Location: Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Price: $30 Hotel Room (split between 5 people), $2.50 Curry Dinner
After two mind-numbing plane rides (total: eleven hours), a deep nap on the itchy, carpeted floor of the Kuala Lumpur airport, a rickety tuktuk ride from the airport through Phnom Penh’s city center, and a sweaty six hour bus ride through the dusty, red Cambodian countryside, I’ve almost completed my first leg of travel. I’ve reached the rowdy beach town of Sihanoukville and though I’m only staying a night, it still feels good to shrug off my twelve-kilo backpack and stretch my legs.
I’m staying at a hotel a few blocks inward from the touristy beachfront in a room with three double beds in it for $30 a night; it’s perfect for me and my four fellow travelers. It’s the place the tuktuk driver always brings you to when you arrive off the bus and ask to go to the city center. As I clambered off the ripped plastic cushion of the ghetto carriage, one of my friends murmured to me that they must have a commission deal with the hotel. There were restaurants and accommodation on all sides, handpainted signs with names like “Lucky Star Guesthouse” and “Moon Shine Foods,” and menu boards painted on strips of wood or plastic. A family of four (Mom, Dad, a toddler and a baby) whizzed by me on a single scooter, honking to let me know they were passing.
When we entered the hotel room, we were greeted by thick, flower patterned fleece blankets and thinly threaded towels formed into misshapen hearts. A hot water shower, plastic toothbrushes, a television with movie channels, and air conditioning were all included in our $30 deal. It was luxury. The towels were a special treat - I’d forgotten to pack mine and would need to steal one on the way out.
We wandered down to the beach, where barbecue restaurants line the sand and drunk tourists light off janky Cambodian-manufactured roman candles a little too close for comfort. We sat under a string of flashing neon green lights twisted into a dolphin. The water lapped black and quiet in the background. I began to order pork with my Panang curry (a semi-spicy, traditional red curry), but one of my friends warned me away from it; apparently the pork in Sihanoukville isn’t very fresh. I changed my order to chicken, the safer bet. The young waiter, maybe sixteen years old, slipped over to us halfway through the meal and quietly asked if we’d like to buy some marijuana. It was so casual I wondered if patrons received a drug discount with their meal.
Children wandered around the beach unsupervised. A little Cambodian boy peeled off chunks of red candle wax from the oh-so-romantically-decorated wicker tables and chucked them at me. When I jumped up to chase him down, he giggled and ducked between tables and lounge chairs, only to return a few minutes later with more ammo. As we left he pulled his hoodie over his face and came up to me, reaching out with clawing fingers, pretending to be a zombie, and grabbed my ass.
We were approached by beggars every few minutes. Many were disabled. One man crawled with his arms, dragging his useless legs behind him. Another held out his stub of an arm to us. One was an older woman, blind in one eye, maybe five feet tall, carrying a child that couldn't have been more than two years old. She held out a shaky, gristly palm and shifted the baby on her hip. I gave her the same slow head shake as I gave the others, my eyes screaming pity and begging for mercy. She stared blankly for a few minutes before moving on. Later, I saw the baby stumbling around the restaurant crying. The woman was nowhere in sight. After a few long, aching minutes of misery, an older child grabbed its hand and dragged it away from the beachfront.