Whatever they’re doing, it involves coconuts and they seem pretty pleased about it.
As one last insult, Thailand charges you 500 baht ($14.64) to leave the country. I liked Thailand a lot—fascinating country—but frankly, I was ready to pay their strangely reasonable blackmail fee and go. Sarah and Hannah, on the other hand, were ready to apply for citizenship, living out a life of passive-aggressive Buddhas and chilies, and let me travel on to Cambodia alone. Luckily, I’ve got the Passports.
Our flight out was on Bangkok Airways, a self-styled “boutique airline,” which sounds good but in Thailand, “boutique airline” apparently means “puddle-jumper with rusty propellers.” There were no flight attendants on our junk heap. Come to think of it, I never saw any pilots either. Then I kept imagining there was something on the wing, just like William Shatner in the scariest Twilight Zone ever. What was out there, it turns out, was some loose piece of machinery that may or may not have been essential for keeping the plane in the air.
We were so psyched to land in Siem Reap that not even the blazing sun bothered us. The tour guide that we had set up online, a slight middle-aged man named Sam, met us at the airport, where we piled into and a freakishly clean Toyota Camry with our own personal driver, a smiley kid named Pros who may have been 14 years old. We instantly liked both of them. On the way to our hotel, we got an abbreviated tour of Siem Reap (which means “The Defeat of Siam,” aka Thailand), passing all kinds of glittering new hotels and a river even more polluted than the one in Chiang Mai. “It looks like coffee with milk,” Pros said. When I said I had grown fatigued with Thai cooking, Sam nodded. “Yeah, they use too many chilis,” he said. In Cambodia, he explained, it is the diner—not the chef—who controls how spicy he wants his dish. I could get used to this.
At our hotel, the eager staff was so psyched to see us they whisked off our bags to our room before we had even walked in the front door; then they welcomed us at the front desk with drinks. “This place is weird,” I said to Sarah, a bit gun-shy after two weeks in Thailand—where we got a warm welcome too, only to find a heart of darkness (and grumpiness) pulsing through the people. “Everyone is too nice.”
“Shut up and enjoy it,” she said, and asked for another drink.
Pros drove us to a restaurant where they plied us with cold Tiger Beers and amok beef and amok fish, a pair of deliciously potent coconut-milk soups served in hollowed-out coconuts. We were the only patrons, so Hannah blissfully played on the floor, which may or may not have been hygienic, but we were beyond caring. At one point we looked down and she was chewing on something. “I hope to God that’s a Cheerio,” Sarah said. Pros basically sat in the car while we ate, which was decadent and embarrassing to simple travelers like us. Plus, I think it was past his bedtime.