When my best friend moved semi-permanently to Cambodia, I was devastated. I thought I’d never be able to survive the separation and I immediately made plans to visit her. I worked hard and saved as hard as I could until two years later, I was finally ready to buy my flights. The feeling in my stomach as I clicked the “buy ticket” button on the Air Asia website.
This was my first trip overseas without my Daddy. Instead of following him and letting his experience shape our journey, I set out with two of my friends and prepared to construct our own adventure.
We left from Sydney International Airport. I can still remember the nervous butterflies in my stomach as we checked in and went through customs. Little did I know how automatic this procedure would become! Not only was I nervous but so tired, We had left home on the train at least 6hrs before at around midnight and we still had allot of hours to go before we were safe in Cambodia. The combination of tiredness and nervousness left eating breakfast impossible so by the time we arrived in Kuala Lumpur ten or so hours later, I was starving. We would have snacked on the plane but Air Asia doesn’t provide complimentary meals and our flight only accepted Malaysian ringgit. We didn’t leave the airport in KL. Instead we scoured the whole building for some kind of food that looked somewhat familiar but wasn’t McDonalds. The three of us decided to go with noodles from an authentic looking asian place. Authentic indeed. My cousin Shaya enjoyed it but I was blown away by the hotness. I thought that the most mild version would be at least bearable. It was. Barely.
Our connecting flight to Siem Reap wasn’t until the next morning so we scouted out a quietish corner and, using our carry-on luggage as pillows, we lay down to try and get some rest. It was the most interrupted sleep of my life I think. Because the lights in the airport didn’t go off (of course) I couldn’t tell the passing of time and due to my fear of missing our flight, I had a frequent urge to get up to check the time. I must have fallen into a real sleep at some stage – probably from absolute exhaustion – because when I woke up the next time (to check the clock), we were surrounded by other passengers who had laid themselves down in rows around us trying to sleep also. Somehow, this made me feel safer and I was able to get some okay rest until our next flight.
The moment we stepped off the airplane in Siem Reap, we stepped into a different world. The airport staff yelled in incomprehensible syllables and signs were in three different languages. While the facilities were clean and modern enough, it was still very different to what I was used to. We stood in line to claim our luggage. We stood in line to buy our visa. All the time, my heart was pounding, nervous whether they would let us in. Scared that they would throw us in jail. Fears are often irrational.
Finally we navigated through customs and stepped onto the witheringly hot curb. At first we didn’t see anyone who was remotely familiar. But then a white man approached us. It was Ely’s boss and I was so glad to see him! We followed him across the melting asphalt and climbed into his ute. I don’t remember anything of the drive back to the school where Ely works but I remember the relief of knowing that we were there safely and among friends. Who spoke English.
Our time in Cambodia was time I’ll never forget. For ten days we spent time with the orphans and day-students and explored the area. The night markets were a highlight of our trip. One evening we took a tuk tuk into Siem Reap and from there explored the town. We ate local food and delicious smoothies from a street stand and then wandered around the brightly lit markets selecting souvenirs to take home to our families. By this time I was enjoying the new culture. The street musicians, playing strange wining music on their traditional instruments, the loud cries from vendors and constant chatters from shoppers. The beggars lined up long the bridge, pleading for coins unsettled my sheltered country heart because I knew I could never give enough to help them all. After a fun evening, we caught the tuk tuk back to the school campus for the night.
Another must see for the Siem Reap area is Angkor Wat and the other temples. To tour through them is a fascinating journey in history and architecture. We were lucky enough to be able to explore them with Seyha Pen of DH Goshen Tours Cambodia. His knowledge of the area and the history as well as his stories and engaging personalities kept the four of us girls laughing and interested for hours, even though the sun beat down on us mercilessly. He even took us to an amazing little restaurant at the end of the tour.
So, for my first international adventure, Cambodia served me well and opened the door to many more to come! The one tip that I learned in Cambodia is summed up in this Cambodian proverb:
Negotiate a river by following its bends,
enter a country by following its customs.
When visiting a country or a culture, immerse yourself fully in it to really experience life as those people live it. Eat their food, travel in their tuk tuks, visit their markets – not just the touristy ones, sleep on the floor, embrace their life and you will be embraced by them.