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.

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

Sunshine Slums and a Private Paradise

After an eventful few days in Phnom Penh, I decided that I was in need of another trip to the beach. Krabi had been the perfect detox from the big city lights of Bangkok, and while Phnom Penh was no comparative concrete jungle, it had dealt me my fair share of hard knocks and cuts and bruises, and I felt it was time to move on. Some of my fellow travellers in Saigon had suggested Kampot as a fun town to visit, while a number of other people had also suggested Sihanoukville. Both were towns down on the coast of Cambodia, both seemed an equal distance from Phnom Penh, and both had been given pretty good reviews by my peers. I was having a tough time choosing where to go – I knew my time was limited, and I wanted to see one town thoroughly rather than skimming through two. In the end, while I was sitting on the couch in the hostel common room mulling over my disaster date with Sana, my mind was made up by two other travellers who had stumbled into the hostel and placed themselves next to me. I said hello, and we had a brief discussion in which they told me they were travelling to Sihanoukville the next day. “You should totally come!” the female of the pair urged me, “but I’m getting the 6am bus, I have no idea why I did that, but he’s going on the 1pm one,” she said as she pointed to her male companion. “It’ll be awesome!” And just like that, fate had stumbled into my life to point me towards me next adventure.

However, I didn’t leave the next day. I went out and rented a motorbike, fell off that motorbike, met Laura, and ended up staying for a couple more nights. And while I never met up with that duo in Sihanoukville, after agreeing to follow them there I couldn’t shake this feeling that it should definitely be my next destination. So on the Friday morning after my week in Phnom Penh, I boarded a mini bus and hit the road for the sunny shores of Sihanoukville to unwind on its sandy white beaches.

***

When I arrived in the centre of the town, I asked a tuk tuk to take me to a cheap hostel, anywhere with dorm rooms. Such a request can be quite the gamble – my hostel in Phnom Penh was reasonable for a budget price and the dorms were actually quite comfortable. The hostel I ended up in here in Sihanoukville was a third of the price, and that measly $2.50 per night placed me in the “VIP” dorm. Seven bunk beds with yoga mats for mattresses, the air conditioning was limited to late at night and the early hours of the morning, the toilet cistern leaked a consistent and steady flow onto the floor, and there was sand everywhere. But in my optimism, I wrote all that off as a relaxed, ‘beachy’ feel. I stuffed my things into the tiny locker, pulled on my board shorts and headed down to the beach.

Unlike Krabi, the beach was only a 5 minute walk from the centre of town, so I literally set out with nothing but my towel, my thongs, and my locker key secured in the pocket of my board shorts. The water was nice – not shallow or warm like the Thai beaches I’d visited. I dived into waves, washing away the afternoon sweat sheen, and wincing as the salt water washed over my wounded knee. It was definitely refreshing, but as I paddled around in the water, my eyes travelled up and down the beach, observing the scene. The long strip of sand was lined with reclining chairs, umbrellas, bars, and inevitably, the local people pedalling their wares and trinkets. The beach itself had become a strip catering for all kinds of tourist needs, and while that does sound like some sort of paradise setting, it was a little intimidating. I didn’t feel as though I could just go and sit on the beach and relax without someone trying to sell me a drink or a foot rub.

***

The hostel was the same. I sat down by the pool with a 75c beer and my iPad, to write some emails home to my family, and suddenly I had one of the Cambodian girls working at the hostel crawling all over me, trying to get my attention, complaining suggestively about how she wished someone would buy her a beer, and asking me question after question after question. I know it’s a petty thing to complain about, but I just wanted to relax. I would soon learn that I had definitely come to the wrong hostel for relaxing – Utopia was the party joint for Sihanoukville backpackers, and later that evening I would find myself surrounded by blasting music and drinking games. Which normally I would be thrilled about, but I had been slowly sinking beers all afternoon and then found myself at Happy Herb Pizzas for dinner, so by the time the party was getting started all I wanted to do was sit in the dorm and strum my ukulele while sucking on the lollipop I had brought from the corner store – don’t ask me why.

But nobody likes a party pooper, and it was a Friday night, so I threw on a singlet and headed to the bar area. I didn’t bother having a shower – I was running low on clean underwear, and I figured I might as well embrace the beach bum lifestyle that was definitely the status quo here. I chatted to a bunch of people throughout the night, rolling through the same introductions again and again and making polite small talk, but either my head was really somewhere else by that stage, or everyone I spoke to was just really boring. Probably both. I went to bed when I’d drunk so much beer that I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and I awoke the following morning with a seedy hangover and a feeling that the night I’d had hadn’t really been worth it. Disheartened, I crawled out of my bottom bunk, still in my board shorts from the day before, and went to grab some breakfast before hitting the beach for another swim.

That afternoon, as I wandered the main streets of Sihanoukville sporting nothing but my bright pink board shorts and a groggy hangover, I came across a couple of diving shops. Remembering how much I had enjoyed rediscovering SCUBA diving back in Krabi, I went into each of them and made a few enquiries. There are a few islands about two hours from mainland Cambodia that are home to dozens of beautiful diving sites, and all the places offered day tours out to the islands, as well as overnight packages where you stayed on the island overnight. Reflecting on my night at Utopia, that was definitely something that interested me.

***

When I first arrived at the Sihanoukville hostel, there had been a guy sitting on his bed using a laptop. He’d worked away as I’d unpacked some of my things, but after a while he’d slapped the lid shut, let out a noise that was a cross between a groan and a yawn, and said in a thick American accent, “Oh my god, it is so hot in here!” I think he’d just been in general, to no one in particular, but as the only other person in the room I felt almost obliged to reply. I just chuckled and smirked to myself, as I did when most people complained about the heat – we’re in South East Asia, duh! – and then said “Yeah, it is… How long have you been staying here?”

The American jumped down from his top bunk and shoved his laptop into his locker. “Too long man, too long. Five days now, I think.” He pushed his locker shut and turned to face me. “It’s just so chilled and relaxed, you know? It just sucks you in!” Then he turned back to his bed. “Aww man, and now there’s sand all over my bed!” He brushed the sheet with his hands a few times, before shrugging and walking out of the room, without speaking another word. Maybe he had been high during our encounter, or maybe I just really am too highly strung, but the mood in this hostel had descended beneath ‘chilled and relaxed’ and reached ‘filthy and decrepit’. I made a mental note to get out of that place within a few days, lest I become a zoned out zombie patting the grains of sand on my own bed sheet.

***

So I knew right away that I wanted to stay on the island, Koh Rong Samleon, and I wanted to stay there as soon as possible. I shopped around for prices and packages, booked with the one I liked best, and was told to meet at the dive shop at 7:15 the following morning. I had a quiet dinner and went to bed early. However, being a Saturday night, Utopia had other plans. The music was pumping until about 1:00AM, and after that people were stumbling in at all hours of the morning, to the point where three girls staggered into the dorm just as I was getting up and ready to check out. I met one of the staff members from the dive shop and 3 of the other customer divers like myself, and we were put into a tuk tuk and whisked away to the dock.

It was too early for me to really engage in any kind of conversation, but I listened to the exchanges between my companions. The dive shop employee was a British man named Andrew, and he was telling the others about the socio-economic situation in Sihanoukville. “You’ll see it once we get out of the main tourist street, just wait. I mean, these guys have nothing. And anything they do have, they only have because of the tourists. It’s a vicious little cycle, but you know… It’s not all paradise down here.” As the tuk tuk carried us further from the centre of town, his words echoed loud and clear in the streets around us. You didn’t have to go far to escape the idyllic façade of a tropical paradise and discover that poverty is just as rife here as it is in Phnom Penh, and I can only assume everywhere else in Cambodia. I felt a little guilty, being one of the tourists that fuel these poverty traps, but Andrew had assured us that Koh Rong Samleon would be nothing like mainland Sihanoukville. “You won’t see any motorbikes or tuk tuks, and no one is going to try and sell you anything.” I was tired and groggy from my interrupted night of sleep, but that assertion made me feel extremely confident that I had made the right decision for myself.

View from the dock at Koh Rong Samelon.

View from the dock at Koh Rong Samelon.

Just over two hours later, the boat pulled up to the dock on Koh Rong Samleon. We unloaded our stuff, and then before long we were ready to head out again to go diving. The other three customers were doing their dives to complete their PADI Open Water Diver Certificate, so their schedule was going to be a little different. Since I was already a certified diver, all I had to do was gear up and take the plunge off the boat. I would be accompanied by my dive master, a lovely little English woman named Justine, and Kyle, a young Kiwi guy who was in the process of training to become a dive master himself. They were both lovely, and I had a lot of fun diving with them. The water at these Cambodian dive sights was pretty similar to the water at Ao Nang when I stayed at Krabi – perfect temperature, quite good visibility and lots of marine life. We saw a couple of stingrays on the first dive, but for the most part we just saw a huge variety of fish. During the second dive I found myself swimming alongside schools of fish that swam close enough together to form a huge silver wall, shining and glittering in the sunlight. Being under the sea really allows you to appreciate its immensity – you literally just feel like a drop in the ocean, a minuscule spot on the surface of this vast, blue planet. I didn’t see anything particularly amazing or breath taking, but there’s something about SCUBA diving and being under the sea that really taps into philosophical side and sense of wonder.

***

The days activities consisted on the morning dive and the afternoon dive. After that, I was left to my own devices to explore the island. My basic accommodation was covered by the diving company – a basic dorm room in a shack over the water, suspended on stilts and connected to the dock – so I didn’t have anything else to plan or worry about. I set off into the village with nothing but the clothes on my back, just like a had in Sihanoukville, but I quickly learnt that Andrew had been right – this island was completely remote. Some of the children would scream, smile and wave at you as you passed by, but other than that you could walk down the street completely undisturbed. The main street was simply a strip of sand that was lined by the tiny local huts on either side. I wandered through the town, returning smiles and waves, and continued on past the village and through the rainforest along the coast. I’d been told by Justine that there was a nice long beach, aptly named Longbeach, were you could relax on the sand and go for a swim, and due to the tiny island population it was rarely very busy.

As I stepped out onto the sand and let the water wash over my feet, I instantly knew that I had found the perfect beach that I had been looking for all this time. It was a sheltered bay, so there were no rough waves, and the water was a clear cool blue, not shallow and warm the beaches at Krabi. The white sand was completely deserted – not a soul in sight. I strode out into the water, and kept walking until the water was up to my neck. I spun around, drinking in the sights of the ocean, the shoreline, the mountain on the smaller neighbouring island – to me, this was paradise. I could have stayed there for hours, just floating around in the water, no belongings on the beach to worry about or other swimmers to distract or disturb me. It was pure bliss.

The perfection that was Longbeach, Koh Rong Samleon.

The perfection that was Longbeach, Koh Rong Samleon.

Though I had another destination for the end of the afternoon. Kyle had told me about another beautiful spot on Koh Rong Samleon called Sunset Rocks. Basically, the western side of the island was a rocky shoreline from which you had a completely unobstructed view of the sunset over the ocean. As the end afternoon drew nearer, I made my way back through the main street to the other side of the island, acquiring some companions in the form of two of the local street dogs. There, I perched myself on a large flat rock, and waited. Growing up on the east coast of Australia, I’d always found sunsets over the ocean to be particularly exciting. I saw a few while I had been in Costa Rica a few years ago, but the novelty has yet to wear off. I sat there with my canine companions and watched the sun bleed into the ocean, the sky turning a beautiful shade of orange.

View from Sunset Rocks.

View from Sunset Rocks.

One of my two canine companions for the sunset.

One of my two canine companions for the sunset.

***

My night on Koh Rong Samleon was a peculiar experience. After dinner I spent the evening sitting on the pier with one of the dive master interns, and Australian guy named Dean, watching lightning flashing across the bay. There was no thunder to be heard, nor any specks of rain to be felt – just a cool ocean breeze with the lightning lighting up the sky. When I leaned back, I also noticed something that I hadn’t seen in a while – the stars. Moving between city to city, with the traffic and the smog and the light pollution, I couldn’t actually remember a night during my time in South East Asia where I could clearly see the night sky. It was an unfamiliar sky, and even though I was in the Northern Hemisphere, I couldn’t help but try to find the Southern Cross in every cluster of stars. I sat there for a while, just watching the sky in all it’s natural wonder, content with my decision to leave behind the so called Utopia.

I began to yawn, feeling tired after my long day, but just as I was thinking about heading to bed, Justine invited me to come down into the village with her, Andrew, Dean, and the rest of the other divers for a few beers. Figuring I was only going to be there for one night, I decided to check out whatever nightlife this tiny remote island had to offer. The local bar felt more like a large room on the back on someone’s house. The bartender was a chatty Cambodian woman, despite her very limited English, and she knew most of the divers who lived and worked on the island. She smiled and waltzed around the table, laughing and smiling saying, “You drink beer, you no pay. You play pool, you no pay.” It seemed bizarre to me, considering we were her only customers, but I took her up on it and had myself a beer, and challenged Dean to a round of pool. Later, our hostess began pouring shots of the local liquor. “You drink whiskey, you no pay.” I could only stomach one shot before my eyes began to droop and close involuntarily. I cursed myself for being so tired, because usually I would not be one to so quickly pass up a free drink, let alone free shots. I thanked the woman for her hospitality, bid the rest of the group goodnight, and headed back to the pier and crashed in an exhausted heap under my mosquito net.

***

And was jerked awake in the morning by the sound of the world coming to an end. Or so I thought – the storm I had watched from afar last night had finally reached the island, and the thunder sounded as though the sky was being savagely ripped in two, shaking the earth while the rain bucketed down and flew through the open windows. I jumped up to close the shutters, then laid in my bed and listened to the storm rage around us. It passed soon enough, and while the others got up to continue the dives for their Open Water Diver course, while I spent the rest of the day wandering around the island, relaxing on the dock, and swimming over at Longbeach. It was incredibly peaceful, and exactly what I needed – except for a brief run-in with an anemone. When you’re SCUBA diving, you can see all the creatures around you, so you know not to touch anything that looks potentially dangerous or unfriendly. However, as I put my foot down onto what I thought was a sandy ocean floor, I felt a texture that was very unusual and unfamiliar. I pulled my foot back in shock, and a few seconds later was met with an intense stinging on the top of my foot. I splashed my way back to the shore and sat on the sand – there were a few red marks where the stinging sensation still remained, but it didn’t seem too serious. I went back to the pier to check with Justine, who said there are a couple of different types of plants that could have delivered that kind of sting, though I still thought it was a little bizarre that the stinging was on the top of my foot, and not on the underside that had initially stepped on whatever underwear creature I had stumbled across. We poured some vinegar on the marks, which relieved the pain a little, but Justine assured me it was nothing to be concerned about.

The dock as seen from the shores of Longbeach.

The dock as seen from the shores of Longbeach.

***

As the end of the afternoon rolled around, it was time to say goodbye to Koh Rong Samleon and head back to Sihanoukville. I had booked an overnight bus from there to Siem Reap, and rest of my Cambodian adventure awaited. As I sailed back to the mainland, I realised that my time on the coast hadn’t been anything like I was expecting. Instead of being completely relaxed, I’d found myself in a grungy den of a party hostel, and instead of feeling refreshed I had spent four days in one pair of shorts, having not had a proper shower and only brushing my teeth once. However, I felt as though I had overcome another challenge by taking on my anal retentiveness when it comes to personal hygiene. It’s not something I’d like to make a habit out of, but I now know that should I find myself in such compromising situations again, I can survive without having any kind of breakdown.

I’d also done some awesome SCUBA diving and seen a handful of sights that few people will ever see in their lifetimes. So when I made it back to the mainland and boarded my night bus to Siem Reap, I felt content in having explored another unique corner of the planet on my round the world adventure.