Up til Cambodia, I’d been pretty fortunate to find travel partners and couchsurfing hosts that I could click really well with. That was until I met D, an Indian lady who was going around Southeast Asia on land. On the surface, she seemed like the perfect travel buddy for me. Well traveled but not jaded, thrifty, interesting job back home with a unique perspective on life, and adventurous.
I met her at the hostel I was staying at in Kampot. Just as we were about to leave, she asked where I was headed to, and since we were both going to Battambang, I asked if I could join her and J, her other travel buddy. We walked about 2km to the edge of town – simple, as Kampot was a sleepy little place with not a lot of traffic. Then the thumb came out. Within 10 minutes, an MPV stopped for us. The couple could speak Mandarin and they were quite curious why we were hitchhiking. I guess it isn’t very common in Cambodia, but it made perfect sense to me. Many half-full cars and trucks were plying the highways. Thye kindly dropped us off about 50km from Phnom Penh, where within 5 minutes, we managed to get another car to take us to Phnom Penh. After that, we parted ways with J, who was going to stay at Phnom Penh. It was much more difficult to get a ride out of Phnom Penh this time, and as we trudged to the highway, the sun was shining mercilessly on us. Once there, we stopped near a petrol station, hoping to get cars to take us on. Many of them wanted some money, but though we could easily afford it, I guess D was adamant about not paying for transport. A couple of buses wanted us to get on, and one of them surprisingly let us board for free, even with front row seats. We hopped on, eager to get some air conditioning. D started complaining about how slowly the bus was going, and I was starting to get a little annoyed with her whining. About 3 hours in, the bus stopped for a break, in the middle of a dusty road. We decided to try getting passing cars to stop for us, and despite it being a really isolated road, an MPV agreed to take us on. I felt really bad to leave the bus, as the driver could see in full view that we were getting on the car, when he had already kindly offered us the free ride. Nonetheless, we got on the car, and it felt like we were speeding like crazy especially after the slow bus ride. The family in the car was rather well to do I think, and midway, the guy in the seat next to the driver took out his US hundred dollar bills and started counting them for some strange reason. Anyway, we reached Battambang much earlier than expected. It had been a full day of hitchhiking, but it probably took less time than what a bus ride would have taken.
We shared a basic room for USD4 a night, and decided to venture to the bat caves by bicycle the next day. What really got to me was her whining. Yes, it was hot. Yes, it was 20km. But damn, she just kept going on and on and stopping every few minutes. I decided to cycle slowly, but just went ahead. When I was almost at the cave, I couldn’t see her at the back and was feeling a little gleeful as I thought I had lost her. To my dismay, she appeared about 20 minutes later, and told me that she left her bicycle by the side of the road and had hitched her last few km here. When we were heading back to Battambang, it was about an hour til darkness. The village roads didn’t have any street lamps, so I wanted to go as quickly as possible to avoid cycling in the dark next to huge trucks. But she was tired, and kept trying to get trucks to stop and take us on. I reminded her that it was next to impossible to hitch a ride with our bikes, especially when the truck drivers were now probably rushing back to town too. We stopped, and stopped and stopped.
After a couple of days in Battambang, we hitched our way to Siemreap. Another MPV, this time with just a single guy driving. He could speak a little English, and was asking us where we were going to stay if we had no money to even take a bus. At that point of time, I started to feel really guilty as he probably earned less than me. To make things worse, D was being rather demanding and rude to him, asking him to drop her off a little out of town where she was going to stay with a friend. It was then that I decided I had enough of her, and decided to ditch our plans to go to Angkor Wat together. After she left, the driver offered to take me to lunch and offered me some cash, but I felt really bad and told him I’d manage on my own.
When I went to Angkor Wat the next day, on a motorbike with the hostel owner’s brother, I was so glad to be on my own this time. Angkor Wat was what I came to Cambodia for, and I didn’t want the experience to be ruined by anyone’s whining. As Murphy’s law would have it, I bumped into her at one of the temples. The Angkor compound is huge, and I have no idea how that happened. Thankfully, I came up with a lame excuse (she probably saw through it but I didn’t care), and told her that we should go our separate ways.
This experience really highlighted how a travel buddy makes or breaks your journey. It also reminded me ow much of a coward I am when it comes to telling other people the truth when I think it will hurt. I’d rather keep quiet, not say a thing and then disappear, leaving the other person in confusion as to what happened. For me, I hate making things awkward, so I prefer to take the easy way out. But I know this is something I’ve got to work on.
Nonetheless, some of the highlights of Cambodia for me were:
- Couchsurfing with C in Phnom Penh. C was a Singaporean who had moved to Phnom Penh for work. His huge apartment was a 5 minute walk to the Royal Palace, and was a welcome respite from the heat. He brought me his friend’s (also a Singaporean) restaurant, where I had my first taste of loklak – beef with Cambodian black pepper and lime. We had a walk after dinner, and he brought me to a district where the people had refused to move despite the government wanting to tear down the houses to make way for new developments. As such, it was left to wither without maintenance, without garbage collection. And it was just a few streets away from the tourist center – the contrast was stark. Such a thing would never happen in Singapore, the government would probably buy the people over or find a way to kick them out in a do-or-die manner. We also walked to Aeon mall, at the edge of the city, where many condos were being built. I think in a few years time, Phnom Penh is going to be even more crowded that it already is, this time with expats. My favourite part of Phnom Penh was when I waited for the bus to Kampot at 6.30 in the morning. The park outside C’s place was slowly coming to life, people jogging, street side vendors coming to work and the elderly having their morning walks.
- The Cheung Ek memorial. I took a motorbike ride with one of the guys outside the Royal Palace to the memorial, and there was an air of solemnity and sadness throughout the whole place. Thousands of innocent people who were killed during the Khmer Rouge were buried here, and as I walked through the place, you could almost imagine the brutal deaths they suffered. At the corner of the memorial, just outside the fence, an old man with one leg and a crutch holding a kid was peering through the fence, looking at all the tourists inside. I felt absolutely guilty for being so fortunate. The motorbike driver took me to a museum depicting the horrors of the war after that, and it was chilling to read the accounts of those who suffered during the war. Women were forced to marry, men were literally lined up in a row and shot dead.
- The tuktuk ride to the salt fields of Kampot. Just as I arrived in Kampot, I bumped into three other tourists staying at the hostel who were haggling with a tuktuk driver. As I had no plans that afternoon, I decided to join them to wherever they were going to. The tuktuk driver took us on a quick tour around the villages around Kampot, and the highlight was definitely the salt fields. I saw how they were carefully drying salt in vast squares of land, careful not to break the layer of salt that had crystalised on the surface. Apparently, the salt sells for USD80 a ton, which is… cheap? It’s hard to gauge. We went into a warehouse where the salt was stored in, the wooden shed was filled three-quarters of the way to the ceiling with large salt crystals, and we slid up and down the mounds of salt. Good times, capped with an awesome sunset to boot.
- Cycling to the bat cave. Ignoring the fact that D was being annoying, the ride was really enjoyable. We passed through a village that looked like it was stuck in the 70s, rode past a few weddings with Cambodian music blaring from speakers and didn’t see any other tourists along the way. Actually, we ended up far from the cave, but it was an ideal spot as we could actually see the bats flying out at sunset. Everyday, 8 million bats do their daily migration at 6ish pm, and it was a sight to behold.
- Angkor Wat on a motorbike. The hostel owner’s brother, J, was great company. He didn’t speak english but we some how communicated. He brought me to a hidden temple in the jungle, and we chilled there for a while to escape the afternoon heat. As I wanted to see sunset somewhere away from the crowds, he suggested going to a rice field to watch it. We went to his family’s house for a while where I met his sister and mum, before setting off again. At night, he brought me to a Cambodian concert and it was quite an experience. USD0.25 beers, Cambodian techno music and street food. Heaven. Before heading back to the hostel, we stopped for a late night snack of the Cambodian equivalent of a banh mi pate sandwich, and he kissed me good night on the cheek. The next day, we went to a beach just outside of town, where families were chilling on hammocks and kids were swimming in the lake, which had tiny rice plants starting to sprout. Who needs a beach chair when you have a hammock.
- Angkor Wat on a bicycle. I decided to go to the temples again to make full use of my 3 day pass. I had seen sunrise the previous day, at the standard entrance which was absolutely swamped with tourists. I made it just in time to the other side entrance, where I was pretty much alone and chilled there for a bit before the mosquitos joined me. I think it was good that I had gone to the temples with J the day before as it made navigating around much easier. Going alone this time, I visited my favourite temples once more in a reverse route from the tour buses, and managed to escape the crowds.
- The markets throughout the country. I went to a few, in Phnom Penh, where it was housed in a beautiful compound not unlike those you’d find in Europe, to the street side one in Battambang and the huge maze-like on in Siem Reap. The sights, smells and variety of stuff they sell is an assault on the senses, in a good way. I loved how women were selling fish on the floor, right next to mounds of vegetables which were next to a stall selling chickens. And just a few roads down, you could find people selling souvenirs and jewelry.
It was my first time cycling on big roads while traveling, or even, first time cycling while traveling. I had just learnt how to cycle a few months before, and thank god, everything went well. Best part of cycling in a hot country like Cambodia was, when I stopped for sugarcane juice and fruit shakes, they always tasted like heaven.