What’s Your Story? (Siem Reap & Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

We were in the middle of the dance floor, lost in a reverie.

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The lights and the music worked together in discounting the fact that I’ve only known these people for the past few rounds of drinks. They were, in a sense, strangers.

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But I’ve grown to get used to befriending strangers.

I go to a place by myself.

Start a conversation with a stranger.

Or respond to an open conversation starter by a stranger.

Initial questions are mostly geographic: what country we’re from, where we were before going there, and where we’re headed after that stop.

Next step would include the fillers: tummy and conversation fillers. We’d grab a bite. Have a few drinks, even.

When the conversation has reached the point where it’s a lost cause to sustain it, we say goodbye.

Oftentimes we forget to ask names. And just like that, we came in and out of each other’s lives, not sustaining and following through any connection. I guess it has also been a personal choice. Until then.

It has always been the same for the past dozen solo travels I’ve had. Never did I suspect that saying yes to this batch of strangers’ ambush the moment I got to the hostel would rehash that routine.

Stating the basics, I’m Samantha, 24, and I’m a Writer who’s traveling solo from the Philippines.

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That’s my story. But on that night, none of it mattered. Not for me, and not for them. We were a bunch of strangers who couldn’t care less of the what’s, where’s, how’s, and why’s. We all went there with our own backstories. Little did we know that in that moment, we were starting to write our own story. Together.

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THE CHARACTERS

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Meet Richard, Caroline, Deepthi, Preethi, Eamon, and Ben. They are responsible for making this story worth telling. And it started with a little Cambodian street boy randomly coming up to me, lashing out.

“I don’t want your money! I just want milk!”

We had no idea what that was all about but it sure broke the ice. The rest flowed naturally from then on.

THE SETTING + THE PLOT

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA

When in Siem Reap, you visit temples. That’s what I mostly did during my trip. I visited my first temple on my first night. It was The Temple Bar along Pub Street.

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The rest of the days were spent checking out the rest.

TEMPLE RUN…

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AT TA PROHM.

People aren’t the only ones who have backstories. Places have histories. Backgrounds. Milestones. Ta Prohm in particular, as it turns out, was where Tomb Raider was shot. We weren’t going to miss out on seeing the place for ourselves.

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Sure you hear people talk about it, you read about it, you get all the fuss online. But nothing compares to the feeling and experience of actually being there.

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AT ANGKOR THOM

A temple is a temple. They all look the same but are equally beautiful and majestic in their own ways.

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AT ANGKOR WAT

Going to a world famous destination is overwhelming.

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Because of the picturesque scenery.

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The rich culture it keeps.

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The history it holds.

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And it being a tourist spot, the tourists themselves.

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Making it almost impossible to get decent photos.

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FOOD TRIPS

I’ve been saying this and I will say it again.

DIETING IS NOT ALLOWED WHEN TRAVELING.

Half a travel experience is spent tasting it. Really. Just sweat a little more when you get back home.

Taste as many dishes as you can. If you’ve never heard of it before, if you’ve never seen one before, the more you should taste it.

HAPPY PIZZA

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I’ve heard of happy brownies but it was only then I discovered there is such thing as happy pizza. We’ve been seeing these restaurants around and one afternoon before heading to the circus, we finally decided to give it a taste. Well, they did. I didn’t have the courage to be all that happy then. 🙂

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From what I’ve heard though, it does make people happy.

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BUGS

Bugs and insects, from what it seems, are common to eat in Cambodia. They are being sold on the streets

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and even in gourmet restaurants. Check out what I wrote about during our bugs experience: A Bugs Night

STREET FINDS

The best, most authentic local delicacies are found on the streets. I was never against splurging and spending for food especially on travel. But when you can find them on the streets, go for those instead. Like what I said, they taste more authentic for some reason.

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The first street food find I had came with meeting a stranger who was apparently celebrating his birthday then. He was walking around Siem Reap looking for food and just meeting as many people as he could. What an awesome way to spend the first hours of your birthday, right? So Scott, I hope you had a blast eating Pad See Ew with me and Richard!

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In the Philippines we call these small eateries by the streets carinderias. Starving from a whole day of temple hopping, Eamon, Deepthi, Preethi, Caroline, and I stopped by this place just outside Angkor Wat. Food was so good and cheap.

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They offered a unique dining experience. The tables were like beds and after stuffing yourself with good food, feel free to lie on one of the hammocks.

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CHASING SUNSETS

We see and experience sunsets everyday. Sunsets are sunsets. But sunsets viewed from certain spots turn out extra beautiful. Siem Reap is one of those places.

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Ironically, every sunset I witnessed when I was in Cambodia eluded goodbye. I never figured out why.

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All I know is that every single one of them was breathtaking.

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And we never got tired of watching them.

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CATCHING THE SUNRISE

Siem Reap is not only known for viewing sunsets. Catching the sunrise is equally beautiful.

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We had to wake up at 4 in the morning, brave the cold tuk tuk ride to Angkor Wat, and make do with improvised breakfast.

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But it was worth it. Along with hundreds of other tourists, we sat there on the grass and waited for the sun to show itself.

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I’ve always acknowledged the beauty in sunsets. It was only then I realized sunrises are just as breathtaking.

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I remember sitting there, watching the sky slowly dissolve from black to gray to warm colors of orange and blue.

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It was captivating.

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And while sunrises are supposed to represent a start, a beginning; it was time for me to say goodbye. I was leaving Siem Reap for Phnom Penh right after.

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THE END

I wasn’t only saying goodbye to the place but also to the people I spent the last few days with. These are the people I considered as strangers in the beginning who made their way in my life as more than just mere travelers I came across with.

I never kept contact with anyone I meet on travel. As mentioned, it has always been a personal choice. But these people broke that norm. Along with goodbyes in the form of an open invitation to visit each other’s hometowns, we exchanged contact details and I still keep in touch with them to date.

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EPILOGUE

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA

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Getting to Phnom Penh was like the start of a whole new different experience. I was again on my own and I had to start from scratch familiarizing myself with the new place.

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I once again walked around the city by myself.

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Ate at restaurants by myself.

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And simply got by on my own. It was back to square one.

Booking at the nicest, cleanest hostel (to date) was a good start though.

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While I was in the process of adjusting, you could imagine how thrilled I was to see two familiar faces.

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I had two more days with Ben and one last night with Richard. To start (and end) our experience in Phnom Penh, we went out to have dinner and a few drinks with my roommate Dawn.

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Time went by so fast, I was dreading the end of the night. ‘Cause I yet again had to brave another goodbye.

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One thing I’ve learned though, it doesn’t always have to be a goodbye. It will only be a goodbye if you choose it to be. Let’s just leave it at that.

GENOCIDAL

Staying in Phnom Penh was never part of my plan but I’m glad I paid a visit. It was where I got to know Cambodia more. It’s a painful thought how 2 million Cambodians were killed by their own during the Khmer Rouge.

Dawn, Ben, and I went to the S21 prison and the Killing Fields on our last day in Phnom Penh. I did take photos when we were there but out of respect, I opted not to post them online. Though it was an emotionally heavy day for us, it was worth knowing their stories.

And to spend our last night in Cambodia, we decided to go local. How else but to go to an authentic Cambodian restaurant where no one spoke and understood English?

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Even the menu was written in their native language. I still have no idea how we managed to order food, really.

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After attempting to communicate through sign language and pointing photos on the menu, we nailed ordering Cambodian barbecue and fried noodles.

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Devouring on the best meal for the trip was definitely the best way to end it.


I don’t think I could ever tell the story exactly the way we all experienced it. Even with backing it up with photos and spending hours writing about it, I could never give justice to it. How different it was. How memorable it was. But maybe that’s all it will ever be. A great memory. If so, that’s more than what I went there with.

We went there with our own backstories. And none of them mattered.

We left with stories we wrote together, told in different versions. And they mattered. They did back then, they still do now, and they always will.

(Siem Reap & Phnom Penh, Cambodia | January 2015)

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