I traveled alone on a one-way ticket to Cambodia. I’ve been robbed by a monkey and trapped in an elevator in Phnom Pen. I seen a child eat a live tarantula in Siem Reap. I partied like a rock star in Sihanoukville. My transformation from first time traveler to expert backpacker is complete. Been there…Done that…Got the T-shirt.
Escaping Never Never Land
August 2013 to January 2014
Wrightsville Beach is a four-mile-long island off the coast of North Carolina. About 2,000 residents live on this small sliver of land year-round but the population explodes during the summers with 10’s of thousands of tourists descending like locusts from a biblical plague. Wrightsville is like Never Never Land. As time goes by your body will continue to grow, you’ll eventually begin to look like an adult, but sadly still act like a child…just like Peter Pan.
From time to time I would research places around the world. Of course I wanted to leave, but I never thought I’d be brave enough to do so. The “locals” become nervous and anxious when they have to cross the drawbridge to leave…afraid they won’t be able to get back perhaps! Another minor issue…I had no idea how to travel. It’s important to realize, I didn’t know how to drive a car and my skateboard was my only form of transportation. Under those circumstances I was stuck here like hairs trapped in a drainpipe.
One day, I discovered this magical thing called blogging. This awesome invention became my new obsession. I loved learning about other people’s amazing adventures. And I had an epiphany: if other young girls were traveling around the world, then why couldn’t I? Not only did this give me hope but also inspired me.
Without delay I began devising my escape plan. I knew my friends and family would disapprove and would probably have me involuntarily committed. With this in mind, I told no one about my plans to travel the world. I began to make a travel to-do-list. First, I had to graduate college, second I needed to save as much money as possible, third choose a country, and fourth decide on an execution date.
Without delay I devoted 100% of my time to my to-do-list. As a result,
my life got a little bit difficult. While my friends got hammered at the local beach bars, I was working extra shifts to save money. Lets justsay, friendship is like money, easier made than kept. On the positive side I eventually got all my boxes checked. I graduated, saved $3,000 dollars and used my graduation money to purchase my nine-hundred-dollar one-way ticket to Cambodia. This girl was on fire…watch out world!
January 6 to January 10
My journey began at the Chicago, O’Hare Airport. I stared at my dad while we ate breakfast in the international terminal. We both took a sip of our Starbucks coffee and sat in silence. I think were both scared, and possibly suffering from extreme shock. Finally, my dad handed me my passport, then we said our farewells, and away I went. No tissues…no drama…no problem.
My first flight was from Chicago to South Korea. I board the plane…or “ship” as they say in the sci-fi movies. This thing was as long as a football field. Not only is my seat in the last row but also right by the engine. Even though I had the worst assigned seat, I take a deep breath, buckled my seat belt, and prepared for take off.
Not only was this the longest flight I’d ever been on but also my first international flight! After twelve hours of reading, watching movies, and daydreaming, I finally arrived! My backside was delayed…ouch. My second flight was only 5 hours long, but it felt like eternity. Although I didn’t sleep a wink, I was filled with energy, and I felt like the energizer bunny.
After twenty-six hours of traveling, I finally arrived in Phnom Pen, Cambodia. First, I had to wait in a massive line for my tourist visa, which was twenty dollars. Next I had to wait for my gigantic bag, and then I had to wait in another huge line for a tuk-tuk. A tuk-tuk is like a taxi but instead of a car it’s a motto bike that pulls a carriage. Funny, no matter where you go in this world, you can always count on the dreaded “line”.
On the way to the hotel, I scanned the streets of Phnom Pen. Words can’t even explain the madness. There was over a billion motto bikes driving like demons everywhere. The pollution is terrible. In order to not die of lung cancer it’s critical that you wear a mask to help filter the air. Not only is the air disgusting but also the city is covered in trash. I thought I was prepared to see the unexpected. I thought I was ready to see the other side of the world, but truth be told nothing can really prepare you for Phnom Pen.
The Hotel From Hell
The tuk tuk driver stopped and signaled me to get out. I begun to have a mini panic attack as this didn’t look like my hotel. But before I could say anything the driver unloaded my bags and away he went in a choking cloud of exhaust.
Wow, this hotel’s advertising is total bullshit. Online their website states “Walking distance to the mall, bars, and restaurants” when apparently what this really means is “once you get past the slums, lethal sewerage plant, and cross the dangerous highway surrounding the hotel, you can find a street food cart serving some fried dog.” And “no”… I do not know if it tastes like chicken (Note to self: Never book online).
On the way up to my room, I heard a European couple refer to this area as the ghetto. They took the words right out of my mouth. The elevator opened to the sixth floor, I walked out and searched for room number 654. I had a mini melt down as I imagined what the room was going look like. I took a deep breath as I opened the door, but to my surprise, it wasn’t too bad. The room was clean, came with cable TV, air conditioning, and hot water. I had just started to feel better about this place, but then I walked into the bathroom. The bathroom had a sink and a toilet and a showerhead. Yes, a showerhead that pointed right out from the wall. Where was the tub and shower curtain? Weird. Cambodians take the term bathroom literally, a room you bathe in.
It’s important to note that I stayed in a hotel because I had not been introduced to the world of hostels…yet…much to my chagrin and rapidly draining wallet. I was spending twenty dollars a night; however, I could have stayed at a hostel for $3.00. I know now, as a “professional” backpacker, that staying in hostels is the key to living on a budget and saving enough money to be able to experience that next incredible site or life-altering experience.
I saw my very first wild monkey. I was strolling along the riverfront and came across the most adorable monkey. The monkey was just setting in the middle of the sidewalk. Wow, what a great opportunity to take a picture. I bent down to get a good angle and just as my finger hit the take button, the monkey sprinted towards me. I lost my balance and fell backwards. Not only did I fall on my bum but also the monkey and I were now face to face. Before I knew it the monkey grabbed my sunglasses right off of my face and ran away. I couldn’t believe it…I had just gotten robbed by a monkey!
The Evil Cambodian Elevator VS The USA
It’s my final night in Phnom Pen and decided to celebrate living through this experience so I went out to a roof-top bar to relax and have a good time. As the night grew late (or the morning…early?) the crowd started to dwindle; therefore I decided to leave. I boarded the elevator along with seven other people.
HOWEVER…I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN…Mr. Murphy (as in Murphy’s’ Law) also happened to be enjoying the sights in Cambodia. Here’s where the creepy, Friday the 13th music starts…figuratively of course. After loading onto the elevator, it descended downward towards the ground floor. Unexpectedly… (Yeah right) it….stopped. At first, everyone was pretty intoxicated and thought this was hilarious. Short attention span later, we realized that the emergency button was useless and no one could hear our screams for help because of the loud bar music.
A wave of panic filled the small (and getting rapidly smaller…figuratively once again) elevator car. One girl literally freaked out and peed on herself (maybe she was claustrophobic). So…..after about two hours, one of the bar staff was able to crack open the door with a tiny stone (so high tech) so we could get fresh air…which is always appreciated. We attempted every escape method we had seen in the movies- climbing up the wall to push open the ceiling, pressing down all of the buttons at once, using everyone’s hands to force open the doors…..nothing…nada…it was useless. Where’s Bruce Willis when you need him. After 3 hours had passed everyone was totally losing it. I began to wonder if a human skull could be used to break down the door….hummmm. Then someone with the bar staff had an epiphany; they stuck a straw through the crack in the door, the other end of which was linked to a glass of rum punch. Was this their way of calming us down? Or did they realize that we would use less oxygen if unconscious. After hours of sitting, panicking, and drinking rum punch the staff managed to finally open the doors and we were saved! So on the way back to my hotel I began to wonder in my delirium what’s next: massive meteor strikes the Earth or alien invasion? I’m happy to be able to report….neither
January 10 to January 13
On most bus rides if someone has to go to the bathroom, the bus will just pull over for you to wee in the grass. But apparently in this part of the country there were ancient landmines scattered across the side of highways…so…..may you live in interesting times.
Anyhow, I got off the bus and started walking towards a roadside store, when an adorable local child approached me. I smiled as the child held out his hand. “AAAAAHHHH….CUTE!” At first, I thought maybe he wanted to hold hands, but then I noticed he was holding something. I took a closer look, and I could not believe my eyes, he was holding a GIANT TARANTULA! I screamed with fear. The boy started walking closer as I scrambled backward. The bus driver then informed me with a bored tone, that if I wanted him to leave me alone, I’d have to pay him a dollar. WHAT? I frantically reached into my pocket and handed the child a dollar. The child snatched the dollar away from me, and then proceeded to eat the tarantula alive…oh…my…god. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Apparently, children in this area get money by torturing tourists with tarantulas. Thanks for the warning National Geographic!
Temples of Angkor
People come from around the world to see the ancient temples of Angkor. During my stay in Siam Reap I toured the famous Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm temples. First, we explored the enormous temple of Angkor Wat. Although the temple is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it’s extremely crowded, and waiting to go to the upper level was like waiting in line to buy the next IPhone at the midnight release. Despite the long wait and crowds, the view from the upper level was breathtaking and an experience not to be forgotten. I also explored Ta Prohm temple… you might remember it from the blockbuster movie hit, Tomb Raider. Unless you have Laura Croft along while searching for this landmark, keep your eyes open, and stay alert, or you might miss it. Hidden in the jungle, surrounded by trees as tall as skyscrapers, sits Ta Prohm. Gigantic tree roots cover the walls, but if you look closely you’ll uncover the hidden engravings and exquisite architecture. Although this temple is less crowded, the roots cover the wall art and camouflage the temple. Both temples are must-see attractions and trust me; these beautiful masterpieces will inspire you.
Obviously people travel to Siam Reap to explore the famous temples of Angkor. But this tourist town also has an impressive nightlife. On Saturday night I went to Pub Street, this is the place to be after dark. Pub Street is lined with bars, clubs, and restaurants; one long street with many venues to choose from to fulfill your party animal needs. This party girl spent the entire night at Angkor What Bar. The walls were decorated with graffiti, packed with expats and backpackers, and everyone was dancing. Altogether one hell of a party, probably because the drinks are less than a dollar! That’s right people; an Angkor beer is only seventy-five cents…pace yourself!
Sihanoukville is a must-see… put it on your bucket list. Trust me; you haven’t partied until you’ve been here. I like to call it my happy place, as it’s every backpacker’s paradise. You’ll meet the most incredible people, save money (always a good thing), and party like a rock star. Travel with caution, however; I met many expats who all had the same story, came to Sihanoukville during their backpacking adventure, never left, and decided to make it home sweet home. Although the place is terrific, it has serious side effects. For instance, you’ll probably need a therapy session to cope with your separation anxiety, and you’ll need a day or two to recover from all the cheap alcohol you’ve consumed.
The Best Day Ever
All my dreams came true in Sihanoukville. This adorable beachside town will rock your world; it’s the perfect place for backpackers. After hours of debating how to spend my last day in Cambodia I finally booked a day trip with Sun-Tours, and my ticket was only $25.00. This three-story luxury motor yacht picked me up at 10:00am from the Victory Beach Pier. While aboard all meals, drinks, snorkeling, and fishing gear were included. My day consisted of snorkeling, doing backflips off the third story deck, and exploring a beautiful island. I wish this tour would have lasted forever but it sadly came to an end, and the boat dropped me back off at the pier at 5:00pm…sigh. (Side Tip: Keep your belongings with you at all times! One of the passengers had their IPhone stolen and someone stole my shoes).
January 13 to January 17
In the heart of Sihanoukville, along the beach you’ll find multiple bars and restaurants. Not only do you get to eat on the beach with your toes in the sand, but also the food is excellent and the service is exceptional. Although the restaurants are fantastic, be ready for your meal to be interrupted frequently by children begging you to buy their handmade goods.
The children of SihanoukVille will do anything for you to buy something, they will cry, and maybe even call you names. Be prepared to feel a little uncomfortable. One night at dinner, a little girl came to our table and insisted that we buy something. One of my friends told the girl that he had to save his money for a hair cut. The little girl came back with a pair of scissors and offered to cut his hair for two dollars. Believe it or not, he let this child cut his hair. I was shocked! Expect the un-expected!
Sleep. Eat. Party. Repeat. Utopia.
In Sihanoukville, everything gets hotter when the sun goes down. Also located in downtown Sihanoukville is Utopia, which is what I like to call the best place on earth. This bargain spot is not only a poolside bar but also a restaurant, and guesthouse. The menu has a huge variety, from Thai and American, to Italian foods, starting at only a dollar. This is the ideal spot for backpackers. Actually backpackers designed Utopia for people just like me. This is truly backpacker heaven; they offer everything your heart desires at a super cheap price. The hostel is only a dollar a night in addition to a pool, a twenty-five person hot tub, gym, huge bar, movie theater, Wi-Fi, and twenty-five cent beers. Every night there’s a beer pong tournament, fire shows, and an out of this world happy hour discount! It’s the perfect place; maybe that’s why they call it Utopia.
Cambodia Taught Me….
Some backpackers say Cambodia is the cheapest country in Southeast Asia and just stepping foot in the country saves you money. However, based on my personal, “expert” (LOL) opinion, I would disagree. In fact, while backpacking through South East Asia, I visited multiple countries and I spent the most money in Cambodia. Here’s what I learned while in Cambodia….
- Let’s start with some “adult beverage math” even though a beer at a bar is only a dollar, it really starts to add up, and mixed drinks are at least five dollars. But there is a cheaper way to drink. First, buy your alcohol at a mini mart and then bring it to the bar. Yes, on Pub Street and in downtown Sihanoukville you can bring your own beer into the bars. Let me explain, Cambodia does not have an open container law and almost all the bars in theses places are outside.
- Tuk tuk’s are a wallet suck of biblical proportions. These ‘contraptions’ are what happens when a motorbike and a carriage down a fifth of tequila together and nature takes its course. No matter how short the distance it’s at least two dollars… per person. If you don’t want to spend a fortune on transportation you do have options: walk, rent a motto bike, or get a motto bike taxi. Choosing one of these options will save you a lot of money but you’ll be putting your life at risk with ALL THREE! While walking you could be run over; driving your own bike…(seriously?) and a motto bike taxi means climbing on the bike behind your native “limo driver” and holding on for dear life (kill me now…). Please remember, the traffic in Cambodia is horrific and people drive like they’re blindfolded…and drunk…and high…all at the same time…not for the faint of heart. I think about the sign at amusement parks before the really nasty rides that warn you about riding if you have a heart condition, etc., etc. Your life is priceless, I suggest always taking a tuk tuk…dollars be damned.
- If you’re a western person in Cambodia, you’ll be expected to pay with American dollars. At first, I didn’t think paying in American money was a big deal, but then it hit me, I was being ripped off. For example, that lovely, “gotta have it” bracelet might only cost 2,000 riel (what a bargain!) but the local Cambodian merchant will charge you a dollar. Now…wait for it…reality bite: you’re paying 4037 riel! Some seasoned worldly traveler I am. The key is to pretend you’re an expat not a backpacker. The key to pretending you’re an expat is being able to communicate, just saying a few simple phrases in their native language will make them assume you’ve been here for a while, and can’t be tricked into paying double the amount. In order to bargain and get the true Cambodian price you’ll have to learn how to say hello, how much, and some numbers in their native language. As I learned long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…well… Wrightsville Beach, NC anyway…don’t act, dress or appear to be a “Turion” (tourist) and you won’t get ripped off as much.
By Laura Coleman, facebook.com/lauren.thailand