I’m hulking the same army-style rucksack and wearing the same bamboo flip-flops as when I last visited Siem Reap, three years ago. The smells of oil palm trees and dusty humidity still lingers in the air. A Thomson plane rests on the runway and seeing it sends a rock of disappointment to the pit of my stomach. Since when was this a package holiday destination?
Arriving by bus from Phnom Penh the first time was an adventure. The bus veered to avoid a cow in the road and hooted at a motorbike with a tawny mess of live chickens strapped to it. I sat at the front with two girls I’d met volunteering. We laughed at lazy water buffalo lolling in puddles too small for them. The foggy haze of cocktails from buckets the night before hung over our heads, my vocal chords raw from shouting over thumping music. My stomach churned each time the bus lurched onto the other side of the road.
“To being free, independent women!” we had cried, clinking bottles of Angkor beer together before sharing stories of men that had wronged us, told us they loved us and slept around. We were on the other side of the world, bettering ourselves through backpacks and absolutely not thinking about them. A weekend exploring the temples of Siem Reap, taking ‘you don’t know what you’re missing’ photos in baggy Aladdin trousers, trees bursting through crumbling walls in the background was just what we needed.
We sat all day in a coffee shop that first day, talking about men.
Families and couples fidget by a bank of tuk-tuks, the gaggle of drivers dinging their bells and crying over to the new arrivals. I grab Mark by the arm and march straight into the throng of them, pulling on my haggling mask.
“Wait, we can’t get a tuk tuk from the airport,” Mark says, his eyes wide. I remind myself that he’s never been here before.
“This is South East Asia, we can get a tuk tuk anywhere,” I reply.
His apprehension melts away the second our driver starts up the spluttery engine and we’re trundling along the road.
The Thomson plane was an omen. On the outskirts of the town the tuk tuk potters past newly built hotels with dead-faced tour buses lined up outside.
“Pfft, this has all changed,” I hear myself mutter.
Mark looks over at me, the smile fading from his face. This is his first tuk-tuk ride and I’m ruining it. I’m becoming one of those travellers unable to return anywhere because it will never be like the first time.
I remember the bumpy ride out past milky rice fields to our one star guesthouse the first time. We slept under mosquito nets on the roof for $2 a night, because why pay the extortionate $5 for a room inside? What a rip off. It’s not like we were sober enough to care where we were anyway. As I looked up at the stars above my bed, with the mosquito net draped dramatically to one side I thought if only he could see me now, then he would know how adventurous and brilliant I am. I also imagined I was 10% more attractive with sun-bleached hair and multiple beaded bracelets. Maybe tomorrow I would get a tattoo…
We approach Pub Street and on the corners open-air Khmer Barbeques are run by chefs in pristine black uniform. Where were the clattery old food carts? The smell of sizzling noodles and lemongrass is undeniably mouth-watering, but I can’t help it, I mutter the same mantra. This isn’t what it was like three years ago. And listen to me; three years ago! It’s not like I’m re-visiting the Middle East 40 years after a spiritual experience. This is Siem Reap – not Afghanistan.
Every time I say it I can see Mark’s face droop a little. A tuk-tuk emblazoned with the words “Dark Knight tuk-tuk” on the back splutters past us and I open my big mouth again.
“That was just the Batman tuk-tuk when I was last here…”
“I know, I know, it wasn’t like this three years ago,” Mark finishes for me and I shut my mouth.
Three years ago, after scrambling over jungle temples all day and finding the perfect place to pose as a group of free, independent women being spiritual and not thinking about men, we ate the best Pad Thai I’ve ever had. An old lady with gnarled bare feet spooned it out from her clattery cart on the edge of Pub Street. We ate there every night. After that we would wander through the night market, crickets buzzing through the thatched roofs. As I sat with a tin of Angkor beer and fish nibbled at my proudly calloused travellers’ feet, I thought one day I’ll come back here with a boy. I will show him all I know about the world and then it will be perfect.
The driver stops outside our hotel, a proper hotel with a swimming pool and a nice restaurant. Mark is delighted. It’s only $25 dollars a night and feels like 5 stars.
“It’s ok, you can say it,” Mark says as we settle into our air conditioned room with a balcony and proper shower that you don’t have to hold in your hand.
“I’m being annoying, aren’t I?” I ask instead. “It’s just that, I wish you could have seen it with me, the first time, when it was all new and exciting,”
“I wish you could see it with me now,” he says, stretching across the king-size bed.