Cambodia: Love at First Sight
I know I will love Cambodia before stepping foot on solid ground. I gaze out sleepily from my early bird flight from Singapore, and down on a vibrant green patchwork of farm land interrupted only by an occasional tiny village or range of craggily black almost-mountains.
Even from 10,000 feet, Cambodia is charming.
I land in Cambodia’s capital city, clear customs, pick up my pack on the baggage carousal (it’s one of the first to pass–TAKE THAT BALI!) and nab a $7 tuk tuk to the city center.
For those unaware of the phenomenon that is a tuk tuk –I’m referring to a mode of transport that is essentially a motorbike with a cart attached to the back, complete with bench seating– hence turning the one-person bike into a more appropriate taxi able to pull numerous people and their bags (don’t think your average motorbike taxi won’t try) somewhat comfortably.
This is actually a very common form of acceptable transportation throughout large parts of the world.
Having used both a mototaxi and a tuk tuk, to get from A to B while carrying all my possessions, I can assure you the tuk tuk is preferable. It’s also cheaper than a cab and can be found EVERYWHERE in Cambodia.
Anyways… It’s during this first tuk tuk ride from airport to hostel that I’m overcome with that deep, warm, consuming feeling born somewhere in the gut which then radiates to the heart, sending shooting feelings of pure, child-like bliss before manifesting into an unstoppable smile. This is the feeling every traveller knows and many continually chase. This feeling is the essence of true travel. The holy grail.
As we buzz along Phnom Penh’s hectic streets I watch as monks in saffron robes pass-by loaded 3 per bike, I see countless mysterious-looking street food venders, I see glimpses of my favorite sort of chaotic, maze-like market stalls, I see men on motorbikes hauling loads so large you wouldn’t believe me if I described them. I see spectacular golden temples and more saffron robed monks. I see streets so filled with life they burst at the seams. I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing.
We pull up to my hostel. A locally owned guesthouse I choose strategically because of its close proximity to my TEFL school and for its $4/night price tag. It’s got that shabby sort of charm that let’s you know it’s trying, but not very hard. I don’t want to be tricked into thinking I’m sleeping in a hostel in the Western world. I want to know I’m still in Cambodia. The bathrooms will always remind me. As my Australian friend told me in Bali–Asia does not do bathrooms well. The dorms are my favorite kind with no bunk beds but several regular double beds crammed into a single dormitory. This always reminds me of Snow White and the seven dwarves.
The front of the hostel has this great covered patio area with loads of wicker furniture, a pool table and a bar serving ridiculously cheap cocktails with names like The Midormi Illusion and Gypsy Juice (though I’ll likely only ever buy the locally brewed extra stout–I still like the idea of a cheap bar). The flat screen plays muted B-list action flicks from generations past. To add to the street sounds, goofy reggae remixes of popular 90s music reverberates throughout the rickety structure. I love this. Little makes me happier than cheesy 90s reggae. Anyone who travelled extensively with me in Latin America can attest to my wierd obsession with Inner Circle’s “Sweat.” This May be a place if can stay for most of my 2 week stay in Phnom Penh.
After a desperately needed and well earned shower, I take a wander around the nearby streets. I decide I’ve picked an ideal location–just a block away from the banks of the mighty Mekong River, 2 blocks from the stunning Royal Palace, and a manageable walk from several of the city’s hot spots.
Hungry, and predictably excited about my first meal in Cambodia, I wander until I find what looks like the perfect curbside cafe–the kind with plastic stools, packed with local people. The kind of place I dream about when I’m back in Wisconsin. I order Khmer noodles and beef soup. Its a large bowl with rice noodles, a flavorful meat stock, thin sliced beef, fresh scallions, bean sprouts, a side of fresh chilli sauce. It’s everything I hoped it would be.
I eat with chopsticks, slurping the leftover broth, feeling more in the moment than I have in a while.
In the afternoon it rains. It pours. It doesn’t last long, but this time of year, you better hope you’re within reasonable range of an awning, shop, or cafe to duck into quickly. When this afternoon downpour occurs, Cambodians bust into action–out comes their ponchos, they grab tarps to cover the goods they sell or they run out and snatch up their foldout signs. They jump into their tuk-tuks and take-take cover. I learned in Bali to always carry an umbrella.
I spend the rest of my day in the covered patio, listening to the rain hit the correlated metal roof, reading my lonely planet, tapping my foot to rousing reggae renditions of NSync or Cher, allowing my skin to suck in the warm, wet air. And loving every moment.
It’s just so nice to be back.