On an absolute whim, after a few months of being a solo lass living in inner-city Melbourne, I had decided that I needed a trip away – a real adventure in a part of the world unfamiliar to me. With three weeks of leave up my sleeve and not a great deal of cash, I began investigating Asia.
After much travel research (for me, almost as much fun as travel itself) followed by severe confusion as to where to go in this region of ginormous possibilities, I had decided on Myanmar. But then there was another outburst of violence in the country and I thought this might be a journey better left for a little while (although I’d gladly go now!). I wasn’t quite fit enough for the trek I wanted to do in Nepal and Tibet, and was told that Everest visibility was poor in November, which would sort of be anti-climactic (no offence to the other magnificent mountains of the Himalayas). Japan, although a country that intrigued me given that I had studied Japanese and was at the time editing Japanese textbooks, would remind me of work. There were too many Aussies in Thailand and so many people I knew had been to Vietnam, several times, that I felt as though I had already been there.
On reviewing my Philip’s Atlas map of South-East Asia for the umpteenth time and stripping all of these possibilities away, I was left with Laos and Cambodia – two great, big unknowns to me. It was decided. This was where I was going, although I had no bloody idea why. For someone who needed a reason, or a desire, or a plan when it came to places to spend those all-too-precious annual leave days, this was strange new territory. I also had no idea how much I would soon be shocked out of the ho-humness of my life.
And so with my eagerness for the new and confronting, I was, at first, stupidly enthralled by the hyper-bureaucratical nature of the Cambodian passport officer, whose solemn face met each of us in the group once we had made our way through no man’s land and into the Kingdom of Cambodia. I had heard about the South-East Asian love of bureaucracy, regulations and uniforms. The intrigue wore off after this first encounter … waiting in line in the oppressive heat with my backpack feeling like a sweaty gorilla wrapped around my body helped me get over it.
With a Cambodian stamp in my passport, I walked over to where my fellow travellers stood and took in my first Cambodian scene. It was the Wild West – in Asia – with a few Lexus’s thrown in. Not quite what I had imagined. We were loaded into a small bus and set off towards our lunch destination – each kilometre taking us further away from the familiarity of Thailand and deeper into a land that bore no resemblance to anywhere I had ever been.
Hungry cows with skin pulled tautly over protruding bones roamed freely in front of homes, which were lifted free of the earth beneath and set upon gangling stilts, for fear of flooding; the space below also allowing for a communal area in which a family could gather, eat, work, sow, play. Children abounded – so many children. Kakada prattled off some statistics about Cambodia’s rapidly-growing population since the end of the dictatorship and its disproportionately large percentage of those under 18, for whom education is not a given.
Most children are at school for a mere four hours a day, either in the morning or afternoon, depending on the time of day they are needed most at home. The Cambodian home is, for most, also a place of work. The land is harvested of whatever can best be produced … rice, bananas, sweet potato … with cows roaming freely and on the larger blocks, a water buffalo or two. Women sit in front of their homes with offerings for sale to passers by … bananas and their leaves, sticky rice, honey.
Scene upon scene was laid bare before me, of such families working in the searing heat, while I sat in air-conditioned comfort whizzing past. The soft hum of the bus’ motor and the rocking of my body as its tyres caressed each road bump or pothole were in no danger of putting me to sleep.
Phnom Penh is a city pulsating with life, scores of motorbikes and degrees of poverty I had never before encountered. After a sobering day at The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison, scenes of the all-too-recent atrocities that this country is still coming to terms with, we were taken to Kakada’s not-for-profit school, Toul Ampil, to witness first-hand the wonderful initiatives being taken to nurture and educate Phnom Penh’s children.
For the entire time I was in Cambodia, I could do nothing but keep my eyes wide open to catch every bit of life and study every face I could. Never before had I had moments of such confrontation and sadness followed immediately by joy. Nowhere else in the world have I experienced that. I was completely hooked.
Part 3: Lovely Laos
The tour I joined was a G Adventures Mekong Adventure tour, travelling through Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, beginning and ending in Bangkok, Thailand.
I travelled from Melbourne to Bangkok with Thai Airways.
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