A Short Walk Through Khmer New Year (2009)

It’s hard to say when the rainy season first arrived – technically it’s a bit on the early side but it seems like the rains have been here forever.  Everyday at around 2:35 in the afternoon Sambo (the Wat Phnom elephant) seeks shelter under a tree, moto drivers pull under awnings, and poncho vendors conduct bustling business.  Cambodia slows down in the rainy season – you have to be prepared to hunker down wherever you are when the showers arrive.  So here I sit at the local café, listening to Tuareg music (www.tinariwen.com) and pecking away on my ailing Compaq laptop.  Here are a few of the highlights of Khmer New Year 2009…

I seldom leave home without a map of Cambodia.  What a wondrous invention: 181,000 square kilometers, 15.3 million human beings, and thousands of possibilities compressed into one foldable D-sized sheet of paper.  Whenever I am bored or stressed, I can retreat into the map to recall fond memories and remind myself of adventures yet to come.

March was full of anticipation: Melissa’s arrival in early April, a trip to Bangkok and Little Lebanon with some of my best buddies, presentations to two of the world’s top business schools, the finalization of an investment deal two-years in the making, and, of course, a total of 18 days of Cambodian holidays to plan adventure(s) for.

It was also in March that I was reintroduced to two books that had cross my path previously but I had read through with little attention:  “It’s Not About the Bike” by Lance Armstrong and “Moods of Future Joys” by Alastair Humphreys (available for free here: http://www.alastairhumphreys.com/).  Both have added fuel to my desire (and endless worries to my mother) to undertake a long bike trip that will start in Phnom Penh and end in ________ ?  I am compiling maps of exotic countries (Laos, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Mongolia, Kazakhstan…), stashing my meager monthly savings away in fixed deposits with a maturity date of February 2010, and eagerly awaiting the complete sense of freedom to come.

Putting a date on my time in Cambodia, however, caused another major issue to arise:  there’s still so much I would like to do.  What about summiting Mr. Aoral, hiking the 100km of white sand beaches near Boutum Sokor, searching for the downed Chinese DC-8 in the Cardamoms, or visiting Preah Vihear while its still a “conflict area” (according to CNN)?   I’ll have to squeeze these in somewhere and then I can leave content.

Maps and travel narratives tend to leave out the minor details – flat tires, turbulent flights, intestinal worms, profuse perspiration, uncomfortable beds, long bus rides…  Armed with a good travel book, map, and comfy couch you might as well just stay at home and dream of adventures to avoid the minor (and major) discomforts that are inevitably involved with any journey.

In spite of this I always tend to avoid the traditional methods of travel if I can avoid it, particularly in the case of flight (absolutely terrifying).  If you minimize the risk of something unexpected happening, all you’re left with is the destination.  From my experience, usually either 1) the destination isn’t what you anticipated (i.e. the photos of the white sand beach left out the hordes of overweight Germans in speedos) or 2) you realize that your visit is just the same as everyone else’s and you snap a few photos to impress friends back home until they can visit and see the same place and snap a picture for other friends back home until…

Time permitting, I reckon, it’s best to travel on two wheels or two feet.  Few other modes of travel allow you to build your anticipation, feel the landscape change, interact with the surrounding environment, and gain a sense of freedom (unless it’s a motorcycle, which requires intermittent petrol vendors).  Even if the destination ends up mundane, odds are something interesting happened along the way.  Better yet, announcing your arrival on bike from <insert far off town here> inevitably will result in excited hoots and free baked goods from local vendors.

April and May provided ample opportunity to test this theory.

Cycling to Mondulkiri

“A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.” – Bob Dylan (shamelessly stolen from Moods of Future Joys)

“Free your mind and the ass will follow.”  – Junior from Platoon

Cycling is simplicity and freedom at its core.  All you have to concern yourself with is going from Point A to Point B, and sometimes not even that.  The time you spend on the saddle, the effort you give, the food you eat, the side adventures you take, the people you meet, and so on are completely up to you.  And sometimes things get in the way or new opportunities present themselves; some are disguised as inconveniences but will later turn out to become fond memories.

There is also something wonderful about packing up literally everything you need into two small panniers:  a camping stove, a pot and a few pairs of chopsticks, a jungle hammock, one pair of pants, two shirts, lots of green tea, a compass, numerous bike tools, four spare tires, a book (The Life of Pi), toiletries, a map, and a box of pancake mix.  Not all was necessary but it is surprisingly satisfying to carry all of your core belongings and live simply.

DQ Blizzard and Yoshi in hand, I met a surprisingly energetic Melissa at Pochetong Airport and whisked her back to her temporary residence in my living room.  Less than 24 hours later we would embark on a 350km journey that would give Melissa a crash course in rural Cambodian life and incorporate all of the highs and lows of cycling.

Google Map of Route

Phnom Penh to Kompong Cham (109.5 km, 7:10 hrs, 15 km/hour av.)
Panniers packed with camping supplies, spare tires, shiny new bike odometer, and a few pairs of clothing (no underwear of course), Melissa and I set out to meet Samnang (Lucky) and Betsy at Independence Monument, the official starting point of our trip.

With Lucky at the front on his Greg Lemond bike, we cycled through Phnom Penh’s steamy streets and conquered our first hill of many (the Japanese Friendship Bridge).  Shunning the congested, dusty “national highway,” we snaked our way on red dirt roads through small villages and vegetable fields.  We followed the Mekong north, parting with our gracious guide after an unlucky flat tire incident.  We rolled onwards, crossing the mighty Mekong on a ferry while munching on special Khmer New Years treats (coconut pastries) and replenishing our salts/sugars with an ice cold coke.

The road on the eastern bank of the Mekong stretched north all the way to Laos and served as an integral artery to provincial capitals for the numerous Vietnamese fishing villages and rice farms we passed.  Half-way to our destination I stopped to check out one of the makeshift checkpoints we encountered every few kilometers more closely.  Organized by elderly monks and village elders, I sensed that these checkpoints were not a threat to our personal security (it would have been a great cover though).  The monks were asking passing-by travelers for donations for their temple – delighted by the toothless old man’s kind tolerance of my broken Khmer, I unfurled a 1000 riel note from my bike jersey pocket.  Immediately praises began over the loudspeaker and we were all asked to join the group for a light lunch of rice, mystery meats, and pork-filled vegetables.  Impressed by our intention to ride to the next village 15 kilometers away (let alone Mondulkiri), the monks blessed our journey with a few “Hellos” over the loudspeaker and bade us farewell.

We baked in the afternoon sun with the temperatures rising to over 100F – poor Melissa continued to lather on sun lotion in vain and resorted to a long-sleeve shirt.  As Cambodians retreated to their hammocks for the afternoon siesta we rode on and on, stopping only briefly to play Khmer hackey sack with a shuttlecock-like device.  Melissa, conjuring her inner footie expertise, and Betsy were certainly the best – I only managed to kick a poor kid in the shin while diving after a volley.

The trail eventually disintegrated into lush, green cow pastures and rice fields – a situation I knew all too well – and we rode along the shore of the Mekong on a “trail” looking for a ferry to take us across to Kompong Cham.  We eventually found the ferry and settled down on the sandbanks to wait for its return.  In the height of the dry season the Mekong is 5-10 meters lower than usual, offering travelers a welcome respite in the pools of water that form around the sand dunes and some interesting views of large fishing boats washed up ashore.  One can feel the power of the Mekong to shape the environment and life around it.

The kind ferry proprietor chatted with us as he maneuvered the vessel through the reflection of the sun melting over endless rice paddies.  Exhausted, sun burnt, and famished, we rolled into Kompong Cham.

Kompong Cham to Memot (105.46 km, 6:01 hrs, 17.5 km/hr av., 36.5 km/hr max)

Reenergized from a good night of sleep and stomach full of chicken and cliff bars, we set out destined for Snoul (126km).  We were tested early with the steep one kilometer bridge spanning the Mekong and surprisingly intense morning heat (should have taken this as a given in retrospect).  Our efforts were rewarded as the day continued: flat, grey landscapes slowly became hilly and lush.  Irrigation channels and rivers twisted into the distance through the fertile rice paddies of Kompong Cham province, while herds of scrawny cows crisscrossed the road – quite the road hazard.

Other than the last leg of The PEPY Ride, I had seldom encountered true hills before this trip.  Now I am hopelessly addicted and allocate at least one day each weekend to the 75km ride to Phnom Penh’s nearest “mountain.”  Long-distance cycling relies on patience, an awareness of the rhythms and needs of one’s body, and an iron behind.  Usually the goals and motivation are trivial: 10 km more until the next village or a cup of green tea and a book at the end of a long day.  Hills provide a welcome respite to the monotony by creating an immediate, challenging goal with a defined end point (plus the “wee!” factory of cruising downhill).

It wasn’t until I fully understood how to pace myself and utilize my gears efficiently that I began to actually enjoy hills, even if motos and trucks drifted by effortlessly while I inched forward.  I found myself concentrating intensely on my breathing and “listening” to my body as it adjusted to the physical strains I placed upon it.  By concentrating so deeply I gained a complete sense of clarity – an almost meditative state where I often found myself smiling and enjoying the slow ascent.

It was perhaps due to this state that Betsy and I somehow managed to lose Melissa at the top of one particularly brutal hill.  Fearing kidnapping, bus accident, rabid dog attack, cow stampede, spontaneous combustion, or <insert here>, I took off my panniers and raced the 10 hilly kilometers back to the village we previously stopped in.  My only lead came after a series of mistranslations that somehow led a few construction workers to graciously offer me a tour of their cement factory.  Thanks to the translation help of a friend in Phnom Penh and a newfound friend from a local village eventually we reunited with Melissa after dusk, who was a full 15 km ahead of us in the town of Memot.  She was already riding deep into the rubber plantations outside of Memot and probably would have kept going if a very nice man hadn’t convinced her to turn around.  That’s the power of meditative cycling.

Exhausted after another 100+ km day, we downed some sugary beverages and homemade trail mix before parking our bikes at a delicious-smelling pepper shop and turning in for the night.

Memot to Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary (80.44 km, 4:46 hrs, 16.9 km/hour av.)

We retraced Melissa’s solo journey through the rubber plantations outside Memot and glided along the road as it curved northward.  Low on energy, we bought fried bananas from a small roadside vendor and watched a child play with an insect pet.  A naked mentally-ill man gently maneuvered a 1000 riel note from my hand while we ate, a sad testament to the state of mental health support in Cambodia and developing countries in general I imagine.

We arrived in Snoul at noon, an extremely poor town famous only for two things: the t-junction for all travelers destined to Mondulkiri and the site of the only conventional battle fought by US forces in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.  The latter involved a total of over 90,000 US soldiers at its height and reduced the entire city to rubble.  Bikes cleaned and tuned-up, we turned right down the potholed dirt road toward Mondulkiri and the distant plateau of Sen Monorom.

Heeding advice from a friend, we stocked up on enough water to last two days and entered the Snoul Wildlife Preserve.  The hills grew more intense and human contact dropped precipitously.  The beautiful, if not intimidating, dense jungle graciously allowed our presence on that thin strip of dirt road.  Because we weren’t in a loud, obtrusive car we were able to catch glimpses of monkeys, birds, squirrels and other wildlife in the canopy surrounding us.

Using a trick I learned from Bear on “Man vs. Wild,” I calculated that we only had 45 minutes of sunlight left and we quickly found a place to camp off of a small side path.  We strung up our hammocks, inspected a large centipede, and ate a surprisingly delicious dinner of ramen noodles.  In my suspended peapod I reviewed the map to plot out Day 4’s route and listened to the noisy ambience of nighttime in the forest.  Even a Khmer dance party could be heard in the distance – something typically a bit unpleasant to the ears but strangely comforting that star-filled night.

Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary to Sen Monorom (55 hilly, steep km and pickup truck)

I awoke before first light, too excited by the prospect of a hot cup of tea to continue dreaming.  I sipped from my metal cup as I listened to nature’s dayshift awaken, and I felt confident for the first time that I could gladly continue this routine for weeks or months.  Betsy and I created a delicious pancake/trail mix concoction and I boiled a pot of Lipton’s exciting new fusion tea flavor (pancake herbal green tea) for everyone.

(Side note:  Interesting how we often travel to escape routine, when in fact we typically end up establishing new, perhaps even more mundane or difficult routines while on the road: wake up, find food in dark, cook food, clean pots with water, fold up hammock, check bike, ride for 8-10 hours, repeat.)

We were lucky we camped where we did, as the lush forest gave way to heavily deforested, drab landscapes.  Utterly depressing.  Thankfully, an impromptu Khmer New Years dance party roadblock lifted the spirits of our weary team, now officially named Awt Ban Chope K’nyome (“You can’t stop me!”).  Covered in menthol baby powder and thoroughly stretched out from performing the robot, water sprinkler and other modern moves with the pleasant villagers, we pressed on toward the small settlement of Keo Sema – the halfway point on the road to Sen Monorom.

I knew that the hardest bit of the trip awaited – 50 to 70 km of unrelenting hills with gradients of up to 35 degrees and no human habitations or water sources.  We stocked up on bottled water in Keo Sema and headed out in the heat of day.  My bike, sagging under the weight of the camping gear, 15L of water and Meli’s backpack, refused to climb the first hill.  It was simply too long and steep – even pushing the bike up was a challenge.  We redistributed the gear and continued onwards.

We made slow, painful progress – 10km in an hour.  At that rate, it would have taken us at least one more day of cycling to reach Sen Monorom.  There was no respite – the hills became mountain passes with few downhills.  Sunburnt, sick, and exhausted we decided to give in.  I can’t say I wasn’t a bit relieved at the prospect of a truck – this was the hardest riding I had ever done and I was incredibly impressed by Betsy and Melissa’s determination.

That said, I was extremely let down at the time.  I wanted to experience the ups and downs, the grinding of gears, the accomplishments, the frustratingly slow ascents, the thrill of rocky descents into lush forest, to get as far as I could and then just pitch a tent and try it all again the next day even if it took 2 more days.  But in the end it was better to not continue on bike and share the time with friends than to ride on alone.

We stopped next to the only square meter of shade available – unfortunately we had to share it with a centipede, who seemed rather unhappy with the arrangement.  After an hour of vainly attempting for flag down a passing truck, two old Khmer men and their dogs emerged from a nearby laterite quarry.  They walked over, squatted next to us in the shade, and lamented with us over our situation.  After breaking the ice, the pair asked if we had any liquor – sharing some Mekong Whiskey with the pair would have really hit the spot, but sadly we were without.  Our trail mix and granola bars received lukewarm reviews from the duo, while my sun burnt legs were the subject of much affectionate stroking and squeezing.

With the ritual inner thigh massage completed, the pair announced they would absolutely solve our problem of finding a truck.  The older man whipped off his blue scarf and shouted at passing-by trucks, eventually finding a willing candidate.  We loaded on to the Toyota pickup and promised the come back to visit our kind quarry friends.

The ascents and descents grew increasingly more intense, even in the relative comfort of the pickup, and it was very clear that there were no villages to be found in the vicinity.  We reached the plateau near Sen Monorom after an exhilarating hour – dozens of shades of green speckled across rolling hills that stretched to the horizon greeted our arrival.  While largely deforested, it was sublime.  Swathes of rainclouds interrupted the dark blue horizon, as if someone had taken a white paint brush and made a few indiscriminate strokes across the sky.  On our bikes once again, we cycled along the plateau and watched the low-hanging rainclouds slowly envelop the hilltops of Sen Monorom.

Sen Monorom

In less than 50 words: beautiful secluded waterfall, disappointing huge waterfall, got hopelessly lost while off-roading on a moto, ate best food in Cambodia prepared by a quirky old German woman and her bulldog puppy, and met an awesome bar/guesthouse owner (Lucky) who I pledged to mountain bike with to Ratanakiri next time.

With little resolve and even tougher roads ahead, our team called it quits at Sen Monorom.  I’ll have to wait until September/October to tackle the Sen Monorom – Ratanakiri “Death Highway” with Lucky – can’t wait.

In the end, I hope I converted two more souls to the joys of cycling, as a standup British gentleman had done for me nearly two years ago.  Once you have the opportunity to feel the land change beneath your wheels and engage with the people you so often drive quickly by, I think it’s hard to choose teleportation (airplane and automobile) when given the choice.

Motorcycling Along the Southern Coast (Again)

I have no doubt bored you in the past with my descriptions of Kep, the sleepy seaside town on the southern coast of Cambodia.  Majestic French villas once housed colonialists weary of the heat and bustle of Phnom Penh.  Today only dilapidated remnants of those structures remain; the memories of Cambodia’s colonial past are as faded as the dull yellow walls of vacant villas.

Well – one could argue that colonialism is still present under the guise of tourism and “sustainable development.”  The French represent a smaller percentage of travelers to Kep than before, but this quaint fishing town is experiencing a resurgence of visitors not seen since the early 1900’s.  I first visited Kep only a few weeks after my arrival in June of 2007.  Since then I have returned more times than I can count and seen the subtle changes that have resulted from its boost in fame: tons more bungalows at Veranda resort, a $300/night five star hotel frequented by Branjolina, the tripling of crab prices at Kim Li Restaurant, and stable electricity (which allows for ice cream!).  Whenever I visit, I wonder aloud: “Kep is beautiful and pleasant because it is quiet and sleepy.  Without limits on commercial space (specifically hotels), how much longer until Kep’s charm fades and every business loses out equally?  Then travelers will simply look for the next Kep until that town’s values and character is compromised…”  Every time I approach Kep on the winding seaside road, I hold my breath with a gulp of salty air and hope that it’s still the same place of fond memories.

(I realize it is very selfish of me to want something to remain the same despite the opportunity for local residents to benefit from increased tourism.  I have many ideas about this, rest assured.  Bottom line is that if I were a tourism official, I would recognize that Kep has a horrid beach and will never make it as a traditional party beach town.  Best to regulate hotel construction, thereby regulating visitors and attempting to restore a equilibrium with the local environment/community.  Supply and demand should allow for price increases, reverberating through the local economy.  Simplistic overview – but somewhat similar concepts are working in Bhutan.)

The best part of going to Kep is, well, going to Kep.  I’ve been by bike, moto, bus, bamboo train (ok maybe only 5 minutes on the train), taxi… Given the choice, I’d always opt for bike or moto.  The way I figure, Kep is always sleepy, quaint Kep with few surprises – I’ll enjoy a novel on a hammock from my mountainside bungalow and devour crab until I’ve sworn off seafood.  The journey south is the one element I can control to provide a sense of adventure or variability in an otherwise increasingly routine weekend excursion.  Oh the experiences I’ve had on National Route 2: packs of wild dogs, near accidents, massive rain storms, sublime sunsets, fresh Belgium waffles, heavily armed men, Dr. Robert…  This trip was no exception.

Jess and I loaded up the dilapidated Honda Dream rental, bade farewell to Susan/Yoshi, and hit the road hoping to get in as many kilometers as possible before the inevitable afternoon rains.  Progress was slow – the moto refused to break the 70 km/hour mark (whether it was engine or aerodynamic constraints I could not tell).  Shortly after crossing the halfway point of our journey the rains began.  We sought shelter underneath a local (smuggled) gas vendor’s hut.  The gas vendor was an extraordinary salesman, convincing the pair of us to part with a dollar in exchange for a two hot pink ponchos.  We rolled onwards, dry and, most importantly, stylish.  Turns out these ponchos may have been the most important impulse purchase of my life.

The rains subsided as we crossed the second set of tracks one passes near to Kep.  It’s easy to remember train crossings in Cambodia because there are rarely tracks and even more rarely trains.  However, on this day a faint whimper of a train horn sounded in the distance.  Naturally interested in this strange phenomenon, I pulled the moto over on the shoulder of the road.  It was here I learned the importance of proper railway crossing planning and construction.  The crossing was immediately after a sharp curve in the road with tall trees on the inside of the curve.  Anyone driving fast around the corner would have little time to react to an obstacle, particularly on wet tarmac.

Jess and I watched the train gasp by with its cargo of gasoline and oil – we were soon joined by other motorists and villagers who were eager to take in the rare sight (foreigners or train I am not sure).  The next ten seconds were/are strikingly clear.  A small truck, engine at full throttle, passed stopped motorists and rounded the corner 10 meters ahead in our lane.  The truck noticed the train and slammed on the brakes, causing the rear of the vehicle to spin out.  I remember thinking it’s not going to hit us – it’s going to be close but it’s not going to hit us.  Jess (wisely) leaped off of the moto, while I leaned strongly to my right side and watched the side view mirror pass above my head.  The truck spun by, hitting the train head on and lodging itself under one of the carriages.  Pinned, the truck was being dragged along the track toward a 3 meter drop off.  The driver, miraculous alive despite the shattered windshield and massive damage, ejected himself from the twisted truck to safety.  Badly shaken, the driver was given a good slap by a man armed with an AK-47 (Police officer? Good Samaritan?  Dr. Robert?), while we were given handshakes and congratulations.

We inspected the skid marks left by the car – about 6 inches separated our moto from the absent-minded driver.  I’d like to think he saw our pink ponchos at the last second.  I’d also like to think that I pulled a Keanu-Reeves-in-the-Matrix style move to slowdown time and evade the truck’s path; more than likely I was scared stiff.  I kick-started the moto and we continued our journey, excited to have seen a real, operating train in Cambodia…

The return trip was decidedly less exciting.  We took a detour to the lovely town of Kampot, nestled along a tidal river and in the shadow of majestic Bokor Mountain.  We ate breakfast at Epic Arts Café, a restaurant and community space that provides capacity building and employment opportunities for disabled Cambodians.  Through art they encourage acceptance, empowerment, and independence.  There are few places more inspirational than that small café in the middle of a tiny town in southern Cambodia – few places more delicious too.  Pear and cinnamon shakes, fresh bagels, banana porridge, fresh Laos coffee, scones, carrot cake… My kind of development project.

In the end I think it’s the freedom that attracts me:  Freedom to take it slow.  Freedom to explore that interesting dirt road.  Freedom to stop for a fresh waffle from a toothless, French-speaking woman near train track crossing number one on the west side of the road.  Freedom to enjoy a picnic under a tree and watch the sunset.  Freedom to forget plans, schedules, appointments and treat the journey as an opportunity to seize the mindless moments in transit.

Beach Life: Koh Rong

Exhausted from vacations, I was relieved to find out that another five-day weekend was scheduled for mid-May.  The destination:  Lazy Beach on Koh Rong Samloen, about 2 hours off of the coast of Sihanoukville.  Melissa, Jess, Susan, Gayla and Mr. Ruskov (cheap Russian vodka) were on the roster for the getaway.  My ability to relax and do absolutely nothing would certainly be put to the test at “Lazy Beach.”  I was nearly kicked out of Bodhi Villa in Kampot, as I couldn’t fully subscribe to their motto “CHILL OUT” (the fact that it’s written in caps on their sign seems inconsistent with the intended philosophy).

Bob Dylan’s “Tambourine Man” accompanied our (my) arrival at the secluded bay – 1km of white sand beach with crystal clear waters and dense primary jungle just beyond the shore.  Bungalow number 7 was only ten feet from the beach and was equipped with the hammock where I would spend many an afternoon dozing, sipping banana lassi’s, or reading Ryukyu Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (enjoyable and quick read but nothing noteworthy).

Our second day I decided to walk along the rocky shore to see what I could see.  Shirtless, bamboo pole in hand, (and most importantly) on my own, I delved into the world of fantasy and pretended to be Tom Hanks in Castaway.  My attempts at catching crabs proved fruitless and the closest I could find to a Wilson was a discarded pair of flip flops that had washed ashore.  Turning inland, I searched for a suitable tree to climb to see what could be seen.  I was apprehensive about venturing too deep into the jungle, though, for fear of snakes or the Others, and I quickly returned to my original rocky path along the coast.  When I reached the end of the bay, I sat in silence for awhile beneath an overhanging rock.  A few minutes later a group of crab-eating macaques appeared from the edge of the jungle and climbed gracefully onto the rocks.  I watched as the beautiful mammals searched for delicious treats and was fascinated by the precision with which they targeted, caught, and devoured the small crustaceans.

Eventually the macaques noticed my presence, spurring a heated debate amongst two of the largest members.  A few started walking toward my position and I instantly regretted my lack of wilderness experience:  “Should I make myself as big as possible to assert dominance?  Should I run?  Should I offer a bite of my biscuit as a peace offering, perhaps securing an invite from the leader to join the pack on all sorts of jungle adventures?”  Before I could decide a crack of thundered echoed across the island and the monkeys melted into the jungle to avoid the rains to come.  I continued along the slippery rocks, following the coast toward an adjacent bay.  After three hours of tough hiking and a near monkey showdown, I headed back to the security and comfort of my hammock to catch up with Robert Fisk.

One night we hiked up a hill to an old French artillery station and lighthouse.  The island is officially owned by the Cambodian Navy and they have somehow managed to get a few of the 1940’s-era AA guns and artillery in working order.  Technically visitors aren’t allowed to tramp around Cambodia’s first life of defense against the Thais, but luckily the proprietors were vodka collectors and were happy to add another bottle to their collection in exchange for looking the other way.

There is little else exciting to mention about Lazy Beach – it was exactly as a beach trip should be: swim, sunbathe, read, sleep, eat seafood, repeat.  The owners (two Brits) were fantastic hosts, the food was amazing, and I can’t wait to go back to reenergize.

The Greatest Adventure of All

Melissa’s arrival served as the basis for the greatest adventure of all these past two months.

I’ve always questioned the purpose of travel and my strong desire to do so.  Is it because I am unhappy with where I am, what I am doing, or the people I am with?  Do I travel for myself or to generate stories (like an adventure junky)?  What is so different about the act of traveling – how/why does it make us act and feel differently?  Receptivity – according to Alain de Botton (author of The Art of Travel).

When we travel, we become more receptive about the world around us.  We often shed the obligations and characters we’ve established, willing to accept whatever comes our way.  We notice small things that we would give little regard back home.  Because we’ve established ourselves in one place, we (consciously or unconsciously) assume to know it.  We gloss over the details as we form routines and become more accustomed to our surroundings.  If one simply adjusts their attitude and paradigm, perhaps he/she can feel the same emotions as when on the road to a new destination.

The simultaneous arrival of both Melissa and de Button in Phnom Penh gave me the unique opportunity to rebuild my perceptions of the “home” I had grown accustomed to.  Melissa asked the questions I had stopped asking and saw the details I had started ignoring.  Sambo’s daily walk through rush hour traffic between Wat Phnom and his home, old men playing chess at iced coffee street cafés, steamed corn vendors dozing in hammocks, dozens of colorful kites fluttering in the wind, and even the Royal Palace, a massive, beautiful home for the King of Cambodia – all of which I drive by with little notice on my rush to and fro work.  Setting my body and mind to “Travel” when I am in Phnom Penh elicits an overwhelming flood of sensations: the bright orange robes of monks against the gray storefronts, Sambo’s little rubber shoes designed to protect his feet from the rough pavement, the smell of a decaying body awaiting cremation at a temple near my house fighting against the delicious aroma of fresh Khmer donuts next door, the shirtless old man across from my house pushing a surprisingly well-dressed baby around the block in an stroller.

So, I am trying to stay open and receptive to changes in the environment, recognizing that some of the best adventures are simply being overlooked.  And, more importantly, it’s not the location but the people you share the experience with.  I won’t continue on – this is already quite long! – but there is nothing quite like night swimming in phosphorescence off of a tiny island with a belly full of whiskey and group of friends.


~ by responsiblenomad on June 21, 2010.

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