Monuments and Memorials: a tour of the US Capital

While Washington, DC does have a number of great museums, the city’s major attractions are still, without a doubt, the monuments and memorials. They’re all conveniently located in the same general vicinity, so on a bright and sunny Saturday morning Robert and I headed off to do a tour of the monuments. Funnily enough, our first stop was not technically a monument, although it was arguably just as, or even more, iconic than the host of monuments stretched out on the neighbouring greens – the White House.

Front view of the White House.

Front view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

Statue of Comte de Rochambeau of France, one of the sculptures in Lafayette Square, the park that lies directly north of the White House.

Statue of Comte de Rochambeau of France, one of the sculptures in Lafayette Square, the park that lies directly north of the White House.

We joined the scores of people who were crowding around the gates, trying to get the best possible pictures they could. Of course, the White House does offer guided tours, but you need to book them well in advance due to the limited places, and unfortunately my ‘planning-lite’ style of travelling hadn’t allowed for that. Security around the whole property was high, as to be expected. As well as the tall wrought-iron fences there were security personnel guarding every single exit and entrance to the premises. The tourist pictures look decent enough when you can squeeze your camera through the bars in the fence to get an unobstructed view, but sadly there’s no way there’s no other way to get a photo with the White House without looking like the cheap tourist on the outside who didn’t want to pay for the official tour. I like to think that’s part of my charm, though.

The White House - on the outside looking in.

The White House – on the outside looking in.

After the White House we wandered down through the green and onto the World War II Memorial, a tribute to all the American soldiers who fought in the war. The design of the memorial is actually quite well thought out to represent a number of finer details, and Robert explained it all to me as we walked around the site. There are two arches on either side of the memorial – they represent the two victories in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Flanking the two arches are 56 granite pillars, which represent the US states and territories and the District of Columbia. The water feature in the centre is known as the Rainbow Pool, but the main wall of the memorial is what I found the most chilling. The Freedom Wall commemorates the lives of every solider who was killed during the war, and those who have since remained missing.

The fountain creates a serene and peaceful mood in the memorial.

The fountains in the Rainbow Pool creates a serene and peaceful mood in the memorial.

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The Price of Freedom.

The Price of Freedom.

Every single gold star on The Freedom Wall represents 100 men, and there are over 4000 stars on the wall. The figure in itself is a sad reminder of the reality of war, but to gaze upon The Freedom Wall and have that visual representation before your eyes was absolutely heartbreaking. To think that each star was a hundred men, and to see how long the wall stretched on for… I couldn’t even capture the whole thing in a single photograph. It is definitely a chilling reminder of just how high the so called price of freedom really is.

The never ending sea of stars that represent the dead and missing on The Wall of Freedom.

The never ending sea of stars that represent the dead and missing from WWII on The Wall of Freedom.

The WWII memorial it situated in the middle of perhaps two of the most iconic features of this area of DC – the long stretch of water known at the Reflecting Pool and the huge obelisk that is the Washington Monument. At this distance from the Washington Monument you could see that it was actually surrounded by scaffolding – Robert told me that they were just doing routine repairs and maintenance to the monument. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – from The Hermitage to the Vatican to the Roman Forum and even my view of the Brandenburg Gate, so many famous sights that I had set out to see on my journey had been obstructed in the name of reconstruction. The usually gleaming white pillar appeared a sinister shade of dark grey, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it, so I just smiled for the camera and told myself that a picture of the monument looking like that is probably rarer than it’s original state anyway.

Washington Monument as seen from the Rainbow Pool in the WWII Memorial.

Washington Monument as seen from the Rainbow Pool in the WWII Memorial.

Instead of heading straight down the Reflecting Pool to the memorial at the other end, Robert took us on a detour through the Constitution Gardens, an area that was originally submerged in the Potomac River and was dredged up at the beginning of the 20th Century. We walked along the edge of the Constitution Gardens Pond until we came to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial wall is beautifully designed, with the two long stone walls sinking into the earth, gradually getting taller as they go deeper. Along the wall are the names of all the soldiers who were killed or missing during the war, and the reflective properties of the stone means that viewers can clearly see themselves among the names, an intended design feature that aims to symbolically combine the past and the present. There are small marks next to some of the names that indicate whether a person a was missing or how and when they died, and the wall is actually updated whenever new information is received about any of the fallen veterans. While listening to one of the volunteers explain more about the wall, we learnt that it was also intended to represent a kind of timeline of the war – to the best accuracy their records allow, the names are in chronological order of their deaths and disappearances, with the height of the war and the height of the loss of human life corresponding with the tallest part of the wall. It gave me shivers as I was reminded about my visit to the war museum in Saigon, where I was confronted with images of the war that were not as pleasant to behold as this memorial. The two arms of the wall are also carefully placed – one points in the direction Robert and I had just cam from, towards the Washington Monument, and the other one points in the direction of what our next destination would be – The Lincoln Memorial. There was so much care and planning behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that despite it being another reminder of the tragic loss of life that war brings, it really was an architectural work of art, and still beautiful to gaze upon.

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Onwards we pressed towards the Lincoln Memorial, a statue I knew well from a multitude of pop culture references throughout my life. The statue in memory of the 16th President of the United States sat at the other end of the Reflecting Pool, and the top of its steps offered some great photographic vantage points.

Statue of President Lincoln.

Statue of President Lincoln.

It wasn't often I had company when doing this kind of sightseeing, so I took the opportunity of Robert's presence to get myself in a bunch of photos that weren't selfies.

It wasn’t often I had company when doing this kind of sightseeing, so I took the opportunity of Robert’s presence to get myself in a bunch of photos that weren’t selfies.

The view of the Lincoln Memorial from outside at the bottom...

The view of the Lincoln Memorial from outside at the bottom…

... and the view of the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument from the top.

… and the view of the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument from the top.

From the Lincoln Memorial we headed south towards the Korean War Memorial. If the other war memorials had given me shivers, then this one definitely gave me goosebumps. While the other memorials were a dedication to the soldiers who had fought and served, with walls that literally listed the extensive loss of life, the Korean War Memorial was an homage to the similar veterans of a different war, but it was more of a graphic depiction than a written or symbolic dedication.

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

From there we left the war memorials behind to visit the remaining memorials on the walk Robert had planned out, all of which were dedicated to important individuals in America’s history. First up was the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the newest of all the memorials, created in 2011, near the Lincoln Memorial where the famous human rights activist delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. The memorial is made up of three main pieces, and together they depict one of the inspiring quotes from his address in 1963. Two pieces stand with an empty slot in the middle – representing the “mountain of despair – while Martin Luther King Jr. himself is etched into the third piece that represents the “stone of hope” which is carved out of the mountain. It’s a beautiful memorial, with simple but effective symbolism.

The memorial was created as a visual representation of some of his most empowering words.

The memorial was created as a visual representation of some of his most empowering words.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired the design of his own memorial.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired the design of his own memorial.

We moved on to more presidential memorials, starting with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which was actually a peaceful little trail that was set in a quiet and shady grove. During the walk through the memorial, Robert taught me a lot about the former president that I knew surprisingly little about. Roosevelt had been paralysed from the waist down after contracting polio in 1921, and while he had refused to ever be seen in public with it, he used a wheelchair for much of his private life. With this in mind, the memorial is specifically designed to be easily accessible to those with a disability. He was also the president that led the country through the Great Depression and WWII, and the memorial serves as a kind of timeline of the tumultuous events of his presidency. There were various visual representations, but the thing I found most inspiring about the memorial were the quotations from various speeches he delivered.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”

"I hate war."

“I hate war.”

"... and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war."

“… and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war.”

"The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man..."

“The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man…”

"Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear."

“Freedom of speech.
Freedom of worship.
Freedom from want.
Freedom from fear.”

The fact the Roosevelt also led the people through the Great Depression is acknowledged by statues that show the poor lining up for food. As Robert and I wandered through the memorial, we saw some tourists taking photos of the line of poor people, except they were jumping in the photograph to be a part of the line.
“Isn’t that kind of disrespectful?” I asked Robert quietly as they finally walked away.
“It’s incredibly disrespectful,” he said flatly. “They’re making a joke out of a period of historic poverty. Nobody should be wanting to join that line.” We stood there for a sombre moment of silence, before continuing on our way out of the memorial.

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

As we crossed of the Inlet Bridge, which bridges the gap that lets the Potomac River flow into the Tidal Basin, we approached the final memorial on our tour – the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. When we got to the base of the steps, Robert sat down to catch his breath and sent me off ahead.
“I’m too old to be bothered climbing all those steps, and I’ve seen the inside more than enough times. You go ahead, I’ll wait here.” I had to cut him some slack – he was more than double my age – so I left him there to climb the steps to the top of the memorial that was designed in the style of a Classical Roman rotunda. The inner chamber held a bronze statue of Jefferson, and I took my time walking around the room and reading all the inscriptions along the walls, presumably quotations from some of his speeches and addresses. I surprisingly found myself recognising some of them – words and phrases that somehow rang a bell, although I couldn’t for the life of me tell you where I knew them from.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

When I was finished musing over the words of the former US president, I returned down to where I had left Robert, and we made our way over the National Mall for some lunch, feeling throughly exhausted and completely famished from our long walk through the September sunshine.

***

On our way home from the memorials, Robert took us on another detour to show me a few more sights of DC. He took me down to what was known as the waterfront – the area along the Potomac River – and pointed across to the towers that signified the state of Virginia. Robert explained that there are laws that restrict the height of buildings in Washington, DC. The height of most residential buildings is limited to 110 feet, or 34 metres, and buildings on some commercial and business streets are allowed up to 160 feet, or 49 metres, with variations in areas around the White House and Congress buildings. I suppose it could have something to do with security – something that is in the back of every Americans mind since September 11, 2001 – except for the fact that the first version of the law was introduced in 1899. I guess it must have something to do with keeping the important buildings still looking important, and not letting them be overshadowed by skyscrapers.

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

There are also canals that run through some of the streets of DC, parallel with the river, and Robert and I walked along a few of those until we got to one specific sight he had been keen to show me.
“This is the famous staircase from The Exorcist,” he said as we finally rounded a corner and approached it. If I’m perfectly honest, I didn’t remember exactly what the staircase looked like – to be fair, it was nighttime in the movie – but I remembered enough to appreciate it. I had probably been a little too young to be watching it when I had actually seen The Exorcist, because I remember being thoroughly spooked, even for a film as old as it was when I saw it.

The canals in DC.

The canals in DC.

The Exorcist staircase.

The Exorcist staircase.

Robert and I climbed the staircase – I took it slowly, step by step, taking my time to soak it all in and appreciate it – before continuing on. We passed through the prestigious Georgetown University on our way home to appreciate some of the architecture, although by this point of the afternoon our feet were well and truly aching, so we called it a day after that and made our way home. But I was so glad that Robert had taken the time to show me around – he knew the best route to take to see as many monuments as efficiently as possible, and he’d also been able to show me a couple of cool things that I otherwise never would have known about. He was also a really nice guy, who had done an extensive amount of travelling in his lifetime, so we were always talking about our trips and exchanging stories. He was old enough to be my father – which is sometimes a throwaway term, but he was literally only a few years younger than my dad – so he might not have been the kind of person I would have ever got in touch with or got to know if it hadn’t been for Couchsurfing. But I’m glad I had though – fun, friendly and incredibly knowledge, he had been a perfect guide and host for my weekend in Washington, DC.

Buildings at Georgetown University.

Buildings at Georgetown University.

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A Nomads Life For Me

Luckily we were only staying in Ulaanbaatar for one night, because there didn’t appear to be a great deal of tourist attractions left to see in the city. The rest of our time in Mongolia would be spent at a ger camp about two hours away, far off in the Mongolian wilderness. A ger is a sort of semi-permanent tent that the nomadic people of Mongolia live in – while Ulaanbaatar does have a population of about 3 million, there is a remarkable amount of people who still live the nomadic life out in the wilderness and the Mongolian national parks, moving from place to place with the seasons and taking their home with them, as well as their herds of livestock.

***

We had one stop in the morning on our way to the ger camp. The Gandantegchenling Monastery was a beautiful structure, and Oko explained that Buddhism is one of the major religions of Mongolia. It’s quite interesting how the landlocked country has so many different cultural influences from the surrounding nations, yet it truly becomes a melting pot that breaks all of them down and recombines everything into their own culture that is quite unique. We walked through the temple, silently moving around the people who had come to light candles and incense and to pray, before stopping at the monastery to watch the monks begin their morning rituals and listen to their chanting. I hate to admit it, but ever since my bizarre incident with the shady Buddhist monk in Lop Buri, I’ve been unable to look at any monk the same way again, and even just seeing one creates a rising anxiety within me. It really is such a shame, because I used to hold such a fascination for ideals and spirituality behind the religion, and now those beliefs have been well and truly tainted. I listened to the chanting for only a few moments before stepping out of the low-hanging canopy of incense and into the fresh morning air.

The main building of the monastery complex.

The main building of the monastery complex.

Outside, in front of the main temple, there was a big pair of golden feet. Oko explained to us that the Mongols were attempting to build the worlds largest human structure, a Buddha even bigger than the Statue of Liberty. However, all of the money for the project comes from donations, so there is no scheduled finish date because no one really knows when they will be able to finish it. Oko had also mentioned yesterday that the weather in Mongolia only allows for construction to be done for two or three months every year, which is why there were so many construction sites and unfinished buildings in Ulaanbaatar, adding to the ugly, incomplete cityscape.

Golden feet - all there is of the statue so far.

Golden feet – all there is of the statue so far.

However, the most interesting, or at least entertaining, part of the monastery visit was the swarm of pigeons outside. As we first approached the monastery, we heard the low cooing noise steadily growing louder, and we soon found ourselves in front of a formidable sea of feathers. There were thousands of pigeons, and their call almost seemed to have an eerie echo as it rippled through the flock of birds in the courtyard. Some people were feeding them with seed they had bought from a little old lady wandering through the birds, while other children ran through the crowds to scatter the pigeons and sent them flying. They always came back though. Someone asked Oko about their significance. “The pigeons? No… They just live here, I don’t know why. But they are not special, not at all.”

The mass of pigeons outside the monastery.

The mass of pigeons outside the monastery.

***

After the monastery it was onto the ger camp. The place we were staying at was in a region called Terelj National Park. It was more of a permanent set up that was obviously designed for tourists, but they were the same style of ger that the real nomads live in. Each circular tent was several metres wide in diameter, and had a wood-fire stove set up in the middle, which were traditionally used for cooking all the meals, but would serve only as a heater for us during our stay. I was sharing my ger with Tim and Don, the other Australian guy on our tour, and after we unloaded our bus and settled into the gers, we went for a short drive to a small landmark known as Turtle Rock.

Some camels we passed on the way to the ger camp.

Some camels we passed on the way to the ger camp.

Turtle Rock.

Turtle Rock.

We climbed to the top of the rock to appreciate the view. The Mongolian countryside really is beautiful. I spent a lot of time with my family in the Snowy Mountains as a child, and it was a familiar feeling of watching the virtually untouched landscape stretch out for what seemed like forever. Such sights always remind me of my fathers words about cities being similar from country to country, and I was even more pleased that we’d escaped Ulaanbaatar to explore the rest of Mongolia. After Turtle Rock, we visited the ger of a real nomadic Mongol, and got to see what the inside of a truly inhabited ger looked like. The walls were lined with rugs to retain the warmth and heat, there was a TV and a fridge and a whole kitchen set up, and it felt like an actual home compared to our gers, which were essentially the hotel versions of the traditional Mongol dwelling. There was only one woman who lived in this ger, and she had prepared some food for us, so we asked her questions about Mongolian nomadic life, with Oko as translator, while we nibbled on homemade cheese and bread, dried yoghurt, and sipped on warm milk tea. I didn’t care much for the tea, and the dried yogurt was so hard I thought I was chewing bone, but after spending so long in South-East Asia it was quite a treat to have some hearty, homemade cheese.

The view from the top of Turtle Rock.

The view from the top of Turtle Rock.

The ger of the Mongolian woman who we paid a visit to.

The ger of the Mongolian woman who we paid a visit to.

It was definitely surprising how permanent the set up looked – apparently when they move, the nomads travel anywhere from a few kilometres down the road to hundreds of kilometres to a new region, usually for reasons of weather and climate or the availability of grass for their herds of cows, horses, goats, sheep or camels. It only takes 8 hours to completely dismantle the ger, which was deemed an impressive feat by our group. “It took me 8 hours just to pack for this trip!” Alyson exclaimed. We all had a bit of a laugh, but I suppose it was a reminder to all of us just how content people can be with so little in their lives. It feels like I have one of those epiphanies every time I visit a non-Western country, but I do think its important to retain that perspective throughout life, so I never end up taking for granted all the things I do have in life.

***

Our days at the ger camp were mostly spent outside, doing things like horse riding and archery. The warriors of the fearsome Mongolian Empire did both of those things are the same time, though horseback archery isn’t an easy skill to master in a few days, so we kept our attempts separate. We also made several small hikes up the hills and rocks that created the valley that our ger camp was in, and admired the awesome views. The hills rolled on in every direction, and in the neighbouring valleys we could see more clusters of gers, demonstrating just how common this nomadic way of life really is in Mongolia. The food in the ger camp was also amazing. Traditional Mongolian soups, salads and meat dishes, broths full of mutton and meat that melted in your mouth right off the bone, and hearty fillets of steak served with rice and potato. I wasn’t sure if there were any Mongolian restaurants around where I live, but I made a mental note to find out when I go back home – the cuisine is absolutely delicious, and I didn’t go to bed hungry once.

Oko tending to my horse just after I dismounted.

Oko tending to my horse just after I dismounted.

Trying out my archery skills - there's a reason there's no photos of the target...

Trying out my archery skills – there’s a reason there’s no photos of the target…

However, on one of the nights I did go to bed a little tipsy. As a group we’d decided we might get on the piss and have a little bit of a party in one of the gers. Some brought vodka, some brought beer or wine. I myself brought a semi-dry red that was made in Bulgaria, surprisingly delicious for the price that I paid for it. The conversation flowed freely, as is always the case when alcohol is involved, and I chatted a little more to some of the Australian girls who I hadn’t seen much of during the course of the trip. It was incredibly warm and toasty with the fire going inside the ger, and we frequently had to prop the door open for a little bit of relief, sometimes even stepping outside to cool off a little. The wine went to my head pretty quickly, but I remember standing outside with Dan and marvelling at the stars that were spread out across the dark blue night sky, thinking back to my night of stargazing on Koh Rong Samleon in Cambodia and still being a little bit excited that the constellations were all different in this hemisphere – and I don’t even think that was the wine talking.

***

While the Mongolian countryside is breathtakingly beautiful, there are a few things about it that are a little upsetting. When you’re gazing out from the peaks of a rocky outcrop the land looks untouched, but the reality is that the life of the nomadic people takes a toll on the land. Some people burn or bury their rubbish, but there is still an incredible amount of pollution. You’re just as likely to see a plastic bag take flight into the wind as you are a native bird, and at regular intervals there are huge mounds of trash that are most likely the remnants of a ger camp that has since packed up and moved on. I remember as a kid going out on Clean Up Australia Day and picking up all the trash in my local area – I think realistically this country would need a Clean Up Mongolia Year. I absolutely loved my time in Mongolia and out in the ger camp, but it was always a little bit disheartening to walk past what appeared to be a small forest of plastic bag trees, the skeleton of what was once lively greenery smothered with black and blue and translucent plastic.

The ger camp where we slept and lived for two days.

The ger camp where we slept and lived for two days.

On top of some rocks after one of our many short hikes through the hills.

On top of some rocks after one of our many short hikes through the hills.

***

When we finally returned to Ulaanbaatar, we had an afternoon to kill before jumping on a train to Siberia that evening. We had lunch at a buffet style Mongolian barbecue, which was amazing – I ate so much I felt sick – and then spent some time at the National Museum. The more I learnt about the native Mongolian people and the mighty empire of warriors they had once been, the more I suspect that they as a people were the inspiration for the Dothraki tribes in Game of Thrones. Fierce warriors with highly revered leaders and a lifestyle that revolves largely around their horses, they were nomads that travelled across their vast country and were constantly at war to expand their territory. Modern Mongolia is a different story though, but I still got a little kick out of my geeky comparison. I also saw some exhibits about musical instruments – the name of the Mongolian instruments I’d seen in the show last time we were in Ulaanbaatar was morin khuur, a name that translates to ‘fiddle with a horses head’. The end of each instrument is finished of with a carved wooden horse head, and the morin khuur is considered something of a national treasure for Mongolia.

As I wandered through the museum, I realised that most of the signs and information boards were in Mongolian, with no English translation. I hate being one of those tourists who just expects everyone to be able to speak English, and get angry when they can’t – I frequently struggle silently through awkward language barriers rather than go on a “Can anyone speak English?” spree – but I have to admit I was taken aback. Almost everywhere in South-East Asia had had signs in English, which I suppose I completely took for granted while I was there. English is a common and widespread language, but it’s by no means global or universal, and I think it took being in an official building like a museum, yet there still being very little English, for that fact to truly sink in.

***

Overall, my time in Mongolia was incredibly interesting and unique. Combined with the fact that I wasn’t scammed, tricked, injured or molested, I think I can safely say its been my favourite place on my journey so far, and my only regret is that I couldn’t stay for longer. But the tour schedule was pretty set when it came to transport, and we were due to catch our next train into the heart of Siberia.

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.