Sometimes, when a story is too long to comfortably fit into one post, I'll break it up into several. For some reason, when I write and post the first part, I always seem to find myself giving into the hubris of making promises I know I can't keep. The best example of this habit would be the post I wrote titled Vaccinations and the Question of Rabies, which ended with a promise to discuss malaria in our very next post. Six years later, I still haven't gotten around to writing that "next" post – although I did find the time to edit that promise, changing the phrase "but that's the subject of my next entry" into "but that's the subject of another entry." There. Fixed.
Another example would be the post I wrote titled Ban Lung Part 1: Getting There is Half the Fun, which was always written as the first portion of a trilogy. True to form, I just couldn't resist ending it with the phrase, "tune in next week for part two of the Ban Lung Saga." (After several months had gone by with no "part two" in sight, I snuck back in there and edited that promise too.)
All of this throat-clearing is to say that this story is indeed the long-sought-after Ban Lung Part 2, posted a mere two years after Part 1. I'm going to resist telling you that Part 3 will be up next week, but the fact is that I'm incorrigible. Fair warning, though – if further down this page I wind up promising you the thrilling conclusion to this tale some time very soon, you should by then know better than to believe me.
In the meantime, if you haven't read Part 1, I'd recommend taking a moment to do so now. I'll wait.
Back? Good. Let us continue. And remember, the spiders won't appear until Part 3, so no worries there. I can't promise there won't be any end-of-the-world swarms of monstrous flying insects, but then you can't have everything.
When last we left our story, Jessica and I had decided to rent a private taxi to take us to the remote and ramshackle town of Ban Lung, in northeastern Cambodia. The next morning at 8am, we headed off in a rugged-looking white Toyota Camry.
(Sidenote: nearly every car in Cambodia is a white Toyota Camry. That's because nearly every car in Thailand is a white Toyota Camry, and then once Thailand is done with them they get sold used in Cambodia. Because Cambodia and Thailand drive on different sides of the road, your Cambodian taxi driver is usually sitting on the "wrong" side of the car. But I digress.)
We were completely knackered when we got into our taxi, having spent much of the previous night deep in uproarious conversation with our friend Joe (proprietor of the Red Sun Falling restaurant). Our plan was to sleep away most of the 8-hour drive to Bang Lung. But we hadn't counted on the condition of the roads.
We'd been traveling for quite some time at this point, but nothing had prepared us for the uncompromising bumpiness of the road between Kratie and Ban Lung. (Remember, this story takes place in 2005. Those roads may well be significantly less hostile today for all I know.) Our seatbelts struggled to keep us from being thrown all around the car as our driver rocketed along the most brutal, broken, bitter road we'd ever seen. Sleep under such conditions was next to impossible for us.
Unfortunately, the same was not apparently true for our driver.
It was Jessica who first noticed him starting to nod off, just a few hours into our journey. He would start to nod disconcertingly, and then jerk back upright again. He'd grip the wheel a little tighter, give his head an exuberant little shake, and then all would be well for a few minutes. And then he'd start to nod again.
We tried keeping him engaged in animated conversation as much as we could to keep him going. (This tactic was complicated somewhat by the fact that he spoke very little English and we spoke even less Khmer.) We were in the absolute middle on nowhere, so getting out was just not an option. Occasionally he'd pull up at a ricketly little building with some plastic chairs out front, and run over to buy a cup of coffee. And then we'd be off again.
It was nerve-wracking beyond words. The roads just kept getting worse and worse, and we were both consumed with the stress that our driver was going to fall asleep and kill us all. In the middle of absolutely nowhere, in the most uninhabited province in Cambodia.
This went on for the remaining five hours of our drive. Good times.
At last we pulled into Ban Lung, and we shakily got out of the car. (I'm not completely certain whether the "shakily" part was due to the stress-exhaustion brought on by our driver's near-narcolepsy, or because after so many hours on those roads our bodies had just gotten used to being constantly jostled about and didn't want to stop.) If we'd been tired when our drive had begun, we were near the point of collapse now.
Ban Lung wasn't necessarily exactly what we'd imagined. It had a very Wild West feel (or perhaps I'm thinking of "Mad Max"), a frontier town out at the edge of the Cambodia we had fallen in love with. Moreover, tired and hungry is never any condition in which to arrive in a new town – it always makes things feel less welcoming.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the heat at this point. Ban Lung was the hottest place we've ever been. During our (admittedly rather brief) stay there, the daily high never fell below 110°F (about 43°C). Standing there in the middle of the red clay street, we began to be cooked by the afternoon sun.
It was decidedly time to spring for an air-conditioned room.
Directly in front of us was a fairly new-looking hotel, so we checked it out first. We didn't like the owner at all, though (he was a little too "car salesman" for us), so we started a sweaty little pilgrimage around town, checking out all of our other options. Eventually, after finding them all underwhelming, we wound up back with Mr. Car Salesman again.
A standard fan room was $5 USD a night, and a "deluxe" air-con room was twice that. The air-con rooms were all in the middle of the building, though, and didn't have any windows. Generally, natural light in a room is incredibly important to us – a room without windows can feel pretty isolating. But it was so hot outside that I may or may not have seen a couple of people spontaneously burst into flame, so we sucked it up and decided to live without windows for a couple of nights.
We cranked up the A/C so the room would be nice and cold when we got back, and headed out to get a late lunch.
In our exhaustion we had managed to forget our phrase book back in our room. Ban Lung doesn't get many tourists at all, and the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant we located only had menus in Khmer. We were hoping to score some chicken-fried rice, but only knew how to say the rice part ("bia"). Fortunately, chickens are pretty easy to impersonate, so once our waitress stopped laughing hysterically at our enthusiastic clucking and flapping, she brought us some food.
After lunch, we returned to our hotel room, which was blissfully cool by this point. We settled in at last to take a little nap, hoping that Ban Lung would seem far more exciting and welcoming when we awoke. After all, we were eight bone-rattling hours from Kratie, which itself was another six hours from Phnom Penh. So we feel asleep hoping everything would feel better after we had some rest.
Some time later, we awoke into total darkness. Hot, dank darkness.
It was very disorienting at first, but gradually we realized that the power was out. This meant that not only was our little windowless "deluxe" hotel room completely without lights, but also that the air-con was out too. After finding flashlights and checking our travel alarm clock, we saw that it had only been about a half an hour since we fell asleep. The power must have kicked off almost immediately afterwards for the room to be so hot by now.
This wasn't going well.
I got dressed and made my way out to the front desk to see what had happened. We knew that electricity could be sporadic here in the northeast, but Mr. Car Salesman had glowingly told us all about his back-up generator when he'd showed us around. So why was our power out?
"The generator?" He looked at me with raised eyebrows and a slick smile. "Oh, yes, I turn it off."
There was a momentary pause, during which an old lady outside was reduced to a small pile of smoking ash by the power of the sun.
"But why did you turn it off? Our room is dark and hot now."
He smiled and nodded, drumming his fingers on the desk rhythmically. "Yes, yes. I turn generator back on later. Save money this way."
Now, it should be noted that I generally have, shall we say, an even temperament. Few of those who know me, even those who know me well, have ever seen me get angry. It's just not something I do. I'm a middle child, the peacemaker. I live and let live. Life's too short to waste time getting all upset at someone.
Not to mention, our room cost us a whopping $10. This wasn't exactly highway robbery.
But I was tired, and hot, and grouchy. And Mr. Car Salesman irritated me to no end. So, I admit, I may have given him a piece of my mind.
He turned the generator back on.
When I got back to the room, Jessica and I decided that we'd find a different place to stay the next day.
We meant to nap for just another hour or so, but somehow managed to oversleep until about 9pm. And we woke up absolutely ravenous.
After considering our options, we decided to stay in for the night. The day hadn't been going very swimmingly, and we mostly just wanted for it to be over so we could try again tomorrow. Moreover, Jessica wasn't feeling all that well. I decided to pop out to grab us a little dinner we could eat in our room.
As soon as I stepped out of our room into the dim, empty hallway I could tell something was wrong. There was a bizarre, almost musical humming coming from around the corner, and the light was shimmering around oddly. It was shadows, weird undulating shadows, flickering and fluttering from out towards the lobby.
Curious, I turned the corner, and beheld a scene that nearly defies description.
I could say it was a swarm of insects, but that doesn't begin to do justice to the horror before me. I think it may have been some kind of mayfly, but bigger than any mayflies I've ever seen – each one was (not counting its tail) somewhere around 3 inches (7cm) long!
And there were thousands of them. The entire lobby was just covered in them, swarming around every light fixture, battering against the walls and windows with loud clacking noises. The humming sound was louder now, and as I walked down into the lobby they started pelting into me. I squinted my eyes and held my hands in front of my face protectively, trying to figure out what was happening as I made my way out to the darkened street.
It was a dizzyingly post-apocalyptic scene. The abandoned street swarmed with millions upon millions of the insects, but most of them were crowded around the lights far overhead, so it was actually much easier to get around out here than in the confined space of the lobby. Making my way to the restaurant where we'd performed charades earlier in the day, I hoped Jessica didn't get curious and wander down to the lobby while she waited for me.
The restaurant was closed and locked, presumably because the world was ending and the giant insects had eaten all of their customers. I stood outside the darkened structure, dumbfounded by this turn of events, when the back of my head began thrashing about of its own accord. More annoyed than disturbed, I reached back and helped to dislodge the fist-sized insect that had gotten entangled in my hair.
This would be the moment where I decided I needed to find some food and get back to the room as soon as I could.
I decided to make my way to the main market instead, reasoning there must be something to eat there, but found it closed as well. There was one small stall nearby that was still occupied, though, manned by a heavyset woman wearing one scarf over her head and another over her face. Somehow, the tarp over her door seemed to be keeping most of the bugs out, though they banged at the walls and roof like something out of a Romero film.
She didn't have any food, of course – mostly tools and piles of iron rods. If it really were zombies outside, this may all have been most useful. But it wasn't what I was looking for. In the corner, though, I spied a dusty drink-fridge bearing a faded Coca-Cola logo. I abandoned any hope of finding food – we had some Doritos and bread in our bags we could have for dinner. But we would absolutely need something to drink. I bought a large bottle of water and two small bottles of Coke, and staggered back out into the swarm.
Returning to the hotel, I battled though the hordes of flying bugs to the hallway that led to our room. The humming got quieter and quieter as I made my way back to the center of the buiding. There was only a small handful of insects down this darkened corridor. I opened our door, slipped in and closed it again before any bugs could follow. Jessica was cuddled up in bed, watching something on BBC Prime.
I decided to wait until the morning to tell her about the bugs.
The next day, we decided to switch hotels before doing anything else. I popped out first to look into a fantastic-sounding eco-lodge several miles out of town.
The lobby floor was absolutely carpeted in insect carcasses, which cracked and popped underfoot – there was just no way to avoid stepping on them. It was quite memorable.
After flagging down a motorcycle taxi to take me there and back, I confirmed that the eco-lodge was indeed fantastic, and told them I'd be right back with my wife. (She wasn't actually my wife yet at that point, but during our travels we found it a lot easier to just pretend to be married so we didn't potentially scandalize anyone.)
When I returned to our hotel, Mr. Car Salesman was whistling cheerfully as he swept the insects up into neat piles. He was sorry to hear we'd be checking out, and hoped we'd come back again soon.
And so it was that the two of us relocated from the center of Ban Lung to a jungle eco-lodge far outside of town. It was conveniently near the crater lake that was the reason we'd come up to this remote part of Cambodia in the first place, and it was just paradise on earth. We were the only guests there, and so had our pick of the marvelous solar-powered cottages. Best of all, there was a magnificent little restaurant serving up the most mouth-watering food.
Everything had turned out okay in the end. We couldn't be happier.
Of course, this is fundamentally a story about spiders, and you'll notice they haven't arrived yet. We'll get to them in the next (and final) chapter of this tale.
Which I'm just sure will be posted, oh, next week or so. No worries.
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