The World is more fun from a Tuk-tuk

I’ve been home from Cambodia a week, and in my head I’m still riding around in a tuk-tuk.

Tuk-tuk is actually the Thai word for a car without walls (or so I’ve been told), but it seems to have been adopted in Cambodia. In Cambodia they are really a carriage of sorts, designed for passengers and attached to the back of a motor bike. Tuk-tuks are mainly used for taxis, and their users can unhitch the carriage when they just want to use their motor bike.

Each owner decorates their tuk-tuk differently – which is partly to help you identify your tuk-tuk driver in a crowd (they often wait for passengers for the return trip after dropping them off), but is also simply an expression of the owners’ taste. The tuk-tuk’s in Cambodia were impressively clean and well cared for, and the variety in decoration and colour was impressive.

The thing about Tuk-tuks is, they are great fun to travel around in. You really feel like you are riding, fresh air blowing against your skin, wizzing around amongst the traffic. Years ago I had a Suzuki Vitara softop with no roof, and minimal walls. Ah – those were the days. I miss it still.

You see, when you travel around without walls (or a roof, or neither), you actually feel like you are there. You are in the place you are travelling through, not locked up in a little bubble looking out at it. You can reach out and touch the world as you pass (especially in Cambodia, the world passes particularly closely), hear all the sounds and smell the life around you.

Not only that, it is a communal experience. Everyone is out travelling along together. Seeing someone you know pass in a tuk-tuk feels very different to seeing them pass in a sealed air conditioned car.

Part of me wishes that tuk-tuks would take off in Australia, so I could go wizzing about in them here. But I fear the Health and Safety nuts will never let that happen.

It seems I will just have to keep planning overseas adventures, and enjoy tuk-tuks in their natural habitat – swarming smiling Asian cities.


How do I sum up Cambodia in a few hundred words?

It is impossible of course. In one week I dipped my toe into the assault on the senses that is Cambodia. I laughed, I cried, I was amazed and inspired.

The smells and streets of Phnom Penh reminded me of Mexico. A vague smell of urine and rotting food, broken footpaths, and lots of activity. You walk down the middle of the street amongst the motor bikes, bicycles, air conditioned four wheel drives, and people. People live out in the open, amongst each other.

The traffic in Cambodia is surprisingly quiet. No constant horns that you get in so many chaotic cities. But then, Phnom Penh was not chaotic. There is constant movement, constant activity, but in a quietly organised way. The traffic weaves gently around itself, in an out of each other, never stopping, flowing.

It was hot. Sweat would drip down my back and down my legs as I walked. The city was quiet in the middle of the day, everyone hid away from the heat. As the evening breeze cooled the day, people crept out, the city buzzing again by nightfall.

Food Court Phnom Penh Style

Streets of Phnom Penh

Where did that breeze come from? As a Sydney sider, I associated a cool breeze with the ocean, yet we were not near the ocean. How does that work? Where does a cool breeze come from if not the ocean? Mmm.

There was a very particular atmosphere that made me think of Budapest in 1991. 1991 was a time when Hungary had only just come out from under the cloud of communism. The city was poor, tired and struggling – yet at the same time there was this surge of energy. Buildings being renovated, new businesses springing up. Old people determined and resilient, young people daring to hope.

Renovating Phnom Penh

I learnt so much on this trip. So much about Cambodia, its history, and so much about myself. Cambodia’s recent history is so violent and so far reaching, there is no person there unaffected. Every family lost close friends and relatives, every person experienced personal suffering. I heard this from our guides, who had the tough task of sharing the Sad Story. A story that there is no right way to tell, no way to explain.

Yet somehow, life goes on. People go on to love, have children, build dreams. It is amazing what people can endure.

They endure, as do their ancient recipes, stories and dances. I ate Amok, a delicious type of curry, almost every night. I watched giggling teenagers perform their traditional dances for the tourists.

The ancient history is so enchanting, so full of richness and beauty it takes your breath away. Temples in the jungle seem impossibly fantastical, as if a childhood storybook was opened and its contents laid out before you.

Cambodia was impossible to just observe. It had to be tasted, touched and smelt – swum in.

Cambodia reminded me of everywhere, but nowhere. It stays with me. Part of me is still flying around the streets of Phnom Penh on a Tuk-Tuk.

I sense I will be hearing Cambodia’s lessons for some time to come.

A Sad Story

Today I was told the Sad Story of recent Cambodian history. I visited Tuol Sleng, the prison in Phnom Penh where an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned, tortured, taken to what became known as The Killing Fields, and then killed. Only 6 people were known to survive. None escaped.

We then went to The Killing Fields, where the 17,000 people were killed and buried in mass graves.

It is impossible to describe in prose a day like today. So I will not try. But I will share a poem I wrote. Perhaps that is all we can do in the face of our shared history. Share our humanity.

Shaky world
Shaky feet carrying us through
Cracked bone
Crumpled sheets
A breath between
And the next.

Of shifting wind
Touching our cheek
Between the cracks
Between the frangipani leaves
Breathing in
The scent of hope.

Cambodia : There Be Dragons

We all have our demons. Mine are small and reptilian, and scuttle along the ground, through cracks and along ceilings.

Last night I was sitting at the FCC (Foreigners Club Cambodia), a beautiful old colonial building overlooking the Phnom Penh waterfront, enjoying a Tiger Beer and some garlic prawns. I noticed a quick movement above my head. I looked up – on the wall next to me was a gecko. I jumped involuntarily and started feeling all over myself as if to check that the lizard was in fact on the wall, and not somehow simultaneously crawling through my clothes.

I have a lizard phobia. Specifically a phobia of small lizards. Larger lizards I’m not really fond of either, but there is part of me that would prefer to be in a room with goanna than a gecko.

So – this lizard on the wall next to me kind of freaked me out. I calmed down, told myself: Its just one, its not moving. Finish your beer, and look away.

So I turned my chair around to look the other way – to see another gecko on the wall ahead of me. Oh God. Oh damn. Oh —-! Ok – sip beer, deep breaths. I checked that my bag was gecko free and the zipper firmly shut. I check myself again, down my top, feel up and down my legs.

I forced myself to look out over the water and not at the walls. It was ok. It was just stupid lizards. I had faced this in Mexico, even had to sleep in a room once where I knew there was a gecko roaming around somewhere. Admittedly I had to get quite drunk, and even then it didn’t work particulalry well.

I was reminded that this is why I never backpacked around Asia. I’d actually forgotten that that was why. I was terrified of being stuck somewhere where I had to be in rooms, or even sleep in rooms, with geckos. I had even heard stories of them falling off the ceiling and into people’s hair.

How ridiculous. To let this tiny – even rather pretty – creature, rule me like that.

I took a deep breath and turned around, glancing up at the ceiling.

Oh-My-God. In one glance I had seen at least 10 geckos on the ceiling. And they were not just sitting there, they were moving all around the place. Ok, now I was feeling pretty shaky. Just sip your beer, I thought, then you can get back to the hotel.

Oh god – if there were this many here, surely there were some in the hotel? I got shaky, I really felt like crying now.

Ok, the hotel room is air conditioned (Lizards are cold blooded, this is a good deterrant. I know these things.), spotless and the windows shut. Oh shit – I opened the window a bit this afternoon. Oh shit – oh shit. Ok calm.

The lizard closest to me started to move down the wall. I grabbed my bag and practically ran to pay my bill. A few people looked – oh well. As I was paying my bill I could see yet more crawling on the walls towards the door. It took some effort not to run.

I jumped in a tuk-tuk back to the hotel – after checking the ceiling and the seat – no lizards.

I got to the hotel – not a lizard in sight in the foyer. Good sign.

And then my room. I checked as best I could – no lizards. I stripped off and checked myself. No lizards.

Ok. Deep breaths. Its ok – no lizards.  

My mind started on the ‘what ifs’. What if there are lizards in the hotel in Siam Riep? What if… No point in that. I will just have to face my demons as they come, one by crawling one.

As I calmed down, I realised – its time. Time to be free of this. I have faced far worse and survived. I can free myself of this.

So, if I do face any more geckos this trip, they will be the first step in my facing my phobia. And when I get back, I will get some help to free me of this once and for all.

Time to slay the dragons.

Choose Your Own Adventure

The absolute best thing about being single is – freedom. Absolute freedom to what you want, when you want.

Which means the freedom to choose your own adventures.

You can clock up a crazy debt on your credit card, and book adventures at will, without having to answer to anyone (except maybe your mum, but only if you tell her), or feel guilty. It’s awesome.

The latest adventure of my choosing is a trip to Cambodia. I fly to Singapore on Friday afternoon – and then over to Phnom Penh (how do you say that? Peh-nom Pen?) on Saturday. I can’t wait, even though I’ve realised it is the hottest time of year there – and I will likely be sweating it out in 40 degree humid heat. But I’m still excited.

Lets face it, since Tomb Raider came out we’ve all wanted to go and see Ankor Wat. And now I’m going.

I’m actually flying to Cambodia.

I’m not so sure about the lizards as depicted in this video. And I hope that I have a better time than Kim seems to be having.

Either way I’m sure this adventure will have crazy moments. It will definitely have some beautiful moments. And likely a bunch of other stuff in between. The best bit about it – the best bit about every adventure – is that you just really don’t know what is going to happen.

Unwanted Adventures

Some adventures we search for, others come unbidden.

Life is full of challenge, sometimes more than we think we can bear. We have daily challenges; dealing with work, family and all that entails; the ebbs and flows of our friendships. Then there are challenges that rock us to our core.

Nothing ever prepares us for the death of a loved one, struggling with serious illness or the end of a relationship. Things happen that shake the very foundations of our life, that plunge us into sadness beyond what we had imagined was possible. And at some point they happen to all of us, one way or another.

So why would we go and search for more? Why seek adventure and add to the huge challenge that life already is?

Because on some level we know that it is these challenges, bidden or unbidden, that makes us who we are. They are what life is really all about. It is by living through them and growing from the experience that we really live.

That is why we instinctively admire and look up to people who push themselves to their limits, break boundaries – seek out the adventure. When we look at them, we can see that the adventures they seek somehow prepare them for the unwanted adventures that we all face.

You may have seen in the press recently that a world renowned adventurer, Lincoln Hall, passed away. Lincoln was famous for surviving a night on Everest after being pronounced dead in 2006. It makes his death from cancer now seem bitterly unfair. A story that makes many people question the meaning in his survival, the meaning in all of our lives.

I was looking at some video footage of Lincoln Hall. This was a man that was truly loved. Clearly loved by his family, but also loved and admired by the many people he touched in his life. His untimely death makes it only more clear that his life was one well lived.

There is a part of us that wonders why Lincoln felt compelled to embark on such a dangerous challenge as climbing Mount Everest in the first place. Why did he?

Why do any of us search for adventure? Because we all know on some level that we are here to contribute, to be the best person we can be. And to do that we must stretch ourselves beyond what we thought possible.

I remember hearing the Dalai Lama speak about suffering and challenge. I can’t remember his exact words, but he talked about how important our attitude and perspective is. The analogy he used was something like: Imagine if someone forced you to run a marathon against your will. It would be the most horrid torture, a real cruelty. Yet if we choose to run a marathon of our own free will, if we see it as a challenge we have chosen, one we train for – it is a completely different experience. It is an experience of courage, testing both our physical and our inner strength.

So the way I see it, the braver you are, the more you challenge yourself, the more you embrace life with both hands and rub yourself in the dirt to know you are alive – the stronger you will be.

The unwanted adventures come anyway.

Seek out your own, and build an arsenal to face them when they do.