The other night, I spent close to 3 hours researching where I want to go in Asia. Let me be honest, I’m not heading back to Asia for awhile yet (Oct/Nov 2016), but I made the mistake of going to a bookstore and I quickly became lost in the travel section. And I’m not talking about just any old bookstore, I’m talking about the largest bookstore in the WORLD, Powell’s City of Books. It takes up a whole city block in Portland, and the travel section alone is a good corner of that block.
I turned 24 on Monday, and it inevitably made me think back on my 23rd year.
I’ve gone into detail and referenced in passing how much this last year has meant to me, how much I have grown in the process, and how many new experiences I have been blessed to have. More importantly, this year has shown me how to enjoy moments. There’s a reason why one of my favorite song titles is called “Elusive”, why I talk so much about fleeting moments being the most beautiful, sad, and inspiring all at the same time.
Yoga, open-mindedness, and travel have combined to create, maybe not a completely new perspective, but definitely a wider one that I find more beneficial to live with each day. I’ve been rewarded in return with new doors open before me, a whole new cast of friends, confidence, and a type of grace that has never been present before.
I’m a fan of simple aspects that happen every day, I call them daily doses of beauty. In my 23rd year, one of my favorite things was to watch the sunset and/or sunrise in every new place I traveled. Each one containing the same structure, but holding a unique awesomeness that never seemed to fade even with how many I witnessed last year.
Take a moment to enjoy it. That’s what I’ve come away with in the last year. I don’t want my life focused on making the most money, choosing a path based on other’s opinions, or how many material things I own. I want my life to be full of moments simply enjoying it. I want the memories.
Happiness isn’t a permanent state of being, it’s a choice. I think I’m starting to understand what that means now.
From my 23rd year, here are my favorite memories of sunsets and sunrises from around the world.
San Diego, USA
Sunset. Okay, technically this sunset was when I was still 22, but I had to include it because it was the last sunset I saw in San Diego before I left for Australia. I was grabbing dinner with one of my close friends in Ocean Beach, and it was one of those moments that made me second guess what exactly I thought I was doing by leaving such a beautiful place.
But I knew I had to leave in order to come back a stronger person someday, “with grace and flowers in my hair”.
Auckland, New Zealand
Sunrise. After the longest flight I’ve experienced in my life, I had a layover in Auckland, New Zealand before heading to Melbourne, Australia. This view was from the airport waiting room. Whatever anxiety I had about jumping into the unknown, and to what this year would amount to, faded away when I saw the sun rising.
Sunrise. The view I saw from my bed every weekend morning at my apartment in Melbourne, when I woke up for my cafe job. Melbourne had the most amazing sunrises and sunsets, usually littered with the many hot air balloons at sunrise.
The Great Ocean Road, Australia
Sunset. A trip taken with one of my friends from San Diego, our epic two day road trip on The Great Ocean Road was one of the most scenic drives I’ve been on.
Sunset. The deep yellow sunsets in Indonesia, one of my favorite aspects of the country.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Sunrise. On my bucket list for the year, seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. One of my favorite memories from Southeast Asia.
Koh Tao, Thailand
Sunset. Thailand has the best pink and purple sunsets.
Sunset. The last time I walked the Bondi to Coogee walk, the place that first inspired me to move to Sydney.
Sunset. I have a fondness for stormy sunsets, Sydney is the queen of stormy sunsets. We got along.
Tropfest – Sydney, Australia
Sunset. The biggest short film fest in the world. I went by myself and ended up making and meeting friends along the way. The sun setting over the festival before the show started.
Sunset. Terrigal, in central New South Wales, is a small little town not many people have heard of outside of Australia, yet it has one of the most beautiful beaches I saw all year.
This day was pretty perfect, starting off with discovering Newcastle, and eventually making my way down to Terrigal to watch the sunset on the beach and spend the evening exploring the town with a boy I liked.
Byron Bay, Australia
Sunrise. The first stop on my East Coast travels, I begrudgingly woke up to an early alarm to watch the sunrise on the beach my last day in Byron. It was well worth the effort.
Surfers Paradise, Australia
Sunset. I may not have been a big fan of Surfers Paradise as a whole, but with the reflections and colors that lit up the sky my only night there, I’d have to say it was one of my favorite sunsets of the year.
Airlie Beach, Australia
Sunset. Oh Airlie, you are one of the most beautiful places in the world.
The Whitsundays, Australia
Sunset. Sleeping on a boat in The Whitsundays after a day spent diving for the first time in The Great Barrier Reef.
Wellington, New Zealand
Sunset. A day trip to Days Bay and Eastbourne in the Wellington region, the first time I’ve seen the beach since arriving in New Zealand.
What are your daily doses of beauty? Where did you experience your favorite sunset?
After many technical difficulties, I’ve finally been successful in uploading my video celebrating my one year travelversary!!
In the last year, I visited 8 countries, moved to 3 new cities, volunteered at 3 music festivals, and went to an outdoor short film festival. I rode an elephant, learned how to cook Thai food, went to my first footy game, got my scuba certification, and kayaked in the beautiful Halong Bay. I tried more new flavors than my taste buds had ever known before, including the likes of kangaroo, snake blood, emu, and crocodile. I’ve had the most challenging and best time of my life. It’s hard to convey in words what this year has meant to me, so I thought instead I’d say it in pictures. Thank you to all of the people, places, and experiences that have had an impact on my year abroad. It has been one hell of a ride, may the journey continue… 😉
[vimeo 92379042 w=500 h=281]
“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” – Miriam Adeney
My favorite quote from 2013, and one that I find pretty relevant to my life these days as a hopeless wanderer. 2013 was a year of change, new beginnings, and a lot of falling headfirst outside of my comfort zone. I traveled to 7 new countries, attended 4 festivals, moved to two different cities, said more goodbyes than I’d like to remember, yet have made countless more friends and opened a variety of new doors in the process. 2013 was in a word, epic. I don’t think I’ve grown more in a year previously than I did in 2013, I have a feeling 2014 is going to be even better and more adventurous. Here’s a glance at what my year of travel and spontaneity included.
January – New York, Oregon, California
I started this travel blog just before the New Year, my first posts consisted of my travels around the States for the holidays and reminiscent anecdotes from my summer in Tuscany. I started the New Year off with a bang partying under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City for New Year’s Eve.
“Last June, I walked across the stage at my college graduation with the words “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams“ glued to my cap. I found the quote appropriate, not only because my college at UC San Diego is called Eleanor Roosevelt, but because those words are what I hope to live by as a recent graduate.” – The Future Belongs to those who Believe in the Beauty of their Dreams
February – California
The month of the most change for me in 2013, this was one of my final months in San Diego before moving to Oz. I pierced my belly button, donated most of my belongings, cut off a foot of my hair, and broke things off with my longterm boyfriend.
“There has been a lot to think about with my departure date coming up so soon, and my whole trip itself becoming more real than it has ever felt before. I’m proud of myself for embarking on such an endeavor, one which I wouldn’t of had the confidence or the bravery to pull off as little as four years ago when I first started college. On the other hand, I can’t help feeling selfish and even guilty sometimes for leaving certain people behind to chase my own dreams of traveling, knowing that I’ll miss out on so much in the process of fulfilling what I want to do with my life.” – Walkabout: La Jolla Edition
March – California
My final month in San Diego, I left two jobs and an internship behind and said my final goodbyes to my friends and my life in the beloved place I called home. Even though bittersweet, I was also extremely excited to take on my Aussie adventure, knowing how much it would benefit me in the long run. I lived in the moment, appreciating all those who had touched my time in San Diego, and enjoyed all that the seaside city had to offer. I also made sure to eat as much Mexican food as possible, I even had a burrito on the way to the airport.
“I’ve realized the only way to love the life I live is through passion, optimism, and spontaneity. So, this year my travel resolutions will revolve around just those things, letting go of the negative aspects in my life in the process.” – Travel Resolutions 2013
April – California, Melbourne
My big move to Melbourne and my first month in Australia was a whirlwind of new experiences, tram rides, footy games, new friends, the best coffee, and learning how to live like an Aussie and adapt to colder weather.
“The sun is gleaming through the palm trees, I’m riding alongside the ocean, the orange sky as my canopy. What a way to say goodbye to this cherished place I’ve taken for my own, a place I call home even with these restless bones.” – On leaving everything behind to follow you dreams
May – Melbourne
I celebrated my 23rd birthday and bundled up to settle in for the long hall for my first Aussie winter and my second consecutive winter coming from California with opposite seasons. I explored what Melba had to offer during the winter months… it was heaps. From museums, to hidden coffee shops, to live gigs and warm dumplings, I loved spending winter in Melbourne.
“There are few things I love more than layering up in a warm sweater, finding a cozy cafe, and getting lost in a good book while sipping on my daily caffeine intake. Especially, when the coffee is as good as it is in Melbourne, and the cafe atmosphere just as phenomenal. I try and hit a different cafe every day because there are too many good ones to choose from.” – 7 ways to spend the winter months in the city
June – Melbourne
In June, I moved across the city to a new apartment and met my new roommate, someone who would become one of my best friends in Australia. I found a second job to help save for Southeast Asia, started volunteering at a yoga studio, and used my rusty culinary skills from my time in Florence to improve my cooking. I basically lived at the Queen Vic Market and the Carlton Gardens, my two favorite spots in the city.
“Moving abroad is something I’ve always dreamed of doing, and I’m actually doing exactly what I want to do with my life right now, which is a feeling I’ve never completely felt before with all the pressures of adolescence, and the “correct” path of going to a 4 year university instilled in my American mindset since I was little. It’s the first time I’ve broken off the path of what society deems to be the ‘American Dream’, expanded my perspective of what my life could encompass, besides just worrying about hitting all the generic milestones at the appropriate ages. That in itself is an invigorating realization. And as long as I keep living a balanced life, no matter where I might call home today or tomorrow, I’m going to be just fine.” – Be Free
July – Melbourne
My favorite month in Melbourne. I had been there long enough that it finally felt like home, I loved my job as a bartender in the city, one of my best friends from back home came to visit, I had a solid group of friends, and a couple winter romances as the cherry on top. Perhaps it’s proof that the most fleeting moments in life are usually the most beautiful as my departure to Southeast Asia in August was coming up soon.
“Comparing where I was when I arrived and only had two friends in the city, to where I am today just a few months later, the changes are extraordinary. I’ve somehow built up my own friend base, a support system from scratch in a completely foreign place. I must say, that is one of the most reassuring realizations you can make in life; that you can start over anywhere and be more than okay, you can be genuinely happy.” – Life is a journey, not a destination
August – Melbourne, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam
My last couple weeks in Melbourne before heading over to Southeast Asia. I drove the Great Ocean Road, went wine tasting in the Yarra Valley, said my round of goodbyes for the second time this year to a city that I had begun to call home, and visited Sydney for the first time. In Southeast Asia, I traveled around to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam with my British friend I met in Europe a couple summers ago. We had our feet cleaned by fish in Malaysia, laid on the beaches of Bali for a week, explored modern Singapore, and fell into the hectic pace of Ho Chi Minh City.
“It was one of those surprisingly sunny days in Winter that Melbourne is fond of having every now and then. My friend and I decided to spend the day exploring more of the Royal Botanic Gardens in the city, because it was just one of those days you had to be outside for. We had a picnic at a place I deemed my own ‘500 Days of Summer’ spot, it was truly a perfect day in Aussie land.” – The Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, a way to spend an afternoon
September – Cambodia, Thailand
In September I fell in love with Cambodia and the Khmer way of life, went through scuba certification on a deserted island in Cambodia, ate some bugs in Bangkok, rode an elephant, played with baby tigers, learned how to cook authentic Thai food, and had an amazing time in the southern Thai Islands at the Full Moon Party.
“It’s the people I meet on my travels that keep me trekking on and grounded when I feel lost, disillusioned with what I find in certain places. A chance connection on a night bus with a Welsh guy, having an enlightening conversation at midnight about our lives on the opposite sides of the world we grew up on. A friendly English girl who became our roommate in Chiang Mai. The fun groups of guys we met at the Full Moon Party. And of course my travel companion and partner in crime who has been with me since the beginning of Asia.” – Moments from the road
October – Vietnam, Melbourne, Sydney
The last stretch of Southeast Asia consisted of traveling down the coast of Vietnam. I loved the old way of life in Hanoi, immersed myself in the beauty of the limestone cliffs in Halong Bay, traveled to Hue, and lovely Hoi An, and found myself in Ho Chi Minh city again before flying back to Melbourne.
I spent a bittersweet week in Melbourne, doing all of my favorite things in the city and seeing all the friends I had missed for the past two months, before I moved for the 2nd time to a new city. My first couple weeks in Sydney weren’t the easiest and I didn’t feel quite at home as quickly as I did when I first arrived in Melbourne, but I found a job my first day, made heaps of new friends, and have since meshed much better into the Sydneysider way of life.
“There’s no magic place where all the bad aspects of life go away, but, of course, there can’t be the good without the bad as comparison. That’s what makes life so complex and interesting, the hurdles you come across, make your best days just that much sweeter. There is no such thing as a new beginning. Even when you start over in a new place, you’re still going to be you, you’re still going to have the same baggage that has made you into the person you are today, there is no escaping who you are to your core. I’m finally understanding who I am as a person, and what I want out of my life now, and even that alone has made my time in Australia worth it.” – Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy
November – Sydney
I took this month to explore Sydney as much as possible on my days off, going to a lot of festivals and art exhibits around the city, and simply enjoying the raw beauty Sydney has to offer on any given day.
“There are two things I’ve noticed about Sydney since moving here: There are a lot of people jogging everywhere and doing group exercises in one of the many parks, and there’s always some sort of festival or event going on in the city. In other words, it’s basically LA without the famous people. I’ve particularly been enjoying the latter – although I’m hoping to join the former with the communal exercise (yoga!) as I’m settling into my life here and now have a more manageable work schedule.” – Celebrating inspiration at Sculpture by the Sea
December – Sydney, Byron Bay
December whizzed by in a matter of minutes it seems. Between countless out-of-town music festivals I was volunteering at, to the realization that my time in Australia may be coming to a close in April, sooner than I’d like to think, I kept myself overly busy with work, creativity, and hanging out with as many friends as possible. It was perfect to end the month disconnecting from all things social media and camping in Byron Bay to ring in the New Year at Falls Fest.
“When I was walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I thought back to when I was 13 and walking across the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time with my dad at one of my many basketball tournaments in San Francisco. When I think back to where I was at that age, a decade ago now, it’s remarkable the changes I have gone through. From an anxious, hesitant little girl who had no idea what was ahead of her, to where I am today, I hardly recognize that person anymore.” – Walkabout across the Sydney Harbour Bridge
I’m still brewing up some solid goals for 2014, but I do know that I want to travel to at least 3 new countries: New Zealand, Fiji, and probably either Canada, Japan or Mexico…(suggestions welcome). I also want to see Hawaii this year to sleep on the beach, hike a volcano, and surf at sunrise.
Happy 2014, I’m ready for you.
Watch me –> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDSazU1fvsg
I’ve recently moved to Sydney, Australia from Melbourne. I’ve spent the last few days going to countless interviews, trial runs, and house walkthroughs. I’m exhausted to say the least, running at full speed and head first into my new life here, but I am so excited for the day when everything comes together and I can breathe a little easier.
I’m no stranger to getting up and leaving everything behind, and starting over in a completely new place, it’s invigorating, it keeps me focused and on my feet. With that said, I’ve missed my blog and the peace writing brings me, so without further ado, here’s my third installation for Southeast Asia budgeting, Cambodia! In Cambodia I traveled to Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Koh Rong Samloeum, and Siem Reap.
Note: All prices are in US dollars, and I rounded when necessary to keep things nice and easy.
The currency in Cambodia is technically the Cambodian Riel, but everyone uses US dollars for the most part, even the ATMs dispense money in US dollars. You do sometimes get riel back as change, the conversion rate comes to about $1US = 4,128 Cambodian Riel.
Time spent = 11 nights, 12 days
Phnom Penh (2 nights) = $6/night ($12 total). A mixed dorm bed at Top Banana Guesthouse (Highly recommended).
Sihanoukville (2 nights) = $4/night ($8 total). Shared bungalow for two people at The Big Easy.
Koh Rong Samloeum (3 nights) = Accommodation included in my Open Water PADI Certification.
Siem Reap (3 nights) = $2.50/night ($7.50 total). A mixed dorm bed at Garden Village Guesthouse.
In Phnom Penh, I stayed at one of my favorite hostels of my whole trip at the Top Banana. And although we didn’t have the best roommates (stories to come soon), it didn’t change the fact that I loved this hostel. It’s a bit pricey for accommodation in Cambodia, but I think the set-up, cleanliness, and location of the hostel more than makes up for the slightly higher price.
In Sihanoukville, we were approached as soon as we jumped off the bus by a European looking surfer dude, who gave us a flyer for The Big Easy. We went to go look at the rooms, which were decent enough, the location was perfect (right next to the Dive Shop for my certification), and at $4 each for our own room, we were sold.
In Koh Rong Samloeum, my accommodation was included in the price for my PADI Certification. At $330, I received free accommodation and transportation to the island, free breakfast and lunch, and one-on-one instruction for my 4 day Open Water PADI course.
In Siem Reap, we found the cheapest accommodation of our trip at $2.50 a night. It was a huge dorm but actually not too bad in terms of noise and obnoxious roommates. Every bed had its own fan and reading light as well, which was very much appreciated.
Transport = $3/day ($37.50 total)
Most of our transportation costs consisted of tuk tuk rides from the bus stations and an overnight bus (which was a good way to save on accommodation if you don’t mind lack of sleep).
Food = $9/day ($108.50)
Free breakfast wasn’t included in any of the accommodations (except for my certification), but it was easy enough to find inexpensive food, either in the budget hostels or surrounding streets. Siem Reap was the best in terms of cheap food, the street outside our hostel had breakfast and lunch menu items for $1-2.
Smoothies/juices = $8 total
I still dream about the passionfruit mango smoothie I had my first night in Phnom Penh.
Water (1500ml) = Around $0.50-$0.75 each/$5.60 total for 9 bottles
Alcohol = $7.25 (Cambodia, where $0.50 beer exists)
Misc = $71.75 ($401.75 including my diving)
Breakdown of my miscellaneous purchases:
- Killing Fields and Genocide Museum entry and tuk tuk driver for the day = $15.50
- Postcard and stamps = $5
- Doctor (to get a physical for my diving) = $10
- Seasick medication = $3
- Assorted toiletries = $6.50
- Laundry = $3
- Temple pants = $7.50 (never pay this much for temple pants, $5 is plenty)
- Bracelet = $1
- Cambodia sticker = $0.25
- Angkor Temples Pass = $20
- PADI Open Water Certification = $330
Including everything, I spent about $22 a day, or $266 total ($596 including my diving).
Overall, Cambodia turned out to be one of the most affordable places I traveled to in Southeast Asia, and as an added bonus, it was also probably my favorite country. Siem Reap was the cheapest, with Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville coming out to about the same general prices. The island of Koh Rong Samloeum was relatively expensive compared to the rest of Cambodia, especially in terms of food. Luckily, most of my meals were included in my certification, but dinner was a bit costly at around $7- $9, which I guess is to be expected for an island with only two restaurants. In any case, I loved Cambodia.
Most people have heard of the Angkor temples either from the history books or perhaps from Tomb Raider, but unless you’ve seen the temples yourself, nothing can prepare you for the Khmer genius and intricate aesthetic details that you’ll find at the Angkor temples. Located about 4 miles north of Siem Reap, the Angkor temples are the top attraction to see in Cambodia, and one that I had been looking forward to seeing ever since I started planning my travels around Asia.
We opted for the most popular time to visit Angkor Wat, watching the sunrise come up behind the iconic pillars. It was still dark when we set out for the Angkor temples on our tuk tuk ($15 total for 2 people), we made one stop before the temples to pick up our ID pass for the day. They they took our picture (at 5 in the morning, yikes!), and we were able to buy either a 1 day, 3 day, or 1 week pass. We bought the 1 day pass for $20 and continued on our way to our first stop, Angkor Wat.
As we were walking towards the temple, there were tons of hawkers and food stall owners that walked with us and told us to come to their stall after sunrise for breakfast. They all had catchy names like Lady Gaga, David Beckham, or our personal favorite, 007. There was already a crowd of people surrounding the pond in front of the temple, but we somehow found a spot with a clear view, and waited for the sunrise.
Angkor Wat, built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, is thought to be the largest religious structure in the world. Originally a Hindu temple honoring the God Vishnu, it became a Buddhist temple in the 16th century after the capital moved to Phnom Penh and it was then cared for by Buddhist monks. “Wat” translates to “temple”, so it’s literally the Angkor Temple, the mother of all temples. It took 30-35 years to build, and it is truly a testament to human intellect, strength, and ingenuity.
We stayed awhile in Angkor Wat, taking our time to walk around all the intricate bas-reliefs throughout the temple, and saying hello to the monkeys who like to hang out around the back.
Once we had our fill of Angkor Wat, we hopped back in our tuk tuk and drove to the next stop, the temple complex of Angkor Thom. Once the capital city of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Thom’s most iconic structure is the Bayon, the Buddhist temple of King Jayavarman VII. The most unique aspect of the Bayon is the 216 huge stone faces throughout the temple, it’s also called the temple of the smiling Gods.
We continued to walk around the huge complex that is Angkor Thom, and explored more than a fair share of ruins covered in moss, and smaller temples, including the notable Baphuon Temple and Phimeanakas Temple.
Our last stop of the day was the temple of Ta Prohm, or the temple that was in Tomb Raider. Unlike most of the other temples we had seen that day that had been extensively restored, Ta Prohm is a temple of ruins. Somehow, the ruins covered in dewy moss and soft sunlight made it one of the most beautiful structures we had seen all day. It is also considered the capital of the Kingdom of the Trees, due to it’s high volume of massive ancient tree roots that have taken over parts of the ruins.
Although it would’ve been great to have viewed the temples with a tour guide, I actually enjoyed exploring the temples on my own and just taking it all in, reveling in the beauty of such ancient structures in the present, and doing a bit of research before and after to understand the history behind what I had seen. I’m also glad that we only bought the 1 day pass, because after a full day of temple exploring starting at sunrise, I can say for a fact that I was “templed-out” and ready to take a nap.
Seeing the Angkor temples was a travel dream come true and an experience, though more expensive than most you’ll have in Southeast Asia, that was well worth the pennies. It was a great day, taking a step back in time and walking through one of the most historic and religious testaments of the past, and a highlight of my overall time in Cambodia.
Since before I can remember, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the ocean. The ocean is one of my favorite things to live by, look at, go to, and I love the beach. I know whenever I settle down, it will have to be in a place near the ocean, as I’ve grown up my whole life with the salty ocean breeze as the air I breathe.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve always had trepidation when it comes to swimming in the ocean, the immensity of it, the unpredictability it represents. I think my main issue is with waves, and that fear I have in the back of my mind of drowning because I’m not a very strong swimmer. And, I have the added bonus of being prone to sea sickness on boats.
The only bad experience I can remember with the ocean is when I was 8 or 9, my dad took me out boogey boarding, to a spot further out than I had gone before. He turned his back for a minute to talk to my brother, and a wave crashed over me with no warning. I just remember not being able to pick myself up again, the ocean kept dragging me in, and I felt completely helpless and resigned, until my dad found me and helped me out of the ocean.
That experience is partly why I’m a walking oxymoron of a California girl who doesn’t surf.
A fear I’ve been wanting to tackle because to my core I really do love the ocean, I took my first steps of getting over my apprehension by diving head first (literally) into my fear and took a 4 day PADI Open Water course to get my scuba certification on the lesser known island of Koh Rong Samloem, off the coast of Cambodia.
I was originally thinking of getting my certification in Thailand or Vietnam, it’s where most people get their PADI, and there are some well renowned dive shops in those two countries. However, I wanted a different, more personal experience than a big dive company that just cycles through certifications, and when I found out that Cambodia came out to be slightly cheaper anyway, I was sold.
After some research, I chose The Dive Shop Cambodia. I was equally dreadful and beyond excited when I booked my dates for my PADI course, knowing how big of an accomplishment it would be for me if I was able to complete the course. Most people have heard of the party island of Koh Rong, but the course was instead on the more untouched neighbor island of Koh Rong Samloem. The Dive Shop actually owns the side of the island I stayed on, so the only people on the island are the instructors, the local Cambodian chefs, and the PADI students. When I was there, it was about 15 people in total.
It is the closest I’ve had to a serene deserted island paradise. There are only two restaurants/bungalows, no Wi-Fi, electricity is used only four hours a day, and there’s a jungle reminiscent of the TV show LOST to explore right in the middle of it all. There’s also an unhealthy amount of hermit crabs that take over the beach at night, we learned quickly to bring a flashlight with us at night.
Always the overachieving straight-A student, I took to reading my PADI Open Water theory book before we even left for the island. Once on the island, the first day was simply watching videos and eating some delicious Cambodian curry. The next day involved multiple quizzes, and one big exam to pass my written component of the certification. And then it was on to my first taste of salt water, the confined dives were in the shallow part of the ocean, this was clearly not going to be a gradual course.
Doing my course in the off-season (read: wet season) was both good and bad. I had one-on-one instruction with my teacher, Jake, but it was also stormy for most of my dives. The ocean was choppy and at times the sky would open up to torrential rains. My first day in the ocean, we had to walk right into the choppy waves from the beach. I managed to stifle an oncoming panic attack, took a deep breath, walked right into the waves that were getting more violent by the minute, and I breathed for the first time underwater.
It is like no other experience I have ever had, I can see why diving hooks people and never let’s them go. You use your all of your senses in such a different way, it’s a completely new world under the sea, and for the first time in my life I was a part of it.
The next two days consisted of open water dives, four in total in the deep sea, and I loved it. My only issues were taking off my mask under the water as I wear contacts so I had to take off my mask, put it back on, and clear it all while not being able to see. Being blind in the ocean freaked me out, but I was definitely not going to let a little thing like that keep me from getting my certification.
And I realized shortly after that it was especially important to keep my eyes closed since I had forgotten my extra pairs of contacts back on the mainland. In other words, I had no room to screw it up, or else I would be blind for the rest of my certification.
Buoyancy is another aspect that took getting used to under the water, it all amounts to how deeply you breathe in and out. It reminded me of yoga and how you have to pay attention to your controlled breathing in order to reap the benefits of your practice. By my last dive, I finally had it down and I could easily go up and around corals, avoid sea life on the bottom, and really enjoy diving without thinking too hard about the details.
Overall, getting my Open Water PADI Certification was a great experience, and I would recommend The Dive Shop Cambodia. The only issue I had with the company was that they were a little disorganized, especially at their office on the mainland in Sihanoukville. It took a lot of effort to get my paperwork from them on time in order to send away for my PADI card. Regardless, I had a wonderful few days on the island, learning the ways of diving with my instructor, and most importantly, taking the first step towards getting over a deep rooted anxiety.
Next up is learning how to surf, and then I can truly fulfill the cliché of a California surfer girl. I guess it’s a good thing that I’ll have a whole summer in Australia to tackle the waves.
I’ve been to Birkenau and Auschwitz, I’ve visited the 9/11 Memorial, and now I’ve seen the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum in Cambodia. What all of these have in common is a remembrance of historic atrocities that are incredibly sad to visit, but important to learn about and experience first hand to pay due respect to all of those who have lost their lives.
The Khmer Rouge was the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, led by a man named Pol Pot. In the span of those short 4 years of power, the Khmer Rouge party was responsible for the Cambodian genocide that killed almost 2 million people. The Khmer Rouge gained popularity in such a short amount of time, mainly because of the constant civil war going on at the time. In 1973, when the Khmer Republic government, with help from the US, dropped a million tons of bombs killing hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, many quickly gave their support to the Khmer Rouge, seeing them as a way out from the violence and loss.
Once they had complete power, the Khmer Rouge began their radical communist agenda of making Cambodia into a rural, classless society, avoiding capitalism at all costs. Everything about Cambodian culture changed, thousands of intellectuals, military officers, and soldiers were tortured and killed. Only when Vietnamese soldiers captured Phnom Penh in 1979, was the Khmer Rouge put to rest once and for all.
However, millions had already died by then at the hands of the regime in brutal and sadistic ways, millions of innocent lives were lost because of the deluded ideals of the party. Genocide, whether it be the Native Americans in the US, the Jews in Germany, or the Tutsis in Rwanda, has sadly been a repetitive part of our violent history. Cambodia is no different.
I knew it would be an intense and trying day as I made my way in a tuk tuk to Choeung Ek, or the “Killing Fields” on the outskirts of town. It was a very well done memorial to the people who had lost their lives at the compound, especially with the lack of buildings that still exist, most of them having been destroyed after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. I received my own audio set, and took my time going through all the spots around the compound, listening to survivor stories, trying to put myself in the shoes of the people living in terror within this place – impossible of course, since no one can truly understand what these people went through and the brutality with which they were met.
One aspect that struck me was the ruthless ways in which these people were murdered in droves. Every genocide is horrible in its own way, but these people were murdered on a more personal level by those in power: beaten to death with hoes and shovels, throats slit, babies hit against a tree until they died in front of their crying mothers. Bullets were too expensive for the regime, so they relied on barbaric ways of disposing of thousands upon thousands of people. There were still huge pits where mass graves had been dug, there was one where everyone in the pit had been beheaded and left to rot.
At the end of the tour, I came to a glass shrine I saw when I walked in. However, on closer inspection, I realized that the shrine held 8,000 human skulls. Taking a moment of silence, I walked around the inside of the shrine trying my best to commemorate all of those who had given their lives, it was overwhelming.
In the Killing Fields alone, 1.7 million Cambodians were killed, or 21% of the population.
Solemnly, I walked back to the tuk tuk, knowing the next stop was going to be just as difficult.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21, used to be a high school, before it was turned into a torture camp. Mainly it was used to imprison those thought to threaten the regime, they would torture prisoners until they gave false confessions, and then they would be sent to the Killing Fields to be disposed of. Similar to Auschwitz, a big part of the memorial is the walls of pictures of prisoners’ faces, of the many who died there. It gives you the ability to look each one in the eye and imagine what they had been thinking when their picture was taken at the camp. Some are defiant, some are scared, some ambivalent as if already resigned to their fate, each one had their own personality, their own story.
It was a heavy day in Phnom Penh, but what strikes me about the city and Cambodia as a country in general, is that even though having witnessed such atrocities in relatively recent years, Cambodians are still some of the friendliest and happiest people I have met in my travels. Phnom Penh is still a beautiful city, residual signs of the old regime are all but nonexistent except for the dark tourism museums. I can’t help but admire and respect the Cambodian people who have been through so much in not much more than a generation ago.
Although a sad experience to endure, I don’t regret for a minute paying my respects to the darker side of Cambodian history at the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum, and I would recommend it to anyone who has some time in Phnom Penh. When we’re traveling or on holiday it’s easier to ignore such places, because you don’t necessarily want to think about the heavier parts of history that have happened there, but I think to really understand a culture, you have to experience all of it, the good and the bad.
And I think we’re all better travelers for it.
I hate to be one of those travel writers that resorts to rants and complaining, because even though long-term travel can be frustrating at times, when you look at the big picture, my life experiences at the moment are pretty damn good. However, I think it’s always beneficial to document the good, the bad, and the ugly, and my last 15 hours have been pretty hilarious, at least now in retrospect, so I thought I would share a story of my first sleeper bus experience in Asia.
It should come as no surprise that for sleeper buses in Asia, being a petite person is highly desirable. I love my lanky height, yet this was the first time I genuinely wished I was a foot shorter – I’m almost 5’10. I can’t even imagine what a 6’4 guy would go through on one of these buses.
I apologize ahead of time for the lack of pictures, at the time of this story I was miserable, sleep-deprived and in no mood to rummage through my pack for a camera, but the story still deserves to be told.
We bought the luxurious “hotel” bus in Sihanoukville for the 10 hour ride to Siem Reap, a whole 2 extra dollars than the standard night bus. When we were picked up from the store, we were crammed into a little van with more people than there were seats, and all of our luggage was surrounding us, taking up what little oxygen was left inside the vehicle.
When we arrived at the actual “hotel” bus, we knew that we had been slightly duped with what the transportation store had advertised to us. We were supposed to get extra amenities for the slightly higher price, including wi-fi, free water, a bathroom on board. There were none of these. The key selling point for the luxurious bus was that you had an actual bed to sleep on for the ride and not just a reclining seat.
When I stepped into the cramped bus aisle I could tell that I already regretted not just getting the reclining seats, if anything just for the leg room. The “beds” were less than the width of a single bed for two people, and a little over 5 feet long. I also had to carry my duffle with me into this sleeping space because it holds all of my valuables.
I’ve never really had an issue with claustrophobia, but I was so closed in and cramped I actually felt myself becoming more and more claustrophobic by the second. I couldn’t curl up my legs because then they would float over to Laura’s side of the single bed. I kind of just had to have them straight legged and extremely elevated the whole time for them to fit into the space, at times letting them curl when Laura was asleep and she wouldn’t notice me creeping into her space.
I’m not a person who gets homesick easily, I tend to try and make the best of any situation in which I find myself, and I’m a chameleon when it comes to new transitions. Spending 10 hours in this tiny space was the first time I genuinely wished with my whole heart to be home, and no longer on the road. I felt myself let out a shudder and a few tears in the pitch black, the first time I’ve cried in a long time, until I realized how pointless my tears were, I just had to bite the bullet to get to the other side of the bus ride. I took a deep breath and turned up my iPod to tune out the uneasiness I felt through my whole body.
I’m usually fine with dreaded travel times, I actually love tuning out with my music, my writing, my thoughts. But I felt helpless on the bus, unable to even move an inch, my legs spasming often from being in such a position. It was the bumpiest bus ride I’ve had in my life, it felt like the bus was going to tip over during some stretches it was so unstable.
Things took a turn for the worse when I realized, even by staying dehydrated as much as I could from the get-go, that I had to use the bathroom a few hours in, and yet there was the small problem of no toilet on the bus. At about 1am the bus stopped so the drivers could pee on the side of the road, I leapt at the chance. They didn’t speak any English, but I think they could tell from my desperation what it was I needed. It was pouring down rain, lightning in the sky, I had to run over some rough rocks in the pitch black completely bare foot to find a bush (we had to take off our shoes to get on the bus), all the while the three drivers were watching me in the darkness.
I was terrified the whole time that the bus would pull away and I would be stranded on the side of the road in the middle of the night in rural Cambodia. I ran back to the bus, the driver laughing at my situation, I laughed too, understanding how ridiculous I must seem to these Cambodian men, and laughing at the bad luck I seem to get myself into sometimes. I realized when I got back onto the bus that I had cut open my foot during my scramble in the dark Cambodian wilderness, my disinfectant of course was in my backpack at the bottom of the bus.
At about 3am we stopped for our one and only proper bathroom break, and the bus was suddenly stuck in a muddy ditch. It was still pouring down rain, everyone had to evacuate and they called a tow truck to help pull out the bus. Everyone cheered when the bus pulled through, we all groggily stumbled back on around 3:30am and kept traveling to Siem Reap for three more hours.
Needless to say, the only way I got through that bus ride from hell is music. I didn’t sleep a wink, but I had some solid moments by myself and Ben Howard consoling me through the experience.
But let’s be honest, this is all a daily part of backpacker life and sometimes you just have to suck it up, and find the humor in less than desirable situations. At the moment, I’m ecstatic to be in Siem Reap and to be exploring the ancient temple of Angkor Wat at sunrise tomorrow morning. At least now I know what to expect with my next sleeper bus in Asia.
I have premonitions sometimes when it comes to relationships, people, places and things. It’s a different feeling than any I can describe, just that I know it’s bound to be something special, a feeling like we’ve met before, that I’m at home in a way. Perhaps it’s simply the ability to recognize a deep connection when I come across one.
I’ve only had a few of these in my life in terms of people, two of those turned out be the only two serious relationships I’ve had, my high school sweetheart I met at the age of 13, and my college boyfriend I met when I was 20.
It happens with places as well. The first time I stepped into the Tuscan atmosphere in Florence, I knew immediately how much I would fall in love with the city I would end up calling my second home.
In the past two weeks, I’ve come to terms with surviving hours upon hours on sweaty suffocating buses, I’ve learned how to cross a road full of thousands of mopeds, and thus have had at least three near-death experiences. I’ve grown to appreciate a nice ice cold shower, and how to deal with street hawkers of all sorts. I’ve been groped, I’ve been eaten by mosquitos, I’ve spent more than enough hours in airport waiting halls.
We’ve had one tiny travel breakdown in Singapore, and Laura was almost robbed by a wannabe moped thief in Ho Chi Minh. I’ve drank my weight in fresh fruit smoothies in every place I’ve been, I’m averaging reading about one book per week. I’ve had sleepless nights due to noisy dorm mates and stray dogs barking, I’ve had the best nights sleeping in run down $5 dorm beds, and I’ve had more than a few vivid Malaria pill induced dreams. I’ve been lost more times than I can count, but I always seem to find my way again.
Although I liked Kuala Lumpur, I was constantly worried about attracting too much attention to myself due to its slightly conservative nature, especially in certain areas. I was still aggressively groped by a man on a moped, and still sexually harassed by local men the majority of the time I was there.
Much to my surprise (since I thought this would actually be my favorite country) , no matter how much I tried to force it, Bali and I just didn’t get along, with one exception – yay Ubud! More to be written about my time in Bali soon.
I loved how modern and forward-thinking of a city Singapore turned out to be, but it was more expensive than any other country I’ll be visiting on my trip.
I think I will grow to absolutely love Vietnam when I come back in October for a couple weeks. I’ve only spent a few days there so far, but I even liked the crazy energy of Ho Chi Minh City, to an extent.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with Cambodia. When we first arrived, we stumbled off in the searing heat, tired from a 6 hour bus ride. A ride that consisted of a combination of a John Hughes movie, a Chinese gangster movie, and a kung fu movie dubbed in Vietnamese…oh, and of course, the important part, our first legit land border crossing. It turned out to be a piece of cake (with American dollars), thank god. I had heard more than a few horror stories of the border crossings in Southeast Asia.
We had to take a tuk tuk to get to the main part of town from where the bus dropped us, but there was the small issue of having no local money. The first ATM we went to wouldn’t accept our cards, and we thought for a good 15 minutes while we were roaming the streets with our heavy backpacks, that we were going to be penniless in Cambodia, until we found another one that worked. The ATMs here give you US dollars, and most restaurants and stores put their prices in the same, US currency. It’s so strange seeing my own money again, it has been so long.
Even with our initial hiccup, after we got into our first tuk tuk, I had this overwhelming good feeling about the city of Phnom Penh, before I had even begun to explore it.
The rest of the afternoon and evening just proved my initial feelings right. I love the buildings, adorned in gold and intricate patterns. There are Buddhist monks in their classic orange attire everywhere. The people here (and in Vietnam) are the friendliest strangers I think I have ever met in my life. Even the street hawkers seem nicer (although the children are a bit cheeky), constantly asking me if I want a tuk tuk ride, or telling me that I have a beautiful smile, but not in a gross way.
I don’t feel like I have to be paranoid about my belongings as I did, constantly on edge, in Ho Chi Minh City. The pace is a bit slower here, the Mekong river is beautiful, and I feel at home. There was even a huge group of people doing Cambodian style Zumba across the street from us in a main square while we were grabbing coffee and smoothies.
I love our guesthouse, it’s my favorite of the places we’ve stayed so far, and it’s only $5 a night! Our dorm is incredibly clean, roommates friendly, it has a rooftop bar, and an adorable puppy the runs around everywhere.
Tomorrow we’re going to see a harsher, but important side to Cambodian history, the destruction left behind by the Khmer Rouge at the Killing Fields, and I’ll explore a bit more of Phnom Penh. From there, I’ll be heading south to Sihanoukville to face one of my fears (the ocean), and get my scuba certification on the tiny island paradise that is Koh Rong. A few days after that, we’ll be heading up to Siem Reap to dive into the local delicacies (grilled tarantula, cricket, duck embryo, etc), and explore the ancient sites of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.
The truth is that I already know I heart Cambodia, and I can’t wait to explore more of it <3