Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia
We usually eat at the same spot for breakfast every morning: Navy Khmer Kitchen. You just can't beat $0.50 smoothies and surprisingly tasty, veggie-filled $1.00 omelettes that come with baguettes. Especially when working with a budget of about $1,000 a month (and alcohol and accommodation account for 2/3 of that).
It was our last full day in Siem Reap and, unsure what food prices would be like in Bangkok, I was getting my fill of cheap food. I was dousing my omelette in chili sauce when a slender, tall, middle-aged Asian man cradling a teeny baby wandered up to the restaurant. I wouldn't have noticed him normally (well, except for his short shorts), but something about him seemed familiar. I turned to Cody.
"I feel like I've seen that guy before. Do you know him?"
He looked up from his double omelettes and stared.
"Wait, that's...Holy shit that's Cao Boi! From Survivor!" He whispered to me as the man passed, waved to the table behind us, and began chatting with the Western couple sitting at it.
Everyone sitting at my table, all six of us, were avid Survivor fans. Cody and I were only introduced to this fantastic game show this past year by our Australian friends, but Cao Boi was in the first season we watched. (It's also my favorite season, Season 13: Cook Islands.)
We spent the rest of the meal debating who would go up to ask the man if he was actually Cao Boi. Of course that ended up being me.
I caught him just as he was leaving the restaurant and about to cross the street, baby still held tightly in crux of his arm. I poked him on the shoulder. (I know, I'm awkward.) When he turned around, I burst out in a fast, almost incoherent stream of words, "AreyouCaoBoifromSurvivor?"
He grinned as only a semi-famous game show contestant that's just been recognized can.
"Yes, I am!"
Everyone in the restaurant was watching me. I'd never approached a celebrity on the street like this before and I could feel my face reddening as I spoke.
"Season 13 is my favorite season! Is there any way I can take a picture with you?"
He was happy to - he actually took pictures with all of us at the table, chatted with us, and even invited us to hang out at his friend's bar with him later that night. It was an awesome, surprising ending to our stay in Siem Reap.
Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap is actually pretty small considering its reputation as a heavily trafficked gateway to Angkor Wat; you can make your way around the city’s edges on a push bike in a couple of hours. It costs $1 a day to rent one of these bikes (you can have it from 5AM-9PM) and I would recommend it to anyone. The landscape is particularly flat so riding is easy. You can bike to temples or follow the winding river through the city and to the countryside. Biking is also an awesome mode of transportation in Siem Reap because of the slower pace; there’s plenty to see that you easily miss speeding past on a motorbike or in a car. You just have to be comfortable with the knowledge that Cambodia has no road rules. It’s every man for himself out here, and nobody wears helmets.
I peddled toward Angkor Wat, hoping to find the colony of monkeys I’d seen rummaging around in the grass on the roadside the day before. As I made my way out of the city, I found a demolished temple. The faded red and gold-painted arch around the doorway was all that was left of the structure. I locked my bike to a tree and wandered through the uncut grass, my Converses crunching through thick layers of rust and wine-colored leaves underfoot. In the back of my mind I couldn’t help thinking about the large native populations of cobras in Cambodia, but I wouldn’t let that fear stop me from adventuring. I was riding a What-Would-Indiana-Jones-Do high. Just out of sight of the main road I found myself facing an abandoned schoolhouse. It looked like it had either been half-built and construction had suddenly halted or the building had been abandoned and then someone had violently ripped out half the floorboards, walls and chunks of the roof material. There was a surreal statue garden deeper down a pathway away from the road; gold and silver shapes glinted between rotting vines and over dead, overgrown weeds. The figures stood half-visible and half-ruined, overtaken by the surrounding brush.
Once I’d made my way more into the countryside, I ran into a little boy no older than nine herding a group of water buffalo through a marsh. He spoke no English and the only word I knew in Khmer was “akun” (thank you), but he let me hang out with the gentle beasts as they grazed. I watched while he wrestled with a muddy calf who playfully head butted him until the boy rolled onto the ground and let the beast nuzzle him. I’ve heard a few rumors about water buffalos being more than a little dangerous, but these guys were calmer than the local cattle and more friendly, too.
After the water buffalo, I made my way to Angkor Wat, where I munched on a mango from a roadside fruit stand and waited until the park closed (otherwise I’d have to pay $20 to get into the site). I still wanted to see if I could capture a few interesting monkey photos. I’d been warned repeatedly that they bite and to stay at least a couple meters away, but I figured if I followed that rule then they would leave me alone. What I didn’t count on was meeting one on the road.
I’d spotted a few monkeys in the trees in a park across the street and was waiting for the traffic to subside when one wandered right up beside me and waited with me. It was big, maybe the size of a toddler, and had fearless, intelligent green and gold-speckled eyes that shone from its pink face. When I crossed, it crossed. Shit, my camera’s still in my backpack and here’s my chance! I thought. I sped up, hoping the monkey would stick around for a minute so I could get a good shot.
As soon as we’d made it to the park, I threw down my bike and tore the zipper of my backpack open. In my haste to grab my camera, I dropped my open backpack. It fell into the dust beside my bike. The monkey was only a few feet away. My trembling fingers struggled with the lens cap. The monkey watched me, recognizing my incompetence, and slowly turned its face toward my open bag. Then it turned back to me, its eyes sparkling mischievously.
I wondered what it was thinking, and then I remembered that monkeys are known for stealing sunglasses, phones, and food from unwitting tourists. But it was too late. The scoundrel was already lunging for my bag, leaping on all fours and positioning itself with the pack in its lap. Before I could react it stuck its sharp little claw right into the unzipped pocket and began digging around.
I went into panic mode. If that little shit steals my phone…The consequences of pissing off a monkey just didn’t dawn on me at all. I was only thinking of how I couldn’t afford to buy another smartphone. I still held my camera in one hand, lens cap in the other. I slowly clipped it back on. The monkey seemed distracted, its fist full of the empty plastic bag that had held my mango. It unzipped the bag all the way so it could get a better look inside.
1, 2, 3! My war cry sounded in my head. In a single motion I charged and snatched the bag, clutching it to my chest. The monkey let go, its eyes widening in surprise. I was shocked I’d gotten it back so easily and also stood there dumbstruck, not sure what to do next.
We stared at each other. And as we did, the monkey’s eyes grew chilly and menacing. It lifted its face and howled and when it did, another, slightly smaller monkey bounded over. The two hooted and the first monkey pointed at me. I took a step back. Maybe if I just move away slowly, they won’t-
The monkeys hurtled toward me on all fours, howling and baring their pinkie-finger long fangs. I stumbled back, still clenching my backpack and camera to my chest. The evil imps smelled my fear and sped up, rushing toward me. One snarled and swiped at my ankle with an outstretched claw.
I turned and bolted, letting out a girlish shriek as I fled through the parking lot. When I glanced over my shoulder, I saw they were still close on my tail, lashing out at my calves and gnashing their teeth. The chase lasted maybe thirty seconds, but it felt like hours. Finally, the first monkey called it off with a derisive hoot of laughter. They wandered up the nearest tree, bored with their game. I doubled over, catching my breath. My heart thumped hard in my chest. I shook and checked my ankles. No bites, no claw marks; I couldn’t believe I didn’t have rabies. I thought about that woman in America who was attacked by her pet chimp and had to have her face surgically reconstructed. From the other side of the park I heard tuk tuk drivers chuckling and when I glared at them, they pointed at me and laughed harder.
One driver, who had been throwing rocks at a monkey sitting in the tree above his car, called out to me. When I looked over, he bared his teeth and bit the air. He shook a single, condescending index finger at me. Yeah, I fucking get it, I thought. They bite.
I still didn’t have my monkey photograph, though. I spent the next half hour crouched behind a tree, snagging photos of them when they seemed too occupied to notice me. I didn’t want to risk another attack.
- Push bike: $1
- Water: $0.25-0.75
- Street snacks: $1-2
- If you are looking to rent a push bike or moped, be sure to bring your passport or driver’s license with you. They often keep it for insurance purposes while you’re out, and won’t rent unless you give them one.
- Landmarks are key to adventuring by yourself. Make sure you always bring a map or are taking mental note of everything around you.
- Don’t step in mud! I had a bad case of itchy bug bites on my feet after the water buffalo incident. Not sure if there are now microscopic bugs living in my Converses or not…
Today was temple day, a necessity for all who pass through Siem Reap and its UNESCO world heritage site, Angkor Wat. Even though it was scorching outside, I threw on a baggy t-shirt, long pants, thick socks, and my Converses. I had read online that both men and women needed to cover up all the skin between their shoulders and their knees to access several temples, and I wasn’t going to take any chances. My camera battery was fully charged and I was ready to catch some legendary scenes among the ruins.
Of course, it was also already 1PM by the time my friends and I were finished with breakfast and ready to go. We only had time for the short temple route, which would take us through the four most popular temples across the massive region of Angkor. The sky was empty of clouds and the dust was easily disturbed under my feet, roiling at the barest of movements, surrounding me in a soft haze that followed me everywhere, coating my hair and skin in a light layer of grime.
It was a bumpy, throat-parching, gritty ride via tuk tuk to the temples. The sites are just outside of the main city, but the distance between each separate temple is too far to walk. Our driver was friendly and knew all the spots that tourists would want to check out. He handed each of us his business cards, on which he’d titled himself “Rithy, English Speaking Tuk Tuk Driver.” The laminated cards were charming and Rithy was happy to answer our questions about Buddhist traditions, ancient Hindu sculptures, and the city. (Sidenote: if you’re ever looking for a tuk tuk in Siem Reap, message me and I’ll send you his phone number.)
As we pulled up to the crumbling stone labyrinth of the largest and most famous temple, Angkor Wat, I could feel its power, even over a thousand years after the Khmer Empire’s downfall and the sanctuary’s abandonment. I hopped out of the tuk tuk, instinctively unzipping my backpack and pulling out my camera. Though a million photos had already been taken of this place, I couldn’t help but want my own, if only to look at later as a reminder to myself of how incredible this monument was both as an observation of an ancient culture and as a symbol of the human capacity to create.
We crossed a manmade moat wider than twice the length of a football field to reach the temple site. That body of water alone was a masterpiece; how many thousands of men did it take to dig it out? How many decades? The builders of Angkor Wat had erected a massive stone bridge over it, the only walkway between the temple and the mainland. Each gray brick was at least a couple feet wide and five feet long. How many men did it take to carry a single brick?
Once I wandered through the main entrance, a long, slender hall of small rooms, I faced an even longer stone walkway that was flanked on both sides by wide, green fields. Manmade, perfectly-square lily pad ponds were dug into each half and the landscape was sprinkled with tall, thin, curved palm trees that stood out strangely from their dry, flat surroundings. At the other end of the walkway was the main temple, a huge, square, two-story maze decorated with wide, hat-like spires. Tourists wandered everywhere, dotting the gray and green landscape with t-shirts and baseball caps and temple pants of all the colors of the rainbow.
Every millimeter of every stone in this temple complex had been etched with ornate carvings - and much of it was still in decent shape for the amount of time that had passed and the number of tourists that visit it on a daily basis. There were sculptures of topless women wearing crowns of snakes emerging from walls and intricate, fifty-feet long scenes of hundreds of soldiers with lion-like features destroying their enemies in battle. I was particularly fond of one mural whose paint hadn’t completely faded yet; the face of the warrior still held a rusty red hue, his blood angrily spilling onto his adversary as he choked him to death with bare hands. There were too many illustrations on every surface for me to take it all in; most of the ceiling was even carved! I could visit that complex a hundred days in a row and still find images hidden in the stones between impressions of flowers and designs that spanned for hundreds of meters.
I was surprised by the lack of supervision. And let me note, I wasn’t disappointed. It was liberating to clamber about the temple grounds without feeling the critical gaze of a black-suited mall-cop-esque figure watching me. There were no time limits on how long I could stare at a single carving, no red ropes, no one to stop me from frolicking in the fields, reveling in my stupendous surroundings. It also meant that climbing up some of the particularly steep and slender staircases held more than just a hint of adventure. My inner Indiana Jones adored it. My friend Liam is a bit of a parkour fanatic and entertained many large crowds of Japanese tourists with his front flips down staircases, hand stands, and run-up-and-flips off palm trees. I know that there are very serious and realistic reasons that most Western countries won’t let this amount of freedom fly in national monuments and around important artifacts, but it was an awesome experience to have my own little escapade through the temples.
As incredible as Angkor Wat was, my favorite site was Prasat Bayon, a temple at the center of Angkor Thom, the last constructed and longest-lasting capital of the Khmer Empire before it too was abandoned sometime before 1609. It’s about a five to ten minute tuk tuk ride away from Angkor Wat, past the monkey-infested jungle and over a bridge guarded by seven-foot tall statues of warriors serving as balustrades for the heavy stone railing on either side. When we approached Prasat Bayon and the imagery on all sides of the tall, dense structure became clear, I was speechless. As we wandered past a large tour group, I heard the guide telling awe-struck, open-mouthed tourists that “bayon" means magic in Khmer. And this breathtaking place is magical in the deepest, most spellbinding sense. The hundreds of six-foot-tall carved faces covering each pillar of the temple follow you as you walk. But it’s not creepy even in the smallest sense; it’s staggering to see. The statues’ lips are slightly curled up, giving an air of sneering, fathomless wisdom to their expressions, and the smiling eyes hold mysteries and secrets of a forgotten time in an ancient place.
The last stop on the temple tour was to a relatively unspectacular temple (I say that in the basest sense - it was mediocre compared to Angkor Wat, but still a remarkable structure in itself) that Rithy told us had “the best view of the sunset” in the complex. However, hundreds of people were lined up in front to watch the sun go down over the jungle. We waited in line about forty-five minutes to climb to the top and when we made it, we found out that Siem Rep doesn’t even really have sunsets. The sky was as dusty as the streets, hanging a heavy, murky gray-blue over the land. And in the middle of it sat a tiny, neon, fruit-punch-red sun. People shoved forward for a better view (not that there was one; it was impossible to get any photos without at least a couple elbows in frame). It was a little bit disappointing as an ending, but overall, the trip was out of this world.
- $6 tuk tuk (price per person)
- $20 Angkor Wat daily entrance fee
- $1 Water Bottles (lots of them)
Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia
You know how sometimes an idea pops in your head and it seems really great and without thinking about it, you say it out loud? It’s the kind of harmless thing you do when you watch television shows like Survivor or Fear Factor and they have to eat something gross and you mention to your friends, “I’d easily do that for a million dollars.” It’s fine when you're in your living room with your pepperoni pizza or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey (read: the first things I’m going to eat when I’m back in America). It’s safe when you’re far, far away from the actual thing.
Well, I had one of those moments last night.
“Man, I could try one of those tarantulas. I heard they taste like chicken.”
My friends and I had just finished dinner and were walking out of the restaurant when I saw a cart piled high with fried grasshoppers, skewered snakes, grubs, and hairy, black tarantulas parked outside. I whipped my phone out in classic tourist fashion, ready to snap some sweet shots, and was mid-taking one, completely zoned in, clicking the camera button when Cody stopped me by pointing at the sign explaining that photos would cost fifty cents a pop.
Oh, fuck. I swung my phone away, blurring the picture orange, squiggly snakes. A little lady wearing a bonnet grinned at me, nodded. I apologized for my presumption and she waved her hand in acceptance. I looked at my photo; it was shitty. I looked back up at the sign. It said that if you bought something, you could take photos for free.
That’s when it happened, when my mouth moved faster than my brain and my thought, as it formed, blurted out of me. I know now I didn’t have my priorities straight, but right then all I could think about was the free picture.
I would have gotten away with it, I think, if Cody hadn’t been standing right beside me in that moment. But he was. His eyes brightened and his mouth curved upward in joy as he realized the glorious opportunity before him.
“Hey guys,” he called out to the rest of our friends, who had been wandering into the nearby market. “Cassia wants to eat a tarantula. Right, Cassia?” His eyes glittered with mischievous triumph. He had me. He knew that I can’t back down from a dare, especially in front of a group of people.
Baby was the first one to pipe in, laughing evilly. “Oh yeah, Cassia?”
“Uh, um yeah I heard they’re really not bad. Taste like fried chicken. But I don’t have any money.” I waved it off. My mind was a whirl of fear. Why didn’t I say grasshopper? Why did I pick the biggest, most disgusting thing on that whole cart? What is wrong with me?
“Oh, well, I’ve got some spare cash.” Cody said, that bastard, “Baby, do you have any riel?”
Baby asked the bonnet lady how much the tarantula was. Only $1. My stomach sank as he handed Cody 1000 riel, the equivalent of $0.25 cents.
Everyone had wandered back, wondering what was going on.
“Does anyone want to donate to the Cassia-Eats-A-Tarantula fund?” Baby asked. I’ve never seen any of those guys open their wallets and dish out money so fast. They’re all usually cheap (or as they like to call themselves, “financially challenged”).
Baby bought the fried spider. He picked out the fattest one and handed it to me in a crinkled plastic bag.
In less than a minute my role had changed from grossed out tourist to freaky-girl-about-to-eat-a-tarantula. I held it in my palm. It was very light. A crowd had formed around me. A passerby pulled out an iPhone.
“Is it okay if I film you?” The large Englishwoman asked, waving her purple rhinestone-studded phone case in my face.
“Uh, yeah.” And suddenly there were camera phones everywhere. Damn the tourism district, I thought.
“Well, c’mon, do it!” Someone called out.
I stared down at my snack. It was a deep black that took on an indigo sheen under the florescent lights of the nearby market. I could see little hairs standing up all over, crisped from the fryer. The face was surprisingly visible, its furry fangs bared at me. Oh, Jesus Christ. I knew there were eyes on there somewhere and I closed mine as I brought it up to my mouth so I couldn’t see.
The first bite was just legs and it crunched easily. The texture really wasn’t bad - kind of like an extra thin, crispy french fry. And it did taste like fried chicken! I could hear hooting and sounds of disgust around me.
I opened my eyes, smiling triumphantly, “It’s pretty good!”
The next bite I went for the head. This time, I had to dig my teeth in and rip. I saw something white right under the sternum. It wasn’t as crunchy as the legs. A little chewy, but still very dry and mostly flavored with salt. I chewed and swallowed easily, barely noticing the hairs tickling my throat as it went down.
I was on a roll. I swallowed quickly, now aware of my growing audience, and embarrassed about it. I just wanted to get this over with. I took a large bite out of the abdomen. It was unexpectedly thick and had almost the exact texture and density of a Gumdrop, one of my least favorite candies. I held the chunk in my mouth, afraid to chew, imagining bits of tarantula sticking to my teeth like the tacky gelatin candy. I then made my second mistake of the night (the first being that I agreed to eat a spider): I looked at the half of abdomen still sitting in my palm to figure out what I’d just put in my mouth.
The bottom part was just black tar, but the top had white tube-like things all over. Oh God, is that what makes the web? For some reason, that’s what grossed me out. I spat the piece in my mouth onto the pavement, kicked it away, shaking my head and sticking my tongue out in disgust.
I could hear laughter everywhere; even from the bonnet lady. People started walking away; they’d gotten the show they wanted. I stood there flushed, begged one of my friends for a gulp of water and wished I had anything to get the flavor of spider guts off my tongue. To flush out the memory.
Then I remembered my objective: free photos of all the weird food! I snapped away and got the hell out of there.
- Tarantula: $1
- Your Dignity: Priceless
- Always ask before you photograph! It’s rude not to, and if it’s something particularly strange, someone’s probably going to charge you for it.