Although I consider myself an American, I am actually of Korean descent and spent the first six years of my life in that country. I flew over with my family in 1981, the very first time I ever rode in an airplane. Little did I know at the time that would be the only time I flew for over three decades. Once in America our family was fairly poor and we could not afford the type of vacations that would require air travel. And once we did have some money, my studies became the preoccupation of my life and I did not find occasion to travel anywhere. So it can be considered fairly unusual that after so many years of not having traveled anywhere, that the very first stamp on my passport would be en route to Cambodia, a third world country nearly 9,000 miles from home. In fact I remember the very words my mother said to me when I informed her of my travel plans; "Why Cambodia?"
Some of you may already know that I lived and played poker in Las Vegas from 2006 to 2011. During that time I met a fellow player from the state of Kentucky who would become a very close friend. I went broke at the end of my tenure in Sin City and returned to Los Angeles but had told my friend that I would come visit him once my life was stable again and I had gathered together some funds. Once I was able to accomplish these objectives, I indeed booked a flight to land in Cincinnati airport, just a few minutes from where my friend lived in the neighboring state of Kentucky. This was in 2013 and would mark the first time I had boarded an airplane in 32 years. I remember being very calm and not nervous at all during the boarding stage. But once the plane hit the air and started to shake, I remember being very confused as I had no idea as to whether or not this was normal. Since everyone else on the flight seemed calm I figured there was not anything to worry about and flew the rest of the way without incident. It was snowing in Cincinnati the day that I landed and I patiently waited for my friend to pick me up from the airport. Although I could have done so inside, it had been a long time since I had experienced snow so I decided to wait outside in the cold weather in order to take in the moment. It was not long before my friend picked me up and we spent the night grabbing dinner, drinks and catching up. I was staying in his house and when I awoke the next morning I remember seeing something that I had not seen in a very long time. My friend lived in a rural area and his "backyard" was really a vast field and on this day it was entirely covered in snow.
It snowed intermittently over the next few days as I finished out my trip and then I headed back to the Cincinnati airport to fly back home to Los Angeles. I had a connecting flight this time around and had a brief stay in the city of Philadelphia. Although I did not have enough time to see the entire city, I was still amazed by the fact that this metropolitan city existed on the other side of the country and that this nor many other cities just like it were places that I had never experienced before. I realize that this must seem rather odd or perhaps even silly to those who have traveled extensively. But for someone who had barely ever driven five hours past his home during an entire lifetime, the experience was quite life changing. When I reached back home I had decided that it was time to travel and that I had lived too long without experiencing other people and cultures. I started to slowly map out places I wanted to visit and began researching online where it is that I could relocate to and start my life anew. I was playing poker both online and live at that time and so that was an important consideration. I first considered Central and South America as the cost of living and the ability to play online might make such a destination ideal. But I decided that to travel to such a place would be the easy choice as it was the closest to home and had many similarities to the culture in which I already lived. Having grown up in Los Angeles I was very familiar with Latin people and was already semi fluent in Spanish. I wanted a bigger challenge and thus started to set my sights on Southeast Asia.
As I previously stated poker was an important factor for me so I headed to the travel section in the 2+2 poker forums and began to post questions about moving to and living in the Philippines and Thailand. I first considered the former but then I heard that Manila was quite busy and polluted and that the cost of living was not as inexpensive as I initially thought. Although there would be a plethora of live poker options in the city, I still decided against it and began to focus on the more remote areas of the country. I always wanted to live right on the beach so I started to look very closely at a city called Boracay, also known as White Beach. Although the situation seemed ideal from a distance, a closer inspection made me conclude that this was more of a vacation spot and that it would be difficult to settle there permanently, especially as a poker player. I then shifted my focus to Thailand and began to examine the cities of Bangkok and Pattaya. I focused more on the latter due to my previously stated desire to live on the beach. This is where I have to interrupt my narrative for a moment and admit that there were other elements and reasons as to why I wanted to travel. I am a degenerate at heart and the nightlife in a city such as Pattaya was very appealing. Although I had many friends back home in the States, I was by no means anything close to a ladies man. The thought of go go bars, short time bars, walking street and being able to duplicate my entire life's sexual output in a week swayed me heavily toward Pattaya. There is of course no live poker option there, at least not a legal one. But even with that being the case, I really do believe I would have chosen Thailand had it not been for another thread I would soon discover on the 2+2 forums.
I am of course speaking of the thread belonging to the infamous broke brothers, also known as Yazzx and Izzit that can be found here:
Their story is infamous by now as it has been covered on other sites and the two brothers have even been interviewed regarding their tales of drunkenness and degeneracy. But to briefly summarize here the thread recounts the story of how they came to the city of Sihanoukville in Cambodia intending on playing online poker but instead getting sucked up into the party scene in the beach city. From crushing 25 NL on Poker Stars, they went completely broke and having to grind 28 tables of 2 and 5 NL in order to survive. Of course I did not want to end up with the same result but nonetheless their stories sucked me in and made Cambodia a very intriguing place to visit. I should say that both brothers are fine now with Izzit back in England and Yazzx still grinding both live and online games, but now in Phnom Penh and bigger than 2 NL. Although I would initially settle in Phnom Penh, I did follow in their footsteps a bit and moved to Sihanoukville a couple of years into my stay in Cambodia. I even met the brothers in a local casino and we have remained close friends ever since. I remember the day that I met Yazzx as it was on a $1-$1 NLH game in a casino called Lion City. When I found out that it was indeed him I introduced myself and told him that I was rather surprised as I thought he would look very different. When pressed for what I thought he would look like, I told him I thought he would have many less teeth judging by the many stories I had read about their drug induced nights of partying.
So after reading their epic thread and then coming across another thread about living in Cambodia in the travel section of the forum, I booked my ticket and hotel and decided to move 9,000 miles from home. When asked by my family why I was moving to such a place I told them it was to do some volunteering work and to seek out business opportunities, neither of which I did of course. The truth was I wanted to play poker all day, drink all night and party with young and attractive girls, the kind of which I could not pay enough to even give me a second look back home. And while I did live in Las Vegas, known as Sin City, and enjoyed my time there the truth is the lifestyle is much more tame then what many imagine. Yes we did play poker all night, eat at really nice restaurants and live a fairly easy lifestyle. But it's not as if I was playing nose bleeds in Bobby's Room at the Bellagio and pulling hot girls nightly from night clubs. In short I was a small fish in a really big pond back in the States and I wanted to go to a place where I could be a much bigger fish in a very small pond. So I gathered all the money that I had saved since going broke, which was about $32,000, packed my bags and set out to start a new life in the country known as the Kingdom of Wonder.
As excited as I was about the trip, that would die down quickly once I began the ordeal that were my flights to Cambodia. And ordeal is an appropriate word, especially for someone who had hardly ever flown before when having to endure a 24 hour experience to reach my destination; 12 hours from Los Angeles to Inchon South Korea, then a 6 hour layover in that city's airport and then another 6 hour flight to Phnom Penh. I made the mistake of choosing a middle seat which made the entire experience very unpleasant as something as simple as going to the restroom was quite difficult. I did not upload any music nor movies to my mobile devices so I was basically stuck watching every terrible in flight movie they had to offer. I was so tired by the time I reached Korea that I even thought about upgrading my last flight to business class for an additional $1,500 just so I can ride in a bit of extra comfort. But given that I only had six more hours to go I felt such would be frivolous and just pressed on. I was in for quite the rude awakening when I landed because the scene at the Phom Penh airport was something out of a post apocalyptic movie. First of all, there are just tons of local Cambodian people at the airport. Most of them are not traveling anywhere, nor are they picking anyone up. I still am not quite sure why, but Cambodians just hang out at the airport for some reason and this was especially the case in the parking lot. I had to move past a throng of people just to get to the taxi that my hotel was nice enough to send for me. There were tons of people drinking beers, sitting on motorcycles and even playing music loudly from boom boxes. I am sure that this next memory is just a figment of my imagination, but I could have sworn that I saw a trash can in the parking lot with a fire started inside and people huddled around it.
I quickly got into my taxi and just wanted to get to the hotel, although it took us nearly 20 minutes just to get out of the parking lot. And once outside the airport it would be another 45 minute drive until we reached the city center, something I did not know at the time. I remember the taxi reaching the first intersection when I noticed that there were not any traffic lights nor any stop signs. My taxi just headed straight into the intersection without slowing down, which was the exact same thing a car from the other street was doing as it heading straight towards us. I literally put my arms up over my face in anticipation of a crash, but such an event never came. Instead I drew down my arms about five seconds later to discover that we were fine and still driving. This is a lesson about life in Cambodia that I quickly learned, that people often just dive straight into things without much consideration of anything and things just somehow work and figure themselves out.
I finally reached the hotel around 1:00 AM and was shown to my room which was actually quite nice. I dropped my bags and then reached for the TV remote to try and find something familiar and comforting. When I cycled through about one hundred Khmer channels I gave up, sat down on the bed and muttered out loud, "What have I done?" Although I was tired I did not want to sleep, but I could not stand the thought of just sitting in that hotel room for the next few hours so I went downstairs, woke up the staff so they can find me a tuk tuk and headed to the Nagaworld Casino. A casino is a very familiar surrounding for me so I immediately felt better after I was sat in a $1-$2 no limit hold'em game. I felt even better after winning $200 in about an hour. I head down to the one restaurant I could find that was still open, a Chinese place called Chopsticks that is still running to this very day. I got a plate of fried rice, got what I thought was a taxi, got ripped off for $7 just for a short ride then fell asleep finally after getting back to my room.
The story gets much better from here and I shall write about it in the future. But this was the inauspicious beginning to my journey to Cambodia, a very daunting and even frightening experience initially. After all as the title of this blog entry states Cambodia was the very first stamp on my passport. I had come to a country that I knew nothing about, did not know a single soul nor did I speak a single word of the language. It is actually quite the feat that things worked out as well as they did in the subsequent months. But this is after all what I had signed up for, an adventure in a completely foreign place that was almost the furthest I could travel without starting to come back. Six years, one wife and two children later I am still here. Many element of my life have remained the same while others have drastically changed. I hope to write in the next few weeks and going forward about all that has occurred between then and now to take my life in the direction it has taken.
Life in the Third World
Just a collection of random and not so random thoughts from my daily life here in Cambodia.