My Day With Sokoma, Part 2



My Day with Sokoma

Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia but somehow it doesn’t feel like it. The main part of town was manageable to walk around and the rest is easily accessible as long as you don’t mind a bumpy motorbike ride on uneven dirt roads.

When the boat was pulling up to Battambang I was shocked to see two dozen men on the sloped shore holding up signs for accommodation and tuktuks. “You need tuktuk? Anywhere in the city 50 cents!” “Need accommodation? So-and-so-hotel, best rooms, cheap!” I couldn’t help but laugh at the site and then walk straight past it. I had no accommodation but the map looked like I could walk to the few options in my Lonely Planet, which was right. It was no more than 10 minutes from the boat to the guesthouses. First one, full. Second, full. Shit. Do you have a recommendation? Try 333 around the corner. Dorms are full, but there’s a private available. How much? $4. Good enough.

My private room in 333 was not as luxurious as it sounds, nor as private. I had a roommate: a gecko. The bathroom had a shower head on the wall with just two options – on or off, no hot water here – and the toilet flushed by pouring water into it from the bucket sitting under a tap on the floor. It smelled awful. The hard bed had an old fleece blanket with an unfamiliar cartoon on it for warmth, which was pretty unnecessary given the constant heat in Battambang. I opted to sleep in my sleep-sack with the fan pointed directly at me. I did have a TV! A generous 10-inch TV from the 80’s. I managed to find some English channels so I got all caught up on The Voice and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 (they really went downhill after 1).

I had two days in Battambang between the social days of Siem Reap and seeing my sister in Thailand so I wanted to spend these alone. Meeting people traveling is great, but I sometimes miss the alone time that I expected to have so much of when I decided to travel alone for so long. This was one of those times I made sure to get in some me time. Except for the 8 hours I spent with a 60-year-old Cambodian man. That kind of break in alone time though is exactly what I like when I take days in towns by myself like this.

My first morning in Battambang I was on my way to find food when a man on a motorbike pulled up asking if I wanted a driver for the day. $10. I said I was going to rent my own bike, I did actually want to get out and see the temples around the city that day, but he had some good points about gas and potential for the bike to break and he was also a guide. When I said I needed food first he said he would take me somewhere to eat, then we’d go. Alright sir I was convinced.

Great decision. I had a fantastic day with Sokoma. He was more of a guide than I ever would have expected. As we drove around he pointed out typical Cambodian architecture – house on stilts for the floods, many windows around the one floor above, the underneath serving as a living space in the dry season – and showed me things that were not just the main highlights. He took me to Cambodia’s only vineyard for some wine, brandy, grape juice, and ginger juice tasting (it wasn’t even 11 am yet; the wine was like fruit juice but the brandy was pretty strong); we stopped at a rice factory so I could see how rice kernels get separated from the plant; he told me all the crops that were growing from rice to peanuts and showed me how two kinds of plants close their leaves when you touch them; he pointed out chili’s growing on the side of the road; he stopped so I could try a fried cricket from a street-side stand (really really crunchy, not much flavor).

Along the way we talked about Cambodia: religion of the area and his own beliefs; how people lived and farmed outside of the city, with so little water around; the fact that they eat dog and apparently it is quite tasty, although I still couldn’t bring myself to try it; and most interestingly what it was like to live during the Khmer Rouge. He has seen decades of life in Cambodia and asked me if I wanted to know more. I did. It was a fascinating conversation that was unfortunately cut short by the spectacle of the bats, but I feel so lucky to have had it.

And of course he took me to the main sites: the Wat Banan temple, where I climbed up over 300 stairs to see what temples really look like when they’re not preserved like they are at Angkor Wat; the supposedly oldest temple in the area (whose name I completely forget); the Killing Caves, the site where thousands of Cambodians were murdered by being dropped into a cave; and above it the Phnom Sampeau temple complex, where I helped a monk practice his English. This is also where the bats made a mass exodus at dusk in search of food. We watched for 15 minutes then chased them down the road on the bike so I could see the groups of bats weaving their search patterns. Truly majestic, if a bit creepy. We also made a bonus stop because we had some extra time (apparently I move faster than most people he takes around) – a Buddhist shrine deep inside a cave, which I descended into alone. It was silent, dark, eerie, and only by the light of a flashlight could I see the giant reclining Buddha against the wall. I was proud of myself for making it there but the images of the robbery attempt just a day and a half before made me paranoid so I got out pretty quick. Not many people see this place though so again I felt lucky have had Sokoma as my guide.

We got back after dark and I felt like I had seen everything and way more than I set out to see. I thanked Sokoma. He was truly fantastic. Also don’t worry, I filmed pretty much the entire day on my GoPro. Watch out for the video in the next few months (tons of footage to edit).

The rest of my time in Battambang was pretty relaxed. I did a self-guided walking tour of the architectural history of the city based on a map by Khmer Architecture Tours. I sat at a cafe in the air conditioning blogging and backing up pictures. I had a final Cambodian meal at White Rose, the place Sokoma had taken me for breakfast, on a balcony overlooking the night activity on the street below. The next day I would leave at 8 am for a lengthy land trip down to the coast of Thailand.

I reflected on my time in Cambodia. I loved it. I felt sad to leave, there was so much more to see there. I knew I had to get to Thailand to meet up with friends but wished I had more time. It felt very different from leaving Vietnam, a place I knew I had missed things but felt okay with departing. I still haven’t ripped the Cambodia pages out of my guidebook just in case I end up back there. One day Cambodia, I’ll see you again.

The Most Scenic Boat Ride in Cambodia: Siem Reap to Battambang

When I left Siem Reap I was deciding between 2 options: 1) Go south to Koh Rong, an island that was highly recommended by more than one backpacker friend, and Ben’s next stop; 2) Take a river ride to Battambang, a town between Siem Reap and the border of Thailand that was known for its French Colonial architecture and nearby temples, and my original plan.

This was a tough one because Koh Rong was such a tempting option since it was supposedly a chill, beautiful backpacker haven, and I had a friend to go with. In the end though I had to go with Battambang. I have already said how I prefer mountains to beaches, and knowing that I had a few weeks of beaches coming up in Thailand and Indonesia I needed one last inland fix. Plus the Lonely Planet description called to me:

“There’s something about Battambang that visitors just love… The colonial architecture, the riverside setting, the laid-back cafes… It’s the perfect blend of relatively urban modernity and small-town friendliness. Outside the city’s confines, meanwhile, timeless hilltop temples and bucolic villages await.”

That sounded like my kind of town. And the way I chose to get there was an adventure in itself: Cambodia’s most scenic boat journey.

I woke up when it was still dark out and was picked up by a van that fit more people than should be allowed, but that didn’t stop me from sleeping the whole ride to the boat (I had gotten about an hour of sleep after the near-robbery). We made it to the dock shortly after dawn. I don’t know why I was expecting it to run smoothly, this is local transportation in Cambodia after all. We were loaded onto a smallish wooden boat that has clearly made this trip thousands of times and there we sat for an hour. How I managed to sleep sitting on that wooden bench I will never know. Finally it was time to go, so we pushed off from the boat next to us and puttered out into the wide river.

It was cold. The first time I felt cold in Cambodia. I was in and out of consciousness, recognizing that we were on a river but not yet seeing why it was such a recommended ride. Then the boat slowed down and we approached a floating village. The village on Tonle Sap lake is well-known throughout Cambodia; it’s advertised in travel guides as a must-do trip from Siem Reap, and it’s a pretty impressive place. Houses and markets are built simply, out of wood and plants, on flotation devices that bob with the current. Small motorboats are the only means of transport.

This being Cambodia – safety third – I climbed out from my seat to stand along the few inches of wood on the side of the boat. I noticed all the people sitting on the roof of our boat for the first time. I hung on with one hand and took pictures with the other, waving to kids as we passed. A boat approached ours and a few people and some supplies were transferred between boats as we drifted downstream.

Throughout the boat ride we saw smaller versions of this floating village, including one where we stopped for snacks and refreshments. I got a cold can of coke and finally felt awake. I sat on the front of the boat for a while until we reached the tricky part of the journey. For the next couple of hours we wound around tight turns, using a combination of the motor and a huge paddle to navigate the snakelike river. We passed houses that were no longer floating but were made out of old boats sitting on the riverbank. I wondered how people live in them. Every turn had a giant fishing apparatus in the water; it worked like scale, with a large circular net submerged on one side of a pole, and a rope on the other side that could be pulled down to raise the net. I assumed that fishing and some farming were how people here survived.

It took 9 hours to reach Battambang. Admittedly I was in and out of sleep for the first 4 or 5, but once I reached shore I was happy to have experienced the ride. I was able to see a different side of Cambodia, where life revolves in, around, and on the river. It was a quiet life, and it didn’t look like an easy life, but that didn’t stop the kids from flashing us big smiles and enthusiastically waving as we passed. I couldn’t help but wave back to every single one of them. I wasn’t alone in doing this, most of the boat must have waved at nearly a hundred children. Something about kids running on shore waving at you as your boat glides by just makes you smile. I smiled a lot that day.

Fried Toofoo

Spending all day in a tuktuk with someone really accelerates the getting-to-know-you process. I only spent 3 days with Ben and Alex but the amount of inside jokes, depth of conversation, and feeling of comfort I had with them made it feel like much longer.

I met Ben (from England) as soon as I got to European Guesthouse and we spent the next day exploring all the major temples together. It was great to have a companion for the day to discuss our impressions of each place, and a bonus that we happened to get along really well. That night we met Alex (from Canada) who had the same goal as me: “I just want to go to Angkor What?” More on that in a bit. The next day Alex and I explored the outer ring of temples, including the far away Banteay Srei. Like the day before with Ben, we covered a range of topics in our day, and fulfilling the stereotype of our North Americanness devoted a solid half an hour to pizza and wings, which led to a disappointing but necessary pizza and “wings” dinner at the hostel; the wings were actually two entire chicken wings, plain roasted, but when doused in chili sauce they did the trick. The third day all three of us spent together, exploring town with lunch at the market and ice creams at Swensens – the San Francisco Swensens! – and chilling at a temple for the afternoon. The day I left Alex and Ben had their alone time, which I hear was mainly spent in a movie theater.

This mixture of time with each other in pairs and then all together, in a different combination of places, did something special for my relationship with them, and I’d venture to say they feel the same way. The one thing that we always did all together: explore the nightlife of Siem Reap.

Siem Reap is a small town that knows how to have a good time. Our first night we did a little bar crawl – nice cocktails at Miss Wong, beers at Beatles-themed Yellow Submarine (the Brit’s choice) – before reaching the bar we wanted to see most and site of the next few nights of debauchery: Angkor What? Angkor What? has a deal that if you order 2 buckets you get a t-shirt for free. Naturally we all wanted these shirts. The first night we decided it wasn’t time yet, since we had already hopped around we would just stick to beers, and we had 2 more nights to get the buckets. Already, just a few hours after all meeting, we were talking about spending our Siem Reap time together like it was a long-acknowledged fact, even if we hadn’t exactly had that conversation.

Angkor What? was playing some good tunes but we did not see what was coming… Directly across the street is Temple Club. Both bars offer buckets, tshirts, and very loud music, so what happens is that people get stuck in between them not knowing which one to choose. Instead of going inside, the party simply happens on the street. It reminded me of Rio during the World Cup or Buenos Aires after La Bamba – the street was filled with happy people dancing without a care. We felt compelled to join but still had our beers, so the helpful employees of Angkor What? gave us plastic cups to take with us into the street. And thanks to our enthusiastic friend Malaysian guy, these cups never went empty. It was a long joyful night, and despite the fact that it was a Tuesday we never saw the street party get to such a huge number of people again.

The following night we made a crucial decision: straight to Angkor What? We walked to town with an overshadowing feeling of doom thinking about the buckets in our future. We had a plan: do a few tonight and a few the next night. A few hours later all three of us had t-shirts. It turns out that when you just order rum and coke buckets it’s not so hard to get all six in one night. And it’s even easier when you find some new Belgian friends to play 21 with. Success! Now that we knew the drill, we were one of the first tables up and dancing, ready and waiting for the street party to begin so we could join. And we did.

Night three was our last night so we couldn’t give in to the lingering hangover feelings from the bucket night before. We started with trivia at a new bar, surprisingly finishing second despite some seriously tough questions (thanks man from Florida who ran trivia). We told ourselves there were other places to go, the night was still young, and then we walked up to Angkor What? Our Belgian friends were there waiting for us. Round two of 21, round three of the street party, and then a first: we went into Temple Club! And we discovered the magic of the music inside. The Macarena, YMCA, Venga Boys – we flashed back to Bat Mitsvah’s and loved every minute of it. I had a 7 am boat departure the next morning, so at 4 am I called it quits.

It was almost a perfect three days and nights in our new best friendship and love of Siem Reap, but then the walk back happened. After a run-walk down the main street to get away from the tuktuk driver who was poking Ben and the women who had almost robbed Alex the night before, we were relieved to get to our street. Too soon. A few doors down from our guesthouse a man quietly mounted his motorbike and quickly turned it on once we reached him, simultaneously grabbing my bag. Generally the advice given when someone on a motorbike tries to steal your bag is to let them have it. I did not listen to this advice. I held on, planted my feet and didn’t let him get away, delaying his bike from moving just long enough for Alex to tackle him and his bike to the ground. We were all in shock. Ben and Alex made sure I was ok while the almost-theif tried to run his bike down the street; it wasn’t starting. I had all my stuff and we were all fine, so Ben grabbed the taillight that had fallen off his bike and chased him down the street, throwing it at him when his bike finally let him get away. The other tuktuk drivers heard the commotion and came running. They were surprised, but also too late.

I was thankful I had Alex and Ben there with me. Alex played doctor to my pinky finger, which had been pretty badly ripped up by the strap of my bag. It’s still healing but at least the layers of skin that had been removed are starting to grow back. It was an unfortunate way to have to say bye after a fantastic three days together, but I know for sure that when we reunite in Bangkok I don’t have to worry about anything, the three of us have already proven we can fight off grabby prostitutes and motorcycle thieves.

Regardless of the ending, Siem Reap showed us all that it has more to offer than just Angkor Wat, even if most of it revolves around a bar jokingly named after this attraction. It also led to a friendship that I hope never dies, and judging by our constant group message updates and already confirmed plans to meet up in Bangkok at the end of the month I don’t think it will. Plus there’s still Burning Man 2016. The camp is growing.

Safety Third at Angkor Wat

I found what I was missing in Siem Reap. The magical mixture of history, culture, nightlife, and people made me fall in love with Cambodia, even if it was only my second location in that country. The days I spent in Siem Reap have made it to my “highlights of the trip” list.

Angkor Wat was one of the pillars of my trip and it deserved to be. The entire Angkor complex is one of the best places I’ve been. It’s a massive collection of temples that expands well beyond just Angkor Wat, the largest and most well-known. There are different opinions on how best to visit the temples, depending on order and time of day, but really any way you do it will you will be impressed. I was happy with how things worked out for my three days there (entry tickets are 1 day, 3 days or 1 week; I opted for the 3-day US$40 pass, which seemed to be the most popular one).

I started big: Angkor Wat at sunrise. I’d read to work my way up, save the best for last, but I decided instead to go big or go home. Plus I had met Ben the night before and we decided to share a tuktuk for the day, seriously helping reduce the cost of getting around. We were joined by hundreds of our closest friends (read: obnoxious tourists) to witness the spectacle of the sun rising behind the temple. Instead we got total cloud cover. It was still impressive to see the temple slowly reveal itself to us as the morning went from dark to light, but I was more distracted by all the people around us trying to get the perfect image on their iPads and selfie-stick-secured camera phones. We broke away from the crowd when we were sure the sun was up, even if we couldn’t see it, and and went into the temple.

This was the best part about getting to Angkor Wat for sunrise: the temple was nearly empty. We had two hours to wander around with just a handful of other people, leisurely exploring the different levels, taking tons of pictures, and ooing and awwing at the incredible level of detail of the carvings. The entirety of Angkor Wat is carved relief. There are walls of stories with thousands of figures at first intertwined and later perfectly organized. Ceilings, columns, platforms, walls – everything is decorated. It was extraordinary. The huge size of Angkor Wat also contributed to the sense of awe. After our initial 2 hours of exploring we took a much-needed breakfast break (surprisingly delicious pancakes, fruit and coffee right next to the temple) before going back in for another hour or so to finish the top level. At that point the tour groups had arrived and our peaceful time was over, but with just the one level left we weren’t too bothered. I was thrilled with my experience at Angkor Wat and the decision to start with this temple. The morning timing was perfect and something about getting the big one over-with let me relax about the rest of my time there.

As impressive as Angkor Wat was, I don’t think I could say it was my favorite. Academically I feel obliged to say that it was, but experientially Bayon and Ta Prohm were tied for favorite, perhaps with Bayon slightly in the lead.

Bayon is hard to describe. The reason it had such an impact was the experience of walking around. It is a towering temple with oversized stone faces all around. You circumambulate the temple on a narrow pathway that almost feels claustrophobic in between the stone walls. It is this dwarfed feeling that leads to the impressive nature of the experience of Bayon.

Ta Prohm was a totally difference experience that was impressive in its own right. This is known as the temple that nature has taken over. Massive trees claw over the edges of walls and grow out of piles of rubble. We wandered through parts where no one else was, feeling like we were discovering the temple for the first time. I could’ve wandered around in the quiet parts all day. I heard it was magical at sunrise when no one else was there; I believe it. It is eerie, it is man versus nature, it is fantastical.

There are tons of smaller temples in various states of preservation around Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. The second day was mainly filled with these and I was happily surprised that I was still amazed by them even after seeing the big three on day 1. It’s hard to not feel wonder when walking down a narrow wooden path hovering over an expansive lake with barren trees and at the end finding a solo temple structure in a circular pond.

My highlight of day 2 has to be Banteay Srei. It was a long tuktuk ride to get there but totally worth it. The carvings were the most delicate, detailed, gorgeous reliefs I saw. Angkor Wat had impressive art but Banteay Srei was a different level of ornate. The small temple didn’t take long to walk around, so we walked the nature path back out, stopping at all the Points of View overlooking the landscape of Cambodia. It was beautiful.

It is hard to keep the energy up when seeing so many temples in a day, but I’m so glad I packed in as much as possible on the first two days. Day three was a highlight in a totally different way. Ben, Alex and I (more on them in the next post) had done two days of intense temple exploring but knew we had one more day left on our ticket, so we decided to experience Angkor Thom in an alternative way. We picked a corner of Angkor Thom that wasn’t one of the highlighted temples on the tourist map and took a tuktuk straight there. We were the only three people at this temple. We climbed to the top and each took an alcove. For the next hour and a half it was like I was the only person in this ancient site. I stared out at the scenery around me, I meditated, I reflected on my week. It was perfect. When the temple was closing it was time to go, and we all left relaxed and happy to have had some quiet time in such a remarkable place.

I can’t say enough how incredible the temples at Angkor are, and I even if I never stopped this blog post it would not do them justice. You just have to go. These temples are monumental feats of architecture, important in art, history, and culture. But apart from that, I couldn’t help but be amazed at one thing: we were allowed to climb all over them. At one point a policeman even took us climbing over rubble and up onto a wall so we could get the best view (for a small tip of course). There are no rails next to huge drops, uneven stone steps, some places are still under construction, and no place is made tourist-friendly. I appreciated it, but also wondered at it. At one place Ben and I wandered into a hallway that was being held up by wooden posts. I felt like we shouldn’t be there so we turned around. Sure enough after leaving we saw a sign on the other side: dangerous area. Oops. But oh well, it’s Cambodia, so Safety Third.

Tuktuks, Temples and Tarantulas in Phnom Penh

I arrived in Phnom Penh with the name of a hostel and a screen shot of a few back-up options nearby. I was hopeful that my “it will work out” mindset would continue to prove right. The tuktuk driver knew where the hostel Me Mates Villa was so at least that was a step in the right direction.

We wove through Phnom Penh’s streets surrounded by motorbikes, cars and other tuktuks and I had a giddy moment of awareness of the vehicle I was riding in. Tuktuks became standard to me during my time in Cambodia, but this first ride was exciting in the way that new abroad transportation can be: I’d heard about these, I knew they were coming, but I was finally in one. Being towed around in what is more or less a motorbike-driven golf cart took some getting used to. I felt like I wanted to be up on the bike with the driver, and the four posts that made up my carriage provided a false sense of security. Really I was no safer than the motorbike, probably less safe actually since I had no control over this vehicle, and a car could crush me. Once I got past those thoughts though I was able to just have fun in the tuktuk. Plus when something has the name tuktuk how could you not enjoy it?

Phnom Penh has a palpable energy. I felt it instantly while whizzing through the streets. I arrived on a Saturday night, so naturally I wondered if I would meet people at the hostel and experience the rumored crazy nightlife. I got to the hostel – they had a bed for me, so it did work out – and did meet people but had a very different night than expected. I ended up with a Russian, two Brits, and a handful of Aussies playing multi-player pool the whole night while drinking 75 cent beers at the hostel. Not quite the nightlife I was thinking but a fun night nonetheless.

The next day I set out with the goal to see the highlights of the city. I went right to the Royal Palace and discovered it was closed until 2:00 pm because it was Sunday, something the guidebook did not mention. I was accosted by a tuktuk driver offering me a tour of the city for $15, something I wasn’t willing to pay for, so I tried to find the next site on my list on foot. I quickly discovered that normally busy Phnom Penh on a Sunday is even busier and attempting to walk to everywhere I wanted to see in the heat was pretty uncomfortable. I backtracked to the museum to see if it was open yet and the tuktuk driver found me again. We agree on $8 and set off around the city.

My driver ended up being more of a tour guide than I expected. He hit all the places on my list and some that weren’t. Along the way he told me about the history and culture of Cambodia, from religion to politics to social concerns. I appreciated his candid opinion on the current situation in Cambodia, its Prime Minister, its relationship to other countries, and what it’s like to live there. There’s no better way to learn about a place than from a local.

He also protected me from a scam I knew nothing about. A woman from the Philippines approached me as I was looking at the statue of the King, politely complimenting my outfit and asking if I was just visiting town and if I had a tuktuk with me. As soon as I said yes and pointed in his direction she backed away, and as soon as he saw her he ran over yelling. He explained that these women pretend to be your friend and invite you over for a drink, then they kidnap and rob you. He threw more curses in her direction and warned another tuktuk driver who was passing by with a quad of tourists. I would go on to tell other travelers this story as a word of warning.

Some of the highlights of my morning tour of Phnom Penh included Wat Langka, a Buddhist temple, and Wat Phnom. Wat Langka was our first stop. A complex of beautiful, ornate design, it was a great introduction to the richness of Cambodian architecture. I wandered through the different buildings and was in awe of the interior decoration of the temples, as well as the individual stupas.

Wat Phnom continued to build upon this positive impression. After climbing up a long flight of stairs I was rewarded with another pretty building. No spot of interior was left undecorated. Visiting on a Sunday was particularly interesting because the temple was packed with people praying. It reminded me of my experience at the Jade Emperor Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, and just like then I was happy to have seen this Wat in use.

My driver dropped me off at the Central Market. I thanked and tipped him and went in search of some local lunch. I ended up with a Cambodian noodle soup that was somewhere in between pho and ramen, and of course I made it extra spicy. I have to say the incredibly fresh roasted chicken was delicious. Having spent just $1.75 I was full and satisfied. I wandered the market a little before hopping on a motortaxi back to my hostel. I still had some time to kill before 2:00 and needed to decide what to do.

My morning had been up and down: frustrating at first with the palace being closed and giving in to taking around a tuktuk, but improved once I got to see all that I wanted with an informative and friendly driver, but again lowered when he tried to convince me to pay another $15 to go see a local kickboxing match, raised by the food and lowered by the aimless wandering that led to a motortaxi. And on top of all of this I still hadn’t decided whether or not I would go see the main attraction of Phnom Penh, which still felt strange that it was the main attraction – the Killing Fields.

I called my sister. I needed to talk this out, and not only did she know me well enough to get why I was feeling conflicted but she had visited the killing fields a few years ago. I wanted to learn about Cambodian history but felt like I had seen enough of Phnom Penh to be ready to go to Siem Reap. Was it worth staying in Phnom Penh another day just to get out to the Killing Fields, knowing I was stressing about the cost of the excursion before I was about to drop $40 on Angkor Wat, and knowing that I was still a little emotionally and mentally off? Traveling alone I usually can make these decisions, but once in a while it helps to be able to talk it out with someone. At the end of our conversation I felt a million times better and had made my decision: I would go to Siem Reap tomorrow.

I know the Killing Fields are important and the decision not to go was a hard one that lingered with an unfortunate feeling for a little while. However I had told myself upon leaving Vietnam that I would not go to things purely because I “should.” I made the same decision with whether or not to visit the palace that afternoon, the main site in town I “should” see. I wanted to go to the National Museum of Cambodia more, so I went there instead.

I breathed a happy sigh as soon as I walked into the museum. The Art Historian in me was thrilled that I made it there as I strolled past statues depicting Hindu and Buddhist icons from a range of centuries. There was even a short video portraying what Angkor Thom may have looked like when it was a functioning city, which was awesome to see right before going to see it in its current state. The building is also gorgeous. I sat on the edge of one of the four lily ponds in the courtyard watching someone feed the koi, listening to a monk talking to a traveler nearby. In here the sounds of Phnom Penh disappeared. It was my sanctuary for the afternoon, the place I came to accept and be happy with my decision to leave in the morning.

Before I left I had to at least visit one of the must-see bars, Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC). I sat overlooking the mayhem of rush hour traffic below me, sipping on my Anchor beer. Another solo traveler sat down next to me. Turns out he’s from LA. We ended up having the night that I thought Saturday would be. We started with drinks at FCC followed by a delicious Cambodian cuisine dinner at a restaurant that is associated with Friends International, Romdeng. The employees are former street children and their teachers, and the decor is their artwork, so it’s dining for a good cause. We had deep-fried tarantulas. They are not disguised at all, this is clearly a tarantula. Spiders have always been my biggest fear (although the Amazon helped lessen my fear a bit), so in trying to pick up one of these to eat my hand would not listen to my mind. I played a jumpy game of almost picking one up and pulling my hand back a few times before finally going for it. My companion went for the all in one bite approach, but I bit off just the head. Not bad. I tried a leg alone. Crunchy. Then the rest of it. Surprisingly, deep-fried tarantula is actually kinda tasty. Not saying I’d want it all the time, but I didn’t mind it so much once I got past the appearance.

We celebrated our daringness by going to one of the shadiest bars in town, Walkabout, followed by another just-as-seedy bar where we distracted ourselves with a game of pool. The blatant prostitution industry was harder to stomach than the tarantula. Everywhere we saw scantily clad Cambodian women talking to elderly white men and it felt so wrong. We called it a night there, not needing to push through to any more bars or clubs.

In the end I was in Phnom Penh for about 36 hours. A day shorter than the original plan, if I had any hesitation about leaving my fantastic experience in Siem Reap washed it away. Timing is everything, and it felt like every move I had made thus far led me to the right place right time of Siem Reap.

The Decision to Leave Vietnam

I realize at this point the timeline might be a bit confusing so let me lay it out. Here’s how my last week in Vietnam went: Ho Chi Minh City for 2 days, Hanoi for a day, Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay for 3 days/2 nights, Hanoi for one night, flight back through Ho Chi Minh City on my way to Cambodia.

Basically what happened was that I knew I wanted to get up to North Vietnam and at least see Hanoi and Halong Bay. I had a good time in Hanoi and adored Halong Bay, but I realized while I was out in Lan Ha Bay that I needed to go to Cambodia. Nothing against Vietnam, there’s still plenty to see and do there (Sapa, Hue, Mekong Delta, to name a few) but if I stayed to go to those other places it felt like I was just filling time before I had to meet friends in Thailand for Christmas.

I was in a weird place. Between family leaving from HCMC and meeting up with people for Christmas I had 2 weeks. It was not enough and too much time all at the same time. I love meeting up with people, but sometimes it puts a lot of stress on the planning process. So the beautiful part about traveling alone is that I can make any last minute decisions that will alleviate this stress.

So the night I got back to Hanoi I booked a flight to HCMC, which departed 13 hours later. I didn’t have a bus ticket to Cambodia but was confident I would figure it out when I got to HCMC. I knew where it left from and the names of two companies, and I booked an early enough flight (6:45 am eesh) that I had all day to get to Phnom Penh. That’s the other thing about traveling this long – I’m not afraid to wing it. It would work out. This became the theme of Cambodia for me, and something that is still happening. I’ll get there eventually, if it’s last minute so be it, flexibility is king right now. And I got there: less than 24 hours after booking that flight I was playing pool at a hostel in Phnom Penh. I love it when it all comes together.

So why did I decide to leave Vietnam? It’s hard to explain. I just wasn’t feeling it. It felt anxious, it wasn’t working for me. Something in me told me I had to go to Cambodia. Angkor Wat was one of the reasons I came to Southeast Asia, and it felt like now was the time to go there. Plus I can always go back to Vietnam. If something isn’t sitting right for this trip then I should make a change so I do feel right. I’m not going to get everywhere right now anyway so why force it?

Maybe it had to do with everyone talking about getting together for Christmas and I needed to be somewhere that clearly reminded me why I’m not there with them. Maybe I had some residual feelings from the Amanoi. Or maybe I just don’t vibe with Vietnam like I expected and it was bumming me out. Whatever it was, I decided to go. It was one of those times where I just had to trust myself; it will all work out. And as always, it did.