29/30 DECEMBER 2016 | JFK-TPE-PNH
I step off the plane in Taipei after sixteen and a half hours of flying to find that my Cambodian e-visa has finally been delivered to my inbox. Now I have a three hour layover to stretch my legs and convince my body that this is indeed a normal time to be awake. I got more sleep than I had expected on the flight here and staying awake when I wanted too was not too difficult as I was able to keep myself entertained with free drinks, surprisingly delicious meals for economy, and the entire second season of Mr. Robot (thank you, Eva Air). My time in the airport is relatively uneventful with the exception of being all alone in the back room of the priority access lounge – one of the many perks to my Chase Reserve credit card. I am not a paid correspondent for Chase Bank (yet), but it is a really good card.
My second flight is much shorter in comparison to the first and I decide to keep myself awake with coffee. About halfway through the flight, I strike up conversation with the 30-something punk rock guy sitting to the left me. His name is Christopher and he is on his third trip to Cambodia to continue work on a documentary about illegal fishing. He gives me a few tips of places to visit while I’m in the country. Then I turn to the 40-something punk rock guy sitting to the right of me. His name is Corbett and he has been living in Phnom Penh for the past five years. He gives me some tips on the city including a café he owns. After landing, Corbett and I also share a taxi into town as our accommodations are walking distance apart.
I check into the guesthouse and check the time. Sharad will be arriving within the hour. It’s been six months since we last saw each other in Durban. Knowing that this reunion will involve some drinking, I decide to get some rest while I still can. This doesn’t last long and I bolt awake as Sharad knocks on the door. I think I was asleep for a total of 20 minutes. “Helllllooooo?” I hear from the other side of the door. Sharad bounds in as I open the door. He’s clutching two plastic bags straight from duty free. “It’s Gin O’Clock!” Then he sees my sunken eyes above my smile. “You know you can sleep for a bit now if you want”. I shake the suggestion off feeling confident in proving ‘how good I am at dealing with jet-lag’. We get some tonic from downstairs and mix our drinks before heading out to explore our area.
Tuol Tom Puong (also called Russian Market) is our neighborhood for the day and as we wander, we find no shortage of restaurants and bars; some local and others a bit more western and run by a closely knit expat community (Corbett’s friends I’m sure). We stop by a corner bar to have some drinks and watch the bustle of Phnom Penh. Across the street we spot a tuk tuk dropping off wood to a pizza cart carrying a wood fire oven. A sign on the side of the cart reads ‘Mr. Kings Pizza’. We hop across the street to have lunch from the king before returning back to the bar for a cocktail on the roof to watch the sunset.
In the evening we take a tuk tuk to the trendy 308 street (a recommendation from Christopher). We come across Hangar 44. Inside they have a motorcycle lined walls and $3 gimlets. It’s exactly the type of bar I could spend the whole night in, but we leave suddenly as my jet lag hits full force. I was overly confident in the 12 hour shift. Sharad does the negotiating for our tuk tuk ride home as I sleepwalk out of the bar. It’s relatively early but we’re happy to save the debauchery for tomorrow. After all, it will be New Years.
Pizza from the king
Tuk tuk to The 308
Jet lag strikes
31 DECEMBER 2016 | PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
I’m the morning, Sharad and I go to the airport by taxi to meet Nothando (another friend from our time Durban). On the ride to the airport, we negotiate with our driver, Kim, for a ride all the way to Sihanoukville. we get a good rate which gets even better when we find that Nothando has found another traveler on the plane to ride to the coast and split the fare with us. The ride lasts five hours (unheard of for any taxi I’d take in the US) with a few stops on the way for snacks, bathroom breaks, and offerings at a Buddhist shrine to receive blessings and protection on our journey ahead.
We drop off our new friend at her hostel on Otres beach and do some recon as well. Our accommodation is a bit further away but Otres seems like it will be the most popular place to be in a few hours for the midnight countdown. We make our way to our guesthouse (with a few navigation hiccups) and give Kim a handsome tip for taking us all the way from Phnom Penh, letting us drink in the car, and for stopping six times to let us the bathroom. We try to convince him to stay for the celebration, but I think he feels that five hours is enough for hanging out with the barangs (foreigners).
In the evening, we make our way to Otres beach by motobike. On our way, Nothando and I spot a wave of Chinese lanterns floating up and over the sea and promise each other that we’d find some to light together. At the beach, the beach bars are filled with people ready to celebrate the New Year. We walk up and down the beach to find the right bar to count down to midnight. On our way, we buy a lantern as planned along with fireworks to light ourselves.
It’s almost midnight now and everyone is ready. No doubt that there is excitement to end 2016 but as I start thinking about it more, I realize that this past year was personally my best. We had made lots of friends dancing and doing the fire limbo. Before I know it I start to hear counting, “10, 9, 8…” “Dob, pram buon, pram bai…” At midnight, the whole beach erupts in cheers, kisses, and fireworks. The three of us run down to the water and light our lantern.
“We can do wishes on these right?” I ask
“I don’t see why not, but don’t say it out loud”, answers Nothando
We all hold an edge of the lantern as the air inside heats up. We close our eyes and silently send our prayers inside. We release on the count of three and stand with faces skyward. The breeze carries our hopes and dreams out across the sea. There’s a few silent beats where none of us says a word, then DJ starts playing Let’s Dance. “Ahhhh… ahhhh… ahhhh… ahhhhhh” I jump up.
“That was fast!”
“What was fast?”
“My wish: ‘please bring David Bowie back to Earth’. We must have bought the express version.”
We all head back from the edge of the sea and dance until the sun comes up.
What dreams are made of
Me and my friends
1 JANUARY 2017 | SIHANOUKVILLE, CAMBODIA
The next day, we enjoy a day of self care with all day lounging and Thai massages on the beach. Not a terrible way to start the year. Between lunch and dinner, I start to discover some of the local dishes such as amok, khmer curry, and lok lak. Dinner in particular is fantastic. Seated on mats in the sand, we are grinning at each other as our food is delivered. I reach across to try some of Sharad’s dish which is garnished with green vines of what the menu calls Kampot peppers. We ask the cook if it’s some special varietal. “Nope, it’s a place. Kampot. It’s about two hours along the coast. There they grow the best peppercorns in the world”.
Sharad and Nothando will leave in the morning to head back to work. We finish our last drinks together a little disappointed that our New Years weekend together is coming to an end but don’t get too upset. We’ll see each other again in the middle of February for a wedding in India; Sharad’s wedding to be specific. But before that, I have several weeks of travel on my own. I still don’t have my entire plan laid out but our two nights in Sihanoukville had given me lots of tips for the surrounding area. In the morning I would head off for one of this islands and then follow this new lead on the world-famous peppercorns.