Aren’t we all searching for inner peace? Cambodia seemed like a great place to find some, and from the moment I arrived, taking my first tuk-tuk ride through the thick, sage-scented heat, I knew I wouldn’t be let down. Each day was filled with exotic, low-priced delights and wonders I’d never experienced before: a manicure in the market in Phnom Penh; the crumbling Ta Prohm temple in Siem Reap; open-air beach bungalows serving curry on the edge of the jungle; warm, clear, turquoise water dotted with brightly colored fishing boats waiting to take me to places I’d only ever dreamed of every freezing Wisconsin winter. But it wasn’t only the incredible beauty and tropical luxury that helped me dig up that laid-back vibe deep within me — it was also the bit of ugliness that we found along the way that helped me find what I was looking for. Speaking of which, it all started with the pants.
Before I left, I searched for blogs about Angkor Wat, the main tourist attraction in Cambodia. I came across LandLopers blog and was struck by the third photo down. Coming and going from the majestic temples, I see at least four tourists wearing loose pants, printed with elephants and other exotic patterns. I thought to myself, it might be a little cliché, but I can’t wait to feel free and easy among the palm trees in some sweet Southeast Asian attire. Then I’ll know I’ve really made it. I sent the picture to Katherine, who would be joining me, and told her she could expect to see me in some of those pants very soon.
Cut to the day we arrived in Phnom Penh, Christmas day to be exact. City Centre Hotel sent a tuk-tuk to pick us up from the airport and drive us in to the riverside area, which is where us visitors tend to feel most comfortable. It was past midnight, and the half-hour ride in the muggy open-air was the perfect amount of sight seeing on our way to crash. The heat, in contrast with the freezing Korean climate we came from, sent us into a tropical vacation bliss immediately.
The hotel was nice, with a very welcoming staff. The room was clean with two good-sized beds. For $26 a night, we were happy. As we unlocked the door to our room, we watched a chubby foreigner with a Khmer prostitute doing the same.
In the morning we ate a good complimentary breakfast in the airy and comfortable restaurant downstairs.
We wouldn’t be in Phnom Penh long as our flight to Siem Reap was leaving at 7pm that night, so we got moving and walked to the market nearby. We didn’t see a single foreigner as we walked in to the gritty but welcoming maze of stalls offering hair styling, brow waxing, mani-pedis, clothing, incense, candles, food, and drinks. Khmers greeted us with smiles and waves. We almost immediately sat down for a manicure, opting for tropical lilac polish instead of the usual nude or gray.
After the market, we walked along the Tonle Sap river, ogling the French colonial architecture that lined it on our way into the Royal Palace. There is a lot going on inside those palace walls – pavilions, weaving walkways, halls, apartments, and gardens. Soon after we wandered in, we were beckoned by an elderly man. He stood up as we got closer, and we followed him through a gate, past stone statues and up some stairs as he unlocked heavy doors. Inside, there was a tiny temple in a stone alcove with a Buddha shrine and burning incense. There was only enough room for the three of us. He lit incense for us to place on the altar, dipped sticks in water and shook them at us while saying prayers, and then hit our palms with the sticks and told us to put the water on our faces. We all sat in silence, occasionally laughing awkwardly at our inability to communicate, for about five minutes until we were completely sweat soaked. We left a donation and continued through the complex.
Afterwards, we walked to Wat Phnom, a temple on the only hill in town. On the way, an ex-pat passed by us, wearing the pants. It was the first time I’d seen someone wearing them, I could feel the vibes of his cool, relaxed existence wash over me. All of a sudden, I couldn’t remember why I was always so stressed.
That night we flew on a delayed but pleasant Angkor Air flight to Siem Reap. Vireak from Cashew Nut Guest House picked us up in his tuk-tuk and drove us down a main street lined with resorts before turning into the chaotic tourist vortex of the Pub Street area. We had seen very few tourists in Phnom Penh and felt very exposed in our open-air ride as we were bombarded by drunken crews of people who looked like us, shrieking and tramping through the streets. To my horror, almost every one of them was wearing the pants. It was all wrong. These people weren’t chillaxing deeply in the ancient breeze. The pants weren’t freeing them up to have a spontaneous yoga sesh with a band of roaming monks. My carefree, traveler-chic goals were dashed against the rocks. The sheer availability of the pants had compelled nearly every single visitor not only to buy them, but to wear them immediately amongst throngs of their peers.
As I began to question my own judgment and dissect my role as a tourist, we turned off of Pub Street and drove down to Cashew Nut, our home for the next few days.
Cashew Nut is a tranquil haven, about a fifteen minute walk from Pub Street. Past the front desk is a peaceful backyard with a pool and padded deck chairs. Through an outdoor walkway is another building with a common area. There are two stories of rooms, with a communal sun terrace off of the second floor. Up another set of stairs marked “penthouse guests only,” we found our private deck, whirlpool, and room. It was clean and chic. There was $1 beer in the fridge and a long list of tuk-tuk tours we could book with no advanced notice. For $50 per night, we were queens.
We changed and went to check out the night market near Pub Street, but it was closing down, as we had arrived at 10:45pm. We did a little meandering around the area, bought some green from a tuk-tuk driver standing on a corner (this was not a good deal compared to the happy pizza places), and then walked back to take a dip in the moonlight.
The next day, I spent hours lounging in that profoundly laid-back way I imagined I would, eating breakfast and writing at a table on the terrace, occasionally dipping my legs into the whirlpool when I got hot. The only distraction was Katherine, who had been violently ill for about twelve hours, paying the price of eating an unwashed apple the night before. I brought her three kinds of medicine from the pharmacy, Sprite, eggs and toast, and eventually she recuperated enough to get an early dinner at Peace Café, an outdoor wonderland of Buddhist-vegan food, papasan chairs and tropical plants.
She headed back home after dinner and passed out. I went for a solo pedicure, which turned into a pedicure and two hours of massage after I saw the price list. It’s hard to say no when it all comes out to $15. Afterward, I stopped back at the night market and walked through in all it’s open glory. The best part was a “ladyboy” performance on the stage in the back. As I walked through the aisles of pants after pants and more pants, interspersed with t-shirts, teas and spices, I attempted to control the adverse reaction I had to every person I saw selling or wearing them. I left with a video of two ladyboys dancing to Gangnam Style and some curry powders.
On Monday, Katherine was feeling a bit better after taking her meds, so we called down and booked the “mini-tour” of the temples, which was $15 for two people. Upon returning to our guest house after a delicious brunch and great coffee at Sister Srey Cafe, we hopped into Vireak’s tuk-tuk and headed first to Angkor Wat. There, we waited an hour (it was almost noon) to climb up to the top and walk around. It was incredible, but so mobbed. This made it difficult to get into the mystical mood. The bright sun shone through the masses of pants, turning them entirely transparent and providing conflicting views against the ruins.
After about two hours there, we headed to Bayon Temple, which was quieter and more integrated into the jungle. We had lunch at the restaurant there, surrounded by pants vendors. The touristy cafes are a bit expensive by Cambodian standards, but you can still get a fresh coconut for a dollar, so we’re good.
After that, we saw some of Angkor Thom, then Ta Keo, and finished with Ta Prohm. Each one was less crowded and more mysterious than the last. Ta Prohm was the absolute highlight. It is one of those strange and beautiful places that I thought only existed in computer desktop backgrounds and on National Geographic covers. The jungle and the ghosts of an ancient civilization twist and grow together, the temple complex crawling with tree roots like hundreds of fingers perpetually remolding its walls, changing it while it remains complete in its brokenness. Also, Tomb Raider was filmed there.
We arrived back in the city after dusk, had a bite, and then stopped for “take out” at Ecstatic Pizza in the Pub Street area. Not sure how to order (our friend said to ask for “ten,” since it costs ten dollars, but that didn’t work), we fumbled around until the owner asked, “Do you want pizza or smoke?” Back at Cashew Nut, we went for a swim in the big pool before turning in to watch the Angkor Wat documentary they provided.
The next day, Katherine was feeling ill again. The anti-this and anti-that medication I’d gotten her wasn’t working, so she was feeling SOL. She took some more meds anyway, and we had a simple breakfast by the pool downstairs. We dropped our bags in the lobby, as we’d be leaving at 11:00pm for the next leg of our journey, and picked a tour. We wanted to do something quieter, and we’d been dreaming of a long, breezy tuk-tuk ride that would show us more of the country. The best option was the $32 trip to Kbal Spean, a river about an hour outside of the city with carvings of 1,000 phalluses on its floor. Also included on the tour were the temples Banteay Srey, and Banteay Samre. Our long ride was everything we hoped for – we leaned back and relaxed as we watched the countryside go by – jungle, animals, families, houses and neighborhoods of all types. Of course, there was the occasional road-side pants market, which our tuk-tuk driver felt compelled to stop at.
Nobody warned us that getting to Kbal Spean required a 45-minute-long hike. Luckily, it was easy, Katherine was up to it, and we were happy swinging on vines and kicking up red dirt on the way. There wasn’t much water in the river, and there wasn’t really much to see, but a hike through the jungle was a great way to start the day.
Banteay Srey was nearby, and exceptionally beautiful with its masterful, intricate carvings well preserved in reddish stone.
I took a nap on the ride back to Banteay Samre, where we stopped to watch the sunset from the top. Sitting down, the beautiful orange light beamed on to our faces through the pants of hundreds of people from many lands standing to take photos.
Afterwards, we got dropped off at the Old Market, which, as it turns out, is basically the same thing as the Night Market, and every other market in Siem Reap: pants, t-shirts, shot glasses, teas, pants, Buddhas, and pants.
We got a few gifts and then took an unfortunately long walk along the river back to Peace Café so that we could dine horizontally. That night, we would begin about fifteen hours of travel to Koh Rong, split between three modes of transportation, and Katherine was feeling as bad as ever. As a last ditch effort, we went back to the pharmacy to see if there was anything else we could do. When the medic offered Cipronex, an antibiotic that would surely provide relief, we literally jumped for joy.
We got our bags from Cashew Nut and walked ten minutes back to the Giant Ibis bus station, conveniently located near pub street, for the first leg of our journey. We had booked the 11pm night bus to Phnom Penh online about a month earlier, which saved us a night in a hotel and a wasted day of traveling. The bus had outlets, water bottles, and an unpleasant bathroom. The beds were narrow, but what did we expect? I took a motion sickness pill (MSP from here on) I’d bought in Korea, put on my eye mask and my earplugs, and PTFO. That was lucky, since Katherine said the driver was everything we had been warned about. Next thing I knew, seven hours had passed and we were in Phnom Penh.
We didn’t have too much time to catch our 8:30am bus, but luckily the Mekong Express station was right around the corner. We had also booked this mini bus about a month earlier and now it was completely full. The bus was quite comfortable and got us to Sihanoukville in about four hours, with one pit stop. Katherine made it through feeling all right, and I was asleep the whole time, missing another wild ride.
We were dropped off at the Paradise Bungalows office. We had booked our ferry tickets through them when we booked our bungalow, so we picked them up and had lunch in the restaurant next-door. We walked five minutes to the ferry and boarded on the overcrowded pier. Thanks to the MSP, I passed out for the forty-minute boat ride. Then, finally, there we were – Koh Rong. The small island hit us immediately with a disorienting combination of the paradise we’d dreamed of every cold Wisconsin winter, and MTV Spring Break.
Walking down the pier, past a dive center and a pizza place, we were ushered by Rob into Coco’s, a popular bar and restaurant, for a briefing. This made me feel more like a reality show cast member than an intrepid traveler, but it was also much appreciated. He told us about available activities (kayaking, zip-lining, diving, hiking and more), the best beaches, and how to avoid spending hundreds of dollars being rushed to a hospital by private boat. He also told us there were lots of jobs available if we wanted to stay forever. Very tempting, Rob. After that rousing welcome, we walked five minutes to White Beach and found Paradise Bungalows. Its name does not lie.
Through canopied lounges in the sand and up a winding pathway, we entered the spacious open-air restaurant to check in.
Once we found our bungalow, technically called Bayon but lovingly referred to as “Mitch,” we felt really amazing at planning. Paradise has electricity from 6pm to 6am, and running (cold) water all day, which is somewhat unique on the island. We each had a big four-poster bed to ourselves, complete with lacey mosquito nets. Our bathroom had no ceiling, and it was amazing.
We walked down to the beach for a quick sunset swim, and then went to the Paradise restaurant where we sat on cushions eating fish and chips, looking at the ocean through the palm trees. The service in that place was awful, but the food and vibes were well worth it. After dinner, we crashed early and I vowed never to take an MSP again for fear of sleeping through my entire vacation.
In the morning, we had a great breakfast in Paradise – crepes, muesli, yogurt, fresh fruit, juices and coconut milk. We changed into bathing suits and walked along the beach, stopping for $1 tropical fruit shakes. An Austrian woman who was traveling alone for a year struck up a conversation and recommended the hike over the island to Long Beach. Three more women walked up, one after the other, and joined in with helpful information. This spontaneous burst of warmth loosened something in me. I felt embraced by the odd culture of this place and I began to embrace it back. These weren’t the pants-wearing pukers from Pub Street. I looked around at the half-naked, morning-buzzed coeds dancing and practicing acro-yoga in ripely Instagramable settings, and I felt love for them. We were all there taking time to be happy in territory a bit less charted, and I vowed to be part of the solution.
The hike to Long Beach was easy, about an hour long, and definitely doable with a liter of water and Tevas. After a quick rock scramble, we walked out of the jungle right into a construction site and along the beach until we found a good spot to lie. The place didn’t blow us away with its beauty, but it was nice to take a hike and be away from the crowds for a while. We had the beach to ourselves, save for a Korean family with a selfie stick, until around noon when the water taxis dropped off small groups of fellow islanders.
We stuck around until early afternoon and got on the water taxi for a twenty-minute ride back to the other side. Still soaked, we sat at Coco’s in our towels eating hot hummus with lamb and sausages. We watched the beach for a while, noticing some hula hoopers that weren’t there before, and a couple of women dressed as rave fairies coming off of a boat. Oh yeah, it was New Year’s Eve!
Before the party, we had an errand to run. We went to the speed ferry office on the pier to book the time for our return trip, two days in advance, only to find that the 10am was already booked. The surly man in the office did not care that we had a bus to catch. Fair enough. We booked the noon ferry and decided not to worry about it at the moment. I had faith in a plan to sneak onto the 10am one, since the pier was such chaos. We got massages on the beach and then headed in to Koh Rong’s New Year’s Eve scene.
We had absolutely skipped the booze cruise, but the party on the beach was going strong. There were fresh piña coladas, dancing, and an incredible amount of very dangerous looking fireworks exploding regularly. We danced until there was a burst of midnight fireworks, and everyone ran out onto the beach to watch. We lit up, shared the wealth, danced to a few more songs, and then headed back to Paradise. Looking at the stars, I realized my favorite number wasn’t four, it was three. We faded into the first day of the New Year on day beds in the sand, listening to the waves.
New Year’s Day was chill. as. fudge. We briefly reviewed the activities available to us before dropping that conversation forever and giving ourselves over to the sweet sensation of having nothing to do and no reason to be upright. There was breakfast, reading, writing, swimming, and lunch. I felt so free that I ate lunch at the restaurant in my bathing suit, as if I hadn’t been slightly judging others for doing the same just the day before. It was all good. Had everything always been all good? I liked 2016 so far. When 6pm rolled around and the electricity went on, we headed back to our bungalow to shower and pack before turning in for the night. Sometimes there is nothing more luxurious than an early bedtime.
I felt sick in the morning and immediately knew it was yesterday’s “steak” (more of a misshapen ball of beef that tasted like manure, which I hadn’t finished). I hobbled down to the restaurant with my pack on, getting fetal as quickly as possible, and ordered my last bowl of muesli. I took some of the anti-nausea pills we had gotten in Siem Reap, which luckily worked, and we made it onto the pier in time for that 10am ferry, hoping to stow away. When it arrived around 10:45 am, we tried our luck getting past the evil Pier Troll who guarded the ferries, but he caught us and told us no way. We hung around anyway, and, after five minutes of watching him address his customers with the temperament of one of those rabid dogs Rob had warned us about, he called out that there was extra space and we could get on. The giddiness I felt from beating the system allowed me to forget for a moment how sad it was to leave. We sat in the back, which was a great call since I threw up off of the ferry twice. Fine. I popped another MSP, and 48 hours later I woke up in my bed in Korea. The end. Just kidding. But not really.
There was an info desk at the end of the pier and they told us our Mekong Express bus, scheduled to leave the station at 1:30pm, could pick us up at 1pm right there. We had just enough time to get some food and our last coconuts before our chariot arrived. We buckled in and I slept through the four-hour ride to Phnom Penh, waking only to purchase pineapple at the pit stop. We got dropped off by the night market and had a look around. This market, like all of Phnom Penh, was more down to earth than those in Siem Reap, with more to look at and less pandering to tourists. The tourists in Phnom Penh were more down to earth too. The striking difference between foreigners in the three places we had been left me reflecting on how I fit in. Here I had entered the country as a pants-wearing-wannabe, only to leave as a bikini-clad-islander in spirit, with a little Phnom Penh practicality mixed in.
We had dinner and took our last tuk-tuk ride to the airport for our midnight flight. At the airport, pants walked through the doors in droves and snaked through the check-in lines like it was a flash mob and we were the only ones who didn’t get the memo. Mosquitoes were swarming our gate, worse than anything we had experienced in the jungle or on the beach. I couldn’t fight against the MSP any longer and lived a half-waking nightmare for almost two hours, nodding off only to wake up to a mosquito landing on my face.
Once we boarded, it was eye mask and earplugs for me before take off. I woke up to “Did you have a nice sleep?” post-its and an announcement that we were landing in Seoul. We got in at about 7am and I was passed out in bed by 8am, sleeping for the 24 hours straight. The next day I went to work in a big coat and all my layers.
It’s back to the same old routines. They’re not bad, but they can be tough. Luckily, I found someone in Cambodia who makes it easier to endure the long hours, the cold mornings, the daily grind. When the stress hits, I can close my eyes and see her, wearing a bathing suit, sitting on a wet pillow, drinking out of a coconut, giving herself a break.
Written by Evy Bround