I guess it was only a matter of time before I had a crappy day, which, thankfully, is often the pre-requisite to a wonderful day. Of course, I never remember that at the time.
It was Day 17 of my month-long trip through three countries in Southeast Asia where things are definitely more different than same-same from Paris or New York. Plus, it’s hot. DAMN hot. Real hot. Hot enough in my shorts I could cook things in it. (Robin Williams in “Good Morning Vietnam,” anyone?) Just thinking takes energy, let alone choosing one hotel over another or converting currencies with a gazillion zeroes or showering for the umpteenth time BECAUSE IT’S THAT DAMN HOT. (Sorry, I know it’s cold where most of you are reading this from, but…DAMN!)
I’d just said goodbye to Rachael after spending a whirlwind week together in Siem Reap and Kep, Cambodia (more on that in another post—promise!) and I was feeling out of sorts.
My stomach was funky. My mind was funky. I didn’t know what direction to go in or what to see or how long I should stay in Phnom Penh. I made the mistake of not buying a guidebook as I’ve been mostly relying on travel articles these days when researching a place, but they glaze over context, basic know-hows and history and so I felt like I was seeing the country through hazy eyes; only picking up bits and pieces of its turbulent history and fascinating culture. I knew I could probably gain some perspective here in the country’s capitol, but where to start? Furthermore, as a travel journalist myself, I feel constantly conflicted between following the advice of those who came before me (so as to assure myself a good time) and forging my own path (so I can authentically share my own story and tips). Needless to say, my mind was abuzz.
I skipped breakfast because of the funny tummy and partnered up with a fellow New Yorker who I’d met in the lobby the night before. Since I still had no plan or direction and wasn’t feeling up to using my brain, I followed him to the National Museum where I shuffled my ratty Topshop-Birkenstocks along its floors, looking at the preserved pieces of Angkor Wat and the other temples where I’d just been days before.
After an hour or so, I suddenly felt ravished so we popped into a place for some Mediterranean food, which seemed to sit well. Then we started to head over to the Royal Palace, during which my new friend started reading aloud from his guidebook about what we were about to see in the heat of of the midday sun. That’s when he mentioned being covered up below the knee and shoulders, both of which I was not. I took this as my cue (ahem, excuse) to head back to the hotel and hole up in the air conditioning until I could sort myself out.
I then spent the next few hours trying to decide what to see in Phnom Penh, how long to stay there, where to go next and what hotel to stay at there, while Facebook messaging friends in Paris. Ultimately, I made very few decisions other than to enjoy some do-nothing time, before finally getting up off my butt to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, which, sadly, I knew would be as miserable as it sounds. Only upon arriving did I realize it’d closed already. (Thanks for nothing, Tuk Tuk Driver.)
OK, I thought. I’ll go get a beverage at this nearby coffee place I read about and bide time before taking a 6p.m. yoga class, which I was counting on to turn me right-side-up both physically and mentally. After finishing my lemongrass-flavored iced tea at Brown, Cambodia’s answer to Starbucks, I navigated myself to the studio, dodging dozens of tuk-tuks and motorbikes along the way. I made it there alive, only to learn the class had been cancelled. Feeling defeated after a string of failures, I ventured back to my hotel with the intent of having a successful Do-Over Day for my last in Cambodia.
I rose early and ate a full Western breakfast of fried eggs on toast with bacon. Funny tummy, be damned! I took a tuk-tuk to Wat Phnom, the tallest Buddhist structure in the city, where I marveled at the massive pagodas and all the money people leave in the hands of sculpted god figures.
Next, it was back to the Tuol Sleng museum, which I had been hesitant to visit in the first place. As a former torture and prison camp run by the Khmer Rouge in the early 70s, it seemed akin to visiting a concentration camp and therefore an icky tourist destination. But however disheartening both may be, they offer first-hand proof of all-too-real massacres that are important to recognize. In this case, one that occurred only 40 years ago at the hands of Cambodia’s communist party who was responsible for killing 1.7 million people. I took my time with the audio guide, slowly moving through the buildings, which were mostly bare, save for the memories that echo from within its walls. I occasionally took refuge on a shaded bench when I needed to cool down or catch my breath, as did many of the other visitors; all silently visiting and experiencing it in their own way. After over two hours, and just before the massive tour groups started to arrive, I no longer felt foggy. My eyes and ears and heart were now wide open to what had happened in Phnom Penh and, ironically, I was on my way to feeling more enlightened.
I finished just in time for a Do-Over yoga class at noon, back at the same studio that was located on the third floor of a lovely building with open walls to the outside hums and drums of the city. Run by an NGO, class was cheap and small—only three of us, led by an American instructor from Minnesota. Not only did the teacher, Kirsten, provide a perfect Vinyasa flow for my tired, but aching-to-be-flexed muscles, but her playlist was spot-on, too. What’s more, I managed to do something I’d never done in yoga class before and it had nothing to do with a fancy balancing pose or inversion: I fell asleep in savasana! All of a sudden I heard some moving around and that’s when I realized the two other women were rolling up their mats and starting to leave. I sat up abruptly and asked if she had done any closing poses or made any remarks, and she said she had done the traditional “roll to the right side, come up to sit and place your hands on your knees for a few last breaths” routine, as is usually done at the end of class. I was shocked that I missed it. I guess I really needed me some yoga.
Kirsten then told me about an indie rock concert happening that night and we exchanged information with possible plans to meet up. It was lunchtime, so I moseyed over to the nearby restaurant Malis, which is supposedly one of the best in the city. I felt a little ridiculous eating alone, in the middle of the afternoon, at such a fine restaurant—and by fine I mean $10 dish instead of $5—where they handed me a lemongrass scented cold towel and placed my napkin on my lap for me, but what the heck. This was my Do-Over Day! My dish of crispy rice noodles with pan-fried pork marinated in a mix of Khmer spices, lemongrass and coconut milk sauce was, indeed, delicious. (So delicious, in fact, I have no photo to prove its existence.)
Following my meal, I made my way back to the hotel where I waited to be picked up by a tuk-tuk for a sunset boat tour on the Mekong. I was definitely running on empty at this point, but was still determined to make up for the prior day’s mishaps. Thankfully, the boat I chose was an adorable, rickety (yet hip) former wooden rice vessel with cocktail tables made from old sewing machines, hanging plants and tropical print cushions. What’s more, unlike all the other boats headed out on the river with tourists, there were only 10 other passengers on our boat—the majority of which was a group of four French couples in their 60s all traveling together.
After eavesdropping and trying to internally translate a bit, I decided to flex my French tongue by sparking a conversation. Thankfully, they were very friendly and eager to learn about me and Paris and what I do there and what I was doing here—especially this one guy, Henri, who reminded me of my father. He had these funky glasses, a full beard and was full of questions! He took an interest just like I know my dad does with strangers. My dad is always coming back with some interesting story of some person he met at the bar while waiting for a table, or during intermission at a show or whatever. He’s a really good listener for someone who seems like he’s not listening. (Sorry, Dad!)
While part of me just wanted to sit back and watch the sun go down on this relaxing boat ride, I also felt humbled to be this man’s “person of interest.” He and his friends were all so wonderful, speaking to me only in French—not correcting me or judging me at all. Eventually, the boat pulled up to a floating “sunset shack” on the Mekong River where we all disembarked for a drink to watch the sun sink into the horizon.
The boat docked around 6:30p.m, which left me with a few hours to shower (again!) and relax before heading over to the concert. The band playing was Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles-based indie rock/Khmer crossover group who mixes traditional Cambodian pop lyrics with psychedelic sounds. I’d never heard of them, but felt pretty sure my friend Mike “the Music Guru” Elling would be proud of me for checking them out.
My yoga teacher friend decided not to come as there had been a last minute venue change, but I ran into my New Yorker pal from the hotel and his local Tinder date. (True story.) Despite some major sound issues, the mixed crowd of Westerners and locals, paired with my spot up at the front and the overwhelming energy of the group made it a great end to my Do-Over Day.
I walked back to the hotel thinking about the day before, realizing I just needed some time to settle in and acquaint myself with the city—and reacquaint myself with who I am as a solo traveler. By that point, I felt certain I probably could’ve stayed another night, but I’d already booked my flight and hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. I’d be off the next day—but not before visiting two more stops: first, the Royal Palace, which I missed that first day due to my inappropriate attire, and then the White Building, an iconic architectural gem whose construction was thwarted by the Khmer Rouge.
Of course, this being travel, the morning proved to be a combination of Woes and Wonders; of Do Nothings and Do Overs.
First, the Woe, when I showed up at the Royal Palace thinking I had on an appropriate ensemble: a long skirt and a scarf to cover my shoulders. Turns out the scarf wasn’t enough. If I wanted to enter, I’d have to buy a $3 T-shirt emblazoned with the Royal Palace logo. (So, essentially, what they’re currently showing on the runways at Fashion Week.) Frustrated and annoyed at myself for not being prepared again, I bought the damn T-shirt and entered the palace grounds, which was already swarmed with tourists and scorching from the 9a.m. sun. I didn’t have much time as I was meeting a local Cambodian friend someone in Paris connected me to at 10, so I whizzed through the grounds of the current king, trying to appreciate the outstanding carvings and extravagant pagodas while sweating through my long skirt and new $3 cotton tee.
While my visit to the Royal Palace wasn’t exactly a highlight, there was a Wonder just around the corner: the White Building. From the outside, this series of connected residences, built mainly for artists and to help control the growing population in the ’60s, couldn’t look more different than the palace, with its dirty concrete walls, crumbling balconies and hanging electrical wires. And while the inside didn’t necessarily expose a cleaner environment, Kavich, my new Cambodian friend, showed me around and explained its history and clever design elements, leaving me with an appreciation for the longstanding structure and its controversial reputation with the city’s residents.
Afterwards, he dropped me at a gallery called Sa Sa Bassac, which happened to be showing an exhibit from Parisian, New York and Khmer artists, many of whom actually used the White Building as inspiration for the pieces. Getting to immerse myself in these modern interpretations—from a mix of cultures I now knew well!—further satisfied my curiosity and admiration for the capitol.
It also further reminded me that with travel, when there’s an off day—and there will be an off day—there’s often a on day waiting to manifest itself. (Maybe even an off morning, followed by an on afternoon!) In fact, it could be argued that one may not fully appreciate one without the other.
To wit, I’ve been working on this blog for the past few days, during which I checked into one poorly-located hotel only to change to another…without a window. (It’s thin walls provided another bright wake-up call, though: a neighbor’s rooftop rooster.) But then, I happened upon a tea and milk bar with a swing just when I needed a break, as well as a just-opened street food market where I had the most incredible BBQ ribs and sticky rice—both of which could be fodder for potential stories. Of course, not 14 hours after that I showed up to the airport at Ho Chi Minh City only to learn I’d booked my flight…for the day before.
And that, ladies and gents, are the woes and wonders—of travel and of life, I guess. I’m grateful for them both.