Sihanoukville, Cambodia

It’s been more than a month on the road now, and I think I’m finally getting the hang of it. Living out of a backpack, booking buses from city to city, cursing Lonely Planet for leading the traveler astray–I can do it. I can’t say the long-term backpacker life appeals to me. I’m much more comfortable traveling with the knowledge that I have a home base, be it Seoul, New York, Prague, whatever. The constant on-the-road thing has worn on me, though I must admit, I’ve gotten good at it. Always carry a spare roll of toilet paper. Check the sheets before taking a room (learned in an unfortunate incident in Vientiane). Don’t buy from kids on the street. Try the local food. (Assuming the local food is, you know, not fried insects. But then again, I guess it depends on how adventurous you are.) Know that more often than not, fellow travelers are friendly and eager to talk. It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been on the road, we’ve all got stories. Yesterday on a snorkeling day trip, I found myself surrounded by Brits headed to Laos. I had plenty to tell them, advice to give, answers to their questions. As a journalist, it’s your job to ask questions and listen and follow up those questions with more questions. Í  feel like I’ve always been the one to ask questions, to listen intently and to learn from other people’s experiences. For the first time in a long time, I was the one with the answers. It was a strange and unfamiliar feeling to have half a dozen pair of eyes on me, asking questions that a month ago I was asking others.

Sihanoukville’s been lovely–the sea is warm, the people friendly and the desserts phenomenal. (I say that having eaten a slice of caramel pie with a biscuit crust covered in whipped cream and bananas a couple hours ago. Do I mean 4 p.m.? Maybe I do…)

After an early happy hour a few days ago, I took to the streets of Sihanoukville, searching for Sweeney, a friend and fellow teacher from Korea. After a fine pizza dinner, I attempted to get home by catching a ride on the back of a Khmer guy’s motorbike. Fun fact about the road my guesthouse is on: rainy season has completely washed it out. There are few things scarier than clutching onto a stranger as he speeds down a mostly dirt road paved with rocks. Big rocks. Because that’s how things work in Cambodia. Half the road is a ditch for rainwater en route to the sea, the rest rocks and dirt.

Our days have been filled with beach-lounging, amok-eating and turning away the dozens of Khmers who approach us every day. (“Massage, miss? Pedicure? Manicure? Threading? OK, maybe tomorrow?”)

Tomorrow we’re headed to Phnom Penh, where I’ll say farewell to Jeanette in a few days before heading off to Vietnam. We’re planning to meet up with Sweeney again to visit the Killing Fields and S-21, the infamous building where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed nearly everyone who entered through the doors.

Before this trip, I was most nervous for Cambodia. A country that had seen civil war in my lifetime, that experienced genocide in my parents’ lifetime, that is so notoriously corrupt on every level–how could I not worry? But Cambodia may very well be my favorite country. It’s a mish-mash of cultures, of poor Khmers with wealthy expats, of old ideas and fears of government combined with the hope for a new generation, of rickety tuk-tuks whizzing past some of the most extravagant hotels I’ve ever seen. I love Cambodia, much differently than I loved Laos and Thailand, and indeed every other country I’ve been to. There’s something special about this place, and I know that I’m lucky to experience it. The Cambodia that I’m in will not be the Cambodia my children will know, nor is it the Cambodia that we watched on the news in the early 90s. It is constantly changing, turning over new leaves and building itself into something better.