When your home is backyard to heritage listed monuments, you’d be forgiven for allowing a nonchalant sort of familiarity to creep in. Remember as kids being persuaded to go along to yet another famous landmark when a visiting Aunt or family friends were in town. I asked the “other gal” how many times she’d seen the Taj Mahal and she replied wearily “too many times to count.” Every time family came from overseas, back to the Taj they’d go. But over time we find ourselves adding these places to our travel bucket list and getting excited like school kids at the chance to visit them. On the day we first went to see Angkor Wat we were up early, jumped into our tuk tuk where our wide grinning driver promised us an unforgettable day and wove through the busy market streets out into the humid jungle. He didn’t disappoint. With the tall dense tree-line and monsoon clouds emerging you could feel the heat edging in. First stop, find two local hand-woven wicker hats to abate the searing sun and breathe in the moment.
At the approach to Angkor Wat like most tourist sites in Cambodia, rows of wide-legged pants and sundresses make their way towards you, attached to coat-hangers being pushed along by an eager salesperson literally peddling their wares. There are circles of beautiful smiling children trying to sell temple postcards, tourist books and trinkets. It’s the same through most of Asia, though there’s an obvious lack of free-roaming animals that you’ll find in just about all Indian sightseeing spots. Cambodia really has got tourism right. At a very central tourist centre with plenty of help on hand, you can purchase a 3 day temple pass to use over the course of a week. It means that when you arrive at a temple you can go straight in, no maddening crowds or long queues, so we eagerly jumped from our tuk tuk and started the scenic walk to the entrance of Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is the reason most people visit Cambodia, it’s a sprawling network of temples (its name simply means temple city) that remained long-undiscovered in the dense jungle for hundreds of years. When the ambitious young nephew of Dharanindravarman I ambushed his great uncle killing him and pronouncing himself king in the mid 12th century, he set about to do what many usurpers have done, cement their place in history by creating an empire dedicated to their Gods. The young King venerated the God Vishnu and built the temple in his honour through it gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple after his passing. Covering over 400 acres, Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious site, it’s world heritage listed and if the ambitious Kings’ intent was to put the Khmer empire and Cambodia on the map, he absolutely nailed it.
What hits you first is the scale, it is literally sprawling; just when you think you’ve reached the end of one corridor, you peer out through stone archways across the lawn and see that there’s another carved entrance that takes you to a labyrinth of walkways with original 14th century Buddha statues and carvings, draped in gold cloth and standing as serenely as they did all those years ago. We saw many Monks, some sitting in solitude chanting, others industriously running from one wing of the temple to another and yet other’s giving blessings. We waited our turn and sat quietly in front of a Monk sitting cross-legged on a woven mat, his smile wide, his deep voice chanting in song as he splashed water on us from a decorative silver bowl and tied red and yellow string bracelets on our wrists. We figured that if you were ever going to seek such blessings and have them willingly bestowed, then there are few places better than a 900 year old temple. Towards the back of the complex stand the three temple towers, each one lovingly carved with reliefs spiralling all the way to the top. To look up to their summits against the sun with a crisp blue sky as the backdrop, you know you’re somewhere special.
Back in our tuk tuk with our delightfully happy driver, enjoying the cool wind from the breezy ride we circled around the moat through the jungle and found ourselves on a bridge where he promptly stopped and gestured to meet us through the archway. To our absolute surprise we turned around to see statue after statue of larger than life Buddha faces, each a slightly different face; the stone mottled and mossy, worn through time but alive just the same. This line of statues stand along the causeway crossing the Southgate to Angkor Thom and lead you to the archway where Buddha’s smiling face peers down on you. This is just the beginning; as you walk through the temple ruins you see smiling faces everywhere, four faces facing north, south, east and west are carved on the sides of 54 standing towers. What remains today are 200 of them, peering down at curious travellers with our selfie sticks and guidebooks. As an experience for us as tourists it was one of our most treasured afternoons, walking through narrow stairwells, a soft breeze whispering through the trees and the smiles of the Gods etched into eternity.
Though it’s easy to get temple fatigue when you’re travelling, the temples of Angkor and Siem Reap are all so distinctive you can feel their individual characters and energy and with that we had one more temple we couldn’t wait to see. It’s easily recognisable in snapshots and postcards and is one of the most well preserved temples in Angkor. When you walk through Ta Prohm, pale green leafy trees stand on either side of the dusty walkway and you are in the heart of the jungle where a civilisation once boomed. The connection between the two is evident everywhere you look. There are root systems pulsating through the ground, banyan trees alive and growing through the temple walls and it’s as though the stone and jungle are one, forever intertwined where one would die without the other. That’s the beauty of a living jungle with doorways leading to undiscovered passages and stories carved into the walls still waiting to be told, some so well hidden you have to wonder what else is waiting within the lush jungle walls of the temple city.
I used to think that the term expat was some sort of official title given to people who moved abroad with an embassy or government posting. It took me a while to realise when I first moved overseas that I had joined this particular circle, a foreign network of sorts, no more or less official than when the “other gal” moved to London to study in college. I think because I went in with so much familiarity, I didn’t stop to think about a framework for survival that at some point in time anyone living overseas needs. When you arrive in a new country it may feel like one of the hardest things you’ve ever done. But like many expats we know, they’ll tell you the hardest part is actually leaving. If you have the chance to go, take it. Your passport and your heart will never be the same!
Make friends quickly
A bit like the trick to making it at High School, it helps to connect and make friends as quickly as you can. When you meet others in the same situation there’s a familiarity that borders on relief. You’ll be there to offer support, give advice, share local tips and simply be there for each other. And that’s why we need our expat friends so much and build friendships that I’m told can be measured in dog years for the intensity and weight that they carry; because who else is going to get it, who else is going to understand the level of anguish it can cause you to plan 3 things in a day and know that none of them will be accomplished for another month, or to understand that out of body feeling of being in two places at once and belonging somewhere in between.
Know how to say hi
It almost goes without saying that it helps to speak a little of the local language but it’s easier said than done. It can be really tricky to master another language, especially if you’ve had little exposure to it before. I remember once asking for a pomegranate juice in Hindi and the kind lady making it for me asked me again and again if I was sure. Of course! Just a tall glass of fresh crimson juice please. It took me about 15 minutes to work out why she was laughing and refused to make it for me; apparently there’s nothing refreshing about garlic, no matter how you try and juice it. Not only will it help you get around, but learning a few conversational words will help you gain acceptance and inclusion.
Dive in the deep end
One of the reasons most expats take up the challenge to resettle in another country is because we’re drawn in by the curiosity of a foreign culture. It’s probably the most exciting aspect of the journey and a treasure completely uncovered if you don’t dive in the deep end. Through significant festivities and celebrations, or the way the culture marries, raises children or simply welcomes in a new year can be wonderful and enriching ways to peel back the layers of a countries’ cultural heritage.
Know that some days suck
There’s no denying it, some days you’ll be caught in a quagmire of challenges where you’ll feel you’re drowning, cultural nuances you don’t understand, language barriers, struggles in getting things done with the ease you’re used to because nothing is the same, nothing is familiar and on some days simply nothing makes sense. But suck it up anyway, because the sooner you can accept the difficulties, the sooner they’ll pass. I still want to make one of those memes that says “what my friends & family back home think I do as an expat” vs “what I really do as an expat” because despite what might look like one long holiday it’s in equal measure a process of huge adjustment to resettle, rethink and regroup.
Pop the expat bubble
Once you find yourself a member of this expat tribe, it’s very easy to get drawn into a cycle of coffee mornings, shopping expeditions, weekends away and as you get accustomed to life in a new country these are wonderfully helpful and important rituals. You can float along from one brunch to another and it’s all lovely…but don’t be afraid to pop the bubble at some point. It’s the difference between living an extensive 5 star holiday and feeling the grit of life between your toes, both are necessary, both are fun and doing a little of each will keep you grounded.
Live like a local
Like renting in the area before you buy, researching and visiting your expat country of choice before you call the Removalists might seem like quite an effort, but one well worth it. When you’re there, as much as you can, try and immerse yourself in the local way of life. Going to a developing country and staying in luxury hotels is really going in with rose coloured glasses. Taste the local cuisine, check out the schools and healthcare services, understand the religious undertones and If you can see yourself living, functioning and soaking up the local vibe then you may have found your next home.
Take little, live a lot
It’s tempting when you move that you’ll take your household with you, I’d recommend at least having some of your sentimental pieces with you, it does help to feel that you’re recreating a home. But if you don’t have to, let it go! The lighter and more minimalist you can travel the more of a fresh start you’ll create and you’ll have plenty of space to pick up local pieces that will be with you always. I remember once someone saying that it’s wonderful to have a house full of pieces you’ve collected from your travels. Of course this depends where you go, but I’ve seen plenty of expats from across Asia choosing, copying or even designing fabulous and eclectic furniture pieces. Back home, these pieces are unique, these are the treasures from your journey and have wonderful stories to tell, just as you will.
“I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” Bill Bryson
For mainstream travel, some might consider Cambodia off the beaten track. It wasn’t the kind of place we expected or wanted to be a luxury holiday. That’s why we chose it. When we first arrived the sun was just going down and as we drove through town we crossed the foyers of Thai inspired hotels, piles of rubble and fruit carts that resembled many Asian villages and French colonial buildings with whitewashed and pale grey walls with pops of Bougainvillea like South India. There is a feel to Siem Reap that is a calming mix of so many places that you see across the South East, it’s a shame it’s no longer referred to as Indochina, because it really fits.
Though Phnom Penh is the bustling capital, the serenity of Siem Reap attracts so many travellers because of the 12th century temple ruins of Angkor Wat and smaller well hidden temples honouring Lord Shiva and Buddha that mesmerise with their sheer size as symbols of devoted dedication. Siem Reap, whose name literally means “Siam defeated” is now a laid-back and quaint colourful city, home to hordes of tourists, eager tuk-tuk drivers who for USD$2 will take you anywhere they didn’t even know existed and lines and lines of comfy outdoor chairs for foot massages. We struggled for the first day with understanding the local currency, where everything costs millions, and more confusing to us was why everything is also priced in USD. By mid week we were paying for meals in a combination of dollars and Cambodian Riel and it all felt a bit like Monopoly money. Because of its centre as a tourist hub, Siem Reap is one of the more expensive cities in Cambodia and we overheard the owner of a local Indian dhaba saying that it’s become all about money and if someone offered enough, they would even sell Angkor Wat. As a guest in Cambodia it certainly doesn’t feel like that, everything is cheap and accessible and if you can measure a country by the warmth and character of the people, then it’s a charming and loveable place to be.
Away from the history that Siem Reap is built around, Cambodia offers a slice of rural life that is enriching to experience and humbling to see. When you’re sitting in the back of a tuk-tuk driving through the lush jungle heights, the weather is warm and humid and life along the roadside is humming along. Makeshift market stalls, tarps ripped in the wind and rain, bamboo table legs and large woven baskets full of fruit sitting on the dusty ground. Sometimes you see the woven checked fabric of shawls and cloth hanging in the wind or the traditional Sampot skirt or checkered scarves called krama’s folded neatly on bamboo racks. Rows and rows of dried palm leaf hats are displayed on wicker racks by the road and it’s really special to see the women and children sitting under the shade of the tents and trees, crafting and weaving these hats with the same deft hands that have worked this skill for generations. In large open woks and smoky hotplates chicken feet, fresh pork or amok coconut fish curry are prepared outside and you’ll often see plates of crickets, roaches and scorpions, charred to a crisp, on long skewers piled high. We passed.
One of the most wonderful surprises in this simple yet hard life was the floating village of Kampong Phluk. Along the way we kept wondering when we would come across the river as even the low lying vegetation looked pale and parched until turn after dusty turn finally led us to a thin stream of brown muddy water. Bobbing gently against the clay banks a line of turquoise, red and orange plank-built boats waited. As we boarded one and headed for the broad bow we smiled as we took in the scenery. Emerging from both sides of the clumpy shores of grass, tall stilted houses stood on fragile looking wooden and bamboo frames, balconies adorned with pots of palms and blooming bougainvillea, piles of buckets, chairs and golden temples. The village is home to some 3,000 people and at the waters edge children splashed around, hanging off the boats their father’s repaired and helping their families trawl in the fishing nets at the end of the day. The real surprise came when we reached a cluster of wooden boats, with their low flat hulls and wide centres, gently lapping in the flooded forest. We spent the next 45 minutes taking in the quiet, hearing only the sound of water against the boat and the soft whistle of our boatsman. Once back on the main boat we headed out to the panoramic Tonle Sap freshwater lake which strikes you most for its murky pale brown rough water and yet still gives sustenance to the people today as it did in the Angkorean civilisation. The whole village experience was a taste of Cambodian life that overwhelmed us with all the complexity of a harsh, unsophisticated, placid and innocent life.
To know anything at all about Cambodia is to understand something of it’s brutal and sad past. There are plenty of museums to highlight the impact of the Khmer Rouge and their deadly legacy but we wanted to experience something a little more tangible so we sought out one of the genocide memorials in the heart of a Buddhist community. As we walked around the commune we had no idea really what we had stumbled into, there were rooms with roughly hand painted scenes of the multitude of execution styles (not for the faint-hearted), a glass cylindrical hut stacked high with skulls and bones pressing into the windows and large halls with beautiful Buddha statues wearing gold silk fabric. We bowed before them, lighting incense and just trying to comprehend the diversity and sadness of Cambodia in our lifetime. Towards the back of the complex, behind all the buildings, bright saffron tunics dried in the morning sun, while boys with freshly shaved heads played football in the dirt. One little boy followed us everywhere, poking his beautiful face around the door-frames watching us and smiling with his warm brown eyes. Sadness and hope rolled into one.
Siem Reap is a warm and cultural collective of beautiful Asian hospitality and rich history and the smiling faces and warm hearts of the people just add to this next unfolding chapter in Cambodia’s story. We loved it, laughed every time our tuk-tuk driver got us lost, or rode 37km to a town we were told was only 5 minutes away; soaked up the temples in awe and wonder and enjoyed the warmth and easiness of charming villages and magical markets. It brings together all the wonderful elements of a great story, just the way travel should be.
“Do you have another passport?” are not really the words you want to hear when you’re about to board an international flight. I panicked, flapped around questioning myself and wondering how I had picked up my expired passport instead of my current one. Three hours to go, maybe just maybe there’s time to go back and get my passport. Is this really happening? Then in a very detached, unflappable tone, the women at checkin reassures me that that this is the correct passport, perfectly valid for the next 5 months and 26 days…but my destination country is one of many who’ll only grant a visa with 6 months validity. How could I have been so careless, why didn’t I count the days instead of just the months? While I’m banging myself on the head pleading with the Airline to let me catch my flight I’m thoroughly bewildered at this nonsense rule, if the expiry date on your passport isn’t the actual expiry then, well…
After an equally unhelpful supervisor proceeded to list all the risks of travelling “illegally” and not being granted entry (what, could I possibly be deported? Surely not!), they issued a boarding pass to my transit destination at least. Not my finest hour, I reflected. Not my finest 7 really, seven long drawn out hours spent wondering how I would explain this when I met the other half of two gals in Changi Airport. Fortunately she had arrived a few hours ahead of me and I knew would be welcomed by a deluge of messages apologising in advance for my great sense of travel know-how that might cost us the trip. As I stealthily got off the plane, trying not to make eye contact with the officials for fear they might accost me at the gate and turn me around, I started to think that they’d probably still let us meet up, have a shop around Changi Airport, grab a coffee, maybe even a foot massage and it could still feel like a sort of mini holiday. They let me get wi-fi, I was starting to have hope.
By this time we had just met, exchanged excitable hello’s and sympathies (this part is very important, always travel with someone who is calmer, more resourceful and cheekier than you) and proceeded to the transfer counter where my obvious ditziness was the reason I had no boarding pass to our next flight and “oops” I’d even forgotten to check in my luggage all the way. You see the thing about the other gal in our adventures is that she really makes for the ideal travel buddy and proves to me day after day, just how infectious and wonderful a positive attitude really is and just like that, the entire night of anxiety evaporated. With a current boarding pass and a connecting flight 18 hours away, it was like a ticket to freedom. Not real freedom where you’re actually allowed outside, but the keys to Changi City nevertheless. One night in Changi is still a pretty full night, accommodation is as good as any hotel, endless shopping (not really our thing but makes you feel like it’s Christmas), a multitude of bars and cafe’s and plenty of themed gardens. All the bright lights made us almost forget that I still needed a visa if I was ever going to leave.
The two hour flight to Cambodia was filled with crazy possibilities as to what we might do if I looked too suspect to let in. Being resourceful travellers, we had a list of other destinations ready, open and welcoming places that wouldn’t care about my tardiness or illegal status and so we consoled ourselves with laughter and the prospect of booking flights to Uzbekistan or Malta for the week. When we reached Siem Reap, with it’s elegant Siamese inspired airport, tropical warm air, lush banana groves and welcoming faces, I wondered if a slow walk across the tarmac constituted saying I’d been to Cambodia. The petit security guard smiled her warm generous smile and said, “Welcome’’ surely they couldn’t, wouldn’t turn me back after that show of support.
Inside the airport we were quickly assorted into groups needing visa’s or not and so we joined the throngs of sweaty excited tourists holding our passports open and scrambling for $USD30.00. We certainly looked the part. I remember scanning the line of immigration officers, hoping to read a face that looked kind and benevolent, someone who wouldn’t have the heart to turn away a stray kitten…seriously, had it come to this? How much of a risk was I, with my just-out-of-date-valid-but-not-valid passport? We are here, we are staying. And so with that, to the rhythmic stamping of hundreds of passports, my name was called and my visa to the Kingdom of Cambodia was granted, gateway to a wonderful story book of travels.