Cambodia is a country that I came to like and appreciate over time, but it wasn’t love at first sight. In hindsight, it was a mistake to fly from Burma into Siem Reap, which is tourism gone bad – there is even a street called Pub Street… Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed much of what Pub Street had to offer on three separate nights/early mornings out, but it was too much of a culture shock after quiet, peaceful and un-touristy Burma and it threw me off my stride slightly. And the crowds kind of spoiled Angkor Wat for me -throngs of noisy, photo taking tourists experiencing the wonderful temples through the view finder of their iPhones, rather than enjoying the beauty and serenity they had to offer. I hope I manage to do a short hop back to Angkor Wat at some point when I am back in SE Asia (note when not if…), but definitely out of season.
Phnom Penh is a wonderful city – full of history of many kinds, all aspects of life being lived right in front of you on every street corner, colours, sounds, beautiful open spaces, and magnificent temples and palaces. I admit it – I am a city girl, but not all cities are for me. Phnom Penh, though, is a place I could actually consider living if I had the chance. Full of life, and a lot to do. It was also a place where I found much meaning – S21 and the Killing Fields were two of my most difficult but important days, seeing both the worst of human behaviour and realising how strong is the human spirit for survival and rebirth. They also served as an important reminder of why I do the kind of work I do, but have made me realise my need to be a bit more hands on and practical, doing things where I can see more of an immediate and tangible impact. I’m not quite sure how yet, but it’s definitely the direction I want to go in.
Aside from Phnom Penh, the things I have enjoyed most about Cambodia have been when I have managed to get off the tourist trail – in my view not done especially well here. The Cardamon Mountains were peaceful and beautiful and it was such a rare treat to get right back to nature and basics: sleeping in a basic bamboo hut with the sounds of the birds and animals to keep you aware at night wondering what/who would be in your room by morning, swimming in rivers, taking lazy trips in rowing boats and eating packed lunches from bambo baskets, meeting locals who just wanted to sing and talk, and dealing with little or no electricity and a scarce supply of water.
As precocious as it might sound, it has been some of the really simple things that have given me most pleasure – dining with locals for a dollor for a feast, hand washing my underwear in the bathroom sink, riding a bike out to distant villages, and sitting by the river with nothing to do but people watch, play guitar or think. At times in Cambodia, I got frustrated because I wasn’t doing as much as I thought I should be, going to more places. I suspect it’s no coincidence that I was in Cambodia when I reached the half way point of my journey, which made me far too conscious of counting down the days, rather than just enjoying each day for itself. I realised this a week or so ago, and began to just enjoy the country and what it had to offer. I guess that’s the benefit of having this much time away; there is the luxury to just be, without the urgent need to get stuff done which unfortunately is the default setting for the rest of my life back home. Maybe a healthy balance between the two is what I should be aiming for.
So, what have been the other highs of Cambodia? Diving was fantastic (great to be back in the deep end of the pool), beach paradise on Koh Rong and Otres beach, beautiful French colonial architecture in Kampot, seeing my first flying fish on the boat from Koh Rong to Sihanoukville, witnessing a huge storm from the safety (ahem) of my bed in the bambo hut that woke me at 5am, learning a few more songs on the guitar (including one of my all time favourites – Looking for my Own Lone Ranger – Anna B, I was thinking of you and Will as I learned it), meeting some really lovely people, watching a Cambodian family playing together in the sea on Otres beach, having my legs threaded on the beach (who’d have thought…), getting a valentine text from my sister (bless her), the children joining me on my tuk tuk in the fishing village near Kampot, the old casino at the top of Bokor Mountain where I felt like I was walking towards the edge of the world, film footage from 1965 in the National Museum, and eating and cooking some amazing Cambodian food. I have also had a series of ‘firsts’: banana plants, mango trees, pineapple bushes, salt farms, bamboo huts, sleeping under a mosquito net, swimming in a river, and probably a lot more that I can’t remember.
And the lows? Well, definitely the rats. The bus journeys were irritating in their disorganisation, but I couldn’t list them as a low as I always enjoy the journey. Maybe my approach at times, as I kind of lost my travelling mojo here and there and forgot to just enjoy the moment. But those moments never lasted long, they soon passed as I went on to the next great experience.
So, overall, I have come to love Cambodia in a way that I didn’t think I would at times. And in terms of my journey, it was a place of a few growing pains in between wonderful experiences that I think set me up perfectly for the last leg of this trip. I knew when I was planning this months ago that I would need to finish with a few weeks of down time, and that’s exactly what I want and need right now. The scuba diving will provide enough activity to stop me going stir crazy, but really I need to process this amazing experience and start looking forward to what might lie ahead when I get home. The quartergapyear was always about fun, release, gaining independence, challenging and scaring myself, living for the moment, and opening my eyes to new possibilities. It hasn’t disappointed in that respect. But it must also be about transition and moving on, and that’s where my head is leading me next.
Flight to the islands booked. Time to get on with the final chapter of the quartergapyear.