This post is part of a L’appel Du Vide feature, Misadventure Mondays. In each segment, I’ll ask one of my favorite travel bloggers to share one of their Travel Misadventures. This Monday, Kyle and Briana from Roll Global share their tale of a dinner visit gone wrong in Cambodia.
Tell me a little about yourself and your current trip:
In January 2010 we got married and quit our jobs to take an indefinite honeymoon. Indefinite turned out to be reliant on money in the bank. In the end we traveled to 19 countries in 12 months. After being abroad for a year we spent 6 months traveling in our “backyard” on a road trip all around the US.
Describe your travel style:
We love rock climbing and bicycle touring so our trip has focused primarily on combining these sports with the amazing places we’ve always dreamed of seeing. Between climbing destinations and bike tours we love to see the sights and eat the eats and always strive to connect with people wherever we are. We travel on a pretty strict budget but make sure that we don’t let our budget interfere with our experience.
What’s been your best/worst travel misadventure? Tell me about where you were, who you were with, and what happened.
We touched down in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in the late afternoon after flying in from Bangkok. We had just spent the last two months rock climbing on a beach paradise in Thailand and were ready to see Thailand’s neighbor, Cambodia, the “Pearl of Asia.”
We didn’t know much about it, but what we did know was that many tourists skip the capital city of Phnom Penh and head straight for the Angkor ruins near Siem Reap. While we too had planned to see Cambodia’s archaeological sites we decided to spend a few days to see what the capital city had to offer.
We found a couchsurfer in Phnom Penh who offered to host us. Our couchsurfing experiences in the past were always the most rewarding cultural experiences of our travels and this time would prove no different.
Out host lived in a nice neighborhood, as indicated by the expensive cars driving down the streets into high walled, barbed wire enclosed compounds. The day we arrived she was working but told us to come to her house where she would have someone arrange our “couch.”
We found her high-walled complex on a street of other high-walled complexes and rang the doorbell on the gate. A young woman came to the door and shook my hand. She was our host’s niece. She introduced us to a young man with a motor scooter who loaded Kyle, myself and all of our bags on the scooter with him and drove us to the place we would be staying: an apartment about a half a mile away.
Our host’s couch was actually an entire one-bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The young woman gave us keys and a cell phone and said that our host would be calling us tomorrow. She gave us the run down of the apartment including that the water was ok to drink and ask that we not let the cat (the only other resident of this apartment) out when we opened the door. Then she left.
Alright. Things were going well. We sat down on the balcony and decompressed a while. The day’s travel had gone smoothly and we had arrived in a new place that we were eager to explore. We had no idea how far we were from the city center, nor where exactly where we were on a map (had we even had one), but it was getting to be evening so we decided we’d take it easy and start our adventure the following morning with a trip into town.
We sat on the balcony overlooking the street. The occasional dog sauntered by stopping to sniff at a little pile of garbage only to take flight as a car approached. From our fourth floor vantage point we could see into a few of the neighbors’ lush gardens that were hidden behind high walls but from the street the neighborhood was austere to say the least.
We watched as the neighbor’s black Range Rover approached. It paused in front the gate waiting for it to open. As it did a couple of Dobermans circled the car barking and growling. The car entered the gate and it then it closed with a rattle of barbed wire behind them. It made me a little worried that all the residents seemed to be locking themselves off from the outside world and now here we are in the same situation only with no transport or person to guide us.
It certainly wasn’t what we expected from our first night in Cambodia, but the most important lesson we have learned as travelers is that expectations are best left at customs.
As it started to get dark we realized we had better find some dinner because this was likely not a neighborhood in which folks walked around at night too often. We set out on foot, not confident in our ability to describe our address or cross streets to a taxi or tuk tuk driver assuming we even found one, which we didn’t.
The neighborhood was almost completely residential. The closed gates and high walls weren’t exuding the friendliest of feelings. We immediately started to worry about our dinner prospects. We might just have to head back and eat snacks for dinner. After a while we found a more major seeming street with a few shops selling dry goods and a pharmacy. Men were hanging out and smoking, enjoying the company of their friends, things were looking up.
We found a nice looking place with a big sign out front, which we couldn’t read. The gate was open and we walked in to find a large courtyard with tables and little gas barbecues on top of them. At last, a restaurant we thought.
A few young kids were sitting at the tables hanging out and they got really excited when we walked in. We told them we wanted to eat and asked to see a menu, but they looked at us weird and said “you want to eat here?”
We realized why they were shocked as a few scantily clad young women came out to demonstrate what exactly was on the menu. Turns out we were inquiring about dinner in a brothel.
Grasping our mistake we apologized, said thank you maybe 10 times in a row, spun a 180 and left.
Back on the street we were starting to get hungry. Were there any restaurants in this neighborhood? Just as our hopelessness was starting to set in we heard the din of what seemed to be a lot of people having a good time. We followed the noise around the corner where it turned into a roar amid clouds of smoke. We found ourselves in the middle of an open air neighborhood restaurant packed to the gills with men, women and families eating, drinking and engaged in boisterous conversation.
We made our way into the restaurant, which was more like a tent. The kitchen in the back had walls and windows but the eating area was protected by only a large tarp roof with no walls to speak of. Patrons dined on red and blue plastic tables and chairs and the floor was dirt and scattered with food dropped from the tables.
Our eyes pierced through the smoke of grilling meat to see that all of the tables were full, but as soon as we entered another table and two chairs were set up for us and we were ushered to our seats. A young boy, maybe 10 years old, our waiter for the evening, came over and we assume asked us what we wanted. We put our hands together and opened them like a book, saying “menu?” and the boy turned and went to the back.
There we saw him approach an adult and mimic our hand gesture as if to ask what those crazy tourists meant with their silly gesture. We saw the man laugh and send him into the kitchen.
We didn’t get a menu but luckily it seemed there was nothing to worry about as food started to appear on our table. Raw vegetables, sauces and a pitcher of beer came and they fired up a small gas grill in the center of the table. Then they brought out a big plate of raw beef.
Now I am usually an adventurous traveler willing to test to limits of food safety in the name of a tasty or interesting meal, but the raw beef made my heart sink. Here we are accidentally walking into brothels, in a place where no one understands a word we are saying, completely out of our comfort zone, and now the one restaurant we can find has given us a plate of raw meat.
I turned green at the thought of it but Kyle rationalized. This was actually a great thing. We had the grill right in front of us. We could cook the beef really well and be reasonably assured of killing off whatever microorganisms may be living in the meat.
Looking around the restaurant everyone was enjoying themselves. Parties of ten or more people were laughing and kids were running between tables. One gentleman with a large party caught my eye and raised his glass to us. I smiled and raised mine back. Then the whole table erupted in cheers and we toasted each other taking swigs of Angkor beer from our frosty glasses.
We were welcomed. It felt great. It was one of those travel moments that makes you pause. We had so little control over our situation. No knowledge of where exactly we were, no way to find out, and no choice in this meal that was put before us. But the welcoming spirit of the crowded restaurant, the near complete embarrassment at the brothel next door and the savory smells of meat and veggies roasting all around us beneath the tent had found us just as we had found them.
We clinked our beer glasses together, looked at the meal before us, fired up the grill and cooked that beef into a rubbery oblivion.
What were the negative or positive outcomes of your misadventure?
In the end it was all positive. We found the best local restaurant and got somewhat of a lay of the land near our apartment. While we did not return to the brothel we certainly went back to the restaurant. (Side note: upon return we were served raw seafood which Kyle doesn’t eat so to get the raw beef back I had to resort to mooing at the waiter.)
What did you learn from this misadventure that you can share with other travelers?
Be trusting but aware. Traveling is all about expanding your comfort zone and it can be difficult at times. We have always had the best experiences when we have opened ourselves up to adventures, but we have also protected ourselves by knowing when to bail. It’s a fine balance.
What’s the one other lesson you’ve learned on your trip that you wish you had known before you left?
Be an adventurous eater but know what to look for. Only buy food that is prepared fresh for you, nothing that is seating in warming bins (regardless of how tasty that green curry might look). If there are lots of women and children eating it, you probably can to. Also, pepto bismol chewable tablets are better than candy.
Thanks guys for sharing!
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