Cambodia

When I found out that it was possible (albeit near-impossibility at that time) to visit this sacred temple on a day trip from Siem Reap in 2012, I immediately grabbed the opportunity to see it while it was then — once again — enjoying a short “time of peace”. For a very long time in the past, as a disputed territory, the promontory of the Temple of Preah Vihear and its environs have had some serious history of crossfires between the Cambodian and Thai military forces. In fact, a few months prior to my visit, several soldiers from both camps were killed in an unexpected clash.

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The iconic first gopura, which contains some of the most impressive carvings in the temple complex.

Three years after that brave trip, as I look back, it is still perhaps the single most unique experience I have had in visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Back then, it took me nearly four hours on a private vehicle to reach the temple from Siem Reap. Given the road constructions recently, the travel time is now reduced to nearly half of what it took when I went there.

The Temple of Preah Vihear never failed my towering expectations, to say the least. After all, it was confidently inscribed on only one criterium: “(i) as a masterpiece of human creative genius”. So far, only this temple, the Taj Mahal, and the Sydney Opera House are inscribed solely on this basis.

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The second gopura: the carving style of the pediment is different from the first one.

In my opinion, the temple rightly deserves to be on the same ranks as Angkor Wat and Bayon, if not even better. The incomparable beauty of this site stems from the following:

1. its history – older than those in Angkor, dedicated to Shiva and, according to some sources, is also one of a few that has a history of critical lingam worshiping;

2. its architecture – the extensive 800m-long layout of the temple is unique, the galleries surrounding the central sanctuary served as inspiration for the arrangement of Angkor Wat 300 years later, and the carvings offer a different style from those in Angkor (notice the style of its nagas, and the impressive quality of its carvings can only be compared to those of the much younger Banteay Srei) .

The third gopura as seen from the elevated fourth gopura that encases the main sanctuary of the Preah Vihear Temple.
The third gopura: the walkway leading to the fourth gopura prior to the main central sanctuary is dotted with lingams. One lingam near the portal can be seen in this photo.

3. its relevance – a major pilgrimage site for Khmer kings, as well as a rare key temple off-route the Angkorian Royal Road;

4. its location – situated right beside a cliff, on top of the Dangrek Mountains to a height of nearly 600 metres. From the temple, one can already gaze at the Golden Triangle, an area shared by Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos; and, lastly,

The Infamous Golden Triangle: transnational boundaries of Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos.
The Golden Triangle

5. the geopolitical struggles and controversies associated with its WHS-inscription in 2008, and the earlier landmark International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in 1962. More recently, in 2013, another ICJ ruling finally awarded the contested peripheral forest zone of the temple to Cambodia, putting an end to the long-standing dispute between the two Southeast Asian kingdoms.

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As a military zone, several soldiers are stationed in and around the temple complex. A political statement such as that in the photo clearly asserts Cambodian ownership over the promontory and its immediate vicinity.

As the Temple of Preah Vihear lies in an active military zone, it comes, then, as no surprise that not many travelers take the effort in seeing this site when I made my visit. In the five pleasurable hours that I spent there, I only managed to see about three other civilians — who might just be even locals — in the temple complex.

Aside from the breathtaking view from the top, I truly enjoyed receiving blessings by chanting monks guarding the central sanctuary; as well as exploring the interior of the largely ignored vegetated Tower of the Long-haired Lady that is reminiscent of Ta Prohm in Angkor.

The central sanctuary guarded by a military personnel
The central sanctuary that is guarded by chanting monks. Outside, a soldier is also on guard.

 

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The tower of the long-haired lady, an isolated structure that has been overgrown by plants and a tree.

Clearly, I got the strong impression that the Khmer people are indeed proud of the Temple of Preah Vihear as suggested by the displaying of the flags of UNESCO, Cambodia, and the World Heritage Committee not far from the first gopura. Such subtle declarations never fail to get noticed.

The temple of Preah Vihear together with its brother temple atop Phnom Chisor in the province of Takeo, which I also got the chance of visiting back in 2010, will always have special places in my heart for the wonderful experiences they have left me. In sum, the Temple of Preah Vihear clearly and easily justified itself as being one of the best single sites I have seen so far.

Just behind the temple: one simple mistake and I am history. The cliff drops to a height of 600 metres.
A view of the plains of the Preah Vihear province. This was taken at the edge of the Dangrek Mountain cliff.

There is no entrance fee to the temple. But, at the base camp, visitors have to pay for the motorbike that will transport them to the top for a fairly reasonable price. On this trip, I also went to the nearby town of Anlong Veng, visiting some ‘Khmer Rouge’ related sites such as the house of Ta Mok and the final resting place of Pol Pot.

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His Cambodian smile

His smile is more animated at night, caught in a flickering firelight he tells ever more tales of old, stories of his life and of his dreams and you cannot help but fall in love with his country, his life and his dreams. To him, Cambodia is a land fighting still- fighting an heroic battle to get back on its feet and he is at its heart.

We were exhausted. Two days feverish excitement, flights, delays, more flights, immigration and then ancient Siem Reap’s whistle-stop tours of picture perfect temples; we were exhausted. Then we drove to Camp Beng Meala. Suddenly, we are thrown back into jungle; memories of previous tours still hauntingly close. We stow our equipment, douse ourselves in Deet and generally refortify. The cicadas, ever present, chirrup their defiance. We are warned not to stray from the path, our guide warns us; this area has yet to be cleared.

Han, the guide, beams as he paints with his words and smile, the people that live here. He is walking us though the village. At one farm, he confides to us how lucky he was to be able to gift them some hens and ducks. They now have a small but sustainable income in their garden. “It is just her, alone with five children,” he tells us. Wherever he walks he is greeted with whoops and high-fives. No one passes Han without a hug or a hello. In the village centre, two young women whisper conspiratorially, he leans across to me, mimicking them whispering that the one on the left is a “lady boy”. SHe throws back her head and laughs with abandonment. Han loves and is loved by all.

An old monk calls him over to consult on some matter. As the monk turns, shifting his orange robes, across his back I see ripple a large tattooed panther. Cambodia is a country of contrasts.

As we wind our way back to camp, Han stops at a huge rock; someone asks him about it- how did it get there? This great slab of granite so out of place. He does not know. But the inner child is grabbing at him and, urging us all to join him, he scrambles to the top and there he squats and surveys his village. His people. The rock is warm. The sun has worked on it all day. In the distance we can hear the radio playing out across the village, monks are chanting, insects singing. All is calm.

Behind us we hear scrambling as an older lady climbs the rock. We are in her garden. She carries a plate filled with freshly picked bananas, small, sweet, delicious. She welcomes us all and echoes Han’s famous Cambodian smile. And the sun blushes in the sky.

The next morning, we are prepped as we head out to the local school. This is what we came here for; we have some rebuilding work to do- teacher housing and a water tower. What we are not ready for is the pit in the middle of the school grounds; Two bamboo poles rigged together in a makeshift ladder leading down to the pea green pool. This is where we are collect water for the cement. Han smiles as he tells us this is also where the children scramble up and down at breaks to drink. This is, after all, what they have. Suddenly the water tower is not just a project: we are changing maybe even saving lives.

The work is hard, the land, bare- but not barren. Ferns shrivel at our passing, in true Cambodian spirit what looks dead later re-unfolds green and filled with life. A scorpion hides in a brick pile, only to skitter out across my friend’s hand, she flicks it aside, irritated. Before she can consider what it was, it disappears back into the landscape.

Two days working under a hot sun is hard, but the humility it brings makes you proud. Then, with the water tower complete and a small donation made to keep it filled, we sit beside a campfire, under a starry sky. Tomorrow we travel to Phnom Penh to see more of this country’s disturbing past. Tonight, we listen to our spirit guide weave stories old and new. After, as we make our way back to the camp, Han spies a scorpion. Playfully, he reaches out, spinning it by the tail. I leave him playing there; Han, dancing with a scorpion in a minefield- beaming his Cambodian smile.

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The Screaming Monkeys of Cambodia

The temple is a tiny thing, made of stone and wood, but as I stand in front of the doors shifting my backpack it seems as if the tiny building is much bigger than it does to the naked eye. My glasses have fogged up– the Cambodian heat and humidity, I think to myself. I wipe them on my shirt and they become even muddier. Somehow I am not annoyed in the slightest.

I hesitate. The doors are open, welcoming, yet I am afraid. I am a foreigner from a country with too many rules and not enough rain or children. Or monkeys. A piercing cry echoes from my right. I turn my head, the sweat dropping from the ends of my hair, to see a pair of monkeys perched on the stone wall of the temple. One is screaming at me. A threat? A broken welcome?

I walk into the temple; the threats of the monkey fall on deaf ears, as if I am drawn to this place by some unknown force. Something about the gate– vines entwined and crawling up a barren stone wall–makes me contort my face in a strange mixture of a frown and a grin. The sight is both sad and exotic, the last few remains of a slowly disappearing culture. I enter. Walking through the calm and dark passage among the hooting of the monkeys, I can see sculptures atop the gateway at the end of a narrow passage, a wooden beam perched on top of two cylindrical pillars. All these mythical figures, a flying horse here, a golden dragon there, shining angels etched into the pillars, mysterious and forgotten and austere.

There is something unusual about this temple. Not in the architecture or materials used to create this architect, but in the aura of the giant golden Buddha that faces me as I pass through the gate.

Contrary to the rugged cracking outer walls of the temple, the main hall is covered with gold and each wall is sculptured with various images, the etchings made by past masters of this temple. Children slumber peacefully on the floor of the temple, looking as content as if they were sleeping in the comfort of their own rooms, except here monkeys snuggle up to the sides of the children with their tails tucked around their small bodies for warmth. A father and his son harvest rice from the field as a woman looks over them, holding one end of a rope tied to the neck of a cow with sad stone eyes. It is with a warm rushing feeling of awe that I realize that these etchings on the wall show the daily life of villagers around the temple. There was a reason why the people of this tiny village did not tear down this dilapidated temple that has been sitting in the middle of the town. For those people, the temple is more than just a temple, but more like the living proof of their history. It is what keeps them from losing who they are while surrounded by a world that is continuously changing.

As I am wandering around the temple, the giant golden statue seems to be watching and smiling at me, following my footsteps with its all-seeing eyes. I notice, while walking along the stone walls, that a few monkeys are slowly following me. “Whoop whoop,” one screams, its eyes bright with intelligence. When I reach out my hand, the monkeys scamper away.

And suddenly I find myself at the feet of Buddha, golden and warmly smiling down at me as I suddenly feel self-conscious and insignificant and small, his half-closed eyes seeming as if they hold the key to the universe. I am freed, liberated, as I fall to my knees, the sweat and mosquitoes forgotten along with the gray city to which I have to return, the gray city and its people who trudge through their daily routines like gerbils spinning their wheels without even knowing where the road leads them. The Buddha is silent, inanimate, yet his is the most humane face I have seen in a long time.

I feel a tap on my shoulder; it is the head priest of this temple. His face is lined with wrinkles and I have a vague idea that each crease in his face contains more knowledge and emotion than I can ever fathom. I have stayed at the temple for more than several hours.

The time has come. I stand up and dust my pants. My backpack feels lighter on my shoulders. The sun is going down, yet my monkeys are still screaming.

About the Author: Ho Jun Jung allegedly has eighteen different pairs of white shirts that look almost the same. When he isn’t traveling to monkey-infested countries, he plays ping pong and eats nachos with cheese.

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cambodiaAs kids – Vietnamese refugees in Connecticut – our parents warned us not to get too tan: “You’ll be dark like a Cambodian,” they’d sigh after we had baked outside all day. So when, decades later, I swerved into Cambodia from my Vietnam-to-Thailand path, I didn’t expect much. I wasn’t a backpacker who considered himself a world traveler but in reality just treated third-world countries as dive bars with interesting scenery, spending my hours drinking, smoking, clubbing, flirting. Still, I wanted fun. I bought and ate a deep-fried tarantula on the bus ride to Phnom Penh, just so I could brag about it later. I traveled on the cheap – squatting over beat-up suitcases along with a group of Malaysian pilgrims, the smell of gasoline coming through the cracks of the bus windows – just because the image was funny to me.

I got off in Phnom Penh, paid a dusty man on a motorbike to take me to the killing fields, just so I could check them off my list. We have one hour, I said, pointing at my watch. He laughed and nodded. He had no front teeth. He waited outside while I walked into the killing fields and into the past.

In the year I was born, the communist Khmer Rouge regime had hacked hundreds of thousands of “revolutionaries” into pieces and shoved them into the ground. Thousands of human skulls had been dug up and stacked neatly on shelves. Now, it was totally quiet, and butterflies were looking for nectar from the flowering bushes. How could a place so gruesome be so beautiful at the same time? I sat on the ground to rest, and noticed human teeth in the dirt next to me.

I went to the school Pol Pot had turned into a butcher shop for revolutionaries. Metal bed frames with shackles had replaced desks. Posted security rules read: “Don’t be fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution” and “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.” As I stepped up to the photo galleries of genocide victims, with their Cambodian features looking back at me, I thought for a second they recognized me, and I recognized myself in them. I broke off eye contact. Back outside, the dusty man pointed at my watch and laughed (he didn’t have one). Five, he gestured with his outstretched fingers. I had stayed five hours.

If Phnom Penh showed me how ugly humans could be, Angkor Wat, only a few hours away, showed me how beautiful they could be, too. It is a city of temples, the biggest in the world. For two full days – I made sure to watch the sun rise and set each day – I walked through the temples, got lost inside of them, and admired the enormous stone reliefs of women and men praying with elaborate head gear, peaceful faces carved into stone stacks, and carvings of elephants, leaves, and story scenes. In one temple, the large roots of trees had woven itself into the stone structure altogether, uniting live wood with dead stone in a contradiction.

On my final night in Cambodia, I realized I had stayed a week and not a day, as I had originally planned. That is what Cambodia did to me: It took away my sense of time to remind me how beautiful and how ugly we could be at the same time, how good and how evil, and how we have been alike whether a generation or a thousand years ago. I walked to a night market to buy skewers of food – meat balls, shrimp, and tofu. In the middle of the square, people had placed straw mats, and lanterns softly lit up the eating area. I sat with a group of local teens, and we ate and smiled, and shared our lives in broken English while I looked up Khmer phrases in my travel guide to patch together sentences. Under the big diamond-studded night sky, couples were laughing, babies were crying, men were telling stories, merchants were selling beads. If I could save time in a bottle, as the Jim Croce song goes, I’d spend it all in Cambodia. After a week of silence in hell and in heaven, with devils and with angels, it was good to hear human noise again.

About the Author:  Alexander Nguyen is a lawyer in Washington, D.C. His next trip is to Yongan, Myanmar.

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543It has been six months since I visited Phnom Penh, the capital of a country settled within my soul, the trip being the direct result of me uncovering its horrific recent history. As I read about Cambodia, I discovered how much I was unaware of and the depths of emotion one can be capable of, especially to events one has no plausible connection with. In the middle of stories of terror, soul scarring pain and unrelenting tragedy, I also found stirring examples of forgiveness and reconciliation, love and friendship, resilience and strength, stories that inspire even in their despair.
As a casual tourist, its wounded soul, resting under the surface but one that needs to be pried open gently, would have escaped me.

I was in Phnom Penh for only three days but there was a palpable sense of the spiritual within me. For three days, time stood still. My trip was defined as much by the city itself as it was by the people I met and the stories they told. I have never experienced such peace before. For three days, my usual chattering mind stopped talking.

The city itself is a curious mix of the old and the new, of heritage and progress, with areas of chaotic yet organized traffic and where old buildings lining the side roads open onto wide parks and boulevards and where glass and concrete eyesores mix with old world colonial heritage buildings that are fast being replaced. It is a city filled with Buddhist temples that exude a peace and calm that seem so at odds with the violence of Phnom Penh’s recent history. It is a city that once was called “The Paris of The East”. It is a city I long to return to, if just to sit quietly by the river and feel the breeze and the warmth of the Sun as it sets over the Mekong, bow to the monks making their way back to the monastery, watch from afar as young families spread their picnic sheets or just pass by lovers walking with hands clasped tight, in that special silence that signals close comfort.

It is a city where the sight of an old bookseller, selling books on the Khmer Rouge arranged neatly on his mobile cart, will compel you to stop because you know that the bookseller was himself a victim of the people whose photographs are on the books he is forced to sell for a living. And you will catch your breath and hold back a tear as you look into eyes that light up for a moment before deadening again, a mouth that flashes the smile as it was 40 years earlier but that now fades sadly and a hand that shakes as he carefully pockets your precious dollar but is then steady as he extends it again to meet and then clasp your own shaking hand, a part of your increasingly fragile countenance. A hand that you have offered as a sign of the greatest respect to someone you will never see again, to someone who has seen more in four years than you hope you will never see in all of your many lives.

It is a city filled with people who have lost everything, a city where every stone, every street corner, every branch of every tree and every old building is a witness to a history that still haunts it, literally, 35 years after Cambodia was practically obliterated. A few miles from the city stands the UN backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal Court where, even as I walked by the waterfront, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, two of the main architects of the Cambodian Genocide, are on trial for crimes against humanity.

And yet, walking through this city filled with ghosts of the past, I could feel Phnom Penh moving on, trying to leave behind a history that percolates through its very fibre. The intangible beauty of this city is hard to describe, for it is felt rather than seen, defined as much as by its tourist sites as it is by the warmth, smiles and sheer normality of the people which inhabit it. For three days, Phnom Penh turned into a living, pulsating, alive city, a city that I embraced and which embraced me in turn, a city and a country from which there is much to be learnt. Phnom Penh is representative of Cambodia itself-a beauty that defies description and that is far more than what you see on a typical trip. The magic of Cambodia too, I believe, is felt, not seen. To experience Cambodia is probably to experience life itself.

I could spend a lifetime here. If you have not been to Cambodia yet, open your heart and come on in. Cambodia’s heart will always be open.

About the Author: Nishikanta Verma.
I am a practicing doctor with an often unfulfilled passion for travel. I have too many interests, none of which really amount to much.

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huff post TIS halleAs seen on Huffington Post Travel: A Review of Traveling in Sin:

I love reading travel books; memoirs are enjoyable and well-written accounts make me feel like I’m truly present in another part of the world. For this reason I was looking forward to reading Traveling In Sin, a memoir about an adventurous couple from the United States who spent a year traveling abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia. Their story is most unusual: after a fairly short dating period, George invited Lisa to join him on the journey of a lifetime. She swallowed all her fears, quit her job, and the couple departed to travel abroad together. During their travels, Lisa lost 60 pounds, George proposed, and they both learned much about resilience and partnership. All things considered, it was a very successful trip!

Traveling In Sin is full of useful tidbits and tips about travel in Asia such as how to successfully get along in a variety of foreign cultures, as they navigate outside of their comfort zones. Written in a highly unusual narrative style, it pops between “he said” and “she said” with the authors each penning part of every chapter as they traverse a dozen countries. My hat is absolutely off to Lisa; after working as “Julie the Cruise Director” on Princess Cruises for several years — traveling the world on a luxury ocean liner, she gave up every semblance of pampering to travel on a strict budget that often meant staying in hostels or one-star budget motels.

 WATCH: Traveling in Sin: Video Book Trailer


TIS coverMore of the REVIEW:

As you can imagine, the author’s styles of writing are very different, so their voices shine through. Lisa’s writing is more emotional and carries the narrative of their snowballing relationship, while George focuses more on the specifics of the logistics and his observations about the places they visit. Occasionally, he steps into storytelling mode.

If you’re traveling to this part of the world, especially independently, Traveling In Sin is a wonderful resource — like a personalized version of Lonely Planet — while also being a very entertaining read. If you enjoy living vicariously through travel memoirs, Traveling In Sinmakes makes you feel as if you’ve covered all of Southeast Asia.

Read the full review by Halle Eavelyn: Click here
Buy the book, Traveling in Sin,  on Amazon!

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Cambodia’s temples captured in time and engulfed by nature

Stepping amongst the rubble of the blackened stone structure, choked by creeping vines, it is hard not to sense the magic that clings heavy in the humid air. A secret garden of overgrown trees that hide mystical treasures of carved stone, secret paths and opening canopies. This enchanting jungle whispers 100 years of Cambodian Khmer history, captured in stone but now strangled by nature. Reflective of the country’s time in violent and bloody battle, in the temples of Angkor, the battle continues. The once grand human structures are losing to nature’s force as trees and vines swallow up the crumbled remnants of these temples. Nature is taking back its space.

Just moments outside of Cambodia’s Siem Reap hides nearly 100 temples amongst 400 km squared of lush entangled jungle. Built during the height of power for the Khmer civilisation, these temples of Angkor were well advanced for the time. Despite the sheer magnitude of these structures, the collapse of the Khmer civilisation brought abandonment to the temples of Angkor. They were lost in time, forgotten and left for the jungle to devour.

Described by the locals as the ‘temples built by gods’, Angkor’s temples were re-discovered in 1860. As word spread of this lost city of a Cambodian empire, people became curious to see for themselves and in 1992 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Considered the biggest temple complex in the world, exploring these temples today will cost you USD$20 for a Day Entrance pass. There are specialised tours with a guide, however, you can just as easily pick up a local Tuk-tuk driver for around USD$15 for the day. While you can do a shorter circuit of the main temples in one day, it is recommended to take at least three days to really discover the majority of the temples in the area.

Angkor Wat is the most recognised temple and considered the biggest Asian pyramid. Its several layers tower 65 metres high at its most central point, which resembles the shape of a lotus flower. Angkor Wat’s sheer size is breathtaking, defined by intricate decorations of heavenly nymphs, the Battle of Kurukshetra, the Army of Suryavarman II, Heaven and Hell, Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Elephant Gate, Vishnu Conquers the Demons, Khrisna and the demon King, Battle of the Gods and the Demons and the Battle of Lanka.

Exploring the other temples in the area begins with the magical sun-kissed Bayon Temple, depicting the everyday life scene of Cambodia in the XII century.

The charm of nearby Ta Prohm temple is you do not know where nature ends and the man-made structure starts. It is probably the most contained of the larger temples.

Aptly named Elephant Terrace, the next temple sits at the end of a 350 meter long terrace of elephant statues. Once used as a giant viewing stand during royal and public ceremonies, this temple still holds a magic that captures the imagination of such an event.

Quite far from the rest, Banteay Srei temple is worthy of the travel to visit. This well-preserved temple displays declarations of delicate women carrying lotus flowers, and epic scenes of traditional Khmer life etched into the temple walls.

Wandering through these temples ruins brings a sense of reflection on the country’s history and struggles over time. Tired, tormented rubble of a once magnificent structure lays broken and destroyed. Yet, amongst this destruction, springs new life. Green leafy vines intertwine and reach from nooks and crannies to seek the sunlight. Just like these seedlings, Cambodia rose from tortured past to spring new hope and inspire those living there, or those just passing through, that time brings a rebirth of a new life.

About the Author: Kate Webster-Verberne is a travel writer and photographer who travels the globe in search of vivid imagery and compelling stories that capture the essence of the places she visits. Born out of a life-long love of travel and fascination with the world around her, is Kate’s inspiration behind her writing and photography.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

cambodiaI have been to a place where the sky is in the water and the stars swarm around me. It is Koh Rong off the coast of Cambodia and it boasts a heaven like none I’ve ever visited.

By day it is ordinary: azure sky, white sand, tilting palm trees, and transparent waters. The sunsets boast soupy violet and electric-peach clouds, whose impressions cast a warm glow onto an opaque, gently rocking ocean.

But Koh Rong only reveals its greatest secret to its more daring visitors after the sun is buried. At that point, the sky and the ocean are the same bottomless indigo, painting the Earth clean. The ocean whispers and a briny breeze coasts across the waves. In the distance, an inky slip of an island is the only point that distinguishes the horizon.

Above it is the purest night sky I’ve ever seen. Stars scatter the great abyss, winking sapphire, ruby, gold, and diamond white. I lie back onto the cool, slightly damp sand and stare. Between the tiny twinkling suns are eddied mists, vast swirls of golden dust flung across the dark canvas. Whole solar systems and great stampedes of rock belts are visible to the imagination here.

I am looking at time itself. Some of those burning disks have already been extinguished, an echo of their lighted glory racing through space to feature in Earth’s majestic night sky. It’s impossible to think the world could be more tremendous than this. But then I enter the water.
The evening is cool and the water even cooler, raising the goosebumps on my skin. I immerse myself to the waist and stand still. All is quiet but for the awed shrieks of a group of backpackers some twenty feet away. ‘Move your arms!’ They yell at me.

I obey the command, sweep an arm broadly through the water, and gasp.

There are golden stars in the sea as well, but they are not stationary. They cling to my body, outlining my arms, my fingers. Their light ebbs and flows. Further down, I can see glowing mist covering my legs when I kick out. These stars feed off my every movement.

A community of phytoplankton, tiny glow-in-the-dark creatures invisible outside night time, have come to dance with me. I lead and they waltz. I wave my hand and their cast smears a golden rainbow in my wake. It is a beautiful symbiosis; their play lights my way while my movement triggers their illumination.

It is cold and my teeth chatter, but this aquatic celestial heaven has me captivated. My peripheral vision is gone, the distant inky island and the closer ghostly shore vanishing along with it.

Before me is only supreme bliss. I alternate between lying on my back, buoyed by the waters, and flipping over to entertain the stars below. Overhead I see a sky devoid of moon but replete with planets and suns. Then I pull myself upright and watch the phytoplankton synchronise with my balletic twirls and groovy hand waves.

I have no idea how much time has passed when I remove myself from the water. It feels now as though my glow-in-the-dark friends have become apart of me – or perhaps I have become one with them. My body settles back onto the sand, but my soul has been buoyed to the heavens, to glow among the stars and simultaneously remains in the ocean, to dance brightly with the night’s secret creatures

About the Author: Amanda Bensted manages A Roamer Therapy, a travel blog that explores what makes travel wonderful, exhilarating, exasperating, and most importantly of all, so addictive.

1394259_10151619747907391_2016029647_nAs a society, we are quick to share our positive experiences. Social media allows us to post updates immediately after a dream job offer, a proposal, or a trip to paradise. I believe the ease and accessibility of it all gives us a false perspective of our friends. I, like most, fall into the “comparison trap” of looking at other peoples’ lives from behind my screen and thinking, “They are so lucky” or “why isn’t that my life?”

For whatever reason, talking about darker times and sharing less-than happy experiences is a bit taboo, so what we read online is usually only half the story. It would be easy to share the stories of my trips abroad with a fine sugar coat, but I prefer to live more transparently than that. Where I am, what I have seen and the person I have become would not mean anything without the journey it took to get here.

When I was 15, I began a long-time battle with an eating disorder. For years I was in and out of appointments, hospitals and rehab. It became the only thing that mattered to me and I lost every ounce of myself through the process. Eventually, I surrendered my body and braced myself to face the worst.

During my last (and final) visit to the hospital, a therapist challenged me to set one goal for the future. At the time, I had no plans for the following week, never mind the next year, because I didn’t think my body would survive much longer. Then, one day I thought about traveling. I thought about what it would be like to see the other side of the world, to splash around in foreign seas and explore unknown lands. For the first time since being consumed by the deadly voice in my head, I was able to imagine a future for myself. Lying in the hospital one evening, I decided I would recover and see the world. With that, I started the process of giving up my eating disorder and I contracted a new disease: Wanderlust.

Recovery was a long and painful process, as it is for most people with addictions, but I was determined and persistent. By the time I was 22 I was emotionally, physically and spiritually sound, and I was confident in my ability to lead a healthy life on my own. I packed my belongings into three bags, got on a plane four planes and flew from Florida to Cambodia to become an ESL teacher.

Once I received my TESOL certification, I moved to Chiang Rai, Thailand where I was hired at a small Montessori school. After I had been teaching for nine months, my family journeyed to my side of the world for some rest and relaxation in the Land of Smiles. We spent four days exploring the islands surrounding Krabi. I had previously seen pictures of Krabi’s postcard sunsets and flawless sea, but I never could have imagined the breathtaking views I was able to see during my vacation. Despite the fact that Krabi is a tourist destination, its natural beauty is undeniable. No amount of people could take away from its picturesque scenery.

During a day trip to Railay Beach, while cruising through the crystal blue waters in a long-tailed boat, feeling radiations of love from my family and the Universe as I looked out at the perfect view, I found myself thinking, “I have arrived. This is life, and it is so effing amazing.” I remembered the 16-year-old version of myself—the girl who barely had enough strength to stand, who had no hope left and who had lost herself completely. I immediately became so overwhelmed with love and gratitude. I breathed in the fresh, sea-salt air and exhaled a quiet “thank you” to my former self. A thank you for believing a better life was possible, for bringing me to paradise, and for letting me experience everything I had dreamed of. I thanked her, and I was in awe of her…I was in awe of myself. I had set a goal, kept my promises, and (against the odds) I succeeded.

It’s hard to feel connected to the person I was and the person I am because we are very different. I often think back to Hermann Hesse’s words, “The river is everywhere.” I am she and she is I. No matter where this life takes me, my past will always be a part of my present. I truly believe that the struggles and so-called “bad times” are the parts of our lives that paint our stories with color. Those are the parts of life that allow us to experience awe in all of its purity and appreciate how beautiful this journey really is.

About the Author: Melinda Nelson fancies herself a land-roaming mermaid. She currently works as an ESL teacher in Chiang Rai, Thailand and is passionate about her volunteer work with the National Eating Disorders Association. Melinda believes in “paying it forward”, feeling connected, good energy, and hugs. You can contact Melinda on Facebook or follow her journey on her blog.

cambodiaWalking through the Angkor Wat and experiencing its majestic nature felt like a lifelong ambition of mine had been completed. I arrived by tuk-tuk in the mid-day tropical sun, beating down upon me and the surrounding complex as if God himself relinquished all his power and energy to show me, in all its glory, the significance of this wonder.

I strolled slowly on the walkway leading towards the entrance of the temple, my head held high in an almost permanent state. The five ancient temple towers representing Hindu spiritualism drew me in as I became closer to the outer 12th century façade.

My surroundings transported me to a by-gone era, an ancient civilisation in the midst of religious power and might. Fellow travellers near me seemed to disappear into non-existence; it felt like I became one with the Khmer people and their beliefs.

The temple unhurriedly attained developing depth and complexity with every stride I took. What gazed upon me suggested Vishnu himself devised such an exquisite sanctuary. I brushed my hand upon the stone-cold exterior and instantly felt a rush of hope – of almighty grace and importance.

I stopped still and closed my eyes. My five senses were at maximum level, bringing alive the magical awe-inspiring feeling I had read so much about in previous journals and diaries documenting this area. I felt, for the only time I have felt during my travels, a sense of bewilderment and wonder.

This is the Angkor Wat, the land of enchantment.

I continued through the crumbled yet dignified main entrance, finding myself immersed in its interior. My head – constantly moving at all angles – absorbed every single fragment of its architecture; it was nothing I had ever seen before. The walls were a diminished grey colour, due to this I felt the temple had aged; bringing it into a higher level of wisdom with an impressive story to tell its pilgrims.

Like a living and breathing organism, the mysterious pull of the temple grabbed me further into its heart. I continued walking, constantly in awe around me as I touch and feel my way round. I found myself to be outside again, but within the internal structure of the site. The sunlight touched my skin to create a warm feeling, one of tranquillity and calm. I felt like the temple wanted me to be at peace.

One of the most striking elements of the Angkor Wat is the five towers that rise above the rest of the temple. I stopped, wiped my face with a cloth to freshen myself, and took a moment to gaze upon one of them. A rather steep flight of stairs seemed to lift into the air flowing into the mouth of one of the towers. My inquisitiveness got the better of me, so I started towards them.

The sense of elevation as I climbed the stairs gave me a feeling of undertaking a trial, that to truly understand and comprehend the beauty of this complex then a physical and mental challenge must be undertaken. I gladly accepted myself to participate in this, with most other tourists crowding around the base of the stairs taking photographs or idly sitting down drinking copious amounts of water.

I climbed higher and higher. The baking temperature was beginning to make my skin turn a pinkish hue and my forehead was trickling with beads of sweat. The magnificence and beauty of the Khmer civilisation propelled me into succeeding, I thought to myself. I had to see this.

Upon reaching the top I staggered and caught my breath. I took a big gulp of water, wiped my mouth and slowly turned around to see the view that I had reached. The view was astonishing. As far as the eye could see, lush green fields dotted with healthy tropical trees surrounded the vicinity. The moat surrounding the Angkor Wat could be seen, acting as its natural protector – but looking ever so tranquil and calm. Small families of monkeys could be seen relaxing in the natural playground the site had to offer. This is how the ancient Khmer would have felt, and wanted future generations to feel. I was seeing life at its most beautiful. I spent awhile staring wondrously at the Cambodian frontier, feeling awe-inspired and touched.

About the Author: I am interesting in travel and seeing the world, having been to South East Asia twice and seeing most of Europe. My next adventure see’s me exploring this Asia for the third time, including Australia and North America. Graduating with a Geography degree in 2013, this propels my interest even further and I am thinking of undertaking postgraduate study. I also very much enjoy writing.