The following travelogue was originally posted on a personal website that has long gone dormant. It describes a trip taken May 30, 2004-June 5, 2004 and was originally written immediately thereafter (with an edit the following year). I’ve given it a minor edit now (mostly to change tenses) and republished it here.
It all seemed like such a good idea at the time. A friend of mine from law school, Megan, had an internship the summer after our first year in Cambodia. For her such a position wasn’t too exotic: she’d already lived in Cambodia, having taught English there, and as a result she speaks Khmer (the local language). I, on the other hand, had never been to Asia at all, so when she said, “I’m spending two weeks in Thailand before I start; why don’t you come with me?” it seemed like the perfect excuse to finally get to visit the world’s largest continent. Sixty-thousand frequent flyer miles later, I had a ticket booked.
We met one day near the end of the semester to plan our itinerary. We were having trouble deciding whether to go north to see temples, or south to see beaches. With the tumult of the end of the semester we were also having trouble finding the time to research everything properly to make a good decision. Finally we said screw it, let’s go east to Cambodia instead. I was all for the idea – it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get to see a country more off the beaten path by being shown it by someone who knows the area and speaks the language. Thailand I figured I could always do sometime later easily on my own.
As it happens, we ended up on different flights over to Bangkok. Mine, being a free ticket that originated in California, was on Thai Airways from Los Angeles to Bangkok via Osaka. Hers was on United starting in Boston, then connecting in Chicago to Bangkok via Tokyo. Still, both flights were to arrive within 20 minutes of each other in Bangkok so this seemed a workable arrangement.
My flight over was interesting. Thai Airways was very nice, serving lots and lots of excellent food. My seatmates were also really interesting as well. The man next to me was the embodiment of the outsourcing trend, from the Indian perspective. His career in Bangalore is entirely dependent on the contracts his company gets from American businesses. My take on the outsourcing trend has always been politically neutral: it’s not something that’s only good or only bad. True, it can be done badly, for bad reasons, in bad ways: some types of technical work are not practical to be outsourced, plus there’s a penny-wise, pound-foolish aspect to knee-jerk US layoffs and instantly setting up shop abroad. Workforces need to be nurtured, both for the sake of productivity and to not decimate the economy of one’s own market. And respect for labor is important on either side of the ocean. The reflex to automatically ship work to the lowest bidder can be damaging to labor economies in any place affected, as it unwisely separates labor from craftsmanship and robs people everywhere of the security needed to have stable, fulfilling lives for themselves and their families. On the other hand, it is an increasingly small world and there are certain efficiencies that can be captured by a fluid approach to maximizing productivity when it isn’t artificially interrupted by national borders.
The person on the other side of him was even more interesting. He at first seemed a little pesky, asking the other man all about India and whether he could write to him and if he visited India would the other man show him around… But it turns out that he might be someone worth knowing himself. Eventually it came out that he was a jewelry designer with a number of very interesting clients, including royalty, celebrities, and globally-important politicians. It wasn’t just the jewelry he made that kept them calling but the connections he could foster when mutual interest was expressed. But it was only the connection that he involved himself in, never the business discussed. A humble man he maintained his client relationships with the utmost discretion. Although he mentioned a few names, he never discussed with us anything other than the jewelry he made for any of these people.
In Osaka the jewelry designer disembarked. Those of us continuing on to Bangkok had to exit the plane and go through a security screening again (standard operating procedure from what I can gather). Then we continued on the 6 hours to Bangkok. Once there I figured out where Megan’s plane would be arriving and waited there while the passengers got off. At least I thought I was in the right place but I began to wonder when I didn’t see her. I asked a United agent where she might be.
“She’s not on this plane.”
“She didn’t check in.”
“She’s rebooked to arrive June 3.”
“But that can’t be right – that’s when I’m leaving!” I wonder why I said that. Did I somehow expect that the agent would somehow say, “Oh, ok,” and have Megan materialize right there simply because I had made a compelling argument?
I’d become a tangled mess, with competing impulses to kick myself for having flown halfway around the world with no guidebook, no information, and entirely dependent on another person; the desire to proactively solve my current problem; and the general inclination to abjectly panic.
It turns out that Megan didn’t make her connection in Chicago. On the flight from Boston they couldn’t land due to weather. They circled and circled until they ran out of fuel, then put down in Grand Rapids. When she eventually got to Chicago she ended up in line for hours and missed (apparently) all the flights to Asia. They sent her home and rebooked her for several days later.
Poor Megan. Because in addition to spending a long, aggravating day traveling so unsuccessfully, she had hours and hours to wait for the train wreck that would inevitably occur when I got to Bangkok hours later and, well, she didn’t. Fortunately Megan’s a smart person, and she had a lot of time to plan some mitigation. She apparently thought to herself, well, Cathy’s a smart person, what are the things she’ll try to do when she finds out about the problem?
I turned to the United agent. “Did she leave a note in the reservation record???” The woman looked down at the monitor with a serious expression and typed for several moments. Just when it seemed hopeless she began reading back to me, “If Ms. Gellis inquires, tell her…” and then relayed to me all the hotel information, flight information, confirmation numbers and just about everything I’d need to take the trip as we’d planned it.
Armed at least with that information I then went to go find a place to check my email. The Bangkok airport is very nice in that it’s open 24 hours, and most facilities within it, including information desks staffed by English-speakers and cybercafes, were open and available at what was now nearing midnight. Just as I was sitting down at a computer, though, my brain happened to tune into an announcement over the loudspeaker. “Was that my name?” At first I couldn’t figure out who knew I’d even be at the Bangkok airport in the middle of the night, but of course it turned out it was brilliant Megan who had thought to call over there and have me paged. I dashed off to find an information booth. “That was me who was just paged!” I was too late to catch the call, but apparently Megan had said she would call back in 15 minutes. She did, I was at the desk waiting for her call, and we talked.
Once the connection was made suddenly things seemed easier. At least now I knew what had happened and what the options were. I was still feeling ambivalent though. “Maybe I’ll just change the plane ticket and go sit on the beach somewhere,” I mused to her. I was intimidated about going to Cambodia alone with no information or Khmer language skills, and I was too exhausted and shell-shocked to think more optimistically about the prospect. We agreed that I’d go get some sleep and we’d talk again in the morning. I got to the hotel by 1am. I left it at 5am to come back to the airport and sort this out. The plane tickets to Cambodia were apparently quite changeable, but in the light of morning she wouldn’t let me change them. “You can do this,” she encouraged me. And it seems that I had to. She had arranged for her friend to meet us at the airport, and since he hadn’t responded to her latest emails updating him on her status she figured he’d still be expecting us to arrive. I had to go to Cambodia so that he wouldn’t be left standing there at the airport. Fortunately at 6am I was able to buy a guidebook and then I didn’t feel so skittish anymore. I decided to do it: I’d go to Cambodia on my own.
It was a 7:30am flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh. We arrived at a very nice new airport that apparently the French had built. I went through passport control and customs and then went out to try to find her friend. I had no idea what he looked like, however. I hadn’t even bothered to ask for a description. It’s not that I think all Asians look alike, but in terms of general characteristics (“short guy with dark hair”) there wasn’t much she could say that would have been useful. And he certainly had no idea what I looked like – he’d only be looking for Megan. So I held up a sign I made with her name on it, carefully showing it to all the men I saw queued up by the arrivals. Which was so much fun, because what single woman traveling alone in a foreign country doesn’t want to make eye-contact with strange young men? People came up to me, “Need a taxi? I can help you find Megan,” but no thanks, I already knew where she was… I was hoping that someone would see the name and a dawning look of recognition would appear on their face but no such luck. I turned around once more to try again and then I saw someone I hadn’t before.
What may have been implied in this tale of Megan’s travels is that she’s from New England. And as a New Englander she is a Boston Red Sox fan. This causes some tension between us, as I’m a Yankee fan, but it turns out that her devotion to her team saved the day. Because this person I suddenly see is wearing a Boston Red Sox t-shirt. How many Cambodians could there possibly be who have a Red Sox t-shirt? This must be her friend, I thought, and of course it was. I introduced myself and explained the situation and it all got easier from there. (At least on my end – poor guy, he was expecting to see Megan and all he got was me!)
He picked me up in his car and took me to the Boeung Kok section of the city where there are lots of backpacker-type guesthouses on the lake. I picked one that had been mentioned in my guidebook with a tolerably decent room (essentially clean, with a bed and private toilet, sink, and cold-water shower). It cost $3 for the night. Then while he went home to drop off the car and get his “moto” (moped) I went nextdoor to the cybercafe to check-in with Megan. I expressed to her my nervousness about riding on the back of a motorcycle. “Don’t worry,” she emailed back, “He’s a very good driver.”
Thankfully he was indeed. Driving in Cambodia was an interesting experience, particularly in Phnom Penh. Most people are on motorbikes, but in the city there are lots of cars too. You’re lucky to have pavement, even luckier to have traffic lights (I only saw about 2 all day). Lane lines and traffic laws meanwhile were mere fictions. If you want to pass, you can pull out into oncoming traffic. If you want to turn left you do the same. The thing is, everyone does it. In one sense nobody’s patient – people pass each other all the time – but on the other hand they are willing to yield. Oncoming drivers can see who will be intersecting with them, but rather than speeding up and cutting them off, they’ll adjust their speed and steering to work around the oncoming driver. Driving in Cambodia is like doing a dance, with lots of seamless weaving in and out. The goal seems to be to keep going without having to put your foot on the ground, and I don’t know why but it seems to work. And eventually I came to enjoy the rides.
The first thing we did was head out of town to a restaurant by the river (Mekong, I think). Off a dirt road there was a wood platform with a thatched roof over it. Hammocks were strung between the posts. You could just sit there, relaxing by the river, with food being brought to you. It was pretty decadent, even if just in terms of relaxing, which is something I hadn’t done in a long, long time. It wasn’t a touristy place though – only the locals go there.
After a while we went back to the city and went to S-21, the detention and interrogation center used by the Khmer Rouge. Like Dachau, the concentration camp in the middle of Munich suburbia, S-21 reaches even more grotesque proportions through its ordinariness. It was a high school that was refitted for the Khmer Rouge’s subsequent nefarious purposes. Classrooms had walls constructed within them to make holding cells. Some were wood, some were brick. Most were very small, but even in rooms where there were no wall dividers people were crammed in to sleep and not allowed to even turn over unless given permission by the guards to do so. In this place babies were wrested from mothers, people were tortured, people were buried out back. The corridors of the three-story buildings were on the exterior, and the Khmer Rouge put barbed wire over them to prevent people from jumping to a pre-emptive death. The exercise bars the students used to use were converted into torture devices. And these are just the distinguishing features I could see.
Meanwhile age is wearing down the building and things are starting to rot. NGOs have come in and supported the facility somewhat, and foreigners are charged admission, but they are hoping to raise more money to keep such an important piece of the terrible history intact so it is not forgotten.
The next day at 7am I boarded a boat up the Tonle Sap river for Siem Reap. It was a boat mostly occupied by tourists – a long, thin modern boat much like the kind that cruise the canals and waterways of Europe. It had a nice interior, although I didn’t discover it until much of the way through the voyage because I spent most of the trip on the roof. As the boat sped up and away from Phnom Penh the houses along the river went from concrete block construction near the city to traditional thatched huts on stilts. Many fishermen were out on the river, casting out their nets. At first I thought there was a lot of garbage floating on the river, but then I realized that the fishermen were using empty aerosol cans as buoys for their nets.
The most charming thing about the trip, and the kind of thing that can make you fall in love with Cambodia even if the rest of the trip were miserable, is that every little kid we passed waved to us. Not like a little wave, and not just one kid. But all the kids, all along the river, would wave incredibly enthusiastically and for as long as we were in sight. Especially if we waved back. At one point (inexplicably) we pulled off into a bank by a small village. All the children ran out and stood assembled looking at us, while we looked back at them, until we eventually left.
The boat later stopped again, also inexplicably, and far short of its destination. At first we thought a rotor was clogged (we’d run over a lot of river vegetation) but about 20 minutes later another boat came chugging up to us. A smaller boat, one with two outboard engines and laden with people and luggage. Apparently we all needed to switch boats: the people, the luggage, everything. And in the middle of the water, since it’s not like there was a dock out there in the middle of nowhere. The transition once made, we continued on in our much more cramped quarters until we came upon a wooden boat full of jugs of fuel. We waited while the crew refueled (in the stifling unventilated compartment now permeated with gasoline fumes). Then we continued, but not all the way because on the Tonle Sap lake, a giant lake in the middle of Cambodia with a seemingly endless horizon, we had to switch to other boats: shallow wooden ones that could take us the rest of the way to the shore. Or almost to the shore. We moored out in the lake and had to walk across the decks of tethered boats until we reached terra firma.
The Tonle Sap lake’s water level can change dramatically. It was just the beginning of the wet season so the lake level was fairly low. Eventually the boats will moor several kilometers inland from where we disembarked. Clustered around the water’s edge was also a floating village: all the structures were on barges (even the police station and barbershop). The town could float to wherever the edge of the lake happened to be. It was quaint but troubling. The water was brackish and it must be because of the sanitation. Even on land, the village closest to the water was muddy and smelly and poor. It’s an existence that bears more resemblance to a time gone by than a modern Western one.
My guesthouse in Phnom Penh had helpfully called ahead to its sister establishment in Siem Reap to make me a reservation. This was very convenient because the new place sent a moto driver to meet me at the boat. His name was Chy, and he seemed to be a good driver. So in a mutually beneficial arrangement for all, he became my moto driver for the duration. After he took me to the guesthouse to get settled in he took me up to the temples to watch the sunset. The next day he drove me around to many other temples, with me paying him a daily rate, and when I was ready to leave he took me to the airport. All told I paid him $17. It was good money for him, but it still feels strange having employed someone for a $7 daily wage.
Siem Reap is an interesting city. It was of only moderate importance until recently, when Cambodia’s new openness and the town’s proximity to the temples of Angkor began bringing in a lot of private investment. It’s a city of paradoxes: utter poverty, and hotel rooms for $250 a night. I stayed in a guesthouse in the less developed section, where the room cost $10 a night. It was almost in what I’d term the suburbs of the city, with houses that looked far more (relatively) middle class surrounding it.
Just a few kilometers north of the city are all the temples. These are incredible and vast complexes of stone whose history is murky but which appear to have been religious structures (and sometimes also fortifications) dedicated to either Hindu, Buddhist, or Brahmanist deities, or some combination of all of these. Some of the temples sported towering pyramids, others a near-labyrinth system of corridors. Many had bas-reliefs carved into their stone walls depicting mythologies. Many had reflecting pools and libraries, and some had massive stone statues projecting up to the sky. Nearly every surface had some sort of decoration.
Different countries had sent different archaeological teams to restore the various temple sites. As a result the sites varied drastically, as the best practices of archaeologists from the various countries differed dramatically. At some places the ruins had simply been excavated; in others the temples had been reconstructed. One temple ruin, Ta Prom, was interesting because it had not been restored at all, and giant trees were growing from the crevices in the large stones, now pushing them apart with their giant root systems.
Chy took me to many of these temples, finishing up with Angkor Wot, a huge complex surrounded by a square canal. Extremely geometric and balanced, the central structure is surrounded by walkways and stacks like a wedding cake until the central pyramid. People could climb up to the top, and I couldn’t resist summiting myself, but this was perhaps a mistake because getting down was problematic. The stairs were built at a pitch that made them only slightly less steep than a sheer cliff. Also, I could only use the stairs on one side because on the others the sun had baked the stones until they were too hot to hold. Late in the day and tired I found the descent challenging, and there were moments when I was afraid I’d be stuck up there.
But on my way down – which I ultimately managed successfully – I bumped into a Dutch couple I’d met on the boat. In fact I’d been bumping into “boat people” at the various temples all day. (Spend seven hours on a boat with people and you start feeling like family…) We arranged to meet in town for dinner and had a really pleasant evening. My meal cost $4, including two sodas and a large plate of Chow Fun. Money was odd in Cambodia. They use dollars, but as subparts of the dollar they use riel, the local currency (at about 4000 riel to a dollar). The impact of the dollar meant that, at least for tourists, cheap things became expensive while expensive things became cheap, like the psychological effect of a dollar caused prices to snap to it either up or down. At the restaurant, $1 for a soda, althought not expensive for me as an American, was much more expensive than it needed to be in that local economy where it shouldn’t have been more than 1000 riel. But of course the restaurant should charge more if it can get it. On the other hand, the meal was only $2. Still cheap for me, but probably very expensive relative to what a Cambodian could or would pay.
That night back at my guesthouse a thunderstorm slowly rolled in. The guesthouse had a rooftop bar and I stood on the exterior steps up to it watching the storm. The place tended to be a meeting place for local taxi and moto drivers. Some, like Chy, work out of it, so to speak, getting most of their business from the guests staying there. Another guy I spoke to, Yan, was a taxi driver who worked out of the Intercontinental Hotel. We got to talking about thunderstorms. I realized, from having seen the countryside, that there is not a lot of protection from them. He told me about having to go out once to bring in the water buffalo during a storm. Lightning struck, killing the water buffalo and knocking out him and his friend. He said that by tradition, people won’t try to touch someone struck by lightning. Superstition dictates that a cloth instead be laid over the person. If they become conscious again, so be it. Otherwise… no attempts are made at resuscitation.
This was one of the several insightful things he told me. Another was that apparently when he was 12, he was given a gun and left home to join the army. He’d lost friends to war, he said, but he’s glad the country is now safe, and has been since 1998. He spoke English well, particularly considering he stopped going to school at 12. He said he went back to the university at 21, and because Siem Reap is a tourist town he has learned more English subsequently in order to talk to visitors. But still, the mind reels to think of what he missed learning and living during those years as a young soldier. To say nothing of the life and death situations he had to face so young. I’m not certain how old he was then, but I’d estimate around 27 or 28. Just about the same age as I was.
The next day I left Siem Reap on the first flight out. I could have taken a later one but I wanted to sort of quit while I was ahead. It had been a good trip and I hadn’t gotten sick (like everyone warned me I would), but I was eager to get back to Bangkok where there was a nice shower and hotel pool waiting for me. Oh, and Megan, who had by now arrived in Asia. After relaxing in said hotel and pool we braved the Bangkok traffic to take a dinner cruise on the river. It wasn’t that great, quality-wise (the dancers weren’t quite as good as they could have been, so said Megan who had done similar Cambodian dancing, nor was the food – unless you like spiders in your curry, which Megan the vegetarian certainly didn’t), but it was a good way to take in a bit of Bangkok quickly.
The next morning I woke up at 4am to get to the airport for my 7am flight. I was on Thai Airways to Seoul, with a stop on the way in Taipei, where I then changed to Singapore Air back to San Francisco (which made, along with my trip out to California, about 10 airports I’d gone through in as many days). Singapore Airlines I thought was overrated. The 777 interior configuration was novel, and it had a comprehensive entertainment system, but the stewards served the cabin in a very haphazard manner that made me constantly worried that they’d skipped me. (Not an idle worry since I’d gotten skipped for breakfast on the Thai Airways part of the trip.) I shouldn’t have worried though because the food wasn’t nearly as good as it had been on the first Thai Airways flight. (For instance, the breakfast was cold, which, while not a bad thing for a fruit plate, is unfortunate for an omelet.)
The worst part of the trip came at the end, coming into the United States. I think by virtue of having traveled in Thailand I was scrutinized heavily by customs. And it wasn’t just that they searched my luggage like they had the previous time I’d come in from Europe. Rather I was asked all sorts of impudent questions like who I was, what I did, and whom I met over there. I felt like my plane must have been misdirected and hadn’t actually landed in the Land of the Free.
Overall it was a short trip, but it felt full. Each day I took in as much as I could, without overly exhausting myself. My favorite memory though may be one I skipped over mentioning before:
At all the temples there were lots of souvenir hawkers, many of them children. This was a little hard to deal with, partly because the children are assertive in a way that can be uncomfortable for an American (in terms of insistence on making a deal), and because these are children and you know that your money will go far in supporting them. But there were so many you couldn’t possibly say yes to them all so you had to get used to dealing with turning them down.
At one point I decided to get some whistles that I’d seen being sold all over, and bought them from the next girl I saw selling them. I gave her the money and then started packing them away in my bag and getting back on the moto. But before I could leave she got my attention again. “This is for you,” she said, and she handed me a really pretty, detailed drawing of a flower on a page torn from a notebook. At the top it said, “My nam is Pork.” I read it aloud. “Your name is Pork? My name is Cathy. Very nice to meet you!”
It wasn’t the sale she really wanted but the connection. And she’s right. Who needs whistles when the best thing I got from the whole trip was her smile.