Cambodia: Different Kind of South East Asia

Cambodia: Different Kind of South East Asia

It didn’t occur to me to compare Laos to Thailand on any level other than culinary. Ok, I have also made a mental note that north of Mekong they drive on the proper side of the road. Other than that, the two countries – though unique in their own ways – seemed to flow one into the other quite seamlessly. Cambodia, on the other hand, strikes me as a completely different kind of South East Asia.

The thing that I notice first – can’t help noticing! – is the quality of the roads. Having had a fair share of car trips back in my home country, I flatter myself to be able to handle any kind of road. Until, that is, I spend five minutes driving through Cambodia. When our bus – a full-size coach – crosses a bridge made entirely of feeble-looking wooden planks, the background sound effect reminds an audio track of a low-budget horror movie. When our driver fails to slow down before a sharp turn and sends the heavy machine spinning on a busy dirt road, I consider adding a high-pitched shriek to the sound of screeching breaks… Bus travel in Cambodia is nerve-wrecking, to put it lightly.

But it’s not only bad roads that make up Cambodia! I quickly forget about the life-threatening transit, stunned by what has to be the most peculiar national fashion statement. Nearly every woman in sight is wearing matching pyjamas! And no, I don’t mean a similar local outfit, I’m talking a familiar sleeping garment, cartoon character prints and all. Picture this: a young lady on a scooter in the downtown Phnom Penn, sporting a pair of sneakers, a knock-off designer shoulder-bag… and Donald Duck decorated pj’s! Even after a week in Cambodia I can’t help staring…My agitated travel partner keeps inquiring why the hell we didn’t take a train. Well, the answer is simple, really: there are no passenger trains in this country. It’s either a reckless-driver-poor-dirt-track combo – or nothing at all. Even existing “highways” are few and far between. Case in point: to reach Siem Reap, the home of the magical Angkor temples, one must drive from the Lao border in the northern most part of the country all the way to the southern Phnom Penn and then up again, to the north west – 16 hours of pure butt-numbing joy! In other words: over 800 km where it shouldn’t be more than 300.

It also comes as a bit of surprise that apparently the local currency is a US dollar. At least this is what I end up withdrawing from an ATM and paying at a supermarket. Khmer multi-zero banknotes – riel – are used instead of coins, with one thousand being the equivalent of 25 cents. It’s hard to describe any of the South East Asian countries as particularly well-off, but compared to its neighbors Cambodia is singularly poor. The utmost devastation of the Khmer Rouge regime is over 30 years behind, but still visible in nearly all spheres of life. Formerly one of the world’s most powerful empires, the homeland of Angkor has trouble coping with dirt, disease and depression. And nothing reveals this more bluntly than the capital city of Phnom Penn after dark…

On the first evening in Cambodia, I can’t help feeling despondent, pointlessly wandering through the dark, littered streets. I need a beer – or few – to make things a little more bearable, so I drag my travel partner into one of the local restaurants. There the menu speaks to my very heart and I order a “pickled mango salad with fried shrimps and fresh herbs” on the side of my beer – and a different, happy, vibrant, optimistic Cambodia explodes in my mouth!

At this very moment I know: the nation with such acute taste for food cannot be defeated! Khmer people will heal and cure their country.

What was the most important thing I brought with me? My watch.

What was the most important thing I brought with me? My watch.

Believe it or not, my watch was the one item which consistently helped me throughout my travels. A good quality backpack is great, strong walking boots are imperative, however, I found my tactical watch indispensable when trekking around south east Asia. Many nights of my travels were spent in a tent with little in the way of modern technology. My phone regularly ran out of battery for days on end and I had little contact with the technological word with which I had come accustomed.

This is where my watch came in. After consulting a military watch review website I purchased the Suunto Core watch due to its range of features and weather predicting technology. The advanced barometer proved essential for warning me about oncoming tropical storms, allowing me to set up camp an hour or two in advance (getting stuck in a tropical storm can be disastrous). The compass and stopwatch helped me navigate (using a map) when my phone was out of battery. The solar powered battery never ran out on me either!

I must recommend purchasing a military/tactical grade watch for trekking and travelling. When all other technology begins in fail as you move into more natural environments, your watch will stay running to guide you through your journey.

5 Things I Hated About My Travels

5 Things I Hated About My Travels

Here’s a soothing news for those of you who have been stuck in cold offices all winter long: at times my trip through South East Asia has been a phenomenal pain in the ass! There were things now and then that made me deeply miserable. It took some serious guts and a very developed inner beach bum to step over some of the following…

1. Douches of Lanka
The absolute winners of this hate-list are men of Sri Lanka! Dudes, get a grip, a life, a wife, a hobby and a thorough reality check!!! “Obtrusive” is as strong an adjective for them as “bad” for Hitler. 18-year-old waiters and 88-year-old tuk-tuk drivers alike felt the need to express their desire to become my husband while grabbing my hands and shouting their admiration into my face. As I was walking to a 7Eleven in a wee hour of morning. Without make up. With uncombed hair. In floor-length baggy pants. I was inches away from getting employed as a scare-crow, yet my annoying aficionados didn’t seem to care. This kind of endless harassment turned my first week in the land of tea into undiluted hell…

2. Safety… Not Always First
At times I didn’t feel safe. As in on the basic survival level. Hands-grabbing jackasses didn’t exhaust possible reasons for an occasional panic attack. I spent a month in a bungalow which door wouldn’t lock. I assumed it wasn’t particularly dangerous, because the said bungalow was located on a deserted beach of a far-away island – a rather stupid assumption in retrospect. Couple times I nearly stepped on a potentially lethally poisonous snake. But nothing could prepare me for bus rides in Cambodia…

3. Health, Absence Thereof
Surely, I knew that one’s immune system gets bombarded by all the strange crap one encounters in the new lands. In theory. In practice my colds were more frequent than my periods, excuse my French. I’m still trying to get rid of a nail fungi I got in the divers’ paradise of Phi Phi. And don’t get me started on split ends and my once clear skin! One common health issue I had no relation to was stomach problems – thanks again for those genes, dad!

4. Beggars Can’t Be Choosers
Best things in life are free, but traveling ain’t no one of them. Splurging here and there is not a problem during a 2-weeks long vacation. It turns into a bit of a snowball when you’re on the road for months at a time. Being a long-term traveler is being surrounded by things and services one can’t afford. It can get frustrating when, say, a bottle of lovely French Chardonay has so clearly one’s name written on it…

5. The End
I didn’t hate returning – until this day, the pre-last day of my short home-stay, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it – it’s leaving that I didn’t care for. No matter how gross, unpleasant or scary some of the above points are, they seem to be but a trifle when one’s travels come to an end!

5 Things I Loved About My Travels

5 Things I Loved About My Travels

Ok, I couldn’t possibly avoid making a follow-up list, could I? I mean if you know me at all, you probably expected an Excel spread-sheet with pie charts and stuff. However after months of spiritual search, I’ve mastered the art of self-control – so you are spared of complex statistical analysis and visual representation of data in 3D. Lucky you!

Instead, I’m posting couple über-basic lists: what I loved and what I hated about my travels. Today’s high five is warm and fuzzy – it’s about the things that rocked. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s edition though – there will be some nasty, dangerous and dramatically stupid stuff there!

So, in the past 6 months I absolutely loved…

1. Absence of Walls
Being out-of-doors during 99% of my waking hours felt amazing! Unusual, liberating, and generally pretty dope. Apparently humans haven’t evolved to inhabit air-tight, artificially lit spaces for a dozen hours daily. Who knew!

2. Making Friends
Not at work, it is necessary to add. Geez, that was a first for me – to meet so many awesome people, none of whom were from film production (give or take couple DOPs, a producer and an art director).

3. Legal Laziness
I swear on my hammock: I had no clue that a simple act of not working can be SO MUCH FUN! Not sure how I’m supposed to live with this knowledge though… Anybody looking to hire an exceedingly verbal beach bum? For cheap?!

4. Delicious Dishes
Oh, South East Asia, I love you so! Thai curries, Lao coffee, Cambodian amok… Soon, soon I’ll publish a looooong, colorful, picturesque, highly emotional post on the above and much more. With addresses and directions. Trust me, you will want to bookmark that one!

5. Warm. Real Warm!
I’ve been born couple climate zones off: every year I suffer miserably for approximately 7 months. May through September are fine, but the rest I could do without. And no, I don’t miss the freaking snow! Or bare trees. Or cold drizzle. It’s been unspeakably nice to skip this last cold season entirely!

Introduction to Pandora’s Backpack

Introduction to Pandora’s Backpack

Pandora's Backpack logoWelcome to my new blog – Pandora’s Backpack – where I will share my experiences backpacking over the world this year and throughout the next! My goal with this blog is to inspire other budding adventures to take the plunge, set off into the world, and grow your own experiences and memories. I also hope to share some useful tips on good places to go, important resources to bring with you, and the philosophical state of mind a backpacker must wield in order to stay sane!

Deciding to set out for South East Asia last August was one of the most difficult, but important, choices of my life. I am thankful that I received such warm support from my family and friends, which allowed my to begin the journey with a highly positive mindset. Though I set out with relatively little money, I had the safety net of the home to go back to, which was comforting.

My strongest concern upon departure was safety. The news is filled with horrible stories, which paints foreign countries in a bad light. I soon learned, however, that people are people and I received countless kindnesses throughout my travels and met people that I will never forget! That said, it is still important to minimise the risks you take in order to be able to relax and enjoy yourself.

I hope to upload new articles regularly, so please stay tuned for some wonderful stories!