When I decided to leave Korea and officially move back to America, I knew it would bring an emotional goodbye. Having lived abroad before, and spent time in airports second guessing my decisions, I knew that I had to travel before I went home. Travel is the only cure for a broken heart.
And so, I spent my last weekend laughing when I was with my friends and tearing up when I was alone, whispering ‘thank you, thank you, thank you,’ for my opportunities and blessings. And then I flew to Cambodia.
Now, I’ve always been a fan of traveling gritty. Cruises and packaged tours just aren’t for me. I’m a land-and-wing-it kinda girl. However, when I checked into the guesthouse in Siem Reap, I saw a new level of grit.
Though I’d arrived hours after my scheduled check in time it was clear that the staff was unprepared for me. I followed a worker to my room, carrying all my bags up the steep stairs while he walked empty handed. When we entered, I immediately noticed a small pile of garbage and some empty water bottles between the two beds. A garbage can near the door was overflowing as well.
I wrinkled my nose as I set down my backpack and duffel bag on the smaller bed, then I followed him into the bathroom. He had taken off his shoes by the bathroom door and was rinsing off his dusty feet with the shower head. I stood and watched him rinse the entire ground and the toilet. Behind me was a coat rack with two towels hanging down. I touched them, and was not surprised to feel dampness. As the man left, I handed him the garbage can and the towels.
It was late, but I was hoping to somewhere that would serve me a late dinner. I sorted through my bag, pulling out a crossword book and some cash. I also changed into a lightweight shirt, as I’d been sweating since I’d left the airplane. I noticed that a small rash had already formed on my biceps from the heat. But I shrugged it off, knowing I’d adjust to jungle weather in a few days.
Before I left, I took one final look at my bed and sighed. I could guess, based on the state of the room when I came in, that the sheets were dirty too. But I shrugged it off as part of the gritty travel experience and left in search of spring rolls.
The next morning I awoke with a vacation mindset. I would spend the day treating myself to spas, eating good food, and napping occasionally. I cooled myself in the cold, rusty smelling shower water, noticing that my skin had gotten slightly worse overnight. I still had the heat rash on my upper arms, but now a few bumps along my forearms had appeared as well, and they itched. I smushed a few mosquitoes as I showered, hoping to prevent further attack in the upcoming nights.
By the early afternoon I was sitting in the shade, enjoying a veggie sandwich on a fresh baguette, and admiring my pedicure. I’d spent around thirty dollars that day and had enjoyed a mango smoothie for breakfast, a two hour full body massage, a pedicure, and lunch. Aside from my itchy arms, I was in paradise.
I made plans to go on a temple tour the following morning, scheduling an early morning trip so as to avoid as much of the daytime heat as possible.
I’d set my alarm for 5 a.m. but awoke a few minutes before. I was going to see the sunrise behind Angkor Wat; a famous 12th century temple. Though I’d slept directly under the fan, I was already hot, and I chose my loosest dress to wear, though I had to also cover my shoulders and knees in proper temple attire. As I grudgingly pulled on jean capris, I noticed that I had more red bumps on my skin, now on my ankles and feet. I cursed the mosquitoes as I locked my door and left.
Once at Angkor Wat, I was immediately greeted by a woman selling a book on Cambodian temples. I insisted that I didn’t want a book, but she persisted. Finally she dropped her asking price from $30 to $8, and offered an Obama flashlight with it. I paid her to be rid of her, and used the weak flashlight to guide my feet across the stony path that led to Angkor Wat.
I’d figured that by going to the temple early I’d beat the tourists. I was wrong. The crowd gathered in the dark, squinting through the dawn at the lumpy temple structure, cameras ready. I stood among the early risers, convinced that Angkor Wat must always be popular, regardless of time or season.
And then the sun rose, slowly. The sight of this ancient temple reflecting off the pond in front of me left me breathless. The people around me must have felt the same amazement, for they too were serene. The clicking of cameras was the loudest sound.
I walked through the temple, exploring every hallway and crevice. I held my new guide book under my arm, never opening it. The outer walls were covered in carvings of battle, and throughout the temple there were carvings of curvy bare-breasted women with their arms forever lifted above them in either a dance or meditation. I envied their stony comfort as I walked past them, sweat dripping consistently from my breasts to my belt.
I explored back, around, and out. I noticed two repeated symbols. One was a lion, standing on all fours but with longer forelegs than hindquarters, and its stance reminded me of a knuckle walking gorilla. The other was a snake, single bodied with seven heads. Most of the statues were missing parts, faces typically. This just reminded me of the ancientness of the place I was in, and made me appreciate it more.
The next temple I went to was Angkor Thom. This temple was filled with more than 50 towers that had Buddha’s face carved in to all four sides. I walked among the ruins then went into the cave-like hallways to escape the heat.
I left that temple as my camera battery died. Though there were many more temples I could see, I decided to go back to my hotel room and take a cold shower. I curled my toes and rubbed the tops of my feat against the seat in front of me throughout the tuk tuk ride back. Itchy.
After I’d showered and eaten, I decided I needed a cure for my itching. I stopped in a pharmacy and mimed mosquitoes buzzing, then slapped my arms. “Nom nom nom!” I said, so that the pharmacist would understand what the red bumps on my skin were from. He laughed, and so did the women who surrounded him. They repeated my mosquito skin-munching sound as I paid for anti-itch cream and bug spray.
I doused my room before I went to bed, but woke up with more bites. Now the itchy bumps had replaced the heat rash, and they were up past my knees too.
Years ago, I’d had a roommate who had her wisdom teeth pulled out in late December. We’d gone Christmas shopping together soon after. Though both of us disliked crowded malls, she had the additional discomfort of being extremely itchy from Percocets. I zigzagged through the mall, scanning store windows for gifts, and she walked beside me scratching herself compulsively. We’d finally laughed at her crack head appearance and bolted for the parking lot.
I was reminded of this as I toured Siem Reap, only now I was the one who seemed like a crack head. I’d used the entire bottle of anti-itch cream and was now taking anti-itch pills morning and night. Every day I went to amazing places and scratched myself nonstop, and every night I went to sit at my computer and research causes of itchy rashes.
I researched scabies, bed bugs, chicken pox twice, and shingles. I also looked up allergies and holistic remedies for rashes. I reminded myself that I was in a beautiful country, with so much to see, and that I would be home soon, but part of me yearned to be in a country where I could cover my skin in apple cider vinegar. And based on various internet articles, I worried that I couldn’t have wine again and that I’d have to change my diet to a gluten free one. Every possible ailment that I read about seemed like it applied to me.
After six days in Siem Reap, I took a bus to Phnom Pehn, the capital of Cambodia.
My new hotel room was much cleaner than the previous one. But still, I woke myself up throughout the night clawing at my ankles. I’d actually begun scratching in my sleep.
I went to a doctor one morning before going on a tour. “Allergy,” the old woman said. I disagreed, but I wasn’t the doctor. She stacked up three kinds of medicine and gave me instructions on how to take them. I paid her a couple of bucks (God BLESS needing medicine when outside of America!) and left.
I immediately went from the doctor’s to S-21.
S-21 had been a high school but was converted into a secret prison in the 1970’s. The plaques I read there helped to summarize how Cambodia drastically changed from 1975 to 1979. Basically, the Khmer Rouge used fear tactics to come into power. They announced that the U.S. was going to bomb Phnom Pehn, causing citizens to scatter to the countryside. Within three days, the capital was under a new regime.
The leaders of the Khmer Rouge turned young men and women from the country into soldiers. They then set out to turn all Cambodian people into hard working, non-thinking rice farmers. They banned schooling and imprisoned intellectuals.
S-21 was used to imprison people suspected (falsly) of treason. Former teachers, doctors, and painters were interrogated on their involvement in the CIA and KGB, and were tortured until they would confess. Between 14,000 and 20,000 people were detained in this prison, and killed.
By the time the Khmer Rouge regime fell, they’d killed about a fourth of the population.
The grounds of S-21 were beautiful. I walked past the graves of the last 14 people found in the prison thinking that it must have been a lovely courtyard for students before it was turned into a place of torture and murder. I stood in the shade of the first building, enjoying the breeze, and then I took a deep breath before walking in.
The following building showed pictures that were taken to record the new prisoners upon their arrival. I’d made it through a short part of this genocide museum, and I already felt excessively emotional as I looked at the rows of haunting faces. I passed by guides who described agonizing forms of torture, from implanting centipedes into people’s chests and pulling out fingernails to electric shock and beatings. Prisoners were fed about eight spoonfuls of rice soup each day. The tourists they spoke to listened with solemn expressions while I began to cry. Sniveling, I walked outside, wondering why I was the only person crying.
After I composed myself, I continued my journey up and down the dirty staircases, past shoulder-width holding cells, and through hallways and windows that were covered in barbed wire to prevent prisoners from committing suicide.
On my way out I saw one of the seven survivors of S-21 selling a book about his experience. He proudly held up his book and smiled for pictures, and then he pointed at a black and white photo of a woman and said, “My wife.”
His translator told me, “His wife died in this prison.”
“I’m sorry but I don’t think I can read that,” I said. “Can I just make a donation?”
The translator nodded.
I pulled a few Cambodian bills from my travel wallet, keeping my eyes down. I couldn’t bear to look at the man or his fingernails. I handed the money to him with tears welling up in my eyes again. The man smiled kindly, and the translator looked at my excessive emotion with great curiosity. “It’s such a sad place,” I blubbered. And I walked out, wiping my tears on my bumpy arms, which suddenly seemed less itchy when compared to torture.
I rode from there to the killing fields, where the Khmer Rouge had killed about 17,000 people. After my emotional morning, I figured I was cried out, but I prepared myself for the worst.
I’d seen photos of the blindfolded bashed-in skulls and bound skeletal wrists, but today nothing so grotesque is still around. Many mass graves were excavated in the 1980’s, and the ones that remain have been surrounded by fences and covered. The bones that were discovered were studied, classified, and placed in a large tower that serves as a memorial to the people killed here. Over 5,000 skulls, and countless ribs, fingers, and collarbones have been carefully stacked up and labeled inside the tower.
But when it rains bones still rise up from beneath the ground.
I walked past the mass graves, reading signs. “Mass grave of 450 victims.” “Mass grave of 166 victims without heads.” “Mass grave of more than 100 victims children and women whose majority were naked.” “Please don’t walk through the mass grave.”
I surprised myself with my lack of tears. I think the organization of the bones helped me walk through this location as though it were merely a historical park. I saw old clothing fragments matted down and sticking out of the ground, and I just stepped over them.
I held it together until I reached the grave of mothers and children. Beside the grave was a thick tree that had flowers and bracelets around its base. I read the sign beside it. “Killing tree against which executioners beat children.” What the fuck is wrong with people, I thought, as I inevitably teared up yet again.
I rode away from the killing fields quietly in the back of the tuk tuk. The day had been sunny, breezy, and grim.
The next morning I woke up early, determined to make the most of my final day in Cambodia. I promised myself that I wouldn’t scratch my skin that day, and then I showered and examined myself for more bumps. Sure enough, they had spread across my shoulder blades and cascaded down. I even had three bumps on my left cheek and three on my right temple. This disturbed me, as I recalled from my research that a sign of bed bugs was bumps lined up in a row. The internet referred to it as “breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” The thought of bugs crawling on me and biting my face creeped me out beyond belief.
I started the day with a banana smoothie and then went off to see the Royal Palace.
Having spent the day before picturing starvation, torture, and murder, the riches I saw in the Royal Palace were a welcome change. Aside from the few years of Khmer Rouge regime, the Royal Palace has been home to Cambodian kings since the mid 1800’s.
I walked around the courtyard, between the rows of plants, surrounded by one elaborate building after another. All the buildings were yellow, white or gold, and their rooftops mirrored one another in traditional Cambodian architecture. I peered into the pagoda where people were folded down to the ground in prayer in front of one of the many Buddha statues.
Another building housed various treasures: hundreds of diamonds, over a thousand Buddha statues, silver, and marble. I tapped a tour guide on the shoulder. “Excuse me, I was just wondering how all this survived during the Khmer Rouge occupancy?”
“Everything was buried,” the guide explained.
I took many pictures of the buildings as I explored, and a few of myself. I realized, as I held out my camera and aimed it at my face, that I had spent my vacation trying not to photograph myself from the neck down. My skin looked so diseased that I didn’t want to have to see it later in pictures. Instead, all of my pictures would be my face in the back of a tuk tuk, my face in front of palace buildings, my face in a boat.
Before returning to my hotel, I stopped at a market and bought some fruit. My hotel was located across from a monastery, and every day I watched Buddhist monks wrapped in bright orange robes walking around the neighborhood. They didn’t beg, but they stood near restaurants and stores accepting donations and offering prayers. I wanted to drop off some food before I left.
I pulled a light sweater over my bumpy arms and shoulders before walking in. Soon I saw a monk relaxing in a hammock. I walked up to him, smiling, and handed him a plastic bag filled with bananas and longans (a small round tropical fruit with an easily removable skin, and a sweet, juicy inside). I’d heard that it was disrespectful for women to speak to monks, so I just bowed to the man and walked away.
I didn’t make it far before two laymen approached me. “That fruit, is that for him?” Asked one man.
“Yes, him and any other monks who want it.”
“And what about the sunglasses, they are for him too?”
I had forgotten about the sunglasses. I’d bought a pair of sunglasses in Korea but the prescription was just slightly off. So a few days earlier I went to a glasses shop in Cambodia and bought a new pair of sunglasses that worked for my eyes for about $20. I figured the first pair of glasses might work for one of the monks, so I’d thrown them on top of the fruit. “Yes, the glasses are prescription, you know, for bad eyes?”
“Yes, I know.” Said the man. “He thought you just wanted him to hold your things while you looked around. He wasn’t sure when you were coming back.”
“Oh! I’m sorry! I didn’t say anything to him because I’m a woman, but you tell him that’s for him.”
“You can speak to him, it’s no problem. And he would like to pray for you. Will you come back?”
I was touched, and amused. “Of course. Ask him to pray for my skin!” I stuck out one of my welt- covered legs, and the man looked at me with concern. I followed him back to the monk and into a small room.
I sat on the ground and crossed my legs, and the monk sat across from me. He began chanting rhythmic and monotone, only raising his tone before taking a new breath and continuing. I sat calmly, letting his foreign words wash over me, imagining them blanketing my limbs and wrapping around my back. When the man became silent I opened my eyes and smiled. “Good luck to you,” he said.
I flew to Ho Chi Minh City just a few hours later. I set my luggage on my bed and took a scalding hot shower, enjoying the way the burning sensation cancelled out the itch on my ankles. I dried off and walked to my bed.
As I lifted my luggage up, I saw five small bugs start to scatter. With ninja speed I smushed them all. So it was bed bugs afterall. My skin was crawling but only from disgust.
I woke up the next morning with no new bumps. I was finally rid of the freeloading bugs and starting to get better. I sent an angry email to my first hotel informing them that room 123 was infested with bed bugs that had put an itchy damper in my vacation. And then, shamefully, I emailed my second hotel admitting that I’d slept with bed bugs and had carried them unknowingly into their hotel as well. I felt dirty and irresponsible for having slept with such a dirty bed to begin with.