Well, after the sadness in Phnom Phen, my experience in Cambodia turned to madness.  As in the anger type of madness, not the insanity kind of madness.  Well, maybe a bit of both, I guess.

But first, I’ll say I was thrilled to meet back up with Kate…remember, Kate from Borneo?  The one who got stranded on a deserted beach with me on Borneo in the pouring rain with cobras and crocodiles?  Well, we arranged to meet up again and that’s what we did.  We met at a hostel in Phnom Phen, and it was just so nice.  She’s not a travel friend, but a lifelong one.  We spent hours catching up as if we’ve been separated for years instead of one month, and it was–and has been–wonderful.

OK: Cambodia.

I felt sympathy and compassion for the country, as it is still clearly struggling to recover from the devastation of the war. Just imagine if almost all the educated and elderly people were wiped out of your country in four years. How do you start over from that? How can you recover?  It seems they’re making strides in development, but  in many ways the country is still horribly crippled.

So I wanted to love Cambodia.  I felt deep love and sadness for the people and what they or their parents went through.  But after a couple of days in Siem Reap, I must say the word that I attached to this place was “horrible.”

It is hard to understand why this is the case, but it just is.  It is unlike any other place I’ve been in Southeast Asia in terms of harassment, scams, and bullshit.  If you travel to the popular cities in Cambodia, you will experience a cacophony of corruption and scams, and really just plain terrible individuals.  Depending on how long you’ve been traveling, you can either brush it off and let it go, or–like me–let it be the last straw.   I can tell you with no hesitation that Siem Reap puts the icing on the cake for being home to the least honest, most conniving people that I’ve ever encountered in Southeast Asia.  (Kate reminds me I haven’t been to Indonesia)

I’ve been pretty lucky in Southeast Asia, avoiding scams and never having any of my belongings stolen. I lost a dress once, but that was because I left it in a taxi in  Bangkok.  Everywhere you go in Asia, to some extent, people try to rip you off.  No matter how much I hate it, I’ve become accustomed to it, and learned to accept it, as you really have no other choice. But it’s nothing more than overt racism, and, having never been so clearly the target of racism before in my privileged life, I don’t really know how to handle it. Because of the color of my skin, I am assumed to be rich–literally, by everyone here. Yes, our currency is higher, and yes I make more money than these people. But I am only a rich person because I am in their country.  When I go home, I am unemployed, penniless  and by no means living large.  But no matter how much money I have, I don’t think it justifies the way people treat me for it–lying, cheating and stealing, just to make a penny off me.   How is it OK for people to look you in the eyes and lie to you, often leaving you completely stranded and hopeless, just because the country I happened to be born in has a higher standard of living? Our minimum wage in the US is greater than most people’s monthly salary here. So I understand why they assume we are filthy rich, because comparatively we are. But I can’t find it in me to understand how that somehow makes it OK to lie and cheat.

Here are examples:  When I ask where a bus station is, I’m told there is no bus station and I have to take a taxi for $15 instead of the $1 bus, which I know exists. When I ask how much a banana is, I’m told it’s one dollar, when the local rate is ten cents. When I go to the doctor to have my life saved, I’m told I need to pay 5 times the amount that it would cost a local for the same treatment. It’s exhausting and it’s frustrating. The color of my skin means that I am not a fellow human being, but a thing to be manipulated into handing out cash.  They don’t care what the consequences of their schemes are for me; not one bit.

It’s bizarre how insane people have become over little pieces of paper that we’ve assigned values to.  People will do just about anything for the stuff.  We all do.  We all care about money so much.  It’s worth thinking about, I think, because it’s really bizarre how people come to do everything in their lives based around this little thing called money.  And people will treat other people terribly just to get some money.  Doesn’t anyone think it’s strange that there are hundreds of thousands of people in the world that do the most awful things just so they can get money?

People in desperate situations do desperate things.  I get that.  And so it actually makes it more understandable that the street scammers scam the way they do.  It shouldn’t make me any more angry than the scammers on Wall Street, because, ultimately, the scamming isn’t based on greed so much as misconceptions, poor education, and racism.  So fine.  But when it’s right in my face, for 5 months straight, I think that’s when I finally get to say enough is enough.

In Cambodia, this frustration that I’ve dealt with in other places with calm and composure, reached a boiling point. If you ask someone for directions, for example, they will tell you your destination is 30 minutes walk away, even though it appears on the map to be maybe 2 km away. No one will give you a straight answer. I mean, really. I want to say to these people: Look, I am visiting your country and I have no idea where I am. I’m vulnerable, and clueless, and instead of ANYONE helping, all EVERYONE does is try to take advantage of that fact. But no one cares.  And to make matters worse, as you walk down the streets you are bombarded by aggressive tuk-tuk drivers and merchants constantly running up to you and soliciting their services by calling you “lady,” which, where I come from, is pretty freaking rude. If you do end up getting in a tuk-tuk, even after negotiating a price, they will try to scam you.

When I went to the National Museum, this is what the guy tried to say to me after we had agreed on the reasonable price of $1 instead of $6:

“We will stop and buy ticket, then go to museum,” he said, as we started driving away.

“NO!” I shouted, probably surprising him a bit by my ferocious protest, “WE DO NOT STOP ANYWHERE. YOU TAKE US TO THE MUSEUM. IF YOU STOP YOU WILL GET NO MONEY.” Jeez, taken out of context, I sound like a carjacker.

“OK,” he said, clearly aware that I saw right through his scam. He drove us to the museum and didn’t say another word.  But this is what they do. And if I had any bit more energy I would’ve gotten out of the tuk-tuk and found another, just to make a point to this guy that I don’t want to do business with a cheat. But after you spend 10 minutes arguing to pay $1 instead of $10, you don’t want to have to go through it all over again.

So it goes.

I hated Siem Reap. The city is a dump, and the people were some of the worst I have ever encountered. Nobody treated me like a human being, even once.  After barely surviving the high-speed minivan ride to the city, dodging stray dogs and cows while hurtling 140 km/hour, Kate and I were not surprised that the “express minivan” takes 2 hours less than the bus. Of course it does. The driver thinks he is Keanu Reeves in Speed.

We had arrived in Siem Reap in the dark, and were not at all surprised to be dropped off at a guesthouse, instead of the bus station–this is a scam we were prepared for. We booked a hotel with aircon upgrade because we just wanted to lay our heads down and relax after the most stressful 6 hour minivan ride ever.

The hotel lady tried to scam us, telling us it cost $35 for a room instead of $15, which is the actual price. I mean, it’s never ending.  The way Kate and I got through it the first night was this:

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A splurge for some comfort food.

I went to the National Museum, which cost $12 admission and was the worst museum I’ve ever been to. It basically consisted of a lot of Buddah statues and posters about history that I could easily read on Wikipedia.

When I got back to the hotel midday, the electricity was out. This, in turn, meant the aircon was out. Aircon in this heat is a necessity, not a luxury. It’s 105 degrees Fahrenheit and impossible to do anything but sweat in a very dangerously unhealthy way. I asked an American girl if she knew anything about why they weren’t using the generator that they had advertised upon check-in, and she said she had already asked the man at the front desk and he told her it was too expensive to run it. He said most people are out at Angkor Wat during the day, so they aren’t turning it on until 6 pm. He told her if she wasn’t happy she could check out and go somewhere else.

I was not satisfied with this answer. I went downstairs, dripping sweat from every pore. I asked them why, after paying extra for an aircon room, in a hotel with a generator, we needed to sit in our rooms sweating all day. I expressed my frustration that they promise aircon, wifi, electricity, and because of that, they get a lot of money from customers desiring these things.  But despite this fact, they refuse to turn on their generator so they can save some extra cash.  It’s typical.  They refused to turn it on, and said I could check out if I wasn’t happy.

Well, I went back up to my room, and 2 minutes later, a wild-eyed lady, the same one who had lied to us about the price of the room, came into our room without knocking and said she wanted us to check out because she didn’t “like me.” She was an actual crazy person. She said she would call the police, etc etc.  The idea of a Cambodian police scam was less than appealing at this point, and Kate made sure to remind me it would not be so difficult for us to get into a Cambodian prison if we refused to pay them off.

We left.

I thought Kate was going to kill me, but you know what, how the hell could we have anticipated that complaining about something as reasonable as that would get us kicked out? It was yet another money-making scheme of theirs, and it’s yet another thing that made me hate Siem Reap. I was surprised by the psycho woman’s reaction until I went on TripAdvisor to smash them in a review, and read countless other reviews saying other people had been thrown out for things like complaining about their things being stolen while they were out for the day. I mean, seriously.

It made me really laugh about how, in the US, if you go to Yellowstone and complain about your meal or your room at the Lake Hotel, Xanterra will apologize profusely and pay for your stay. Contrast this with the scene in Cambodia, and it becomes hilarious.

We moved to a cheaper hostel, and had electricity and aircon running all afternoon for half the price of the other place.

Then, Angkor Wat. Also a pretty big waste. I didn’t want to pay a tuk-tuk driver $20 for a ride there, so I rented a bike for $1 and spent the day riding around Angkor Wat. It’s an enormous area. I was exhausted by it, but happy that I wasn’t giving a cent of my money to the harassing tuk-tuk drivers, and also pleased with myself for reducing my carbon footprint. Because breathing in this city is a challenge, and it’s only a challenge because tourism has ruined it. In two days, my throat was sore and scratchy from the air pollution.  So pumping along on my little bicycle, I felt good even though I was soaked in sweat all day and knackered by the time I got back.

The temples were beautiful, of course, but there were literally thousands of tourists everywhere, so there was no way to feel in any way like you were visiting an ancient temple.  It felt like I was at Six Flags.

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If I had it all to do over again, I would never have gone to Angkor Wat or Siem Reap. In my opinion, the place is just a tourist shitshow; overrun and disgusting, and everything is 2-3 times more expensive than anywhere else in Asia, while people STILL try to milk you for all they can.  I should have spent a week in Cambodia in a little village somewhere, and avoided the tourism circus all together.

Lesson learned (which I thought I learned a while ago, but clearly didn’t): tourist ‘must see’s are the ones to avoid. If it’s a place you feel obligated to go to, then don’t go. It always ends up being horribly disappointing, and are usually places that tell you nothing about the country you’re in.

The end.