My Perfect Solo Travel Day
It’s funny, the word solo seems so foreign when I think about solo travel, since I’ve had maybe only half a day to myself since I started travelling a month ago. But for the one day that I have been actually flying solo, I think I scored the most perfect day of all.
It started early, meeting my tuk-tuk driver “Mao” at 7am for a drive out to a temple or two. I had accidentally bought a 3-day pass instead of a 1-day pass the day before, so I thought I’d better make the most of it. Mao had been driving me and a friend around the day before and I’d had a few chances to chat to him and find out about his life. After enquiring about his wife (his wife is pregnant and hadn’t been feeling well), it seemed all was good, so we headed off out of Siem Reap town.
I requested a stop at a street food stall to get some breakfast. We drove through local markets instead of the main road, taking in all the sounds, colours and smells of the morning markets and street food. The cart we stopped at sold a variety of deep fried goodies. I asked Mao which were his favourites, and so we picked a fried banana and a fried rice and banana ball each. This could have been my best breakfast yet (even rivalling the beef rendang and roti of Langkawi, Malaysia). We ate and rode, and stopped at the usual ticket checkpoint where the inspector commented on our yummy looking breakfast.
Mao dropped me off at Ta Phrom, the overgrown temple from the famous Lara Croft Tomb Raider movie set. It seemed apt that this was my favourite temple… after all I wore the “Crofty” nickname for many years when the movie came out.
I made my way into the temple through a tree lined entrance and followed the “way of visit” signs until I could find a little off-shoot to take me to a secret corner away from the trail of tourists. And the perfect spot I found indeed. Way off in the back corner, off the main path, where only the most adventurous were exploring. I perched myself on the cool stone floor of an ancient doorway, and opened my notebook to write.
To be honest, I didn’t really write anything inspirational… just the happenings of the previous days… as I was too distracted by the scenery. I sat there, mesmerised for several hours, just taking it all in. The green moss on the grey cold stones. The huge tree which had grown over the wall. The pile of stones fallen in the corner. The red ants that came to check me out and decided I wasn’t tasty enough.
It’s probably the most peaceful I’ve been on my travels so far. The sounds of the birds and distant hammering of the restoration efforts was soothing.
When the time came that I needed to leave, I wondered around the temple and returned to the entrance gate. I felt like I had experienced a part of this temple that the many tour groups had not. I watched as they all lined up for “the shot” with the tree, knowing that just behind that wall, I’d had my own tree to myself. At the exit, Mao introduced me to his friend, Chhit Say, who is a painter and sells water colour paintings at the exit of Banteay Kdei temple. He was so lovely, and his paintings are simply amazing. Check them out at http://www.tonnsayfamily.com
Back at the Tuk Tuk, Mao told me that he wanted to invite me to his home with his wife and son to eat lunch. I was so grateful. This man, who has the weight of the world on his shoulder, was generously giving up his valuable time to host me for lunch. Of course, I accepted, and asked if we could stop by a toy shop to find something for his 4 year old son.
Mao’s lives in a village on the outskirts of Siem Reap. Away from the tourists, and the the glitz of the town, the village was more like the rural Cambodia that I had seen a couple of years earlier. The village was next to a shallow river, and we took a little bridge to the other side. A waterwheel was churning on the side of the river, and several fishing nets sat idle.
On the street sides, small thatched or tin houses sat amoungst luscious green palms and shrubs. We turned into a driveway between 2 small shops and Mao announced this was where he lived. It was made up of two tin buildings on each side of the driveway. Mao explained that there was 8 rooms being rented here, 3 on one side and 5 on the other. Mao lived with his pregnant wife, and 4 year old son in one of the 5 rooms on the right hand side. The room had one double bed with a mosquito net, and a small space for a cooker, with a bathroom out the back. It was small but well kept. Mao introduced me to his wife “Thai” and his son “Vid” who both seemed quite shy. I fumbled my through a Khmer greeting and gave Vid a remote control car. When it zoomed off for the first time, he looked visibly shocked and Mao laughed at his reaction. He went to play with the car inside and soon there were several young boys from the surrounding rooms playing with him. Mao explained that his son is afraid of European people because he hasn’t met any yet. Hopefully I can change that today.
We sat at a table outside and his wife set up a fan pointed at me and put a chill box of cold water bottles next to my chair. There’s several dogs lying at my feet (the domestic kind), a few roosters, and little baby chicks scratching around and chasing each other for scraps.
Mao told me about his family and his life. He had been a “bad guy” (definition: drinking and not wanting to work) before he had met Thai. He met her in a restaurant in Phnom Penh and didn’t like her because she wanted to have movies on the restaurant TV and Mao wanted to watch football. But eventually they fell in love and married. Thai was an orphan, who had lived with her Aunt. The usual custom was for a new couple to live with the girl’s parents because then the man would behave. But Thai didn’t have parents so she went to live with Mao and his family. They look so young in the wedding photos Mao showed me.
He told me how he wasn’t very responsible until his son was born. Now he lies awake at night wishing he could provide a better home for his wife, son and unborn daughter. He had borrowed money from the bank to buy his tuk tuk and the repayments and rent meant there was only a few dollars left each week to eat. He’s hoping that in 6 months once the bank loan is repaid, that he can save to buy land and a house for his family, and another motorbike so that his son can be taken to a better school further away. My mind immediately starts to think of ways I might be able to help Mao and his family. But for now, I enjoy hearing about his life and ambitions.
Lunch is served by his wife and son. There’s a whole fish with sauce and veggies on top, a bowl of soup, a bowl of stir fried pak choy, and a bowl of rice each. His wife doesn’t eat as she’s had bad morning sickness from the pregnancy. Mao asks me if I like the taste of the fish. I assure him that it is delicious (which it is). He admits he doesn’t like it. He sister, who works as a chef in a tourist restaurant, has come to cook for me, and she thinks this is what Europeans would like. She is right, but I am humbled that they have gone to so much effort. The food is delicious and soon I’m full to the brim.
After relaxing, chatting and offering compliments on the cooking to Mao’s sister, and some goodbyes, we head off again in the tuk tuk. I feel so privileged to have met Mao and his family. Their generosity and kindness, despite their tough luck in life, is more than I could ever have wished to experience.
Back in town, I take some time to rest and cool off before going for a massage at my favourite Cambodian Spa – “Bodia Spa”. After a luxurious massage, I feel completely relaxed and head off in a tuk tuk to Marum Restaurant. Marum is one of the restaurants of the “Friends” organisation. I visited Marum and two of their sister restaurants in Phnom Penh and Luang Prabang on my trip in 2014. They work with street kids and marginalised youth to provide education, housing, and skills to give them an opportunity for a better life. They also work with women in poorer communities to produce environmentally friendly products to sell at their stores, which provides these women a way to help improve the lives of their families. But apart from all that, their food is top quality.
I can’t imagine a better day than this. I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet Mao, Thai and Vid, and learn about their lives.