First, let me say that I enjoy traveling alone. I find it frustrating, if not difficult, to deal with people who can’t keep up or aren’t willing to be flexible or understanding. As I neared the end of this trip, a new friend from Japan who I met in Cambodia asked me, “Do you like to travel alone?” I thought about my trip up to that point and realized I could not have successfully done it had I been with someone else. Of course I know I have friends and people who I think would manage just fine, and likely even be good support, but other experiences have left me reluctant to take along another person on such an adventure. In fact I was rarely alone on this vacation; I met many cool people and we often improvised a plan and had a blast. I talked with many Japanese people as well (my trip coincided with Japan’s Golden Week, and everybody is traveling at this time) and have plans to meet up with some of them now that we’re back home.
Part One: Airports, delays, and unexpected heat
My flight was scheduled for early Saturday morning, and since I’d have to be at the airport at a time that exists in fairy tales, I thought it would be best to stay close by. I booked a bed at a nearby hostel so I’d have a seven-minute train ride to the airport, thus maximizing my sleep-in time. On my way to the hostel I met up with my friend Maria, who is Japanese but whose father is a fan of The Sound of Music. We had dinner and puttered around the city for a few hours, and then I hopped a late train to the station nearest the hostel. It was dark by then so I didn’t feel like bothering with walking to the place. I hailed a taxi and was there in a matter of two minutes.
At check in, I announced my name as Japanese as I could. “Mah-sha-ruu Fee-shah desu.” The receptionist laughed to himself and said, “What’s your name?” I responded. He showed me to my room, occupied by two other young males. One of them decided to get up and turn on the lights. It sounded as if he had punched the wall to turn them on, and everything he did after that sounded the same way. He moved his backpack. Crash. He went through some papers. Snap crackle pop. Then he fussed about on his phone for an hour, talking to himself the whole time. I don’t know what he was saying, but at any given time he sounded confused, perplexed, concerned, surprised, curious, amused, and frustrated.
In the morning I made my uneventful way to Narita and boarded a giant metal winged fuselage that would take me 35,000 feet in the air and magically glide across the sky to Vietnam. My first destination was not Vietnam, but I had a connecting flight from there. And let me tell you. Ho Chi Minh City’s airport sucks. It’s the worst airport I think I’ve ever been in, followed closely by JFK and Philly International. But this isn’t an airport review, so those places can suck it while I indulge you with the fine details of my adventures.
Upon arrival we were escorted off the plane onto the tarmac and sent over to a toaster-shaped, bus-like, diesel smelling transport where we were packed in like Vienna sausages and driven to the building. After going through customs, I sat in the heat of the airport (there seemed to be no AC, and the temperature upon arrival was a scorching 39 degrees centigrade, which translates to “really f***ing hot” degrees) and made futile attempts to stay connected to its equally lousy Wi-Fi, all while listening to the soundtrack of the overhead announcements of flight delays and gate changes. These came at such a furious rate it was difficult to register what was what. My gate changed. And the flight was delayed. Then delayed again. We finally boarded and made it to Bangkok without a fuss.
Bangkok was just as hot, if not hotter. I found my way to a train that would take me – according to an attendant working at the airport – to where I needed to go to get to my hostel. As I soon discovered, this would not be the case. Exiting the train, I carved my way through the thick air and mobs of people and made it to the street, where the air smelled of exhaust fumes and old carpet. I attempted to hail a taxi, and after a half dozen passed me by (they would pick up other people – locals it seemed - but not me) one finally stopped. I showed him the address. He shook his head and drove off. Repeat 3x. No luck. I went back up to the train station platform and inquired how to get to my hostel. I was to board a different train and make a transfer, and from there would be able to get to my hostel.
I was told it would cost 40 baht for the taxi fare from the station to the hostel. A driver stopped and offered to take me. “How much?” I asked. With a devious, obvious, and child-like grin, the driver replied, “two hundred baht.” “Forget it,” I said. He countered, “one hundred baht.” I told him it should only be 40 baht. He said 80. I said 60. Then he he agreed, and laughed victoriously and slapped his hand on the steering wheel. “SIXTY baht! Yea-heah!” he exclaimed. As we drove along, he looked back at me once and shook his head with an air of disbelief, and grinning from ear to ear he said again, “SIXTY baht! Haha! Yes!” Oh, I was just so tickled that he didn’t feel the need to hide his delight over screwing me around for an extra 57 cents.
I was staying at Speakeasy Homestay, which is run by an American guy and his Thai wife, both super down-to-earth and friendly people. When I arrived they were eager to take me out to eat and show me a nearby market. Food in Thailand is remarkably inexpensive. A full meal with a drink cost me 80 baht, or approximately $2.25, or exactly 20 baht more than I’d pay for an asshole taxi driver in a city where everyone’s looking to make a buck.
The hostel is also somewhat of a cat rescue house. There were seven or eight of them I think, and maybe more. Part of the cost of accommodations is used to support these furry friends: shots, food, neutering, etc. These details are clearly outlined online, and I was happy to support their cause with my stay.
Bangkok is a pretty big city. A river runs through the middle of it and it’s a main thoroughfare for locals and tourists. Water taxis cross at designated piers every few minutes and cost a mere three baht one way. With no real grasp on the city layout I didn’t feel bad about hopping on and seeing where it would take me.
I spent most of the day sightseeing and visiting some temples and other landmarks. I hired a tuk-tuk to take me to the Grand Palace, a very grand place indeed. One thing to always keep in mind in Thailand, as well as Cambodia and Vietnam, is to assume nobody is telling the truth and everyone is just looking to rip you off. It sounds cynical but I found it to be pretty accurate. My tuk-tuk driver raced around the Bangkok streets and had I not had confidence in him, I would have been scared to death. But this is their environment, and they know how it works.
He dropped me off at an entrance to the Grand Palace. I was pretty amazed at how empty it was, assuming it would be swarming with tourists. A few local people were going through the gates where two guards stood watch. Immediately upon approaching the gate a man with a smirk on his face approached me, shaking his head. “You can’t go in right now,” he said. He also pointed to my shorts and said they were not allowed (I actually was aware of this – long pants are required and shoulders must be covered, but the palace offers rentals for this reason). He then offered to take me on a tuk-tuk ride to various sites around the city for an unbelievably low price. He said after a certain time I’d be allowed to enter the palace, but for right now only locals were allowed in.
I was skeptical. Assessing my environment, I noticed at the far end of the wall several tourists walking around the corner. A lot more than were at this particular gate. I said no thanks, and walked toward the foot traffic, with the man calling after me with offers and reasons why I was wasting my time walking that way.
When I rounded the corner, it all made sense. The first tuk-tuk driver didn’t take me to the main (real) entrance. And since everyone is looking out for themselves and their friends, he was simply dropping me off to where his buddy was ready to try to scam more money out of me. The side entrance was indeed reserved for local worshipers, but it was a separate part of the palace entirely.
I bought a cheap pair of pants (which are really comfy and have elephants on them) by a man making a mint near the entrance of the palace by selling proper palace attire to mobs of tourists. I thought, “This guy knows how to have a business.” Sure, maybe he was exploiting the situation, but his prices were unbeatable and he was offering goods that filled a need for many, without scamming anyone. I appreciated that. I still have the pants, and they only cost me about four dollars.
After walking around the palace and having my photo taken by some Chinese tourists (this happened to me multiple times a day when I visited China last year, and I immediately knew these folks were Chinese when they asked for my photo this time; it’s a thing I guess) I moved on to Wat Pho, another popular tourist destination and for good reason. It’s impressive. There I hired a personal tour guide at another bargain price I couldn’t pass up. He was professional, well informed, and very friendly and patient. On the grounds of there is the Wat Pho School of Massage, a renown training facility for Thai massage. I paid a nominal fee for a one-hour service, which I don’t regret. It was an amazing massage. Being as it is a famous place there were lots of people there queuing for their turn to get their bodies bent and muscles manipulated.
After this I hopped on a water taxi that went downstream. I had no destination in mind so I just got off at a pier that looked interesting. The rest of the day I spent mostly on foot, wandering the streets and soaking up the vibe of the city. I met a pint-sized Thai girl named Gail (clearly an adopted name) and we hung out for the afternoon.
She hailed a cab for me in the evening and I headed off toward my hostel. In Thailand you have to insist that the driver use the meter, or you have to negotiate the price before you get in. Otherwise they just try to rip you off. I got a taxi driver who may have been new to the city or new to automobiles in general, but either way I don’t think she had a clue as to what she was doing. She was clearly lost, and phoned into dispatch (I think) several times to get some details. Creeping along in the minivan taxi, she leaned forward over the steering wheel and looked skyward, searching for clues that would lead us to my hostel. Eventually we arrived, and I made my way in the dark to my room, fighting with the door latch while trying to dissuade a cat from getting into the room. I later found out this cat always tries to do this. He sits at the door and makes all kinds of noise. Nobody knows why he wants in the room so badly, but the hosts only allow the cats in common areas.
I spent the morning relaxing at the hostel and chatting with my hosts and Eleanor, a girl from Scotland who was also staying at the hostel. She and I went out to find breakfast and explore the neighborhood. We returned and I packed up my things to move on to my next destination, Chiang Mai. My little Thai friend agreed to come along for the ride, and we booked a night train to the north. The temperature hovered around 98 degrees, and inside the station it was worse. Giant fans blew hot air around the room, and mobs of people sat in pools of sweat as they waited for their trains.
Sitting on the train, I looked across to the facing seat and saw a few bugs trailing along the crack between the cushion and armrest. Cockroaches, I was sure. The man across from me was Brazilian and we got to chatting for a while. I noticed some more bugs marching above him on the top bunk. Definitely cockroaches. At one point he tapped my shoulder and pointed toward his window. A lizard. He shooed it away and it scurried on, but not before dropping its tail in the aisle. So we looked at that for a while. The staff called lights out and everybody retired to their bunks.
The ride wasn’t as smooth as I had hoped, and I didn’t get the best sleep. In the morning we arrived in Chiang Mai and I was able to check in to my hotel early, which I appreciated as I just wanted to relax for a while.
The heat was worse in Chiang Mai. I spent the morning walking around the city and visiting some temples. I came across a tiny vegetarian restaurant and decided to have lunch there, which was a good choice. There may have been seating for all but twelve people, and the kitchen was just a tiny little cooking area in the front of the restaurant facing the street.
In the evening I went with Gail to North Gate Jazz Co-op, a music venue very popular with foreigners it seemed. Tuesday nights are open mic nights where various musicians get up and jam together. I was eager to play drums as I hadn’t touched a drum kit in months. I was also a little nervous about it; could I still play? Would I be able to hang with the other musicians? So eager was I that I bought a pair of my preferred drumsticks (7A) earlier in the day. We were some of the first people to arrive. I wrote my name and instrument on the sign-up sheet at the bar and sipped on a Coca-Cola® while we waited for the event to begin.
The evening opened with a jazz trio – bass, drums, and a seemingly bossy trumpet player – and then moved on to the sign-up sheet. The emcee was a guy from Chicago who could beat box like nobody’s business. He entertained the crowd as the first act prepared. Two kids. A boy on guitar, maybe eleven or twelve, and a younger boy on drums, so small you could barely see his head over the drum kit. And they were pretty good. The boy on drums was a little loose but had some chops and fancy fills that made me a little green, but the boy on guitar was a prodigy. There was a bassist and keyboardist who backed them. The crowd – now flooding into and across the street – was loving it. Smartphones were out in full force. I knew my name was next on that list. And then this thing happened. The boys started their next number. A cover.
And the crowd lost it. I was ready to split. How the hell am I suppose to follow that!? Two little musical wizards paying tribute to the recently fallen legend PRINCE to a crowd full of excited foreigners and music lovers. Purple f***ing Rain!
In the end it was okay. I got up, played with some other guys, didn’t screw up too terribly, and even got some nice praise from people in the crowd afterwards. I didn’t hang around too much longer though, as the heat of the day had made me exhausted and I just wanted to retire to my hotel.
The morning and afternoon were spent at an elephant sanctuary about an hour from the city. We rode in the back of a covered pick-up truck, bouncing along curvy roads where lines dividing the lanes don’t really matter to the drivers. Elephants are a big attraction in Thailand, but unfortunately they are often exploited. At this sanctuary, elephants are treated well. They are not ridden as that is not good for them. I won’t get into the details of it, but the process of “breaking” an elephant involves taking it from its mother at a young age and essentially abusing it to break its spirit. Here, there is none of that. We learned about the elephants from the staff and were given lots of time with them. First we fed them, then we changed into our swimsuits and walked down to a muddy watering hole to bathe them. This involves picking up handfuls of sandy mud from the pool and rubbing it on the elephants. It cools them down and they love it. After this we took them to the river and rinsed them off. They seem to love this too.
These creatures are big, but so docile and relaxed. They are happy and friendly, inviting you to rub behind their ears or hand them a banana or ten. When we finished there we all went to a little waterfall and had a swim before cleaning up and having lunch together.
In the evening I got a night bus back to Bangkok, where I would connect to make my way to Cambodia the next morning.
The night bus was a lousy idea. In theory it was a good idea: I’d save on a night’s accommodations while simultaneously being transported twelve hours closer to my destination. But this is the developing world, and they make their own rules for everything. I purchased a VIP seat on a VIP bus, which is supposed to mean a comfy space in a posh transport with awesome service. But in reality it equated to an okay seat near a bathroom (it was a double-decker bus and the “VIP” seats were down below along with the toilet which was used by everyone) that smelled just like every bathroom on a bus smells, A/C that didn’t work, and a driver that drove the bus like he stole it. I was on edge the whole time, as he tossed the bus from side to side and floored it from every traffic light and stop, passing other buses, trucks, cars – everything. I was truly concerned and became furious as the night went on. But here, there’s nobody with whom to voice your complaints. They don’t care. You’re money in their pockets, and that comes first. Service is an afterthought, and never guaranteed.
We arrived at the bus terminal before 5am. As the passengers tried to exit, scores of people pushed toward the door, each trying to sell their taxi services. They swarmed the bus like zombie extras in a B-movie. We forced our way passed them and went to where the legitimate taxis were. I was driven to the train station and got the 5:55am train to Aranyaprathet. This was a third-class train only, which means there are only plain seats and no luxuries (that wouldn’t be guaranteed anyway) but it appeared cleaner than the night bus I had taken a few days earlier.
Windows were open and fans mounted overhead helped take the edge off the otherwise scorching day. A gentle breeze blew through the windows as the train rolled along at the pace of bird watchers on a Sunday morning. When the train stopped at each station locals would come up to the windows to sell passengers snacks and drinks.
Behind me was a young American man. I know he was American by his accent and the fact I heard him say where he was from. He was chatting up a young French girl, and she seemed impressed by the tales of his adventures and all of his twenty-something wisdom he’s learned on the road. I wasn’t as impressed, and grew tired of hearing him ramble on. Three months in Vietnam. Been here two times before. As some badge of honor, missed X number of flights during the past year. Saw this. Did that. *yawn* (this is my face that says I give a fuck)
He bragged about his camera. It originally cost several grand, but he got it used for much less. It’s traveled to over twenty countries with him. To the French girl, “Here, I just put it on the ‘P’ setting. I can’t remember what it means, but that’s what I use.” (editor’s note: that means “Program” and it’s for being lazy) Now I was done with Mr. Vagabond and wishing I had earplugs. You seriously spent a year in dozens of countries with this device and you don’t even know how the hell it works? Please give me your Instagram account, I want to be a fan.
The man in the seat next to me was from Boston. James, 55 years old, divorced, works from his tablet, spent the last four years in South America, now moving on to Asia. I only know this because I asked, not because he spewed those facts onto my lap like Boy Wonder and His Magical Mystery Jerkoff Tour. In any case, we made friends because we had both heard of the border scams and figured if we teamed up we’d also get a better deal on a taxi or tuk-tuk.
Five and a half hours later we arrived at the final station. Again, mobs of taxi drivers were chomping at the bit to get us into their rides. We hired a tuk-tuk and split the fare. He dropped us off where he was supposed to take us (another common scam is drivers will take you to fake, authentic-looking service stations or to different hotels than your own, in an attempt to help a friend make a buck; everyone gets a kickback) and we went through the customs to exit Thailand. Next we just had to get across to Cambodia. There is a stretch of no-man’s land where more vendors, scammers, and other unsavory creatures lurk and prey. I had already secured my visa online, so it was only a matter of getting some stamps for me and I was through to the Cambodian side. James followed shortly thereafter and told me the guard had shaken him down for a few extra dollars. They sometimes claim there is a processing fee (which there isn’t) and demand the money. You can refuse, but they make you sit and wait for a long time before sending you through. He didn’t want to deal with the hassle so he paid the bogus fee and got through pretty quickly.
Okay, hold onto your seats. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
There are warnings about scams and illegitimate taxi services thanks to the Internet and travelers who give their advice on the trail. Some schemes are so elaborate that people where official-looking uniforms to convince the unaware that they need to pay for such-and-such, lest they be arrested or detained, for example. There are even buildings which claim to be official visa checkpoints, but in fact are just more scams to squeeze more money from tourists. So as James and I looked for the REAL, free tourist bus that would take us to the bus station where we could then move on to Siem Reap, we were on guard as numerous vultures hounded us about taking a taxi or taking a certain bus. They seemed all too eager to have us wait at a particular bus stop for the tourist bus, so we decided to walk further on (a recommendation we had both heard about: walk until you’re through the taxi scum and then you’ll find the place you’ll need to be) and get out of the crowd. So we walked. And walked. The afternoon sun beat down on us mercilessly. My sunscreen was packed somewhere in my bag and I hadn’t the energy to dig it out. I wasn’t about to open my backpack on the roadside while dozens of Cambodian vultures stared on, gawking and smirking at the two white dudes walking along a freeway.
Several gold-colored Toyota Corollas pulled up to us to offer us a ride. “Where you go?” “To the bus station.” “You go Siem Reap? I take you there.” “No, we’re going to the bus station. Where is it? Can you take us there?” “You want to go Siem Reap?” “No, we want to go to the bus station!” That’s how this conversation goes over and over. Nobody will offer directions, they’ll only offer their services for a fee. And nobody would take us to the bus station. They knew we were going to Siem Reap, and they wanted the big bucks for that lift. We weren’t biting.
A man on a scooter pulled up. “Where you go?” Oh, here we go again. Hey buddy, how do you intend to take to the bus station two full-grown men with backpacks on your dinky little scooter? “I take one at a time. Seven kilometers.” No, we weren’t having it. A car would pull up. “Where you go?” Sometimes they’d offer a price for a lift to the station, but the guy on the scooter would edge up and say something to the driver. The driver would suddenly change his mind and refuse to take us. It was clear this guy was telling them not to take us. I told him to go away and leave us alone. He kept scooting along the roadside as we walked. “Hey friend, I take you. Very far.”
Eventually a car pulled up with a man and woman and they offered to take us to Siem Reap. It should be noted that none of these people were legitimate, registered taxi drivers. Just people with cars heading from the border. We negotiated with them for a bit. At first they only wanted to take us to Siem Reap. Why would it matter, if they would be passing the bus station, to take us there and make a few bucks along the way? No, they all wanted to make a killing and go the two hours to Siem Reap.
Our price negotiated, we got in the car and proceeded down the road. After several minutes we pulled into a parking lot to an abandoned-looking building. “Bus station,” the woman said. “This isn’t the bus station,” I replied. It may have at one time been a bus station, but it had long ago gone to ghost town. “There should be lots of buses and taxis here. This is not the right place.” The two began to explain that this is the bus station, but there was another bus station they’d be happy to take us to for no charge. “Only thirty kilometers more. If you not happy, we take you there, no charge.” Really? No charge? We fought tooth and nail to get this lift, and you’re really going to take us three times the distance to another bus station? And what happens when we get there? Will it also be abandoned? At that point, you might as well take us to Siem Reap as you had wanted, and milk us for a lot more money. Forget it.
Just then a van headed toward the border pulled in to the lot. The driver got out and went to use a bathroom or something. “Hey, maybe this guy will take us to back to the border.” I approached the van. A young couple from Ireland was waiting inside and I asked the two where they were headed. They were going to the border, as I thought. We could just ride with them and get a proper lift to where we were supposed to go.
But our taxi couple spoke to the driver, and he refused take us. Really? Why? You’ve got a big van that’s nearly empty, and an opportunity to make some extra cash for doing nothing else but what you were already doing. Something’s up. These people are scoundrels. James and I argued with the drivers and the van driver got into his van and peeled off. The taxi couple again offered to give us a ride. I told them they were motherfuckers just like everyone else, and to go fuck themselves. I said to James I was walking; I’d hitch a ride back to the border. He joined me.
It was only a few minutes when a car pulled over. A man rolled down his window. A little girl holding a stuffed animal puppy sat in the passenger seat. “Can you take us to the border?” He nodded yes. “How much?” James asked. He shook his head and waved his hand. He wasn’t going to charge us. Really? I had to wonder. We got in and rode along quietly in the air-conditioned cabin. The driver took us to just outside the border as we requested. I offered him a few hundred Thai baht (they use several currencies there) and he reluctantly accepted. As we got out, we watched him turn around and head back the way he came. He drove us further than he was going out of the kindness of his Cambodian heart. James and I were perplexed but humbled.
We walked along a few hundred meters to the bus stop, all the while being ogled at and called after by locals lazily sitting at the roadside. “This must be what it feels like to be a woman,” I said. I felt like shit.
The guy on the scooter reappeared out of nowhere and slowly rode over to us. “You stay the fuck away from us!” I shouted. I warned him that if he came near me within arm’s reach I’d pull him off his bike and we’d throw down. He backed off.
As we approached the bus stop I spotted the white van with the two Irish travelers. We actually beat them to the border. Go figure. At the bus stop, one of the first men who told us to wait there said, “Why are you back? You didn’t wait for the bus. I told you here is the bus stop!” Soon, the bus pulled up. Jame and I boarded. We were the only two passengers. The bus drove the distance of about two city blocks and made a left turn. We could see the station from the turn. We missed it the first time. It was right here, and we didn’t see it in the midst of all the harassment and fending off taxis. Now, hours later, we were right where we set out to be. Now we just needed to reserve seats on a bus or a share taxi and we’d be on our way.
We opted to split a taxi as we would be able to leave straight away, and the next bus didn’t leave for another hour and would take an extra hour in transit. Since we had already lost so much time, the few extra dollars for a taxi was hardly a concern.
But things are never that easy.
The ride toward Siem Reap was rather uneventful, save for two stops the driver made with little explanation. The first stop was at a pharmacy where he reappeared with a baggy crumpled up in his hand and placed it in the door card. James and I chatted along the way, and he produced his tablet so that we could follow along via GPS to make sure we were going the right way.
About four miles from town the taxi driver pulled onto a side street. “Why are we going here?” James asked the driver. “Tuk-tuk,” he said. “What tuk-tuk? We didn’t hire a tuk-tuk!” “You take tuk-tuk here.” He got out of the taxi and approached some men that were all lounging around at their tuk-tuks and spoke with them. Two men walked up to us. “Brother, we take you to Siem Reap.” We were furious. “We hired this guy to take us there! Why are we here?” I got in the driver’s face and demanded to know what was going on. He ignored me, not saying a word and walked past me. He got in his taxi and drove off, as I pounded on the door.
“Brother,” the tuk-tuk driver said, “no problem. We take you there.” What. The. Hell. He said he’d take us there for free, as long as we agreed to hire him the next day to take us around the temples. Otherwise, it would be 150 baht. Un-fucking-believable. A younger man offered to take us. At this point we were exhausted. The day had been nothing but a series of scams, assholes, vultures, and tricks. Fine. Take us there. The driver said my hostel was very far, not in the city center, but he knew of better ones. I refused his offer. Just take me to my damn hostel, you fucking mutt.
James was dropped off at his hostel. I was taken to mine. I got out and paid the driver. “You can hire me tomorrow,” he said. “I don’t think so. Because so far you haven’t given me any reason to trust you, and frankly I don’t fucking like you, or any of your people so far,” I said.
I walked over to my hostel. It was indeed out of the city center, but not so far. It was quiet, and the entrance had an open air design with a lounge area and hammocks under a small canopy. A young man at the reception approached me. He offered me water and showed me to my room. He told me about the hostel and generously offered to show me around or explain anything to me. I could pay at check out. For now I should relax. It’s been a hot day, and he was sure I was tired and needed to rest. He put on some jazz in the lounge. A few small children played nearby. Two dogs curiously sniffed around. A gecko scurried along the wall. I sat down and ordered dinner, which was prepared by the owner’s wife. This was, after all, their home. They wanted me to enjoy this place, and insisted I let them know if I needed anything.
Welcome to Cambodia.
I needed to secure my visa for Vietnam, so first thing in the morning the hostel’s tuk-tuk driver took me to a travel agency to make that happen. It was an easy process, and they promised my visa would be available the next day at 11am. Back at the hostel I rented a bicycle and set off for Angkor Wat, only several kilometers from downtown. It wasn’t a straight shot there, and I took a moment to orient myself to make sure I was going the right way. I saw a Caucasian girl on a bicycle talking to two locals and handing them some bills. I approached her and asked where she was headed. To Angkor Wat, of course. And after riding around for a while and getting lost, she now knew where to go. We agreed to team up and hang out. Jessica, California. The ride was easy and relaxing despite the oppressive heat of the late morning.
Angkor Wat was amazing. The sheer size of it is mind blowing, and to consider its age and the limited technologies available at the time makes it all the more impressive. The details in the stonework are exceptional as well. Anything constructed today is bullshit compared to the detail and craftsmanship of yore. It is certainly worth a visit, and at least a Google Image search. If you don’t find it impressive, you might be hopeless (more on this later).
After exploring the temple grounds we found our way to some open-air stalls and had lunch. Several children tried to sell us their wares. They all had the same stuff: postcards, magnets, fans, keychains. “Where you from?” one little boy asked. “America,” we replied. “America. Obama, fifty states, Washington, D.C. 300 million people.” The kid knew his stuff. A little girl came up with a basket full of her trinkets. “Where you from?” she asked. “America.” “Obama, fifty states, Washington, D.C….” Trained like guard dogs. Nice.
In the temple sat a young monk, a boy maybe ten years old or so. He had a basket of bracelets and a donation box. I asked to take his picture and gave a donation. He took a red bracelet from his basket and placed it around my wrist and said something. It could have been a prayer, or maybe it was a curse.* I thanked him and moved on.
Jessica invited me to the circus and that night my tuk-tuk driver gave me a lift there. It was more of an acrobatics show designed around a storyline about a woman’s life. The show began with her on stage as an old woman, and she becomes youthful again during the first number. It takes us through school, adolescence, romance, and eventually she becomes old again. It was a touching story, if not a bit confusing at times. In the end the message was about making the best out of life, and not fearing the end. It seemed appropriate to me given who and where these people were and where I was myself.
My driver offered to take Jessica back to her hotel before returning to our place. He wasn’t exactly sure where it was, and neither was Jessica. An hour later she was finally to her hotel and the driver and I were making our way back to Bambu Stay. Sleep came easily.
I spent the morning shopping around Old Town. Every place seems to have the same stuff (aka junk) but it’s a matter of haggling to get the best deal. I bought some souvenirs for friends and coworkers but tried to limit my purchases, as I knew I’d have to carry all this stuff back with me.
A small Indian-looking woman passed by and we had a friendly nod and hello exchange. As we stood at the street corner waiting to cross the mayhem of traffic I asked if she wanted to walk around. London, Indian-born. We strolled around town together before settling down for lunch. After lunch we went to Angkor National Museum, which has a rather high entrance fee but an impressive collection nonetheless. A highlight for me was the Room of 1000 Buddhas. More shopping in the evening, some street food vendors, and a fish foot spa topped off the evening (don't try this at home; I heard it's actually been banned in some countries. I paid for a half hour but only stayed in for maybe ten minutes, just for the experience). We parted ways and I made my way back to my hostel to relax for the rest of the night.
I stumbled out of bed and outside to the lounge to order breakfast. There was a new arrival. Sandra, Mexico. With no plan for the day, she and I decided to go shopping for a while before heading out to the Landmine Museum.
We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us there. The ride was long, and at the pace the tuk-tuks move it took quite a while to get there. But we both enjoyed the ride and the scenery, which offered views of parts of the temple ruins as well as the natural landscape of the countryside. Locals went about their days with a pace absent of urgency. Some people lounged by the roadside in hammocks.
The museum itself is rather small, but an informative and somber look at a side of Cambodian history that should be known. The museum houses thousands of deactivated mines, all of which have been removed by the founder, Aki Ra, a former child soldier. On site is also an orphanage/school of sorts for victims of landmines. This is not open to the public, as it is explained it is the children’s home and not a photo op. I wholeheartedly respect that.
Back at my hostel I prepared for another night bus, this time to Phnom Penh. I ordered dinner while Sandra retired for the night. She was exhausted, and the heat nearly did me in as well. A new guest was also having dinner. Resa, Japan. After dinner we sat in the lounge and talked. The owners’ three-year-old daughter approached us and leaned against my arm in my chair. I lifted her onto my lap and procured my notepad and pen. The three of us doodled on the pages and I traced the little girl’s hands. This thrilled her so we repeated it a few times. The receptionist sat in a swinging chair near us and talked with us, then told the little girl it was time for bed. With nary a fuss she hopped off my lap and marched to the house.
My tuk-tuk driver drove me to the bus station and I boarded the Giant Ibis night bus. The bus is fitted only with beds: a row of single beds, top and bottom on the right, and a row of double beds, top and bottom on the left. I was on the right side. When booking, the seating chart shows two places next to each other on the left side, but in reality it’s just a wider bed. You reserve one side, and a total stranger might reserve the other. Yeah, really.
I arrived in Phnom Penh early in the morning. The Giant Ibis night bus wasn’t too terrible, even though my bed was a little small for me (this is Asia, after all). I had to wait a few hours for my connecting bus that would take me to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Since it was only about 5am nothing was open, not even the bus office. So I sat outside on a bench with some other passengers and some lurking taxi drivers. “No, I don’t need your taxi. I’m waiting at a bus station. Does that register anything in your scheming little brain?”
I got into a conversation with the girl who was sitting next to me, and who was also next to me on the bus the previous night. Casey, California, half Japanese, on the road for a year. She had a ukulele strapped to her bag, and said her friend got it for her as a gift for something to learn during her travels. She was staying in Phnom Penh only a few minutes away but stayed to chat. When my bus arrived we parted ways, but not before sharing some potato chips. Barbecue, I think.
I had a seat on the right side in the front. It was the first numbered seat, VIP as far as I’m concerned. I booked early so I had my choice at that time. The seats were pretty tight but there was a bit of legroom to my surprise.
Then the guy who would be my seat neighbor sat down.
He was an older guy, 70 to be exact. Canadian. I know because he told me so. He began the ride on this bus by arguing with the bus staff about his seat. He had requested, and was told, that he had the front seat. But why was there a pair of seats in front of him? To be clear, we indeed had the first seats. The two in front of us were not numbered; they were reserved for staff. But this wasn’t satisfactory. Over the next six hours, I’d find out that nothing would be satisfactory to this man.
Within minutes of the bus pulling away, it pulled over so it could let off two passengers who did not have proper Vietnam visas, and also so the Canadian could fish his cash and passport out of his bag in the undercarriage luggage compartment. Two things here. First, the bus would be making a border crossing, and thus it is essential to have all necessary documents in hand. Why the hell would you not be carrying your most valuable document on your person at all times? Second, why didn’t the bus check for passports and visas before boarding, saving us other passengers from the headache of ill-prepared morons? Well, it took a bit of time before the Canadian got back on. When he did, he limped over to the seat and plopped down with a force that nearly jettisoned me out of my own seat. He had a fresh bandage on his knee. Apparently he fell while he was out there. This began the hours-long stage of “woe is me” babbling. Why did he decide to take this trip? He should just go home. There’s no point now. He’s an idiot (I think he actually used the term “sad sac” in his monologue). He’s not cut out for this. Blah blah blah. Well yeah dude, with that attitude, you should just crawl into a hole and…
Most of my seat was then taken over by his massive Canadian arm and ass. He needed to stretch out his leg. I positioned myself so my back was essentially against the window and not the seatback, just to give myself some breathing room. His invasion into my personal space grew as the hours passed. He even apologized a few times for bumping me, but didn’t correct the action. Finally, the heat getting to me and my discomfort turning to pain in my shoulder and back, I said, “Look, you need to give me some room and not touch me. I’m crammed here.” Problem solved? Not really. His arm hairs seemed to grow tenfold, and now, along with the occasional flopping of his arm on my side and lap, his fur began a nearly constant dance of grazing my forearm.
Whenever the bus would make a pit stop it was a whole other process. He had to get his bag. It barely fit on the seat. Passengers had to get by. When that happened he announced how he was just in the way and was so sorry and shouldn’t even be in Vietnam anymore. Tirelessly ranting about his inadequacies. Tiresome, indeed. Bless the heart of the Northern Irish guy across from us that took the lion’s share of deflecting and countering with positivity the Canadian’s woeful lines. “Ah, it’s not that bad. We all have bad days, right?” Because I gave up on that quest an hour into the trip. Even though I put my headphones on (a steal at five dollars from a night market vendor) to indicate I’m off duty it did not register with the Canadian and he still talked to me. “Hey Marshall, what did you think of Angkor Wat? I don’t know, it just didn’t DO anything for me. It’s just a big stone place. I don’t know, maybe I’m just not supposed to be here.” Jesus, please send this bus careening into the ditch of this broken, dusty road.
Stay tuned for the next installment. I've been sick for a few days, and not sure when I'll get to this. Keep me in your thoughts.