8 AM Woke up and had a much-needed shower followed by breakfast and some strong coffee.
10 AM Met up with Sopheara and headed to Angkor for our last day of temple tours. Visited the Hindu temple of Banteay Srey made of pink sandstone with intricate carvings. Breathtaking!
12 PM Drove through the Cambodian countryside through several villages. Stopped and talked with several women making palm sugar in large metal vats. They stir the liquid from the palm tree fruit over heated coals until the mixture is a thick, caramel-like substance. Then it is poured into molds. Had a sample of the sweet delight. Sopheara and I played some traditional Thai instruments. Goofing around like children. His smile gets me. Every time.
1 PM Sopheara takes us to an off-the-beaten path temple. No other tourists there other than two Buddhist monks. I summoned the courage to approach them and offered to take their photo, which they were elated about. Shot several photos with my camera and exchanged contact information. The Cambodian monk invited me back to his monastery should I return to Cambodia to do NGO work. This was Sopheara’s favorite temple and I now see why.
3 PM Stopped at a traditional Khmer street restaurant for some lunch. Was immediately swarmed by 10+ Cambodian girls trying to sell me wears. They asked me to sing some songs and what transpired was a group sing-a-long for nearly two hours. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber – you name it, we sang it. Each time I tried to leave, it was a cacophony of, “One more, Noël. One more!” It was heartwarming and fun. When I finally tore myself away so we could leave, they all wanted to come with me. If only I could take them… This is the real Cambodia. Outside the child vendors and the temple tourists. Dee mak mak.
5 PM. Headed back to Siem Reap. We could’ve seen more temples but I wanted the last one to be with mums, Sopheara and the monks. Better to end on a high note – with the absence of tourists. Just us among the 12th century ruins. Delightful.
6 PM Said our goodbyes to Sopheara. The shittiest thing about traveling is you make so many friends along the way but within a short time, it is time to say goodbye. I’m not good with goodbyes because they are always so bittersweet and I wonder if I will ever again see the person who has shared so much with me. I always have to hold back tears especially with the children. Thank you, Sopheara, for everything. You are such a beautiful person inside and out. See you again one day. I hope.
7 PM Took another shower, updated Facebook, checked e-mail. Checked in on my friends and students in Mae Sai post-earthquake. The 6.8 epicenter was in Myanmar, about 40 km north of where I live. Everyone is a little shaken up but no one is hurt.
8 PM Ran into Sopheara again (!!!) and headed to Pub Street for one last Mexican meal – something I cannot get in Mae Sai. Surprisingly, the one thing I miss in Thailand more than anything is tortilla chips. You can get them in farang restaurants but Mae Sai doesn’t have any farang restaurants to speak of.
9 PM Packed my suitcase, settled our bill with Golden Banana. Charming and fun but slightly expensive by Cambodia’s standards. They certainly weren’t clear about tuk tuk costs each day but they forgot to charge us for laundry and some eats so I guess it all balances out. Tried to hit me with a visa service charge but I refused. I can be a stickler at times. I know the owner is a small Chinese-Cambodian gay man who drives a Hummer. He can pay the visa charge.
10 p.m. Hit the pillow and fell asleep.
6 AM Woke up. Coffee. Breakfast. Last minute schnizzel.
8 AM Said our goodbyes to the staff of Golden Banana. Such delightful young men. Shuttle picked us up and took us to the Mekong Express – a bus that will transport us 6 hours south back to Phnom Penh.
1 PM Stop for lunch. Buy my goods from the women street vendors. Listened to Sean Paul with some Cambodians. Danced and got some laughs. Gave food to some street children.
3 PM Arrive in Phnom Penh. Select a smiley tuk tuk driver by the name of October. With an address and an undecipherable map of Phnom Penh, we set out to find Somaly Mam’s NGO, AFESIP.
3:30 PM We locate AFESIP. I leave all my stuff in the tuk tuk and approach AFESIP’s gated doors. I’m greeted by several survivors who welcome me in with open arms once I explain that I am a volunteer in trafficking prevention in Thailand. They inform me that no one is at the office so I cannot talk to someone in charge but we exchange contact information and I’m given the name of the volunteer recruiter. I explain that I would love to volunteer with AFESIP once I’m finished with DEPDC. I tell the girls that I am happy they are at the shelter. I am blown away by their resilience and joy despite such horrific pasts. Several girls are missing eyes. I can only imagine their horror and anguish. Yet they are warm and inviting. Such open hearts and glowing smiles. I have to choke back tears as the experience is so overwhelming emotionally. One of my most incredible moments.
4:30 PM We made our way to a restaurant. Ate some tempura shrimp and relaxed for a bit. Take it all in. Reminisce.
5:30 PM We head to Phnom Penh International Airport. We await our 8 p.m. flight. Customs is incredibly rude….again. We are charged a $25.00 departure tax.
7:30 PM I see a suggestion box and read some of its contents. Many letters of disappointment with the rudeness of customs. I guess I’m not the only one! Drop some of my leftover riel into a donation box for Friends Without Borders. Visit duty-free. Board the plane.
9:00 PM Arrive in Bangkok! Hello, Thailand; it’s good to be home! Go through immigration and customs and make my way to Information to arrange a bus back to Mae Sai the following day. We are greeting by several smiling Thai faces who help us arrange a hotel nearby with free transport to and from the airport. They call the bus station and tell me the only available bus to Mae Sai is the following morning at 8:50. Second class.
10:30 PM Arrive at our seedy hotel. Hit the sack. Awoken by loud sex in a nearby room at 1 a.m. Just my luck.
4 AM Wake up, have breakfast, head back to the airport.
6 AM Attempt to take the Skytrain to Mo Chit bus station but it is closed due to construction or something. Instead, we catch a bus to the main terminal and transfer to a bus headed toward Mo Chit.
7 AM Jump off the bus and catch a taxi to Mo Chit. Buy two second-class bus tickets to Mae Sai.
9 AM Head to Mae Sai. I’m told the journey will take 12 hours.
11:30 PM Arrive in Mae Sai exhausted and two-and-a-half hours behind schedule. No tuk tuk drivers or songtaus for us. We begin huffing our tired asses with our luggage to my apartment – seven long blocks away.
11:45 PM A Thai couple takes pity on us and crams us and our belongings into their small compact car. We arrive at my apartment semi-delirious and happy to be home. Damn, is it cold in Mae Sai! I’m wearing a jacket for the first time in three months.
12:00 AM Hot shower. Bed.