A Crazy First Night in Cambodia

We’ve been in Southeast Asia for three weeks now, but last night was easily the most interesting night during our time here.

We flew into Siem Reap, Cambodia last night (we’re here from Tuesday night until Saturday morning, mostly to see Angkor Wat). It was two easy one hour flights that connected in Bangkok. Getting through the Visa on Arrival process was easy (it cost us $30 a piece and took about 20 minutes), as was immigration (which consisted of an attendant barely glancing at our paperwork before stamping our passports) and customs (which was literally just a guy that threw our customs declaration sheet in a pile).

With just a small backpack for each of us, we stepped out of the airport to look for ground transportation to our nearby hotel. I purchased a new sim card (five bucks in the airport lobby) for my phone to have internet access when there isn’t wi-fi around, but it’s clear that the 4G here isn’t nearly as fast as that in Thailand (talk about a first world problem!). Luckily, I had screenshots on my phone of the hotel name and location to show to any taxi driver.

The cab driver that we hired at the airport kiosk walked us over to his cab with a little friendly chit chat. As we piled into the car, he turned the key, and nothing happened. Dead battery! We waited for him to get some friends to jump his car (with jumper cables that were just wires that they manually wrapped around the battery terminals-at one point there were sparks flying everywhere). With that, we were on our way.

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It’s a little surprising that nobody shocked themselves

It was around 10pm by this point, but we thought we’d walk in to town for a drink at one of the touristy bars after dropping our bags off. Our driver said that there were some streets he couldn’t drive on, and so we had agreed that we could walk a block or two to our hotel. There must have been a misunderstanding, because next thing we know, he’s dropping us off at a bar, and he said it would be a ten to fifteen minute walk south to our hotel. He said a tuk-tuk would be able to take us the rest of the way if we didn’t want to walk. Usually we’d be up for a walk like that, but after several hours of travelling, and with all of our luggage, in an unfamiliar area at night, and spotty 4G coverage, we just asked him to take us directly to our hotel instead. He complained that our hotel is in a much different direction, that it would take him a longer time to get over there, and that he wanted to get back to the airport to get more passengers. We felt a little bad for him, and he had already tried to sell us on driving us around Angkor Wat the next day, then complained about how little money he makes when we turned him down. So we decided to just get a drink after all, and hire another taxi to take us to our hotel when we were done.

The bar he dropped us off at had happy hour beers for 75 cents (interestingly, most prices are in USD here)! It wasn’t happy hour anymore, but the $1.25 draft beers we got were still a sweet deal. As we looked around the bar, we started to realize that about 90% of the patrons were either young local girls dressed like they were going to a very fancy nightclub (which this was certainly not), or old white men. From later conversations we would have with people who have lived here, these are definitely local girls looking for a rich western husband. In any case, it made for some very interesting people watching!

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Julia enjoying a $1.25 draft. In the background, gold diggers in their natural habitat.

We walked out to the street to hire a tuk-tuk to our hotel. The driver didn’t recognize the name of the hotel, but I had a screenshot of the location of the hotel, according to the travel website we booked it through. Of course our day of travel wouldn’t be over yet…the hotel was not at that location. I was finally able to connect well enough to 4G to look at the hotel’s website for the location, only to discover that the original map was completely wrong! Finally arrived…but our night of fun adventure was not even close to over!

As we pulled in to the hotel, the hotel owner came rushing out to greet us. He insisted on paying for the tuk-tuk, and apologized profusely for not arranging a shuttle for us (even though we had emailed the hotel only three hours prior to our arrival instead of the requested 24 hour notice). As we check in, and he offered us both beers – on the house! We definitely couldn’t say no to that, so we grabbed some chairs, set our backpacks down on the ground, and had a drink! The owner grabbed a chair and beer for himself as well and we started chatting while Pholla, a nineteen year old local boy, checked us in.

Harry, the owner, was originally a lawyer from Switzerland, but has been living in Asia for the past several years. After living in China for four years, he bought the Dream Mango Hotel in Cambodia, renovated it, and is now living here! Harry is one of those people that has a simply infectious positive attitude. Even though we were feeling like going to bed when we first pulled in, we were having so much fun talking with Harry about a wide variety of topics (“Swiss and English are so similar, that if you have enough to drink and I speak Swiss to you, you’ll understand me!”), that we ended up staying outside for quite a while! Harry left to go get us some water…and came back with a bottle of Pastis, a licorice flavored liquor from France. It was around this point that the night changed from “a few beers to relax us to sleep” to ” I can’t remember all of the details”. Things get a little hazy at this point so I’ll just go over some of the highlights.

A woman showed up who had stayed here before and seemed to know Harry pretty well. Irene is from the Philippines but has spent most of her life travelling, so she was very interesting to talk to. She knew more English colloquialisms than we did, (through social media), and had been to Columbia for grad school. She started out as simply a very nice, interesting person to talk to, but as she had more and more to drink she started making some strange comments. She first mentioned that the people in Cambodia are so nice that she doesn’t even need to take her medication. Between guests coming in and Harry’s conversation, I missed part of the conversation with Irene, but when I look over, she was crying and saying that she didn’t know what to do with her life. She had made a brave choice, she came all the way here to teach yoga to landmine victims, but maybe was getting intimidated.

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The personification of hospitality

A couple of German guests showed up well after midnight with grocery bags full of Jagermeister. After chatting with Harry for a little bit, they both (guys, maybe in their early forties) took their shirts off and jumped in the pool for a swim. Okay then!

After a drink of the Pastis, Harry again said that he would bring us out some water. But of course, he instead brought out a bottle of Absolut. We were both already pretty drunk at this point, so we tried to refuse him. Julia put her hand over her glass, but I had stupidly set my glass down on the counter nearby. He poured a very generous shot into the glass and tried to hand it to me, but I put my hands behind my back. A normal person may have stopped insisting at this point, but Harry instead set the drink on my lap, which tipped over and spilled a little bit. He also put a just-opened can of beer in my pocket when I turned down beer number three. With my shorts pretty wet, I did what any sensible person would do – I emptied my pockets and jumped in the pool! Quite refreshing after a long day of travel. Harry, ever the host that wants to make people feel comfortable and welcome, took his shirt off and jumped in with me! Lots of clinking glasses and arm-around-the-shoulder hugs would follow.

We asked Pholla at one point how long he works every day, and he said that he works from 7am to 11pm. What a crazy schedule! It was nearing 1 am and I asked Harry to send Pholla home, since he had been working for eighteen straight hours by this point. A few moments later I noticed Harry and Pholla arguing, with Pholla in tears. It was tough to hear exactly what they were saying, but Harry kept saying to Pholla “It’s okay that you’re an orphan! It’s okay!”. We confirmed this later, but at the time we didn’t realize Pholla probably lives at the hotel. So when I asked Harry to send him home…well, he probably doesn’t have a home. Oops.

It was at this point that I abruptly realized how loud we had all been, how late it was, and that we would want to get up relatively early the next morning so that we could explore the city and all that Angkor Wat had to offer. We gathered up our things (my backpack and belongings were still at the front desk) and went to our room to catch some well-needed rest. Our short stay in Cambodia was off to a fantastic start!

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