How can one put experience to words? This is what I must try to do in writing about my six weeks in Cambodia. I sit writing this piece crouched in the last seat in the back of a Cambodian bus–leaving Sihanoukville for Phnom Penh…departing Cambodia for Thailand in the morning. I am thinking–“Is there a way to capture it all?” Definitely not. But I hope to retain the feelings, sights, and experiences in memory, and perhaps in a few words as well. But what an experience it has been.
I started my journey to Cambodia with a red eye flight from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India to Singapore, to Phnom Penh. Being the sleeper that I am not, I was awake for at least forty hours when I finally arrived in Phnom Penh in the early afternoon–only to discover that while I had arrived, my baggage had not. I perhaps managed to leave my information with the “baggage officials” at the airport and set off for the only guest house I booked during my time in Cambodia. I showered, changed into the running clothes that I thankfully bought in the Singapore airport, and went off to hit the city. I wandered here and there, sweat some–and then some more, and then asked an ex-pat where I could find authentic, affordable Khmer food. He sent me somewhere near the night market–I could identify it because it had the number “18” encrypted into the Khmer script of its name. I wasn’t sure what I had–I ordered and pointed to the picture of something that looked like it didn’t contain pork. I wandered back, sought company, and introduced myself to a group of backpackers staying across the way. We had a beer or two (or three) and I managed to convince a small crowd to come check out the “girly bars” with me as sex-work is something that has always fascinated me.
So, with two boys and one other girl…we hit the clubs. We followed a solo, older, western man to a bar with a tame sounding name—“Oasis”–to be greeted by young, beautiful, and unhappy looking Khmer girls wearing next to nothing–tight, cleavage revealing red “dresses.” We chatted with the girls for a bit, finished our pitcher of beer, decided to be a bit brave, and next hit club–“Sixty-Nine”. We danced–the other girl wandered off to bed–and we were given some dirty looks from the mama san as I guess we looked like unlikely customers. We bought a few drinks for the girls to make mama san happy, got everyone dancing, and explored the underworld (perhaps tamer than what I could have found) of Cambodian “girly bars.” While not all of the girls were actual prostitutes, they were all looking for “western boyfriends” which many of them found as you could see by the many aging, mostly overweight, western men walking around Phnom Penh with potentially underage and skantily clad Khmer girls hanging off their flabby and often tattooed arms.
It was an interesting time in Phnom Penh. I loved it. I stayed four or five nights waiting for my baggage to arrive before heading to the beautiful and relatively peaceful Kampot (read Blaming the Victim for more on Kampot). I stayed at Bohdi’s Villa in a rooftop bungalow overlooking the river. For a few nights, I had my own palace.
After a few days of lazing away between motorbike adventures, I headed off with an American girl I had met to Otres Beach where I continued to laze away–letting the warm sea, gentle waves, and soft sea breeze blow what little cares I had left away. Several days later, I chased my bus to Pousat down on a motorbike. I stayed there just two days and had an experience out of a Salvador Dali painting–a visit to the nearly untouched floating villages of Kampong Luong. Then I was off to Battambang, where I climbed up to the killing caves and saw ten million bats fly out of another cave. In Battambang, I looked at my calendar, had a near panic attack, and immediately booked a ticket to Sisophon where I planed to visit Bantey Chmar, a long lost jungle temple well off the beaten tourist path.
Crickets with the groom
Sisophon was an experience. More so than Pousat, I was the only westerner and felt like I had the small city to myself. While wandering around, I stumbled on another westerner who happened to be taking part in a traditional Cambodian wedding (a joy of being a solo traveler!). I was invited by the groom to stay for dinner and any and all of the next few day’s ceremonies. While I didn’t want to impose (but I actually really did), I joined them for dinner that evening where I avoided pork but tried the Cambodian delicacies of whole baby frogs and crickets.
My time in and around Sisophan was magic. I found my favorite Bahn Chev (savory pancake) place at the market where I had a blast each visit trying to communicate that I wanted a vegetarian pancake by the chef’s wife and I making animal noises and faces at each other while laughing. I had many delicious (and vegetarian!) pancakes at this stall for just twenty-five cents. I was completely satisfied and didn’t even get sick from the accompanying basil leaves and lettuce (my stomach is getting strong!).
In Sisophan, I created one of my favorite memories that I have had in Cambodia (but my oh my there are just so many!). I rented what I now call the shittiest motorbike in the world and drove it over 120 k down one of the world’s worst dirt roads. On this road were Lexus (plural) speeding past, semi-trucks that would fly by creating giant dust clouds and complete white out conditions, and the occasional Cambodian family tightly packed onto a motor bike. With no suspension and little motor biking experience, I did my best to dodge potholes and sandpits. In areas where there was “road-work,” I learned how to handle hydroplaning and driving through mud. (Don’t worry–my helmet was huge!). It was a long rough ride and I realized how important it is to live in the moment while motor biking (and otherwise as well!). The minute that I slipped off into a sweet daydream, I hit a combination sandpit-pothole and went down hard and fast. Lucky for me, I fell to the left and I didn’t suffer and burns from the exhaust pipe. Alone and in the middle of nowhere Cambodia, I struggled to lift the bike off me and managed to get to the side of the road with the bike. I observed the damage, which was really not much more than ripped and blood stained pants (my spoon was in my pocket–which ripped through the pocked and into the surface of my thigh) and some probable (and rather terrible) bruising. I was lucky. While I could have hailed a car to get me back to Sisophan, I decided to get back on the bike, this time really aware of living in the present, and headed towards that temple. But, my bike wouldn’t start so I hailed down the next Cambodian that passed–who gladly fiddled with my bike and got it started again. And I was off. (Despite the little mishaps I have had motor biking, I am seriously considering trading my station wagon in for a 500 hp Royal Enfield…)
The temple was incredible and I had the 9 km grounds more or less to myself. As I signed the tourist register, I noticed that about five other tourists had visited in the last week. I spent a few hours wandering in awe before I started the long and rough journey back to Sisophan. I enjoyed another dinner and dance in excellent company at the Cambodian wedding (and was even dragged up to dance on stage with the band!) and went off to Siem Reap early the next morning.
Angkor Wat was, is, and forever will be amazing. You can read better writers writing about it so I won’t say much here other than I loved it. Seriously. I think everyone needs to go. I also enjoyed great people watching in Siem Reap’s night life. I met great people in Siem Reap and really enjoyed my time visiting the temples.
From Siem Reap, I went straight back to Otres Beach. I spent just three weeks there but feel as though I created a small life for myself. I went on early morning beach runs and in the afternoon helped a friend facilitate donation-based yoga and meditation classes on the beach. Yoga and mediation have been an important part of my life since the age of sixteen and, while I am still very much a student myself, I love sharing the little bit of knowledge and my love for these practices with others, especially if they have never done anything like it before.
Every Saturday, Otres Beach has a little “hippy market” with live music, cold drinks, and food stalls. Here, I tapped into my long-lost creative side and got into making chocolates (first “bark”, then truffles) and sold these at the market with a friend who made delicious chocolate balls and (later) epic veggie burgers. We also offered tea and “almost raw” salads. While I love Otres Beach and the community of people it attracts, a lot of life there revolves around drinking and drugs. While I am not a judgmental person, my friend and I thought it would be nice to offer something a little more healthy to balance the lifestyle of the average Cambodian beach goer (hence the yoga and dark chocolates that both get you high–naturally!). The next week we expanded the offering into veggie burgers which flew off the six-dollar gas-powered range. I had the pleasure of taking part in three of these markets–it was nice to do something so lovely that I will probably never do again. I am a chocolate lover to the highest degree and really loved watching peoples faces explode in pleasure as they tried the chocolate truffles and “sophisticated snickers” I made using just a metal bowl and a three-dollar hot pot as my instruments. With both the yoga and market, I made some money and really enjoyed doing so. I rediscovered my love for creation–this time in cooking–and am looking forward to continuing these delicious creations with more tools in the US.
In Otres, I stayed in a lovely but very basic room above a Cambodian owned and run bar and restaurant called Sunshine Cafe. The family who runs the place wakes up early every morning to start serving customers and works late into the night, every night, for months and months on end. So, at the suggestion of a few westerners who work at the bar for food and accommodation, we closed the Cambodian kitchen for one night and took over the restaurant and bar. I was in charge of veggie burgers and dessert, and the other two “chefs” (one actually was a chef from Ireland) were in charge of everything else. Things got off to a rather rough start–the supermarket in town was out of lentils so instead they bought beans which wouldn’t cook in the few hours I had to prepare the veggie burgers. The others were also dealing with shortages of this and that and we had to borrow pots and pans from various other beach restaurants. However, we got over the bumps and actually put on a great meal for at least fifty-five people (despite it all–the veggie burgers turned out great!). For dessert, I made my first ever rice-pudding. It was flavored with palm sugar and mango and topped by a choice of warm mango or banana sauce. I loved watching the faces of those that tried it and hearing the satisfying “mmms” and “”yummms” coming from the mouths of happy customers. While the five of us worked hard (two bar/server girls), we made over $400 that night. When we gave the earnings over to the family, their faces lit up in gratitude. They had a night off from working (although they seemed very skeptical and perhaps a little afraid of what we were doing) and I think made at least one hundred dollars more than they make on an average night (which goes along way in Cambodia—especially if you are Cambodian…).
Well, once again I have fallen in love with another country. Cambodia truly took care of me and blessed me with many beautiful and enriching experiences. I immediately felt at home here and, since my arrival, have had many people (including ex-pats and Cambodians), mistake me for an ex-pat! I have been touched by Cambodia deeply and hope that one day I will have the opportunity to return to this country and explore more of its beautiful countryside and lovely people. Cambodia, Cambodia…. What will I do without you?
(I will find out tomorrow!)