I didn’t cope very well for the first few days. Stepping off the plan in Phnom Penh airport hit me. Or rather the heat did. The invisible wall of hot, wet air that clung to surfaces and skin and stuck clothing together. I’d been to hot places but this was the first really humid place I’d been to. And I don’t do well with heat.

I should have stuck with my original plan (as much as I ever have a plan) but clinging to the back of my moto driver, full backpack attached, ducking in and out of traffic as we sped down the main road to the city, clipping cars with my straps and helmet-less, we chatted. To do this he kept turning his head back to talk. I preferred it when he looked the other way (the way facing the direction the other cars were coming from) but regardless we talked (the usual ‘Been here before? Where you staying?’ banter) and I ended up staying somewhere else from where I intended. I knew where the area was – it was my backup location if the first failed and I decided to ignore the very real possibility that he was just touting for trade (which he almost invariably was). And I was tired. I never make good decisions when tired. And hot. And just got off a stupidly long flight. Still.

I hated it. Almost a hotel. No communal area and an apparent desire to segregate guests. And the heat. For the first few days I had to drag myself out of the air conditioned white room (before I realised air-con makes it worse and the real way to cope is just to adapt). I dragged myself out for food I didn’t enjoy, to dark streets where I didn’t feel safe. I spent a few days as a tourist and ‘saw the sights’. I didn’t like any of them. The sun was too bright to take decent pictures with my ailing camera. Everything bleached. I baked. I learnt about spontaneous full body sweating. And I didn’t meet anyone else. And I felt really lonely. I think that’s the first time that’s happened when I’ve been travelling. Usually I’m so hyped up at being in a new place that I just ride over it but this time it hit me.

Maybe it was the circumstances. The previous 3 months had been spent on overdrive studying for clinical finals. I had to find a place to live again in Tooting for the exams. Along with all the other stresses.  But it all went fine and I passed and it was great and I had an amazing week after results where I finally learnt to love London.  And it left me in a strange head space. I was suddenly ‘free’. I had nothing to do any more. My job didn’t start for over a month. I had no revision, no learning, no goal.  I was on holiday.  Truly. The last time I would have that amount of time off. And I didn’t feel right. I wanted to be back home. I could almost see why some people just jump straight back on the plane and head home.

After three days of feeling lost and misplaced I found myself wandering along the river bank looking out over the dirty water to the unappealing view the other side. It was around midday and getting really hot. Up ahead was a bandstand and there were a lot of people (Cambodian people) sitting around, sleeping, talking. Kids playing. I walked up there and sat on the railing. Two girls around my age started talking to me in that giggly way that girls have (the one where there’s an intensely amusing joke involving you, that they know but aren’t willing to share). They offered me some of their food (a snack of some kind involving insects) and I returned the favoured. I forget anything else about them and after a while they left.

I moved under the shade of the bandstand; not that it helped at all, the wet air pervading everywhere. Some of the kids came up to me and started talking to me in pretty good English. The youngest must have been 3, up to 10-11ish. They sat with me and stroked my arms. I couldn’t work it out then but later realised it was because I’m hairy and Cambodian men just aren’t (this happened a lot and I got stroked repeatedly by kids and men and on one occasion a monk who kept stroking my beard – that was weird). We all sat together, slowly baking, they stroked their hands up and down my arms and I felt relaxed. A man (I think the Father of one of the kids) came and sat and just started chatting with me, backs against the white stone pillar, legs out in front, feet down. Shooting the breeze. We talked about each other, what we did, how we lived, out countries, he talked about the Kymer Rouge and the massacre of all his family and I listened. And he repeatedly apologised for his English.

I think we sat there for almost two hours, avoiding the midday sun. There must have been about thirty people lounging around. It was pretty dirty and I came to realise that they were all homeless street people, coming together in a place to avoid the sun and midday heat. And I had joined them inadvertently and shared a few hours in their company. He was one of these people and we conversed for almost 2 hours in English and he was apologising to me. I couldn’t believe it. At that point I hadn’t even learnt how to say ‘Hello’ in Cambodian and this guy who loved on the streets with no formal education could speak English almost as well as I could. I repeatedly praised him and he repeatedly batted the compliments away.

After a long while he got up, thanked me for the conversation and for allowing him to practice his English, wished me a pleasant stay in his country and hoped that I would enjoy Cambodia and her people and then took leave. He never asked for anything. He didn’t want anything. He was just happy to chat with a stranger and share a bit of his life.

After a while I got back up, wandered off, ate dinner and the next day left for the country. I’d come to the conclusion that after all the recent stress back home I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to cope in the city. Not just yet. The few hours I’d spent in the bandstand helped with this realisation and I’m not even sure how. It just helped me to look at things differently.  Maybe restored some faith in people that I’d misplaced along the way.

So I got on a bus the next morning (after a local taught me how to eat noddle soup with chop-sticks at breakfast) and headed to Kampot. On the bus I met Paul and Phoebe and spent the next 2 days with them and they made me feel like me again, just by being nice. I ended up staying a week just bumming around in Kampot, hanging out with a few good people I met there, drinking copious amounts of gin in the evenings, wandering the village and surroundings talking to random people in the day.  And I adapted to the humidity.  It was wonderful. A week later I went back to the city en route to Siem Reap and I really liked PP this time round. And the other 4 times I went back over the next month in Cambodia, I loved it. I needed that quiet time first though.

(I stayed in the location I was originally going to stay in the second time around and it was amazingly good fun and I met loads of cool people. I wonder what would have happened if I’d stayed there the first time round?)

The kids at the band stand