Cambodian Monk

My least favourite part about travelling anywhere, is getting home.  And this time it was going to be a two-day affair, sans fearless boyfriend.

Ten months of my life was now crammed unceremoniously into a suitcase whose admittance onto the airplane was going to be questionable due to its excessive weight.  Not able to bear seeing my newly emptied closet, Tyson hung a few of his own shirts there.  A bag of giveaway clothes sat in the corner of the room, ready to be left at a street corner.

A few weeks prior to my flights, I began to toy with the idea of taking a bus from Phnom Penh to Bangkok instead of a flight.  I had a few reasons for wanting to do this, but getting to see the countryside and saving money were really only masking the fact that my apprehension of flying was making me nervous about piling on yet another airplane ride to an already flight-heavy trip.

So I booked the bus!  And it turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made.  At least it is something to write about.

Saying goodbye to Tyson was difficult and teary, but as my bus pulled out of Phnom Penh, I settled down and prepared myself for thirteen hours of travel.  It was early in the morning and I’d forgotten all the food I’d prepared in the fridge, but my stomach was in knots from leaving my partner behind, so I barely cared.

Two hours into the trip, the bus veered off the road quite dramatically and I realized we had a flat tire.  The driver, a man who looked seasoned at his job, jumped out of his seat, pulled off his shirt and began tinkering with the bolts.  He couldn’t get them off.  Neither could a small team of younger Khmer guys who’d grouped around the flaccid tire to help.  Meanwhile Khmer was swirling above my head chaotically and I realized I had no idea what was going on.

Finally a guy came over and explained to me in broken English that we had to flag down another bus.  We waited about an hour, and then all squeezed onto one that had pulled up to see what was going on.  Thankfully both had started out half empty.

After lugging my heavy suitcase from the boot of the original bus, and pouting long enough to have someone stronger heave it into the new one, we were off.  I plunked down next to an Indian guy who didn’t have a seat mate.  We began to chat, and I made a new friend on the bus that day.  Reacher has committed himself to five years of voluntary missionary work in Phnom Penh.  While I’m always apprehensive about preaching Christianity in a Buddhist country, Reacher is a kind, gentle man who seems to be doing a lot of work out of the goodness of his heart.  After all, we’re all human, and can relate on that level.  It was nice to have an English-speaker to chat with.  He told me all about his wife and daughter, life in India, and what it was like to have an arranged marriage.

Reacher got off the bus five hours later in Battambang, and we said goodbye.  Twelve of us waited around to see how the company would handle getting us to the border, since our defunct bus had been unable to do the job, and was probably still languishing on the side of the road outside of Phnom Penh.

The bus carried on, and within two hours we made it to the border.  What a chaotic place.  Poipet, a small and somewhat dull Cambodian town, has the pleasure of servicing a hectic Thai border, and all the travellers who come through it.  We were herded off the bus, given blue stickers to wear as though we were a tour group about to visit Angkor Wat, and pointed towards the border.

I grappled with my suitcase, and began to lug it through the street.  It was so heavy, and the uneven pavement didn’t help it’s inadequate little wheels get me to where I needed to go.  We exited Cambodia without much hassle, though I had a bit of a hold up, and was openly offered to bribe them to hurry up.  I declined out of principle.

Then I had to lug my suitcase down the road to the official Thai border, which was an enormous pain.  Sweat trickled down my face and dampened my shirt.  My rings caused angry red trenches to form on my fingers from gripping the handle so hard.  This obese suitcase was like a stubborn cow, and I was pulling it across the border.

Getting into Thailand was easy, and from there we were escorted, bloated suitcase in tow, across a parking lot where we boarded a mini van.  Our driver was walking fast, and I had difficulty keeping up, but the stress of lagging so far behind that I’d get lost kept me going.

Drivers in Cambodia are bad.  But at least they have uneven, narrow roads to slow them down, and wanderlust cattle to keep them alert.  In Thailand the roads are as modern as they are in Canada, but the traffic sure isn’t.  Our van driver was a maniac.  I have been on many busses and vans in the last year, and even got used to the incessant swerving, but none of that prepared me for this experience.  Our van took off, and I soon realized that if I didn’t spend the duration of the ride facing forward, eyes on the horizon, I’d become a victim of car-sickness.  Our driver had a lead foot, regardless of whether it was on the brake or the gas.  He swerved in and out of traffic as if we were playing a game of roulette, taunting the oncoming cars.

The gentleman sitting next to me decided to remove his shoes, and prop one smelly foot onto his knee, placing it in proximity of my nose.  I kept looking out the window.

Afternoon turned into evening, and as the last of the light was sucked into darkness, the horizon I’d been so keenly watching disappeared.  I breathed deeply, willing my stomach to stay settled.  And then people all around me began to get sick.  I was suddenly surrounded by the sounds and smells of vomiting into plastic bags.  I was the only foreigner on the bus, if you counted the Cambodians as locals, and even their hardy stomachs could not handle the swerving, braking and accelerating.  I found myself in a stinky, nauseating hell, wishing for the innocent smell of feet.

A total of three people were getting sick, and while there was no way the driver could have been oblivious to it, he ignored it and kept going.  People continued to puke, and others had bags out, just in case.  I started wishing I was on an airplane.

We made a pitstop at a 7-11, the first I’d seen in months.  I jumped out of the bus, scooping huge breaths of fresh air into my lungs.  The others rambled off the bus.  The driver pointed towards the store and made the motion of eating.  I smiled and shook my head.  Like I’d be able to consume anything.  I was lucky that sickness had not overcome me, but decided not to tempt fate by filling my empty stomach.

To my absolute astonishment, the three people who had been puking were now eating.  After we piled back into the van, and continued to barrel towards Bangkok, they began vomiting again.  What a mess.

Three horrid hours after leaving the border, the van dropped me off near a turn-off to the airport, and I jumped out, relieved.  I hailed down a cab, and happily headed away from that leg of my journey.  Surely things were about to get a lot easier.

The Bangkok airport is like an enormous glass palace, a trophy dedicated to commercial aviation.  It is sleek, modern and architecturally beautiful in a cold, distant sort of way.  The outside is lit in an ambient wash of blue, that seeps through the glass and into the airport itself.  It made me feel like I was on the set of some sort of futuristic movie.  The airport grounds are monolithic.

By this point it was about 9pm, and my intention was to find the United Airlines counter, check in and spend the night sleeping on my stubborn suitcase, on the other side of security.  Tyson knew I’d be arriving at about this time, and my family was also waiting to hear from me, so I knew that after I checked in, I’d grab some food and then find wifi.

But the United Airlines counter was closed, and when I enquired with Information, they told me that it would not be open until the following morning.  This meant I either had to spend the night on cold metal chairs, or find a hotel.

I dragged my sluggish suitcase, like a ball and chain, through the airport, towards a place that had wifi.  My fingers were blistered and stiff.  When I got there I couldn’t get the wifi to work on my ipod, and the place was far too busy for me to start scattering my belongings in order to access my computer.  I felt lost, a bit sorry for myself and very pathetic.  Here I was, dressed like a hippie in more layers than I’d normally ever wear, surrounded by beautiful Thai people and expensive things, I had far too much luggage, and nowhere to go.  The place was cold, over air-conditioned and I shivered, wishing I had even more layers.

I pushed my suitcase into a nearby convenience store and bought a bottle of chocolate milk, some water and a tuna sandwich.  I was hungry, tired and anxious.  I sat for a few moments and stared at my things vacantly.  I was carrying so much that I could barely handle transporting it around the airport.  My shoulders hurt, my eyes hurt and my heart hurt.

Realizing that self-pity was doing me no good, I got up and lugged my things back to Information.  I enquired about a hotel and was told that the airport had a Novotel, and I could get to it on the lower floor.  By this point I had found a cart, and loaded my things onto that.  I felt like a wide-load, constantly getting in the way as I manoeuvred around the airport.

When I got to the escalator, I pushed my suitcase off the cart and trundled it towards the descent.  I realized that the thing was way too heavy to control on moving stairs, and turned around in time to see someone grab my cart and head off with it.  Back to Information I went, asked about an elevator, found it and used it to get downstairs.

At the Novotel counter, I enquired about a room.  The price they quoted me was over $100, but they promised me it included wifi.  I didn’t really have any other options, and I was impatient to get in touch with Tyson and let him know I’d arrived safely.  I reluctantly agreed, but when they called over to book my room, they informed me they were full.

I was now being herded towards arrivals, and found myself surrounded by people offering me cheap accommodation nearby.  I looked at a group of guys trying to push hotel signs in my face, and walked past them.  I spotted a girl off to the side, and approached her.  She offered me accommodation nearby, for half the price of the Novotel.  I inhaled slowly.  How was I to trust anyone?  What if these people just wanted to run off with my stuff?

In Cambodia, scamming happens, but it is very simply thought-out and executed, and easy to spot and avoid with common sense.  Thailand is a completely different ballgame, where people use critical thinking to devise elaborate scams geared at foreigners.  Was I walking into one of those?

Weary from my travels, and knowing that my journey home was just half finished, I agreed to stay at the hotel she was offering, and waited for the shuttle to pick me up.  Turns out it was completely legitimate, and the place was plain, but clean with friendly staff.  I got in touch with Tyson and my family and reassured both that I was safe and ready to board my flight the following morning.

I got up at 3:30am, and failing to get the hot shower to work, woke myself brutally with cold water.  I boarded the shuttle and went back to the airport.

My suitcase weighed more than what was allowed, but they let it on anyway.  I boarded the plane, and sat next to Tyson’s empty seat.  I was sweaty and nervous, but putting things into perspective, realized that nothing could be worse than my previous day’s experience.  Just as the last few passengers were straggling on, a guy showed up to claim Tyson’s seat.  I looked at him, surprised.

“You must have booked that last minute,” I said, a bit disappointed in not having the extra room.

“Yup, I was on standby,” he said.  Dammit.

The guy sat down, and looked at me.  “How did you know?”  I explained to him about Tyson, and how I was headed home alone.  From that moment on we didn’t stop talking for the duration of the six-hour flight.  Turns out Jason is a flight attendant for an American carrier, and he helped ease me through the take-off, my least favourite part.  He’s from Florida, and our conversation spanned politics, religion, global issues, and all the differences between Canada and the US.  I’m ready to make him an honourary citizen!

He was flying with his partner and two other friends, and because they were all on standby, were scattered throughout the plane.  When we disembarked in Tokyo, I got to meet the others, all flight attendants as well, and they were a really nice bunch.  I had a four-hour layover and announced that I intended to eat sushi during that time.  They whole-heartedly agreed, and we all hunkered down in a little restaurant near our gate.  $16 got me the most delicious california roll I’ve ever eaten, and it was worth every dollar.  I decided not to spend an additional $16 on sake, but got to taste Jason’s.  It was amazing too.

I bid Jason and the others farewell, and he told me that with work, he could arrange to fly into Seattle and overlay a night.  I told him to give me a bit of notice and I’d meet him there for some shopping and camaraderie.  I laughed, gave him a hug and told him he was way better than an empty seat could ever be.  “I even have one on my next flight for you!”  I said.

A couple of hours later, I spotted the Air Canada plane glide up to my gate.  I hadn’t seen one in a year, and it felt good to know I was going home.

Being away from my country has made me realize that I love being Canadian.  We are polite, friendly, and internationally welcomed.  We have a reputation for being good people, and I made sure to prove that every day I was gone.

Coming home feels good.  I’m ready.  My experiences in Cambodia have been eye-opening, mind-opening, and have made me appreciative of what I have been handed in life.  I know a little bit more about who I am.  I am a lucky human being, and while I miss my job, my friends and my SE Asian lifestyle, it’s time to put my mind to other things.  Cambodia has so many issues that it amazes me the country is even surviving.  I’ve seen gut-wrenching poverty, corruption and greed.  And I realize that some of these issues exist in Canada too.  I want to spend more energy on home-soil, perhaps helping our homeless people, native people and putting a stop to the Embridge pipeline.

Cambodia is in my heart, and it has a special place there.  I would like to return in the future, perhaps to the job I just left.  I know that one day soon I’ll itch to travel again.

But for now, I’m bidding the Kingdom of Cambodia farewell.