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.
One of the first things you notice about Australia, anywhere you land, is the sheer vastness of it, especially the sky. Whether you arrive at night and see the inky stretch dotted with clusters of stars or the broad blue openness of the morning sky, you get the feeling right away that it’s a wide and open country. Well, to be fair, you work that out just by watching the Kris Flyer screen on Singapore Airlines and realise just how long it takes you to fly across. And because the land down under is a lengthy flight from almost anywhere, most people arrive a little bleary eyed. But not me, not us! Though of course I was already in Sydney, awaiting the arrival of the other gal from “two gals, one world, a million adventures” and was not only thrilled to have her in Sydney but pleasantly surprised that even with the late night arrival, her eyes were as sparkling and awake as a cute little furry nocturnal ring-tail possum. Most of Australia’s native animals come to life at night, unlike the city which seems to still be hanging on to its English heritage and closing up shop so early that after about 8.00pm, it’s hard to get a bite to eat. But hey, when you come to Australia you probably don’t come for the nightlife and it was the million and one outdoorsy, adventurous, sight-seeing wonders that I couldn’t wait to share.
Being one of three sisters, this just had to be the first stop to take her in the Blue Mountains about an hours drive west of Sydney. The Three Sisters are three upright jagged rock formations representing three sisters who according to Aboriginal legend, were turned to stone. Why this happened is part of an unrequited love story between the sisters of one tribe and three brothers of another who were forbidden to marry and so for their own protection, the local Witchdoctor cast them into beautiful eternity where they now attract significantly more attention that even the most doting of husbands could have given. Their basalt and sandstone edges stand flooded in fluid golden sunlight against the escarpment of the Jamieson Valley and they’re a picturesque start to a day’s drive around the mountains. On their lower side are the majestic Wentworth Falls and if you don’t think about the climb back up, the descent into the lower pools of the Waterfalls are a serene and peaceful way to drink in the bushland. We soon discovered it’s also an ideal location to leave your backpack and take photo’s of it; we were a little perplexed though amusingly reduced to fits of laughter watching a mum and her teenage daughters strategically move a bright purple backpack around the rocks surfacing from the water. After watching this for about 10 minutes we finally concluded it was for a school assignment and by then even the mum had to concede it must have looked comical.
With the Aussie bush behind us, and no sight of a brown snake or fat blue tongue lizard creeping up on us (oh wait, that happened in the garden at home), we dusted off our walking shoes and headed for the refined ambiance of the dazzling harbour at the Opera House Foreshore. It’s 5.00pm on a sparkling Sunday evening, the sun with full warmth in its summer glow presses into our backs as we sip bubbly and people-watch the parade of friends, lovers and tourists soaking up the ambling spirit of the city at its best. For the next couple of days we zig-zagged across the city by car and seaplane, enjoying the postcard landmarks of the sheer cliff-faces plunging into the ocean, the historic Rocks Village, the tall glass facades of the CBD and the chance to fight off flocks of seagulls all vying for our lunch while sitting on the grassy slopes of Bondi Beach. And then I got to see first hand just how much birds may, or may not, feature in our adventures. I knew that some past karma’s with greedy eagles stealing school lunches had meant that birds are absolutely no friend, but all of a sudden Sydney seemed to be full of them. Not only the seagulls pecking away at empty food boxes, but those ugly grey-white Ibis with their long bent beaks circling the edge of trash cans, pigeons scampering everywhere on the footpaths and squawking cockatoos screeching as they flew inches above our heads making her duck for cover. I shouldn’t laugh…but we did. One afternoon, still with an itch to discover Sydney by more than land, sea and air we looked up towards the Harbour Bridge with her silver arc beaming in the sun and said,“let’s do it!”. Having climbed the bridge before I knew what I was in for but that never detracts from that pinnacle moment when you stand victorious after combatting the 1,332 steps (some-how it’s just the last 2 that bring on a sweat and heavy breathing) and take in the crisp fresh air and the panoramic view of a vibrant city carved into a beautiful web of waterways, leading all the way out to the Sydney Headlands facing the Tasman Sea. It’s the first few days of autumn, midday on a clear sunny day and the view is simply sparkling. As it turns out, the most daunting thing about the whole climb is the pale grey onesie equipped with straps,hoists, chains, clips and a radio, not our best look but well worth the laughs and the experience.
As a Sydney must-see, Bondi Beach is iconic, with the Icebergs Pavilion at one end and the cliff-top coastal walk serenading you along the coast, its sea-water pool carved into the rock platform and sun-kissed bathers and joggers filling up the 1 km stretch of city beach. But it was the beaches up and down the coast that I wanted to show most of all; sprawling, wild, open and endless blue, so big that you hardly even notice the few tourists taking it in. So up to Port Stephens and down to the seaside village of Hyams Beach boasting the whitest sand in the world, both just 3 hours drive either side of Sydney. They’re a magnificent mix of national parks, bush walks, emerald tropical palms and mile after mile of sandy beaches and the open oceans, with waves and rips and sandbars so exposed you wouldn’t swim beyond the frothy crash of playful waves. The sand is so bright and the water so blue, illuminated and intensified by the clear lambent light, lustrous and radiant it makes you feel like a kid again, burying your feet, making sandcastles with water channels and moats and at night sitting beneath the star filled charcoal sky. I’m sure from Corlette Beach one night we even saw the Milky Way.
And really, this is the beauty of travel. Having lived here and overseas, I feel connected to more than one place and seeing them through new eyes, there’s clarity and beauty to the uniqueness that each place brings. This trip was just two weeks, but what with snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, whale watching as the Humpbacks chart their northern migration along the coast, the barren outback of ochre coloured dust and mountains and the sprawling wetlands of Kakadu added to the list of adventures, we’re going to need more time…