Our day visiting villages ended with a sunset reflecting over the rice paddies in front of Hout’s rural wooden home. We hugged and said “see you later” – our time had come to leave Cambodia.
Cambodia disagreed. It loved us too damn much. So much that our night bus to Phnom Pehn said, “Sorry we’re full. DUCES BITCHES HAHAHA!” (at least according to Google Translate). This brings me back to the lack of Cambodian infrastructure. We had 5 seats reserved on that “Golden VIP” bus, and it promised to pick us up at Jasmine Lodge at 10 PM for an 11 PM departure. We booked the tickets at 3 PM, when our travel agent told us they’d pick us up. 10:55 PM rolled around, and we were told it was our fault for not calling to confirm pickup. The bus had empty seats on it, and Silken stood in front of its bright lights like a 1970s protester. They didn’t want us foreigners on board. But rather than give us a straight answer that we were SOL, they “called the office” AKA “chit chatted with distant relatives” for another hour. So we missed our chance to catch a midnight bus. Anika, Nicole, Silken, Tres, and I piled in one tuk tuk with our baggage and found accommodation for one more night in Siem Reap. The next evening, the five of us squeezed into one row of reclining seats on a different company’s “VIP” bus, off towards lovely Phnom Pehn.
We got to Phnom Pehn around 4 or 5 AM, a time nobody wants to be in Phnom Pehn. Slept on the floor of One Stop Hostel for a few hours. Went to the Killing Fields to learn about the tragic Cambodian Genocide. While not exactly Disneyland, anyone visiting Cambodia must see the Killing Fields or S21 – it explains a whole lot about Cambodia, and might even help prevent future genocides and wars. Alright, time to leave smoggy, sketchy Phnom Pehn. We had 4 tickets on a “VIP” shuttle bus to seaside Sihanoukville. Unfortunately we needed 5 seats. The four girls shared the back row’s three seats, which would’ve been chill if the seats weren’t separated and if the journey took the correct amount of time. But it was the eve of a holiday week, so everyone was leaving Phnom Pehn. The four-hour drive took seven hours.
At hour 6, we were jolted awake by the tire blowing out. Our “VIP” van skidded to a stop in the middle of the jungle. The situation looked grim, but Nicole had an idea for Annie to save the day. About one week prior, Silken and Nicole had talked mad shit on my LED headlamp (jealousy is an evil emotion). But now in time of crisis, Nicole goes, “Annie, your headlamp!!” Aha! I passed my handy-dandy headlight to the driver and our tire was fixed in no time! We arrived in Sihanoukville around midnight, just in time to hit the beach bars and learn where the nickname “Sin-Ville” came from.
The morning brought more good news: we were stuck in Cambodia for another two weeks!!! I downed a Bloody Mary on the spot. This damn Cambodian holiday shut down everything for two weeks, businesses and consoles that were necessary for obtaining Vietnam visas. Anika suggested we take a bus back across Cambodia to Bangkok to get our visas there. At this point, working as a beach club promoter for two weeks sounded better than getting on another bus from hell. This wasn’t happening. Cold beer in hand, I found solutions on the good ‘ol Mac Book Pro. We booked flights from Phnom Pehn to Ho Chi Minh so we could get visas online – something you can only do if you arrive via aircraft. It was a rather expensive 45-minute flight, but anything to get out of Sin-Ville.
The only reason we were in Sihanoukville was to get to Koh Rong, a deserted island made famous by its bioluminescent plankton. Anika, Silken, Nicole, and I missed the morning boat to Koh Rong. We booked a different boat, leaving from a different pier. A bus came to take us there, and filled up before we could board. We got on a different bus. We made it on the boat!!! We sat outside with the locals, singing and dancing because we were delirious foreigners (I love being the foreigner. It gives my weirdness a valid excuse. “Oh that’s just the foreign girl, must be how everyone does it in her country”). By the time we arrived, we were soaked to the bone.
Koh Rong greeted us with white beaches and a beautiful absence of beach nightclubs – there were just a few bungalows peeping out of the jungle. Koh Rong is expected to be “the next Ko Phi Phi” in a decade, so now is the time to visit. We booked a “rustic” bungalow at Happy Bungalows for two nights, dove into the water, and unwound. We were kept “safe” at night by a komodo dragon-ish lizard in our bathroom.
The best $8 I ever spent was on Koh Rong: it bought each of us a full-day tour of the island including snorkeling, open-ocean fishing, a BBQ on the boat, sunset at Long Beach, and nighttime swimming with bioluminescent phytoplankton. OK so the snorkeling highlights were half-dead urchins, and our fishing rods were canisters with fishing wire attached. And it turns out we accidentally signed up for a booze cruise – packs of rowdy Australians boarded carrying 30-racks of Kong Beer, while we stuck with the 1 beer included in our tour. But none of this mattered, due to the second half of our day. At Long Beach we floated in lukewarm water up to our waists, nursing our beers while enjoying one of the most spectacular sunsets of my life. Puffy Cambodian clouds added depth to the sunset, which painted everything with a lilac VSCO filter. The water and clouds behind the island reflected rosé hues; it was a 360-degree experience.
The sky darkened and rumbled while we digested veggie skewers. I was afraid the storm would prevent swimming with plankton, but it only enhanced our experience. We anchored in another cove, our boat surrounded by a faint glow. Hmm, were my eyes playing tricks on me? I grabbed goggles and cannonballed into the ocean. Under the sea, I was a glowing angel. Each of us had a golden halo surrounding our silhouette, with fiery globs and precious gems (the plankton clusters) tracking our movements and blasting from our fingertips. It was AMAZING! SUPERCALIFRAGELISTICEXPEALEDOCIOUS, even! Nature rocks my socks more than any Tiesto lightshow or Circ de Solei trick ever could. In addition to the bioluminescent plankton, there was heat lightning- so once every minute it was like a strobe light flashing below and above water. Thanks nature, you made the five-day trek to Koh Rong so, so worth it.
After chillin’ at the beach one more morning, it was time to return to our favorite places: Sihanoukville and Phnom Pehn. We nearly didn’t make our boat from Koh Rong to Sihanoukville – while we were 30 minutes early, in Cambodia apparently they always overbook everything. Half of the backpackers were left on the pier, earning another night’s stay on Koh Rong. The surly skipper ripped Nicole’s ticket out of her hand, and then didn’t want to let her board because her ticket was ripped … by him. We reunited with Tres in Sin-Ville for authentic Californian Mexican burritos – an unicorn in Asia – and 25-cent beers. Woke up at 7 AM to catch our “VIP” shuttle to Phnom Pehn. They forgot they booked us one. They remembered a few minutes later. We got to Phnom Pehn airport, and killed about five hours at its Dairy Queen and Burger King. I felt right at home when the Khmer Dairy Queen man flipped my Oreo Blizzard upside-down. At last, we were out of Cambodia.
Kidding! Cambodia wasn’t going to let us go without a fight. The Angkor Air check-in counter opened only one hour before boarding. They wouldn’t give us our boarding passes, because we hadn’t booked an onward ticket out of Vietnam. The Vietnamese visa authority had said zilch about this detail. The airline blamed Vietnam, but the internet said it was the airline trying to squeeze more money out of us, forcing us to hastily book a flight through them. It was already ridiculous to be flying into Vietnam, we needed to save money and bus it out of Vietnam. You can’t buy bus tickets online. Thankfully, Orbitz has a 24-hour no-charge cancellation policy. We used the last of my Cambodian data plan to download the Orbitz app and buy flights out of Vietnam. With only 30 minutes until takeoff, I shakily showed the confirmation on my iPhone to the Angkor Airlines Man. “Ahhh… Qatar Airways, huh?” “Yea, ahh-koon.” Grabbed the boarding passes. Goodbye Cambodia!!!
Last stop, Cambodian Customs. Oh, cool, we’d overstayed our visa by three days. Because of their TWO WEEK LONG holiday! We’d been trying to leave Cambodia for seven days now. Not wanting to miss our now-boarding flight, we paid the fines and finally said goodbye to Cambodia. Our flight was delayed an hour. But we boarded it, and by the grace of God it didn’t crash and we’re now in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam! And now, with the gift of hindsight, Cambodia was amazing. Its struggles were really valuable life lessons in disguise. Au revoir Cambodia, thank you for the memories and for the bed bugs.