Cambodia: Siem Reap Revisited

I’m hulking the same army-style rucksack and wearing the same bamboo flip-flops as when I last visited Siem Reap, three years ago. The smells of oil palm trees and dusty humidity still lingers in the air. A Thomson plane rests on the runway and seeing it sends a rock of disappointment to the pit of my stomach. Since when was this a package holiday destination?

Arriving by bus from Phnom Penh the first time was an adventure. The bus veered to avoid a cow in the road and hooted at a motorbike with a tawny mess of live chickens strapped to it. I sat at the front with two girls I’d met volunteering. We laughed at lazy water buffalo lolling in puddles too small for them.  The foggy haze of cocktails from buckets the night before hung over our heads, my vocal chords raw from shouting over thumping music. My stomach churned each time the bus lurched onto the other side of the road.

“To being free, independent women!” we had cried, clinking bottles of Angkor beer together before sharing stories of men that had wronged us, told us they loved us and slept around. We were on the other side of the world, bettering ourselves through backpacks and absolutely not thinking about them. A weekend exploring the temples of Siem Reap, taking ‘you don’t know what you’re missing’ photos in baggy Aladdin trousers, trees bursting through crumbling walls in the background was just what we needed.

We sat all day in a coffee shop that first day, talking about men.

Siem Reap 3

Families and couples fidget by a bank of tuk-tuks, the gaggle of drivers dinging their bells and crying over to the new arrivals. I grab Mark by the arm and march straight into the throng of them, pulling on my haggling mask.

“Wait, we can’t get a tuk tuk from the airport,” Mark says, his eyes wide. I remind myself that he’s never been here before.

“This is South East Asia, we can get a tuk tuk anywhere,” I reply.

His apprehension melts away the second our driver starts up the spluttery engine and we’re trundling along the road.

The Thomson plane was an omen. On the outskirts of the town the tuk tuk potters past newly built hotels with dead-faced tour buses lined up outside.

“Pfft, this has all changed,” I hear myself mutter.

Mark looks over at me, the smile fading from his face. This is his first tuk-tuk ride and I’m ruining it. I’m becoming one of those travellers unable to return anywhere because it will never be like the first time.

I remember the bumpy ride out past milky rice fields to our one star guesthouse the first time. We slept under mosquito nets on the roof for $2 a night, because why pay the extortionate $5 for a room inside? What a rip off. It’s not like we were sober enough to care where we were anyway. As I looked up at the stars above my bed, with the mosquito net draped dramatically to one side I thought if only he could see me now, then he would know how adventurous and brilliant I am. I also imagined I was 10% more attractive with sun-bleached hair and multiple beaded bracelets. Maybe tomorrow I would get a tattoo…

We approach Pub Street and on the corners open-air Khmer Barbeques are run by chefs in pristine black uniform. Where were the clattery old food carts? The smell of sizzling noodles and lemongrass is undeniably mouth-watering, but I can’t help it, I mutter the same mantra. This isn’t what it was like three years ago. And listen to me; three years ago! It’s not like I’m re-visiting the Middle East 40 years after a spiritual experience. This is Siem Reap – not Afghanistan.

Every time I say it I can see Mark’s face droop a little. A tuk-tuk emblazoned with the words “Dark Knight tuk-tuk” on the back splutters past us and I open my big mouth again.

“That was just the Batman tuk-tuk when I was last here…”

“I know, I know, it wasn’t like this three years ago,” Mark finishes for me and I shut my mouth.

Siem Reap 2

Three years ago, after scrambling over jungle temples all day and finding the perfect place to pose as a group of free, independent women being spiritual and not thinking about men, we ate the best Pad Thai I’ve ever had. An old lady with gnarled bare feet spooned it out from her clattery cart on the edge of Pub Street. We ate there every night. After that we would wander through the night market, crickets buzzing through the thatched roofs. As I sat with a tin of Angkor beer and fish nibbled at my proudly calloused travellers’ feet, I thought one day I’ll come back here with a boy. I will show him all I know about the world and then it will be perfect.

The driver stops outside our hotel, a proper hotel with a swimming pool and a nice restaurant. Mark is delighted. It’s only $25 dollars a night and feels like 5 stars.

“It’s ok, you can say it,” Mark says as we settle into our air conditioned room with a balcony and proper shower that you don’t have to hold in your hand.

“I’m being annoying, aren’t I?” I ask instead. “It’s just that, I wish you could have seen it with me, the first time, when it was all new and exciting,”

“I wish you could see it with me now,” he says, stretching across the king-size bed.

Australia: The Dead Centre

The only sign of life is birds of prey circling high above the remains of a cow, its skin in pools around a skeletal frame, melting into the landscape like a Dali painting. I sit on my rucksack somewhere along the border between the Northern Territories and South Australia as they Greyhound bus becomes a dot on the shimmering horizon. I started as a troop in the army of backpackers crawling up the East Coast, stopping in each major city to drink heavily and shout loudly like a Viking raid. As the last few dollars rattled around in my purse, I began to spend time in the vast spaces between the cities picking fruit, building fences and endlessly weeding in exchange for food and board.

After fifteen minutes of silence, a single truck rolls past. The driver stares at me like he hasn’t seen another person in days. The wail of crickets rises. The rust coloured earth and scrubby plants bend and flex in the waves of heat. Panic stabs me in the ribs. Did I get the right day? The only indication that I’m even in the right place is an old oil barrel spray-painted with the words “Thorn Hill Cattle Station”. I pull my mobile out of my pocket. No signal. I don’t know what else I was expecting. This is the farthest from anyone I have been in my whole life.

Outback 6

My ears catch the faintest rumble of an engine. If the driver is female, I’ll stick out my thumb and ask for Alice Springs. I tell myself. At least I know there are hostels in Alice Springs. My eyes stay glued to the point where the road meets the clear blue sky. Nothing. Ok, even if the driver is male… I start to think. A cloud of dust hangs in the distance and I notice a couple of tyre marks in the sand that might pass for a track. The engine noise gets louder and a silver car winks in the sun.

“You must be my volunteer.” A woman with cropped hair, floppy cowboy hat and sunglasses that glint like beetle shells steps out to greet me.

I nod.

“Well, I’m Barb and you’ll meet Rex later,” she says, her mouth a tight line. She peers over her sunglasses taking me in; a weedy Scottish girl who looks like she’s never seen a steak before, let alone worked a day on a cattle station.

Vast sheds, old trucks and piles of metal rusting in clumps make up the yard, rising out of the otherwise barren landscape. I scuttle after Barb to a dilapidated caravan.

“This is you,” she says, opening the fly door.

A juddering fan moves hot air around and everything has a thin layer of red dust on it. When I open a cupboard and find myself looking at clear blue sky through a large hole in the wall. I close the door again and try not to think about what moves around in the sand at night. My face has already broken out into a sweat so I run the tap in the cramped kitchen space. It shudders to life as if water hasn’t travelled through the pipes in years. The water is rough on my skin and over the years it’s left a green smear in the sink.

“Don’t drink the tap water,” Barb says.

I’m about to ask what I can drink when she point to a plastic door coming off its hinges.

“You’ll sleep in there.”

I peer into my room; a sagging single bed and a chest of drawers – minus the drawers. My home for the next two months.

“Generator shuts off at ten, so best be in bed by then,” Barb says, “It gets pretty dark out here.”

 

“I’ve ridden a quad bike before,” I say, breaking the silence as Barb rummages in a shed full of every shade of rust under the sun.

“Have you now?” she says, dragging out a ladder. “Well, Rex does the herding, so I guess it’ll be clearing gutters and mucking out sheds for you.”

My heart sinks. The advert said they herded cattle over the 200 square mile grazing land using quad bikes. I had fallen in love with the idea of bumping over the scrubby bushland, hair streaking out from under my bandana like a modern cowgirl. My social media accounts would ping with likes and comments.

The burning metal of the gutters made my fingertips raw as I scooped sun-crisped leaves and let them flutter like drunken butterflies to the ground. The heat climbed into the high forties and sweat rolled down my forehead, stinging my eyes. Stringy saliva rolled around in my mouth. After an hour something moved across the yard. A crane rumbling across the earth, something hooked to the top of it, swinging back and forth. As it got closer I realised it was a cow, split open and spread like an ink-blot test. Dinner, I guessed. Once I’d finished the gutters I was desperate for water.

“What are we going to do with her, Rex? She doesn’t look like she can lift a fly, never mind cattle fencing” I heard Barb’s monotone through the open window. A grunt came as a response.

“She’s not like us. I don’t think she’ll last a second out in the bush,” she continued.

I held my breath as I clattered through the fly door. The living room came into focus; seventies décor, an old trucker radio taking up an entire corner and pictures of cows everywhere. An old man with a scraggly beard and coat hanger frame lent against the sideboard. A saggy grin hitched up the corners of his mouth.

“Can I have some water?” I asked.

“Don’t take too much,” Barb replied, pointing to a jug in the corner.

It was lukewarm, but I didn’t care. I wanted to tip the whole jug over my head. Barb watched with narrowed eyes as I gulped and Rex’s grin seemed like it was frozen in time. Neither spoke. Perhaps they hadn’t spoken to another soul in years.

“What should I do now?” I asked.

Tractors, ploughs and quadbikes stood silent inside the vast shed. Rex handed me a broom and I expected him to mount a quadbike and power off into the distance. Instead he shuffled to a rusting deck chair in the corner. An old oildrum was his picnic table. A jug of frothing milk that still smelled like cows and a bottle of rum were his lunch.

As I swept, Rex made vowel sounds and pointed at invisible patches of dust. The hot throb of lower back pain pulsed through my body and swirls of dust made my lungs raw, but I was desperate to prove myself.

 

Darkness descended outside, though it was still hours before sunset. Through the open door I saw the landscape tinted an eerie yellow as lumpy grey clouds built up over the sun. A red mist hung in the distance. Rex creaked to life as if someone had wound him back up. He dragged his deckchair outside to watch the sky. Change tingled in the air, or perhaps electricity. A fork of lightning licked silently through the grey clouds.

Outback 5

The wind picked up in seconds as the storm got closer. Flecks of dust grazed my eyes as the world turned red with sweeping sheets of sand. Somewhere out there, Rex sat alone in the storm.

“You alright?” came Barb’s voice from behind me.

“Yeah, but Rex…” I started.

“He’s not what he was ten years ago,” Barb sighed. Her eyes shone as she stared out into the storm. “We can’t do it by ourselves anymore.”

I didn’t know what to say, but an entire desert of sand covered the floor so I cracked my back and started sweeping again.

“Urgh, bloody dust,” Barb said, wiping her eyes. “Maybe tomorrow we’ll get you on a quad bike.”

Outback 8

Australia: Trials at Tribulation

The Daintree Rainforest covers Australia’s North Queensland like a shimmering green cloak.  It ticks and rustles with rain-water, alive and restless. During the day birds screech as if no one is listening. As darkness falls, frogs start their corky chorus.

I stayed in a wooden farmhouse in Cape Tribulation where the edge of over 400 miles of rainforest tickled the veranda. My host, Paul, bumped his way through thick jungle in an old Landrover in the 1970s. There was nothing here then. He built a house and cleared land for a tropical fruit farm. Forty years later I was there to nurse dragon fruit plants and pick fat, purple mangosteens. As I worked in the orchard, the fringe of the jungle whispered with life, inviting me to explore its hidden beauty. In 1997 Paul helped search for a hiker. “They never found his remains,” he mumbled through his bushy beard.

I returned to the uniform mangosteen trees.

The creak of frogs at 5 a.m. was my wake-up call, though stars still speckle the black sky. As the sun rose, humid air clung like a second skin. I spent afternoons on the sweep of ivory beach. Just beyond the crystal shallows, jellyfish billowed like malevolent clouds. I longed to be submerged in paradise, but could only dip a toe in. Sleeping on the warm sand, limbs splayed, my back turned beetroot. Another trial at Cape Tribulation.

ChristmasCapeTrib_SuzyPope_1113_1

 

Armed with a rake, I prodded at jackfruit bigger than my head and caught them in an old sheet. Sweat stung my eyes, and the jungle floor moved. A carpet python as thick as my leg slid into the green tangle.

On the hottest day, Paul showed me a gap in the trees where a few trampled ferns marked the route to a fresh-water creek.

“Shouldn’t be any crocs,” he said.

I thought more about pythons as my boots crackled through the undergrowth. Birds called warnings. A twig snapped and I stopped breathing. The beady eye of a cassowary looked at me, side-on. Its sleek, black body disappeared into the trees, blue head bobbing as it went. Red fungus the size of dinner plates bloomed from damp tree trunks, adorned with the silver wisp of a spider’s web. I ducked, continuing along the barely beaten track.

In a clearing, a waterfall trickled into clear blue water. Fan palms shivered as they caught droplets like umbrellas. I shoved aside dangling vines and plunged into the pool. All the heat seeped out of my skin. A fat green frog with a smug yellow grin pulsated above me. I mimicked his smile. Golden discs of sunlight fell across the water as I floated, letting the water lap at my red back like a balm. Birdsong mixed with the rush of the waterfall. Butterflies fluttered through ferns, twinkling like sapphires. The honey sweet smell of tropical flowers clung to the humid air. I dipped my head under the water, submerged in paradise.