Before Blaine and I left for our two-week whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia, my google search box was littered with terms like, “women traveling danger” and “women southeast asia alone” and “how not to die a gruesome and terrible death that your parents will hear about on the news.” I’m not an especially paranoid traveler, but after reassuring my boyfriend, my parents, and then my boyfriend a few more times that I would come back alive, I thought I should do my part. I wrote up our full itinerary, complete with flight numbers and contact info, and sent it to all interested parties. Then, I set rules:
- No separating, at all, ever. If for some reason this rule was broken, we would meet back at our hotel as quickly as possible.
- Every hotel room must be located on the second story or higher, have a bolt lock on the door, and have windows with bars and/or locks.
- Each of us would carry on our person: a form of ID, a US twenty dollar bill, a credit card, and the business card of the hotel where we were staying. These items would be carried in at least two different locations (i.e. a shoe and a money belt.)
- Maps would be consulted only in the privacy of a hotel room, restaurant, or other non-conspicuous location.
- Hotels would be chosen in advance. No recommendations from taxi drivers, hotel owners, or fellow travelers would be taken.
These rules were paired with basic safety measures like staying in well-traveled areas, checking around regularly for anyone who might be following, never saying our hotel name or room number out loud, and using ATMs in well-patrolled, touristy areas. Really, I was probably safer in Cambodia and Vietnam than I have been on many trips in the US, because I was perpetually aware. Despite the strict safety guidelines, or perhaps because of them, I wasn’t really fearful. I new that the risk of actual danger was small, even smaller than the encouraging statistics might indicate since I was taking steps to protect myself. I focused on enjoying my trip.
In Cambodia, Blaine and I managed to find our way onto a public bus traveling from Phnom Phen (the capital) to Siem Reap (home of Angkor Wat). We were the only foreigners on the bus, and the only females. We attracted…a fair amount of attention. WWE wrestling and Cambodian karaoke videos kept the crowd entertained for the four hour bus ride. Either these Cambodian men did not understand that WWE wrestling is not real, or they did not care, based on the whoops and hollers and wincing groans that the wrestling tapes elicited. But the frightening spectacle of a bus full of men fully engaged in the worst drivel our culture has to offer could not compare with the frightening spectacle of getting off the bus.
As soon as the dusty, puttering bus pulled into the dirt lot that served as a station, dozens of tuk tuk drivers began pounding on the windows, frantically waving their arms to grab our attention. They held signs with the names of hotels printed on them. Some of the signs had our names on them, as many of the hotels have partners in other cities. I watched the scene for a moment from the inside of the bus, steeling myself for the inevitable plunge into the crowd. We were the last ones off the bus, and the men were pushing towards the door in a frenzy, flapping their signs at us desperately*.
I stepped off the bus, Blaine clinging to my backpack. A policemen, seeing the crowd of men swallowing us, ran over and stared waving a huge stick at the men, screaming Cambodian words that must have meant, “Back away!” “Don’t touch!” I shouted at the men still pushing around us, holding up a firm hand of warning. I scanned the crowd for the name of our chosen guest house, ignoring the wheedling calls of drivers begging for our business. One driver, seeing my unrelenting focus, tried to sell Blaine on a specific guest house. “I’m with her,” Blaine said firmly. “You decide for yourself!” he shouted, “You can decide!” It was then that I started laughing at the pure absurdity of the situation. Yes, Blaine, why don’t you just head off with that stranger to a random guest house. See you in a few days!
Ahh, there it was, a sign for the “Shadow of Angkor” guest house. I called to the man, who quickly pushed into the crowd, herding us through the men still shouting sales pitches. He then corralled us into his waiting tuk tuk and sped off. I sighed heavily, said hello to the driver, and settled in for the short ride. As we cruised into town, the driver suddenly pulled over and stopped. Uh oh. My stomach dropped. We had not reached the guest house. The driver turned around. “I don’t work for the guest house,” he said. My face froze in terror. My mind whirred with terrible thoughts of kidnapping and pillaging of our valuables. I considered jumping out of the tuk tuk. “No, no, no!” He quickly backtracked, seeing the panic in our eyes, “I’ll take you to whatever hotel you’d like. I would simply like to please be your driver during your stay. It’s just business, you see.” I let out my anxiety in a laugh. I turned and noticed we were stopped in front of the Foreign Correspondents Club in the ritziest part of town. Hardly a dark abandoned street corner. “My name is Kai, and I can take you all around Angkor Wat,” he continued. “How much?” I asked, now smiling. I noticed his kind eyes. We agreed on a price and then chatted about his wife and baby son.
That night I emailed everyone to let them know we’d arrived safely. And I let go of the remaining fear that had been seething just below the surface.
*This is the beast of tourism in a developing country. When winning the business of a tourist means the difference between eating or not, a certain desperation is only to be expected.