By bus we trekked from HCMC to Phnom Penh, taking up a large part of the day. I did not get to see much of the city as that day was mostly spent traveling, but I was longing for dinner by around 9 or 10 o’clock, so I hailed a Tuk Tuk to get me to a nearby Lotteria, a southeast Asian burger chain, as I am both a fast food connoisseur and a scholar in the Americanization of the global food scene. I got a shrimp burger and fries, and admired a red wall sign hosting a tremendous run-on sentence about hamburgers and highways. I hoped it was Kerouac, as that would have made my day to think that On The Road reached international acclaim in use predominantly to sell hamburgers. A cursory Google search, however, yielded not Jack Kerouac but country artist Aaron Tippin as the one who wrote such verbose poetry. Anyway that sort of ruined my night, but the shrimp burger was pretty good.
The following day made the heart even heavier, as the morning and early afternoon were dedicated to viewing the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and beginning to understand the Cambodian Genocide. The Killing Fields south of Phnom Penh were the most difficult. The site of some 130+ mass graves, a third of which were unexcavated to honor the dead, the fields were said to still turn up new bones and clothing during the rainy season. On several rocks, the guides had placed the most recently washed-up bones and teeth, and faded clothing lay in between patches of grass. The central stupa had shelf after shelf of skulls and other bones, with plaques indicating the age, sex, and cause of death of each person whose bones had been excavated. The afternoon of the fourteenth was spent looking at more visually pleasing sights of the Royal Palace and Silver pagoda downtown, after a lunch of delicious green amok, a Cambodian dish of sweet coconut milk, chicken, and vegetables. In the night, the city set off fireworks for the king’s birthday, which we were able to see from the hotel’s rooftop.
On the 15th, we trekked up to Battambang via bus, stopping at several interesting locations on the way. We started at a silver and woodshop where disabled children were taught to make handicrafts to support their families, despite their disabilities. After, we made it to Tonle Sap lake, where we toured a large floating village. As opposed to Brunei’s Kampong Ayer, which is a stilted city on the Brunei River, the floating village on Tonle Sap is anchored and moves with the water level. Always fairly close to shore, the road leading towards the village is a small shantytown of wood and corrugated tin that gets abandoned when the area gets flooded. From the shantytown, you catch a longboat to the floating village. You can watch the kids swim to cool off in the heat and, more often than not, the village kids will wave to you, the odd tourist who decided to visit a strange barge of lake-people as a vacation from your accounting clerk life. The most intriguing sight was the iceman, who cometh with his small boat with crushed ice from a floating factory on the North side of the village, and delivers it quickly to the stores nearby, before it melts. We arrived in Battambang at a very classy hotel called, if I am not mistaken, “Classy Hotel,” with what appeared to be carvings in rich teak adorning the walls. It was exquisite. In the afternoon we attempted to go for a walk, where our guide tried to race me. She is a small woman, so needless to say I won. I’m not bragging, but being far from a natural athlete, you can understand that I feel the need to assert whatever prowess my height and wiry stature affords me. That night we went to a local’s house and grilled our own meat and vegetables, and were treated to the home cooking of our tour guide Rous (pronounced Roo AH) who made a lovely amok.
Waking up in Battambang is generally aided, if not completely caused by, the nearby temple’s sunrise song. Reminiscent of a Salah, it goes seemingly for hours, to much of my group’s dismay. It is, in the parlance of Tim O’Brien, “gook music,” pure and feeling as if it comes out of the Earth itself, as it belongs to the land like the sound of the wind through the trees. One would not expect a westerner such as myself to appreciate the ethereal music, but I thought the sound was transcendent, like walking through a thick jungle and becoming one with the trees and the bugs and the animals. We left our hotel to take a bike tour of the city, with several snack breaks of sticky rice or fresh fruit, and ended at a temple where we met with Buddhist monks who offered a prayer for safe travels. On our way to Siem Reap, we stopped at a very fancy French-style bakery, a roadside barbeque (with rats, crickets and frogs, of which I tried the latter two) and a silk farm. Upon arrival in Siem Reap, I was left alone to do homework and wander around the night markets with endless kroma vendors and special massage parlors. Kroma, for those as uninformed as I was before coming to Cambodia is a cotton scarf used allegedly by locals to keep the sun off the neck, ears, and face. Rous and I were the only people I saw wearing them in the entire country, so something tells me I was lied to, but at least I have a relatively even tan and minimal sunburns. The Australians I was with who were first to knock the Rock-the-Casbah look of the kroma likely cannot say they avoided such a fate. Poor white devils.
The following day was spent wandering the temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Bantheay Srei. View the pictures and the videos, if you dare. It was pretty cool, but not relevant to any narrative or metanarrative other than the American tourist appropriator. That night the squadron went into town for a local dinner (is there any other type) and I spent another night wandering the night markets, getting lost even faster than I got drunk on the town’s ubiquitous fifty-cent beers. Bless the alcoholics of Siem Reap, for they know no cheaper pastime! I became one with them, succumbing to the Siem Reap stupor, drifting lazily from shop to stand to bar to restaurant.
The following day we awoke early for a sunrise Angkor Wat viewing. Overrated if you ask me, but there is something about wandering through an ancient wonder of the world alone that largely explains the appeal for the Indiana Jones movie franchise. This is not even to mention the early morning solitude of the occasion, lending its own spirituality. After that we went to Ta Prohm, famous for it’s being the setting or at least set of the film Tomb Raider. If I am being completely honest, I am still not 100% sure what the movie is about or even what Angelina Jolie (who I am told is in the film) looks like, but hey: Appropriators gonna appropriate. At the local bar on pub street called “The Red Piano”, they even have an “Angelina Jolie” cocktail, in which every tenth customer gets the beverage free. Each meal also came with a free beer so, lucky man that I am, got a meal and two drinks for about five dollars. After a drink or several (for fifty cents who could refuse?), I went to get my feet eaten by fish, which costs but a dollar, and you are given a beer to sip as the fish nibble away at your dead foot-flesh. Good deal. In a small, upscale bar that dared to charge seventy-five cents for a beer, I turned my head to the side and found a wall with a quote by none other than the Prodigal Jack Kerouac on the wall. It was reassuring to know that my thirst for Kerouac quotations in dining establishments in Cambodia would not go unquenched. I was then allowed to hang my literature road scholar hat for the remainder of the trip.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.