We haven’t even left Bangkok yet, and I can already sense it. My Southeast Asian experience is so far limited to an empty international terminal and an aging Airbus A320, but all the imaginations of my overactive brain are here. Our fellow passengers are mostly a mix of stoic middle aged Cambodians dressed like they’ve been in Bangkok for an important doctor’s appointment or an equally important shopping trip; there are sensible shoes, threadbare button down shirts, perfect pedicures, and flashy watches. One woman carries a Bath & Body Works bag that could fit either a small fortune in candles or an average-sized 9 year old. As far as other Westerners, I guess we’re the only Americans, but there are a couple long-haired guys wearing loose white cotton pants that I think might be Australian, and moments before the plane pushes back from the gate a British kid, maybe 20 or 21, speed-shuffles down the aisle in dirty white Adidas slides, right arm done up in a mesh sling, huge grin on his four-whiskered face, whispering lots of bruvs and something about how he was just moments ago enjoying a burger, and almost missed the bloody flight. Even the flight attendant is exactly what I expected — young and happy, speaking perfect English and quiet Khmer, wearing pristine powder blue uniform pants and an equally pristine white surgical mask.
Our final approach is a turbulent hard left bank that shakes the old plane and actually manages to rattle me for a minute. I briefly consider my life choices and remind myself that there’s nothing to do about it now. But our flight touches down safely and we’ve arrived in Phnom Penh.
Passing through customs is simultaneously shockingly chaotic and shockingly simple. There are no lines, despite the official in the blinged-out dark blue uniform yelling at us to form one. Everyone surges toward a table to hand off a health declaration, then somehow the Cambodians disappear while the tourists surge toward another desk to pay for our visas.
I was nervous about this part, remembering my 2013 trip to Senegal when my buddy Will had to pay a bribe to get his passport stamped. I have a folded 10 Euro note, left over from Paris, pre-staged in my pocket just in case. The visa on arrival program was only just reinstated in Cambodia a couple weeks ago, so I think it’s fair to expect some kinks.
But somehow there are none. No bribes. No delays. Not even a bump in the road. We pay our $30 visa fees — crisp US bills only, please, there’s an ATM behind you— and we’re on our way. It’s just over forty-five minutes from our plane touching down til we’re breathing the humid outdoor air of Phnom Penh.
Outside, we use an app we learned about via last-minute YouTube research to hire a tuk-tuk to our hostel. Of course there’s an app. Somehow, there always seems to be an app, even in a country that’s consistently ranked one of the least developed places on the planet. And there’s always some guy (or girl) with an accent that’s a little hard to place and a vlogging camera that’s been there before you, claims to know all the secrets, and is sharing them on the internet.
The app works, kinda. I can’t use my credit card because it wasn’t issued in Cambodia, and the driver we’re connected to can’t seem to find us. After two phone calls — English on my end, Khmer on his, not a lot of understanding in between — and some Google-translated text messages, I cancel the ride and we hop in the tuk-tuk that’s been sitting by the curb waiting on us the whole time. The driver takes my phone to navigate to the hostel using Google Maps, and we’re on our way, leaving behind the Dairy Queen and Starbucks outside the airport terminal and taking Russian Federation Boulevard into the city. I guess sometimes the old fashioned way is the easiest.
I haven’t had any delusions of discovering anything new on this trip, or finding a spot that no other American has ever visited. I’ve been perfectly content finding places that I’ve never been instead. I’m not a real explorer, as much as I sometimes wish I could play one on TV — I’m just a guy that sold his house and saved a little bit of money so that he could leave a job he simultaneously loved and hated to take some time off and see as much of the world as possible. But if we were to find a rare piece of relatively unknown local paradise, this seems like the most likely place for it. Cambodia is captivating from the moment you first ease into it’s city streets, riding in a glorified rickshaw jockeying for position between scooters and sparkling Land Cruisers and one sedan incongruously wearing a North Carolina license plate. I’m thrilled to be here, where even the exhaust smells different from the Middle East. I’m excited to see this city, to explore its sad history and feel its optimism for the future. And I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to see Southeast Asia for myself.