A month in Cambodia without shoes and passport
I remember myself eating Duryan at the border between Thailand and Cambodia. This fruit's got such a specific taste that if you dare eating it in a closed public place, such as a bus, the people have the right to kick you out, and they will do it.
Thais like to make jokes about Duryan. They either love it or hate it. Nothing in between. So I was trying to finish it, convincing myself that I loved it. Never imagined such a taste. Its creamy texture and sweet, onion-like buttery flavor made me doubt its natural origins. I felt challenged.
My clothes and my backpack, my money and my passports were absolutely wet because of a heavy rains – this morning Monsoon was letting know about itself. For me the rain always used to mean a change, as it would always coincidentally appear together with changes in my life.
I felt so happy to arrive here, to this border, overland, in pick-ups, and I was imagining how Cambodia should be like. In my fantasies it was similar to Thailand, but better – I still believed in fairy-tales, maybe this was why I tended to associate poverty exceptionally with kindness.
I got so used to smiley Thai people who never say negative things, that after a month I could barely imagine people having bad intentions or showing any kind of irritation; losing the face. I smiled to them for the last time and with my exit stamp I entered Cambodia.
One of the guys at the boarder saw me and rushed to help. He showed me where to fill my visa application and right after that asked me for five dollars, that I owed him for this “help”, which he wasn’t even asked for. The officers asked me for 50 dollars for my visa fee, and I was shocked, because I have just read online that Russian people get a free stamp and can stay with it up to two weeks in Cambodia. This was the reason I showed them my Russian passport and not Lithuanian – I’ve got a double citizenship. I politely asked them about this.
- Okay. No need visa, go back Thailand. Goodbye. – They all looked at me as if they hated me. I couldn’t believe this.
So I paid the money, which could have been enough for me to survive two weeks or more. I was puzzled.
Right after, one of many TukTuk and Taxi drivers came over and wouldn’t leave me alone as I was walking towards the road. The next city was ten kilometers away. He was offering me a “Cheap ride for a lady, only ten dollars”. I said I was poor and I liked walking.
“You are from Russia, in Russia everyone is rich, I know! You are one of those people that don’t have to work for their entire life and can travel everywhere. My country is poor so you come here, you have to give us money. And if it is true that you are poor so stay in your country and don’t come here!” – this was the exact amount of rudeness needed to bring me back to this earth after flying so high and smiling to every creature.
Suddenly, I felt so stupid and naïve. But I didn’t want to believe that now I will be treated this way. I kept on walking. Sometimes you just have to keep walking.
The taxi driver was following me telling other rude things, and two backpackers came by. I recognized the cute Spanish accent and it made me feel stronger meeting two male travelers in this situation; they asked me if I wanted to share a taxi. The moment, when I convinced them to hitchhike, Taxi driver looked at me with a clear aggression, but even then I was not scared. I still thought nothing is ever going to happen to me. Bad things happen to others.
It started raining cats and dogs, as we walked, and shared travel stories. They were going to do a diving course on an island; me, I had no plans as usual, except for facing the Cambodian culture, hitchhike around, visiting temples and be with local people. So we decided to go to Sihanoukville together – it was a beach-town with an access to many wild jungle islands, and this was all we knew about it.
We arrived when it was already dark and went to the cheapest hostel. It was called Utopia and cost two dollars per night. One of those places, full of party animals and loud music, but it was cheap and we were going to stay only one night.
We grabbed some beers and went to the beach. I didn’t trust the locker in the hostel, because our room had no doors and was an open space to anyone, even the strangers from the street. So I locked my backpack and took a small bag with me. I put there my tablet, my camera, my three passports, credit cards and two hundred dollars. The city was so touristic and had lots of bars open till the morning, there were lights everywhere and I was not going to lose my mind, so I thought it was a good idea to have my belongings next to me.
We were sitting on the beach, a bit farther than all the party places with ridiculous music, and talked, the night seemed so beautiful. We could see the the moon and one part of the sky was black, so we bet if it was going to rain. If so, we had to go swimming.
Suddenly I saw the guy coming very slowly from the side. I was absolutely calm and wasn’t sure if he was coming towards us. But at some point I realized he was behind me. I turned back, looking at him, and then, he grabbed my bag and ran. We started running after him, but then I heard my friend screaming and heard a scary sound of hitting. I saw a guy running after us with a huge stick and that was when I got really freaked out. I ran really fast, forgetting my shoes there.
And there I was – on the beach, next to the people having their fun late Thursday night, barefoot, with no money and no identity. It was the end of my easy days, I thought. It was absolutely different now. Nothing was same.
We were walking home under the rain again, my feet hurt because of the glasses on the street, and I was thinking about the travel plans I had - I was not going back home until I reach India; I was going to see Myanmar, Laos, Nepal and Bangladesh on my way there. I was thinking to go to Japan to make ceramics. Do Vipassana in Malaysia. Get a boat from Indonesia to Mexico and travel in South America. Publish my book there.
Now I couldn’t cross a single boarder.
But this was not the worst thing. The worst was that now I was afraid. Afraid to be physically hurt. Now I felt vulnerable and I hated that. I hated myself for feeling this way because it was something I used to deny. Something I was trying others to get rid of. But here and now I couldn’t help it.
The next day we went to search for my passports: maybe they took the valuable stuff and left the passports on the street. Maybe at least my shoes were there. But we had no luck. We went to the police office and told them what happened, asking for help and report. The police officer looked at me with coldness and indifference. He said I needed a translator and his time costs money. He asked me to pay him in order to get a report, but first find a translator, that would cost around twenty dollars. I told him I had no money at all, not even shoes, but he didn’t care. He was just repeating the same phrase, like a robot, and looked at me with no emotions.
I had nowhere to go and nothing to do now. The town was full of backpackers looking for fun and locals, looking for money.
My Spanish friends bought me a lunch, paid me one more night in a hostel and left to the island for the diving course. I opened my box with hand-made jewelry and started making new bracelets and pendants; very soon some people came to ask what was it made of, so I told them the whole story. After that day I made about twenty dollars and it made me feel better.
I borrowed the computer from an Estonian guy in a hostel and found a place on a deserted island, where one man was opening a bungalow resort and needed help. I was lucky and very soon he accepted my request to work for food and bungalow. I knew I had to go to the capital and deal with embassies, but I paid for my visa after all, and I didn’t want to get into all this hassle right away. So I decided to forget that happened and go to the island, to face the other fears of mine: Tsunamis and Snakes.
The guy was French with Moroccan origins. He was living on an island for two years and every summer he had some guests coming over. He needed someone to paint the bungalow walls and the bar, and I was that someone. He showed me my bungalow, the kitchen and the area, explained me that he doesn’t want to feel the “weight of someone’s presence here” so I need to be absolutely independent and “we live at the same place but we don’t live together”. This was enough to realize, that I was all alone in there and didn’t have to bother him. Paint his walls, eat my food, enjoy the nature and pretend I wasn’t there. Probably it was what I needed right now. No internet was an additional quality tool for facing that ultimate loneliness.
The island was the most beautiful place on earth. It was wild. There was a jungle behind me and the sea in front. The nature was overwhelming, it was everywhere, and I felt so small and unimportant, I realized, how weak is the human being when faced to the greatness of nature. How little it matters. I was sitting long hours on a little wooden bridge watching the waves and thinking, breathing the pure air and listening to the birds. There were eagles and toucans with their colorful peaks.
Except for me and a French guy, there was a local family living there. He would pay them for staying on an island, fishing, and helping him with building works. The man was a captain and he would take a french guy to the mainland by his little boat when needed. The woman would cook and clean. They had a cute little boy, and he was my only connection to the human world. We would observe bugs together and play on the beach.
Every night my heart was madly beating, breathing exercises wouldnt help. I was afraid of snakes. Since I was a little girl, I loved watching documentaries about snakes. I loved that feeling of curiosity and fear, fighting within me; I loved the desire to close my eyes that was overtaken by the desire to keep watching. The way they moved was so beautiful and disgusting at the same time, that I couldn’t even tell what exactly I was feeling. They were moving so slowly but so fast. The ones that had no poison were faster and the huge ones would strangle people slowly, but without giving a chance. They seemed cruel creatures, but they actually weren’t. It was so hard to believe! To realize that they were just other suffering beings, with their own fears, trying to protect themselves. And they were not daemons, nor the incarnated evil.
There, in the stillness of the tropical nights, I could hear all kinds of noises Inside and outside my bungalow. Sometimes I was nearly sure, that there was a huge snake around my bed, and I was wondering if it could cross the mosquito net. I was wondering if the snake could smell my adrenaline and get scared because of it and use it as a reason to attack me. I was thinking, what is worse – a little poisonous cobra wandering around my bungalow or a huge python, moving slowly in search for the best position to start rolling around me, getting closer to my neck. Sometimes I would stand up, turn on my little lantern and check everything out; it was too long, too boring, too scary to wait for death taking me like this. It was better to face it sooner. But it was always empty, just a few lizards, cockroaches and bats on the sealing. It would scare me a few months ago, but now, comparing to the real danger, they meant nothing to me. I could even consider them my closest friends on this island.
I never fell asleep before sunrise. One night, another horrifying thought crossed my mind. If a snake, or some pirates or anything would occasionally come to my bungalow, I couldn’t even call the french guy. Because he told me, that he didn’t want to feel the weight of my presence. So I would have to deal with the enemies on my own. I felt like a little girl left in the middle of a jungle or the open sea. That scared me, but somehow also felt exciting.
Every night I thought about leaving, but every morning, watching the sunrise on my little wooden bridge, I would change my mind. I thought, I needed to stay, until my fears would pass. Otherwise, there was no reason to be there.
The other night I started thinking of Tsunami. I watched it on YouTube ten million times and couldn’t stop it, my heart would beat the same way as when I watched snakes. Again, it was so slow, it even looked like a normal wave, coming to the beach, the only difference was it wouldn’t stop. It would move so slowly, taking away the houses, trees, people and cars. It seemed impossible to believe, so slow and so fatal.
Now I was right between jungle and Tsunami. I imagined this wave coming and taking my bungalow, all the wild animals and me, everything, but birds. I imagined the water moving with all snakes and lizards in there, and me in the middle, trying to swim, to find a little thing, a boat, that wouldn’t let me drawn. I jumped of my mosquito net and went out. I wanted to know Tsunami is coming before it would take my bungalow. I wanted to control the uncontrolable. Yet, there was no Tsunami and the night was just very windy, so it sounded like Tsunami. Anyway, I didn’t even know how it sounds.
One night I slept on the bridge, because the moon was full and from there I could see everything: the pirate boat if they would decide to come; the snakes and the sea with all its waves and storms. The light of the moon assured me I was safe and I knew what was happening around me. There were many lizards running around and a few cockroaches: black with yellow dots. I thought for instance, that they became colorful to give me the congratulations for overcoming my fear of them. I laughed in the dark.
And that night on the bridge I have learned a new thing about nature and life. The darkest hour of the night is before sunrise. When the moon disappeared behind the other islands, I was expecting the sun to come and take its place right away. But it took more than an hour for the sun to appear. And during that hour I couldn’t see anything at all. I couldn’t even go back to my bungalow. There was kind of a message in it for me; as in everything else happening. You can’t take things for granted. Never.
During the day I felt so calm and blessed as if the nights would have taken me to the other dimensions of reality. There was nothing in common between those two. During the day I was swimming in crystal water and painting mandalas on the walls; observing birds and bugs, searching for snakes – with the sunlight nothing scared me. One day the French guy and a captain captured a poisonous snake and called me to see it. The captain was holding its head with two fingers and its tail with other two. He put it in a bottle with vinegar and closed it. The snake was moving and its eye color was constantly changing. I felt sad for it. I couldn’t understand, why Buddhist would do that. Why anyone would do that.
- Don’t you feel sad for it? – I asked the French guy.
- I didn’t analyze why. I just don’t. It is good that the guests can come and see what kind of animals live on an island.
He told me that the other day he saw the six meter pythoni n the kitchen. And that there were little snakes, and if they bite you on your leg, after four hours you have no leg. And when I asked him too much questions about snakes and other animals , he said: “Why wouldn’t your parents take you to the zoo in your early days?”.
After a week on the island, I felt differently. I accepted my destiny and my fate; I decided not to worry about something I couldn’t change. It came to me after all those tiring heartbeats and paranoid thoughts. And I loved that feeling. It felt like blood in my veins became better quality.
I told the French guy that I decided to leave the next day. He said, it was alright and his captain was going to take me to the mainland. I was going to be back to the world. The world, where the absence of shoes would become noticeable again.
Sihanoukville was as ugly as before, full of drunk or hangover backpackers and sneaky tuktuk drivers. But I was different now.
I went to the translation agency where the French guy’s brother worked and found there a Cambodian girl that spoke perfect English. She went with me to the police office since I needed the report to get my papers done – this was the only thing I knew by that time.
At the police office I explained to the policemen that I used to travel by walking and hitchhiking in order to get to know local people, that I wanted to visit temples and learn Khmer. That I even had no shoes. That I was not like the ones who come to vacation; that my job was selling jewelry on the street and I had no place to go. After all, he wrote me a report for free. I didn’t mention anything about my Russian passport, because I didn’t want them to send me to Russia. I wanted to go back to Europe. So I got the report, paid a translator girl with a ceramic necklace and took a bus to the capital.
There was a Lithuanian girl, Justina, living and working for a year in Phnom-Penh. I have seen her few times when we studied Orientalism back home, but I never actually knew her. Now she was my only hope.
As the bus was arriving to Phnom-Penh, the capital of Cambodia, I saw about twenty men running after my bus, shouting and strongly knocking on its windows. It was scary. They seemed rude and aggressive, and they all were pointing at me. They surrounded my bus and I was sure, my life was over. It was not tsunami, not a snake, not a pirate. No. It was here – twenty men kidnapping me at this ugly bus station. I told the driver I am not going to leave the bus because I was scared of these men. But he ignored me.
Then I saw Justina waiting for me and I ran to her. I should have looked like crazy in her eyes. No shoes and a dirty after-island look came together with a weird questions.
- What are they doing? Why did they attack my bus? – I asked her.
- They are tuktuk drivers! They just want to give you a ride because they can see you are a white woman and they can charge you more. – She was smiling.
She took me to eat and drink beer and finally I felt some human warmth; the weight of my presence was not unbearable for her and we could talk the same language in the middle of this chaos. As we walked by the streets, I noticed many people watching us, seemed that they were searching for the bags with their eyes. But I had no bag anymore. Nothing to lose.
There I found my new cozy home. We would enjoy every evening, drink Lithuanian tea and talk about so many things. I have forgotten that I can actually talk to someone, it has been a long time hitchhiking and observing, being silent and smiling to people because of our language barrier.
The third night someone tried to break into our flat. I was sleeping and non of us have heard the sound, just in the morning we have found some breaking-in-tools. They didn’t manage. Now we were scared of the thieves coming at night and killing us, since the violent crime here is obviously very high and everyone I have met told me some stories; actually much more horrifying ones than mine was. So we were alert.
I went to the flea market and sold few of my works there, making enough money for motorbikes (there is no public transport in this city) to deal with my issue in all serious places, like embassies and immigration offices.
And here my embassy story began.
First I went to the French embassy, since it was the most important and the biggest one here. They let me in and spoke to me very kindly; one guy was half-Spanish and we found some common jokes. They told me they couldn’t help me because the embassy, responsible for my country was actually the British one. So I went there.
They were about to help me, and even gave me the form to fill out, and then asked about my visa. I said, it probably didn’t matter because my passport was stolen, so no one could work out now, when did I enter the country. But the woman told me, they could see every detail of my entrance, because it was registered in their database. So I had no choice and asked her, if it was a problem that I entered the country with Russian passport. She said, I had to go to the Russian embassy and maybe they could send me to Lithuania instead of Russia if I didn’t want to go there. They couldnt help me, because since I entered the country with Russian passprt, according to the imigration laws, I had to exit it as a Russian Citizen.
Finding embassies with moto drivers was a big deal. They seemed to not know the city and the map I was holding wouldn’t help much. They were driving like crazy even for me – I loved fast driving, but this was the limit. Every five seconds it seemed to be almost – almost an accident. Few centimeters were missing.
At the Russian embassy they said they couldn’t help me because I had nothing to prove my Russian identity. No copy of any passport.
What shall I do now? Stay in Cambodia forever? Get in jail? The thieves don’t go there and I will. That’s not fair.
I contacted my university teacher, who helped me to contact the Lithuanian ministry of foreign affairs. And they told me to try other embassies.
I went to the German one, since it seemed to be so serious and responsible, like Germans. The guy at the entrance was Cambodian and barely spoke English. I asked him to let me in because of my lost passport.
- Where are you from?
- No. Lithuana.
- Ok, Ukrania. What you want?
- I am from LITHUANIA.
- OK. You go to British embassy.
- I already was there! They didn’t help me. Please. I need to go in and talk to the council.
- You go to the British embassy.
- I already went there, They don’t help me.
- Your visit is over.
- Your visit is over.
And again, no emotions. I slapped his window and sat on the bench nearby and started crying. Am I the only case in the world? It couldn’t be true.
I came back and started shouting at the guy.
- Let me in, let me talk to the German person! If you won’t let me, I will break this window!
And so he called the council. The tall German guy came down, he looked worried. I told him everything and he was kind to me. He said, he would call the British embassy and tell them they should help me because of the exceptional case. He did, and he even paid my TukTuk to there.
At the embassy, while waiting for my turn, I met an old Englishman. He told me, he was robbed as well. We spoke for a while and after I went to the council room, I found a paper with fifty dollars in it. There was a little note “You will need it. If you ever come to England, this is my email.” I was literally broke and had money enough only to get back home by a motorbike. Now I was rich.
The council said, he needs to contact the Lithuanian ministry and it can take few days. So I used the computer in a waiting room and sent an urgent letter to the Lithuanian ministry, asking for help. And after few minutes, the council called me and said, that he already received the confirmation from my country and I was lucky. So I had to find a ticket to Europe, show him the itinerary and fill the form. The next day my emergency passport was ready.
Now I had to get my exit visa. I went to the immigration office and told them everything that happened to me and showed the letter from the embassy, about my case: I entered the country with Russian passport but needed to leave as a Lithuanian. They had no proof of my entrance to Cambodia though. So the serious man took me to the interview room.
- Tell me all the truth, miss. It is better for you.
- Of course, why would I lie?
- How did you cross the border?
- It was Hat-Lek boarder, I came from Thailand. By foot.
- What color was your visa?
- I don’t remember. Maybe green? Yellow?
- I need a copy of your passport.
- I don’t have any.
- Then we cannot help you and we need to investigate about your illegal entrance.
- You want to put me in jail?
- Don’t worry. – He said. But I think he wanted.
I went to check my emails, maybe I had my passport copy somewhere, and this would help them to find me in a system. And yes! I suddenly found it in an email I didn’t use, I have sent my passport copy when made my Iranian visa. So I showed it to them. The men left the room in order to search for my data again. And he found it. And I got my exit visa.
The few days were remaining and I couldnt say that I have really experienced the culture as I did in other countries. I experienced the other parts of myself and traveling; I clearly knew now that material things almos did not matter. There was something bigger that I was given for the price of loosing my belongings. Something as small as a seed right now, but growing, and only time would show me what exactly it was.
And so I tried to enjoy my last days. To understand this culture, with its sad history, that left its painful scars in the souls of people. The Khmer Rouge have killed and tortured about two millions of people in seventees in the name of agrarian communist ideal. The Cambodian Genocyde is one of the most cruel in a human history. And people still remember and feel it. Almost all the intellectuals, businessmen, buddhists, students, doctors and lawyers were executed.
The eyes and the streets somehow were filled with a fatalism and sadness, acceptance of pain and desperacy. There was not enough time for the genocyde to become a closed page of a history book. It was still there.
Now there was no middle class. Rich cambodians, poor cambodians, tourists and expats. The expats would come in order to teach English or work for the NGOs. They would make about twenty times more money per month than a Cambodian. They would eat at restaurants, enjoy the easy and cheap life. While the Cambodian mothers would sell their daughters virginities to the rich men from the government in order to save their family from starving.
The more I was thinking about this country and its people the more sad and tragic it seemed. It was so strong and shocking. So different and so unsafe with all its diseases and accidents and me without any vaccinations. I didnt care about that before, but now I realized how fragile the human life was. And in other places it didnt seem so. Still, my spoiled worries and my pains seemed stupid and selfish in the context.
I was eating coconuts and mangoes. Smiling to the children. I couldnt believe I was getting back to Europe – a normal world that now seemed to be so far. A world where you cannot hicthhike with a banana sellers. Where you will not get into a pickup and sleep in a jungle. After a year.
I remember myself eating Duryan at the Cambodian border, thinking, that everything was easy and feeling all the power of the world in my hands. Now it’s raining again; Monsoon is not over and I got to go to the airport. And I don’t say goodbye to Cambodia because even my flight can’t be taken for granted.