I enjoyed my time in Cambodia but I was ready to move on. I hoped to check in for my morning flight to Saigon the night before but as expected I was too early. It didn’t really matter because I planned to spend the night in the terminal anyway. Then around 11pm I overheard a passenger say, “The airport closes at 1:30 and reopens at 4:30”, my plan to sleep in the airport was dashed. The internet was fickle and godawful slow but eventually I found a 12 dollar room just 10 minutes walk from the airport. However, the neighborhood was sketchy. A recent customer reported she was walking to the guesthouse in broad daylight when a man grabbed the phone out of her hand and casually walked away.
It was near midnight when I started my journey. I hiked across the parking lot and a busy thoroughfare and was close to the alleyway I was to turn down when I lost internet and the map to the guest house evaporated. Three guys in front of a corner store across the way watched me fiddle with my phone. I was attracting too much attention and all the alleyways looked the same, dark and creepy. Confused and bumbling is not a strong look so I turned down the nearest alleyway and strode with an air of confidence. A black rat walked with me for a few strides before veering toward the trash bins behind the store.
As I traveled further and further away from the thoroughfare the alleyway became darker and quieter. I saw no one on the street and nothing that looked like a guesthouse. It was hard to tell if the street was lined with abandoned warehouses or lifeless cinderblock homes. The alley had no outlet so I was forced to turn around and walk past the three guys who had watched me fiddle with my phone. I turned down the next alley.
It too was as black as pitch but near the end stood a concrete fortress-like home with high steel fencing and an electronic gate. It reminded me of those armed compounds you see in movies about Mexican drug lords. There was no gardening, public parking or welcome sign, but the street number matched the one on the website and as I drew closer I could see a sign on the wall that read, ‘guesthouse’.
I was escorted to a room above the garage and offered a hard foam mattress and a pink plastic chair. It was the only guest room and I was the only guest. The brothers who owned the house didn’t seem to live any better than their customers. None of us had air conditioning. But there were two fancy BMWs in the garage which added to the drug cartel ambiance.
The window screens were dubious and my private toilet should have been flushed a week ago. What was left behind had become a brown soup that deposited a series of high water marks on the porcelain as it evaporated. On a more upbeat note the brothers gave me 2 fresh towels, a large bottle of water, and a pack of Kleenex. They even placed a smoldering bug coil near the foot of my bed to keep the mosquitos at bay. Malaria is a problem in Cambodia but fortunately not in Phnom Penh. Assuming the shower was hygienically on par with the toilet I soaped, rinsed and exited quickly. Worried I would oversleep I woke up often that night. At 4 AM one of the brothers unlocked the sturdy gate and let me out.
The gate closed with a screech and loud crash of metal against metal which caught the attention of a pack of feral dogs. I looked back at the brother through the steel bars. His expression had the blankness of an executioner’s. He seemed to know my future. Within moments I was confronted by a pack of snarling fur. Five of the dogs were moderate to small in size but the leader had the heft of a full grown German Shepard and was the most aggressive. He mustered a deep growl and moved closer. I growled back in my most commanding voice, “Get back there!”. Unfortunately there was a language barrier and instead of backing off the big guy hunch down on his forelegs as if he was about to pounce.
At the far end of alley I could see the light from the busy thoroughfare. The big dog and his comrades were blocking my escape. I’ve bicycled thousands of miles and have been chased by a lot of dogs and bitten by one, but on a bicycle you have a speed advantage. This time I was barely moving and badly out numbered. I slid my pack off my shoulder and readied it to be used as a shield and weapon. I figured my first move was to position all six to one side. I kept talking as I moved slowly to the opposite side of the narrow one lane alley and they continued to bark and growl and pace. I avoided direct eye contact but kept the big guy in my peripheral vision. I inched forward slowly and chattered none stop, “Good dog. Bad dog. No! Stay. Get back.” Time passes slowly when you’re attempting to slip past a pack of wild dogs. It was a relief when all six were finally gathered to my right and a joy when they were at last behind me and growing smaller. Even then the big one tracked me with his eyes and let out halfhearted barks each time I looked back.
Then with the pack at a safe distance and the main road within reach I heard a woman’s voice say, “Hello mister. You want massage?”
Who gives massages at 4 in the morning in a pitch black alley patrolled by wild dogs? In a dimly lit garage to my left I saw three woman gathered around a greasy looking guy in a white t-shirt. The women waved. I chuckled and returned the wave and the tension in my neck and upper back melted away.
At the check-in desk the Air Cambodia agent said I needed a ticket for a flight out of Vietnam before he could issue me a boarding pass to Vietnam. I knew that was the policy but none of the previous countries enforced it and I wasn’t sure when I was leaving or where I was headed to next. So I sat down and struggled with my iPhones’ painfully slow connection. Tickets were either sold out or I was taken to sites where my screen froze. I figured I had missed my plane and started working on a plan B, but then the agent walked up and said he could issue me a waiver. It didn’t satisfy Vietnams’ immigration laws it just said I had the funds to buy a ticket upon arrival if they forced me to and that I wouldn’t sue Cambodian Airlines. I signed. Up until the time the plane started rolling and the stewardess announced, “Turn off all electronic devices”, I was desperately searching for a ticket. But for some reason once we left the ground the urgency seemed silly. “What happens, happens,” I said to myself. “A night or two in a communist jail could be interesting.”
Despite having paid in advance for a ‘visa on arrival’ I was forced to fill out the same forms and stand in the same lines as everyone else. The immigration officer in charge maintained a perpetual scowl and communicated only with grunts and life threatening eye movements. He could kill with a glance. After sitting and waiting my fair share I was issued a visa. But I wasn’t done, I had to go through another check point before entering the country. Everyone ahead of me showed their visa then dug for their onward ticket or scrolled their iPhone for an e-ticket to prove that Vietnam was not going to be their forever home. Standing in line I casually googled for tickets but nothing came of it.
When it was my turn I stepped forward and did my cheeriest, “Good morning officer”.
The officer said nothing. He just stamped, shuffled and stapled a huge stack of papers linked to my arrival, handed back my passport and never asked for an onward ticket. It felt great to finally arrive in Vietnam.