Aloha! A Very Hawaiian Christmas

After a rather uneventful flight from LA, I landed in Honolulu and immediately knew I was in the tropics. California hadn’t exactly been cold, but the humidity in Hawaii was inescapable. It was the kind of weather that I loved though, so I couldn’t wait to get out and be amongst it. I made my way through the terminal, collected my baggage, and then looked around, wondering which exit I should take to get out onto the street. As I approached one of the glass automatic sliding doors, I saw a dark-haired woman passing by on the footpath, with an earnest, slightly concerned look on her face. I sped up my pace and ran out the door to catch up with her.

“Ashleigh!” My sister heard me call out and instantly turned around, her expression morphing into a relieved smile when she realised it was me.
“Thank God I found you,” she said with an exasperated sigh as she reached me and gave me a big hug. “I hate this airport, I had no idea where you were going to be coming out.”
“Don’t worry, I’m pretty used to these places by now,” I said with a cheeky smile.
“I bet you are! How was the flight? How are you? Wait, let’s get to the bus, you can tell me all about it on the way home.” We headed to the bus stop and jumped on board. The ride between the airport and the centre of Honolulu was the better part of an hour, so after not having seen my sister for about eight and a half months, we had plenty of time to catch up.

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Taking a selfie on the bus to send to Mum.

***

Ashleigh had moved to Hawaii in May, only a couple of months after I had left to begin my year of travelling. She was doing work experience in hospitality as part of a course that she had started back home. When I learned that she would be moving to Hawaii, I had decided to reschedule my existing flights so that I could stop over and visit her on my way back to Sydney. Well, it was actually my mother’s idea: it would be the first time that she wouldn’t have both of her children with her at Christmas, which was amplified by the fact she wouldn’t have either of her children with her, so it was some small solace that while we wouldn’t be with her, at least the two of us would be together, and we’d still be spending Christmas with family.

However, the day that I arrived happened to be perfect timing. Up until now, my sister had been living in a share house in the heart of Honolulu, but today she was moving to a furnished studio apartment, which she would share with her boyfriend on a part time basis, given that he worked and partly lived at the navy barracks where he worked in the US navy. He was going underway on a submarine for a few days, which was a pretty routine thing as part of his job, but it meant he wasn’t around to help with the move.
“So, you’re not going to have to share a house with anyone else when you’re here,” she said. “But, I’m going to need your help moving some of my stuff to the new place.” She didn’t have a lot of stuff, and the house wasn’t too far away, but she also didn’t have a car. So after we arrived at the house, we collected all her stuff up, threw out a bunch of things she didn’t want to take, and ended up calling two taxis and loading all her stuff into the cars to take it to the new apartment. It was less than a 5 minute drive, but carrying everything would have taken literally all day and involved multiple trips. Helping someone move house was probably the most randomly domestic thing I had done in a long time, but it wasn’t too long before we had unpacked everything and were setting up my sisters new apartment.

We spent the afternoon hanging out and setting up the new place, finding places for all her things and blowing up my air mattress, with me assuring her that the place would feel a lot bigger after I went home – after nine months of travelling, I’d definitely acquired more things that I had left with. In the evening she took me down to the Tony Roma’s Restaurant, where she worked as a hostess as one of her two jobs. Though on the way there, she got a strange message from her boyfriend.
“Wait… he’s supposed to be on a submarine? That must mean… that must mean he didn’t go! Maybe you’ll get to meet him tonight after all!”
And sure enough, much to my sisters excitement, he walked into the restaurant just after we’d sat down and ordered our first drinks.

“Robert, this is Nick. Nick, this is my brother Robert”, Ashleigh introduced us, rather unnecessarily, since each of us had already heard so much about each other through her. Though it was nice to finally meet him, and it didn’t take too long for us to warm up to each other and enjoy a decent steak together.

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Well, I ended up getting ribs, but you get the idea.

***

Between the two jobs she was working at two different restaurants, Ashleigh was actually pretty busy most of the time. Nick’s work was a lot more sporadic, since the free time he had when he was home was contrasted by the 24 hour shifts of duty he had at the navy base. He would be around for a few days though, so we had the chance to hang out and get to know each other. During one of my first days, when Ashleigh wasn’t at work, the three of us set out to buy supplies for Christmas. This would also be Nick’s first Christmas away from his family back in upstate New York, and his mother had been worrying about it even more than ours, so we’d promised that we would go out and decorate the small apartment as best we could. First it was off to Walmart to buy Christmas lights and some small decorations, and then we headed out to get a tree.

“We’ve gotta have a real tree, though,” Nick had insisted. I’d thought it must have been a tradition for his family, to always have a real tree (I’d already explained to Todd back in San Francisco why they’re a lot less common back in Australia), but I soon learned that it was the opposite – despite living in a place where he probably could have chopped down a tree from the forest just beyond his backyard, Nick’s family had never had a real Christmas tree. That he was in Hawaii and very much in control of this years festivities meant that he could finally realise his dream of having a real fur tree as his Christmas tree this year.

Except… when we showed up at the yard where the tree were being sold, the three of us probably wore the most disappointed expressions on the whole island. It’s safe to say that traditional Christmas trees do not thrive in the tropical climates of Hawaii – either these pathetic excuses for Christmas trees had very much struggled to grow in such an environment, or they were runts that had been rejected and shipped over from the mainland, a journey which undoubtedly did them no favours. I had to believe they were imported into Hawaii, if nothing else for the exorbitant cost that we were expected to pay for them. For a tree that barely stood taller than my sister, and was definitely shorter than Nick, we had to make the executive decision that it was not worth it. We headed home, slightly disheartened, with nothing but a roll of Christmas lights and a few dashed dreams.

In the evening, Ashleigh had to work, so while she was there Nick took me down to the Hilton Hotel resort. Every Friday evening there was a firework show in the garden areas that were open to the general public, so we wandered down there to kill some time after grabbing dinner.

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The silhouettes of palm trees as the fireworks explode behind them. 

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Afterwards we headed home, and the two of us brainstormed a little more about how we could make the apartment feel a little bit more like Christmas, even though we didn’t have a tree. Ashleigh had seemed a little dejected by our inability to secure one, given that the tree is a general staple of the holiday. So we pulled out the Christmas lights, and a box of decorations that Nick’s mother had sent over from the mainland. We unrolled the lights and tried to discern the best way to place them around the room, when suddenly I had a flashback to an image that I had seen on Facebook about a month ago. I pitched the idea to Nick, and he instantly loved it, so we set to work setting up the lights so that we could be finished before Ashleigh got home.

When Ashleigh finally arrived home from a long evening shift, Nick stopped her at the door and told her to cover her eyes.
“We’ve got a surprise for you,” he said. “No peeking.”
He guided her across the room (all three paces – it was a studio, remember), and then I hit the lights on the wall to turn them off before flicking on the Christmas lights.
“And… open.”

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Our DIY makeshift Christmas tree.

And she was able to behold the roll of lights that we had strung up against the wall in the shape of a Christmas tree, with some of the lighter decorations hanging from the wires, and topped of off with a pre-fixed ribbon bow at the very top, in place of an angel or star. Sure, it wasn’t a masterpiece, and it probably didn’t look as good or as colourful as either Nick or I had imagined it might. But as the saying goes, it’s the thought that counts, and Ashleigh was thrilled.
“Oh my God,” she said, half rolling he eyes but still clearly pleased with our efforts. “You guys… We finally have a tree!” It had been a long and exhausting evening at the restaurant, so she hadn’t been in such an excellent mood when she arrived home, but coming back to a little bit of dysfunctional Christmas magic had definitely put a smile on her face. “Thank you, both of you,” she said as she gave each of us a hug and a kiss. “I can’t wait to spend this Christmas with my two boys!”

***

Christmas Day itself was actually a pretty easy-going day. We woke up in the morning and Nick cooked us bacon and eggs for breakfast, and then we took turns Skyping our families back home. First we called ahead to Nick’s family, who were a few hours ahead of us and were already finishing up their Christmas lunch, and then over to Australia where it was already Boxing Day, and my mother and aunty were already onto the champagne. There wasn’t much in the way of gift exchanges though, given that it was just the three of us. Ashleigh had bought me a cute pair of underwear, and I gave her the necklace and earrings that I had picked up on the Grand Canyon Tour in Arizona. Other than that, it was just Ashleigh and Nick exchanging a handful of gifts. Not that I’m complaining – it was just an extremely different experience from the past Christmases of large family gatherings where exchanging gifts took up a significant portion of the morning.

By the early afternoon, it was time for Ashleigh to head into work. Nick was pretty happy to spend the afternoon relaxing at home, but there’s not much privacy or personal space in a studio, so I ended up grabbing my towel and heading to the beach. Ashleigh and Nick’s new place was only a 10 minute walk from Waikiki Beach, probably the most famous and popular beach in the whole of Hawaii. The shore was lined with hotels, so the beach was always packed, but there was plenty of sand and places to stretch out in the sun, so I found a relatively quiet section and settled down with my book and spent the rest of the day without a care in the world.

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Waikiki Beach.

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Obligatory beach selfie. 

I stayed there literally all day, to the point where I was able to watch a beautiful ocean sunset. Despite being surrounded by a small horde of people, being there by myself helped make it feel like my own personal slice of paradise.

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Christmas sunset at Waikiki.

After the sun went down, I headed back home, and eventually Ashleigh returned from work with three juicy steaks from Tony Roma’s, which she had picked up at the end of her shift. She brought a few servings of our favourite sides too, and so together we sat around in Ashleigh and Nick’s new home and celebrated a successful end to our experimental yet still thoroughly enjoyable Christmas.

Recovery: From the city to the sea

I watched the Italian countryside whizz past me as the train carried me away from Rome. Eventually the train tracks became parallel with the seaside, and I gazed out into the distance over the Mediterranean. In one short trip I was going from coast to coast in Italy, from the capital city of Rome to the tiny port town of Ancona. “Ancona?” Valerio had asked me with a very confused expression, when I had informed him of my next destination. “Nobody… I mean nobody, goes to Ancona. Pass through maybe, but… well, there’s nothing there!” Ancona was a regular port for ferries that routinly carried passengers from the east coast of Italy to Croatia and Greece. It hadn’t exactly been on my high priority list of places to see, but while I had been searching desperately for a place to stay in Rome via Couchsurfing, I had received a message from Ike.

The interesting thing about Couchsurfing is that you can send requests to potential hosts, but you can also publicly post your travel itinerary so that hosts in areas where you are planning to travel are able to find you and invite you to stay with them. The majority of people who I have spoken to about this assured me that that was way too creepy for them, and that they wouldn’t just accept offers from random people they didn’t know, but my journey so far had showed me that taking a chance on the generosity of strangers can sometimes have the most rewarding results. I had been looking for other places to stay in while travelling Italy, but so far all my other searches had been unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Ike had sent me a message saying he had noticed I was travelling through Europe, and that if I ever made it to Ancona he would be happy to host me. We had stayed in correspondence during my frantic search for hosts in Rome and my breakdown in Madrid, and from what I could gather he seemed to be a nice and rather genuine guy. So when I arrived in Rome and had to make plans for my next upcoming destination, I agreed to visit Ike in his sunny little corner of Italy. Four days later, and I was stepping off the train into the blistering afternoon sun, where he was waiting to pick me up.

Ike was a fun and outgoing guy with a cheeky sense of humour, and just like when I had met Stefan – who had also stayed with Ike – we got on well straight away. I knew I had made the right decision in coming here – better to spend a couple of days in a town you’d never heard of with a fun stranger than wander around a well known city by yourself. I’d done plenty of that in Rome, so during my time in Ancona I was determined to do absolutely no sightseeing. I needed a break from all that. When we got back to his place, Ike showed me a map of the area and a bunch of information pamphlets about things to see and do. “There’s a short historical walk through the main centre,” he said, pointing at the map to a spot in the centre of town – Ike lived a little further up one of the many rolling hills that surrounded the port, about a 10 minute drive from the train station. “Stefan was very into that kind of thing, but I’m not sure what you want to do while you’re here.” I told Ike that I would be happy to find a spot on the beach and just chill out, so he gave me a few options for the nearby beaches that I could try, most of which were pretty easily accessible by bus. “I’d love to come with you if I had the time, but unfortunately I’ve got to work.” Ike even had to go back to work that afternoon, so he left me at his place to do some laundry and get some rest. When he got home, Ike cooked dinner and we had a night of great conversation over a bottle of wine. We talked about travelling, our Couchsurfing experiences, and he even taught me a couple of phrases in Italian. It was a fun and carefree evening, and I was already very pleased with my decision to stop by Ancona and take some time out in this Italian hideaway.

***

The next day Ike had to go to work again, so after a bit of a sleep in and a lazy morning, I caught a bus down the hill to the city centre and then transferred to another bus that would take me to the nearby beach of Portonovo. The bus was crowded with lots children and teenagers, and it was only then that I realised it was the height of summer and that school was probably out, and everyone in town would be heading for the beach. It also took a little longer to get there than I had anticipated – I was on the bus for over half an hour, going up and down the twisting and winding hills of the outskirts of Ancona before we finally arrived at Portonovo. I wandered through some of the shrubbery around the bus stop and down through a small woodland area before emerging onto the beach. The area had a handful of restaurants and other overpriced-looking places where you could hire beach chairs, but I bypassed all that and went straight to the waters edge.

There, I faced a problem that I hadn’t really faced since I’d been in Thailand – I was alone on a beach with a backpack containing valuables such as my phone and wallet, and I had no way of properly securing them. Even if I was to put a lock on my bag, there was nothing stoping someone from simply running away with it. The beach was fairly crowded, but not so much that I wouldn’t be able to see my things if I left them in plain sight from the water, and it was too hot to not go swimming. In the end I just had to take a chance and leave my backpack while I went into the water. I never swam too far from where I’d left it, but I was a little more relaxed than I had been on the beach at Ao Nang. And it was worth it – with the hot sun beating down on the crowds of beach goers, the cool blue water felt absolutely amazing to dive into. When I’d had enough of that, I crawled back onto the beach, lathered myself in sunscreen, and laid down to soak up some rays. I think it was something I’d first noticed lying in the park in Christiana during my time in Copenhagen, but the sun in Europe just doesn’t seem to be as strong as it does down in Australia. Obviously Italy has a lot stronger sunshine than Denmark – Ike told me he regularly uses 50+ SPF sunscreen – but compared to the sun in Australia it felt like a casual warm day. I was very conscious of my sunscreen use though, which allowed me to relax enough to actually doze off into a state of semi-sleep more than a couple of times. It was the perfect temperature, and I stayed there on the beach for as long as I dared before I thought there really was a chance of me getting significantly burnt.

The refreshing blue waters of Portonovo Beach.

The refreshing blue waters of Portonovo Beach.

Lots of people set up camp for a day on the beach in the gorgeous sunshine.

Lots of people set up camp for a day on the beach in the gorgeous sunshine.

I took one final dip in the ocean before heading back to the bus stop, and indulging in some amazing Italian gelato while I waited for the bus. When the bus finally arrived, slowly making its way down the hill from the highway, I hopped on board, thinking it would take me back to the centre of Ancona. I was surprised to find that its final stop was simply at the top of the hill. “Last stop – everyone off,” the bus driver called out to me. It was definitely up there in my travel nightmare scenarios – being forced off the bus but having absolutely no idea where I was or how I was going to get back. However, when I hopped off the bus I was momentarily distracted by the field of sunflowers that spread out in front of me in the paddock beside the road. I took the opportunity to take a few photos, and just sit back and marvel at the Italian countryside and the picture perfect landscape I had laid my eyes on.

The sunflower fields just next to the bus stop by the beach.

The sunflower fields just next to the bus stop by the beach.

But then it was back to panicking. Another bus with the right number came along, so I hopped on. It took me… back down to the beach. What the Hell was going on? I decided to swallow my pride, realising I needed help, and approached the bus driver, crossing my fingers and praying he spoke some English. I explained where I wanted to go, and he knew enough to understand and give me a reply: “Ahh – next bus!” I sighed, knowing it was about as much help as I was going to get, and stepped off the bus. It wasn’t too long before the next bus came trundling down the hill, and when it finally did I was relieved to feel it make the turn onto the main road that led back to Ancona. I had given up trying to understand how public transport timetables – or indeed, any kind of timed service – operated in Italy. I’m not one for generalising stereotypes, but I can honestly say that chronic lateness was something that I experienced in pretty much all public services in Italy. Countries like Italy and Spain are currently suffering from unbelievably high levels of youth unemployment, but I can’t help but wonder if the people who were actually employed were doing any more work than the people who weren’t.

***

That evening was my second and final night staying in Ancona, so when Ike got back from work we decided to go for a little drive to see some of the other parts around the area that I hadn’t been able to see by myself. We headed south down the coast, admiring the countryside in the dying daylight. At the small town of Sirolo, we stopped the car and got out to watch the sunset behind one of the cliffs. It was nice to be outside of the huge cities for a change, and to experience some very natural beauty such as this. I took a few photos before we continued on to the next small town of Numana. There we got out and walked around the town. It was a little more tourist-orientated than the centre port of Ancona had been, and the streets were quite well preserved in an older, historical style, with uneven tiling and cobblestones lining the streets. We walked down to the docks and looked out over the water as twilight settled in. It wasn’t quite as prominent as the white nights in St Petersburg, but even in southern Europe it still took a very long time for nighttime to actually become dark – often there was still a lot of natural light and visibility as late as 10pm. It was a strange phenomenon that I was only now getting used to.

Overlooking the beach at Sirolo at sunset.

Overlooking the beach at Sirolo at sunset.

The ocean view from our vantage point near Sirolo.

The ocean view from our vantage point near Sirolo.

Overlooking the town of Numana.

Overlooking the town of Numana.

Ocean views as dusk settles over the province of Ancona.

Ocean views as dusk settles over the province of Ancona.

After wandering through the old, steep streets, we headed back to the car and went home. I didn’t ask, but in a small town like Ancona I assumed that there wasn’t much of a nightlife scene, gay or otherwise. Even if there was, I don’t think I would have bothered going. My time in Ancona had been all about relaxing and taking the down time that I had been unable to take in the past couple of weeks. I helped Ike make some dinner and we had some more wine before retiring to bed. He was leaving for a work trip the following day, and I had several trains to catch. But I’d had a fun and memorable few days with Ike in Ancona. He’d told me that it was often just a passing through town for so many people, and that people rarely discovered the little gems of beauty it contained. At that moment, I was eternally grateful that I’d decided to travel the way I was travelling: solo, using Couchsurfing, and meeting all kinds of interesting locals along the way. It assured me that not only was I having an amazing once in a lifetime trip, but that I was seeing parts of the world that many other travels might breeze over without a second glance.

Sacred Sunrise: Angkor Wat

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angkor Wat in the light of the sunset.

Angkor Wat in the light of the sunset.

Inside the main Angkor Wat temples.

Inside the main Angkor Wat temples.

One of the entrances into the main temple.

One of the entrances into the main temple.

***

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

Reflection of the sunrise on the Angkor Wat pool.

Reflection of the sunrise on the Angkor Wat pool.

The throng of tourists crowding around the pool in anticipation.

The throng of tourists crowding around the pool in anticipation.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Standing in one of the entrances to the inner chambers.

Standing in one of the entrances to the inner chambers.

Sunrise selfies at Angkor Wat.

Sunrise selfies at Angkor Wat.

***

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

Bayon temple inside Angkor Thom.

Bayon temple inside Angkor Thom.

Inside one of the smaller ruins.

Inside one of the smaller ruins.

A building colloquially known at the Elephant Temple.

A building colloquially known at the Elephant Temple.

The steep steps of Ta Keo.

The steep steps of Ta Keo.

Part of the temple featured in Tomb Raider.

Part of the temple featured in Tomb Raider.

Myself with the 'Tomb Raider tree'.

Myself with the ‘Tomb Raider tree’.

***

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

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

***

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

Sunshine Slums and a Private Paradise

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

View from the dock at Koh Rong Samelon.

View from the dock at Koh Rong Samelon.

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

***

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

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

The perfection that was Longbeach, Koh Rong Samleon.

The perfection that was Longbeach, Koh Rong Samleon.

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

View from Sunset Rocks.

View from Sunset Rocks.

One of my two canine companions for the sunset.

One of my two canine companions for the sunset.

***

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

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

***

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

The dock as seen from the shores of Longbeach.

The dock as seen from the shores of Longbeach.

***

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

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