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Beating culture shock on arrival in Cambodia


Before my month-long trip, my friend told me about a travel show he had seen on cable where a single woman travelled by train from Laos through Thailand and Cambodia to Vietnam. He learned from this episode that South East Asia was one of the safest places for a solo female to explore. So as my departure date neared, his recounting of that episode calmed my ever-heightening pre-trip anxieties. But then once my feet touched the ground, I couldn’t stop thinking about her; and by the end of my trip, I hated that woman. I didn’t want to know about the stories of accomplished travelers exploring exotic lands and finding themselves. I craved the stories from people who got off the plane sweating like pigs naked on the highway and scared to death.

I fantasize that I’m that woman, the cool one who gets off the plane perky and bubbly, striking up rousing conversations with strangers. Miss Travel Show would not have been self-conscious. I saw her standing at exotic market stalls sampling the food while she talks to the camera about the market’s history and the area’s come-back after the war. I imagined her perfectly rounded backside filling out expensive moisture wicking green khakis, her white shirt emphasizing her perkiness, and her makeup flawless as she talks about her evening by the water with a couple from Australia. When I arrived in Phnom Penh, however, just travelling to the hotel room was enough.

The half hour ride from airport to hotel revealed a city in disarray. The scene outside my taxi window disarmed me. We drove along pothole-littered streets where gutters were clogged with floating filth. Livestock gathered near puddles. The roadsides were a virtual human wasteland of industry—machine parts tires, aluminum, cement, and steel. We drove in silence past one neglected storefront after another, garages like dioramas that revealed both business and home to the world passing by. Even with the fresh downpour, the filth and exhaust were everywhere. People sat outside in makeshift chairs half-dressed in bare feet while garbage floated by on rainwater rivers. Chickens, pigs, and other livestock nibbled at specks of grass and garbage. At a stop, I watched four men unload a lorry full of bricks by hand. Two on the truck, two on the ground, they moved bricks in heaping piles balanced on their forearms using the power of physics to squeeze more than is possible into one arm. An excruciatingly slow task, it was an exercise in futility.

Difficult images weren’t new to me. I had travelled rough terrain before. I grew up in the inner-city. My parents met in the mental ward of our local state hospital, mom was a schizophrenic and dad an alcoholic. They left the hospital and got married. We swatted at roaches and stood in food cupboard lines and moved every few months. Later, I spent my juvenile years running away from detention centers and foster homes. I moved out of the foster home when I was seventeen and lived like I had no choices. Growing up, that seemed familiar to me. But as an accomplished adult, it was the fear of navigating alone that had a way of skewing my vision and making me feel terribly exposed.

The traffic was chaos. There were no road signs, no traffic lights, and seemingly no driving laws. Drivers did whatever they wanted, drive on the left, drive on the right, cross an intersection while the cross lane is also crossing, pass on the left when someone is turning left. I was practically hysterical when we reached a six lane intersection and there was a lone police officer with a whistle standing in the middle directing traffic. It was a looping one-act play in a theater of absurdity.

If that weren’t bad enough, the people on motos had a terrifying ignorance of safety. In Cambodia, the amount of passengers was limited only by the configuration of people on the bike. Seven people, for example, can fit on the back if a small child sat on the shoulder of someone bigger and another child stood. Only the driver of a motorcycle is legally required to wear a helmet. It’s ok for the baby and the six-year-old however, to ride side saddle or on someone’s lap without a helmet.

The hotel I picked online the night before looked upscale. But in reality, it was down a back alley, in a seedy section of the city. The driver had to do some maneuvering just to pass the garbage scattered on the street. Along the sides of the alleyway, tuk tuks parked for the night. Their drivers hung in hammocks inside the little carriages. Inside, the hotel was 1970’s asbestos tile, clanking radiators, and cigarettes. The décor was cheesy mirrors and black silk-flower arrangements layered in dust and smoke. I wanted to shower. There were no foreigners; in fact it seemed as if no one in the hotel, not even the clerks, spoke English. It was twenty stories of cold, steel, and silk flowers.

In my room, I looked out the window to the alleyway below and began to sob. Miss Travel Show wouldn’t have put herself in this position. She would have done her research and found the perfect place for a solo female traveler—a quaint guesthouse by the river perhaps or a little hostel owned by a man named Singh. What was I thinking? Had I really travelled 12,000 miles across the globe to be in that hole of a city alone? This wasn’t even my first time travelling to a third-world country. A scholarship to college allowed me to study abroad in Central America, and I spent six months doing field work in Mexico, researching the Zapatistas. During college, I met my husband. We spent twelve years building a family that failed. So, as a divorced community college professor, I chose to spend my birthday in South East Asia alone? I was a pathetic 40-year old cliché. What was I trying to prove—that I was a strong independent woman? I wanted to call room service, turn the TV on, and never leave that room.

Instead, I paced back and forth heaving sobs, feeling sorry for myself. I talked myself through the door, “get out of the fucking room!” “Open the fucking door!” I spent two pitiful hours faltering between certainty and obscurity.

Finally, I went out into the night street and stopped at the first place I saw. It was a tacky jungle themed restaurant where two hosts, clad in cheeky shorts, sat me down at a table for four. No one spoke English in this part of the city, or for all I knew anywhere in the city. Miss Travel Show would have found a little place along the river where she would have sang karaoke all night. The server gave me the menu and I only understood the wine list, so I ordered a bottle of Australian wine and went back to the hotel. That night I got drunk alone and pathetic in my room and when I fell asleep, I dreamt myself into being.

Further down the path, ten years or ten days, it will be the singular act of pushing myself out of that room that I’ll remember. It will be the secret revelry of every tiny accomplishment I overcame to get past that tacky restaurant and into tomorrow. Before arriving in Cambodia, I had planned to do a photography tour to Silk Island and the Tonle Sap river villages. I was going to spend three magnificent days in Angkor Wat and some beautiful nights on the coast somewhere. I wasn’t going to be the woman who didn’t do it. I had come so far already. I had travelled 12,000 miles.

The next morning, I became. I beat my fist against my chest, strapped on my backpack, and walked out of that hotel. I found another place in my guidebook called The Lone Star Saloon and gave my tuk tuk driver directions. Outside, the hot morning sun burned off the fear that had distorted my reality the night before. Sitting in the open carriage of the tuk tuk, I saw a new city. I asked the driver to take me up by the river. We passed the magnificent Royal Palace with its stupas and towering spires. We passed the National Museum where Cambodia’s largest collection of Khmer Art is housed. I saw markets, cafes, embassies, government buildings, and tourists.

Everywhere, people were getting on with the business of life—moving along an invisible line that marks progress one baby step at a time. Along the banks of the Tonle Sap, children played games while parents talked on benches. A group of several dozen people worked out for an exercise class underneath the morning sun. Deeper in the city, monks in saffron robes and umbrellas walked in procession stopping at businesses to ask for food and money. Street vendors sold pastries, juices, and coffee. It was everything I could do not to stop and spend the morning strolling. We drove to the center of the city and passed the lotus-shaped stupa of the Independence Monument and in an instant I understood a little bit of the splendor that is Cambodia.

After several missed turns, my tuk tuk driver and I found the guesthouse on a tiny little street not marked on the map. When he pulled up, he told me he would wait for me and find me a better place if I didn’t like this one. It was an American-owned guesthouse with six rooms above an American hole-in-the-wall saloon. It had everything but the swinging doors. Inside, it was dark and smelled like smoke. The room was long and narrow with tables running the length of the bar on the opposite wall. Images of America’s past hung above the bar, a rebel flag, deer antlers, a cowboy hat, and a picture of Hank Williams. Miss Travel Show would never have stayed in a place like that.

The sound system belted out Hank Williams singing Jambalaya. One man sat at the bar eating a ranchero omelet and drinking coffee. I sidled up next to him and said hello. I felt like an image out of the old west conquering the vast unknown, cue cowboy showdown music. As I ordered my own breakfast, I asked the young Khmer girl behind the counter about a room. Several hours later after breakfast and a long conversation, the hotel owner, Greg, showed me a room upstairs and, somehow, I suddenly had the strength of ten women after that.

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