The first time I freaked out travelling (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

By Hannah Silverman

The humidity slapped me in the face as soon as I walked out of the airport, but this wasn’t my first startling realisation in Cambodia. It was the fact that this was the first time I was travelling alone. In. Another. Country.

Some years ago I was coming off the back of a holiday in Bali, sandwiching in a few days in Cambodia before heading off to Vietnam.  This was my first experience as a solo traveller in a country where I knew absolutely no one. It’s kind of daunting when you think you about it, but as someone who was usually rather blasé about these things I was surprised that as soon as  I left the airport I noticed how foreign an affair this was.

It’s ok, my story has a happy ending, I promise.

To be fair, had there of been a friendly Cambodian with a sign even closely resembling my name and a car with, you know, a door, I probably would have continued on my irresponsibly carefree way. Instead I climbed aboard an un-booked tuk tuk with my suitcase loosely attached to the seat beside me. By attached I mean, looped under my fingertips which which would have been brilliant in a crisis.

As the tuk tuk bounced along the road, passing women who swung plastic buckets of spider snacks and three monks who were crammed onto one motorbike, I did have a moment of, ‘what have I got myself into’. I wondered, what if the driver took me to some abandoned rice field and the police have a Hansel and Gretal trail of Lonely Planet guides and bikinis as their only clue to my whereabouts. Where was this guy’s registration papers and why didn’t he have his photo ID on the dashboard? Yes, my imagination travelled very quickly and visually at that moment. I didn’t speak the driver’s language, he hardly spoke mine, but his actions were dismissive and his tone potentially unkind. He appeared to be in a hurry while this girl needed to catch her breath.

Now, let me show you what I was making all this mental fuss about…

Yes, the tuk tuk is attached to a motorbike.

Ok, so from that picture you can see now that it’s clearly not so bad, but without knowing exactly what to expect, I wasn’t expecting something that wasn’t a taxi. As it turns out those tuk tuks are great fun to zip around in, but generally a lot easier without luggage.

Some 15 minutes later I was politely dropped off at my hotel and warmly greeted by the concierge. I was fine.

There was no sign resembling my name at the hotel, but at least this joint had a door, and a lock. From there, I laughed at my over-analysis but also reminded myself that there is still a very obvious reason to be vigilant. While we’ve always got to have our wits about us as, we’ve also got to remember to sit back and take in as many of the world’s cultural delights as possible, whether we’re alone in a new country or not.

I’m fortunate to have not had any “real” scares (touch wood please). But here are some other culture shocks that have startled me while travelling:

  • A monkey jumping on my head and stealing my water bottle in a Balinese jungle.
  • Leaving my passport on the plane in Dubai as I attempted to catch my connecting flight. You can’t go back once you leave the aircraft, either, that was fun.
  • Almost leaving my suitcase on the carousel in Sydney. Yup, I’m a winner.
  • Swimming with sting rays in Durban shortly after Steve Irwin died.
  • Watching a dirty Parisian relieve himself at the train station while staring at my friend and me.
  • Crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh City. What a wuss.
  • Failing to convert Swiss francs to Australian dollars properly and walking out of a chocolatier in Lucerne $80 poorer. I’m not even a chocaholic, but I do have pride and they did have Champagne truffles.
  • Standing on the platform for the highest buggy jump in the Southern Hemisphere in Plettenberg Bay… while my friend jumped.

What are some of your most startling travelling moments?


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