I graduated college with a B.A in International Studies, French and Art. Partly naïve but mostly lost, I thought I had it all figured out. I wanted to travel the world then “make a difference” by working for a nonprofit organization advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. My first step was to take a year off to travel and maybe volunteer abroad. There was just one little problem..I was broke. I cooked up a plan to work for a year and save money. I started daydreaming about all the adventures I would have and so begin my countdown.
Although my plan was to travel for a year, I wasn’t sure exactly when I would be back so I purchased a one way ticket. On November 13th 2013, I landed in Bangkok thinking ”What the fuck did I get myself into?”
Every travel guide refers to South East Asia as the backpackers mecca. With hostels as low as $3 a night, it’s no surprise that I decided to travel around South East Asia for 7 months. Even during high season in Thailand, you can get a private bungalow by the beach for $20 or less and a good meal for a couple of dollars. Equipped with curiosity, an adventurous palate and a tight budget, I set a goal to explore 5 countries in 7 months.
I started my journey in Thailand where I spent 2 months volunteering and exploring. I then made my way from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia by bus.
Siem Reap is not an impressive city. Every street corner is filled with overpriced souvenirs. But the street food is delicious and for US $2 I wasn’t complaining much.
What would a mega touristy city be without its drunken crowd. The city center turns in a college town at night. Most people come to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat. It is the largest religious monument in the world. As a UNESCO world heritage site, visiting Angkor Wat is a must. It was built as a Hindu temple but eventually became a buddhist temple. If you’ve seen Lara Croft Tomb raider then you’ve seen how mysterious and wonderful this temple is, Some scenes were filmed there.
After exploring Siem Reap for 2 days, my plan was to spend a day in Angkor Wat, rest for a day then visit the Capital (Phnom Penh).
All around the city center, there are drivers/tour guides who chase tourists down offering their “best deal” to visit Angkor Wat. they use a three wheel motorcycled vehicle called tuk tuk.
After striking a deal, a driver(he asked me to call him John) agreed to pick me up at 5pm to catch the sunset and return early morning the next day to catch the sunrise.The ticket I purchased for the sunset entry to the temple was also valid for the next day.
John pointed out the best spot to watch the sunrise so I sat there watched the sky turn violet as the sun set behind the temples. The sunset was everything I hoped for and then some.
The next day I woke up at 4am and went to the market to get some fruits before John picked me up.
When I travel alone, I often team up with other backpackers to visit attractions. Not only for the company but to share the cost of transportation and food. This time, I went alone because I wanted my visit to Angkor Wat to be a peaceful one. I figured exploring a place so sacred would give me some time and privacy to think about my next step in life and take all the beauty in at my own pace.
John took a nice scenic route to the temple
We arrived early to validate my ticket then I started my exploration of Angkor Wat. John quickly became my photographer as I posed in front of every single ruin. lol
After a beautiful but long day of walking and exploring, John dropped me off at the hostel and it was then that I realized I had lost my credit card. After frantically searching my purse the harsh reality hit me that I would have to cancel my card and request a new one. I proceeded to not only calling my bank but also canceling my hostel reservation in Phnom Penh.
There was nothing more I could do but wait for a new credit card to arrive. I ended the night with my hostel mates on the roof of our hostel, drinking beer while watching the sun set. I’d seen the sun set a thousand times but every single one was more magical then the previous one. I enjoyed the feeling that all my problems went down with the sun and all my worries would be dealt with the next day.
As I was stranded in Siem Reap for almost 7 days awaiting a new credit card, depression sink in. I spent my days walking around the city, seeing the same faces, going into the same bars and having the same conversations with tourists.
On the day that my new credit card was to arrive, I was sitting on the balcony of the hostel . For $3/day, it was decent. You could expect the average backpackers having sex in a nearby bunk bed, no hot water or a working fan. But for a traveler on a shoe string this was luxury. As I watched yet another sunset, I decided that I was too miserable in Cambodia and made the decision to crossover the border to Vietnam as soon as humanely possible. The peaceful sunset was quickly interrupted by a new backpacker, Muli. He was from Israel and offered me his guide book to Cambodia since it was his last day.
Muli: Hey, you ok?
Me: not really, lost my credit card so I’m stuck here for now. And I cancelled my hostel reservation in Phnom Penh so im not sure where to go next
Muli: oh…well go to Koh Rong
Muli: it’s the most amazing place ever. the beach is beautiful and its not very touristy.
Muli: They have the best weed, you smoke weed?
Muli: oh, well it’s really nice and it’s not too expensive and they have the best weed.
As I expressed my frustration and unhappiness he simply said “Don’t leave Cambodia without going to Koh Rong.” My plans weren’t set in stone so I said to myself why not.
The next day I met a Rebecka, a young Swedish girl, who was heading to Koh Rong, we took a bus from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville. The plan was to stay there for a couple of days before our final destination. Sihanoukville proved to be a drunken costal town and another disappointment. Boats leave from Sihanoukville to Koh Rong several times a day with the option of a slow or speed boat. We spent the 2 days exploring the costal town and at the beach.
In Sihanoukville Rebecka and I met another Swedish girl Sandra and together we decided to make the trip to Koh Rong.
As we got off the ferry in Koh Rong, backpackers rushed to book available rooms. Once more, luck was not on my side, As I carried a 40 pound backpack, barely able to operate my prosthetic leg and my sweaty hands unable to firmly grip my crutches, I was on the verge of a breakdown when a guy approached me and the 2 Swedish girls and offered us a room at Ponleu Pich. The room was right next to the pier. We went up a a few stairs and all of a sudden it’s a if all my misfortune was payment for the incredible view.
Ponleu Pich is one of the few guests houses on the island that is run by a local family. Next door there’s a local restaurant with very few options but plenty to satisfy the soul. It became my morning routine to order their famous baguette sandwich, a bag of fresh fruit and a coconut.
After lunch, Rebecka, Sandra and I slept near the ocean baking under the sun. Then it was time for me to volunteer with the local children making arts and crafts activities- I’ve always found volunteering as a way to connect with the community and making my time productive wether at home or abroad. The first day I arrived, I saw some kids gathered on a picnic table. When I asked around they told me it was an english and art program for kids on the island. I spent one hour every day volunteering to draw with the kids.
To see us draw Click here —–> Drawing with the kids
Later, The Swedish girls and I got ready for our routined nightly plan. First we would head to Coco beach, a bar/restaurant where most of the servers were backpacker exchanging labor for lodging. Finally we would end the night with a couple of drinks at Mango tree House a hostel/bar right next to our guest house.
Koh Rong is small enough to be explored on foot. Our days were spent talking about life, future travel plans and eating. I woke up everyday in paridise, cherised every sunset and every moment. Before I knew it, my roommate and I had formed a clique with seven other backpackers- needless to say there wasn’t a dull moment.
One day as I walked around the Island, I saw a sign advertising a boat trip to explore the opposite side of the island. It included snorkeling, Fishing, Free beer, visiting a white sand beach (Long Beach) & swimming with luminous planktons for just US$13. Despite my motion sickness and a fear of open water I signed up to go.
We all met at noon on the Pier, then boarded the boat for our adventure. The boat stopped in the middle of the ocean, while some took a quick fishing lesson from our guide Tony, others opted for a nap on top of the boat. Later, the boat dropped us off about a mile away from Long Beach. While everyone swam to shore, I worries about how I was going to carry my crutches, luckily a couple of guys offered to swim with them.
The opposite side of the island was even more deserted with a couple of beach vendors and no restaurants or guesthouses on site. Long beach was supposedly the best place to watch the sunset. As it got darker we made our way back to the boat to find that Tony had grilled the fishes we caught earlier.When it got dark, as soon as we jumped in the water , minuscule matters started glowing and the more we moved the brighter they got. We were swimming with luminous planktons and it was magical.
We ended our night with a jam session under the stars.
That night, as I got ready to go to bed, I realized two things:
1.Sometimes, not having a plan is the best plan. Meeting the Israeli backpacker, Muli, put me on the path to Koh Rong and I could not have been happier
2.Backpackers will share their deepest secrets the first day they meet you. You spend 24hr with them and it feels like you’ve known them for 24 days. Backpackers are emotionally naked and what does that make south east asia? An emotional orgy.
To those of you wishing to explore the world alone, I say go for it.
Adventure is waiting but most importantly friends are waiting.