“So this is Christmas, and what have you done?”

There are bad days of travel. Yes it does happen. Not every single day consists of climbing a new mountain or meeting a brand new bunch of amazing people or cuddling a new animal. There are bad days. There are dull days and there are even days in which routine becomes so familiar that you feel as if you’re back in your old life. This is normal! If something like this happens half the time I feel guilty that i’m not travelling in the way “I should be travelling” and then I stop and wonder where on earth that concept came from?! Days can be spent relaxing, staying in the same place with the same people, not learning or doing anything particularly new, not straying from another familiar routine. THIS IS OK! In fact it’s necessary. If every new day you went on some new massive adrenaline fuelled adventure you’d be burnt out within a couple of weeks.

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And so all you travellers out there I encourage, nay, implore you to take a day or two to appreciate the peace that can be found within a “dull” day and the lessons you can learn from it. However the one thing I was struggling with was what how to experience an extraordinary day in such different circumstances; Christmas in Cambodia.

I know it is rather like Marmite but I am a huge lover of Christmas. Not only from the faith based side but also the traditions, the excitement, the frosty mornings and hope of snow, the chance to enjoy your family’s company and attempt to give them something that in some small way says “I know you, i’ve been thinking about you and I love you lots.” Pete, however likes Christmas mainly for the food.

Christmas in Cambodia was a very different affair. The temperature was the literal polar opposite of what you would experience in Britain for starters. There was the odd tree and tinsel that could be found and we even managed to watch a Christmas film but it just didn’t quite feel the same. The main problem was that my family were on the other side of the world and I really did struggle watching them go through all the usual motions without me.

Having said that Peter and I ended up having a wonderful (if very diverse) Christmas day. It was our last full day in Phnom Penh so we decided to explore as much as we could. We started out with a visit to The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Now I am going to be brutally honest here and say that it’s probably not worth it. For those on a budget I would suggest something else. Apart from the fact that the floor of pure silver tiles in the pagoda was 90% hidden by carpet and that the heat was so concentrated in the courtyard that you had to plan your way around based on the shade available (despite the early morning), the ginormous masses of tourists was enough to put anybody off. There were literally thousands of us and in more concentrated droves than what we had experienced at Angkor Wat. We had an interesting walk around but it certainly wasn’t on my top 100 list of experiences from this trip and I doubt i would recommend it to a friend. We were going to attempt the national museum too but we feared it would be much of the same and by this point even I was getting hangry!

Peter had watched (in horror and amusement) as his other half gradually changed her opinion on the joys of food throughout this trip. Ever since the incredible cooking in Italy I had taken a little more delight in food than normal and had even started to develop slightly irrational moodiness when faced with the prospect of sightseeing on an empty stomach. It was a strange transformation.

To combat this we decided to have our Christmas dinner which, again harkened back to our Italian adventure – we had pizza!

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Photo kindly donated by Peter Bonser

With our stomachs overly full and our ears recovering from an hideously frequently played and annoying rendition of “Away in a manger” we made our way back out into the shimmering heat to further explore the city. We were actually along the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers where the breeze made the temperature bearable and we walked along the riverside looking up at all the international flags bordering the walkway and out into the river where locals were swimming.

And then started the hunt for the tie. Dodging tuk tuk drivers left right and centre we delved into the heart of the city in search of the perfect tie for my dad who’s birthday was on Christmas eve. I wanted him to have a tie that was made of 100% pure Cambodian silk and I wanted to purchase it from one of the ethical shops which meant helping to fund a good cause. There are fantastic charities which help dissolve the sex traffic industry or ensure fair wages for staff or provide employment for disabled individuals and this is the most guaranteed way to ensure your money is actually helping others. Beggars of all ages were everywhere but it was difficult to tell what was genuine need and what was potentially a scam so ethical buying is really your best bet.

We explored shop after shop, some with an incredible array of ties to select from and some with just a couple. However my dad is rather particular and I was worried I wouldn’t get the right one so we walked for literally hours through the city.

It was actually a really nice way to explore and get a proper feel for Phnom Penh Shopping with a goal in mind forced you to figure out where you were, go down alleyways which weren’t on the tourist routes and generally live a little more like a local. We did eventually find a tie although I still worry now that it won’t be what my dad would have picked for himself. However we have a LONG time before he actually gets given it so we shall have to wait and see.

In the obscenely bright sunlight we realised Peter was getting burnt. I (the wearer of un-tannable pale skin) hadn’t even gone a slight shade darker but poor Peter’s neck and head were in whole new league of what you would call skin colour and there was a beautifully distinct line where his T-shirt had been, separating the colours like an overly zealous chaperone at a high school dance. So we walked back to our hotel (“no tuk tuk today!” being shouted every few seconds) and decided to spend a few hours in the pool to cool off. The water was cool, we had it all to ourselves and we had lots of fun messing around with no particular aim other than to enjoy each others company on Christmas day.

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We hadn’t exchanged gifts, we didn’t open stockings or pull crackers or have an incredibly sumptuous meal but it was still a very rich Christmas and I was thankful for just having the opportunity to spend it with Peter. Sometimes the more simple options are the best and the less money you spend can still yield a memorable and enjoyable day. And looking around to the extreme examples of poverty surrounding us I felt it was important to remember that. Some people we passed literally had nothing. There was one woman in particular who stood out. She wasn’t selling anything or asking for anything or harassing you like usual. Instead she sat on a sheet of cardboard, well away from any of the tourist streets and just stared at the ground. She had completely given up. There was no hope left in her eyes and the more I think about it the more i wish I had gone back and tried to help. I don’t know her story (and the more I imagine what it might be the more horrified I would get) but I know how it feels to live like that. To no longer have hope because it is too dangerous and too far flung an idea to indulge in is the lowest you can go and it haunts me to this day. That woman haunts me too and will always serve as a reminder to how Cambodia humbled me. It was my first visit to a developing country and to see it in the flesh was an eye opening experience but I was glad of the lessons I learned from it.

This country had given me hope though. It stood as a testament to me being able to travel to a snake infested country and (just about) survive (with massive support from Peter). It had shown me how people can have very little and still smile and laugh and be proud of their achievements, even more so than we ever have any right to be given the adversities they must overcome. And it showed that some people refuse to sit back and let things happen. People see Bears in bile farms and decide to DO something about it or they see young women in the sex trafficking industry and decide to help them and their children and provide long term solutions. Those people are some of the bravest and most determined folk you could come across and, crucially, they are always full of hope. I was glad i had come all this way to witness that.

There was one last thing Peter wanted to do before we left Cambodia for good and that was to meet up with a true professional Khmer kick-boxer and train alongside him. This was something our hotel arranged and so the morning of our departure he arrived, they donned their gloves and pads and started to box.

They were boxing on boxing day.

This small fact made me giggle for far longer than it should have until I saw how brutal it was. Peter wasn’t taking any kicks or punches but the sheer effort of delivering them coupled with the steamy heat was quickly exhausting him. In the tree-lined courtyard of the hotel I watched him train with a guy who was a block of sheer muscle. He did incredibly well and was told that he was very strong and if he trained solidly for two or three months he would be an amazing fighter. It was a rather surreal way to end our visit but I was glad we had managed to squeeze in this last Cambodian experience.

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And so, back at the airport, we stepped out of the heat and into the cool relief of air conditioning for the very last time, gearing up for another mammoth travel day. From Cambodia we were heading across the coral filled oceans of the equator and over the other side all the way to the southern hemisphere and it’s crown jewel (in my humble opinion) – New Zealand.

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