After ninety five kilometers, we stop at what looks to be the only place halfway between Kampong Spoe and Sihanoukville: a tattered array of rustic bungalows on a hillside, entitled Picnic Resort. We're exhausted, in the middle of nowhere, and it's about to start pouring down rain. So, with nowhere else to go, we ask to see one of their rooms.
The little structure looks like it hasn't been occupied in years. When I open the front door, a toad in the bathroom croaks hello. The floorboards are rough, splintery wood, and the walls are riddled with holes. Mosquitoes buzz around overhead, while an army of fire ants march underfoot.
Fifteen dollars is the asking price, which isn't much by Western standards, but the same amount anywhere else in Cambodia has gotten us a clean and bright room, with hot water and usually wi-fi to boot. When I try to bargain, the girl showing us the room refuses. Seeing as how they have zero competition around here, I can't blame her.
Next, we ask to see a different bungalow, to which she replies that none other are available. I almost cough with a skeptical, "you have got to be joking" sort of laugh, for the place seems positively deserted, but when I ask again to confirm, she just says something about how they are "so busy!"
In the end, we take the room, grumble about how we wish we had our tent, and get settled for showers and an evening of journaling. It is then that we discover there is no electricity, and the hot water doesn't work. With a sigh, Tyler trudges up the hill outside to find someone to help. Twenty minutes later, he returns, saying we should be all set.
But, our power still hasn't been switched on.
Two hours after a seven hour ride, still in sweaty cycling clothes, he leaves once more, this time returning with a pair of giggling girls to help. We illustrate the problem by flipping the switch on and off, and they giggle even more, laughing into their walkie talkies, presumably contacting someone down the hill in reception.
After about fifteen minutes of them standing in our room snickering and talking, the power is switched on at last. Relieved, Tyler tests the hot water, but it still doesn't work. We try to ask the ladies for help, but they just giggle and shake their heads. I have an urge to shake them.
Accepting our fate, we rustle up some perspective and realize we've stayed in much worse. Vowing to leave at first light, we trudge down the hill, passing the resort's restaurant in favor of a small shack just down the road that looks like it might serve food. If our room is such a rip-off, the restaurant is bound to be as well.
Following a long dirt and gravel track, we reach the main road. Just a bit further on our right, there is a make-shift structure we're hoping serves food. There's no one seated inside, but there is, oddly, a whole crowd of people waiting outside. We sit down and order beers, but when we try to order food, but we're soon informed that there is none.
So, we drink our beers in silence, until at exactly six o'clock, everyone outside moves inside. A cupboard is opened to reveal a TV, and a man fiddles around with it until it crackles to life. It's time for the news. We all stare, eyes wide, horrified at the latest from Phnom Penh.
The death toll is now around three hundred and fifty people, trampled to death, slowly suffocating over the course of hours under a mountain of sweaty, smelly, dead and dying bodies. At this moment, I can't think of a worse way to go.
With a sense of deep sadness and horror at what we are seeing, I am acutely aware of my surroundings. The smooth, red plastic chair I'm sitting on shifts slightly under my weight, while the waiter squeezes between seats to hand out everyone's drink orders. There are the huge chunks of ice cooling our beers, clunking around.
It's strange, fleeting, once-in-a-lifetime experiences like these that stay with us forever, imprinting full-sensory detailed memories on our psyches. I shake my head, overwhelmed by the strangeness and intensity of what we're doing on this dark night: just sitting in a shack with the inhabitants of a tiny Cambodian village, watching a tragedy unfold on the local news.
As we walk back to our hotel, past the two ramshackle buildings that make up this this tiny village, all is dark. It is deathly quiet, and though it is only 6:30PM, it feels like midnight. Out of the corner of our eyes, we spot a silver SUV glinting in the light of our headlamps. It slowly creeps to us, and a heavily tinted power-window rolls down.
Inside, there is a shifty looking young man with two well-dressed women. We keep walking as the whole bizarre scenario unfolds. What is this guy doing in this nothing village in this nice car? It just doesn't make sense. The moment he opens his mouth, we learn his intentions. He speaks English, and he is about as warm and welcoming as a used car salesman.
He'd like to offer us a bungalow at his resort! We tell him "no thank you, we have one", but he doesn't seem to understand. And so, he persists with his efforts, trying to sell us a room. We keep walking as his giant SUV crunches along the gravel road next to us, explaining once more that we are already checked in, refraining from telling him what we think of his establishment.
Finally he seems to understand, and though we're about fifty feet away, he offers us a ride. We say we like to walk, so he goes on ahead, and then we find him again in the restaurant, waiting for us, offering us menus showcasing foods more expensive than what we would pay in Phnom Penh.
We grit our teeth, settle on the cheapest fried rice available, and zone out, feeling like we're in the twilight zone. How is it only six thirty? Isn't it obscenely late right now? After our meal, we stagger back to our bungalow, exhausted, fall into bed, and sleep into a deep sleep at about 7:30 PM.
We have another long day tomorrow, but at least it should end us at the beach.