Phnom Penh: Tuktuks and the right to bare arms

Lately I’ve been thinking that age has gotten the better of me. Instead of dressing up and heading downtown on the weekends, I prefer to cozy up on a couch and watch movies. If Thursday night is a wild one, Friday night will almost certainly be spent in bed (by 9, most likely). But after five days in Phnom Penh with my touch rugby team, I’ve realized that age is not to blame. (Cairo life is the true culprit, if you were wondering.)

Little plane

Little plane

We descended into Phnom Penh after more than ten hours of traveling forward in time and three flight connections, the third of which we nearly missed due to a beer break in the Bangkok airport. We finished the final leg of our journey after boarding a frighteningly small prop plane that looked as if it had been assembled and painted by an ambitious child. From the window, Phnom Penh was a shadow on the ground, bisected spontaneously with glittering roads and scattered pinpricks of light. It appeared more urban than Siem Reap, but not by much. Even as the van retrieved us from the airport and shuttled us deeper into the little sprawl of streets that was Phnom Penh, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I absorbed our surroundings with minute curiosity and that heavy lethargy that accompanies air travel. Judging by the similar sleepy expressions of my companions, I figured we’d be in bed as soon as we reached the hostel.

Instead, we wound up in a stuffy little bar downtown at 3am playing Connect 4 with Cambodian prostitutes.

The reason for this was Renae, a blunt and energetic Aussie who moved to Ho Chi Minh City after spending a few years in Cairo. Growing up in Australia meant that Renae was genetically predisposed to rugby, so she was thrilled to meet up with our team in Cambodia, especially since a few of the guys had played with her the previous year in a similar tournament in Austria. Regrettably, I hadn’t known Renae well at all during her time in Egypt, but I was about to.

Renae, who was to be my roommate, had arrived at the hostel around 7 and was rearing to go by the time we dragged ourselves in around midnight.

“There’s a German bar across the street,” she mentioned enthusiastically. “We can go there and have a few beers.”

The idea of drinking at a bar – a real bar, not a walled-in ‘club’ that discreetly attempts to serve liquor – combined with the balmy heat and a variety of sundresses I’d packed was enough to recharge me. Standing in the street outside of our hostel wearing nothing but a strappy sundress whose hem barely reached my thighs felt both liberating and exhilarating. So much so that any lingering jet lag quickly vanished.

The bar may have been a bit odd – a brightly illuminated and vacant dance floor provided a strange setting for a German-themed bar that featured Cambodian waitresses donning dirndls. But the beer towers were flowing and that giddy sense of being somewhere else was hard to shake.

Celebrating a safe arrival in Phnom Penh

Celebrating a safe arrival in Phnom Penh

When we’d had enough, it was Renae who squashed any hope of heading to bed and catching up on sleep.

“I’ve been sitting around waiting for you since 7. We’re going downtown,” she’d told us as we stood idling on the corner. Before any of us could change our minds, she disappeared and returned in a four-person tuktuk and shouted for us to get in.

“Do we have any idea where we’re going?”

“I’ve told the driver to take us someplace that’s open in Riverside, the downtown area,” she explained. And so we all piled in, cramming four seats with double the amount of people; Brad clambered on the back of the motorbike with the driver while Pitz opted to hang off the side of the tuktuk as we slowly inched down the streets at a glacial pace. It was as different from Cairo as you could get: the streets were clean and relatively silent apart from us; the driver was a jovial guy who seemed unfazed by our invasion of his tuktuk; skirts were blowing in the breeze; someone may have had a beer.

We were dropped off at the bar close to 3 and quickly discovered that it was a prostitute hangout. Nevertheless, we enjoyed many a frosty brew while Brad took over the drumset and some of the other guys on the team retreated to a dark corner for a steamy game of Connect 4. The night continued in this fashion and ended at 4:30 in the morning with a night swim in the rooftop pool. Though I would sleep until well after two in the afternoon the next day, it was completely worth it; it was one of those rare and happy moments where you feel emboldened by friendship, travel, and spontaneity – and maybe a margarita as well.

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Categories: Cambodia

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