It’s hot here in the dry season, and arid as Arizona in a drought. All the jungles I thought I’d find were browned and withered, reduced to scratchy shadows of their former selves, dried husks baking in the sun, snakeskins left to crinkle in the heat.
The land waits rains.
We, on the other hand, waited to arrive in Siam Reap. Dried landscapes scrolled by our dusty windows, pot-holed roads kept us bouncing in our seats, finicky AC maintained a constant film of sweat on our skins. We’d managed to book a budget minni-bus at a luxury price, and aside from the usual frustrations of being victims of a minor scam, we had a bumpy backseat with no legroom, a fidgeting of the guy beside us, and the lady two seats over had gotten carsick. Add the smell of vomit to the mix.
But Cambodia, at least in its reputation, is trustworthy. Buddhist doctrines of karmas still hold enough sway to keep the people mostly honest. You can navigate yourself. It’s fun.
At least that’s what they say.
For us, though, it was looking a little different. The cabby from the airport, instead of taking us to the bus station, wound through cramped and smelly side-streets, to the private office of a guy he knew that runs a shuttle service. Guess what, no more buses for hours. Shoe shiners and chicken butchers looked up to watch our argument. Cabbie refused to take us to the original destination, but was more than willing to point us to a friend across the street, smiling away in a sweaty tuk-tuk of his own. Another cab, another fare, easy marks for the cabbie scams.
Even before landing in Phnom Phen, we knew we had short time to grab the bags, snag a tourist visa, and catch one of the last morning buses to Siam Reap. We knew we had to be quick, “But if we hustle,” we had told each other, “we can get to Siam Reap before nightfall.”
Bus, minibus, private taxi, and even tiny airplanes ply the tourist triangle between Cambodia’s three chief destinations: Phnom Penh, the capital riding a recent wave of hip tourist success; Siam Reap, the seat of world-famous temple ruins; and Sihounakville, beach bliss and party central station.
We were headed to the temple glory at Siam Reap, and we weren’t off to a glorious start.
I’ll skip the gory details, but let’s just says that us ending up on that bus at that price was not a matter of our choosing.
Now it was just a matter of enjoying the landscape: miles and miles and miles of land flatter than Kansas and drier than a wildfire. The roads run straight as arrows, undeviating, un-undulating, unflattering. The route between Phnom Penh, the capital, and Siam Reap, the archeological wonderland, runs about six or seven hours, straight up a river basin with no more identifying features than squat houses on stilts interspersed in sleepy villages. Twenty minutes in, I was drifting through a strange haze of funky quasi-sleep—not quite resting, not quite aware, eyes scarcely open in a dreamy fog of stilt houses, motorbikes full of families, road construction bumps, and a prodigious stream of sweat rolling down my back.
Then, that lady got sick.
I don’t know how she managed that one, on lanes so straight and so flat, but first she tried to sleep, then she hacked up loads of phlegm, then vomited into a plastic sack.
Thank God for that plastic sack.
Andy offered lotions, water, wet-wipes, anything, and shouted to the front of the bus—in English few wanted to acknowledge they understood—to please stop, someone was sick. Nothing doing–more miles with a smelly sack of… well, yeah, enough of those details.
Andy’s heart was breaking, and she kept shouting to the front.
Someone finally translated, and we stopped in a sweltering stretch of nowhere, the horizon ringed by sparse coconut palms and the corpses of rice fields. Orange dust was blowing over everything. The old couple shuffled out the door to clean up and dumped the sack on the roadside.
I fell asleep.
A few hours later, I woke to a diner clunking by our bus windows. Wheeze around the corner, squeeze into a narrow street, and we were ready for a lunch stop. The driver shouted something in Khmer, and the riders started filing out into the nearby café—heavy dark wood tables, laminated menus with greasy pictures bombarding the dishes in flash so that they all look the same, and prices probably fixed at a day’s wages for a local worker.
Needless to say, Andy and I shucked the tourist-trap and walked around the corner for a half-dozen family shops—tarps on sticks, muddy floors, moms hovering over kettles they’ve cooked deep into nights and through the dark of early morning. Homecooked specials. Dishes washed in a few buckets in the back. Flies buzzing. Plastic chairs. Nearly no English. Ladles of the good stuff, the real cuisine, came steaming to plates of working-class travelers.
We chose a fish soup and a pork curry, and sat back to shoo flies and contemplate our first Khmer meal.
The biggest question on our minds: should we try the fried crickets? How about the grubworms?
Around us, in the shade of the rickety tarp and the haze of curries, wiry men in long pants and dress shirts played chess, oblivious to the temperatures, immaculately sweat-free. Off in the corner, during a lull in service, the women washed dishes in tubs of well-used water and returned them to the cycle of service.
Cambodia features two currencies: the idealist Cambodian Riel, and the de facto US Dollar. Prices everywhere appear either-or: 4,000 Riels trade for 1 Dollar, and there’s not a single coin of US persuasion in the nation—change comes only in Riels.
But more often than not, prices get fixed at $1 for everything. A dollar for a plate of food, a dollar for a glass of tea, a dollar for a sliced pineapple or a fan for the bus or a coconut juice or a pack of batteries. In the rare cases where change is required, a single thousand-Riel note serves as a quarter.
Andy and I owed three dollars for our lunch.
Back on the bus, the second half of the trip was just as eventful as the first—wasteland remnants of rainy-season wonder ticked by the interminable kilometers. Once, I was awake enough to remember Andy asking my why all the houses are on 10 foot tall stilts. I was awake enough to remember saying something about how some places do this for the floods, and some places do it to keep bugs and snakes and critters from coming in the house.
Her theory was better, though: the stilted upstairs creates a perfect place for hammock-swinging beneath.
And that’s generally what we observed in the homes—crowds of cousins and buddies with their scooters parked outside happily chatting away the dry season monotony until showers bring the fields back to life and work to their hands. The hammocks, of course, are pure genius. More than any other nation in Southeast Asia, Cambodia has adopted the hammock and made it her own. I’ve been railing about the lack of hammocks in Indonesia since my first beach trip there nearly two years ago. They still haven’t caught on. They’re years behind Cambodia.
What Java does have an edge on her, though, is in its season. The dry season on our little island isn’t nearly pronounced as this, and with a little ingenuity, most farmers can pull three cycles of crops from the earth each calendar year. In Cambodia, I’ll later learn from a hotel clerk, that number is one: plant in early June, harvest before October. Hope it’s enough to feed everyone for the year.
That simple fact is enough to explain to the existence of such majestic temples like Angkor Wat.
But I could consider that more later—our bus was now in the throes of Siem Reap. Dust swirled, traffic raged, and sun beat down. I hadn’t seen the likes of this since Iraq. Headlights gleamed mysteriously through the coughing red fog. Chaos rained havoc in our ears, and roadside vendors rotisseried chicken and fried up curry in the midst of it all. As our rickety VIP bus coughed into its concrete-and-dust station, we whispered plans for arranging a ride to our lodgings with minimal language and fresh wounds of Cambodian price-gouging.
We cajoled and twisted arms; we pressured the clerks; we forced a phone call through to the hotel and made them honor an online promise for a free pick-up service. The local touts—the ones insisting on inflated prices—cursed us as we pull away in hotel-offered free transport, but we had made it to Siam Reap. Before nightfall.
Welcome to Cambodia.
Looking back, we should have paid a little more and booked a full-sized bus. One fellow traveler shrugged off the ride as nothing: “I slept,” she said sheepishly. “Our bus had beds. And movies. It took a little longer, but I slept it all.”
But that would have been too easy, I guess, for us. Or at least less to write about.