My first glimpse of Cambodia came during a seven hour bus ride from Saigon to the capital city of Phnom Penh. We made it through another confusing immigration process at the border and survived our first taste of the country—a small kitchen on the side of the road where flies added an extra authentic flavor to each dish.
The paved streets of Vietnam gave way to a more natural landscape of orange dirt, and our bus hobbled along bumpy roads as Asian combat movies with loud karate sound effects and graphic sex scenes competed with the screaming toddler in front of us. In the middle of this flat, rural countryside, a factory appeared with workers dressed in colorful uniforms scattered along the side of the road. Then there was another, and another. We passed hundreds, perhaps thousands of these workers as they were herded into open bed trucks and transported like cattle to their destination.
I’ve seen some interesting transportation methods here in Southeast Asia but this one stood out. The people here are all for doing whatever they have to do to get the job done. Safety and efficiency and sometimes common sense aren’t always practiced, but you have to give them credit for being resourceful.
A massive rainstorm hit that night and we watched lightning fill the sky during the last hour of our journey. It was the best lightning show I’d seen on this trip and suddenly a part of me missed Florida. But I was in a new country now, and there was a new city waiting to be discovered. We were let off the bus in the pouring rain and caught a cheap tuk tuk to our hostel, where I climbed up to my plastic mattress and decided the city could wait until tomorrow.
It was a somber yet lovely and interesting next few days (I’ll elaborate more in my next post) but let’s skip to the day I left Phnom Penh. Here’s a play by play of one of the less than picture perfect realities of traveling. A “day in the life,” if you will.
12pm: I find a tuk tuk to take me to the US Embassy. I’d been unsuccessfully trying to get some documents notarized for three weeks, starting way back in Hoi An (remember my Saigon debacle?). Finally, this time I’d made an appointment in advance so there was no way I was leaving Phnom Penh empty handed. Halfway there, I realize I’d left my passport back at the hostel, so I pay the driver extra to turn around for it. We end up arriving just before my 1pm appointment and I stand in line, confident that I’d be out in no time since surely the Embassy would be ran like any other efficient US establishment.
There are no electronic devices allowed past security, so I patiently stare at the wall, waiting for my turn. Finally, thirty minutes later, they call me up to collect my payment and inform me that they don’t take credit cards (unlike the other Embassies, of course). I didn’t have $100 in cash on me and was ready to walk around town looking for an ATM when a very kind woman handed me a $100 and refused to let me reimburse her. I was so grateful, so humbled, offered her a piece of gum as it was all I had on me, and vowed to pass on the good karma to someone else.
2pm: We sat there for another two hours after every other number had been called. The only worker there barely spoke English and said that the notary lady simply left and there was no way to reach her. There was no manager on duty to speak to and we were stuck, at their mercy. I had a 5pm bus to catch and at this point was worried about making it back in time.
Finally, I’m called to the counter where the notary lady had been the whole time but simply chose to ignore our appointments, apparently. I was as pleasant as I could be as she miswrote my name, crossed it off a couple times and handed it over saying “Hope this works! If it doesn’t, just come back and we can try again!”
3pm: I catch another tuk tuk into town with just enough time to find a wifi signal and get some work done before the bus arrives. The trip to Sihanoukville is advertised as a 4 hour drive with comfortable seats and wifi, and I’m looking forward to this time to catch up on orders and the blog.
4pm: Turns out the VIP bus is a minivan, and I’m directed to sit in the back middle seat without an inch of room to spare. The wifi is not working and our driver decides to share his culture with us in the form of blaring Cambodian music while driving in loops around the city, stuck in traffic for over an hour. We finally pick up our last passenger who squeezes in next to me and reach city limits nearly two hours after leaving.
I’d only eaten a bag of chips since breakfast when we pulled over to an abandoned rest stop in the middle of the dark. The food was unidentifiable and looked as if it had been a breeding ground for insects while sitting in the humidity all day, so I bought an overpriced packaged ice cream from the freezer to hold me over.
10:30pm: After feeling a bit nauseous from my poor dietary choices and six hours of falling in and out of consciousness in the backseat, we’re dropped off in the seedy looking town of Sihanoukville with no hostel lined up. We’d tried emailing the only reputable one a day earlier with no response, so we carried our bags to the front desk in hopes of a late check-in. They were fully booked for the night. There was hardly anything on this main road aside from a few local junk food stands and guest houses, but we continued to walk to the next hostel where there was a live band playing at the bar. It was our only option, and they had two beds available for $4 per night. The loud music was a deterrent but there was nothing else in this town, so we were escorted to our dorm which had bright fluorescent lighting and was right next door to the bar lacking any sound barrier.
11pm: The wifi wasn’t working and I desperately needed to get some work done. Fortunately someone had the password for the restaurant next door so I used the spotty connection to send a few urgent emails. There are talkative intoxicated people who want to chat and demand that we go out and drink with them. I politely decline, pointing out my bloodshot eyes and current zombie-like appearance, but they stay persistent as I insert my earplugs and ignore them, hoping they’ll go away. The bed is stiff and crunchy and there’s no blanket, and the earplugs only muffle the noise of rowdy backpackers passing through the dorm. Sometime after midnight I finally pass out, exhausted from the long day.
3am: A strong nauseous feeling is brewing in the pit of my stomach. I try to ignore it but I can’t sleep, and suddenly I’m forced down my ladder and straight to the bathroom where I throw up everything in me. Hoping that it’s over, I stand up and realize the nausea hasn’t left. I remain hunched over the toilet and get sick again. The shared bathroom is humid and musky and bright and I just want to sleep. I lie on the ground and vomit every 20-30 minutes until finally passing out on the wet germ-ridden floor.
6am: It’s now daylight and I open my eyes, inches from the toilet, and stand up to assess the current state of my stomach. It seems calmer, so I crawl back into my bunk, curling up underneath my damp, dirty bathroom towel to help fight the chills.
11am: We had planned to get an early start to the day and I apologize to my friend who has been patiently waiting for me to wake up, explaining the sudden turn of events the night before. After a quick shower and late checkout, we book a 2pm ferry to Koh Rong Samloem and I walk across the street to a local family selling packaged food under an umbrella, who I was told could give me a SIM card for my phone. There is no wifi on the island we’re headed to and with a business to run, I can’t go long without it.
12pm: A girl who looks no older than twelve takes my phone and seems to understand what I need. She shows me multiple SIM cards with Cambodian writing, I have no idea what any of them mean, and tell her to choose one for me. My phone is disassembled as she sits around the table, pausing to eat rice with her family while two young boys kick around an empty soda bottle and point to my phone, yelling “You sell me for one dolla!”
After the SIM card is installed, the girl appears with more cards resembling data plans, but again I have no idea what they mean so I tell her to do whatever she thinks. Minutes pass as she types in numbers and codes and I can tell something is wrong. She passes the phone to her brother who attempts to figure it out. Then the phone gets passed to the father who gives it his best shot before it’s passed to another brother, who eventually hands it over to me and says “No working.”
There’s no possible way for me to figure this out, so I plead with them to try another card or another plan or something… anything they can do to make it work. The mother pulls out a plastic chair for me to sit, knowing this might take a while.
Finally by some miracle, my 3G symbol pops up and for the first time in Cambodia I have my own internet access. Whew! I hand them a $10 bill and thank them for their help before running across the street to take shelter from a sudden downpour.
2:30pm: Our bus arrives and transports us to the pier to board our ferry. We pass monkeys in the street taking food from tourists hands and arrive at a dock nearby where we’re instructed to wait for ten minutes. I sink into a chair on the sand, relieved to be one step closer to this island.
Twenty minutes later we’re told to walk to the end of the pier for our boat. There is no boat, so we sit and wait for another 30+ minutes in the sun, confused with no one to provide answers, as always.
3pm: Our boat pulls up, aged and clunky and looking nothing like the Photoshopped images from the booking company. We pile in and anxiously await the scenic 45 minute cruise to Koh Rong Samloem.
430pm: The cruise has taken twice as long as expected, and when we finally pull up to the dock I check my GPS and realize we are not at the right island. The boat went to another island first, which we were assured would not happen. We try to remain positive while waiting for the passengers to debark and embark, staying hopeful we’ll at least arrive before sunset.
6pm: The sun has set and we pull up to the pier at twilight. There are no roads on the island and the only way to reach our hostel is by boat, and the last one ran at 4pm. I check my phone and my 3G is gone… my wifi plan has failed. With no way to communicate with the outside world, we find a restaurant on the beach and ask if they can call our hostel to see if they can make a special trip to come and pick us up. These old wooden boats have no lights and don’t normally run at night, so there was a good chance we’d be sleeping in the sand. The restaurant worker mutters something in Khmer over the phone but isn’t able to give us any information about whether or not they are coming.
7pm: A boat appears from the dark in the distance, and we spot our hostel’s logo on the side. We’d been saved! We walk down the pier for the last time, step carefully over the broken wobbly boards with our valuables in tow, and enjoy the quiet 20 minute boat ride to our final destination. 27 hours to get to an island 130 miles away… just another day in Southeast Asia.
This series of unfortunate events was compounded by a low point for me in this trip which inevitably always follows after a period of great moments, which I’d had while in Phnom Penh. Here in Koh Rong Samloem I was in paradise, on a beautiful private beach, where all there was to do was swim and relax and enjoy life… but my mind was elsewhere, overwhelmed with a to-do list and wanting to escape. It was the same feeling I’d experienced in Halong Bay. Two places in the world that are heaven for most but can easily be hell if you let those negative thoughts control you.
I’m better now after two amazing days in Kampot. I’ll have a lot more from these places next… I can’t wait to share the soul and stories behind this beautiful country.