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.

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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.

Leave It To The Locals

After traveling for over a month, I was beginning to feel pretty confident with my abilities in navigating new cities with a simple map and the unearthed Boy Scout skills from my childhood. The day before I had been driven from place to place in a motorbike tuk tuk, feeling relatively posh with my own little carriage to be chauffeured around in. During the evening of my second night in Phnom Penh, I had a brief encounter with another guy staying in my dorm, who had told me that he and a few other people had rented their own motorbikes and driven themselves around the city. Back in Ho Chi Minh City when my Couchsurfing host had offered me the controls of the vehicle, I had, rather sensibly, declined the offer. However, I’d seen quite a few people at my hostel in Saigon rent and even buy motorbikes, using it as a cheaper form of travel as well as a way to see more of the countryside. I had told them they were crazy, but one of the Americans had assured me that the traffic out there was nowhere near as crazy as in the city itself.

It never really crossed my mind again until it was mentioned to me in Phnom Penh. I’d seen the roads and the traffic, and it didn’t seem quite as busy as the hustle and bustle of Bangkok or Saigon. I told myself that I should be making the most of the unique experiences on offer here, and so far I’d been all about pushing my boundaries and challenging myself. With that in mind, I set off down the road to rent myself a motorbike, oblivious to the fact that my stay in Phnom Penh was about to get even more harrowing than a trip to the Killing Fields.

***

In retrospect, it was a terrible decision. As my mother reminded me when I emailed her after the fact, “You can barely ride a push bike, Bob!” Yet I was taken over by some kind of invincibility complex that most young adult males get after a six pack of beers (though it should be noted that I made this brilliant decision completely sober). The fact I’d never really ridden a motorbike didn’t occur to me as a potential problem – how hard could it be? It was only when they showed me the bike and demonstrated how to change the gears did the sheer unfamiliarity of this vehicle truly hit home. My blank, uncomprehending expression must have given me away, because one of the men suddenly shouted, “Ahh! Automatic! You need automatic?”. Honestly, I’d had no idea there were automatic and manual motorbikes until that very moment, but I figured I was going to have a hell of an easier time on an automatic one, so I agreed enthusiastically and waited for him to bring around another bike. After a brief overview of the controls, they handed me a helmet and the keys, and away I went.

I puttered along through the small streets, using the same cautious method that I employed for crossing the roads as a pedestrian, before turning onto a main road and zooming along with the rest of the traffic. It was a similar thrill to riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi, except this time there was a certain element of fear, given that I was the one who was actually driving. But I was doing pretty well so far. I was heading towards Phnom Wat, a large temple located in the north of the city, surrounded by lots of traffic. I managed to park the bike next to Phnom Wat, which was situated in the middle of a huge roundabout. I wandered over to the temple and had a brief look inside. It is still a very active place of worship, so I didn’t stay too long so as not to disturb the prayers inside. Besides, I was keen to get back on the motorbike and do some more exploring.

The temple of Phnom Wat, my first and only stop of the day.

The temple of Phnom Wat, my first and only stop of the day.

***

And shortly after that is when it all went wrong. My destination was to be the Russian Markets, which are supposed to be a unique and interesting corner of the city. I’d checked my map and memorised a rough route through the main roads, but I’d only been driving for a few minutes before I came up to the next roundabout. I needed to turn left, but as I followed the roads, I realised I was veering right, and there didn’t appear to be any way to change my course. Was I not as far as I thought I was? Was I taking a wrong turn? Could I still turn left from where the road was taking me? All these perplexing questions bombarded me at once, and the fact that they drive on the right side of the road rather than the left didn’t help my heightening confusion – although the very limited road rules at all hadn’t laid the best foundation for building confidence. In the end, I hesitated for just a moment, but that was all it took. I came tumbling off the motorbike and skidding across the road.

It all seemed so slow and surreal at first. I thought for sure that I was dead. I’d heard the horror stories, the idiot tourists who thought they knew what they were doing when they set out onto the roads and ended up becoming another statistic. I could hear my mothers “I told you so” screeching through the back of my mind. But as soon as I was down, I was jumping up again and scrambling off the road. The way I’d fell meant I’d skidded out of the roundabout towards the edge of the road, rather than deeper into the oncoming traffic. Anyone behind me just swerved around me and continued on their way, as though nothing had happened, or as though that kind of thing happened every day – though for all I knew, such accidents were a common occurrence.

A few of the motorbike taxi drivers on the edge of the road rushed over to my aid, pulling the bike up and helping me wheel it to the edge of the road. I checked my arms and legs to find myself, remarkably, almost unscathed. The only exception was a shallow, bloody graze on my right knee, though I was so full of adrenaline at the time that I barely noticed. I cleaned myself up as best I could, and the local men checked to make sure the bike wasn’t damaged. Thankfully, other than a few mild scratches on the paint, which could have very well been there before I took my little tumble, it was fine. I thanked the men for their help, though they didn’t understand English, so they simply watched me curiously, probably trying to figure out the exact same thing as me – what the hell was I going to do now?

There was nothing else I could do. In my shaken and unsettled state, I mounted the bike and took a few deep breaths. I assessed the roads and where I was going, and then revved the engine and took off again into the traffic. With my confidence shattered from the fall, it was one of the most terrifying decisions of my life, but I didn’t really have any other option. I could have called the rental company, but I didn’t want to risk having to pay for any damages if I confessed to crashing the bike. I couldn’t ask anyone for a lift, since I was the one who had the vehicle. Though it screamed of the illogical and was beyond all common sense, I managed to get back on my bike and continue driving around the city.

***

It was horrific. With the exception of the crash itself, I had never felt so scared as I did navigating the streets of Phnom Penh by motorbike. For some ridiculous reason that I still can’t explain, I decided to travel further from where I was staying, perhaps in the hopes I would regain confidence and learn from my mistake. I didn’t. Every turn, corner or crossing filled me with terror. I had several extremely close calls with both other motorbikes and cars. In the haze of my terror I think I actually even made it to the Russian Markets but by that point, shopping for whatever trinkets they sold there was the last thing in my mind. It was on the return trip that I became not only frightened, but lost. I remember stopping at a petrol station, staring out into the peak hour afternoon traffic, and wondering how the hell I was going to make it back to my hostel alive.

Thankfully, the gash on me knee was the only real injury I sustained during the ordeal.

Thankfully, the gash on me knee was the only real injury I sustained during the ordeal.

After a lot of slow puttering down busy streets and long waits at corners to make sure there was absolutely no chance of being caught by other traffic, I finally made it back to the hostel. I’d been following the setting sun to make sure I was going in the right direction, and using what little I did remember of the streets from my drive through the city yesterday. It had been another long and exhausting day, and as soon as I parked the bike I showered, tended to my wound, and put my leg up by the pool whilst nursing several scotch and Cokes to calm my nerves. Needless to say, I had learnt my lesson. The traffic might not seem dangerous when experienced locals weave their way in and out of cracks and crevices of the gridlock, but it’s still a death trap for anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

I promised my mother I would stay away from motorbikes altogether, but that’s literally impossible in most parts of Cambodia, so from now on I’ll just leave the driving to the locals.

Confessions Part 2: My date with a Cambodian girl

On my first night in Phnom Penh, a thunderstorm ravaged the sky and the heavens opened up to release a torrential downpour of which I hadn’t seen the likes of since I was in Singapore. I took a seat in the common room of the hostel and watched the storm roll through the sky. The common room was more of an open terrace area, with a bar, pool, and snooker table. As I sat watching the storm, one of the Cambodian girls who worked at the hostel approached me and introduced herself, before asking if I wanted to play a game of pool with her. I told her that I wasn’t very good, but she just laughed and said it didn’t matter. Her name was Sana, and throughout the course of our few games she even gave me a few pointers and tips, so that I began to be not quite as bad as I had been at the beginning of the evening. However, I had a big day of sightseeing ahead of me the next day, so after a few games I said goodnight to Sana and went to bed.

The next evening Sana was off duty, and after she finished she asked if I wanted to join her at a local bar down the road to play some more pool. They had cheap jugs of beer, she told me, so I got dressed and we headed down to continue my education in playing pool, and sink some balls and beers. A few more of her friends turned up, coming and going and having a beer or two here and there, and before long I realised that we’d been there for a couple of hours, and had polished off several jugs of beer. It was at this point that Sana mentioned something about going dancing. After a few more probing questions, I gathered that Sana was talking about going to a nightclub later. Sure, I thought, why the hell not?

I’m not sure if something got lost in translation, or whether I was just oblivious to the signs, but to me the whole thing still seemed totally innocent at this point – a few beers and a drunken dance with a new friend. We went back to the hostel, because Sana said that I needed to get changed, and that she had “a nice dress to go dancing in” that she wanted to put on. Figuring we would be going to some of the nicer places in the area, and not just the street side beer gardens, I switched my singlet and thongs for a collared shirt and enclosed shoes. After I got changed, she told me that we had to go back to her house first, so she could change into her dress. I didn’t know why she couldn’t just change at the hostel too, but at this point I had relinquished any control over the direction that the evening was taking. So as I stood at the top of the stairs while Sana chattered to her mother and sisters from inside another room, who occasionally peeked through the ajar door to get a better look at me, I came to the realisation that I had unwittingly let this scenario become, for all intents and purposes, a date.

The first bar we went to was called Heart of Darkness, which only had a handful of patrons, most of whom were nursing beers and playing pool. As we sat down on one of the couches, Sana scooted right over next to me so that our knees were touching, and that was when alarm bells really started to go off in my head. So naturally, I asked what she wanted to drink. “Whatever you’re having, you’re the boss.” As I ordered two margaritas, I also realised that this time the shoe was on the other foot for me – as the man in this situation, it looked like I would be paying for this date. I still had no idea how it had happened, or how I was supposed to get out of it. Sana became even more flirty and a little bit tactile, getting closer so our knees where pushed together. Despite my best attempts to shuffle into a less suggestive position, I had to face the fact that my inaction or disinterest in the situation were not going to get the message across. So that was when I grew some balls and finally said what I thought everyone should have already been thinking.

“Hey, I need to say something. And I probably should have said it ages ago, and sorry that I didn’t… But you should probably know that I’m gay.” I didn’t feel the immediate change in atmosphere that I was expecting, and for a moment of horror I thought she hadn’t heard me, and that I would have to repeat the awkward confession again. But after a moment, Sana half-heatedly mumbled something, barely audible over the music. “Whatever you want to do, that’s cool. Whatever you do, that’s okay.” It was a better reaction than I had expected, though it wasn’t a hundred percent clear that she had understood what I had said. I tried to keep the positives coming by assuring her that I still wanted to dance, so we changed venues to another club called Pontoon, which had a few more people who were up and dancing. That still didn’t help the mood though, and I ended up buying her another drink, just because I felt so bad. We did dance for a little bit, but the mood had officially taken a nose dive since I dropped my bombshell, and in the end she was feeling drunk enough for me to walk her home. I did that, thanked her for the evening, and gave her a hug before retiring back to the hostel.

***

Coming out is a very peculiar thing. Most of the time we think that once we’ve done it – made that big step towards being openly homosexual – we’re out of the closet and that’s that. I still remember the little thrill I had after confiding in many of my close friends, one by one, and the relief that came with releasing another fragment of that burden. But once it’s done, you never really expect to have those nerve-wracking experiences, uncertain of how people will react or how you’ll be received. I had a pretty gay life back at home – I worked in a gay owned business, I went out to gay bars every weekend, most of my friends were either gay men or fag hags. I also took a lot of gender studies classes at university. I never made a huge point about disclosing my sexuality, but I was just used to people assuming I was gay based on a lot of the facets of my life. Either that, or it just comes up in conversation when meeting new people. I mention it in passing, or add it into part of a story to provide some context, but I never had to flat out say it just for the sake of saying it.

But when I was so removed from my old life, and thrust into a position that was blatantly assuming my heterosexuality, I really struggled to stay true to my identity as a gay man. Coming out the first time is hard, but having to do it again can be just as difficult. It feels as though you’re in a constant backslide, with a constant need to reaffirm your identity and save yourself from falling back into the script of normativity. Especially in South East Asia, where even the legalities of homosexuality still seem a little blurry, you never know how people are going to react. Maybe Cambodian girls just have really bad gaydars: in Sihanoukville I had another hostel worker girl doing splits by the pool for me in her bikini, and begging me to buy her a beer. It was uncomfortable, and there was no real way to stop the suggestive advances without making some kind of proclamation that would only result in more awkwardness for everyone.

And that really does suck. I hate feeling uncomfortable just for being myself. And I hate to think that I probably made Sana quite uncomfortable too. She was a lovely girl and I wouldn’t wish what I put her through upon anyone. Having said that, I don’t think what happened was entirely my fault. It was just a failure to communicate my feelings on something that Sana herself was being very clear about. In my journey so far, I’ve learnt a lot about myself, done some things I never thought I’d do, grown as a man, and ultimately, I’ve changed. There’s nothing wrong with that, but amongst all the change I need to stay true to myself, and not let go of the fundamental things that make me who I am.

First Impressions: Phnom Penh

I was a little nervous as I climbed off the boat and onto the dock at Phnom Penh. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cambodia. I was under the impression that it was a relatively poor country, but so far on my tour through South East Asian countries I’d been surprised by the diversity of living conditions and levels of development within single cities, let alone entire nations. Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia, but in the back of my mind I was quite certain it wasn’t going to be anything like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, and most definitely not like Singapore. And I wasn’t wrong.

It’s hard to describe. It wasn’t a city in the way that Bangkok was a city, it with networks of public transport and numerous towering skyscrapers.There was certainly some parts of the city that were more built up and developed, with busy roads and crazy traffic, but there were also smaller streets with a slightly suburban feeling, though not without busy roads and crazy traffic. As I would later learn during my stay in Phnom Penn, while most of the time the locals make it seem like a fine tuned art from, driving in pretty much any major South East Asian city is a perilous affair.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

Ultimately, what made Phnom Penh different was the not-so-seamless integration of tourist attractions, middle class living, and extreme street poverty. In Bangkok, the city is almost separated into layers like a rainforest, with the wealth in the canopy descending down to the poverty on the forest floor, and Saigon has a tourist-focused centre which sprawls outward to the more authentic and local experience. From what I could gather, there was no method to the madness with was the design of Phnom Penh. The official currency is the Khmer riel, although US dollars are so widely accepted that menus and price lists of everything are shown in dollars, and even the ATM machines dispense dollars rather than riel. The use of the dollar, however, meant that I found Cambodia a little more expensive than Vietnam. I’m no economist so I can’t even try to explain the way it works, but that’s just a little something that did surprise me.

***

I decided to spend my first day in Phnom Penh seeing all the major tourist attractions, so I enlisted the help of a tuk tuk driver who would take me from place to place and wait for me while I visited each destination. We came to an agreement, though only after several minutes of myself insisting that I did not want to visit the shooting range and fire a bazooka. The driver seemed disappointed, but nevertheless took me around for my day tour of the city. The first stop was the Grand Palace, the home of the current king of Cambodia which doubles as a beautiful tourist attraction. As I wandered through the various temples and buildings that the public was allowed to visit, I noticed that a lot of the architecture was similar to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. They even had murals on the inner surface of the walls that surrounded the silver pagoda – named for its floors of solid silver – which depicted the same epic poem from Hindu religion. However, unlike the murals in Bangkok, these ones were not so maintained, and there was fadedpaints and cracks in the walls, and the whole thing had more of an ancient wonder appeal to it, rather than the glittering magnificence of the palace in Bangkok. There was also an Emerald Buddha in the silver pagoda, and like the one in Bangkok, it was actually made of jade, and I wondered how many more trends there could have been between two such temples in completely different countries.

The silver pagoda.

The silver pagoda.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

In front of the main temple.

In front of the main temple.

After the palace was the Killing Fields, which was about a half an hour drive out of town. The trip there was an experience in itself, as it had rained heavily the night before, and some of the dirt roads had turned to mud and were littered with puddles and pot holes. We had definitely reached the outer limits of the city, and there were no pubs, hostels our other tourist attractions. “Definitely not in Kansas anymore”, I muttered to myself, watching the mud fly and cursing myself for not wearing ruby slippers – or at least more appropriate footwear.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The fields themselves weren’t so muddy though, so my canvas slip-ons would live to see another day. The 3 million Cambodians who were brought here by the Khmer Rouge during the rise of Communism, however, did not. As I entered the complex and purchased my ticket, I found myself surrounded by the group of Americans who I had met the day before on the boat from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh. I had a quick chat with Mike, one of the guys I’d spoken to at length during the boat ride, discussing how our first nights in the city had gone down. They were just on their way out as I was arriving, so when it came time for us to part ways again, Mike looked around gloomily and said, “Well, I’d tell you to enjoy… but that’s not really the right word for this place. But go and soak it in, it’s pretty intense.” He bid me farewell, along with the rest of the group, and I set off to see the fields.

Mike has been spot on when he had described the place as intense. It was such a harrowing experience, to walk through the site and learn of the atrocious acts of genocide that occurred here, all because the victims didn’t want to subscribe to the Khmer Rouge Communist regime. It’s a little frightening to realise how unknown these tragic events are on an international level, with I myself only truly learning about the history of this genocide for the first time. Even worse is that it happened just over 30 years ago – worse that we still don’t know more about it, and even worse that these kind of things were still happening in such recent history. There is a real emphasis in this place on remembering the tragedies and the stories, so that future generations will learn, and not make the same mistakes of the past.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

There is also a torture museum back in the city of Phnom Penh, but after spending so long at the Killing Fields I was feeling quite exhausted, both emotionally and physically, so I spent a short while looking around the school-turned-prison and house of torture. It was the place where many people were tortured, interrogated, and made to sign false confessions before being sent to the Killing Fields to be thrown into a mass grave. In the end it was too much for me, and I ended up heading back to the hostel to debrief myself.

***

My time in Phnom Penh provided me with a handful of peculiar tales that deserve posts of their own, but one thing that defined my time in the city in general was the acquisition of a new friend, Laura. On my second night in the Phnom Penh hostel, I stumbled into the dorm after a few beers – in order to change my outfit before going out again – to discover that someone new had checked into the hostel. She was sitting down on the bunk next to mine, unpacking her things, so I said hello and gave her a smile as I rummaged through my bag. Rather than the passing “Hey” mumbled under herbreath before returning to what she was doing, something not uncommon in these situations, this woman was very receptive to my greeting. We briefly introduced ourselves and had a quick chat before I had to head out again. It was nice to have met and got along with someone so quickly and so easily, though the fact that I had been drunk, and thus prone to random babbling at strangers, wasn’t lost on me.

I saw Laura again the next day, and we properly introduced ourselves and had a bit of a chat. She was a backpacker from Newcastle in England, and had been travelling around South East Asia for a few months now, in the similar unplanned method that I had been employing. She was also travelling alone, and so while we spent our days separately, doing our own sight seeing at our own paces, each night we would catch up for a few drinks, sharing our stories and experiences of both Cambodia and the greater region of South East Asia, and one night we even hit up the night club across the road from the hostel, which had been surprisingly busy for a Wednesday night.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

On my last night in Phnom Penh, we had gone to a nearby restaurant that was run by disadvantaged youth and street children who were receiving training in hospitality, and was also known for serving some interesting foods that were considered Cambodian specialities. I have to admit, I was a little nervous at first, but I found the crispy fried tarantulas to be delicious! The legs were my favourite bit, tasting like crispy fries with chicken salt. The thorax was also nice and crunchy, but the abdomen was a little chewy for my liking, though still tasted fine.

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

***

Further into my travels through Cambodia, I met people who had not spent any time in Phnom Penh. After a girl had insisted that she couldn’t visit the Killing Fields because she knew she could not handle it emotionally, I had to agree with her assertion that she hasn’t missed much by simply passing through. Yet I feel as though I definitely grew as a person during my time in Phnom Penh. I was faced with quite a few challenges that I doubt I would have come across many other places in the world (which will appear in forthcoming blogs). So in the end I’m glad I made it a destination on my travels – it definitely ranks up high with the rest of my memorable cities.