My first night in Chi Phat I dreamt about stars.

I woke early the next day, tangled in pink, papery sheets and surrounded by mosquito net, with flashes of the Milky Way not yet faded from my mind.

Chi Phat is about 8 hours by bus and motorcycle taxi from Phnom Phen. A community-based eco-tourism program lured me here for a four-day stint away from city and the hordes of other tourists on the Cambodian backpackers' trail. I planned to take a day or two to get over a slight fever and sore throat, and then keep myself busy in this tiny village with a combination of volunteering and activites the program offers for the few travellers here during rainy season. I wasn't worried about loneliness travelling by myself here because I could arrange a homestay for acommodation and by volunteering, helping out locals with projects like gardening and recycling, I would spend my days working alongside other people. As far as activities go, I was most excited about the night-time boat ride I had read about on their website before coming. It promised an abundance of twinkly stars. Chi Phat is very remote and only has a a few hours of electricity a day, so there is almost no light polution.

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Really, it was was my quest for stars that sent me deep into the Cambodian country side. As a kid I used to live for summer camping trips in the Rocky Mountains. At night I would prop my feet up on the rim of the metal fire pit, singeing a slightly curved line into the bottom of my sneakers as I watched the fire or tilted my head back to look at speckled constellations. The most amazing night sky I have ever seen, I remember it well, I saw as a little girl. The memory I've preserved all these years is more twinkly-white than deep blue. It was as if I had been lied to my whole life about how beautiful the stars are, and that sky was the unbelievable truth. I haven't seen one like it since, and not for lack of looking.

I couldn't wait to get into the Cardomom Mountains, tire myself out volunteering all day and then relax in the cool evenings looking up to--I hoped--something like that sky.

I would be let down, though. The director of the program wasn't in Chi Phat during my stay there. When I tried to arrange a volunteering day the night before, per their instructions, the employees at the eco-tourism center either didn't speak English, didn't know what to do, or didn't want to do anything without the director there. So for the four days I was in Chi Phat, I couldn't volunteer for a single one.

I tried to book a cooking class to fill another day. The 'class' I got actually consisted of me chopping vegetables with the workers for an hour or so. When I asked if I could have something to eat and explained I was a vegetarian, they made me a stir-fry and scrambled eggs and put chicken powder--whatever that even is--in everything. Even the scrambled eggs. Think about that for a minute. I left feeling nauscious and grouchy.

And then there was the rain. I knew there would be a lot of it (it is rainy season), as well as some sunny hours. I hadn't, however, accounted for the possibility of it raining all night, every night. The thick, wet clouds hid any stars I might have seen.

So now I had four empty days to pass in Chi Phat. I was a little sick, a little disappointed, and very alone. All day I had no one (who spoke English, anyways) to complain to. No wifi to fall back on WhatsApping friends and family to complain to over text. I say this not make your feel bad for me, but to convey what a thoroughly shitty mood I was in.

The first day I rented a mountain bike. I found myself on a reddish-brown dirt road, big enough for one car at best. It ran between rice paddies, palm fields and a dragon fruit plantation. A ditch along the path was nearly over-flowing with reddish rain water, colored by the mud. I saw a group of half-naked kids laughing and splashing around in it. Every so often I saw a water buffalo alone, tied to something and slowly grinding grass between his teeth, looking unimpressed.

In the distance, just the bottoms of the hills we're visible, the only part of them not concealed by the misty clouds hanging around them. Scanning the landscape from one horizon to the next, you think it would be impossible for Cambodia to be any more green.

At times my route would wind around a residential area. Small wooden houses on stilts we're set back about thirty feet from the road and people went about their business beneath and around them. Kids ran towards me with huge smiles on their faces, waving and yelling "Hello!" or, better yet, "Hello what is your name!!" Chickens roam free all around Chi Phat, too, pecking, occasionally picking fights with eachother or darting in front of cyclists.

Cruising through the tropical countryside, I tried to work out why I was so frustrated with these circumstances I had no control over. I wanted to massage the feeling right out of my mind. When you have no one to vent to, your frustrations are entirely your own. You can feel yourself making yourself angry. I kept going and waited for it to pass, not knowing what else to do. I cycled through thought after thought, old memories resurfacing and connecting to one another, my mood leveling to a heady neutral.

When it rained all afternoon, I posted up in my host-mom's hammok and read for hours. In the evenings I chatted with the local Peace Corps volunteer, ate with the host family and played with their adorable 3 year-old son.

So the next day I rented a kayak and spent the few sunny hours in the morning rowing upstream. Once again, it was just me, the landscape, and my thoughts. The river was wide and moved slowly, making it easy to go against the current. It was banked by a thick growth of shrubs and trees, creating an appearance of unconqurable jungle on either side. In reality there was farm land and stilted houses just a few meters away. Far ahead, where the river bent out of sight, low lumpy mountains stood out a deeper green than the trees and fields below them.

I recalled a recent Skype conversation with a friend who is also travelling alone. She brought up how, at our small liberal arts college, spending time alone was actually looked down on. If you told someone you spent a day riding your bike by yourself, they would likely feel bad for you, perhaps inadvertantly making you feel a little like an outcast for enjoying it. Without realizing it, we had spent the last four years filling nearly ever spare moment with friends, neglecting to spend quality time with ourselves.

One of the great and unexpected gifts one gives oneself by traveling alone is the opportunity to cope with things going wrong entirely by oneself.

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Posted in Home Post Date 02/01/2021


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