Epilogue: Passion for People and Food for the Soul

I boarded my flight at Honolulu airport and settled down for the final leg of my around the world journey: the flight back to Sydney. The flight from Hawaii to Australia isn’t too bad, at least in terms of jet lag. I left Honolulu early on Friday morning, and arrived in Sydney late Saturday afternoon, but crossing the International Date Line hadn’t really affected my body clock too much. It was roughly a 10 hour flight, so it had just felt like a very long day on a plane.

When I stepped out into the arrivals hall at Sydney airport, I was greeted by… well, nobody. Dane, who I had last seen in Berlin, was supposed to be picking me up, but when I connected to the free airport wifi I discovered that he was on his way, but stuck in traffic. It was almost laughable, that I had had so many people around the world greeting me in so many foreign cities, yet when I actually came home there was nobody there. My parents were out of town and wouldn’t be back until the New Year, and in reality this post-Christmas period was pretty busy for most people, so I understood why no one could make it. I just wandered out into the warm Sydney evening, taking a big whiff of that big city Australian air. After gallivanting around the world, sleeping on floors and couches and spare beds for the better part of the year, with a new adventure around every corner, I was finally home.

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I still call Australia home.

***

It’s been two years since I arrived back in Sydney after that nine month tour of backpacking across the world. I’m a little appalled at myself that I fell so far behind in the blogging, and that it took me this long to finish writing about it, but I’m also pretty impressed with myself that I managed to stick it out and write it until the very end. A lot of people have asked me “How do you remember everything that happened?” My answer is that, aside from having a very good memory, I figured it was only the most memorable things that would make the best stories, and I wasn’t at an age where my memory is going to be regularly failing on me. “But even the conversations? Word for word?” Most people wouldn’t be able to recount a conversation verbatim the very next day after having it, let alone two years later, so I obviously took a few creative liberties in constructing some of the dialogue, although all of it was as accurate as possible.

After reflecting on all these stories and all these adventures that I had during my travels, I want to take a moment to reflect on the idea of travelling itself. I remember sitting down on the pier near Darling Harbour in Sydney with Rathana, in January before I departed on my trip, when he was making a short trip back from Bangkok.
“It might be tough at times, but it’s going to be amazing for you,” he’d said to me as we gazed out over the water. “You’ll learn so much about yourself. A trip like that… it’s gonna change you. And if it doesn’t, well… you’re doing it wrong!” he said with a laugh. As someone who had travelled the world over already as part of his job, I was inclined to take Rathana’s advice to heart. I would learn, I would grow, but I don’t think I was really prepared for how much travelling would actually change me.

***

I’d carried those words with me through most of my first few months, wondering if I was getting that life changing experience that this was all supposedly about. Fast forward to the last weekend of my first time in Berlin, were I was curled up in the outdoor garden at Berghain with Ralf, his arms wrapped around me in the cool evening air as we watched the stars twinkle above us.
“I guess I’m looking for inspiration. I don’t want to go back home to find myself in my old life, like nothing has changed at all.” Ralf just ran his fingers through my hair and smiled.
“It will change you,” he said, as though it was a matter of fact. “You’ll feel different, and you’ll notice it even more when you go home. You’ll feel different from people who haven’t travelled, too. You’ll want to talk all about what you’ve done, but for people who’ve been at home living their lives this whole time… that’s going to get old pretty fast.” He paused and reconsidered his words with a chuckle. “That’s not to say people don’t care, it’s just… It will change you. Don’t worry about that.”

***

Many more months later, I would have a similar conversation with Vincenzo in New Orleans, sitting on the balcony of his French Quarter flat and basking in the muggy, humid air, with Princess scurrying around our heels, craving our attention.
“It’s true, travelling can be tough. You learn a lot about yourself and put up with a lot of stuff you never thought you ever could. But sometimes, after being away so long, going home can actually be the hardest part.” There was a solemnness in his voice, one that told me his advice was definitely coming from direct experience.
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, you see it with Americans all the time, so I assume with Australians too… when people have travelled, they’ve seen the world. Experienced a different culture. Opened themselves up to what’s out there, even if it’s just a little bit. To go home to people stuck in their ways and their views, who’ve never left their hometown and probably never will… it can be isolating. The more you know, the more you challenge yourself, and the more you can doubt yourself. Those people who are stuck in their ways, they’ll be so sure of themselves… but that’s all they’ve ever known.”
I sat there and took it all in, soaking up the sage advice like a sponge. “I just want it all to mean something, you know?” Once again, I couldn’t shake the fear that I would return home from my life after nine months on the road to find that nothing had changed.
“Maybe you won’t notice it now, because every day you’re in a new situation, but when you go home… you’ll notice it. You’ll change. But what I’m saying is, it might be a little difficult to adjust. Not because you’re settling back into your old life, because- well, how could you? You won’t be the same person. You’ll be changed.”

At the time I had leered at Vincenzo skeptically, willing to believe that he believed what he was saying, but not quite sure if it would apply to me. Looking back, I wish I’d taken notes or recorded his words verbatim, because they had been gospel: a prophecy of what was to come.

***

Coming home was hard, and settling in was difficult. I met up with Georgia and Jesse again, and it was great to see all my old friends. We caught up for drinks and due to my lack of jet lag, we even hit the town and went out to Oxford St.
“What’s the best thing about being home?” everyone had asked me, and without hesitation I had told them how excited I was to sleep in my old bed again. So you can imagine the mixture of confusion, amusement and depression when I woke up the following morning on my couch, having passed out as soon as I’d arrived home. I was supposed to have changed, I’d thought to myself, beating myself up about how easily I had slipped into my old partying habits of yesteryear. But the changes presented themselves gradually. I had more to say in conversations, and I was able to better consider other peoples perspectives, and be more mindful of their cultures. But eventually even I got tired of hearing myself saying “Oh that reminds me of when I was in…” and casually dropping exotic place names in the middle of discussions, so I can imagine how over it the people around me must have been. It was like taking a fish from the ocean and placing it in the tiny fish bowl where it was born. It was satisfied, and it could live, but there was always a yearning for more once you knew there was more out there. It was the travel bug amplified tenfold, enraged by the fact it had been stuffed into a jar with only a few air holes to breathe. Yet the feeling would eventually pass, and you could wallow in the isolation, or you could use it as motivation to ready yourself for another trip.

So no-one was really that surprised when I announced that I was leaving again, heading back to Berlin on a working holiday visa after only four months in Sydney. Though in that time I had fed the travel bug and fuelled the wanderlust by paying it forward and hosting Couchsurfers in my own home. I hosted people from Russia, Sweden, France, Germany and Poland, and all of them brought with them the same passion for exploring the world that I had had in my own journey. For all the perceived isolation that you might experience when you return from travelling, it was always worth it for all the amazing people that you meet along the way.

***

When it really comes down to it, it is the people that you meet on your travels that make or break the journey, and I honestly couldn’t imagine my life being the same without the friends I had made along the way. I unfortunately fell out of touch with some of the people that I stayed with, but in the past two years I have managed to see many of them, even if it was for a brief beer as they passed through Sydney, and it always made me smile, reminding me that despite all the exploring we do, the world is a pretty small place after all.

I ended up seeing my New York sister Melissa much sooner than I had anticipated, after she flew back to Sydney to (unsuccessfully) patch things up with her long distance boyfriend. David, who I had briefly met in LA, ended up staying with me when he broke up with Danny and their holiday plans fell through, and he ended up spontaneously rebooking some flights to Sydney. Matt, the charming gentleman from Ireland, had also flown to Australia for a holiday, spending a few weeks here with me in Sydney. Then it was back to Berlin, where I stayed with Ralf for several weeks while I found my feet and searched for an apartment. Donatella was off galavanting somewhere else in Europe, and Nina and Simon had since moved to Brazil, but I had a blast living it up in the international hub of Europe, satisfying those cravings to meet new and exciting people. I’d caught up with Rathana there again, due to his constant travelling for work, and even travelled back to Amsterdam for my second pride parade on the canals in as many years, where Joris and Thjis graciously opened their home to me again, and I was welcomed back like an old friend amongst their friendship circle. I was also visited by Kathi, who flew up from Vienna with her new girlfriend for a week in Berlin, and I myself took a short holiday over to London where I caught up with John and Richard and reminisced about the time four of us had consumed 10 bottles of wine, and also took a day trip down to Brighton to catch up with Laura and laugh about our crazy adventures in Cambodia. After arriving home from my time in Berlin, Umer from Switzerland arrived just in time for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival, bringing with him a bunch of amazing friends, with whom I had such a great time in my own city, as we all helped to make the world a smaller yet undeniably friendlier place.

Even more recently I caught up with Alyson, my other American friend from the Trans-Siberian Railway, who had quit her demanding job and packed up her life to go travelling, something I could not applaud her enough for doing, and I’ve caught up with Thjis for a beer when he was in town only a week or so ago. And in a few days I am heading back to the US to see Ashleigh and Nick (who is now my brother-in-law) in Hawaii, Jake and the whole WeHo crew in LA, Todd in San Francisco and Vincenzo in New Orleans.

I guess what I’m trying to say with all this is that the people are what made my journey so unforgettable and amazing. Because even when you go home, and you’re living out your daily routine while the Great Wall of China or Christ the Redeemer are thousands of miles away, it’s the people that you are still able to maintain a connection with. Those new friendships that you forge and cherish, those are what really change you. As a sociology major, I’ve always maintained that people were my passion, and it’s especially true when it comes to travelling. You could stay in a fancy hotel and see all the popular tourist attractions and take some amazing photographs, but to me, that’s still not really travelling. For some people it’s enough, but for me, nothing will ever beat the experience of meeting the locals in any given city, and the lifelong friendships that you can forge with seemingly random people from every corner of the globe.

***

I started this blog as a project to keep me busy, so that I didn’t feel like I would come home with nothing to show from a year of travelling around the world. I couldn’t have been more wrong in those fears and assumptions. Travelling has changed me so much as a person, and I am quite content with the person that I have become. I quickly fell behind in updating the blog, but I’d like to believe that that happened because I was so busy enjoying life, living in the moment, and experiencing every sensation in its fullest that I barely had time to write it down. When real life came back into the picture, I suddenly had a whole bunch of other priorities and projects to work on, but I refused to leave the story unfinished or untold.

Maybe when I am old and grey, and my memory does actually start to fail me, I will be able to revisit these pages and relive the journey, but that won’t be for a long time (I hope). So for now, I’d like to thank you, the readers of my blog, for taking this journey with me, and experiencing vicariously all the wonders in the world I was so fortunate enough to come across. Hopefully I have inspired some of you to plan and undergo your own journeys, because in my honest opinion, there is no better food for the soul than travel.

Language Barriers and Being Monolingual in Europe

“So what languages do you speak?” was one thing that a lot of people asked me when I was preparing for my trip. There was also a pretty unanimous expression of shock on the faces of everyone who asked when I replied with, “Other than English, none.” The Asian languages in particular would have been a bit of a challenge that would require a mindful application I just didn’t have, but what of the other languages that use the same Latin symbols and letters? I made a rather naive excuse for it, saying “I’m going to be going to so many countries, there’s no way I could learn the languages of every single one of them!” It sounds lazy, I know, but it was the truth – I was rarely in a country for more than a week, and never exactly knowing where I was going to end up next, so never knowing which language I should prioritise in learning. Because they all had their own languages that were dominant, with no major common lingual factor except – yep, you guessed it – English, in one form or another.

But the honest truth is that I never went into the trek around Europe expecting the world to cater to what was probably my biggest touristic flaw. I was expecting to have a much more difficult time as a monolingual than I did, and the ease with which I actually did around is a surprise for which I am quite grateful. I often found myself playing charades or using broken English in the most obscure or random places, only to be told, “It’s okay sir, I do speak English.” It was slightly humiliating, but it was the one thing I couldn’t escape or distance myself from, or make any immediate move to change that would be directly helpful – by the time I learnt the basics of any language it would be time to move on to the next country! Still, it wasn’t always smooth sailing, and Europe provided me with more than a handful of awkward and memorable linguistic experiences.

***

The Russian and Mongolian languages and their Cyrillic alphabet did inspire a bit of my fascination with other languages, but for the most part, everyone in Russia and Mongolia spoke Russian or Mongolian, and not much else. It was when I got to Finland that the concept of widespread multilingualism really hit me. I watched on, slightly intimidated, as Susanna’s Finnish friends seamlessly moved between Finnish, Swedish – the countries two official languages – and English, which everyone just seems to know anyway despite it not being an official language. Scandinavia and northern Europe were like that, I was told from the beginning – almost everyone learns English in school, so I should have no problems. Yet I was still exposed to what felt like at least three different languages in each country. It actually made me feel a little less intelligent, to see small children yapping away in a foreign language and switch over to what was an impressive command of rudimentary English, especially for a 5 year old, and back again as though it was nothing. In an attempt to make more excuses, I told myself it was the geography and logistics of Europe than lent its residents to learning so many languages. They have many neighbours in close, bordering proximity, with everyday practical uses for the languages they were learning, and a constant need to practice them. How often were my Year 7 French lessons going to come in handy in the middle of Sydney?

Although I shouldn’t speak so soon – the country where I did encounter my first language barrier was, of course, France.
“The French are so arrogant – they’ll understand English, and know you don’t speak French, but they’ll pretend they don’t know what you’re saying because they think it’s beneath them to speak your language in their country.” That was the general idea a lot of people had told me to expect in France, particularly Paris, but I’m so pleased to say that it was not my experience at all. A lot of the guys I was with for Parisian Pride spoke amongst themselves in French, but when they addressed me they always spoke in English, or at least to the best of their abilities. Which was more than I was doing for them, considering I was in their country, so I feeling nothing but gratitude towards the Parisians I encountered. Well, perhaps a little more than gratitude… whatever language they spoke, Parisian men were still Parisian men.

However, during my frantic last morning at the hostel in Paris, packing before my 12pm check-out time, I was accosted by one of the housekeeping staff. She seemed a little flustered when she entered the room and saw me doubled over my backpack, trying to shove everything inside as quickly as I could. I probably looked like a deer in the headlights too, and we both just stared at each other for a few seconds. Then she started speaking to me in French.
“Oh… ah… sorry. I don’t speak French,” I said sheepishly. However, she continued motioning to my bed and speaking to me in the foreign tongue.
“Ahh… Check out is at noon? I still have fifteen minutes?” I said, pointing to the clock. She said something else in French, with some emphatic hand gestures, and stared earnestly at me.
“Ahh… I don’t speak French,” I muttered, before trying again. “I’m about to leave, I’m just packing my things now.” I was mortified to realise I had begun raising my voice, as though the housekeeper might suddenly start to understand English if I said what I was saying loud enough. She just looked and me and said something else in French. We both just stared at each other. It was pointless: neither of us had the slightest clue what the other one was saying, and we weren’t talking to each other anymore – we were talking at each other, and it was achieving nothing except frustrating the hell out of us. In the end she just shrugged her shoulders and left the room, in what I can only assume was a non-verbal cue for “Hurry up and pack your things and get the hell out!”

***

Given that northern Europe was better known for the English skills of its residents, it’s no surprise that Spain was the next country to present me with a language barrier, although this time it was an entirely different situation. I learnt a fair bit of Spanish before a trip I took to Costa Rica a couple of years ago, and even studied it for a semester at university afterwards. Despite all that, the only phrases I had mastered allowed me to tell people I speak Spanish, just not very well, and to order a beer – priorities, right? It wasn’t much, and it really wasn’t enough when I tried to make conversation after locking lips with a guy on the dance floor at a nightclub in Madrid. He spoke about as much English as I did Spanish, or even less, so I basically had to stand there with a blank stare until he finally said something that I even half recognised. Not that he was saying much, other than “guapo“, between our kisses, though. I guess there are some situations where body language really does suffice.

Yet the country does have some other linguistic tensions that are a little bit more important than a Spanish one night stand. When I was in Barcelona I thought my Spanish was just exceptionally poor, but it turns out that in the region of Catalonia, almost everything is written in Catalan, and a lot of the locals get annoyed when you ignorantly launch into speaking to them in Spanish, regardless of your fluency. It meant little and less for me, someone who could hardly speak either, but for a Spanish speaker like Rich it was quite frustrating. But probably not as frustrating as it was to all the local Catalonians who everyone just assumes speak Spanish. I was able to discreetly bow out of that internal national conflict, as my reliance on English wasn’t as likely to offend anyone as much as it would just make them think I was an ignorant tourist.

The way I was able to explore Europe despite only knowing one language does give you an idea of the kind of power that fluency in English can offer you. Some people even find the language rather intimidating. I remember talking about it with Ike when I was staying with him in Ancona. Ike is half Dutch, so he spoke English and Italian as well as a bit of Dutch, but he told me of his own interesting experiences with language in Spain.
“It’s interesting – people are almost afraid of speaking English incorrectly, especially a lot of younger guys”, he mused as I told him my own experiences in Madrid. “I mean, they won’t get better if they don’t practice, but they don’t want to speak it if they can’t speak it perfectly. It doesn’t really make sense. A lot of the guys, they would rather try and speak to me in Italian.” He had a good chuckle remember thing that. “And… I mean, they don’t even know Italian. There’s some small similarities between Spanish and Italian… but, you know, not enough. They’re rather speak to me in terrible Italian than use slightly imperfect English.” It was something that I never came across – most likely because English was the only option they really had when talking to me – and it’s something I still haven’t been able to really explain.

***

Spain and Catalonia aren’t the only regions to have geo-lingusitic tensions. On my first night in Vienna with Kathi, she had explained to me some of the differences between the dialects of German that are spoken in Austria and Germany. “It’s mostly the same, but there are some different words for things that we have that the Germans don’t.” The more she explained it, the more I realised it was much the same as differences between American English and British English and even Australian English. At first it doesn’t seem like much, but you when you think about the different meanings we assign to different words – the use of “thongs” springs to mind – you understand just how much confusion there can be with these slight differences within the language. “It’s also frustrating when we go to Germany,” Kathi continued, “because most of the people in Austria take the time to learn some of the differences in the German they speak in Germany, but not many Germans do they same when they come to Austria.” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s like they think they’re the ones who speak real German.” I couldn’t help but giggle to myself a little. It was interesting to see that such little problems could be, quite literally, the same in any language.

Yet there were other times when the different language posed absolutely no problems at all, and appeared to exist side by side with the greatest ease. When I arrived in Prague and was sitting down in Tomas and Matej’s kitchen eating the dinner they made me, the two often had short, lively exchanges in another language. When I asked Tomas what language they were speaking, Tomas seemed like he had to pause and think about it for a minute. “Well… I am speaking Czech, and Matej is speaking Slovak.” Tomas was originally from the Czech Republic, while Matej was a native of the neighbouring Slovakia.
“So… the languages are the same?” It was confusing, and seemed like literally the opposite of the kind of thing that Kathi had been talking about with the German language – instead of one language that everyone had trouble understanding, this seemed to be two languages operating like one.
“No, not the same,” Tomas said, thinking more. “They’re just… similar. I can speak Czech, and understand Slovak. Matej can speak Slovak, so we can just speak either.” He shrugged, not thinking much of it, but I found the concept rather mind-blowing: that you could speak in one language and listen to someone else speak in another. It was almost more than my poor little monolingual brain could handle. Considering they both used to be part of Czechoslovakia, I can only assume that the languages must be very similar, but even still, I was slightly amazed.

While I was impressed with the way the two languages operated so smoothly in sync, Prague was probably the least English-friendly city that I visited in the whole of Europe. Buying a bus ticket in the corner store proved to be a bit of a mission – Tomas had been having a cigarette outside, but I had to call him in to help me when I realised the woman behind the counter didn’t speak a lick of English. After that, I just had to hang on to my old tickets to show her the one I wanted whenever I went to buy a new one. There was enough English to get by in the main touristic parts of town, but I was lucky I usually had Matej or Tomas around whenever I was in the more obscure parts of town, because something tells me I wouldn’t have fared so well there as I had in the rest of Europe. Even sitting down to chat with their neighbours in their award-winning backyard was a bit of a challenge – out of all the places I’d visited, Prague was the city where learning to speak English hardly seemed like a priority at all. Tomas had only learnt it because he had lived in San Francisco several years ago, but he was definitely in a minority of those who did speak English.

***

I am so lucky that the one language that I do speak afforded me so much opportunity to travel relatively unhindered, but the more I saw of the world, the more my status as a monolingual felt like a handicap. I was insanely jealous as I watched people slip between different tongues so easily – I knew they weren’t saying anything specifically more profound than anything that could have been said in English, but it just felt like there was a wealth of knowledge that I was missing out on. Living in a country like Australia, with no countries with direct borders and no extremely obvious choices of a language to learn that might be useful in your own city, I’d never really considered that learning another language would be such a beneficial skill. Now, after travelling around so many different countries and discovering the complexities of a range and huge variety of languages, it’s become another one of my goals to learn, practice, and eventually become fluent in another language. Which language – for now – is undecided, but I have to thank the many companions and friends I made along the way in Europe for inspiring me, and opening my eyes to the importance of languages, and the highly valuable skill of multilingualism.

The Worldwide Web: Connectivity on the Road

When I was discussing my travel plans with a friend back in Sydney, I remember saying to him, “Part of me just wants to escape, and be totally disconnected, you know? Like, just set off into the world without a phone, or a Facebook, and just get completely lost in the world around me.” It was a highly romanticised idea, and one that I obviously didn’t follow through on, but reflecting back on that moment gave me reason to pause and reflect on just how far from that original idea my journey has deviated. In the 21st Century, with so many different media platforms and channels of communication, it’s never very difficult to stay logged in and connected. In fact, quite the opposite is true – no matter where you are in the world, your online identity is essentially able to follow you everywhere.

***

South-East Asia is very in tune with the needs of its tourist population. Not so much in Bangkok, but all through southern Thailand in the islands, in Ho Chi Minh City, and all throughout Cambodia, free WiFi is prevalent like a digital plague. Every bar, restaurant, club, hostel, even some of the charter buses between cities provided you with Internet access. Unfortunately it promotes the rampant and semi-narcissistic holiday Facebook posting – be in statues, photos or check-ins – that I know I myself am entirely guilty of, but it meant that keeping in touch with family and friends back home was as easy as if I was in the next suburb rather than the neighbouring continent. What I did find particularly interesting in Cambodia though, was that the rise of the wireless connection saw a steep decline in the provision of regular desktop computers. I noticed this when I was chatting with Laura in our hostel in Phnom Penh.
“They have the WiFi, which is good for most people, but I don’t have a smartphone or anything like that,” she’d told me. “All I want to do is send a quick email to my mum, but the guy over there can’t even get the computer to work properly.” The hostel had a single ancient computer stuffed away in the corner of the common room, which I’m pretty sure was mostly occupied by one of the hostel employees, who I’m fairly sure was either playing online poker or watching porn most of the time.

I offered Laura the use of my iPad to check and send her emails, for which she was incredibly grateful, but it really made me wonder how the hell I had ever expected to get anywhere on this journey without the assistance of my iPhone and a web connection. Thankfully the GPS system even works without Internet connection – to this day I would probably still be wandering around the streets of Saigon if it weren’t for that brilliant piece of Google Maps technology. But the relatively constant connection still has its drawbacks – you’re afforded all the luxuries you didn’t want to give up, but are simultaneously stuck with the things you would rather go without. Arguments and dramas within groups of friends back home, which have really nothing to do with you since you weren’t there at the time, are suddenly just as much your problem since you can be CCed into a discussion at the click of a button. It’s slightly frustrating, but thankfully there were many opportunities to switch the devices off and go and lose yourself in a city that couldn’t care less about your trivial dilemmas.

***

On my last night in Thailand, Rathana shocked me with a revelation that I had somehow managed to overlook in planning my visit to China. “How are you gonna let people know you arrived safely? You can’t use Facebook in China.” Say what? Of course, I am an idiot for not knowing more about China’s heavy Internet censorship laws, but I just said to myself, No worries, I’ll only be in Beijing for a couple of days anyway.
Flash forward to the Vodkatrain briefing meeting with Snow, and afterwards Tim was telling us about some of the journeys he’d already had through China. “Yeah, it’s been a few weeks without Facebook,” he said when the topic was raised. “But you know, I don’t even miss it. It’s been kinda liberating, really.”
A couple of hours later, and a few of us were sitting around the lobby of the hotel in China. A few minutes before we had been chatting away, until my Googling of “How to use Facebook in China” back in Bangkok had finally paid off, and I found a free and reliable VPN connection that allowed us to connect to the Internet via a portal somewhere in Texas. Tim was singing a different tune now that access to Facebook was a feasible thing again, and we all posted from our Facebook accounts in China, simply to show off the fact that we could.
“Robert! You’ve created a monster!” Alyson said in a tone of humorous exasperation, and we all laughed at the comment, though there was an echo of truth in the statement. I don’t really know whether or not I should have been surprised, but it was bizarre the way a proper unrestricted Internet connection could so heavily impact upon the experience.

Yet once we were on the trains across the Trans-Siberian, not even a VPN network was going to save us from technological isolation. But I found myself feeling very accepting with that. I mean, in the end I was being forced to do something I had actually wanted to do, but had proved a much harder task for my self control. I guess there’s more than a grain of truth in the term ‘Facebook addiction’. With the exception of a couple of restaurants and our hotels in Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk, Beijing to Moscow was a relatively Internet free zone. Being out in the Mongolian wilderness was like a dream, untouched both physically and mentally from the outside world. The train from Irkutsk to Moscow gave all of us plenty of time to really get to know each other, and I ended up making some pretty good friends in people like Kaylah and Tim. True, we all went a little stir crazy by the end of the four day trek, but I don’t think the ability to numb our minds with the Internet would have made much of a difference. In a lot of ways, the freedom from the grasp of demons like Facebook and the ability to enjoy the uninterrupted attention and company of my fellow travellers is one the things I miss the most about that epic train journey.

***

Europe is a different story. “Finland has recently made access to wireless Internet a basic human right for all it’s citizens”, Susanna told me when I arrived in Finland. “So you can pick up WiFi pretty much anywhere in the city centre.” Despite that, the Internet in Susanna’s apartment was not WiFi, but a portable data device which was plugged into her laptop. So while I couldn’t use my own devices, I was able to use a real computer for the first time in many weeks, which actually took a little getting used to. The rest of Europe was pretty reliable in providing free public wireless Internet, whether it was in a bar, a hostel, or the nearest Starbucks. If I was lost or needed directions, it was less a matter of asking the nearest person for directions, and more a matter of looking for the closest, strongest signal.

My stay in Berlin involved a peculiar set up when it came to connectivity. “Yeah, so, we’re still working on the Internet”, Donatella told me when I first arrived. “Someone was supposed to come today, but they said there was something wrong with the building, and they’re coming next week. Which is a load of crap, because every other apartment in this building had WiFi – you can see them all whenever you search for a network!”
The only Internet access we had at home was when Simon was home and we were able to piggy-back off his 3G connection. Which was easy enough, except that you could never be sure of when Simon would or wouldn’t be home. Eva and I often made little outings together to grab a coffee, with the ulterior motive of logging back into the online world. The whole time I was there, the Internet was never sorted out – half the reason I stayed with Ralf on my last night in Berlin was so that I had a reliable Internet connection to make my booking for the hostel in Cologne. It did made organising meeting up with Dane during my stay a little more difficult: he didn’t have a working SIM card, and I didn’t always have WiFi – it really makes you wonder how people did anything back in the days before all these technologies. Postcards weren’t a novelty to send home, they were actually a way of letting people know you were still alive!

***

When I checked into the hostel in Paris, the woman in reception gave me a run down of the facilities in the place. “The wireless Internet isn’t free – you have to register, log in and then pay as you go.” The expression on my face must have been pretty filthy, because the then added: “But… there is a McDonalds just around the corner, so… yeah… do what you will with that.” Needless to say, I was a regular patron at that McDonalds while I was in Paris. The fact she even threw in that last comment proves just how much travellers rely on things like an Internet connection close to where they’re staying. Whether its for communication, organisation or research, for better or for worse, the Internet has become an integral part of traveling for tourists and travellers everywhere.

Reflections on South East Asia

After my stressful trip back to Bangkok, I spent my last days in Thailand with Rathana, just chilling out and doing relatively normal things – going out for dinner, having a few drinks at a sky bar, watching a movie, doing a bit of shopping and chilling by the pool. When I think about it, it’s those little things that I really enjoyed about my time abroad. While it is fine to be a big ol’ tourist and gush over temples and beaches and resorts and all that jazz, I love the feeling of spending time just being in a foreign city and really living there, doing all the regular stuff as well as all the typical holiday things. I haven’t really figured out what I want to do with my life when, God forbid, this incredible journey comes to an end, but I must say that I’ve really developed a taste for living abroad. That issue is a can of worms in itself, though, and for now I just want to reflect on some things I’ve noticed, lessons I’ve learnt, and the life I’ve experienced during my time in South East Asia.

***

One thing that I was expecting, yet still deeply shocked by, was the prevalence of poverty in these countries. It broke my heart to see so many children in the streets, whether it was the boy in Saigon performing gruesome tricks such as breathing fire, chewing hot coals and eating razor blades, then approaching the crowds of beer-drinking tourists for a donation, or the little girl following me through the temples of Angkor Wat desperately trying to sell me five fridge magnets for a dollar, or the little girl carrying her baby brother, standing next to my table at a cafe in Siem Reap pleading, “Please, I don’t want money, I just want food.” It makes you want to run to the ATM and empty your accounts into their starving little hands, but I’ve been warned by so many about the poverty traps that evolve from giving these kids money, encouraging the very behaviour that keeps them on the streets and out of school. Back in Ho Chi Minh City, Allistair told me he sometimes gave them a little bit of money, but made them promise that they would get off the streets and use the money to go to school. Yet I wonder how many kids actually listen to his advice, and how many just see it as another reason to continue with their begging.

Other people suggest that sitting them down and actually buying them a meal is a thousand times better than giving them money could ever be. However, I had a rather unpleasant experience in restaurant in Phnom Penh when it came to offering food. I had ordered pizza and a beer, and was sitting on a table facing out into the street, catching up on some blog posts and sending a few emails home on my iPad. Cambodia is full of people selling things on the street, whether its sunglasses, books, bracelets or marijuana, but it always tugs your heart strings a little to see children working on the streets like that. So when a little girl failed to interest me in the bracelets she was selling and her eyes fell hungrily onto the pizza in front of me, I finally caved in. “Sure,” I said with a smile, “I’m probably not gonna eat the whole thing anyway.” I pushed the plate slightly in her direction, and she leant over and lifted a cheesy triangle out and took a bite. What I hadn’t anticipated, however, were her three smaller companions all wanting their own pieces of my pizza too. “Oh, ah… Sure, take two,” I mumbled mostly to myself, because the little boy hadn’t waited for my permission to take a piece. I still wanted to have some of the pizza myself, so after that I pulled the plate back towards myself and took a bite out of one of the remaining pieces. Another little boy stood staring at me expectantly.

“Can’t you guys share?” I asked, motioning to the second piece that the first little boy had taken. I realise how awful and selfish that sounded, but I was trying to strike a balance between enjoying the food I’d ordered for myself and helping these little kids out. Yet they seemed so angry when I refused to give them any more of my pizza. “Look what you have, you have so much!” they yelled, pointing at my iPad and my beer. I’d have felt a little more guilty if they hadn’t started to harass me so much, with one of the boys sneaking around into the restaurant and behind my chair. I pulled my backpack close under my legs, huddling over my table, and I felt like someone with a bag of hot chips who had just been discovered by a flock of seagulls. The boy got so bold as to reach over and touch my iPad – I’m not sure if he was hoping to achieve anything, perhaps disturb the file I was working on, or simply just annoy me. He failed in the former, but definitely succeeded in the later. I’m not proud to admit it, but after that I ended up losing my temper and swearing at them, in an attempt to scare them off. Yet the girl, who seemed to be the leader of the small group, only came back with a greater fury, spitting my curse words back at me. I was in shock – how did what I thought was a simple gesture of kindness turn so bitter so quickly? The ordeal finally ended when the restaurant owner came out and had a word with the kids in their local tongue, and I relocated to a table further inside the restaurant. It had been a prime example of biting the hand that feeds, and I hate to admit that those children ruined it for all the others – I couldn’t bring myself to donate to any more street children, be it food, money, or anything else, because I was afraid of it escalating into another nasty situation.

***

To revisit a topic from a previous blog, I found the notion of love and relationships to be quite peculiar in South East Asia. As Anna had pointed out to me earlier on in my trip, their definition of love is something very different to our Western ideals of romance.There is a huge emphasis on tradition and family, which is a whole topic worthy of analysis in itself, but in this culture it’s probably similar to what we would call “living the dream” back at home – a white picket fence, happy marriage, two point five kids and an SUV parked in the driveway. Yet in Western culture, it’s becoming increasingly more common to break from the mould and live the life you want to live, not the life that’s expected of you.

That trend hasn’t caught on in Asia. One of the conversations I had with my host while I was Couchsurfing in Vietnam was about relationships. “I really want a boyfriend,” he had told me. “I want to start a family. I know I have my studies to finish, but I really want to start my life now.” When I suggested that there was more to life than relationships and family – or rather, one didn’t need to start a family to feel complete – he practically scoffed at the idea. I told him about several of my previous boyfriends where the topic of children had been discussed – not specially about us having them, but our individual views on the idea – and how every time I had been sure that I had a lot more life to experience before I was ready to settle down, let alone have a baby or start a family. But for him, all he could hear was the ticking of his biological clock. Being gay is one thing, and I was glad that while he wasn’t out, at least my host himself accepted his homosexuality. Yet for him the idea of disappointing his family, and not doing all he could to support and foster those basic traditional values, was a worse crime than loving a man would ever be.

And as my journey continued I saw this theme continue. Any local Asian boy was never just interested in a playful flirt or casual fun. It seemed as though they were all on a similar mission as my Couchsurfing host – to find the love of their life, to cherish and treasure and protect and look after. Which is an admirable quality – God knows it’s one I struggle with – but I can’t ignore the fact that they seem to be rushing through life without appreciating being young. I scoff and roll my eyes at the Westerners I know who are married at age 20, almost exclusively for religious reasons, and I would be quick to do the same again now if it weren’t for my realisation that its so ingrained into the culture, insofar that any other way of life just seems ludicrous.

***

Which I guess is only the tip of the iceberg that is the essential difference in culture. I know it sounds obvious, and I’ve read dozens of books on the subject during my sociology degree, but it really took being and living in these places to comprehend the enormous differences in culture. ‘They do things differently in Asia’ is such an incredible understatement. It’s not just a different way of doing things, it’s a different way of thinking things – a different state of mind. You especially notice it when you run into other Westerners, and they seem just as confused as you do about some of those things.

Because the list is endless. I’ve had waiters who don’t understand the concept of tipping, and will actually refuse to take your money. I’ve bought items at a third of their original marked price, all because I didn’t seem interested at the beginning – the shopkeeper literally haggled herself down. As a white person I feel as though I’ve been both the receiver of special treatment and the target of multiple scams, all based on the idea that anyone from the Western world is insanely rich. Which, comparatively, most of us are. It’s a slightly uneasy feeling when it comes to haggling over an amount which literally converts into a couple of dollars back home. In Australia, I would have written it off as a couple of dollars, nothing major. Being in South East Asia almost had the reverse effect on me – in a place where the currency goes a lot further, we seem to want to make every cent count. Yet when we’re shaving a couple of dollars of the price that we’re paying, most of us don’t think about the money that the local seller is not getting, and how much more that money might mean to them than it means to us.

***

Cultural differences aside, I’ve had an amazing beginning to this year-long journey. I’ve been molested by monks and monkeys, run through the crowded streets of Thailand with super soakers, been moved to tears by the histories of Vietnam and Cambodia, won a game of Trivial Pursuits in the suburbs of Saigon, fallen off a motorbike in the middle of Phnom Penh, crammed myself into multiple night buses, and drunk an excessive amount of beer. Just to name a few things.

Saying farewell to South East Asia at Suvarnabhumi Airport BKK.

Saying farewell to South East Asia at Suvarnabhumi Airport BKK.

As I board my plane to Beijing, I definitely feel a sense of accomplishment. I’ve only been travelling for six weeks, and a lot of people would say that that isn’t a long time at all. Which it isn’t – perhaps about a seventh of my journey in total. But I’ve seen so many places and met so many people that it definitely feels as though its been a long time. In the monotonous routine of life, six weeks can pass in the blink of an eye, so I feel confident that I’ve made the most of every second I’ve been away, experiencing the highs and the lows, the good and the bad, the wild and the crazy and the awe-inspiring. Yet the truth is that I rushed through South East Asia. There’s still a handful of other countries I would loved to have visited had I had more time, and definitely scores of new and exciting things to see when I eventually return.

But now the next stage of my adventure is calling me, along with what I’m sure – and actually hope – are a host of crazy new stories to be told.

Borderline Insanity

This short anecdote will double as a warning for anyone who might be making a similar journey in the future: when travelling between Cambodia and Thailand, do not – I repeat, do not – book a bus ticket. Catch taxis, tuk tuks, trains, rent a car – anything but try to book a bus ticket. There are probably some services that operate smoothly and according to plan, but after the mess that I walked away from on my journey back to Bangkok from Siem Reap, it is certainly not a gamble I would ever be willing to make again.

***

So far in my journey, I had been happy fairly happy with the night bus services I’d caught. Krabi to Bangkok was a comfortable coach with reclining chairs, Saigon to Chau Doc was a little cramped but I had still had my own private space, and my Sihanoukville to Siem Reap journey had bed-seat hybrids that allowed your legs to stretch out completely flat, and even had free WIFI on the bus. I booked a ticket with that same company from Siem Reap to Bangkok, hoping to kill two birds (transport and accommodation) with one stone, and getting a similar satisfactory service. After waiting around since my check out at noon, wandering the the town and visiting the museum, I was picked up at 2am (yes, that’s a 14 hour wait) by a shuttle bus to take to me where the main bus was leaving from.

Scheduled departure time was 2:30am. No buses showed up until 3:00. Then we watched as a group of Khmer men unloaded three motorcycles from the cargo bins below. Myself and the other two tourist, a young German guy and an older man from Washington DC, shot each other uneasy looks as we were told this was our bus to Bangkok. They took our bags and I climbed on board. It was not a sleeper bus. Most of the seats were already full, and the majority of them were filled not by tourists, but rowdy local Khmer men. They had loud conversations over the top of my head while I was trying to sleep. The bus driver played music that was essentially a loop of cheesy instrumental music that belonged in a pornographic sound track. The whole bus smelt of bodily gases and other sickening scents. As I thought back to the slogan on the anti-piracy ads on my old VHS tapes, I certainly wasn’t getting what I had paid for.

***

At some point, through the stench and the racket, I suppose I managed to catch a little bit of sleep – after 15 hours of being awake it was bound to happen eventually, no matter the circumstances. It wouldn’t have been any more than half an hour though, and at around 6 o’clock, after just under three hours of transit, the bus jerked to a stop. It was dawn outside, and slowly and but surely all the Khmer men stood up and shuffled off the bus. I figured that we had reached the border, and would be required to alight so we could have our passports checked and stamped. “You get out here now”, said one of the bus company workers to me and my two other Western companions. “Another bus take you to the border.” As I climbed down the steps and out into the bus station, I watched the Khmer men who had been on my bus all climb into the back of a ute, which sped off down the road and into the dust. It was obvious that rather than put us on a chartered bus, the company had decided the throw their few clients on any old bus that was heading in the right direction, and deal with the rest once we got to the Thai-Cambodian border.

We met a bunch of British girls who had just climbed off another bus who were also heading to Bangkok. After being sent on a small wild goose chase, crossing the road several times in an attempt to find someone who knew what the hell was going on, we were ushered onto a bus – I was disgruntled, though not surprised, to find myself on the very same bus I had alighted from only moments before. We were only on board for a couple of minutes though, before the bus pulled up directly outside the border crossing. “You cross border now,” said the bus company guy, as he took our tickets and stuck little yellow stickers to the front of our shirts. “Crossing take one hour. Someone will meet you on other side. Sticker is your ticket now.” I was mortified, but there was nothing else I could do, so as a sleepy pack of tourists we climbed off the bus and made our way to the border crossing.

Only to discover that the check point itself didn’t open until 7 o’clock, which was still almost an hour away. When I had booked the ticket, I had been given an estimated time of arrival in Bangkok of about 9:30am. I had already long ago given up on that hope, but with every passing minute I became more and more unsure of how I was actually going to get to Bangkok at all. After an hour of waiting, plus another hour to go through both departures in Cambodia and arrivals in Thailand, I finally found myself on the other side of the border. It was far from a feeling of relief though – it was a terrifying moment, plagued with doubt and the endless possibilities of the next unpleasant surprise they would spring upon us.

The busy border crossing just after opening.

The busy border crossing just after opening.

As I trudged through the crowd of pilgrims, I heard a shout and saw a wave of hands. “Yellow sticker! Yellow sticker over here!” For all that had not gone accordingly to plan this morning, being greeted in Thailand was like clockwork. I had been sticking with the man from Washington, so we made our way over to the waving man, where we were asked to sit on plastic chairs and wait for the rest of the travellers with yellow stickers. Once they arrived, we were taken to a small travel agent just a few minutes away, where we were informed we would be catching a minibus all the way to Bangkok. It certainly wasn’t a sleeper, but I figured it would get us there faster than a regular bus, so I felt a little better about that. However, when the bus arrived 15 minutes later, the agents face sported a look of concern as one by one, we piled into the bus. I was at the end of the line with my American companion, and as he scanned down his line of clients, he agent called out, “Who is relaxed? You relaxed, yeah? Time is no problem?” It seemed no one had taken into account the space needed for all of our luggage, and we weren’t all going to fit on this bus. Washington and I took two for the team, with the agent assuring us it would only be a half hour wait for the next bus.

***

An hour and a half later, the tiny travel agency was beginning to fill up with people, mostly locals this time, and I grew uneasy at the thought that they would try and squeeze all of us onto the next bus. Washington and I were given priority, since we had forfeited our places on the last bus, so I can’t say for sure if there was anyone who didn’t make the cut. It was 10 o’clock by the time we finally boarded our bus and continued our journey towards Bangkok. However, we hadn’t been travelling long before our bus was pulled over by the police. All the exchanges were in Thai, and no one offered any explanation, but we were sitting there for another solid half an hour while the police made phone calls and wrote on bits of paper, which I can only assume was a ticket of some sort – perhaps our driver was speeding? In all honesty, at this point I was beyond caring. We were still hours away from Bangkok and I hadn’t had a proper sleep in about 24 hours.

The journey back to the city went up without a hitch, other than the minibus stopping every now and then and the driver having short, disjointed conversations with some of the other passengers, and dropping them at various points around the city.

However, when it came to dropping me and Washington off, things became a little more difficult. We finally reached the city of Bangkok, but I had yet to see any familiar landmarks in order to gain my bearings. “Where are we?” I called out to the driver. I got no reply, and it was only then that I realised that while the travel agent assured us we would be dropped in the middle of the city, this driver spoke hardly any English, so could not tell us where we were or where we were going. So you can imagine my frustration when, after driving through the streets of Bangkok for nearly two hours, we didn’t seem to be anywhere near the familiar the city centre. It didn’t help that it was now well into the afternoon, and we were caught in the gridlock of peak hour traffic. I even got my map out and motioned the driver to show me where we were, but he gave it a blank, vacant stare that filled me with horror – the idea that our driver didn’t even know where we were was too much to bear. I’d now been more or less awake for 27 hours, and 15 of them had been in transit. I wanted to scream, and yell and swear at the driver, at the incompetence of both him and the agent and the whole mess of an ordeal that had been my journey back to Bangkok. I was exhausted and furious, but I knew that getting mad would achieve absolutely nothing, so I resigned to my fate and crawled to the back of the minibus to lie down along the back seats, since by now Washington and I were the only passengers left.

Eventually I saw a landmark that I recognised, Victory Monument, which was actually the drop off point we had agreed upon with the travel agent in the beginning. So I guess the driver had known where he was going all along. All the same, I scrambled out of that minibus and onto the streets of Bangkok as fast as my tired little legs could carry me. I never thought I would have been so happy to be back on the streets of Bangkok, but after being at the mercy of the minibus driver for so many hours it was a glorious feeling to know exactly where I was, and have control over my own direction and movements.

***

I made it back home to Bangkok in the end, but it definitely hadn’t needed to be such an ordeal. I’m not saying that all bus trips will be like that, but when you’re booking for a route as disjointed and unpredictable as Siem Reap to Bangkok, or probably anything that involves that border crossing, there’s a lot of wiggle room for transit companies to shove you in wherever you fit and make a great profit on the sleeper ticket that you thought you were purchasing. Thankfully most of my travels for the next few months will be exclusively on trains, because the couple of weeks I spent travelling back to Bangkok from Siagon had seen me on enough buses to last me for quite some time.

The Unexpected Delights of Siem Reap

Angkor Wat is undoubtably the main tourist attraction of Siem Reap, and with very good reason – the temples are simply stunning and the sunrise will take your breath away. However, rather than spending the three whole days I had allowed myself in Siem Reap exploring the temples, I decided to take some time to wander around the town itself. It isn’t as developed and busy as Phnom Penh, but Siem Reap is far from isolated, and the proximity to the temples has turned it into a rather chilled out little community that caters well to the tourists who have been trekking through the ancient temples and require a take a break from the intensive sight seeing.

Statue in the park next to the river that flows through the town.

Statue in the park next to the river that flows through the town.

***

The first thing that I loved about Siem Reap was that it had a street called Pub Street – as if that isn’t pure brilliance, right? And it’s not just a name – the street is lined end to end with pubs, bars, restaurants, cafes and clubs. I spent all my afternoons in Siem Reap choosing a new venue, sampling the menu, and swigging on a couple of 50c mugs of draught beers.

Pub Street also comes alive with party fever during the night.

Pub Street also comes alive with party fever during the night.

To my surprise, I also passed a small venue called The Wine Station Bar, which proudly displayed a rainbow flag in its major signage. Chuckling to myself at the fact I had somehow been drawn to what I thought must surely be the only gay bar in the village on my first afternoon stroll around town, I saw on their advertising that the following evening would be one of their main nights of entertainment, so took note of the location with plans to return the next night.

It was a tiny little bar, but it was a stylishly decorated lounge with a stage in the middle of the long narrow room. I hung around for the evening watching all the performers, laughing and cheering snd having a few cheap cocktails. I’m honestly not sure whether the performers were drag queens or ladyboys, but whatever they were, they were doing it well. Their lip syncing, however, left a lot to be desired, but it was actually quite endearing to see them giving it their all, given the fact that none of them were exactly fluent in English. They put on stellar performances all the same, and I enjoyed myself immensely. Being in that kind of environment was almost like a little slice of home for me, and for a moment I imagined I was back in Sydney, drinking from a bucket at Stonewall and watching all my favourite drag queens take to the stage. When I walked past the stage to go to the toilet, one of the two drag queens on stage at the time reached down, grabbed my head, and planted a huge wet kiss on the side of my face, smearing makeup all over my chin and jaw. Yep – now I definitely felt at home.

The finest drag talent in Siem Reap.

The finest drag talent in Siem Reap.

The drag number during which I was the receiver of a very colourful kiss.

The drag number during which I was the receiver of a very colourful kiss.

***

To return to the other end of the tourism spectrum, I also visited the Angkor National Museum on my last day in Siem Reap. It’s a nice building with some gorgeous interior architecture, though unfortunately photography of any kind inside the museum is strictly forbidden. The museum has several large galleries that contain a range of different statues and structures that have been lifted out of the ruins of Angkor Wat and brought here for preservation and display. You can learn all about the history of the temples and the meanings behind their details and designs, as well the strong religious connections that exist in many of the structures. In retrospect, it’s probably a good idea to visit the museum before you explore the temples of Angkor Wat, allowing you appreciate the knowledge while experiencing the temples first hand, but it was still an enlightening experience that I definitely recommend to anyone who is visiting the temples while in Siem Reap (although if you’re not visiting the temples, you’re doing Siem Reap wrong).

Outside the Angkor National Museum.

Outside the Angkor National Museum.

***

The one other thing that seemed like a major attraction in Siem Reap were the fish foot massage tanks that littered the streets. I supposed there is quite a good market for them, with many tourists spending hours and hours and even days upon days on their feet, exploring the vast temple complexes – what better to cleanse and relax your feet than have dozens of tiny little fish come and give you a tickling massage? The fish don’t actually bite you – they simply nibble on the surface of the skin, eating any dead skin calls and leaving your feet feeling smooth and fresh. The feel of their tiny mouths was so bizarre at first that I’m fairly sure I let out a little squeal and wrenched my feet from the tank, but I forced my feet back in until I finally became used to the sensation. I had my fish foot massage after visiting the Angkor National Museum, which takes a good three of four hours to see everything and absorb all the knowledge, so after being on my feet so long it turned out to be quite an enjoyable experience.

Fish foot massages are a great little treat after a long day on your feet.

Fish foot massages are a great little treat after a long day on your feet.

***

Nothing too wild or crazy happened in Siem Reap. If truth be told, I spent a lot of time at the hostel enjoying the private room I had gotten. I was unsure as to when I might have such a luxury again, so I intended to make the most of it. However, I enjoyed my time in Siem Reap a great deal more than I ever would have expected. The quaint little town is full of fun treats and surprises, and I implore anyone who passes through to take the time to see what the town has to offer, and not spend all of your time at the temples. I guarantee that you won’t regret it.

Sacred Sunrise: Angkor Wat

The streets of Siem Reap were almost deserted – it could have been a ghost town if it weren’t for the few other tuk tuks and the occasional motorbike that puttered along on the road beside us. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes as dawn unfolded around the small Cambodian town – as I’ve mentioned before, early mornings and I make strange bedfellows, and I have no clear recollection of the last time I was getting out of bed at dawn. I peered through the thin light around us, and watched as the streets fell away to be replaced by dense woodlands and rainforest. I was on my way to the temples of Angkor Wat, to see what is regarded by many as one of the most beautiful sunrises in the world.

***

Yet my Angkor Wat experience had started the previous afternoon. After crawling off my overnight bus from Sihanoukville, I stumbled into a tuk tuk and asked to be taken to a cheap hostel. After being shown the dingy and humid dorm rooms, I caved in to the sales pitch of the hostel owners and checked into a private room – after the weekend I’d had, a comfortable bed, a private bathroom and a place to wash my underwear proved to be irresistible. Treat yourself, I told myself, and collapsed onto the bed to the catch up on the sleep that I had not managed to acquire during my overnight transit. I’d managed to strike an arrangement with my tuk tuk driver to be my guide through the major temples of Angkor Wat, so he told me he would come back this afternoon to take me up there to see the sunset. Unfortunately, he’d failed to mention that to be allowed inside any of the sacred buildings, you need to have the standard respectful clothing. In other words, attire that covers your shoulders and knees. I should have known better – it’s been the same with all the temples and palaces that I’ve visited throughout South East Asia. But my momentary lapse in judgement allowed me to rock up to the temple that is famous for its view of the sunset, only to be advised I wouldn’t be allowed to climb to the top due to the singlet I was wearing. I kicked myself for not realising this before I set out from the hotel, and then took a few photos of the view that I could see.

The ruin which has a beautiful view of the sunset, which I was not able to enter.

The ruin which has a beautiful view of the sunset, which I was not able to enter.

View of Angkor Wat from the base of the sunset ruins.

View of Angkor Wat from the base of the sunset ruins.

I was about to ask to go back to Siem Reap, but my tuk tuk driver said that I’d still be able to walk across the bridge that crossed the moat that surrounds the main Angkor Wat temple, all the way up to the main gate, so I decided to make the most of the sunset and check it out. The temple is really quite a fascinating structure, and it looked beautiful bathed in the light of the setting sun. I wandered up to see now far I would be allowed in. However, what I didn’t realise is that the temples technically close at five o’clock, and at this point it was almost six. Despite there being lots of people around, there were no guards or staff checking for tickets. As a result, my wandering found me quite deep inside some of the main chambers before I realised that I was well within the areas that required one to be ‘respectfully dressed’. But I’d come this far, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a few photos of the temple when it wasn’t completely flooded with tourists. I took a few photos of the mystical place, made a silent apology through prayer to anyone I may have offended, and quickly scampered out of the temple and back to my tuk tuk.

Angkor Wat in the light of the sunset.

Angkor Wat in the light of the sunset.

Inside the main Angkor Wat temples.

Inside the main Angkor Wat temples.

One of the entrances into the main temple.

One of the entrances into the main temple.

***

Flash forward to the next morning, and I am stepping out of the same tuk tuk in the same location, into a throng of people who are all making their way across the moat into Angkor Wat. Like cattle we plodded through the gates and into the inner compound, where there were already hundreds of people claiming their positions and setting up their cameras, keenly anticipating the rising sun. I found my own spot amongst the crowd and readied my camera for the moment the sun broke from behind the horizon and cast the temple into a silhouette. It was clear to see why the sunrise was such a popular event – the reflection in the pool within the grounds was simply stunning, and the temple took on an even greater air of majesty with sun burning brightly in the background. However, I couldn’t help but feel as though the experience was detracted somewhat by the extreme presence of tourism. It felt as though this structure, originally built as a famous and majestic Hindu palace, has been reduced to a holiday snap, a postcard, or simply just another checked box on a list of things to do in South East Asia. While I was still able to admire the view, the sense of mysticism and spirituality that I had while exploring the inner chambers yesterday had been successfully drained by the amount of photo taking going on around me.

Reflection of the sunrise on the Angkor Wat pool.

Reflection of the sunrise on the Angkor Wat pool.

The throng of tourists crowding around the pool in anticipation.

The throng of tourists crowding around the pool in anticipation.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Standing in one of the entrances to the inner chambers.

Standing in one of the entrances to the inner chambers.

Sunrise selfies at Angkor Wat.

Sunrise selfies at Angkor Wat.

***

However, Angkor Wat is only one temple in what is actually a huge collection of relics and ruins scattered throughout a huge area. The entrance into the domain of these temples is about four kilometres from the town of Siem Reap, and once you pass the main temple you reach Angkor Thom, four times the size of Angkor Wat and not so much a temple as it is an ancient enclosed city, full of its own collection of ruined temples, the largest and most impressive of which is Bayon. My tuk tuk driver dropped me off there, and allowed me to explore the smaller ruins spread out within the walls of Angkor Thom. It was here, wandering through the rainforest and getting lost inside the deserted temples, that I really felt the awe and wonder that comes with the history behind these epic structures. While Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu palace, Bayon and the rest of Angkor Thom were Buddhist monuments. I still struggle to get my head around the specifics of the history, a tale riddled with kings, conversions and a host of sects within the two religions, even after a later visit to the Angkor National Museum, but for the moment I was happy to just wander through and explore the ancient wonderland.

Bayon temple inside Angkor Thom.

Bayon temple inside Angkor Thom.

Inside one of the smaller ruins.

Inside one of the smaller ruins.

A building colloquially known at the Elephant Temple.

A building colloquially known at the Elephant Temple.

The steep steps of Ta Keo.

The steep steps of Ta Keo.

Part of the temple featured in Tomb Raider.

Part of the temple featured in Tomb Raider.

Myself with the 'Tomb Raider tree'.

Myself with the ‘Tomb Raider tree’.

***

My tuk tuk taxied me between the rest of the temple highlights, including an unfinished temple called Ta Keo, which lacked the detail of some of the other temples but whose steep staircases provided me with my daily exercise, and a dilapidated compound which I believe was called Ta Prohm, which contained several areas that were the location for the filming of Tomb Raider. Many of the temples were in poor condition, with parts of them closed off to the public due to reconstructions that were underway, but they were nevertheless an impressive sight. I was told by my mother that most people allow three days to see the temples. In Bangkok, Brendon had said one day was enough to see the best bits, unless you were truly mad about temples. In the end it wasn’t even midday before I decided to wrap things up at Angkor Wat. Between my afternoon visit, and having been awake since before sunrise, I had grown exhausted, and I also felt like I had seen quite a lot of what the area had to offer. Of course, there were more temples, but as my time in South East Asia was drawing to a close, I decided I had seen enough temples in the past six weeks.

Having said that, the temples of Angkor Wat really are something entirely different and special. It might have been checking off another box on the list of things to do in South East Asia, but it was definitely more than that. It’s an ancient and marvellous wonder, and one of the few things in this part of the world that could unquestionably be classified as a must see.

***

NB: While I tried my best to learn the history of the temples that I visited, it was long and complicated, and I can’t guarantee that everything I’ve said is correct, especially regarding what these temples were used for in previous ancient cultures. For more reliable facts on these things, please continue your research elsewhere