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Spiders, sharks, and sweat in Cambodia

Written by Alice McLeod on 13 / 01 / 2023

Gap Year Advice

This adventure starts, as many great adventures do, at four in the morning. I'll admit that in that moment it didn't feel like much of an adventure, it felt like a punishment. But underlying that feeling of tiredness was a current of excitement, because whilst I'm not a girl who gets up any earlier than eight voluntarily, I can be persuaded to with the promise of a trip to Cambodia. Because that's really where the adventure starts, not at four in the morning, not the frosty drive to the airport, and certainly not on the 18 hours’ worth of flights and layovers. No, the adventure really kicks off when I barrel into a tuk tuk at Phnom Penh airport.

I’d never been to Asia before, and I was practically vibrating with excitement as we drove through Phnom Penh. So many exciting new things happening all around me!

I made it to the hotel just fine and finally met Rachel, our Cambodia project coordinator, and my personal tour guide for the next ten days. After emailing and messaging for the last few months it was great to finally meet her, and her enthusiasm was infectious. Within half an hour we were floating in the hotel’s swimming pool and sharing our life stories (mine was boring, Rachel’s was fascinating). After a long day of travel, it was a relief to fall into bed that night.

The next morning I was introduced to the joy of a Khmer breakfast — pork, rice, and pickled vegetables — before we moved onto our first stop of the trip, the Killing Fields. Whilst I did have some knowledge of the history of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, to see and hear more about this period of history was truly harrowing, and I think an essential visit for anyone travelling in Cambodia.

Arriving at the Red Road

We continued our long drive through the countryside as the vistas got more mountainous, and the views outside the window get greener. My arrival at the Red Road Foundation was met with lots of smiling and waving children who had just finished up their day of school. The RRF is the project headed up by Rachel that we support in Cambodia, and it was truly amazing to see first-hand what was being achieved. The main focus of the school is teaching English lessons to the children at the weekends, but Rachel isn’t content to be limited, there’s also eco-building projects (think buildings made from plastic waste), small-scale social enterprises, and community volunteering. I was welcomed with open arms by the Khmer family that lived onsite and act as caretakers, and before I knew it we were all sat having a delicious supper together. I was teased mercilessly for how scared I was of a spider I’d spotted in the bathroom (it was easily the size of a small cat…), and also had my ego seriously boosted after being asked if I had a boyfriend and being told that I was so beautiful, clever, and rich (not sure where the last bit came from), that no man was deserving of me. I couldn’t agree more.

Spiders the size of cats...

I was woken to the sound of birds in the morning, and enjoyed a delicious breakfast of noodles and cabbage before meeting up again with Rachel, who took me on a tour of the local village, stopping on the way to meet the recipients of one of the projects our Leapers will be undertaking in January. Rachel had asked around in the community near the Red Road to find a family in need, and our Leapers will be building them a loo out of eco-bricks made from old plastic bottles during their stay in January. It was eye-opening to see how this family lived and made me more grateful than ever for the things I take for granted back home.

In the afternoon we welcomed the children back for their English lessons at the Red Road. We all sat together and drew our dream houses, and I tried not take it too personally that all the kids were considerably better at drawing than me and then proceeded to laugh at the vegetable patch I was attempting to draw. Not used to the heat and humidity and flagging a little bit, I watched in baffled amazement as a bunch of the children played a very high-energy game of football, racing up and down with enthusiasm for activity that I was currently sorely lacking.

That evening my host family had a few friends over, so the evening was spent eating delicious food, drinking beers, and finding out from Rachel what animal reflected where we currently were at that point in our lives. The card I pulled, ironically, was a spider, and whilst there were some language barriers in place between everyone at the table, it turned out that the horrified look on my face transcended language and brought great amusement to all gathered. I was also amazed at how quickly I’d settled into life at the Red Road. When I first arrived I’d been slightly overwhelmed by the culture shock of rural Cambodian life; as a self-confessed princess, things were all feeling pretty far out of my comfort zone. But by night two I’d settled into the routine, got used to the menagerie of wandering animals, the heat, and the spider had mysteriously vanished from the bathroom.

The next day was a fun mix of pampering and excitement. We headed off in the direction of Kampot but made an all-important stop at a small beauty salon to get our hair washed. Now, I’ve washed my own hair, and indeed had my hair washed by other people, many times in my life. Nothing could compare. I enjoyed almost thirty minutes of having my hair cleaned within an inch of its life. Never before has it been so lovingly massaged and cared for.

Once we’d all had out hair washed we continued on with our adventure. Rachel had found a rather nice place for me to stay the next two nights, not only was the bathroom spider-free, but the shower also ran warm water. This felt like the absolute height of luxury, and Rachel and I sat looking onto the Kampot river as we hashed out some of the details of the programme (I was there to do some work after all).

Glamour with a kayak...

Luckily I’d learnt pretty early on in the trip that I was going to be routinely humbled, and that remained the case as I attempted to climb into the kayak Rachel had rented for us to enjoy a sunset river paddle later that evening. All grace and dignity went out the window as I clambered in, making it look far more difficult than Rachel had moments before. Indeed, even Harley, Rachel’s dog, had managed to make her way into the kayak with more decorum than me. But soon we were in and paddling up the river… well, Rachel paddled, I took photos. It was such a special way to see the natural scenery, and so peaceful at the front of the kayak as we drifted along. The back of the kayak was considerably less peaceful, with Rachel getting a full-body workout as she furiously rowed in order to keep us moving, but up front I was simply marvelling at the sunset views.

Kampot town, our destination the next morning, was another change from the sleepier places I’d been staying before. Full of hustle and bustle, bright lights, and delicious smells wafting from the street food vendors, I think my eyes were out on stalks as I tried to take everything in at once. Rachel wanted to take me to a local market where she promised I’d ‘smell things I’d never smelt before’. She was not wrong. The market was a warren of narrow passageways lined with everything you could possibly imagine; fresh fruit, meat, fabric, fish, gold… if you could dream it, it was there. I bought a half kilo bag of Kampot pepper (note to self: don’t buy your heavy souvenirs at the midpoint in the trip when you then have to carry them around for the next week), and Rachel introduced me to some coconut sweet treats that I’d never tried before — delicious.

Cambodia is calling...

Join one of our programs to Cambodia to experience this glorious, off grid adventure for yourself as we are not convinced the spiders were the size of birds...

take me there

Koh Rong Sanloem Island

Little did I know when I woke up the next morning that I was about to experience the toughest day of not only the trip, but perhaps also my entire life. Okay, maybe a little bit dramatic, but let me tell you, Rachel had not prepared me for what was to come. Everything started out great with the most delicious plate of pork, rice, and pickled veg, washed down with a fresh fruit smoothie. From Kampot to Sihanoukville, where a boat was waiting to whisk us to the island of Koh Rong Sanloem. Whisked we certainly were, by the end of the journey I was swearing that I’d never set foot on a boat again, and even Harley (who came with us on every adventure) was looking green around the gills. Sadly my no-boats-ever-again rule was broken within five minutes of stepping off the jetty, as one of Rachel’s friends had kindly sent a small boat over for us to cross the bay in. The feeling of being thrown around on the waves in a tiny boat increased the seasickness I was already experiencing, until I was debating throwing myself overboard and swimming the rest of the way. We made it to shore, and I sat on a deck overlooking the beach heartily regretting my earlier breakfast. But Rachel, perhaps in retaliation for how much I’d complained about some unfortunately placed mosquito bites earlier in the trip, wasn’t done with me yet.

Sweat? Like you wouldn't believe...

What followed feels like a fever dream (or nightmare), and even now, a month later, I'm not one hundred certain I didn’t have some sort of out-of-body experience. Am I being dramatic? Yes. Did I think I was going to perish? Yes. In order to reach Sunset Beach there was a small trek through the jungle; Rachel assured me I could manage it. Rachel should have known me well enough by then to know that I was not a gritty adventurer, I was a princess. Like a mountain goat, she gallivanted up steep rocks, leapt over streams, and navigated precarious terrain. I stumbled twenty yards behind, sweating profusely, fighting mosquitoes the size of birds, and wondering if I had perhaps died on the boat journey and was now in Hell. With my big rucksack on my back, and day bag on my front, I could barely see where I was putting my feet, and was hanging onto the rope that acted as a handrail up and down the steepest parts for dear life. Even spotting some monkeys wasn’t enough to cheer me up. When I raised my concerns about the Leapers doing this, I was assured that they wouldn’t have to because they’d be taking a private boat around to Sunset beach. A private boat. Lucky Leapers. Thrilled for them but it should have been me.

Sunset Beach - you were so worth it...

My emergence onto Sunset Beach was mentioned multiple times over the next few days, and I fear is perhaps my lasting Cambodian legacy. Sweating like I’d never sweat before, hollow-eyed, and dazed, I staggered out onto the sand. Rachel wasted no time in running straight into the sea. I’d forgotten how to move my legs so merely sat staring unseeingly into space until someone took pity on me and brought me a welcome drink. It turns out a stiff drink was exactly what I needed, and I revived myself long enough to dump my bags, change into beachwear, and roll myself into the ocean. I was again questioning whether or not I’d died, because this time I was quite sure I was in heaven. The jungle had given way to a white-sand beach, crystal clear water, and an endless horizon. I floated and stared up at the cloudless blue sky, wondering if perhaps the trek had been worth it. Perhaps, I could admit. But next time I’d be taking the private boat.

That evening I sat on the beach and watched the most beautiful sunset I’d ever seen in my entire life. I briefly speculated how much trouble I’d be in if I messaged work to let them know I wouldn’t be coming back as I’d be starting a new life on Sunset Beach. I couldn’t imagine they’d be too happy, but I thought if I sent them a photo of my current view they’d understand. I’d happily withstand endless teasing about how ropey I looked when I arrived if it meant I could live on the beach forever.

Rachel wasn’t going to let me rest on my laurels and simply lie on the beach for days on end (even though I wished she would); these were my last few days in Cambodia and she was determined to push me out of my comfort zone a few more times. Something you should know about me is that I'm terrified, terrified, of sharks. I think they're fascinating, I understand the vital role they play in the ocean’s ecosystem, but I never ever want to see one. The ocean is too vast and the thought of swimming and not being able to see what’s underneath me sends shivers down my spine, even when sat in an office on Marlborough High Street. Rachel clearly thought it was time for me to overcome that fear, as she’d signed me up for a bioluminescent plankton tour. The more I heard about the tour the more fear I felt. It happened at night? You had to kayak right out to the darkest part of the bay? You had to actually get into the ocean…The ocean at night? I'm guessing no one had seen Jaws, because I was fairly sure that’s exactly how that film started, and spoiler alert: it does not end well for the swimmer.

Shark or a leaf...

The evening of the tour rolled around and I said my goodbyes to everyone, certain I’d never see them again. I tried to remember how to breathe as we paddled out into the darkness, and I jumped on two as Andre (our tour leader, and Rachel’s friend) counted down from three in an attempt to coax me into the water. Best to simply launch myself in without thinking too much about it. Luckily I was quickly distracted by the bioluminescent plankton, which really was incredibly special. It was a pinch-me moment, and I don’t think my tenuous, dyslexic grasp on the English language could do it any justice. It was magical and beautiful, and I forgot all about sharks right up until something touched my leg (a shark, it was definitely a shark). Cue panic mode. Never in my life have I moved as fast as I did then, shooting across to where Andre was and hanging off him like a frightened octopus. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Something touched me, it was definitely a shark, I'm about to die.

Andre: It definitely wasn’t a shark, it was probably a leaf.

Me, slowly cutting the blood supply off to his arm as I clung on: It was a shark.

Andre: Well even if it was a shark, I’d fight it off.

Me, increasingly hysterical: Fight off a shark!? You can’t fight a shark! It’s dark, you can’t even see the shark!

Needless to say, the magic was over and not long afterwards we all paddled back to the safety of the shore where I was quick to share my story of my near-death experience with the shark/leaf.

Saying Goodbye

My final day in Cambodia arrived far too quickly, and before I knew it I was waving goodbye to the islands on a far less choppy crossing, and then saying an emotional goodbye to Rachel and Harley. Rachel had been my guide for the ten days I’d been there, but more importantly she’d become my friend. Her patience was endless, she had me laughing during the toughest of times, and everything she was doing was truly inspirational. It’s hard not to form a strong bond with someone who has seen you at your absolute worst (mid-jungle trek), shared their life story with you, and spent long car rides discussing life goals and aspirations. It was a long flight back from Cambodia, and the perfect time to reflect on everything I’d seen and done. My overriding feeling was excitement about how that Leapers would get to experience all this and more. It’s so cliché to say, but my time had been life-changing and I’d learnt so much about myself as a person, and that was just in ten days — the Leapers would be there for a whole month. I was also hoping they’d do a better job at representing the UK than I had, hopefully they're made of grittier stuff than me.

I was welcomed back to the UK with an almost forty-degree temperature drop compared to where I’d just come from. And as I stood in the snow at the airport scraping the ice off my car, I thought about the crazy ten days I’d just had and how lucky I’d been to visit such an amazing country filled with such warm and kind people. It had been a whirlwind of adventure and excitement, but all good things must come to an end, and I was back at my desk at nine the next morning, the only clues I’d been away were my amazing tan and a half kilo bag of pepper in my kitchen cupboard.

Cambodia is calling...

Join one of our programs to Cambodia to experience this glorious, off grid adventure for yourself as we are not convinced the spiders were the size of birds...

take me there

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