like to live here full time, and either not know or have forgotten what it is like to breathe clean air, to live without a layer of sweat and dust accumulating on you, and without having the means to escape it. Maybe it's just me, but I would wager that even the most open-minded visitors leave Cambodia with many unforgettable memories, but also with a deep sigh of relief at the thought of making their way back to a cleaner life.
Currency: this was my first time visiting a country with a currency so weak, that they took dollars everywhere. For all I know, there may be more dollars in circulation that riels (the local currency). At first, I thought that having dollars was just something tourists did out of convenience, and to help the tourism industry by pricing goods and services at rates comparable to what visitors are used to seeing back home — i.e prices vastly over the Cambodian market rate. While there may be a sliver of truth in that, the number one reason seems to just be that too few people trust the riel.
Genocide: to my western mind, it is sadly implied that there is a sort of hierarchy of genocides. At least that's what one would imagine given how strongly some are covered, and how little others are. And this doesn't always have to do with how many people died, or how recently the genocide occurred, but maybe more with how close to home they are. The hollocaust is naturally on top of the list, few would question that. Then it gets a little more blurry. Armenia? Serbia? Rwanda? Native Americans? Sudan? The sad thing is that I'm missing some, but there a few more that, at least to me, were unknown until very recently. I'm thinking of the genocides in Indonesia, and Cambodia. The Cambodian genocide is the latest one I was made aware of. What made both so troubling to me was how recently they took place, and how little they are talked about, and in the case of Indonesia, the fact that western governments seemed to be complicit in it. There is such emphasis on the hollocaust and the main message taught in western classrooms is clear: genocides are the epitome of evil and must be stopped at all cost, history cannot be allowed to repeat itself. This sets a moral imperative to intercede whenever a genocide seems to be at play, and the UN theoretically has a key role in bringing countries together to stop genocides from unfolding, yet the reality is much less rosy and many genocides have gone unchecked since WW2. It's crazy to think that millions of Cambodians from our parents’ generation were massacred, yet it's possible for a tourist like me to visit Cambodia and not see any scars at a surface level.
Prices: Cambodia was the first country where people unabashedly gouged tourists. Thailand and Vietnam weren't so bad. People suggested prices that weren't egregious. I'm sure we ended up paying slightly more than what locals did, but at the end of the day, it felt fair. On average, Cambodia remained very affordable, but there were noticeably more occurrences of people asking more for goods or services than is customarily charged in the west. The funny thing is that they do not know how much goods cost in the west. They just shoot for the moon and end up insulting your intelligence. More importantly than being an annoyance, I find that this says something either about their greed, or their esteem for tourists, or simply how dire their economic situation is.
Sights: once more, and tragically so, being sick stopped us from seeing as much as we would have liked to. That said, we had time to visit the main sights in Siam Reap: Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom. Both were impressive in their own ways. Angkor Wat delivered on the stunning entry and the well preserved city inside. Very reminiscent of what we saw in the Yucatan peninsula. But it was extremely hot and humid. Hands down the hottest and most humid we'd experienced our entire trip. It kept us from spending as much time on site as we wanted to. Biking there at 11am may not have been the smartest idea in retrospect. Lina and Michael biked early and enjoyed cooler temperatures before heading to the shade of Angkor Tom. Angkor Wat was overcrowded with tourists which took away from the immersion. We spent the next day visiting Angkor Tom which really struck a chord with us. So many of the colors of the temples were preserved, which is unusual in structures that old. Inside, we were able to climb up multiple levels and enjoy the views. Instead of the vast courtyards and hallways of Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom had extended networks of small corridors, steep sets of stairs and narrow angles which lead to the upper levels, revealing towering stone roofs with life-like faces engraved on them. It was like stepping foot in the jungle book. Angkor Tom is organized in a simple trail, protected by the shade of trees that leads you from temples, to ceremonial baths, to gates, walls, terraces and mausoleums. The combination of monuments gave a feel for what must have once been a vibrant city. My takeaway is that Angkor Wat garners the glamour shots that end up in brochures, while Angkor Tom is where the magic is.
Tuktuk solicitations: as soon as we stepped off the boat, the harassment begun. At first we didn’t think much of it because by this stage we were used to being solicited for tuktuk rides. But this was different. We quickly understood how different Phnom Penh was. It was particularly bad next to the port that brings visitors in from Vietnam. The amount of solicitations we got in the span of a 100 meters was baffling, and the vehemence with which they persisted was unparalleled. They do not take no for an answer. Initially concerned with being courteous, I smiled and politely declined. When that proved useless, I tried looking them in the eye and uttering a dry “no.” I soon realized that they weren’t in the business of interacting. To most tuktuk drivers, we were no more than fish in a stream of tourists, and mindless persistence was the only hunting technique they knew, so we were stuck with the most alienating option: ignoring them. Being harassed like this is a strain that you learn to put up with in Cambodia, but it does end up subtly coloring your experience throughout. On our way out of Cambodia, in the airport terminal, we noticed a gift shop in the duty free section in red and yellow. “No tuktuk today” it read.
Yes men: it may not come as a big surprise that communication breaks down when two people don't speak the same language. One of the most unique ways in which this happens in Southeast Asia is defaulting to ‘yes’. People in Cambodia must be taught, explicitly or implicitly, that saying ‘no’ or ‘I don’t understand’ are bad form. As a result, we soon learned that whenever we heard someone say ‘yes’ to us, there was a high chance that person hadn't understood a thing of what we had just said. We found it wise to always double check that what we had just agreed on was well understood. The most cunning locals will occasionally play off of this ambiguity to extract a few more dollars from guilt-ridden tourists.
We arrived in Phnom Penh on March 4th from the Mekong speed boat.
Next day, we spent most of our time inside organizing,running some finances, booking flights, and getting some rest. That night we went out for some food at the street market, which is probably where I fell sick. We joined Michael and Lina for dinner at a French restaurant. I ate light because I felt I might get sick.
I made it through the night but woke up with intense nausea and ended up vomiting. I felt so weak after throwing up that I spent the day inside and we binged watched the new House of Cards season. The next day we had to take the bus to Siam Reap. I felt better so I ate a bit at lunch and at dinner when we arrived to our hotel. Quite a nice hotel by the way. Well hidden off the main road, newly remodeled comfortable. Probably one of the best hotels we stayed at so far. They even had one of those incredibly efficient zapper tennis rackets. Unfortunately, I ended up throwing up that night again. It became clear that I wasn’t dealing with a simple indigestion but had caught some sort of bacteria.
But we had to do something with our stay. We couldn't sit around for another day waiting for me to get better, and Angkor Tom was waiting. Lina and Michael told us the bike ride was short and enjoyable from the hotel to the temples. So we grabbed a couple of bikes and went off. It was noon, the heat and humidity were probably the worst we'd experienced all whole trip.
We reached the ticket booth. It cost $40 per person for three days. Obviously we didn't have the cash to pay for all of it (what the hell costs $80 in Cambodia?) and obviously they didn't take credit cards. So I biked some more looking for an ATM. Once we hit the temple, we needed more water, maybe a tiny bit of food (but not too much, as I wasn't ready to trust my stomach yet). It was all over-priced. Higher even than what you would pay in the west. Locals really smelled blood in the water next to Angkor Wat. They know people will pay anything for food and water under this kind of heat. The temple was gorgeous but the heat was unbearable so we headed out early.
Angkor Tom awaited us next morning. It was much more pleasant than the previous day. Taking a tuktuk there was the right move. That night we went out to the same burger place as the previous night, except this time I was feeling well enough to eat. We stayed out at a bar with a jam session that I ended up taking part in. Siam Reap is a major party town, with entire districts full of bars full of westerners. There also seems to be a rather strong music scene, at least that’s what I derived from the bassist who played after me with his crew of regulars. They really tore it up.
That night we said goodbye to Michael and Lina and took a tuktuk to the bus station. We nearly missed our bus when the driver pretended to understand where we needed to go.
We stayed in the same hotel we did the first time we went to Phnom Penh. We used that day to walk around the city center. There are a few pretty sights but the rest was pretty dismal. When you’re abroad, you want to have a good experience. You hope to be surprised and delighted by the pace you visit. After traveling for as long and as fast as we had, our ability to suppress the negative aspects of a destination, and focus on the positive ones became diminished. So I can't write that Phnom Penh was an absolute marvel. I have to be honest and say that the city appeared to be run down, poorly maintained, lacked any sort of charm and looked like it still has a long ways to go to catch up with even a city like Hanoi.
I think we both felt that Phnom Penh didn't have much to offer, so we jumped into another tuktuk — he also pretended to know where he was going. We grabbed our stuff and headed to a small hotel next to the airport. We needed to catch a very early flight out of Phnom Penh and wanted to make it as hassle free as possible. We dined in a small place that probably hadn't seen a western customer in weeks. It was cheap and decent, so at least we left on a good culinary impression. This was also the only hostel we did until that point of our trip.
Early in the morning, we woke up a tuktuk driver who took us to the airport. A short while later, we were on our flight, ready to take on India.