Another country, another entirely new set of challenges and experiences (particularly when travelling with a little one). We landed in hot and humid Phnom Penh late at night, and there was this feeling of ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’. This is the first developing country of our trip so far, and the differences vs. our last destinations are stark. Both Ben and I have been to plenty of developing countries on our own and as a couple, but we realised quickly that you assess them very differently when you have a young baby with you. As we exited the airport and were accosted by hundreds of people vying to give you a ride in a taxi / tuk-tuk / moto, I held Otis close, feeling protective and a little overwhelmed.
For our first night, we had arranged a hotel near the airport, as we were due to have a long bus ride the next day, and had plenty of life admin to sort first (the typical, where do you get a SIM card, where can we buy nappies and food for Otis stuff), and wanted to make life easy. This meant that we were staying in a country club as it turned out, a world away from the road that we’d driven down to arrive there, which was peppered with brothels and scarily young girls sat on sofa’s outside, touting for business.
Our life admin morning wasn’t too bad, but we quickly realised that cities here are not going to be easy with a toddler who’s just learned to walk. Firstly, pavements aren’t really a respected thing here, with cars and bikes parked all over them, so you spend most of your time walking in the road, where you’re avoiding the manic mix of motorbikes, tuk-tuks, bikes and cars whizzing past. Secondly, Otis wants to pick up everything the pavement has to offer. Here that includes a lot of dog and bird poo, broken glass and god knows what else. Seeking out safe places for him to amble becomes a lot easier when you reach the beaches, but in absence of that, it can be a frustrating time of ‘no, don’t pick that up’, ‘not in your mouth!!!’ every two seconds.
We were catching a train that afternoon from Phnom Penh to Kampot, a small town with a lot of French influence on the river further down the south coast. We’d decided against the option of a shorter bus journey, as it was still 4 hours (they say that it can be 6), and the idea of travelling for that long without any scope for him to roam didn’t sound fun. There’s only a couple of train lines in the whole of Cambodia, and this was one of them, so despite it being a 5-hour journey, we decided to do that instead.
It was a good route to take – we had a scenic journey, the slow rocking motion of the train was a great way to get Otis to sleep, and when he was awake, he made a continuous trek up and down our carriage to meet and greet the locals, which they were delighted with. The train had seats up each side, and you’re all basically facing each other, so it’s quite social, and as ever, he was the ultimate ice breaker.
Kampot turned out to be a sweet riverside town, one of our favourite places in our trip so far. It’s filled with crumbling buildings, all of French architectural influence, and somewhat crumbling ageing male expats who moved here and started up bars and restaurants years ago. Knowing the strong prostitution that exists in Cambodia somewhat disturbs me about quite the number of ageing men who have emigrated here (most without families or partners it seems), but I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that it was because of the scenery and simple lifestyle.
We had a great day out on the river in Kampot, with our ‘guide’, one of the above expats, called Bart. An ageing hipster, with long dreadlocks, originally hailing from Belgium, he took us to some backwater parts of the river on his long boat, we went swimming in the wild, he cheekily smoked weed off the back of the boat, and told us about how he was ‘alone, but not lonely’. I bet.
From Kampot, we took the (ultimately way too long) journey to an island off the coast of Sihanoukville, called Koh Rong Sanloem, to have a two week break away from the fast pace of travelling. After a tuk tuk, bus, another tuk tuk, another bus, a ferry that was supposed to be half an hour, but was 3 ½ hours due to storms, a drop off at the wrong jetty, a wait for another boat, a boat ride in another storm, and a walk down the most precarious jetty you’ve ever seen, with all of our stuff and Otis in tow, we arrived at our destination. It was supposed to be a sweet self-catering place that would give us total relaxation for a fortnight, being located next to a beach.
‘Relaxation’ in our mind didn’t include turning up to find a building site in our front garden. After our stressful journey, we weren’t happy to say the least, and secured a refund and a new place to stay by the morning.
And thank god, we did. We have had the best week and half (we’ve only got 3 days left and I could let out a little whimper) at our current location. On the same island, but a much nicer, pure white beach called Saracen Bay, our stay at the Beach Island Resort has been the stuff of dreams. We’re right on the beach in our little villa. We’re not self-catering in the end, but everywhere here is pretty cheap to eat. The bay is very shallow, so it’s so relaxing with Otis, he can just run around, jumping in and out of the water, and our daytime routine has allowed for us to relax, or get things like writing done when he naps, rather than be on the go.
It sounds like such a first world problem, that you need a holiday from travelling. It’s something we identified when we first got to Japan, as between fitting in various sight-seeing or more active excursions, long days of travelling, and moving on every 2-3 days, we were absolutely frazzled. With a young person with you, it’s difficult to find that down-time, and we were in dire need of it, both physically and mentally.
More than that, I think it’s good to take some time to reflect and consider your next steps when you’re travelling. I naively thought that travelling would be relaxing (it’s not), and enable you to fully live in the moment, without day to day cares, but it doesn’t quite work like that. Yes, you live in the moment, but there is almost experience overload. You’re seeing and doing so much, that sometimes it becomes a bit of a blur, and you can get to the point where you’re not appreciating how brilliant it is anymore. We were at that point.
Having time to sit, chat, stare at the same view for a couple of weeks, and just spend time with each other, with no agenda whatsoever, has done a number of things…
It’s made us truly realise how bloody brilliant this last (almost) year has been. We’ve looked through photos, talked about our favourite parts, and met quite a lot of people who we’ve explained what we’re doing to, and seeing it through their eyes is a quick reminder that what we’ve done is unusual, and privileged.
On a personal note, I’ve had a bit of a love affair…. With my husband and son that is. When you’re manic and tired, it’s so easy to snap at each other, and let small stresses overwhelm you, and here those have melted away, and we all seem to have realised how lucky we are to be together.
And from that, it’s been a pivotal moment in us talking about and focusing in on what’s next for us. Central to that is the realisation that whatever solution we come to, it’s about spending these kinds of moments together as a family. That motivation is what all of this about, even if it’s shrouded in the opportunity to see new places and experience new things together, it’s about us seeing each other, more than what else we see.
And whilst the year seems to be quickly drawing to a close, and we have a lot of decisions to make about what’s next, this time out has also made us super excited about the time we have left. It will zip past, I’m sure, but it’s still 4 whole months. 4 months that include Angkor Wat, the whole of Thailand, Vietnam and Burma, and 4 months of pure family time.
So, here’s to travelling. To taking a holiday from travelling. And to falling in love with your own little family again.
Follow our travels @mastersofmany on Instagram, and also read about other people who are challenging lives rules for better balance, whether it be portfolio careers, sabbaticals, or incorporating travel into their working existence.