Two months into this trip and it’s finally time for a new country: Cambodia. Knowing only that many Cambodians cycle as revealed to me by my homeschooled friend and her collection of Blue Peter annuals, this part of the trip was always set to be full of surprises and the unknown for me. I arrived here just over a week ago after two flights from Borneo and an overnight layover spent sleeping on the floor of Kuala Lumpur. With seven new members of the group, spicing up the accents of the team with voices from such exotic places as Leeds, Cardiff, Manchester and Australia, I thought it was time to let you know what we’ve been getting up to. I apologise in advance for the rambling and mismatched nature of this blog but it’s been a bit of a crazy week and I’ve got so many things to tell you all.
Firstly, something truly amazing happened on Tuesday when the Camp Cambodia program began: Camps International checked us into a hotel. After two months of longhouses and hostel dorms, a twin room with an en suite, kettle and TV (even if there were no English channels) was pure luxury. Donning the hotel dressing gowns and flip flops, we headed down the panelled corridor, passing the Titanic-esque staircases to the mirrored elevator and then down to the pool. It’s only right to be spoiled every now and again in life. Nevertheless, soon enough it was back to camp life for us, this time staying at Camp Beng Mealea.
On arrival at the camp we were taken to the local temple to receive a water blessing. This entailed a clean shaven, sarong wearing monk shaking water at us all with a handful of leaves whilst reciting such a beautiful chant, shifting in intonation in an almost lyrical manner. It was also during this encounter that I was quite firmly assured that the monks here definitely do not wear orange; their sarongs are in fact a hue halfway between yellow and red – what’s that colour called again? Anyway, after this we were able to explore the ruined temple of Beng Mealea. Following decades of neglect and an unforgiving war, the temple far better resembles a pile of stone bricks rather than a recognisable building but with its climbing vines and straddling tree roots, the temple was no less beautiful. There certainly is a mystical and mysterious charm about Cambodia.
The camp is as basic as any other camp I’ve stayed at so far except that the toilets are composting rather than flush toilets and the showers are actually warm. There is one significant issue with Camp Mealea though: ants. Every morning and night a different member of the team has been victim to an ant ambush. Eating through plastic, crawling into zipped bags and infesting wash kits, the ants here show no mercy. Our merciless response to the tiny troops has brought us the title “The Ant Busters”. No ants shall be attacking my chocolate orange or handmade coconut oil on my watch.
Project work has been much the same here as in Borneo: blood, sweat and even more cement. Working in a pretty hot and desolate landscape, lunch breaks have been spent atop the small hill near our cement-mixing station, catching any breeze we can. When not at site, the project foreman absolutely loves card games. As such, the most important lesson I have learnt this week is that the drama and excitement of cards crosses every language barrier. On our final night at Camp Beng Mealea we had such a night of cultural sharing. Sat around a campfire under the stars, the camp staff taught us Khmer dances and in return we taught them English dances and at some points even the Zumba moves from Camp Bongkud. It was a moment of true randomness and bliss, one of many such moments which I have encountered during my travels so far.
And finally, what adventures have I had today? Well to begin the day was more of a workout than an adventure as we ascended hundreds of stairs on our hike to see a Reclining Buddha. I dread to think of the energy and effort invested in making those countless steps however there is no escaping the definite ache in my legs from all that climbing. After this was a far gentler walk through a patch of rainforest, the perfect opportunity for conversations to flow and discussions of second gap years to arise. The end point of our walk was up even more stairs, carved into a high-rise mound of stone was a reclining Buddha. I’d imagined that the area surrounding the Buddha would be peaceful and reflective however a megaphone requesting more money to develop the site as well as an intense gamelan band created quite the atmosphere of chaos. Even so, the Buddha was a worthwhile sight to see.
From here more walking was needed to make our way to a nearby waterfall. It was here that I discovered just how powerful waterfalls can be. Perched precariously on a soaked stone in order to escape the nipping fish swimming in the water below, we let the water droplets pelt down on us with as much force as they had. It’s at times like this that it’s possible to feel at peace with nature. As such, I found my unstable seat underneath the waterfall to be a more fitting place to contemplate life than up in the religious chaos of the Reclining Buddha.
There’s simply so much that I could tell you about all that I’ve seen and experienced in Cambodia so far but I’d like to end this blog with some of the words of wisdom given to us by our camp manager during one of his not-so-brief briefings. From my hotel room in Siem Reap I wish to share Han’s words to “Remember to smile a thousand times a day”. Even though this little mantra doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the blog, it is Han’s smiling face that I am most likely to remember from my first week in Cambodia and it is this joy that I would love to bring to you all at home. So, keep smiling everyone.
I’ll keep you posted,