The Small Stories in Cambodia.


In June 2014, I spent roughly a week and a half in Cambodia. This was after visiting family in Turkey and before I moved to Vietnam. Memories from this trip are both scattered and vivid. Because my memory is hazy, I seem to just appear places already doing something. The way we appear in dreams already doing something, with no idea how we got there.

I arrived in Bangkok from Istanbul. I asked a pair of Thai teenager-ishs if I could use their phone to call Hymn. Hymn was a friend of mine from Boston and Kyoto and my companion for Siem Reap, Cambodia. Hymn met me in front of the Bangkok airport and we used a shuttle service to travel to the domestic airport on the other side of the city.

This was during the first month of the 2014 Thai Junta. Along the ride across the city, Hymn was telling me about the on and off blocking of social media sites. This was my 2nd time in Bangkok, and granted that just two months prior I had been living in Kathmandu, I was totally impressed with the urban sprawl and metallic, searing hot, modernity of Bangkok.

I remember that Hymn and I sat in the airport and ate chocolate and waited for our departure. We traveled to Siem Reap on a small plane . Siem Reap airport was quiet except for the shuffle of a few tourists picking up their bags from the one bag rotary. I grabbed a few pamphlets about human rights that were on display in the airport. The pamphlets reminded the tourists that impoverished children were not a tourist attraction. Hence not to take photos of them or give them money and perpetuate the hustle of poverty marketing. I would leave those pamphlets around my hostel. 

Hymn and I spent a long time in the airport, deciding how to get Cambodian cash. Cambodian currency is so weak that the country uses USD, we couldn’t decide how to go about getting a workable currency in small enough notes that we wouldn’t trouble people to make change. I remember we took a van into the tourist town adjacent to Angkor Wat. The streets were paved but empty, strange hotels lined the roads and then patches of seemingly dark farmland blurred by. I asked the driver to turn up the radio and we rode into town. I like Cambodian music, but I like everything.

Our hostel was modern, clean, and comfortable. I don’t remember if we had roommates, but I remember being impressed with the place. I gave Hymn a kurta I had brought from India and we went out for a walk. It was the first time that I could relax and take stock of the fact that I had traveled from Greece, to Istanbul, to Bangkok to a tourist haven in Cambodia. It was relaxing to sit by the roadside with Hymn, who was now wearing the kurta, and talk together. We walked around Siem Reap’s Bar Street and weren’t much impressed by what we saw. 

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One kid begged to me for food, so I took the kid with me into a market, but he pointed to the baby formula. Baby formula is sold behind glass in many countries because it is so expensive. I knew that as a non-perishable good, the boy would just give it to whomever he lived with and they would resell it. I bought the kid some useless apples and a drink.

The next morning Hymn and I woke up and took a rickshaw into the national park that surrounds Angkor Wat. There must be fifty temples spread over a few square miles. The ruins are just there in the jungle and tourist and vendors can just walk in them.

 

Walking through one of the temples a little girl offered me a book about the temple. Instead of buying the book, I hired her to give me a tour. she knew a bit of English, but nothing about the temple. The tour became her playing hide-n-seek through the ruins.

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I remember the heavy sweat of the midday sun, the thick haze of the jungle air, and the fragrant smell of the damp lush trees, flowers, and vines around us. Hymn and I sat under a tent and drank sugar cane juice and sweated. We took wonderful photos of the rustically unpreserved temples, more charming and exotic for it. It was wild to just climb into and over the ancient ruins, sometimes totally alone.

The daylight dragged on and we went to the actual Angkor Wat. It had an enormous moat around it and it was still standing almost as it had centuries ago. Angkor Wat was the first time I understood the ancient Hindu connection Southeast Asia has. A connect I would learn more about in Vietnam, oddly it slipped my mind in Thailand when it is so present and in your face if you just knew to look for it.

That night Hymn and I went out to a restaurant owned by an Australian man who teaches his staff English and does all sorts of things to help them become economically viable in the tourist town. A Cambodian waiter, they all were, stopped to sing for the tables. This was the first time I heard, “All of Me” by John Legend. I thought it was an oldie that the guy knew, I would learn later that it was one of the biggest hits of 2014. The restaurant was really great. One of my favorite things about hanging out with Hymn is the great restaurants he would search out for us.   

That night, Hymn and I sat on the roof of our hostel, we watched a stupid tourist negotiate with a hooker. The only words that carried up to the roof was, “ Its ok, I don’t want you to be my boyfriend”. We watched them walk off around some corner and then twenty minutes later only she walked down the road the other way.

The next morning, Hymn and I took a rickshaw out to the floating village. This is a village that floats in the middle of a large lake. This lake spans many miles in each direction. We hired a small boat to take us ½ a mile into the lake and we toured around the floating homes. There is nothing on Earth like an entire floating village, they even had a floating school. The floating village was founded by Vietnamese refugees that escaped into Cambodia. They were not allowed to own land in Cambodia so they took to making a village deep in the lake.

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The captain of our small motorboat took us to a floating warehouse and offered us to enter. When we did two men approached us and tried to get us to buy really big bags of rice to donate to the floating school. We could tell this was a tourist trap, but we were literally trapped on a floating barge with our salesmen. We declined politely and they let us go back on our boat and then home.

When we came back to the hostel it was hot. We went out to have coffee, let small fish eat our feet, and walk in the area. We had some food and then I think we prepared for tomorrow’s departure.

At this point I don’t remember much, it has been almost two years since these events occurred. I think Hymn went to the airport and back to Bangkok. All I remember was that me and all my possessions got onto a bus that would drive overnight across Cambodia. The bus was very rudimentary, but it had AC. I was the only white person on the bus, and I hadn’t really thought through how it would be to drive through rural Cambodia, the whole country is rural. I remember that the bus was speeding down a thin road through rice fields and in the distance I could see a frightening thunderstorm approaching us from the left side. I thought that if the storm hit us on these roads, I would panic. In a way, I was happy that my driver was recklessly speeding away from the storm.

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The next morning, I woke up in Phnom Penh. This is Cambodia’s capital city, and what I saw of it was a dusty abysmal slate of urban sprawl. I was sleep deprived and sitting on my suitcase. I didn’t know that there would be a long wait in Phnom Penh. I have no idea how I gleaned that I should wait there but I did, and another bus came and drove me to a bigger bus station. Actually, I think that’s not true. The 2nd bus was really noisy and playing Cambodian traditional pop music. One song played in a constant loop, and that song is still burned into my head. Because I slept with it playing on a loop, inside the hot bus. That’s how it burned.

That bus arrived in a grassy field in the beach town of Sihanoukville. There I paid a rickshaw driver to take me to my hotel. The owner of my hotel was a Norwegian guy. I got to my room. Which was really nice and I just rested. I think I was alone. After a shower and some rest, I asked the owner of the hotel where I could get food and they pointed to some cafes down the street.

I remember looking through one of those cafes and turning down a hall that was like a hotel hallway and my eye peered into an open door and I saw a western man laying in bed with a naked Cambodian woman. I thought, this isn’t a cafe is it. I turned around to exit and noticed that it was a restaurant, but it was also a hotel. I remember I hated the restaurants near my place, they were extremely slow. Because they weren’t restaurants, just houses with the door open and the family would just sorta notice you in the house and offer you food from a menu and then go wake up mom to cook it for you. I was also really suspicious of the white people around me.

I think I ate something and got a motorcycle to the beach. The beach area was nice, had proper restaurants and the ocean serene. The thing I loved the most about the beach was that it was full of Cambodian families enjoying themselves. It did have the white tourists, but it mostly had Cambodian families. This was the first and only time I saw entire families out together and enjoying themselves. As a tourist, most of my other interactions were with people trained to interact with me or selling me something. But on the beach, I could see families and that this was their home country and their beach. I think I walked up and down and thought about how I was here alone and what on Earth I was doing there.

I had come to Sihanoukville because they have the fastest and cheapest Vietnam visa processing center in Cambodia. I had just followed some advice on the internet and ended up in this beach town. I think I budgeted four days in Sihanoukville to make sure I could get the Visa. I decided to head back to the hotel before dark. My motorcycle driver tried to take me to a brothel and sorta drove me into a seedy part of town. I instantly realized I had been naive just to trust anyone and get on their bike. I asserted that I wanted to go straight to the hotel and I think I even hit him on the back. I got back totally fine. Looking back on this memory, I’m lucky to travel recklessly as a man, because that could have been a lot worse if the social and physical power dynamics were not balanced.  

 

I didn’t want to go out in Sihanoukville much. I decided that I would spend my days there writing the essay that I started writing in Athens. I know it sounds romantic and it is, but I starting writing my essay for UPenn while I was loathing Athens. I had resigned from seeing Athens and I just parked in an outdoor cafe and began writing. So the next day, I sat in my hotel and wrote on my computer. I ended up with a roommate from America, he had just come out of the hospital from having dengue fever. He just needed to sleep for days, and I don’t think we talked because I wasn’t sure if dengue was contagious through conversation. Oh, that morning I went to the Vietnam Visa Office. They told me I would have my visa by tomorrow, I Emailed my soon to be manager and told him I could come to Vietnam early, but he told me to enjoy my trip in Cambodia. I was stuck in a tropical paradise.

I went to the beach at night, the beach at night in Sihanoukville is nice because it is still warm and there are wicker chairs on the beach and warm artificial candle lights. I sat with a woman who works with a Swiss hotel and we talked for a while. I really didn’t understand what either of us was doing there. I don’t remember how I got home, but it had to be on a bike. The next day, I went to another beach about twenty minutes down the road. I went by rickshaw and I told the guy to pick me up in five hours. I sat on that beach and ate western food for about five hours. Just sorta basking in the surrealness of the experience. I watched the sunset and the lights on the beach lit up.

 

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The next day was the day I would travel across Cambodia again, I think I traveled for twelve hours that day. A very comfortable mini-van took me back to Phnom Penh. There in Phnom Penh I waited at the bus station again for the bus to Saigon. I paid extra for the bus with the English speaking guide, because I knew that I had to go through Vietnamese customs on the overland border with Cambodia, which would be inexpensive but long and messy.


This bus did something so dangerous, we drove the bus onto a barge and the barge transported the bus across a river. I just remember being in a bus, on a boat, on a river, and thinking if this sinks I’m totally a goner. Cambodia needs infrastructural development  Anyway, it was fine and we made it to the border area.

 

Before the area we came to a rest stop. A small hut on side of the road that sold noodles. There I bought my Vietnam Sim Card. That number would stick with me for the year in Vietnam. Then we drove past a line of casinos. There are no legal casinos in Vietnam and so the Cambodian border is full of Vietnamese Casinos. At the border we were taken out of the bus and herded into a room. I was tired, hot, and in a room with rural Cambodians trying to get into Vietnam. The atmosphere in the room wasn’t good, people looked sick and tired and the border guards looked flustered, bored, and crass. Looking back, I’m sure I got tons of preferential treatment for being a white man. We got back on the bus after 40 minutes in that room and the bus drove into Vietnam.

Vietnam, the Mekong Delta region, was so developed compared to Cambodia. This was my first time in Vietnam. I was immediately glad to be there. Just the roads, the motorbikes, and street lights were so much more modern than rural Cambodia. That bus ride ended with the beginning of an amazing chapter in my life: Vietnam.

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I decided to write about Cambodia, because it sorta happened in between things. It was immediately overshadowed by Vietnam and the intensity of the life that came out of that. Cambodia for me was partly a wonderful trip with a friend and a hapless adventure into a seaside town. I remember it as where I started writing my essay for Penn and formulating what became the path I’m on now. I also remember the sense of relaxation that took over me as I walked around Siem Reap with Hymn that first night. I was showering and these memories came back to me and I wanted to write them down.

I don’t really write my blog for the present or for us to read now, but for my future to read and understand a past, that by then, will be unreachably folded away in time.   

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One Response to The Small Stories in Cambodia.

  1. Mats Liekens says:

    Dear Deren

    I’m at a crossroad. On one hand, I want to comment on your beautiful story of a country I didn’t even know you visited. I want to commend you on remembering all these things 15 months after they happened. I want to ask who won at the hide and seek game and how the apples tasted or what the name of the Swiss lady was.

    On the other hand, I want to tell you that your mustache makes you look like an 80s pornstar, in the worst way possible.

    What to do, what to do.

    I really enjoyed reading your blog, and it makes me remember that I don’t have people in my life that are currently travelling and writing about their experiences. I had like 5 or 6 of them at one point. If you ever remember some other stories, I’ll look forward to reading them.

    Be well (also, how was your Sunday-talk?)

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