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Heat & Tragedy

by Tara

A fur-lined hoodie. Seriously? A freaking fur-lined HOODIE?!

As I shout to Tyler, my voice barely audible over the noise of the traffic, I can barely reconcile what I'm seeing with reality. Here I am, cycling out of Phnom Penh, sweating my sweltering brains out, and one of the Cambodian woman we pass is apparently so cold that she's wearing a fur-lined hoodie.

As we cycle towards the horrific Killing Fields of Chueng Ek, I'm not so sure I want to be outside at all, much less riding a heavily loaded bicycle. The air is full of dust, kicked up by a non-stop train of passing vehicles, filling my lungs and covering my body with a sweaty brown film. Also, it's hot.

Getting moving after a few relaxing and stationary days in Phnom Penh is difficult, and even though we spent several days in Siem Reap not too long ago, I feel like there's too much moving going on in our lives right now.

Cambodian Scooter Stretch

Today, the end of our trip feels imminent, and with our Cambodian visas running out rapidly, I want to spend the precious time we have left enjoying ourselves. I don't want to be cycling in the dusty outskirts of Phonm Penh, flanked on both sides by what I consider to be rather boring, busy, garbage-strewn urban scenery.

What I want more than anything right now, is to be on the beach.

I don't want to be riding in crazy traffic in the heat on the way to the beach, but simply there already, at the beach, swimming in the ocean. The crystal blue waters of Sihanoukville's coastline are only a short bus ride away. We could be there tonight. Or, we could bike in the heat all day, and then all the next day, and then all the day after that. To me, getting a ride is a no-brainer.

Tyler counters with the fact that we have our own transportation, and he wants to use it. We came to Cambodia to cycle in the countryside, not sit on a bus. He tries to remind me just how obnoxious taking our bicycles on any kind of transport has historically been, and also that we wouldn't be going slowly.

On some level, I can understand him. Really, in almost all circumstances I agree with that whole "it is the journey that matters, not the destination" thing. But not today. Time is of the essence. Why are we frittering it away in the dust and the litter and heat? The destination is my goal: I want to be at the beach.

Tyler concedes to riding the bus, but only if I take care of everything. So, I decide to wait a day. If the ride doesn't get more interesting, or the weather cooler, I'll look into it. In the meantime, we continue cycling. It takes a lot of iced coffee, some ice waters, and a few breaks in the shade in order to keep from melting onto the pavement.

Thirsty Tara

In the midst of our discussion, we miss the signs for The Killing Fields. By the time we realize it, neither of us has the heart to backtrack, so we keep riding until we reach the first town on our three-day trek to Sihanoukville. We quickly find a hotel, thankfully with AC and wi-fi, for ten dollars.

It is here that we check our email, and find our inboxes filled with a few worried messages from friends and readers. "Are you okay?!" they ask. We have to search online to see what they're talking about, but it is thus that we learn what's happening at Phnom Penh's water festival.

There is some sort of stampede, a mass panic on a bridge, a pile-up of hundreds of bodies. People are dying of suffocation, heat exhaustion, and even electrocution?

The TV is on in the hotel lobby, and we go downstairs to watch with horror the tragedy currently afflicting this country. We see a several-meter-tall pile of people unable to move, smashed together in a giant mass of limbs. We stand in shock and disbelief as their arms flap limply, and their mouths open and close like fish out of water.

It's a strange evening; we feel grateful to be alive, thankful we avoid crowds like the plague, and we feel horrible and confused about the heartbreaking disaster occurring just a stones throw away in Phomn Penh. The death count is in the hundreds now.

Out of the hotel, we walk in darkness to a nearby restaurant and sit down in a pair of wooden chairs on an outdoor patio. Perhaps we're making it up, but the more we sit and wait for our food, the more we get the sense that this place is more of a brothel than a restaurant.

One of the servers, a pretty, dressed up woman, is consistently harassed by sleezy-looking men who grab her and set her on their laps as she grimaces. When she comes over to say hello to us, sitting down at our table, looking harried, we get the sense she's coming over to escape the others. I want to grab her hand and look her in the eyes and ask her "are you okay?"

We can't really communicate, so the three of us sit around for awhile, attempting to chat and mime, but eventually she is gruffly called for by a drunken jerk, and leaves to wait his table.

Though we're both seething about these men, we're greatly outnumbered. Even if we tried to do something about it, they would probably just make the woman's life more difficult once we left. We're unsure of the right course of action in a situation like this, so we eat our fried rice in silence, a weird, unsatisfying meal, and head back to our hotel.

As we fall asleep around 8PM, preparing for a very early morning and a long day ahead, the death count in Phnom Penh continues to rise.