My first impression of Cambodia was that it was 'orderly.' For anyone who has ever been, you're probably thinking, what is this girl smoking? But initially, that’s how it seemed. When I zipped through customs at Siem Reap International Airport, I noticed that there was a very *orderly* and streamlined method of obtaining rides from the airport to a hotel. There were even fixed rates ($6 a ride). Bali, take note!! I thought to myself as I hopped into the back of a tuk tuk.
That illusion was shattered 10 minutes later when said tuk tuk died in the middle of the highway (after swerving to avoid a herd of white cows) and then sputtered sadly to the side of the road, where a woman wearing long pants, a turtleneck, a sweater, a hat and gloves (in 95 degrees) wordlessly poured an old tequila bottle of yellow petrol into the tank. We sputtered away nonchalantly. The air was all smoke, incense, garbage and grilled bananas.
We headed to my accommodations, a 'resort' (optimistically called so because it had a pool the size of a postage stamp). I had selected it based on proximity to the temples and great booking.com reviews, but beyond a dot on a grid map, had no idea what the neighborhood was like. So, I was completely confused when my driver veered off the main strip- a wide, tree lined promenade named after Charles De Gaulle- onto a deserted red, dust road. My heart stopped.
Now, solo travel is a peculiar beast, and this was my first introduction to it. I realize now (and probably at that exact moment) that traveling alone requires a significant amount of trust: in people, in the universe, in yourself. In my opinion, this is especially pertinent as a woman, and also as an overly paranoid person. Suffice it to say, blind trust and I are not natural allies and I felt every cell in my body turn on high alert as I grappled with what to do next. Throw myself off the tuk tuk? Demand we turn around? Trust?
My fears (like most) were in vain. "Directions?!?" My driver asked, as I stared at him dumbly and gestured at the the screenshot I’d taken of the map. The dot indicating my accommodations was in a network of other little streets and I had absolutely no way to figure out where we were in relation. We were at an impasse, just shrugging at each other. He spoke very little English and I spoke absolutely no Khmer, but panic is an effective common language. When he saw the concern work its way across my face (I’m pretty expressive), he decided to go back to the main road, where it was at least easier to determine location.
From there, I meticulously counted tiny side streets and pointed to where the destination road should be. And what do you know? It had a small sign- it actually had better signage than any town I’ve driven through in New Jersey. We veered right and drove down it. Bounced down it. Careened down it.
It was a charismatic street, not formal and clean like Charles De Gaulle, but lined with piles of trash, and adorned with giant rocks. Families lived on it in humble houses, but it was clearly the domain of the village children who rode bicycles (no hands), waving and shouting "HELLO! " without any hint of an accent.
I went sort of limp when we finally arrived, and I basked in relief as I waved goodbye to my tuk tuk driver, who rattled away. “Welcome to Cambodia, my friend,” the ‘resort’ owner said.
“My friend” is as typical a greeting in Cambodia as “hey, asshole!” is in New York. It is so pleasantly prevalent here. That and being called “lady,” which carries none of the dregs of frustration that it may to a native English speaker. It is an address of respect, free from any implications of sarcasm.
This pleasantry runs deep in Khmer (Cambodian) culture. An equally important aspect of life in Cambodia is speed. I thought that the traffic in Chiang Mai was scary, but I came to long for it. A day after I arrived, I borrowed the hotel’s bike to travel into town (about 2.5 miles) and I had to ask what side of the road people drove on. The resort owner looked aghast. "The right, of course."
Of course?! As far as I could tell, people drove whichever way they preferred at any given time, not heeding other motorcyclists, buses, bicycles, and least of all- pedestrians. When I asked for a helmet, he chuckled and patted my arm, "too much worry my friend."
My biking was less than successful. I rode (shakily, praying fervently) on the side of the highway half of the time and walked with my bike at my side the other half (dodging lunatic drivers), prompting amused local inquiry as to whether or not I actually knew how to ride. I felt like a bit of a wuss after I watched children no more than 7 speeding along in the shoulder of the main highway, often with no hands on the handlebars. I felt especially dopey after I witnessed a young mother, perched nimbly sidesaddle on a speeding motorbike, nursing a new baby. All helmet-less. Safety standards are slightly different here.
Riding/walking to downtown Siem Reap was a dusty affair. Everything I saw in Cambodia is covered in a fine powder of varying shades of red. After a long day exploring, I often thought I had gotten a nice tan, which disappeared quickly in the shower as puddles of terra cotta swirled down the drain.
The downtown area is a world apart from the village where the ‘resort’ was located. It is hectic, with no specific rhythm. There are markets around every corner and there is a frantic buzz of transit and movement, like bees, but with no defined path. The air is thick with exhaust and dust. The building style is somewhat confusing- a mix of Khmer and French colonial (Cambodia was French ruled until 1953). It is all colorful, but grand in some place and more ragtag in others. Chaos prevails.
There is the effusive enthusiasm of the Pub Street area, which is packed with hungry, excited and drunk tourists. The wide streets here are jammed with vendors and ice cream carts and elephant print pants. Indoor-outdoor bazaars house rows of restaurants and there is the soft call of ‘tuk tuk? Lady?! Tuk tuk?’ everywhere you go. There is an interesting juxtaposition here, between tourist and local, as if each do not quite know what to make of each other. There is some begging and lots of haggling. There seem to be distinct boundaries, distinct cliques. This place is for tourists, that for locals; there is a bit more of a divide than what I’d experienced in Thailand. The coexistence is peaceful, though. The Cambodians, acknowledging that their own nearby Angkor Wat is a mecca for culture-hungry Western tourists, have accommodated accordingly, right down to the adoption of the US Dollar as common currency.
The days were hot as hell, the humidity as punishing as the glaring sun. The nights were intensely buggy- on one I got a combined 48 mosquito bites on my calves (new personal record). Sleep was necessary after a long day of temple trekking, but not always effortless. You’d think it would be in the village setting, but each night, some music fanatic would bump Khmer tunes into the early morning. It is influenced by Indian and Chinese music, with lots of chanting, rhythms and percussion. Good for dancing, not so much for sleeping. After catching some shut eye, the neighborhood rooster made sure that everyone was awake with the sun. In my 5 days there, I don’t think I slept past 6:58 am once.
I left Cambodia riddled in bites, sleepy eyed and temple-d out. I also left it happily. Don’t get me wrong- was a privilege to visit, to be in the presence of amazing culture and a tumultuous history and some of the kindest people I’ve ever met in my life, but my internal rhythm clashed slightly with Cambodia’s. At times it felt more laborious than leisurely, though in retrospect, it is better to be challenged than coddled. As we took off, I waved goodbye to the red land spotted with brush and jungle, forgetting my frustration, feeling only gratitude and an overwhelming excitement to be home, in Thailand.