Travel Rehab – Hariharalaya

Heading into Hariharalaya

I came to Hariharalaya, the yoga and meditation retreat outside Siem Reap, with some unease and a desire for someone else to take over the scheduling for a while, so I could get a break from feeling like a sluggish and crabby tourist.

I called on Saturday to go there on the Sunday, and in between the arranging and arrival, I had a flash of panic about what I'd signed up for. In my search for an immediate retreat destination, I hadn't bothered to look into the place too closely, beyond the price (cheap) and location (around the corner). My worry machine fired up – what if it was some weird little cult – all far out, full of peace and love and uniting with your goddess sisters and brothers? Being pushed to embrace my inner goddess irritates my inner cranky old man, who can't stand being peer-pressured into embracing total strangers whose light in which I am supposed to glory.

I came back to Mitch, my friend and hotel owner, who had suggested the retreat.

What's the place like? Are the people there… normal?'

Joel, the owner, has a big beard. He's the only one though. The people staying there are normal, yeah.'

Breakfast at the Cambodian house next door

Walking in the door the next day at lunch, I started to feel nervous. There was a bunch of young backpackers stretched out on cushions in front of low tables barely lifted off the floor, which was dirty under my feet. It wasn't striking me as my kind of place, but I'd already said I'd stay for a week and they had a no refunds policy.

I sat down for a lunch of vegan Cambodian soup, and took the intro tour afterwards, led by Sean, the manager from Scotland, with another recent arrival Mauricio, a jiu jitsu expert from Brazil who lives in Colorado. We had a walk through the rules and around the grounds to the yoga hut, dharma hall, washing up area, outdoor gardens and bikes.

It was the cup table that stood out the most, a little beacon of anal retentiveness amidst the gritty floors and incense haze. Sean, who was striking me as a suit and tie kind of guy, was clearly responsible for this recent innovation, pointing out the tape and marker for the labelling of drinking devices, explaining how the place used to be so messy, with cups and bottles everywhere. Now if you're leaving your cup, you leave it on the cup table.

A cup table? My word. That was the first indication that things might not be as hippie-dippie as I'd feared.

Magic, up close

For some reason I was barely able to sleep for my first two weeks, but I managed to keep up with the daily schedule of yoga, chanting and meditation from 7-9am, karma yoga three days a week from 10:15 – 11:30, a one hour noon-time dharma talk and meditation followed by lunch, a 4pm class most days, and evening meditation at 6pm, with dinner at 7. I felt like I was at camp at the start – in my first week I took a trip to the Hidden Temples to see still more ancient ruins, these ones buried in forest, and a trip to another floating village, taking a small row boat through a flooded forest and a boat out to Cambodia's largest lake, Tonle Sap, a muddy expanse stretching thick and brown as far as you could see. I watched my first close-up magic show performed by the resident manager and magician Sean, and had a demo jiu jitsu class led by Mauricio, finally finding a sport where speed and skill are not required – you only need to leverage your body weight to throw off aggressors three times your size. (But remember, like they say in the Untouchables, don't bring a knife to a gun fight… or a fist to a knife fight).

More ancient temples!

Floating in the flooded forest

Slowly, in between all of the activity, I relaxed into being there – noticeably enough that other people started commenting on it sometime in my second week. Shameez from South Africa suggested I extend my stay if I could, and I ended up following her advice and doing that repeatedly – revising my travel plans bit by bit, I extended from one week to three, to another two, plus a few more. I joined the student program, to work on developing a personal practice of yoga and meditation, take part in student meetings and to take on meal clean-up duties in exchange for a cheaper rate.

I started to find that fitting in was less of a problem than I had anticipated. There was a surprise hugging session at the end of one of the evening meditations my first week… and I actually… found myself getting caught up in the spirit of things. And when one of the hippie-ish yoga teacher guests told me how she had to talk herself into being okay with the morning chanting, which was outside of her comfort zone, I was secretly surprised, because I hadn't had a problem with it at all. It was one of my favourite parts of the day, and I even found a favourite mantra. How far out is that?



Stuck in Siem Reap

Downtown Siem Reap

I could describe Siem Reap as Kansas, or Niagara Falls, or the Wild West – or just a place where you can get stuck. It was somewhere I got stuck for a while – not because I loved it, but because I couldn't work up the energy to go anywhere else.

I'd say it's like Kansas because the red dust swirls in a vortex up around the motorbikes and into your face if you're riding on the back, making me think of dirt poor depression-era farmers and the Wizard of Oz, where everything is whipped in the wind. It's more Niagara Falls tacky than it is tornado-scale windy – a downmarket version of the Falls, with bright neon signs hanging over the streets that are filled with tourist shops and restaurants, all on the doorstep of a world wonder – Angkor Wat. In front of the shops are street side aquariums pedalling fish massages, to nibble away at your temple-worn, dirty, scaly feet. And like the Wild West, it's filled with enterprising Westerners looking for a haven away from Thailand where the living is still cheap and easy. It's a crowded party town that's dusty and sweaty and filled with transient tourists and locals trying to make money off of them.

Tourist having a fish massage

Not long after I arrived, Tony from the US warned me that Siem Reap was a vortex for foreigners – it sucks people in. They just stay, maybe work for an NGO, and drink all the time, because there's nothing else to do. Prophetic words, you ask? Not exactly. I avoided the spiral of drunkenness and debauchery without much effort, but I did stay put. When I finally left after close to two weeks, it was to go to a retreat centre a half hour motorbike ride out of town, where I wound up staying for almost 2 months.

At the circus! Impressive show

While in town I was stuck mostly in slow gear. I hung out with Mitch from Ottawa, a friend of friends from home, the owner of the hotel I stayed at, and an enterprising and all round friendly guy. I maxed out my quota of ancient temples after three days at Angkor Wat with a visit to Beng Melea, billed as the most mystical of them all. It's in pieces with massive trees groping the rubble, and surrounded by a muddy moat serving as a playground to a bunch of kids who were running shrieking and diving in the water. Twice when they saw me, one of them broke out into the Gangnam Style dance. I might have been wearing sunglasses but I don't look like Psy – I was laughing but I did start to wonder if there was something I was missing. In town, I wandered around Pub St and the Night Market, ate chocolate and Western food, and started to feel lost about where to go next.

At Beng Melea

Gangnam Style, whenever, wherever

At first I was planning to travel out east to the jungle to go birdwatching, but I heard the rain and the muddy roads weren't worth the trip. My next destination was Laos, but I couldn't figure out a way of getting there that didn't involve around a 1.5 day bus ride. I couldn't work up the enthusiasm for the travel, and I was feeling kind of non-plussed about actually getting there. There was just so much going there and here and somewhere else, with a list of things not to miss and travel that would take around three times the length of time as at home. I'd had plans to see more of South East Asia, but everything was so spread out, slow and the prospect of moving around so much was feeling more like work than anything else.

Floating Village of Mechray - visit with Mitch

The days passed and I stayed in Siem Reap, dragging my feet, getting sick, making plans to go birding with Mitch at another ancient temple, but those fell through. Finally it came down to giving myself a Saturday morning deadline to book a bus or a plane out of town. That was when I realised there wasn't much point going anywhere. Not if I wasn't feeling excited to actually get there. I'd had to work up the energy to go see Angkor Wat, and that is a Wonder of the Ancient World. Sure, I've since heard it described as 'just a bunch of rocks' but it's kind of, well, one of those places you're supposed to go See. It came to me then, that what I needed wasn't more sight-seeing, but some time out to get my excitement levels back up. What I needed was a retreat. I started looking for places in Thailand and Laos, and sent a few emails, before mentioning it to Mitch, who surprised me by saying there was a retreat just outside of town. I hadn't even thought of looking in Siem Reap or Cambodia, feeling anxious to get on the move, but a half hour tuk tuk ride versus a day and a half of travel to northern Thailand was suddenly much more appealing. I called the centre and made plans to go the next day – I booked for a week, and never expected I'd wind up staying from the end of July to mid September. That's where, rather than getting stuck, I found myself wanting to stay put.


The Temples of Angkor – Heaven on Earth

Angkor Wat

The Angkor temples are billed as no less than heaven on earth – they are the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the Hindu equivalent of Mt Olympus, home of the gods. It's the world's largest religious complex, and considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. With a lead-up like that it's hard not to get the expectations a little out of proportion.

As one of the must-see's of South East Asia, it was my main reason for coming to Cambodia. Reason enough to hop on the bus, not quite enough to get me reading up on it all in advance. What with one thing and another, and mainly not feeling like it, I didn't get around to going through the write-up before I was facing the entry and looking for a spot to sit and open my book away from the crowds.

At the Bayon

The Lonely Planet advises going at sunrise to see Angkor Wat, and getting in and out before the morning crowds begin (8-9 am) popping in at lunch while the morning tour groups leave for the restaurants and before the afternoon tour groups arrive. Because as the temples are monumental in size, so now are the crowds they attract. T-shirts in the bars in Siem Reap have a stylized Angor Wat image with the words 'Wat Disney' underneath. While it's obviously a contradiction to object to the presence of so many other tourists when touristing myself, it was hard not to feel overrun by the crowds and the resentment of having to share it all. I tried to tap into the sense of magic and wonder that the first peasants and early explorers must have experienced, but what with trying to avoid the photo shoots and side-stepping around the foreign tour groups to eavesdrop on the English ones, my senses were occupied with navigation.

Time passing

Unfinished carvings at the Bayon

My guidebook reading had me prepared for a 'spine-tickling' sight upon entering the inner causeway and being hit with the full scale splendor of Angkor Wat. I was all set for a tingle, but what hit me instead when I looked up was a feeling of being cheated – the temple appeared to be … hollow. The front three lotus bulb spires pointed up from what looked like an open gateway, contradicting my idea of it being a solid type of building you could enter. It wasn't until I stared at it for a while that I realised that the roof of the scaffolding covering some of the entranceway was reflecting the same dull colour as the sky. An optical illusion at work, and that effect combined with the unavoidable evidence of modern tampering, eroded the sense of authenticity and time-worn presence more than the passage of hordes of tourists.

Angkor Wat temple - or gateway

I took my time wandering around Angkor Wat, reading about each of the bas-relief murals stretching around the complex, climbing up and up the steep narrow steps ascending to heaven, and taking a break on the grounds to stretch out in my hammock that I had purchased from a market in Phnom Penh precisely for this purpose, following a piece of travel advice I got on the road. Unfortunately, while I'd got a good deal on the hammock and managed to find some coordinating cord to hang it with that morning at the local market in Siem Reap, I hadn't thought of the bug spray. Lying stretched out in the trees pressed against the taut hammock strings, I must have resembled some kind of long kebab-shaped mosquito feeder, and it was lunch time. My efforts to nap were further thwarted by a family of six who declined to follow the path to the toilets and came over to pee in the trees in front of me.

Perfect pose

Of my first day, and probably of my whole three day visit, my favourite temple was not Angkor Wat but Preah Khan – a smaller, quiet, moss-covered temple lying partially in ruins in the north end of the complex. Miraculously, it was almost empty of tourists – surrounded by large trees and glowing in the late afternoon sun, it exuded some of that time-worn atmosphere I had been looking to find. I didn't have much time, but I stayed until the temple closed at 5:30pm.

Preah Khan entrance

Inside Preah Khan

It was the end of the day but not the end of my visit as I biked back out toward the town, passing a few elephants coming back from their tourist rides, and I stopped to get closer. I had some leftover jackfruit that I had been my lunch for the day, and one of the elephants took the large piece out of my hand with his sandpapery snout, sucking it back like it was a little piece of popcorn. Excitedly I rooted through my bag to bring out the sweet buns that were the remainder of my food for the day. I put my hand out again but the offering was declined. The elephant sniffed and turned away – not nutritious is not delicious if you're an elephant, it seems. I hadn't expected them to be so discerning, after being surrounded by assorted dogs, rats and others feeding off available scraps throughout the rest of Asia. Elephants are certainly a breed apart.

The Elephants of Angkor

I spent my remaining two days visiting the temples biking around the small circuit and the grand circuit, which form the main itineraries for visits to Angkor. I visited the two other top draws of Angkor – the Bayon, with the omnipresent smiling faces of the god-king (Avalokiteshvara resembling King Jayavarman) peering down from every vantage point, and Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple, where the movie was filmed. This is billed as the most atmospheric of the temples, where the jungle is more visibly in the process of reclaiming its territory. Enormous light-skinned, mottled trees that look like smooth snakes are in the act of swallowing the temple stones mouthfuls at a time, while lichens in shades of pinks and greens cover and eat away the stone in a more discreet and colourful manner. Unfortunately this temple is another tourist hub, not quite as bad as Angkor Wat but with not enough of the calm and quiet of Preah Khan.

Smiling faces of the Bayon

Ta Prohm

Riding around on the bike, passing through kilometres of jungle filled with temple after temple, passed large statues of decapitated gods holding the serpent Vasuki churning the ocean of milk, through gateways where the smiling King Jayavarman stares down, and seeing the immense river-like moats surrounding the grandest of the temples, this was a real taste of the wonder of this place. Getting away from the tourists, that was heavenly.

Gateway of the Gods

Inside the temple walls - Bayon



Birding in Charted Territory

Cambodian Tailorbird**

Despite being surrounded by jungle wilderness where the exotic and slightly outrageous-looking Oriental Pied Hornbills were a common sight, the prospect of birding on my return trip to Phnom Penh felt more exciting, fuelled by a feeling of discovery and old-timey exploration, in the unlikely setting of the urban wilds. In particular, I was crossing my fingers for a glimpse of one rather more ordinary little songbird with a rusty orange-red cap and greyish back. None other than the newest bird species in the world had been found on the outskirts of the capital city – the identity of the Cambodian Tailorbird was announced as recently as the end of June of this year. Previously confused for its close cousins, the Dark-necked and Ashy Tailorbirds, it wasn't until Simon Mahood of Cambodia's Wildlife Conservation Society investigated and DNA tests were done that its status was confirmed. I hadn't been sure I would be able to get to see it – my initial inquiries through and the Wildlife Conservation Society resulted in an offer of directions, without the promise of a guide. Fortunately, instead of having to stumble around in the suburbs on my own, independent birder Senglim Suy came to pick me up at my hotel in Phnom Penh at 6 am.

In the thickets with the Cambodian Tailorbird - Senglim Suy

It took us only about 45 minutes – driving through the city, out past a small assortment of makeshift homes along a dirt road, and on to an area of floodplain shrub land, where the raised red dirt road divided two large low fields filled with bushes. We walked a few paces before Senglim began to play a recording of the Dark-necked Tailorbird call on his phone. I had been preparing myself for disappointment – if it was only newly discovered, I had thought, it must be hard to see. But as with most things, it had been there all along, its distinctiveness going largely overlooked. Within minutes, some irritated orange caps arrived, flipping their tails up and down, calling back to the intruder in their midst. Senglim pointed and I tried to follow them as they flitted from one branch to the next. Slowly I got a better a look at first one, then several of the tailorbirds who flew right up to the edge of the roadside to scold the new competitor. They came out in force – curious, vocal and hard to miss.

Senglim told me about the drama of the bird's discovery, and his personal efforts to protect bird species in Cambodia. Instead of binoculars he had invested in a long-range lens with which he has been shooting images of bird species across the country. Now with close-up shots of over 100 species, he is working towards putting together a photography book of at least 400 of the 600 species in the country. He has set up the self-funded non-governmental organisation 'Birds of Cambodia Education and Conservation', to photograph birds and educate students about bird life. All of this is in his spare time – his regular job is in the international development field – as a research assistant for USAID on community health programming.

It was a perfect morning for birdwatching – overcast skies, not too hot, and lots of species in easy view in the low lying shrubs and wetlands bordering the dirt paths where we cruised along on the motorbike. If only more birding outings could be so effortless and comfortable. One of the few stopover spots between Cambodia's largest lake, Tonle Sap, and the mighty Mekong River, this area offers habitat for all kinds of species. We saw long-legged Jacanas (Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed) striding across the water on lily pads, long-necked Oriental Darters towering elegantly on bare branches over their fishing waters, an on-cue sighting of a White-shouldered Kite mid-hover, colourful Blue-tailed and Little Bee-eaters and striking White-throated Kingfishers. Senglim got excited when we caught a rare glimpse of the small shy Barred Buttonquail scurrying across an area of miniature sand dunes at the roadside.

Lily pads roaming free

It was with a sense of familiar frustration and discouragement that I heard that the area is slated to be cleared in less than five years for the construction of the National Stadium. It's owned by a rich man intending to get richer. Right now it's a big expanse of aquatic plants, shrubs, trees, water and soil, mainly undisturbed by people. Where will be left for all the tailorbirds and their neighbours to go?

Perhaps in part due to the awareness that none of it was likely to be there if I did have the chance to return, I didn't want the morning to end, though I had a noontime bus to catch and the sun was beginning to make its presence known, moving out of the clouds around 10 am. Watching the tailorbirds had felt extraordinary and ordinary at the same time – it was certainly a coup to be one up on most competitive birders, a rare event for me, and more so it was striking to realise how something relatively non-descript could become glamorous, when given the status of novelty. Perhaps still more than that, it was a reminder of how many more things there are to uncover, in observing those little differences from what we take as common place and understood. In this way it's a similar analogy for travel – the dramatic and exotic are expected to amaze, but often it's the things that appear similar but turn out to be quite different that are the biggest surprise.

Footnote: From the blog of Simon Mahood himself: (June 26, 2013)

I hope that this experience has taught me to question everything, to look at everything as if for the first time, evaluate it and not lapse into probability based identification. I now believe more strongly than ever that you almost always see only what you expect to see. Inattentional Blindness is rife in birding. When I could not conceive that the Cambodian Tailorbirds were a new species they looked rather like Ashy Tailorbirds, then gradually they looked like Dark-necked Tailorbirds, then….. Looking back at the photographs from 9 June 2012 it is so obvious that they are neither Ashy nor Dark-necked Tailorbirds, but initially I just couldn’t see what those birds really were. … Without wishing to unravel a whole new world of string, I think that you should expect to see rare birds, unexpected birds and even birds which haven’t even been conceived of yet. Unless you expect them, you will look at them but not see them, even if they drop into your garden…


** Cambodian Tailorbird photo courtesy of



Water and Wildlife, Koh Rong Samloem

Heading into the waves

On the Water

When the wind was up the waves came in with a force on Lazy Beach. Going out into the surf further than I could touch bottom scared me, and I didn't always feel like braving the pounding, especially by myself. Later in the week, after a hot day of zapping heat I worked up the nerve to join a bunch of Russian kids jumping in the washing machine waves and I was suddenly revitalized, laughing and playing alongside them. I stayed in there until sundown, getting pummelled with water and sand and smacked around, still ready for more.

Stormy waters

After days of taking turns postponing leaving with my German friend Rafael, the planned day of departure, Sunday, marked a change from the heat and sun, with a gloomy look reminiscent of the English moors – for me a welcome change. As much as I love being warm, I don't like intense sun, and this dull day felt like a total relief. The sky was light grey with darker grey clouds, the sea stormy and the air full of wind and rain. At times like this the landscape seemed charged with anticipation – entrancing to sit and stare out at, waiting for something to happen. It felt much more pleasant than the deceptively sweet calm sunny days when the light reflected diamond patterns clear through the water on to the sandy bottom, and the sunbeams cooked my head and body, sucking out all the energy in the time it took to walk down the beach and back. I was in no hurry to leave this lazy beach, despite the rain that was on its way.

Facing the wilds

On the Wildlife

At a distance I watched a family of country monkeys sit in a tree near the beach – so unlike their urban cousins that they didn't even try to steal or eat my clothes, sunglasses and binoculars when I went in for a swim.

Into the drink - Water Buffalo and companion

Closer up, I saw a big fat jungle rat trying to scramble its way out of the bathroom when I opened the door. I took a look around and found what it had been up to, besides crapping on the floor, was gnawing on my soap. Nice fancy natural soap that I had just got delivered from home, it was clearly appealing to a whole range of species. I had noticed the soap lid on the floor that morning, but I hadn't thought anything of it. The next morning the tightly closed soap dish was cracked and chewed but still sealed, lying on the floor surrounded by a pile of frustrated rat droppings. It made me wonder, how do you clean rat germs off soap?

Another pier, another beach, same island

Closer still, I learned the importance of shaking out my pants before putting them on in the jungle. I had grabbed my full-length nylon pants before dinner in what turned out to be an unwise method to avoid mosquito bites. I thought I felt something moving in my pocket and I shook out the pants with no results, but felt a skoosh of air up the middle when I sat back down. It seemed calm until a few minutes later when I felt something brushing my ankle. I saw dark tentacles sticking out and I jumped up, promptly getting rewarded with a nasty pinch up my calf. I danced around in the restaurant until a long brown centipede crawled off my pants and disappeared between the wooden floor planks below. After that I felt my calf burning and phantom things crawling in the folds of my pants all the way through dinner. Waves of burning heat instead of cool water, stimulating in their own way.

Late afternoon sun


Lazy Beach

Sea, Sand and Sun

In the words of Douglas Adams, a beach house isn't just real estate, it's a state of mind. Lazy Beach on Koh Rong Samloem lived up to its name. A collection of bungalows, each cached away in the jungle, hammocks swinging on the front porch, and big round blue suction cup papasan chairs in view of the waves crashing into the sand and in reach of dinner. I hadn't planned to stay as long as I did, but the place, and the mental state, got a hold on me.

Dog-gone Irresistible

I wound up on this island south of Sihanoukville in the Gulf of Thailand, because I couldn't figure out where else to go in Cambodia. Although the Lonely Planet promises that there is adventure not to be missed if you take the time, it goes on to say that most of the eastern and northern parts of the country aren't really passable during the rainy season (peak period July – September). Sihanoukville is known as a beach destination, but from different accounts it sounded seedy and crowded. The islands, on the other hand, with some more exotic bird species, macaques and tropical forest seemed worth the trip.

Nesting right outside the bungalow

I thought I'd go for a day or two and ended up staying over a week. “The Beach” (named after the movie) dorm for $5 a night with a view of the water was a good deal, but it was no competition for Lazy Beach, which thanks to a German friend, I discovered on the other side of the island. Only a 20 minute walk, it was a world away from the congestion of young backpackers and hodgepodge of palm leaf bungalows getting thrown up side by side in spaces just emptied of trees. Lazy Beach has the place to itself, open to the wind and waves off the ocean, unlike the still and stagnant-smelling beach facing the mainland on the opposite side.

The Beach

Hammocks in sight - Lazy Beach

There were things to do – ping pong and board games, neither of which I played, as well as snorkelling, jungle trails to hike and wildlife to watch, but the main activity was hanging out. For the first two days I spent a good part of the daylight drifting off every time I sank into one of the papasan chairs. I did go swimming every day, and I spent a lot of time looking at the water, which was always changing. I also had my first imposed detox from the Internet, with no access anywhere on the island. I wasn't ready for it, and it was somewhat painful, as the nagging feeling of not being able to respond to pressing emails took on a bigger importance than was warranted when I finally logged on. The Beach offered free wifi, the only catch being that it didn't work. As I was testing out the connection on day 2, I started to feel disappointed about the idea of having to be fully logged on again. In all of my travels up until this point, between working on the blog, emails home, assorted personal admin and travel planning I hadn't taken a break from being tangled in the web. And it made me realise this might be an important part of having a real holiday. As it turns out, Cambodia has been a good lesson in that.

Breaking free

In place of the web I managed to make time for a few other things on my to do list. From the bungalow's balcony I watched glossy black Oriental Pied Hornbills plucking white berries with their unwieldy gargantuan beaks. For the first time since purchasing them in Japan, I pulled out my watercolour paints and notebook to paint the trees facing the balcony.

Sand tracks

In between I suffered from repeated bouts of Cambodia belly, even though the food was mostly Western and tasted good. I scorched my feet on the hot sand and reminded myself that in the scheme of things, it was a pain I could bear.

And fittingly, as he has provided the opening quote and title for this blog, I re-read Douglas Adams' 5-part Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. It inspired my snorkelling along the side of the bay, where I bobbed above schools of fish like Arthur Dent learning how to fly – somehow held above the rocks and the action without any real effort. It seemed fitting to be reading about galactic space travel in a place where at night the Milky Way was so sparkly and clear that I kept expecting to be beamed up into it.


Khmer Killing Fields

Memorial Stupa - Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

On my plane ride from Ottawa to Vancouver via Calgary back in March, I covered more ground than I expected. I spent the first leg talking to a food supply company owner from Calgary about how to manage stress and a busy life. I heard about how he took care of his wife when she was diagnosed with cancer, a day after their second child was born, when they were just about to move across the country for him to start a new job. It was getting late in the evening as I boarded the flight from Calgary to Vancouver and finding an older Asian man sitting in my seat, I was glad to think he likely didn't speak much English, I was tired from my busy life pre-departure, and didn't feel like talking more.

Outside the Killing Fields

He apologised for taking the wrong seat and started to tell me his story. I found out he was from Cambodia – he came to Canada as a refugee around 23 years ago, after leaving the country at the end of the Khmer Rouge regime. His father had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, and he had lost his left arm after getting shot by Thai soldiers when trying to escape to a refugee camp after the fall of the regime. He spent 3.5 years in a camp, the first 6 months hiding in people's homes, before he could get registered – anyone found by soldiers without registration in the camp would be immediately sent home. It took him 3 years to get a sponsorship in place to leave the country – paperwork was done with a French sponsor, but then the sponsor died and he was left in limbo. A friend told him that Canada was accepting refugees, but only for people without any sponsors. He wasn't sure he qualified as his application had already been filed with the French, but he applied anyway, and ended up being accepted by Canada just before receiving his acceptance from France, and was able to choose between the two. He decided on Canada and came to Calgary, where he had to learn a trade to get a job. He was trained in making veneer furniture, an occupation I had to wonder about considering he only had the use of one arm – the left was replaced by an ancient heavy-looking dull flesh-coloured rubber appendage, with the fingers permanently formed into a cupping shape, limiting his capacity to hold on to things. He said business was difficult, with the increase of cheap furniture from China it was hard to compete. It was expensive for him to travel home to see his family, because he was expected to bring gifts and money for everyone. Eventually, if he could, he thought he'd like to spend half the year in Cambodia and the other half in Canada. I think he might have had some family in the US, but it seemed he was alone in Canada, and it wasn't an easy life for him.

Potent reminders

Listening to him and seeing his leaden prosthetic resting in his lap (which looked like it might have pre-dated his arrival in Canada) a constant reminder of what he traded for a better life, I felt awed and chagrined. If I had dismissed him as I had intended and taken a nap, I would have had no idea of the history and the tragedy that was sitting right next to me. And what of Canada, would our government now be so willing to take someone who didn't fit the paperwork requirements so precisely?

One of the many excavated mass graves

Coming to Cambodia I was reminded of this conversation when I went to visit the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh and the Tuol Sleng museum in the capital. It was hard to connect the shallow grassy pits of the killing fields with their vicious history without hearing the recorded personal accounts of people who lived through that period and seeing the black and white photos in Tuol Sleng, showing rows of skulls and piles of bones next to the pits. Today, aside from the memorial tall glass stupa filled with skulls and bones and some memorial plaques and displays, the field has reverted to a calm and wide open green space – peaceful and plain. During the rainy season bones continue to pop out of the ground, along with pieces of clothing – I looked but didn't see any on my walk.

Tuol Sleng High School turned Prison (S-21)

It's hard to understand how as many as 3 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge in just over three years in power – out of a population of approximately 7.3 million, with intellectuals heavily under fire – anyone who wore glasses, was a professional, had soft hands was targeted. And the crimes didn't end there – the UN maintained the Khmer Rouge as the official representative party of Cambodia even after they lost power to a democratically elected government in 1979, a government which was allied with Vietnam and therefore was considered more of a threat to the West then the leaders of the genocide. Now the country is still struggling to get back on its feet, having lost most of those who knew how to run things.

Inmate photos, Tuol Sleng Prison

Despite the recent devastation, poverty and hardships, people are friendly. I've seen a lot of children, not a lot of old people.

I don't remember where my seat mate was from, and somehow, I didn't get his name. When we parted ways between the international connections and the departure gates, he dropped the handle of his luggage and let it fall to the ground, waving goodbye.

Mr Chum Mey - Survivor of Tuol Sleng Prison


Phnom Penh Full of Surprises

The Kingdom of Cambodia

Pronounced P-nom P-en, it is not a p-articularly pretty place. I arrived as the rain was beginning to taper off and the streets were drowned in water, making them impassible in places without getting in at least ankle deep. All the same I followed a Dutch man I met on the bus to go off on foot to look for a place to stay, rather than taking one of the tuk tuks clustered around the bus stop and other open spaces of pavement. I ended up slogging through several rundown streets, checking out some crummy looking guesthouses with Gerard from Holland, hauling my bags up and down flights of stairs as one room smelled like smoke, one guesthouse was full, the one recommended by a friend had a big wet blue plastic comb with some short hairs in it on the ledge under the mirror in the bathroom, and after dropping my bags I decided I just didn't want to stay there. It took 1.5 hrs but I managed to get myself installed in a slightly more decent looking room (still missing toilet paper), and headed out to see the main strip of Phnom Penh. Perhaps the darkness doesn't set off the city to its best advantage, but aside from some fancy looking shops on one main street, there was a derelict air about the place. I walked by a few “Happy Pizza” places selling ganja pizza – free trip included, and onwards towards a blue and red English sign that truly set my heart alight – two large and shining letters 'D' and 'Q'. With more excitement than I've felt perhaps since going for my first (and only) peanut-buster parfait in grade 4, I went in to check if it was for real. Dipped cones, blizzards, even ice cream cakes, just like at home. And the taste, the same as if I was sitting back in summertime in southern Ontario – sometimes soft, sometimes crunchy chocolate-y vanilla dip.

The real thing

This was not the only thrill Cambodia's national capital had to offer. In addition to some of the brutal historical sights, I went to the stunning Royal Palace, set in a large tranquil space of statues and potted greenery. I saw a shining Emerald Buddha that may be made of Baccarat crystal, seated on high in the Silver Pagoda, surrounded by elaborate buddhas, one covered in multi-carat diamonds.

Royal Palace

Palace Passage

On my way out of the Royal Palace I had another surprise, in the form of a friendly Filipino woman with a Spanish accent and Khmer appearance who wanted to sit down and chat, after which she invited me to come over to eat at her house. She wasn't sure what to offer me as a vegetarian option – fried noodle? I had been focused on a real Western meal for dinner and couldn't face the idea of something else fried. She thought for a while – bread. You eat bread? Well, yes. Not really for dinner… Eggs? You eat eggs? You could have eggs and bread. It wasn't quite a chocolate dipped cone and I wasn't as tempted, though I felt, as always, that I shouldn't turn down a friendly invite, especially after I'd had such a nice time meeting Nga and Nhi in Saigon. While I was considering her offer a little bell rang faintly in the back of my head recalling something I'd read before – Filipinos, foreigners, Vietnam, scams. What about breakfast tomorrow instead? What are you doing tomorrow? I settled on getting her contact info and left to continue my walk. Feeling bad about being suspicious of people I turned around a little while later, to see her walking with a large man. When I got back to the hotel I looked online to find that the Filipino black jack scam from Saigon had moved to Phnom Penh, with foreigners being targeted in the area just outside the Royal Palace. Apparently tourists travelling on their own get invited to someone's home where they can enter into a friendly blackjack game that suddenly turns into being on the hook for sometimes thousands of dollars. Or there's potential for more directly threatening robbery. What surprised me most of all was that I almost fell for it. If I hadn't been in the mood for something else for dinner, and if I hadn't, later in our conversation, faintly remembered reading about Filipino scams, I might have taken her up on it – she was friendly, and an invite to someone's home wasn't so out of the ordinary. After all my independent and occasionally intrepid travel, it was affronting to think I could fall for a scam like some fresh off the plane tourist. And that I could be mistaken for someone who would. Coming my first full day in Cambodia and the day after the bus border crossing scam tried to charge an extra $5 for a Cambodian visa – avoided thanks to Vinh yelling over the phone in Vietnamese at the bus attendant, who agreed to have the bus wait for me as my visa was processed – had me thinking that “Scambodia” might be living up to its name.

Working out on the Palace Strip

Fortunately, with a little bit of savvy, a bit more luck, and a few scoops of ice cream it all worked out fine.

Snap happy tourist Monks

Dry Streets of Phnom Penh


Time to move on Vietnam

Meat and more meat

Vietnam was like a long slow intro to South East Asia – getting blasted by the heat as I moved down south, the cheap prices, the bold rats, the slow speed of travel, the hassles, the different pace of life, and the people. I hadn't planned to stay as long as I did – over 2 months – but then I hadn't planned anything at all, and my need to make sure I covered all the key stops combined with a lack of desire to be constantly on the move added up to a lot of time in a country that hadn't been at the top of my travel list.

Teacup Transport

I haven't really summed it all up yet. Sapa was definitely a highlight, a volunteer opportunity of the kind I would have hoped to find but wasn't expecting to, especially relatively early on in my travels – combined with big green mountains, a dreamy fog and postcard perfect terraced rice fields. Paradise Cave was another stunning sight, while watching the coloured paper candle lit lanterns float down the river at night through Hoi An was almost prettier than the walking through the lantern-hung streets during the day.

The muddy fields of Sapa

Hoi An at Night

There were memorable places and transport worth remembering to get there – riding the rails with Mario on the way to Sapa, and taking the luxury train on the way back, where my fears of being locked in a small cabin with a group of men overnight were put to rest as the guy in bunk above me start to play Silent Night on his flute while we left the station. His friend told me about the traditional folk songs from his village that are famous across the country, and showed me a video from one of the songs, which I heard performed later at the Heritage Festival in Hoi An. On the bus from Hanoi to Ninh Binh I was crowded in with the locals, on the day train from Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi I thanked the travel gods that I missed getting a ticket the night before, and thereby didn't get stuck trying to sleep in a dingy cabin on a mattress an inch thick, but instead was able to conk out in a seat after watching A Bug's Life on the tv screen hanging across the aisle. Riding a motorbike in the rain to Phong Nha, where my driver stopped for a phone call along the side of the road, as the clouds approached. The mini-bus from Phong Nha to Hue where the driver blasted his horn at everything in his path from the time he could see it until we'd barrelled our way passed. The day motorbike road trip from Hue to Hoi An. The short and painless flight to Saigon, and the bus ride from Binh Minh back to Saigon, where I dropped my sunglasses in the toilet at the rest stop. I covered a lot of ground on almost every form of transport, from North to all the way south.

In the middle of things in Hanoi

Getting the hang of being on the road – finding my way around, learning how to bargain, feeling the wind and appreciating the scenery from the back of a motorbike, indulging in mango lassis until I realised they were all made with condensed milk and sugar and didn't balance out my french fries and pizza – these were all important discoveries. I had trouble with the rampant littering – cigarette butts tossed over the side of the boat outside a cave of national historic importance, water bottles dropped at the foot of famous pagodas, napkins from my dinner plate tossed by my waitress into the gutter – these were some of the many shocks to the system, and couldn't help calling a comparison to Japan, where garbage seemed to magically disappear even though there were few bins to be found. The more aggressive swindles and outrageous doubling, tripling (and even quintupling) of the prices got on my nerves, and so did the heat.

Street fighting in Phong Nha

There was a lot to see, but I think what won out the most was all the people I got to know – old and new – starting with couchsurfing buddies on my first night in the country, the crowd of teachers and students in Sapa, Ottawa friends welcoming me to their home in Hanoi, making friends in Phong Nha, meeting up again with Sapa friends in Hoi An, new friends in Saigon, and my old high school friend in Binh Minh. That was time well spent.

Fowl Traffic


Binh Minh High School Reunion

20 years on and still looking good

My last planned stop in Vietnam was a trip to the Mekong Delta, to meet up with a friend from high school who I hadn't seen in 20 years, on holiday in his home village of Binh Minh. I arrived just in time for a party put on by Vinh's parents for a bunch of his family that all live in town. I met Vinh's wife of three months, who is still living down the street awaiting her Canadian visa. We spent the next three days hanging out and catching up on old times. Vinh took me on a market tour where I sampled some of the local fruit I hadn't had a chance to try – jackfruit, the fabled smelly, surprisingly creamy, rich, and somewhat gag-inducing Durian fruit, longans, some hard shiny green pear-shaped fruit, topped off with some of my favourites, litchi and mangosteen. Thanks to Vinh's wife Vi, we also visited a number of vegetarian restaurants, which came as a surprise since I hadn't known these existed, and wouldn't have recognised them had I seen them – the fake-meat pieces were convincing enough to have me asking for a double-check, and the fact that there were other customers in attendance on non-Buddhist holy days had me wondering if there weren’t more vegetarians in the country than I’d been led to believe.

Market on the muddy Mekong

Can Tho is the biggest city next to Binh Minh, and is one of the hubs on the Mekong River expressway where fruits and vegetables are bought and traded from different parts of the region. We hired a boat and drove out into the muddy waters of the floating market, where small wooden boats and larger ones were out doing business, a long pole at the prow with produce speared on the end announcing the goods for sale. Apparently the traffic is less these days now that there are more decent roadways and trucks, but we boarded a small wooden boat selling pineapples, whose owner told us he'd travelled 10hrs on the water to get there, a distance that would take around 2.5hrs to drive. It usually takes him 1.5 days to close to a week to sell his boatload, and then he makes the journey back. I had to stop myself from eating too much of the jackfruit drying in the sun on the awning of his boat, it was sweet like candy.

On the pineapple boat

I wasn't sure if there was more to it than what we saw – our short motor ride past a collection of boats selling produce had me wondering why a trip to the 'famous floating markets' is one of the must-dos for the Delta. We took a long detour on the way back via the town of Tra Vinh, purported to be one of the prettiest in the Delta. The main attraction was the nearby Khmer pagodas, one of which is known as the stork pagoda, with trees filled with nesting storks, where it was raining white droppings from the branches and both Vi and I got bombed. To recover from that and the heat we stopped off for a break at a roadside rest stop bar none – unmatched by any I've seen in the West, this kind is fully intended for extended resting and lounging. A simple thatched awning with drinks and without chairs – instead with hammocks for napping in the shade, nothing more perfect on a hot afternoon of cruising down the pavement. My sugar cane juice had some sludge floating in it, but the hammocks were just right. An idea ripe for export, to be sure. It was a needed break from getting my butt tenderized on the back of the motorbike, which along with the sun had me feeling fried by the time we got back, and I wasn't even driving.

Back in the village I filled up on my new favourite dessert – barbecued banana pieces in tapioca pudding, followed by too much gelatinous banana cake in milk. Vinh tried to convince me to try his favourite local delicacy 'balut', but I couldn't buy his argument that duck embryo cooked alive in the shell was tastier than a Cadbury's creme egg. Perhaps to those less easily grossed out by me, the idea and the sight of it alone was almost enough to put me off my dessert.

Paper Pagoda

Hanging in the afternoon

Aside from some touring around to Can Tho, we mainly sat around and chatted. Vinh is related to half of the town, and we walked down by the river and sat with his aunts and uncles out on little chairs on the sidewalk, who pass the evenings drinking tea and talking. I can't imagine a group of adults doing this night after night at home – partly due to the weather, but even in the summer months, life is more busy and impersonal it seems. It didn't feel like that much time had passed between Vinh and I and we had a lot to say, including talking about why I was too afraid of him to hang out and talk in high school. Maybe if I hadn't been, we might have had a couple of kids by now, according to Vinh. Who knows, but I'm glad we made up for some lost time at least. It was a good reunion.

The open streets of Binh Minh