My China summer camp placement took a century to get back to me and we were nearing summer, so I had no flights booked and no backup plans. I did a lil Google search and prices to (God knows where precisely) Chinese cities were a teeny bit nauseating, but Skyscanner offered me the temptation of a £130 ticket to Phomh Penh, two days after my final exam in May. I was in a hostel in Dublin, on my work experience at Lucy’s Lounge, and I shrugged and thought, ‘why not’, hitting ‘book’.
I’d done a lot of solo travel, and been in the region, hitting Thailand the year before, and Vietnam the year before that, but on the flight over I was still terrified. This was the longest solo trip I’d ever tackled (it ended up being 4 months) and I had no idea when I’d come back, who I’d meet along the way, or how long I’d spend at each stop. I’d, in the past, joined a tour group for at least a few days to begin with, or had a clear-cut route and schedule. This time, though, I was just out on a limb and decided to wing the whole thing, having nothing but my first night booked, and a vague idea that I’d need to end up in China, somehow, at some point. The only thing that really kept me going was a stubborn urge to become ‘brave’ and a statement I kept repeating: it will all be okay.
I grew up more that summer than I think I had in my previous 21 years. If you have a tendency to overthink or you’re a bit of a worrier, like myself, I personally believe one of the most incredible ways you can liberate yourself is to just throw caution to the wind and confront things. I’ve never felt better than being able to look back at what had terrified me in anticipation and laugh at how smoothly and beautifully it worked out. I didn’t control anything; I didn’t plan anything meticulously or organise anything perfectly, I didn’t take extreme measures to avoid any mishap (beyond blatant personal safety – still aware of my 12yo girl resemblance), and it just ended up being fun. I’ve never felt calmer than I did in Cambodia.
It’s so odd to even say that I travelled alone there, because I found that myth about solo-travel to be true: I don’t think I spent more than 5 minutes without company. At every single stop, I’d said goodbye to new friends and asked myself ‘what’s next’ , before a new acquaintance would appear, from the two Dutch girls I met on my first day in Phnom Penh and toured a temple with, to waking up on my final morning in Siem Reap and hugging fellow travellers fairwell. My second stop was Koh Rong island where I met people I honestly, now, can’t believe I haven’t known for years, maybe because we shared such an odd experience together: it rained constantly and we all ended up playing cards and beer pong, watching fire shows at night, and feeding dogs vegan pizza (because no one would eat it but me!). I lost contact with them along the way, somewhere, and hung out in Kampot, sort-of-alone, instead (2 hours into a first-morning lay-in, a Slovenian guy walked into my dorm holding a spare motorbike helmet and asked, ‘does anyone want to go to a pepper farm?’, and, of course, the only raised hand was mine), before making my way to Siem Reap – where I found a few friendly faces in my hostel.
I was out dancing with a new group in Siem Reap, on my final night, when I suddenly felt someone lift me from behind, and barely before I could look around I was on a stage at the end of a tunnel of people from the island – such a cheesy thing to say but one of the happiest moments of my life (and not just because of cocktail hour!).
I still remember the nerves I had on that island, going up to the bar alone, buying a beer, and just looking at this daunting expanse of loud, partying people who all seemed to be together, gulping and saying to myself: ‘just go for it’. In moments of relapse to my insecure fifteen yo self I remember that moment, and I feel like I can do anything. People were approachable, when I approached them, friendly, when I introduced myself, and gradually subsumed me into the clan. When I was running low on budget, a new friend refused to let me skip a meal and paid for one, for me, and when I contracted (yet another) UTI (seriously, H Y D R A T E yourself when in hot countries) two guys at my hostel drove me to a hospital. One thing this solo trip taught me is that, sometimes, if you let go a little bit and trust the world to give you a hand, oftentimes, it does.
Which leads me to the country, of course. After all this personal growth talk and all that confidence spiel, I still don’t think I measure close to being capable of doing an account on Cambodia justice. I’m frequently asked where my favourite country that I’ve visited has been, and frequently reply that it’s an impossible question, but usually, after some prodding, amongst the few I list is always Cambodia. I wondered, for a while, if this is simply what it personally meant to me, in terms of the experiences I was lucky to have, but these aren’t coincidental: Cambodia is an incredible place.
Not only is it a backpacker paradise in terms of the sheer no. of travellers it hosts, every year (it’s a popular hit on the typical South East Asia bucket list and lots of people pass through it on their way to Vietnam, Thailand, or Laos), there’s an amazing range in activity and interest. There are, of course, the breathtaking historical sights like the indescribable Angkor Wat (I only went for a day and feel infinitely regretful, cherish it if you have the chance to go for more), and the tragic social historical tours surrounding ‘The Killing Fields’ (I read ‘First They Killed My Father’ whilst here, I think it hones the reality in and provides a horrific, heartbreaking, personal perspective), there are also so many fun things: the islands boast such sociable hostels and amazing parties, the street food, markets, and art, are so lively and the simple natural scenery is blissful – best enjoyed from the river by temples as a monkey with stolen groceries bullets by.
Cambodia is a country I would recommend for first-time solo travel again and again. Experience tuk-tuks, meet fellow backpackers, chat with locals, and see the most amazing sites. As stunning as Angkor Wat is, the simplest exchanges of conversation in little art galleries or shops of social projects (Daughters of Cambodia -for helping women who have been sex trafficked – is wonderful) are equally special. I frequently found myself in lengthy convos with those serving coffee, working bars, selling art, or simply hanging around: my first exchange in the country was with a local lady who’d resided in the same shade as me, by the river, in Phnom Penh.
For now, I suppose I’ll just bank it in my memories, and return to pics and journals for uplift in more mundane times.
(Plus, take that newfound confidence and plan a few more trips around the world, of course!)