They were everywhere. On shoulders, in front of hostels, under beds, outside bars, riding in tuktuks, stuffed in lockers. Dusty, full of flip-flops, and covered with patches of flags, the backpacks were an epidemic not limited to Thailand. Just over the border Cambodia was fighting its own invasion of backpacks. And by fighting, I mean welcoming those carrying backpacks with a cold beer, a cheap bed, and generic souvenirs.
I spent a few days with the Brit and the Swedes on Koh Lanta before heading onward. They invited me to come to Laos with them but I’d decided to go to Angkor Wat next. It was a tempting offer; it had been refreshing to follow the group rather than figuring everything out on my own, and they were good company. So as the van pulled away from the hostel I reminded myself that I could always meet up with them later.
I nearly returned to the island when I missed the overnight bus back to Bangkok by 15 minutes, the most frustrating way to miss a bus. On a whim I checked airlines and found that an hour-and-a-half flight the next day was actually cheaper than the 14-hour bus. Prices aside, I don’t mind taking overnight transportation but I prefer to sleep stationary, so I flew out the next afternoon.
I didn’t want to get sucked into Bangkok again so I booked the first bus to Siem Reap at 5am. In hindsight it was ill-advised to cross a border on so little sleep, everything gets harder as I get crankier. I chatted with a fellow backpack-wielder in the minivan to the border, when we stopped at a restaurant right before the gates to Cambodia. The driver and his cronies called us into the office one by one, pressuring us to buy a visa from them. I’d read warnings about scams where they force you to pay them triple to get you across the border.
They got angry that I didn’t want their “assistance” and took me back to the minivan alone. For a brief moment I wasn’t sure what was going on but I was more angry than worried. I refuse to be bullied and I take it personally when someone tries to scam me, and I was dangerously under-slept. But they eventually brought me to the border and I got my visa without a problem.
We arrived late to Siem Reap and had to overpay the tuktuk driver for a ride to the hostel. I was just another tourist with a backpack and it was making me grumpy.
Crazy early in the morning I went with a couple backpackers to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise, but the sun hid behind a haze all day. Angkor Wat is a huge complex of temples: big, small, old, crowded, empty, tall, short, wide, monkeys, elephants, and covered in backpacks. It was magnificent and awe-inspiring and spectacular, but I still got temple’d out after a few hours of exploring ruins as the sun roasted us.
Ever on the move, I took a bus to Phnom Penh the next morning, capital of Cambodia. By far the highlight in Phnom was going for a run with the Hash House Harriers, an international drinking club with a running problem. We (the hashers) took a truck from downtown to the rural farms and went on a casual jog in the 95 degree weather, then had a few drinks to celebrate. I spent the rest of my time holed up in air conditioned cafes writing a travel guide and planning what to do for my birthday.
Then a scooter struck. My parents taught to always look both ways before crossing the road. I looked right, I looked left, I stepped forward, and BOOM! I stumbled back as the scooter hit my leg and sped off, going the wrong way on a one-way street. My shin was bleeding and hurt a heck of a ton, but I didn’t think it was broken. I retreated to the hostel, alone and in pain. I was done with being just another backpacker and that was the last straw. So I did what I do best when I’m upset: I booked flights. I decided to meet the Swedes and Brit in Laos a few days after my birthday, and in the meantime I headed to a couple more islands, as you do.
I’d heard that the Koh Rong island was quietly majestic and peaceful; I found a party island soon to become the next Koh Phi Phi. It was easy to find people to talk to but I was still missing real friendship and connection. I hiked to the other side of the island and found a ridiculously white sandy beach, pristine and with hardly any backpackers. Okay there were a few but at least I wasn’t tripping over them.
Koh Rong Samloem, its sister island, was the real deal, a paradise island without any wifi. My “bed” was a mattress under a mosquito net next to other mattresses on a lean-to platform, the open-side facing the ocean. The beach didn’t have bars blasting dubstep, each one louder than the last. It was quiet and serene, and though I was feeling still less than serene after my scooter encounter, it helped to be in such a pretty place. I celebrated turning 26 with crepes and walking into the ocean late at night to see the bioluminescent plankton, which glow when you swirl the water.
I stopped in Phnom briefly before flying to Malaysia, as it was cheapest to fly to Kuala Lumpur for two nights and then to Vientiane, capital of Laos. Lucky for me the two nights I was in KL there was a swing dance and a blues dance. The local dancers greeted me by name (I’d told them I was coming) and welcomed me, and I felt that all of KL was happy to see me, even the flash thunderstorms. I wonder if I’d found a dance in Cambodia that I would have liked it better. There’s always next time.