A border awaits again. This time it’s not a line we cross, but a zone. On our side: dirt, dust, the smell of burning plastic and human excrement. Prostitutes wander about seeking eye contact in the busy, dilapidated streets that are lit only by the flashing neon signs of businesses with confusing identities. In the border zone sit extravagant, towering air-conditioned casinos. Fancy looking Thais and Cambodian families come here for the scene and the chance to win big, though the gaudy scale of these cheesy buildings seems proof enough that they won’t. And across the border, on the other side, we know nor expect nothing besides the fact that we’ll be riding on the left side of the road from then on. But hope grips us.
Cambodia has been a whirlwind, a slog, a time of schizophrenic moods and yet a great and humbling experience to take with us. We battled heat and the sun (these are distinctly different things), torrential rain, illness and a lack of calories that left us “hangry,” weak and getting weaker. On the road, hunger hits strong and quick, and much of the available street food was of low caloric and nutritious value, or was nearly inedible to our tastes. Most of it is marketed as snacks for those traveling through, not cyclists. So we bike long days with a relentless headwind, directly into the burn of a setting sun, fueled by little more than white rice, sugar and caffeine. And the traffic gives us no rest while we push.
The country that we saw is a vast, flat plain of cultivated fields, at times interrupted by impenetrable jungle, and dotted with references to the ruins of a richer past – the heart of a strong Cambodian pride. The people we’ve met have wanted nothing more than to share Khmer culture with us, and that has been amazing. Often we were made to drink, dance and smile with a random gathering of people on the side of the road when the heat of the day had forced us to stop for a break. We heard the high-pitched yell of “hello” from nearly every house we passed, and did our best to take it as a friendly reminder that we were enjoying ourselves.
We landed in Siem Reap a week back, and the full effect of Angkor Wat is just now sinking in. The ruins are immense, immensely complex, and beautiful. The scale is almost inhuman, making it nearly impossible to feel the weight of accomplishment that they represent. The spirit of the place is actually felt most strongly at crumbling temples where the jungle has tried to swallow the past, while temples like Angkor Wat were unaccountably impressive. Gorgeous, perfect stacks of intricately carved stone rose to 100ft and spread for a square kilometer. The work of some alien race of gods and slaves, unrelatable to anything that exists on earth today. But the latter is what brings the world here, and bring the world it does.
We left Siem Reap with a bitter taste in our mouths toward western tourism and a desire to get back to a more “real” Cambodia. People come from everywhere to see Angkor Wat because it is incredible, but between visits to the temples they have time on their hands. Ample time, it seems, to find a hooker, score some coke, or relive the college years getting piss-in-the-pants drunk. Impoverished Cambodians in Siem Reap have found a way to deal with us idiot Westerners though: they take our money. Things are hawked everywhere by aggressive small children, and at night you can’t avoid the cracked-out skinny ladies that shake their drugged looking babies, making them flop and appear close to death, holding an empty bottle and looking at you with expecting eyes. Most times when you ask how much something costs you will hear a pause and watch a thought creep through the vendor’s head before he comes up with a number twice as high as it should be. A sure sign that he noticed you’re white.
Our last real night in Cambodia was perhaps our best. Through a contact in the US (thanks Sok!) we were connected with a family in a village between the city and where we are now, at the border. They took us in, fed us amazing food, talked and laughed with us, answered our dumb questions about their lives and let us peer into their world for a night. We saw their houses up close. Well built and on stilts, looking out over green fields, like the houses everywhere we’ve been in this country. Seeing the houses sitting on stilts in the dry dirt has served as notice: we may be biking in the monsoon season, but the big ones are yet to come.
And so we continue. New food, new language, new money, a new nation. A city of 12 million people lies ahead. We will miss Cambodia, especially the people, but we’ve been humbled. Now we look forward to a treat.