That time rolled around quickly and we decided to visit Cambodia earlier this month after our vegetarian festival escapades in Bangkok and Phuket and our month volunteering at Lanta Animal Welfare. It's no secret that my time at LAW was vastly different than I'd expected it to be, it was challenging and stressful in ways that I hadn't even considered it would be and I left feeling more burnt out than I'd felt in years. The simplest things that I'd had no problems with earlier in the year suddenly seemed like insurmountable challenges - booking a train ticket, asking for something vegan in a restaurant, even the pressure of trying to haggle with a tuktuk driver when they were clearly trying to charge something outlandish felt like too much. I basically felt like I wanted to hide from the world which is quite challenging when you're travelling.
It wasn't that I didn't want to go to Cambodia, it was more that I didn't want to go anywhere. Staying put wasn't an option though, three days at a nice hotel in Bangkok hadn't pulled me outa my funk anyway and going home didn't feel like a good option either although it definitely crossed my mind. The idea of pulling my favourite DVD box sets and blankets out of storage and cosying up around the Christmas tree with my friends sounded amazing but I knew deep down that this feeling wasn't homesickness.
So, we carried on travelling. I pushed myself to keep going, to have fun, and to try new things every day. Nick and I travelled overland to Siem Reap as planned, this is a wonderful experience and far superior to flying. If you have the time I'd highly recommend it. You start at 5:30am at Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok where you pay 48 baht / $1.32 / £0.88 for a ticket for the 5:55am train to Aranyaprathet. It's a 6 hour journey in a regular carriage with windows and fans rather than air conditioning. I loved that there was no barrier between me and the countryside I was travelling through. When you get off the train you need to get a tuktuk to the border where you'll walk through Thai departures and then Cambodian arrivals. This process takes about an hour. You then make your way to the free shuttle bus which takes you to the local bus station where you can either hop onto a mini van or a bus to Siem Reap. This will cost either $9 or $10 dollars and take 3 or 4 hours depending on your chosen method. Nick and I went with the mini van because we didn't want to wait an hour for the bus to arrive and then spend an extra hour on the bus. I definitely felt that 12 hours travelling was going to be enough for one day!
The next day we probably should have dived headfirst into exploring the temples of Angkor but I needed to have more of a chilled day so we explored the town, ate some food and booked a bike tour to explore the temples the next day. The tour was great, we went with Grasshopper Adventures and a full day tour lasting from 7:30am - 4pm and cost $39pp including water and lunch. This on top of our accommodation broke the budget for the day before we'd even purchased our 3 day Angkor passes but it was totally worth it. I loved getting to explore the region by bike and, as well as seeing the temples for the first time, I met some great people and cycled through villages and rice paddies that I know I wouldn't have discovered myself. I'm not a great cyclist - cycling on sand in particular is hugely challenging and of course I fell off but taking a tour definitely gave me more confidence. The whole experience also made me realise that sometimes it's actually nice to follow rather than having to always make your own path which, as independent travellers, is something Nick and I don't do a lot of.
We kept our momentum going by booking a tuktuk to take us to Angkor Wat for sunrise the next day and it was one of the more surreal experiences of our travels so far. The tuktuk picks you up at 5am and zooming along in the dark with the company of all of the other tourists and tuktuk drivers making the same pilgrimage was actually really fun. I took note of the bloggers behind Vegan Food Quest's tips on watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat and decided to create a playlist and pop some headphones in to make the experience more enjoyable. The place was packed and no offence to the guy next to me regaling his guide with stories about Seattle but damn dude, learn to sit with silence. It's okay! Every single moment doesn't need to be filled with chatter.
Angkor Wat in the morning.
That afternoon the realities of travel hit us hard, we were tired and snappy and not our usual selves at all. Nick and I don't really argue, I'm not saying that to make us sound perfect but we do agree on most things from politics to music (except the Beatles!) and also believe in talking about everything. Life's too short to argue about ridiculous things or to bear grudges about things you don't want to vocalise. The harsh realises of getting older have made us realise that you never know when the last moment you'll see someone will be so it's so important to be kind, to think about your words and to assess whether arguing is really necessary. But we weren't doing that! We'd started bickering about the stupidest shit and it was getting ridiculous so we sat down and tried to work out what the hell was going on and quickly realised that we were both feeling the exact same way about our travels. We were completely burnt out, upset about the month we spent volunteering and, on top of all of that, feeling really guilty for having these feelings at all. We are hyper aware that being able to travel is a privilege and not only that but that we're living out the dreams of some of our friends and family members as well as some of the readers of this blog. This awareness definitely makes it harder when you're struggling to enjoy yourself - we kept asking ourselves how we could be feeling like this when we were exploring one of the most amazing places in the world? We talked about privilege and wondered if we're actually spoilt assholes. We cried a lot. We talked about going home. In the midst of all of that though we were happy that we were both feeling this way, it made it more of a real thing rather than just a whole mess of thoughts and feelings churning around in our brains that we hadn't been able to articulate yet and that were affecting the way that we were feeling and behaving towards each other as well as tainting the experiences we were having along the way.
In the end we decided not to make any snap decisions, we took another half day tour of the temples with our driver Mr Sam. We soaked up the beauty of Bayon's many buddhas for a second time and revisited one of my favourite spots, Ta Prohm, as well as spending a long time wandering around Preah Kahn. Early on in the day we hit up Phnom Bakheng, somewhere people usually head at sunset, meaning that it was both peaceful and beautiful during our visit. I think we encountered 7 other people in total and I was also glad that we weren't experiencing the peak visitor hour elephants - realising that people pay to be taken up a relatively small hill by elephant made me sad enough without having to see it with my own eyes. Gorgeous Ta Som was another of our stops and it was probably my favourite of them all, it's smaller and less busy than Ta Prohm but with even more trees growing around and in amongst the ruins. The Eastern Gopura pictured below was probably my favourite spot of all.
Preah Kahn early in the morning.
We then booked our bus tickets to Phnom Penh and decided that we'd make some solid decisions after spending a day or two there. After trying to explore the Royal Palace complex and ending up crying in the shade of a big tree rather than marvelling at the silver pagoda with everyone else we decided we needed to move on. We needed to change our scene and to go somewhere that would reignite out desire to explore and to discover new things. We worked out that so far this year we've spent seven months in SE Asia and that for us, for now, that was enough. We had flights booked to Japan via Hong Kong for early March and we knew that we were still excited about those plans, every time I glance down at my Japan inspired polaroid tattoo I get excited about those plans, so we sat down and thought through every possible way to make Japan happen earlier. We knew that in reality, because of visa restrictions, money and plans to volunteer in Fukushima, that it wouldn't really be possible but we thought that perhaps we could decide on somewhere else that excited us in the same way that Japan excites us and in the same way that SE Asia excited us at the beginning of the year. In the end we settled on Taiwan! It wasn't difficult. I've wanted to visit Taiwan for ages, the climate is perfect (yes, the heat is one of the reasons I need to get out of SE Asia), the food looks wonderful, travelling within the country is affordable, and Nick didn't need a whole lot of convincing. We moved our Hong Kong flights forward by 6 weeks, we booked return flights between Hong Kong and Taipei, found the most adorable Air B&B and, just like that, a new plan was born. Thankfully we booked the original flight between Bangkok and Hong Kong with Avios points and had plenty leftover so making all of these new travel plans cost less than £100 - accommodation excluded of douse. Just like that we felt excited again! Just making those changes to our plans renewed my motivation and excitement and I felt like my wanderlust had well and truly returned!
Would I recommend a trip to Siem Reap? Absolutely! The temples of Angkor are a must visit destination but activities aside being vegan is easy in Siem Reap - we even found a supermarket that had Clif bars! Our favourite place to chow down was Chamkar, a veggie spot off of pub street that was vegan aside from the cheese that could be added to one menu item. I think we ate there five or six times. I would highly recommend the Wedding Day Dip which is made from peanuts, creamy coconut and mushrooms and is served with excellent crusty French bread. It's fantastic and super flavourful as well as being massive, far too much for a starter for one person - this is a dish that's meant for sharing. I also loved their spaghetti with pesto which was just what I needed when I was craving pasta and their Stirring Curry was another excellent choice. I wish that they had the option to order white rice as brown isn't my favourite but I think I'm in the minority there. My second favourite spot was Sister Srey Cafe. They're more than just a cafe because they do a whole lot of good work within the local community including supporting students, building wells, helping street children and working with Hearts to Harmony, a local NGO. They also have a few marked vegan options ranging from raw cakes to stir fry and from smoothie bowls to Khmer breakfast soup which is a bargainous $3 a bowl. I went for the soup at any and all times of day, I loved the simplicity of it. It was brothy and there were plenty of noodles and, even more importantly, the veggies were tender but with a little crunch. Their chocolate, banana and avocado cake is also a must eat and Nick highly recommends the passionfruit cheesecake.
Wedding Day Dip
Khemer Breakfast Soup