At the Phnom Penh airport, before stepping out into the staggering heat, I exchanged a few American dollars for Cambodian riels. An oddity of Cambodia is it uses two different currencies, American dollars for most purchases and Cambodian riels for small purchases. For example, if you are due 10 dollars and fifty cents in change you will be given 10 American dollars and 2000 riels. They don’t use American coins. And unlike the American dollar and many other currencies you can buy the riel only in Cambodia.
After some gentle haggling with the taxi pirates I was ushered into a tuk-tuk. Back in Thailand a hot meal cost as little as a dollar and a decent hostel ten bucks. If my tuk-tuk represented Cambodias’ standard of living my travel costs should be less here. The tuk-tuk was a stained love seat on wheels bolted to the rear of a decrepit motorbike that once upon a time roared with the power of a 125cc Japanese engine. Now it sputtered, coughed and eked out a fraction of that. For structural integrity and security the seat was surrounded on three sides by a thick chicken-wire-like mesh which isn’t a bad idea since on occasion a motorcyclist will speed by and snatch a pack or shoulder bag as he passes.
I clipped my pack to the seat frame and held my stealthy black mirrorless camera tightly with both hands. It was my first visit to Cambodia and since the fare was agreed upon prior to boarding I didn’t mind chugging along at a leisurely pace. But before I reached my hostel leisurely became tedious. My chariot was surrounded by a river of high pitched smoke belching motorcycles and a trickle of ancient single-speed bicycles. And for some reason my driver turned off the engine at stoplights. As our journey progressed the engine became harder and harder to start.
I thought we’d arrive at the hostel in 20 minutes. I was wrong. And after an hour of weaving through the chaotic Phnom Penh traffic the tuk-tuk’s transmission began to fail. On the third attempt at restarting the engine we slowly rolled into the intersection. That’s when the transmission first slipped out of gear and we froze in place. The engine whined, horns beeped and the driver fished with his right foot for the elusive gear. The scene was repeated again and again as we hobbled toward the hostel.
When an old woman on a beat-up bicycle passed us I laughed. An old woman pedaling old technology was faster than a Japanese motorbike. However, as time passed and more and more old ladies pedaled by, the quaint charm of woman vs machine soured. How much longer would it take? I was tired and hungry, the crust of dust on my sweat covered face was thickening and it was getting dark. When we finally arrived the sun was long gone. I tipped the upbeat driver dressed in ill fitting pants and stained shirt with frayed collar as if the ride was flawless and his life depended on it. I suspect it did. After all he was just doing the best he could.
At the hostel the colored lights circling the pool were twinkling and the bar was packed with youthful white teeth and taunt sun-roasted skin. One free beer was included with my stay and a fella from Massachusetts was on stage trying his hand at standup comedy at no extra charge.
Hostels come in a variety of flavors. Traditional hostels welcome all ages and some even have suites for families. Others are more upscale and cater to travelers who have been on earth long enough to have held a proper job with benefits but for some reason they’ve decided to leave it and wander. Then there’s the ‘Party Hostel’. These are often built around a bar and a pool and cater to travelers to whom sex is still a novelty and beer drinking is a sport. The Crazy Monkey was a party hostel. Beers were cheap but the rooms were well worn. None of the electrical outlets near my bed could hold a plug.
The bar was loud and hungry, not my style, but the low hanging new moon was fetching . I walked across the street to the pool. There I studied the moon as it rose, scribbled a few thoughts in my journal, and watched the rats scamper across the patio into the shadows behind my chair. Rats are a common sight in SE Asia. I was too tired to write much and soon headed to my bunk.
Around midnight the two young women who were my roommates started making a ruckus. The room was dark and they were doing their best to speak in whispers but when they started tearing apart the bed next to me I decided to join the conversation.
“I’m sorry for waking you,” said the young woman nearest me as she scanned her pillow with the light from her iPhone. “I think I’m being bitten by bedbugs”.
All three of us inspected her bed and agreed the little creatures crawling across her pillow and up the wall were bedbugs. She called the office and they moved her to another room. It’s hard to fall asleep after seeing bedbugs. By 2AM I was still awake and sure the ghostly touch I felt on my cheek was the feet of a bedbug. I slapped at my face and neck and flipped on the lights. Sure enough, the hungry buggers had found me. Around 3AM I moved into a room with a couple of young guys who had just closed the bar and were heading out to find something to eat. The space had an en-suite shower which was an upgrade but it came with a musty locker room smell and the plug for my iPhone fell out of the wall jack just like it did in my other room. After a few hours of laying still and sweating I took a shower and hiked back to the office to return my key and cancel my reservation. A few blocks away I found a hostel with no pool, bar, or comic for just $7 a night and the wall jacks held plugs securely.
(To be continued)