The plan was to have fun. Fun, we had agreed, without actually holding a discussion as to what constitutes fun during our trip, was to grab a few drinks and get a little buzzed.
At around 9pm, after a quick stop to a convenience store to buy some lady things, the three of us were walking on the quiet streets of Siem Reap, determined to have fun on our last night in Cambodia. The lampposts cast a yellow glow on the almost deserted road. Only a few cars sped by as we walked on the sidewalks. (I am writing this purely from memory. Oddly, the time before any fun actually happened, as I recall it, was as peaceful and flat as a landscape painting—exactly the opposite of what was to follow.)
After exploring the Angkor complex, we were starving, so we decided to grab dinner at Karo Pub & Restaurant, located near the night market.
Twilight had not yet fallen; the restaurant was mostly empty. While poring over the menu, Fritzie had the wonderful idea of ordering “happy pizza.” Happy pizza is not a smiling circle of baked dough awash in tomato sauce and joy. It is pizza sprinkled with special herbs, i.e. marijuana leaves. In Cambodia, drug enforcement is quite lax. Marijuana and other drugs, according to the internet, are sold almost anywhere. The rule of thumb is to enjoy it but don’t get caught.
“What’s in the happy pizza?” she innocently asked the restaurant owner, a Chinese-looking man wearing glasses.
The man hesitated giving us an answer. He groped for words.
We knew what was in the pizza. We had stumbled into this piece of information while planning our trip.
“The mari—“ someone must have said.
“We do not sell it anymore,” he said with an apologetic smile. “No longer allowed.”
But there it was in the menu, the happy pizza. Something had clearly gone wrong. There must be a secret code of ordering herby pizza and we were oblivious to it. We ended up ordering three Cambodian dishes and four Cokes, one for our tuktuk driver who joined us for a while before picking up more passengers at the airport, and an additional order of prawn cakes that, through a sad bluff of miscommunication, came out of the kitchen and was served on our table as…
…pancakes. With bananas.
We didn’t touch the pancakes and thankfully, it didn’t appear on our bill. Being a typical millennial, I managed to snap a photo before the waiter whisked it away.
After dinner, we checked out the night market. Vendors hawked their wares along the sidewalk: rugs, paintings, t-shirts, alibaba pants (that Ralph spent a fortune on), wooden elephants, and assorted souvenirs.
We spotted Pub Street near the night market. PUB STREET, spelled out in overhanging neon lights, stood out starkly against the night sky. The booming bass of outdoor speakers beckoned us, un-showered and exhausted, for a night of adventure and fun.
We slid into a booth at Angkor What?, a reggae-themed dive bar which is only one among the many party places you can find in Pub Street. For some reason, you can also find spas that offer acupuncture and fish foot massages on the street’s quiet edges.
As we drank our beers, we people-watched, an activity that is more aptly done by a windowseat at Starbucks. Somehow, we couldn’t help but become aware of how much our group of three stood out.
We kept thinking, “Are we the only Asians in this place?” (Not counting the waitstaff, of course.) The table next to us was occupied by a group of underage girls who were celebrating someone’s Sweet 16th. I say underage, because the legal drinking age here in the Philippines is 18. But the girls looked European, so maybe it was okay for them to be smoking cigarettes and sharing a plastic bowl of rum-coke.
Oh, wait. There was an Asian woman right behind Fritzie. She was sitting with a middle-aged white guy wearing a button-down shirt. The bottles of beer on their table had clearly failed to break the ice between them. From where we were sitting, we could tell that the ice in question was of Titanic proportions: a giant ice floe of extreme coldness. The woman, who looked all but 20 in her sleeveless top and short skirt, was busy with her phone. The man tried to make conversation but it was like lighting a matchstick in the middle of a hurricane. A few minutes of not-talking passed and the two of them left, the Asian lady trailing behind the man.
We knew what was going to happen next.
Each of us finished a mug of Cambodian beer, which was pointedly better than Saigon beer. But the night was still young and we were not even close to tipsy. Why we were so resolved to get buzzed on our last night in Cambodia escapes my logic, now that I think about it. Do not do it underage kids! Maybe we did it in the spirit of Living on the Edge. We felt like teenagers let loose on a weekend free of homework and adult supervision. Heck, we were teenagers that night, because our feet were soon dragging us to the much funner looking bar right across Angkor What?. We could not resist the strobe lights and the louder music and the bigger crowd. They had a dancefloor and a DJ. We had to see it for ourselves.
We picked a table next to a glass-lined wall in Temple Bar, which had a great, overlooking view of the street below. The place was full of backpackers who had also gone to the temples that day. And finally, there were locals! How a nearly spiritual experience was capped off by rum-cokes at a hazy bar is a memory I’m still trying to make sense of. Before the sun set, we were reflectively admiring bas reliefs in Angkor Wat. At night, we were watching tourists pay homage to the 90’s by doing the Macarena on the street. It’s incredible how travel can be such a polarizing experience, especially if you have a 24-hour time limit.
Just hours before our bus was scheduled to leave, we were drunk-dancing in front of the DJ. What makes the experience funnier is we rarely go to the bars/clubs in Manila because one, we do not own cars, hence the perpetual dilemma of How Do We Get Home, which, it should be pointed out, branches out into several other problems, including but not limited to: the unfavorable choice of going home via taxi in the wee hours of the day and the inaccessibility of a Place to Crash in the event that someone gets too drunk to walk on their own feet; two, the crowd that populates said bars/clubs are not our kind of crowd; three, avoiding possible interactions that could unfold into inevitable awkwardness, i.e. bumping into high school acquaintances, exes, and aggrieved Tinder matches; four, we live in different cities; and five, we are too lazy to organize a night out.
But in Pub Street, the three of us had the time of our lives as we danced to Icona Pop and Avicii and some other EDM act that I have never heard of because my musical knowledge is becoming out-of-date. A 20-something Cambodian guy came out of nowhere (actually, I think he came from the men’s bathroom) and started dancing with me and screaming into my ear. It was impossible to hear each other over the music. The truth is, I couldn’t understand his broken English. After a confused back-and-forth of screaming, smiling, nodding, and more screaming, the Cambodian guy finally said goodbye, but not before I introduced him to my two companions who, I was surprised to see, were sitting in the middle of the dancefloor, holding fresh mugs of beer. How did that happen?
We spent a bit more time dancing and, in their case, drinking, until we decided that it was time to go. The fun was had. In three hours, we would be boarding a bus to the border. Fritzie was drunk as a fish. Ralph and I watched as she ran ahead of us, out of Pub Street, screaming drunken nonsense for all of Siem Reap to hear.