Brits Gone Bonkers: Notting Hill Carnival

During my time in London I’d made some new friends, like Guy and Yitav, or John and Richard, and I’d caught up with people who I had met previous one my journey, such as Tim and Giles. One afternoon I even took the tube out to Euston Train Station to catch up with Laura, who I had befriended in my hostel in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. She didn’t live in London, but she was passing through on the way to a friends birthday somewhere further north, so I’d gone over to have a coffee and a gossip while she waited for her connecting train. It had been months since we’d seen each other, so we filled each other in on all our travels since we’d parted ways back in Cambodia. I’d met of a lot of other travellers during my time in South-East Asia, but Laura was really the only one who I had actually gotten along with extremely well, and with whom I’d actively stayed in touch. It was a completely different environment from the last time we’d been together, but it was so lovely to see another familiar face after so long on the road, even if I had met that face while on the road in the first place!

Travelling buddies reunited! Laura and I catching up at Euston Station.

Travelling buddies reunited! Laura and I catching up at Euston Station.

But I was also set to meet up with another friend from back home in Australia. My friend Ellie was moving to Scotland for six months to study abroad, but before that she had also been travelling through Europe. London was one of the last stops before she ended up in Glasgow to settle down, and as fate would have it we were both in town at the same time. So we headed into Soho one evening for dinner and ciders, catching up and sharing stories and talking about all our friends back home, and what had been going on back there since we’d both been away. As much fun as meeting new people can be, there’s nothing quite like the ease that comes with sitting down with an old friend and talking about anything, everything, or nothing at all. Ellie also had some other friends who were travelling through London at the moment too, so after our pub meals and a couple more ciders we headed out into the night to meet them.

A cheeky Ellie with her pint of cider.

A cheeky Ellie with her pint of cider.

To cut a long story short, Ellie’s Canadian friend dragged us back and forth across the city for the entire night, always seeming to have a rough plan but never knowing exactly where we were going. We waited in line for some club for close to an hour before being informed it was full, or they weren’t letting anyone else in, or whatever, I’m not even sure. Her friend then tried to drag us into some dirty, hole-in-the-wall nightclub with a £10 entry fee. I’m not a fan of cover charges at the the best of times, and I certainly wasn’t going to pay one for a straight club that looked like it might cave in on me the moment I stepped in. It was still relatively early, but we’d actually managed to end up in East London, so I figured I would call it quits and just head home and save myself for tomorrow, when we had plans to go to the Notting Hill Carnival. There’d been a lot of talk about the carnival, which was supposed to be an event that stretches over the course of three days, so I wanted to make sure I was prepared for whatever was going to be happening. Ellie seemed pretty exhausted too, so we threw in the towel and made a McDonalds pit stop before calling it a night.

***

The next day was the Notting Hill Carnival, something I had heard people talking about over the last few days but hadn’t ever previously heard anything about. I hopped on the tube and headed west, where I would meeting Ellie and another friend of hers, a fellow Australian named Sophie who was living in London. When I surfaced from the tube, I found the streets absolutely packed with people. A quick trip to a corner store found the mobs clearing out the stocks of beer and cider on the shelves, so I figured there was going to be some serious shenanigans going on in the street. I bought myself some cans of beer and headed back into the street to find Sophie and Ellie and the swarms of people.  When we finally found each other, it was really just a matter of following the crowds and roaming the streets. If there was any kind of method to the madness, it did not make itself apparent to me.

Hordes of people roamed the streets, drinking and gallivanting around the place for the Notting Hill Carnival.

Hordes of people roamed the streets, drinking and gallivanting around the place for the Notting Hill Carnival.

Flags and decorations lined the streets of the entire surrounding area.

Flags and decorations lined the streets of the entire surrounding area.

The sun shined on us as we explored the food stalls of the carnival.

The sun shined on us as we explored the food stalls of the carnival.

Ellie and I following the crowds through carnival.

Ellie and I following the crowds through carnival.

There were food stalls all about the place, with all kinds of mouth-watering smells filling the air. Later I would learn that most of the Notting Hill Carnival is led by the West Indian community of London, so the Caribbean vibe made itself known among all the food and the drinking and partying. We also stumbled across what appeared to the be the beginning of a parade, with floats and dancers and music all marching down the street, with the crowds being parted and controlled by police. I’m still not sure whether or not drinking on the streets is actually legal or not in London, but at least for this event I think most of the police had all but given up trying to enforce the ban if it was illegal. We walked alongside the parade sipping on our beers and ciders and no one bothered to trouble us, despite finding ourselves in very close proximity with the police.

The beginning of the Notting Hill Carnival parade.

The beginning of the Notting Hill Carnival parade.

Floats in the parade.

Floats in the parade.

A float resembling the British police officers.

A float resembling the British police officers.

Despite the police presence though, you couldn’t help but get the feeling the carnival was somewhat out of control. It almost felt like the borough had been overrun and turned into an affluent shanty town. The streets were covered in rubbish to the point where little mounds had become acceptable dumping grounds, and you had to watch where you were walking so that you didn’t trip land face first in a mini rubbish tip. Many of the shops in the surrounding area had boarded up their windows and seemingly bunkered down and wait for the whole thing to blow over. It seems staying open for business would not have been worth the risk of the out of control herds of people flooding into their shops, and the wooden planks over all their windows showed that some weary people might still bear some unsavoury memories of the London riots of 2011. I will admit, there were times when I felt a little uneasy, but for the most part all the probable and possible damage was just the dirty streets left in the wake of the mostly heavily inebriated crowds. There were even brave citizens of the area who had opened up their homes to the party-goers so that they may use their toilets for a fee. There was so many people flooding the streets though, and such a lack of public toilets to cope with those kinds of masses, that I’m sure it would have been a profitable endeavour no matter how many revellers passed through their door, inevitably breaking or destroying something along the way. Ellie and Sophie had to stop to visit one of these private bathrooms turned public restrooms, and judging by the time I was waiting for them outside, business was definitely booming inside.

The streets literally resembled a tip at some places.

The streets literally resembled a tip at some places.

The barricades over some of the shops in the area.

The barricades over some of the shops in the area.

The carnival takes over absolutely everything.

The carnival takes over absolutely everything.

Equality.

Equality.

Houses opened up their toilets to the public, for a fee.

Houses opened up their toilets to the public, for a fee.

Street art.

Street art.

There were some terrifying moments, however, when the push and shove of the crowds became not such a friendly experience. Streets occasionally turned into mosh pits, with people getting packed in from all sides to the point where you could barely breath properly, let alone move. Ellie, Sophie and I all clung to each others hands like our lives depended on it, for fear of being separated in what was starting to become a swarming, seething mass of people. There were even some men getting particularly violent, and at times I definitely felt extremely unsafe. It was a strange juxtaposition, given that on the other side of the street, there were floats full of joyful dancers and Jamaican and Latin music being pumped over the crowd. Despite the terror, you just had to laugh and hold on for dear life. We wandered all over the place, ducking down smaller side streets every now and then to avoid those huge, crushing mobs of people, and we danced along the sidewalks to the completely uninhibited culture that had exploded throughout Notting Hill.

Floats with revellers and partiers pumped music all afternoon.

Floats with revellers and partiers pumped music all afternoon.

The streets were dangerously crowded at some points of the carnival.

The streets were dangerously crowded at some points of the carnival.

In the end we were tipsy, sweaty, exhausted and possibly even a little bit traumatised, but it had been such a crazy experience that I ultimately have to say was a lot of fun. Again, as I had after events like Songkran in Bangkok and the various pride celebrations I’d been in throughout Europe, I found myself reflecting on festival and carnival events back in Australia. I’d come to the conclusion that Australian organisations seem to really love their red tap and restrictions, because I honestly couldn’t see anything like the Notting Hill Carnival ever happening in my hometown without twice the regulations and thrice the police presence. I’ve reason to believe that the English even rival Australians in their boisterousness when it comes to drinking, yet they still manage to participate in a large scale party spanning several suburbs with minimal regulations without anybody dying – at least, that I am aware of. Granted, I did fear for my life for a few seconds, so perhaps the Brits aren’t quite as sensible as the Parisians or Berliners when it comes to crowd antics, but they managed to avoid sparking any major riots. I bid farewell to Sophie and Ellie, making plans to meet up with Ellie very soon, and crawled back home via the Underground, satisfied with another weekend of crazy antics.

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Amsterdamned: Pride in the Canals

The official Amsterdam Pride parade was during the day on Saturday, but the celebrations kicked off the night before. Joris and I got cleaned up after the rugby workshop and then got back on our bikes and headed out to the city centre. We had a quick bite to eat along the way before arriving at what was called the Homomonument – a memorial in the centre of Amsterdam that commemorates the all the men and women who have been subject to persecution because of their homosexuality. The monument consists of three large pink triangles – the symbol Nazi’s gave to their homosexual prisoners – and are laid out in a way so that each triangle is the corner of an even bigger triangle that makes up the main plaza of the memorial. However, that evening it was as far from a solemn memorial – instead, had been utilised as a space of celebration. There was a stage set up nearby, with DJ’s filling the night with electric tunes and heavy beats, and there were party goers and revellers everywhere. I had been to enough European pride festivals by now to know what to expect, and I wasn’t disappointed. The street had been overrun by a party, with drinks being sold from vendors stationed nearby and people dancing away under the open air.

The crowds of party goes at the Homomonument.

The crowds of party goes at the Homomonument.

One of the pink triangles was an elevated platform, so I climbed up onto that with Joris and looked out over the crowds. We were waiting to meet André and his friend, as well as some more of Joris’ friends who were coming out tonight. We weren’t staying at the Homomonument though, and when everyone finally arrived it was back on the bikes and off to Reguliersdwarsstraat, one of the main gay strips in the city. We secured our bikes before descending into the crowds on foot, and in what I had now gathered was the typical fashion of pride in most European cities, most of the bars had overflowed into the streets and the whole thing had just become one huge outdoor party. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure of all the bars that we went into or what any of them were called – I just followed the group of Dutch men I was with and tried my best to keep up with them and their drinking, although I always remained fairly conscious of the fact that I did have to ride my bike home. We were briefly inside a place called Taboo, but we ended up getting our beers in plastic cups and returning to the street, since the insides of most places were just too cramped. Then we crossed the street to a bar named SoHo, where the style and design was obviously influenced by a typical English pubs. It was a huge three storey building, and I lost and found our party several times throughout our time there, as well as sneaking into the bathroom without paying the fee that seemed to be in force that evening.

The pub crawl down Reguliersdwarsstraat continued, and I chatted to a whole different bunch of guys, some of them Joris’ friends, or friends of those friends. Towards the end of the road, we were standing around outside finishing our beers when Joris asked André and I if there was anything else we wanted to see, or anywhere else we wanted to go that night. We weren’t planning on having a big night, since we did have the parade in the morning, but the night was still fairly young.
“I don’t know…” I replied, trying to think if there had been anything specific any of my friends had suggested that I see. “Is there anything else around that you think we should see? Something quintessentially Amsterdam?”
Looking back I can’t remember if it had been Joris’ idea, or whether André had asked him to show us, but the three of us parted with the rest of the group and got back on our bikes and rode a short way to another gay street that was… well, it was definitely a different vibe. Warmoesstraat is adjacent to Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District, and is well-known as the home of the leather fetish scene in the city. Long after my stint of working in a fetish store, I still found such things quite fascinating, so it’s no surprise we found ourselves in a bar called Dirty Dicks, one of the many cruise bars in the area.

It reminded me of some of the smaller bars I visited in Germany, with a main bar upstairs and then the dark rooms downstairs. Except this place somehow felt cleaner – I have no idea how I can use ‘clean’ to describe any of these places but just roll with it – than Tom’s in Berlin, and the dark rooms weren’t even really all that dark. André and I ventured down to have a look, and under the blue fluorescence you really didn’t need to have much of an imagination. Joris had a good chuckle at our expressions when we resurfaced into the main bar. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you why I was so shocked. I’d seen plenty of places that were equally as confronting – if not more – but I guess it was always still a bit of a slap in the face to round a corner and walk straight into such gratuitous orgies. Oh well, maybe one day I’ll finally get used to it… or maybe I won’t. I don’t know, but it was definitely all the sex and the sleaze that I had been expecting from Amsterdam. We had another beer at Dirty Dicks before calling it a night and heading back home. Tomorrow was going to be a long, gay day.

***

When I woke up the next morning the first thing I did was meet Thijs, Joris’ boyfriend, who had just arrived home that morning. After a hearty breakfast cooked up by Joris, the two of them took André and I on our newly acquired bikes to the supermarket on our way to the parade – it was BYO where we were going to be, so we stocked up on our booze. André, having lived in Copenhagen for quite some time, was very used to the intense bike culture, but I was still getting used to the whole thing, almost losing sight of the others a couple of times. But eventually we made it into the centre of the city, where the streets were becoming crowded and swelling with people. The unique thing about pride in Amsterdam is that they really embrace one of their city’s – and indeed most of the country’s – most defining features: the canals. The parade floats literally float down the canals, boats that are decked out with rainbows and glitter and leather and flags and music and everything. The streets around the parade route – it travels across through the city via several of the larger main canals and the river Amstel – were particularly busy, with people staking out and securing their position so they could ensure they had a good view. However, we were going one step better. Joris and Thijs had a friend, Frans, who had a boat – well, more like a detached, floating jetty – at the edge of one of the main canals, and so was hosting a small parade viewing party. We were literally down on the waters edge watching the boats glide past.

The canal awaiting the parade of boats.

The canal awaiting the parade of boats.

Joris and I during the parade.

Joris and I during the parade.

Myself, André's friend, and André.

Myself, André’s friend, and André.

After missing most of the parades in Paris and Madrid, it was fun to actually be present and see the parade, especially from such a great vantage point. It was also a beautiful day – the sun was shining bright and there was barely a cloud in the sky. “Let’s hope this great weather continues,” Joris had said earlier in the morning, peering out the window of his apartment. “It’s rained on the day of the parade for the last few years now.” But today there wasn’t even the slightest threat of rain, and we danced and drank and cheered for the floats in the gorgeous sunshine. Some of the float designs were actually really remarkable. Due to having to pass under numerous bridges on the parade route, many of the boats had to be under a certain height to pass through. However, rather than having a bunch of relatively flat floats, many of them incorporated designs that allowed for things to be lifted and lowered, so that they could shrink down to go under the bridges before emerging on the other side. I guess it was a normal thing for most of the locals, but I was considerably impressed.

Gay drag unicorn - because why not?

Gay drag unicorn – because why not?

I Am Amsterdam

I Am Amsterdam.

Mermaids and mermen.

Mermaids and mermen.

The cheeky Mr B float.

The cheeky Mr B float.

One of the floats that was able to elevate and descend to pass under the bridges.

One of the floats that was able to elevate and descend to pass under the bridges.

It wasn’t too long before we started getting quite intoxicated – the mix of being out in the sun and all the alcohol dehydrates you a little faster than normal, and eventually things started getting a little silly. I don’t know who did it first, but at some point during the afternoon someone jumped into the canal in a playful attempt at splashing one of the floats. Then someone else jumped in. Then someone from a float jumped in. I don’t know if it was peer pressure or the fact that it was actually getting pretty hot out, but the idea of a cool dip sounded mighty refreshing, so it wasn’t long before I had stripped down to my underwear and was jumping in after them. It became something of a playful water fight, pushing people in as soon as they just climbed out, and dragging other people in with them. It was a lot of fun, I must admit, though being drunk as I was it was also thoroughly exhausting. Towards the end of the parade, when the sun had begun to sink lower in the sky, I was sitting on the edge of the jetty next to Thijs.
“I can’t believe we just did that,” he said with a deep, exhausted sigh, referring to diving into the canals and the water fight we’d had with the floats. I just let out a chuckle.
“You can’t believe it? How come?”
“Well…” A slightly uneasy look spread across Thijs’ face. “It’s not… it’s not exactly the cleanest body of water.”
“Oh…” I didn’t like the sound of that.
“Yeah. I mean, they do usually clean it before big events like this, but… They’ve pulled a lot of bikes out of these canals over the years. And far, far too much rubbish. Who knows what else is in there.”
It wasn’t a comforting thought, but I guess at the time I was too full of adrenaline and alcohol to let myself be too bothered by it.

At first it started with spraying the floats with water guns...

At first it started with spraying the floats with water guns…

A photo of us jumping into the canal that made it onto a local news website.

A photo of us jumping into the canal that made it onto a local news website.

A possibly not so refreshing dip in the canals.

A possibly not so refreshing dip in the canals.

When the parade came to an end but the sun was still up, the partying moved to the streets. Someone from somewhere had some kind of speaker system – I had lost my attention to detail at this point, okay? – and a huge bunch of people were all just dancing and raving in the streets. Some of them were my newly made friends from earlier in the day on Frans’ boat, while others were people who I was only meeting for the first time. It was all a little crazy. There was a car that tried to drive through the street we were on. It proceeded to get rocked side to side to the beat of the music on its way through, but the driver didn’t even seem to mind that much. It was just a crazy and fun afternoon where it seemed like every single person in the city was getting into the spirit and celebrating. We stayed there until dusk started to roll around, at which point Joris came and found me to let me know they were heading home. We still had another party to attend later that evening, and after the day we’d had I definitely needed a power nap.

The van that gatecrashed our street party.

The van that gatecrashed our street party.

***

“We’ll just have a quick lie down, to recharge and get some more energy,” Joris had said. Famous last words, if ever I’d heard them. Fast forward, and Joris was knocking on the door of the spare room André and I were sharing. I had laid down on my air mattress for what I thought was going to be a few seconds, but Joris was taking us up more than a few hours later.
“Looks like we were all a little more tired than we thought,” he’d said as we stirred from our slumber. “It’s almost midnight.”
“What?!” We’d had plans to head to the party at 10 o’clock, but that obviously wasn’t happening any more.
“Yeah,” Joris said. “We’ve ordered a couple of pizzas that should be here any minute, so we’ll down them and get going.” No rest for the wicked, I suppose.

Ideally I would have liked to shower before heading out to a big pride party – especially after swimming in the Amsterdam canals – but due to our extended naps we just didn’t have the time. However, I had a feeling that it wouldn’t be too much of an issue at the party we were going to. When I had been e-mailing Joris prior to my arrival in Amsterdam, he’d told André and I that the Lowlanders could get discounted tickets to the Bear Necessity party that was being held over the pride weekend. It’s wasn’t exactly my scene (for anyone not familiar with homosexual jargon, Google “gay bears” at your own risk/discretion – and use Safe Search), but I’m always open to trying new things, and the ticket was a considerably good price, so I agreed to join Joris and Thijs at the party, and so did André. We ate our pizzas and were off on our way again.

I was completely expecting to be the odd one out at a bear party – full of larger, older and hairier men – and I wasn’t wrong. André and I were in the minority of the smooth and hairless, but other than that it wasn’t too different from your standard gay party. The music was a little more electronic and house and a little less pop for my liking, but then it reminded me more of the trance-like beats I’d heard at places like Berghain, and I actually found that that was something I was getting more and more into. Some of the men were dressed up in their best leather outfits, and it was actually kind of interesting to see the kind of stuff that I had sold for so long at my previous job actually being put to use. Despite the kinky outfits some of them donned, most of them were incredibly nice, and I had a great time dancing with Joris and Thijs and the rest of them. One of the highlights was meeting last years Mr Bear Germany – I had no idea who he was, but I figured it would be something cool to tell my former colleagues about, so I stopped and made sure I got a photo. André left relatively early, somewhere between two and three in the morning, but Joris and Thijs and I stayed until the party wrapped up some time after five.

Myself with Mr Bear Germany.

Myself with Mr Bear Germany.

As we stumbled outside, the sun was already on it’s way up. On top of being drunk, I was incredibly tired – at this stage, standing up was proving to be a challenge, let alone keeping my eyes open or riding my bike home. In the end Joris asked one of his friends who lived nearby if he could help us out. He hadn’t ridden a bike, so he took the handlebars of mine while I took the passenger seat – a flat wire grid on the back of the bike, to which one could strap a basket or some other cargo. I sat sidesaddle and wrapped my arms around their friends waist for support, and the four of us on the three bikes set out from the Red Light District and into the quieter streets of Amsterdam. It was so still and peaceful. I don’t remember my bike riders name, but I do remember leaning my head on his back, and just watching the dawn unfold around the beautiful city, so still and undisturbed. It was rather magical, the best antidote to the day and night of crazy partying, and the perfect end to Amsterdam pride.

From Beach to Butch: My First Day in Amsterdam

As much as I had wished Lola’s prediction was true, there eventually came a time, again, when I had to leave Berlin. However, this time the departure would end on a much lighter and livelier note, despite having to get up before 6am. Last time Ralf had seen me off at the U-Bahn station on his way to work, and I’d waved goodbye as I descended down the steps onto the platform. This time, Ralf would be coming with me to Amsterdam. Throughout most of my travels around Europe, I had always been planning to finish up in Amsterdam on the coming weekend because – you guessed it – that’s when they were celebrating pride. I had already planned ahead with my Couchsurfing hosts a couple of months in advance, but as it happened Ralf was also travelling over to the Netherlands to visit a friend, and join in with the pride festivities. While we both had our own plans for while we were in Amsterdam, Ralf had suggested that we catch the train there together, to provide each other with some company on the 8 hour journey. With the exception of Itzel on my way to Prague, most of my train trips had been moments of solitude, so I gratefully accepted the change of pace.

Staring out the window while my coffee goes cold.

Staring out the window while my coffee goes cold.

Ralf having a nap on the train.

Ralf having a nap on the train.

During the journey Ralf told me a little bit about Amsterdam and their pride celebrations. When I was in Groningen, Gemma had also told me a little about what she had heard of Amsterdam pride, so unlike my experiences in Madrid and Paris – which had been completely unexpected – pride in Amsterdam was something that had been highly anticipated for quite some time now. Towards the end of the journey, I saw rows of rainbow flags strung up across the city, waving gently in the wind, and suddenly my heart swelled with excitement. Pride or not, Amsterdam was one of those cities with a worldwide reputation for a lot of different things, and I was excited to get amongst it and experience it all for myself. When we disembarked and stepped out into the bright sunshine – something that was apparently quite uncommon in this city – it was time for Ralf and I to part ways. He was going to meet his friend, and I would be meeting Michael – an Australian friend of mine who was also travelling in Europe – and crashing with him in his hotel for the night. We bid each other a quick farewell, assuming we would probably run into each other at some point in the weekend.

***

Michael had had a big night of partying the previous night, so we ended up just having dinner out and hanging out at the hotel, catching up and relaxing. He was catching a train to Berlin the following day, and I was more than happy to take it easy in anticipation for the coming weekend. As much as I love meeting foreigners and new local people, it’s always nice to sit down and have a chat with a familiar Australian and not having to worry about running to cultural barriers of any kind. It was a fleeting encounter though, and the next morning we parted ways – him to the train station and myself onto the next friend I was catching up with. Asja was was the ex-girlfriend of my best friend Gemma’s older brother Brendon, who I’d met up with in Thailand. The connection really isn’t as complicated as it sounds when you try to say it out loud, and I had met Asja a few years ago when she was living in Australia. Originally from Germany, she was now living and studying in Amsterdam, so at Gemma’s suggestion I had gotten in touch with her and arranged to meet up. After arriving via foot at her small flat – located above the shop she was working in – I was dripping with sweat, so I was delighted to learn that she was planning on taking me to the beach.

“It’s such a beautiful day! You don’t get many sunny days like this in Amsterdam, so you have to make the most of it!” We were going to be joined by a couple of Turkish guys Asja had made friends with earlier in the week, and so I left my luggage in Asja’s room and we set off to the train station. The city limits of Amsterdam itself are so small that the beach Zandvoort aan Zee, Asja had explained, is technically outside of Amsterdamn, but it only took about 20 minutes to get there. However, as Asja had said before, you need to make the most of days like today, and so the train was absolutely packed with beach goers. We squeezed like in like sardines for the relatively short train ride, but it wasn’t that much better when we finally arrived at the beach. The shoreline stretched on in both directions for what seemed like miles, and every inch of it was covered in people. We made our way down to the sand and eventually found a space to claim as our own. We laid out on our towels and began to soak up some sun.

Asja and I enjoying the sunshine.

Asja and I enjoying the sunshine.

The crowded beach at Zandvoord ann Zee.

The crowded beach at Zandvoord aan Zee.

At the Zandvoort station after our afternoon at the beach.

At the Zandvoort station after our afternoon at the beach.

“This sunshine is so amazing! It almost feels like I’m back in Australia,” Asja said with a grin.
“Well, I guess I just brought the weather with me,” I responded. “But at least this sunshine isn’t going to kill you.” I had been using sunscreen here and there, but I was amazed at how impossible it seemed to be to get sunburnt around most of Europe. No wonder so many Europeans came to Australia and got burnt to a crisp – the strength of the UV in our sunlight really just seems to be in a whole new ballpark. A few more of Asja’s Dutch friends joined us for a little while on the beach – I briefly met so many people during such a short period of time that I had no hope of keeping track of all their names – but I chatted to a few of them between dips into the cool water. It was lovely and refreshing, but if someone had told me the first thing I would do on my first full day in Amsterdam was go to the beach, I’m not quite sure I would have believed them. Yet it was a much needed escape from the heat wave that was currently moving across Europe, and it was great seeing Asja and catching up with her. Eventually we packed ourselves up and headed back to Amsterdam – Asja had plans to meet another friend, and it was time for me to go and meet my Couchsurfing hosts.

***

Asja’s place was relatively near to the centre of town, and just a short tram ride later I had arrived at my new hosts place. Asja had been right in saying that Amsterdam was a relatively small city – in comparison to sprawling cities like Sydney, nothing was actually that far from anything else. When I arrived I was greeted by Joris, who loomed over me in height – the Dutch are typically one of the tallest races in the world – and had a short buzzed haircut and a warm, friendly face. His two beautiful Russian Blue cats, named Stoli and Bolli, also made a point of introducing themselves as they came up to inspect the new visitor.
“So my boyfriend Thijs is away on a work trip, but he’ll be back tomorrow morning. We’ve actually got another Couchsurfer staying with us this weekend too, and I’m pretty sure I just accidentally gave him the wrong directions,” Joris said with a sheepish grin. “So we may have to go pick him up from another tram stop.” So I’d barely been in the house 10 minutes before we were off to pick up André, who was originally Portuguese but now lived in Copenhagen. When we arrived back at Joris’ place he offered us a beer each, so we cracked them open and had a brief chat as we got to know each other. But it wasn’t too long before it was time to move again.

“So, I have to go and help run this rugby workshop.” Joris was a member of the Amsterdam Lowlanders, the city’s gay rugby team. As part of the pride celebrations, the team was organising a workshop for anyone who was interested in getting involved, or even just learning a thing or two about the game. André was meeting up with another friend of his that evening, but I had no other plans, so despite having somewhat of an intense fear of team sports, I decided to go along with Joris and check it out. But instead of driving, we would be getting into the local culture and riding our bikes there. Joris was planning on borrowing a couple of bikes from a friend for André and I for the weekend, but for now I would be borrowing Thijs’ bike. I found it remarkable just how popular cycling was in the city, and in the Netherlands in general.
“Why, don’t people ride bikes in Sydney?” Joris had asked me when I’d seemed rather incredulous.
“Well, they do… But you have to be, like, really serious about it. It’s mainly an exercise thing. You need to be motivated, since most drivers just hate cyclists.”
I think that surprised Joris a little. “It’s nothing like that here. Everyone rides bikes. It’s just an easy way to get from Point A to Point B. Nothing too extreme about it.” Indeed, it would appear that bikes too precedence over cars in most of the city. Amsterdam was similar to Copenhagen in that it seemed as though bikes really did have right of way in almost any circumstance. They had their own lanes and their own traffic lights, and if there wasn’t a cyclist whizzing by you at any given moment, you could be sure there would be at least half a dozen locked up no more than a few metres away from wherever you were standing. I think I remember Gemma telling me that there were actually more bikes than people in the Netherlands, a statistic that was extremely believable when seeing cities like Amsterdam.

Still, the cycling culture was a little intense to the point of being terrifying, as I’m not the strongest cycler. I did my best to stay as close behind Joris as possible so that I didn’t get cut off or intercepted, and have to manage the intersections on my own. It wasn’t too long before we arrived at the park, where a fairly large crowd had assembled for the rugby workshop. I was an obvious beginner, but after getting over the initial nerves I found that for the most part I could adequately pass and catch the ball – well, maybe not according to the more experienced players, but I don’t think they minded too much since it was a workshop for beginners. After the passing practice came something even more terrifying – learning how to tackle. Team sports? I can deal with that. But contact sports? Terrified. Absolutely terrified. I’d done a couple of crazy things that should probably have killed me over the last few months, but this one was still by far the scariest for me.

Or at least, it was at first. But as the experienced players explained it to us, it became a lot more simple to understand. In fact, the whole logical behind tackling, and being tackled, was to not be afraid of falling. If you’re going down, be aware of how you’re falling and just go down. It’s when you try to resist it or when you’re afraid of falling that your body reacts in a host of weird and potentially painful ways when you inevitably do eat the dirt. I have to admit that by the end of it I was actually quite enjoying myself, getting down and dirty with a bunch of sweaty guys – hey, maybe Amsterdam wasn’t quite so different to the initial expectations? At the very least, I was able to prove to myself that I wasn’t completely devoid of any masculinity in a traditional sense, or that I wasn’t a complete gay stereotype. I was also once again I was reminded, like I had been with Robin in Zürich, that I really needed to get some more hobbies when I got home. After all, I did know I few team members of the Sydney Convicts… well, we’ll see how I go.

The Lowlanders showing us some more technical rugby skills at the end of the workshop.

The Lowlanders showing us some more technical rugby skills at the end of the workshop.

The scrum was one rugby technique that I decided not to take part in.

The scrum was one rugby technique that I decided not to take part in.

After the rugby workshop, we got back on our bikes and headed back home to get cleaned up. It was the Friday night of Amsterdam Pride weekend, and the adrenaline I’d been pumping during all that rugby had made me more keen than ever to get out and experience the city’s nightlife.

Cabin Fever

When my friend Iain had suggested the Trans-Siberian railway to me, it had sounded like a pretty cool idea, although in retrospect I think I vastly underestimated the journey. I’d sent out a Facebook post last year when I was in stages of planning my trip, asking for the opinions of my well-travelled friends on things like round the world plane tickets, overland travelling, what was the best, what was most cost effective, and other details like that. Iain is a Scottish friend of mine who now lives in Australia, and he travelled the Trans-Siberian railway from Russia to China and continued his travels further south from there – essentially the reverse of what I would be doing. He recommended the tour he had gone with, a company called Vodkatrain, and the enthusiasm with which he talked about it almost sold it to me straight away. But I did my own investigation, and it turned out that this train route had been exactly the answer to the questions I had been asking.

I was a little taken aback by some of the reactions I got when I told my friends of my plans.
“The Trans-Siberian Railway?” my good friend Blythe had exclaimed. “Wow! Robert, that’s like an ultimate bucket list journey for some people!” Maybe I’d sounded a little nonchalant, I don’t know, but it was almost as if she didn’t believe me.
“Umm… Okay? Is that a bad thing for me?”
“What? No, it’s incredible! I know so many people who would be so jealous of you! You’re going to have such an amazing time, it’s supposed to be an awesome experience.”
I think that was the first time that I realised this journey was going to be quite unlike any kind of holiday I’d had before.

DAY 1

When we arrived back at Irkutsk train station, Kostya handed out the tickets and made sure we all got onto the train without any problems. He wished us luck and bid us farewell, and it all felt very similar to most of our other train journeys. There were a few major differences though. Firstly, the quality of the cabins. There wasn’t anything exactly wrong with them – they were just a bit older, a little rickety. Jen, Matt and Tracy had found rubbish in our cabin – we had to wonder if this train had even been cleaned at all before we got on.The previous trains we’d been on had had carpeted floors and hallways, but this train had a dull linoleum surface that made the soles of your feet a gross black colour if you forgot to wear shoes when you walked around. The trains were adequate, and I guess we’d just had some nicer trains on our previous trips so we had harboured some expectations. “I just think its hilarious,” Tracy had said with a giggle, “that we’ve had the more cushy trains for the short trips and now it’s back to basics for the long haul! I love it, bring it on!” Tracy had worked as a tour guide on bus trips through both South America and the Middle East – no doubt she’d seen far worse living conditions, and part of me suspected that ‘roughing it’ was simply more her style.

But there was another thing that none of us had really planned on. On the previous trains, we’d all been in cabins together, save the one extra person who was on their own – which so far had been myself from Beijing and Dan from Ulaanbaatar. So we were all very confused to find that all that had changed. We had two cabins all together – I was with the same three as last time, and Tim, Don, Marti and Rach were in another. But Claire and Alyson were in a room with two other Russian passengers, as were Kaylah and Jenna, and poor Dan was stuck in a cabin on his own again. It was a puzzling set up, considering pairs that had booked together – like Alyson and Kaylah, and Dan and Claire – weren’t supposed to be split up when it came to sleeping arrangements. In any other scenario, we would have spoken to the carriage attendants and asked them what had happened. As it happens, none of us could speak Russian, so in the end we all just ended up shrugging our shoulders and concluding that the one thing we can learn from the past 10 minutes was that the Russian train system is anything but consistent.

***

After we’d gotten over the slight drama, I was sitting on my bed eating some bread and cheese with salami, carefully managing my portions so as not to eat it all in one go and be left hungry come day four of this journey. As I nibbled away, Tim stuck his head into our cabin.
“Ah, on the vodka already then?” Matt asked, noticing the cup in Tim’s hand.
“Well, they don’t call it the Vodkatrain for nothing!” he laughed. “But yeah, I know it’s still early, but we’re getting the party started in our cabin if anyone wants to join.”
I never really need an excuse to drink, but having one always helps. I grabbed my vodka, Coke, and made my way to the neighbouring cabin. The vodka was flowing freely, and we managed to cram eight people into the bottom bunk seats without too much discomfort. When there are that many people in a confided space drinking alcohol, its inevitable that the drinking games are going to start.
“We’re not playing ‘Never Have I Ever’, not when we have couples present,” Tim said adamantly. “I’ve seen too many awkward fights start over that game.” Both Dan and Claire and Rach and Marti were part of the vodka party. Marti was trying to get us to play card games, but in the end I joined voices with Alyson to champion for a game of ‘Two Truths, One Lie’. Technically not a drinking game, but always better when drinking is involved, I figured it was a happy medium – people can still make those drunken confessions with their truths, instead of drinking to their own statements in Never Have I Ever. and people can still withhold all the secrets they want.

I’m not going to explain drinking game rules, but Two Truths, One Lie was a fun way to learn a few quirky things about my fellow travellers – Alyson played the violin for 14 years, Marti was a maths champion in the 9th grade and has a near photographic memory, and Dan once poured frozen peas down a toilet at a party at Johnny Wilkinson’s house. There was plenty more, and I probably did some lame confession about coming out when I was only 15 – my lack of dinner and the amount of vodka I ended up consuming meant that a lot of the finer details were lost on me. Later reports would inform me that I shakily stood up, announced to the cabin through slurred speech “I really need to go to bed now”, and sauntered my way into the hallway and back into my room. I woke up at some point in the night, face up and back arched over a mound in the middle of my bed that turned out to be both my pillow and my blanket, and only half aware of where I actually was. I crawled out of the uncomfortable position and very quickly slipped back into my drunken slumber.

Vodka Party!

Vodka Party!

DAY 2

The following day was a complete write-off. Luckily, we didn’t exactly have anywhere to be. It wasn’t until midday that I was able to sit up in my bed and eat a few flakes of cereal, some super sweet version of honey coated corn flakes I’d picked up in Irkutsk. It was all I could really stomach, and though I felt absolutely awful, I found a silver lining in the fact that my food might last a little longer now. Kaylah eventually visited me on my top bunk, as I was strumming away clumsily on my ukulele.
“How’re you feeling?” she said with a knowing smile.
“Ugh,” was all I could manage at first, dropping the ukulele on my chest to rub the palms of my hands into my tired eyes. I then picked up the bottle of vodka – which for some reason I had been cradling in my sleep – to show that it only had about a quarter of the bottle remaining. “I shouldn’t drink vodka!”
“Aww, you poor thing,” she said as she rested a hand on my shin, sounding very genuine despite there being a giggle in her voice.
“But what happened to you last night?” I said, only now really realising that Kaylah had been absent from the vodka party.
“I don’t know!” she said. “I think I just started reading my book and… I fell asleep? I don’t know I just woke up and it was morning!” She just laughed it off, and I found myself rolling my eyes and laughing along with her infectious mirth.

I didn’t change out of my pajamas at all that day. Every time I even thought about it, part of my brain kicked in saying, Why? Who are you trying to impress? It was a fair point. Most of us had all seen each other at our various high and low points by now, and as long as I didn’t begin to smell incredibly offensive, I was more than happy to lounge around in my bed, read my book and watch the Siberian scenery pass us by. I was on he top bunk this time, which meant I wasn’t in anyone’s way if I didn’t get out of bed. On one of my toilet breaks I stuck my head in to say hello to Tim, Rach and Marti.
“Ah, he’s alive!” Marti had exclaimed as I appeared at the door. “You were so funny last night Rob, you nearly fell asleep in the corner there.” They recounted my final moments of the previous evening to me, and I asserted that it sounded exactly like something I would do, before dragging myself back up into my bunk and attempted to sleep off what was one of the worst hangovers I’d had in a while. I couldn’t seem to stick with one activity for more than half an hour, whether it was reading, sleeping, plucking at the ukulele or gazing out the window. That much restlessness after the first full day definitely couldn’t be a good sign, and I feared I might be climbing the walls sooner than I’d anticipated.

DAY 3

I woke up on my second morning on the train feeling gross again, but this time it wasn’t a hangover. Anyone who knows me or is familiar with my hygiene routine knows that I’m pretty regular when it comes to showering, usually twice a day, and I always use a fresh pair of underwear. But this wasn’t regular life – this was life on the Trans-Siberian, and showers were a luxury we didn’t have. I’d gotten lazy yesterday, and allowed myself to fester in my filth, but it couldn’t go on like that any longer. When you can’t stand your own BO, things are a stones throw away from getting very ugly, plus I hadn’t even brushed my teeth in at least 24 hours. Long story short: I was a hot mess.

So I had my first of what had been coined ‘Baby Wipe Showers’. They’re pretty self-explanatory – in the absence of a running water shower, you simply mop yourself down with baby wipes, or just a wet corner of your towel with some soap, and trick yourself into feeling just a little bit fresher. I also spritzed a little bit of cologne on my faux-fresh body, to keep the stale, unwashed scent at bay for a little longer. It was a far cry from an actual shower, but when you’re feeling the way I did, a slap of cold water to the face and even the slightest bit of a scrub down made me feel like a new man. About five minutes later, I ran into Marti out in the hallway.
“Hey Rob, were you just in the bathroom?”
I was struck with a moment of intense panic – had I done something wrong, broken the toilet, perhaps? I hadn’t even used the toilet, but I’ve had worse luck before, so who knew? A few of our group conversations on the trains had been about the lack of etiquette in some people when it comes to shared bathrooms. I’d hate to become one of the case studies.
“Ah, yeah I had a baby wipe shower just before,” I said tentatively.
“It just smells so nice in there!” she said with a laugh, and I relaxed a little. “I was expecting it to smell of like, you know, piss or whatever. But I stepped in and was like, ‘Ah, smells really nice in here!’ So thank you!”
“Ah.. Well you’re welcome, I guess?” I said as I laughed along with her. And to think, I nearly didn’t bring my two favourite colognes – out of a collection of seven – because they didn’t seem ‘essential’ enough.

A dull, dreary Siberian morning.

A dull, dreary Siberian morning.

View of the train from the platform at one of our stops.

View of the train from the platform at one of our stops.

Train as seen from a platform bridge.

Train as seen from a platform bridge.

***

By now, the days had really started to drag on. We watched a movie called TransSiberian that Marti had on her hard drive. It was pretty cool to see the story begin in Beijing, recognising the very same train station hall that we’d sat in about a week ago, and we empathised with the main characters as the train attendants yelled at them in Russian. We had actually been much luckier on this train in that regard – the main train attendant was a much younger woman than the previous train, and while not exactly polite, such was much more mild mannered than the ranting woman on the train from Ulaanbaatar.

But the movie was a thriller about drug smuggling where everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and thankfully the rest of it was not quite so relatable. It killed some time though, and time was the one thing we had in complete excess. The entire Trans-Siberian route crosses 7 different time zones, with most of them occurring on this particular trip. Matt and Jen were very clued in to the changes, thanks to their Lonely Planet guide, and would give us the regular updates.
“So at about 12 o’clock it becomes 11 o’clock again”, said Matt as he studied one of the pages, while Jen consulted the timetable to check the next station we’d be passing through.
“Seriously? God, it’s like my lunch is trying to run away from me!”

While the socially dictated times for our meals kept slipping away from us, the food was well within reach, and many of us adopted a ‘Second Breakfast’ attitude. While I had previously feared for my food supplies, I managed to ration it all rather well, and soon enough these multiple meals became our own form of telling the time, creating a new meals through which to structure our day.
“They say it’s 2am somewhere, right? Well I say it’s noon somewhere in the world, so it’s time for lunch!” Tim had asserted.
“Yeah,” Rach had agreed. “We can have our Irkutsk lunch, and then our Moscow lunch later.”
“Mmm yeah, I could smash a second lunch!” added Marti, and we all laughed at what had become her own little catchphrase.
“It’s 3pm in Melbourne – this might as well just be my afternoon snack!” laughed Tim, and the banter continued as we all obsessed over our food. Soon we were laughing at pretty much anything.

Whenever Kaylah dropped by we would all end up in stitches – I can’t really put my finger on it, but her laugh was just so contagious that I can’t keep a straight face when she’s in a good mood. In the evening we tried to have another vodka party. I say tried because firstly, we didn’t have that much vodka left, and secondly, none of us seemed to really be in the mood – I personally just wanted to discard the bottle. However, alcohol goes straight to Kaylah’s head, and she was laughing like a maniac after only one drink. I, on the other hand, was definitely not in the mood for vodka, and only managed about one small drink before volunteering it up to the rest of the cabin. They were more than happy to help me finish it.
“Oh dear,” Tim had said with a sigh, after we’d settled down from a bout of hysterical laughter about something I honestly don’t even remember. “I think cabin fever has well and truly sunk in.”

DAY 4

On our final full day on the train, I woke up with the intention of changing out of my dirty clothes and freshening up like I had the day before – I had been wearing the same pair of underwear since the morning we’d left Lake Baikal, and was feeling pretty rank in general. Though the devil on my shoulder of personal hygiene argued that I only had to stick it out for one more day, and then I could actually have a shower before putting on clean underwear. I have this weird thing about putting clean clothes on a dirty body – I just hate doing it – so in the end I decided to fester in my well-worn clothes for another 24 hours and hold out until Moscow. For anyone who knew me before this train trip – I’m definitely a changed man.

***

The last day was mostly spent doing the same activities – watching episodes of TV shows on laptops, making tea, coffee and two minute noodles, chatting with each other, staring out the window and – something that had become a personal favourite – playing cards. Tim and Alyson taught us how to play a game called ‘Asshole’, where the objective is to get rid of all your cards lest you become the Asshole in the next round, suffering a relative disadvantage. It’s a fun game, but in the heat of cabin fever, when we’ve all been up in each others personal space for the last few days, our investment into the game was close to maniacal.

Though it was over one of these card games that the craziest and most brilliant idea of all was formed.
“You know what I really want?” said Marti as we took turns throwing our cards into the pile in the middle of the table. “I could totally smash a chicken right now. A big juicy chicken with some potatoes! Mmm, that would be the best!”
Having lived predominantly of bread, cheese, cold meat and two minutes noodles, you could almost hear the salivation from everyone in the cabin as soon at Marti mentioned it.
“That would be so amazing!” Tim exclaimed.
“When’s our next longer stop?” asked Rach. The train made short stops at some of the local stations along the way – sometimes they were five minutes, other times they were as long as 45 minutes.”
“There’s a 30 minute stop in about an hour,” Marti said as she checked the schedule, and looked up to grin at us. “What do you think guys – wanna see if we can get some chicken?!”
There were various rounds of agreement from Tim, Rach, Kaylah – I had rationed enough of my food to last me, but the thought of a hot roast chicken was just absolutely mouth watering, so I tagged along in the quest for poultry.

As we rolled into the stop though, our hopes sunk. Some of the stations had been quite big, with people selling all kinds of food on the platforms. However, this station was a tiny town, with a platform that wasn’t even long enough for the train. Marti and Kaylah had to jump down from the train and walk along the unsealed road to get back to the platform, but they did it in their desperate attempt to find chicken. Rach, Tim and I stayed back in the train to hold the fort, but we all agreed that we didn’t like their chances, and so had already really accepted the fact it would be one final night of noodles and bread.

So you can imagine our surprise when the girls burst back into the cabin with two roast chickens.
“Chicken run was a success!” Marti shouted gleefully as she put the birds down on the table in the middle of the cabin. Claire and Dan had also bought a third one, and Kaylah had picked up some instant mash potato that only required the hot water, and so together we all had a final train meal together, a feast for our last night on the Trans-Siberian.
“Smash that chicken!” Marti said with a laugh, and we all literally pulled the carcasses apart, ripped the meat off and sucking the bones clean, leaving no edible scrap to go to waste. We must have looked like starved savages, but the freshly cooked meat was such a welcome change that I don’t think any of us cared in the slightest.

Operation Chicken Run: Success

Operation Chicken Run: Success

Kaylah, Tim and myself gorging on the hot chicken.

Kaylah, Tim and myself gorging on the hot chicken.

The aftermath.

The aftermath.

When the feast was over and we’d eaten our fill, we all started to prepare for bed. We were due to arrive in Moscow at 4am, and most of us wanted to get some semblance of a decent sleep. As I readied myself for bed, I had a brief chat with Jen:
“I can’t believe it’s almost over – it felt like this train ride was never going to end,” I said with an exhausted laugh as I fell back onto my pillow.
“It’s been rather interesting though. I mean I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s not the kind of thing I’d ever do again. Do you know what I mean?”
“Absolutely. I guess there’s a reason why it’s described as a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience, right?”
“Exactly!” she said with a smile. “Although it would be pretty to see the scenery of Siberia in the winter… but no. I think it’s definitely more than a journey. It’s a challenge, really, isn’t it?”
I didn’t have to consider that question long. “Definitely. Well, I know I found it a little challenging at times. But hey, we did it! We travelled the Trans-Siberian railway!”

***

Despite going to bed relatively early, I didn’t get a lot of sleep that last night. I don’t know if it was the train, the tracks, or some other factor, but it was one of the roughest and bumpiest sections of any of the train journeys we’d been on so far. Loud and rickety creaks continued through the whole night, and several times I felt as though I was about to be thrown out of my bed. Another downfall about these cabins was the the windows didn’t open, and so four sleeping bodies in that tiny space had turned it into somewhat of a mild oven.

Yet I must have slept for a little bit, because I was woken up as we were approaching Moscow station, at some ungodly hour that didn’t agree with any of the multiple body clocks I had been running on for the past few days. When we arrived, we jumped off the train and were greeted by a small woman, who informed us that she wasn’t our guide, but another Vodkatrain employee who would take us to our hostel. “We should also decide on a time to meet you guide”, she had said to the group. “But it’s still quite early, and I’m guessing that most of you would like to have a shower, yes?”

I don’t think I have to tell you what our unanimous group response was.

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.