What I learned from travel to Cambodia

Today it’s Cambodia on the mind. I saw interviews from people who have just returned home to Australia from Cambodia on relief flights as Cambodia moves to tough restrictions due to the Corona Virus, and it got me thinking a bit. What countries did I really learn something from by visiting? The first country that springs into my mind is India. But the second is Cambodia.

Why Cambodia? I mean, it was long time ago now when I visited. It was in fact nearly TWENTY years. I went in November/December 2000. And thus all my photos are on film. South-East Asia from Europe or especially the States may seem an awful long way away, but for Australians we feel like it’s practically our backyard. Singapore is less than SIX hours away for example, Bali less. Sure, an eight hour flight to Thailand may seem an awfully long flight for some, there’s no doubt, but when we compare it to flights to Europe, The USA or even South America, it’s basically nothing!

At Angkor, Cambodia 2000

Cambodia is the place I settled on that I really wanted to go for my second solo overseas trip. I’d been back in Australia for a certain amount of time, not sure exactly how long it was when I decided where I wanted to go – but probably sometime early 2000. I mixed it in with India, Thailand (very fleeting) and the UK, but this was my primary destination.

Things that today sound awful to me – overlanding in a pick up truck over roads that barely deserve to be called ‘roads’ for eight hours and things like that, just seemed like an adventure back then. I got online on the Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree and somehow soon found myself in a group of travellers. Four of use who would meet in Bangkok and the next day make our way by train to the border.

And it was this experience in travelling with these three that I think taught me a lot about travelling. They were all probably more experienced travellers than I was, I’d seven months solo but apart from that I was still pretty fresh and certainly felt it. What though I learnt most was about motivation, being organised and making the most of where you are. Because in 1999 I have to admit that I travelled and to a lot of different places but I had a lot of days that were wasted, spent in hotels doing very little. Contrast that with my last travels last year, and well, that was the exact opposite and I think it’s fair to say I could have really done with a proper rest day every week.

Here I was though, meeting up with three girls – one from France, one from Switzerland and one from the UK who I guess was generally the ‘leader’ or the main organiser. And what I realise looking back is that in this environment, I was along for the ride a lot. For example, sunrise over Angkor Wat. It’s an almost essential experience and it is truly beautiful. But – if I was not in this group who randomly found each other online, well, I would not have been motivated enough to get up for that back then.

Cambodia in 2000 was hard work. Navigating transport was not easy, although I guess it wasn’t all that hard to find. At the border crossing at Poipet we suddenly found ourselves looking for transport to Battambang, it was six to eight hours in a pick up and it was on probably the worst roads that I have ever been on. For example, crossings over rivers just get washed away – BRIDGEs – get washed away and not replaced. This is from the main border point in Thailand and the road goes to the first main town in Cambodia. The road was similar and even longer to Siem Repp. Today, I understand the roads are completely different. Because of the volume of tourists. But in 2000 Cambodia was emerging as a destination.

As the travel went on, and we were together around 16 days maybe more, there were a couple of things that happened, that I did/didn’t do which I still feel bad about today, but they were important lessons I guess.

Phnom Penh is the capital and I have to say, easily the least favourite place probably for all of us in Cambodia. FYI – the itinerary was Thailand to Battambang, to Siem Repp & Angkor Wat, to Phnom Penh, Kampot and Sihanoukville on the coast which in 2000 was a really nice beach area to visit (I hear less so these days). My memories of the capital are it being hot and not much fun. Of a weird night club with a LOT of obvious prostitution happening, a worn market, not a lot of friendly people or people you felt you could trust, and taking the key of the hotel room with me when we left.

As was the fashion in 2000, transport around towns and cities was on the back of a motorbike. Not sure how it is today, but I am presuming tuk tuks have moved in and taken over, but back in 2000 it was young adults trying to make a few bucks by zooming around with a passenger on their bike. We were off to the transport hub to take a bus to Kampot. Or it might have been a share taxi but I think this leg was the one and only bus because it was leaving from Phnom Penh. Aside from pickups, our intercity travel had been on speed boats which is a lot of fun.

It was when we got to the hub that I reached into my pocket and pulled out the key and my head fell. But it was on the insistence of the others that I agreed to go back to the hotel. It held everyone up, and I was probably worried about the cost, but it was the right thing to do and I would like to think that if that situation happened today I wouldn’t hesitate. But I believe twenty years ago my instinct was ‘oh well, they’ve probably got a spare’. I was pushed into doing the right thing by my fellow travellers. And that I think is important in travel. If you make a mistake and can fix it, you should.

Dinner with new friends, Kampot, Cambodia, 2000

It was in Kampot that my travel mates got annoyed that I wasn’t doing my share of the organising. And I wasn’t so motivated as them and would be happy chilling a lot more, but we needed to find a group of locals with motorbikes to take us to see the sights, and it was my turn and I baulked. To be honest – more than a lack of motivation, it was fear that held me back. Or should I say a lack of confidence perhaps? I can’t remember exactly what transpired, if I did organise it or not, but at best I probably did it with one of the others, but actually it’s not hard or scary. But if you don’t put yourself out there a little bit, well, you don’t get the rewards either.

And what I learnt, travelling in a country which was more difficult than most are these days, was how to do things, how to interact and how to respect and value the people of the country that I was in. And it sounds like things that should be obvious or logical, but actually in observing the three I was with, I learnt an awful lot. I developed as a human being. Much more than travelling in Europe in 1999 and just going with the flow. I learnt the value of having a definite plan because honestly, I made it up as I went along in 1999 (except for Egypt actually) and a more solid plan would have helped in some places – in particular India, Thailand and Iceland.

Umbrella at Sihanoukeville

Fast forward to 2006 and I travelled West Africa, a place as challenging as Cambodia was in 2000 perhaps, ALONE. I organised my route, what I wanted to see, transport which was mostly just shared taxis and more all off my own bat, and I saw and achieved quite a bit (albeit before malaria took hold lol). One thing I am sure of – this would never have happened if I hadn’t had the experience in Cambodia that I did. Heck – my 2004 trip from Bangladesh to Europe by land I organised too.

Appreciate where you are when you travel, respect the people who live there, try and do the right thing where possible, engage, learn, try to put away fears and travel is the ultimate in life experiences. Truly. Thanks for reading – and May the Journey Never End!

2 thoughts on “What I learned from travel to Cambodia

  1. Thank you for your frank impressions! Now, during the pandemic, all trips are suspended … We are waiting for new experiences after quarantine has ended! Good luck!

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