If you’ve had any kind of conversation with me in recent months you are aware that the word magic flows out of my lips like water. Travel magic (my favourite of all the enchantment I speak of) surprises me with captivating conversations, fascinating new friendships and leads me to places that truly take my breath away. It seems that the more I talk about it, the more this allure follows me and sometimes I have to pinch myself to be certain I’m not in a fantasy.
I’ve spent close to five months wanderlust in Southeast Asia. I’ve bartered at markets in the heart of Bangkok, sipped cold Beer Lao by the Mekong river, and held over a million Dong in my bare hand (only about $60CAD but it sounds so much more impressive in Vietnamese currency). Thailand, Laos and Vietnam have been unbelievably generous; blessing me with who and what I needed in my world exactly when I needed it the most. Life doesn’t get much more beautiful than this! So I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised to I arrive in Cambodia (without any expectation) and be provided the brightest, and most sparkly gifts to date.
The real magic was the $15 bus ticket from Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penn; an eight hour journey that completely changed my world. It was on this bus ride that I had my first introduction to the inspiring beings of Cambodia (a full day bus ride with no wifi makes for many interesting hours of people watching). The gentleness of the special souls that surrounded me was obvious from the moment I sat down, and before the day was done I had learned a handful of Khmer expressions, enjoyed countless homemade Cambodian delicacies, and dinner plans at family homes all over the country! Of course I couldn’t have foreseen it just then, but I would have the irreplaceable opportunity to spend the next few months surrounded (and falling even more in love) with this culture. Learning a thing or two from people that I am lucky enough to now call my Cambodian family.
Phnom Penh wasn’t the most glamourous city to start my visit, yet somehow my trip to Cambodia would have been incomplete without this stop. In my first days, I found it incredibly difficult to find peace. My morning yoga practice by the river was consistently interrupted by a large crowd of people staring, gentlemen trying to sell me a tuk tuk rides or children rummaging through my bag. I felt I always had to be on guard; never for one second taking my eyes off my belongings for fear they would be swept away from me. As nighttime fell I became even more tense and rarely went out alone; the dimly lit streets were littered with garbage and the plethora of rough-looking characters gave me a feeling of unease in the pit of my belly.
However, the Dolphin Hostel was the perfect location to have an early dinner at the night market before the sun completely set. The food at the market blew me away; a large courtyard of vendors selling everything and anything, the nostalgic smell of BBQ’d meat skewers and the bustling chatter of tourists seated barefoot on bamboo mats enjoying heaped plates of handmade goodness. I went to the market for dinner all four nights I was in the city, each time enjoying a different veggie dish for the first time (less than $2USD a plate) whilst in the company of some truly inspiring beings.
A twist of fate allowed me to spend one hilariously odd night out in PP with an friend I had met months earlier in Laos. I remember waking up in my room the next morning and messaging him to be sure that I hadn’t dreamt the whole evening up with the help of too many Ankor beers. He confirmed that the baby mama drama at the reggae club, the woes of the pessimistic barman working at the piano lounge, and the not-so-dreamy girls out front of the Dream Bar were, in fact, all reality. I wish I could elaborate… but the most important thing is that I’m still smiling just thinking about it all.
I feel somewhat ignorant admitting it, but the only history I knew of the country before entering Cambodia was from other travellers’ stories. My high-school textbooks had omitted the horrifying tale of genocide that took the lives of more than two million Khmer people (half of the population of the entire country at the time) only forty years ago. It’s an understatement to say that Cambodia has some heavy history involving the Khmer Rouge Regime, and I can’t help but think that every local I meet that’s middle age and older has a pretty unimaginable story of survival and heartache. High school history lesson or not, there’s very little that could have prepared me for the day I spent at the Genocide Museum and killing fields outside of PP. It was without a doubt one of the most emotionally draining experiences of my life, and I’ve never seen so many grown men crying whilst listening to survivors recount their painful memories. A plethora of uncomfortable and unsettling feelings surfaced inside me as I walked past torture chambers and mass graves of innocent men, woman and children.
As deeply saddening as it all was, I believe this was something I needed to see. I’m hopeful that by educating myself about (even the most gruesome) historical events, I’m not only showing respect and empathy for this country’s culture, but facilitating in the creation of a global awareness that says hate simply won’t win. We are all ONE, love will always conquer and the human race is intelligent enough to learn from the mistakes of the past. I will forever remain in complete awe of the people of Cambodia and their ability to live with such purity and love after such a hate-filled history.
After a few days of falling asleep to the sounds of loud honking horns and feeling my skin sticky from the intense humidity of the city, I was ready for the sea. Cambodia has so many amazing costal beach towns (that I knew absolutely nothing about) and I had a month tourist visa to explore . . . so I literally flipped a coin to decide which direction to head. A silver Canadian beaver tail told me to travel about 5 hours by bus towards the southwest of the country to Sihanoukville.
For two days I explored this city, trying with all my positive energy to notice something other than the trashy Serendipity Beach bars, filthy (cigarette-lined) seaside and the ‘Jersey Shore’ vibe.
If it hadn’t been for two lovely ladies from Portland walking into my hostel room one evening, I likely would have left this province with nothing good to say and no plans to return. It was because of their recommendation that I stayed another night to check out Otres Villiage, a beach town located ten minutes outside the city. I stepped out of the tuk tuk onto the dusty, red-dirt road and my opinion of the area was permanently changed. For the next two weeks I would sip coconuts on gorgeous white sand beaches, teach yoga on a second-story deck overlooking the sea, and meet dozens of expats who would unknowingly change my life for the better.
Done Right hostel on Otres 1 is like a meeting hub for all of the coolest and most talented humans on the planet. In fact, there were moments during my stay that I’d look into someone’s eyes and wonder if they were from Earth at all or just gracing me with their presence from some far away Galaxy. The open mic jam sessions produced evenings of live music, poetry and free-style rapping that oozed so much soul and passion I still get goosebumps as I think about it. I fell asleep in my personal igloo tightly snuggled up to the hostel puppies and woke to the smell of vegan ‘Hippie Porridge’ (banana, fresh coconut, dried fruit, cinnamon and soy milk). In the evenings, tables were set with candles and cutlery to enjoy a family-style supper with the best home cooked food and endlessly inspiring conversation. It would be my first experience as a member of a such a beautiful community, and although the timing was short, it was one of the most transformative periods of my life.
The days I spent at Otres blend together into one big, happy memory of stunning sunsets out front of the Blame Canada bar, immaculate eyebrow threading on the beach, and movie nights on the hostel’s comfy communal couch. In those short days I experienced true ‘peace of mind’, had tears of pure joy more times than I can count, and listened in awe as the most rawly talented artists created music that truly spoke to my soul. So when the time finally came to leave my Otres soulmates to explore the close-by Cambodian islands, I did so with a feeling of complete fullness. There really is no need for sad ‘goodbyes’ when your heart knows with certainty that you’ll be back again one day.
In an effort to see as many beaches as we could in the area, my Portland ladies and I grabbed our bathers and took a one-day trip from Otres 1 to a relatively secluded island called Koh ta Kiev. The five dollar long-tail boat ride was magic in itself, bestowing us with peaceful snorkel stops and a cliff-jumping experience that reminded me of an aliveness within that I had nearly forgotten about. I would soon learn that this was just the beginning of what would be another life-altering adventure in Cambodian paradise.
The ‘island daze’ began the moment we elected to wander from the docked boat through the dense Koh ta Kiev rainforest. We past the Drunken Pencil bar (create some artistic magic with an easel and paint while you enjoy an ice-cold Ankor beer) and found ourselves amongst treehouses and beachfront hammocks at Ten103.
The chilled-out Otres vibes had nothing on this place, and within an instant we all felt a newfound sense of peace and tranquility. There’s something so soothing about being surrounded by lush nature, living completely disconnected from wifi, and having absolutely nowhere else you need to be. It’s an indescribable feeling of ease as all future worries begin to melt away and life starts flowing in the NOW.
We relaxed on beanbag chairs under the branches of the beautiful shade tree growing from the centre of the wooden deck to eat, read, and journal all afternoon. In a world without ‘clock time’, I can only guess that it was hours that past without a single word to each other and as the sun set it became silently obvious that our boat had sailed back to Otres without us onboard. Although, the combination of chocolate tropical fruit fondue, strong cocktails, and the most spectacular sunset imaginable, made our staying seem like part of a wonderfully orchestrated master plan. And as I experienced more and more perfect sunsets on this very deck, I was reminded of how rich life can be when one simply takes notice. Here I was on an relatively deserted island with nothing to my name but a bathing suit, showering with a cold bucket of water, sleeping in a hammock on the beach . . . and yet I felt like my life was unbelievably full and abundant; there really was not one thing missing in my world.
It was for multiple reasons that I elected to stay and make Koh ta Kiev my home for the next week; the biggest being its undeniable beauty. It is without a doubt the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous place I have visited in Asia to date. The beach sand is pure white, the crystal waters shine turquoise in the sun, and at night (when the electricity is cut off to conserve power) the sea illuminates with majestic bioluminescent plankton. Every evening provides the surreal experience of swimming under a sky full of twinkling stars while being surrounded by them. It’s something that cannot be captured in a photograph, and somehow it’s one of the most vivid (and unforgettable) memories of my life; the warm salty water on my skin, the soft mud floor squishing between my toes and millions (trillions) of glittery sparkles all around me! Sheer MAGIC!
There are a total of four accommodations on the whole island; each one dripping with character and run by a community of expats that you can’t help but want to get to know better. With the absence of clock time, days came and went with complete ease. I enjoyed long walks through the jungle to (even more) isolated beaches, went on snorkel excursions to not-so-distant reefs, ate breakfast on a dock overlooking the calm waters below, and took in sunset after pastel sunset from one of the many hammocks on the beach. Each night I enjoyed a delicious (oversized) dinner prepared by the talented chefs at Coral Beach Resort whilst being serenaded by ukulele ballads. I learned the value of always carrying a good book in my bag, that I could live off of solely watermelon and coconuts until dinner, and very quickly realized how much quicker it gets dark in a dense jungle.
Quite possibly one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, I’ll never forget the afternoon I made the mistake of staying a little too long on a remote beach opposite to where I was living. I could feel my heartbeat in my ears as I ran with all my being for two plus kilometres through the dark jungle to my resort; my only source of light being an Asian-inspired ‘BIC’ lighter that was virtually useless in illuminating my path.
I think it’s funny how the moment I meet another Canadian I instinctually know we are going to be friends. It’s like, without ever conversing, we already have some kind of inside joke that makes us a little bit more connected. Lucky for me, there was four of us all randomly brought together on the island and this meant an instant group of girlfriends. Our posse stuck together for a few days on Koh ta Kiev, playing familiar card games and reminiscing about ‘home life’ over mouth-watering dinner dates. We enjoyed one last sunsetty evening together back on the mainland before separating; feasting on the best $4 veggie burger with a glass of wine (from a box) combo whilst an angel from France practiced 21 years worth of music skills alongside us on a guitar she had appropriately named ‘Dream‘.
I distinctly remember having one of those “is this real life?!!” moments as I lay on the sand with my wine glass in hand that evening.
A sky full of stars shone like twinkling fairy lights overhead, the smell of the salty sea lingered in my nostrils and shiny (happy) people sung Jason Mraz’s ‘I’m Yours’ around me. It truly seemed life couldn’t get any better … but this was just the beginning of my four-month fairy tale romance with Cambodia and all its beauty. Not the pumpkin or the puffy dress. Not the fairy godmother (although I’m convinced there must have been some kind of divine intervention orchestrating what would happen next). I guess that’s the enchanting thing about magic; you are not gifted what you expect when you want it, but instead what you have always dreamt of the moment you are ready for it.