My first solo-travel was to Kolkata. It was the first trip outside of South India; I didn’t speak much Hindi! Soon, I realised I was a foreigner in my own country.
It was difficult to get food, weird cultural shift, everything was so strange to me. But, I had to attend the international film festival, there. I managed to survive the days, somehow, and then, went onwards to Gaya. I wanted to sit under the Bodhi tree where Buddha was enlightened. That trip introduced me to the struggles of a traveller.
Ever since I came back from that trip, I realised, I was transformed. I couldn’t belive that I survived alone without knowing the language. It filled me with courage and left a slice of wanderlust inside me. I decided, I need to do it again, but this time, I need to up the ante. I wanted to go out of the country!
After a while I realised, however much it seems exciting to travel abroad, it will only be possible with enough money. I had checked Cambodia, and the one way ticket itself was costing about 15k rupees. I didn’t have much money, being a student.
Then, randomly, I checked price of Kuala Lumpur to Cambodia, and to my surprise it was available for 2.5k with AirAsia! Good. Now, I need to get to KL. But, that was costly; again, same old story.
Then, several days later, I installed a random travel app, and it showed me Trichy to KL for just 3.9k. I booked several months ahead to plan better. I was excited! The ticket rates came further down due to a promo offer, and I got another 1.5k off of the rate. So, the plan was set. September 9 – 16, 2015. One week of my maiden international travel! My father paid for the tickets and I asked for additional 10k rupees. He was very supportive.
On 9th morning at 6:30AM, I reached KL. Flight to Phnon Penh (Cambodia) was at 3:00PM. To kill time, I roamed around the terminal 2; it had some stunning architecture!
Finally I reached Cambodia, and I had to pay USD30 for visa-on-arrival. I had only USD50 on me. After immigration clearance, I went to exchange money, and I got my first big shock. They won’t accept Indian Rupees for exchange! I hoped, I would get that service near to the hotel that I booked, and went ahead to take selfies beside the airport facade. Meanwhile, a young tuk-tuk driver approached me for a ride. When I showed him the hotel address, he quoted USD10. By then, I had roughly USD 20 left. I told him that I am out of money and thankfully he came down to USD7.
The hotel was indeed far from the airport, and throughout the journey, I enjoyed the beauty of Phnom Penh; flooded with rich cars, colourful cityscapes; it used to be a French colony. I learnt it was a place abandoned by Khmer Rouge (more on this, later).
At the Royal Inn hotel, the receptionist boy was very warm and guided me with the ins and outs of the place. I learnt a lot from him; he was a good support in the foreign land.
At night, I went out again in search of money exchange. I explored the night-life of Phnom Penh and was happy and relieved to walk into an Indian guy. He helped me with directions to an exchange counter which was open 24×7. It was called Naga World Entertainment Complex; where millionaires hung out. With all the money rolling around me, I was shy to ask at the exchange counter for USD50. But, my embarassment soon turned into horror as he said Indian money is not accepted there. Now, I was seriously out of cash. I had to pay USD10 to take me to Siem Reap. I needed money for food, water, evrything. I was starting to get worried.
Next day, however, I managed to keep my worries aside, and went on to enjoy my first Cambodian breakfast of Khmer Pork Soup.
The road journey from Phnom Penh to Sieam Reap was a great, homely experience. The countryside of Cambodia and rice fields, its landscapes are similar to that in South India; so, I never had a feeling I’m in a foreign land.
The van halted in a place for food. It was so strange for me with even deep fried crickets on the menu. I made a German friend, then, who was my co passanger in the van. We discussed a lot about life and travel during the halt. She was travelling for nearly one month and had spent some long days in Vietnam on the way to Cambodia.
I spent the night in Siem Reap. I checked the currency exchange over there, and though, they accepted Indian money, they were charging insane amounts, almost double of the normal conversion rate. Then, I realised my friend Raja anna from back home had given me his credit card for emergency purposes. I decided to use it instead of converting the cash. This came out to 80 rupees per dollar. I was finally relieved, I had money to visit Angkor Wat!
I walked along the pub street, which was filled with massage parlours, bars and entertinment avenues. Surprisingly, I noticed an exchange centre, and just thought of enquiring.
To my surprise, they were offering me a dollar for approximately 66 rupees. I was so happy; finally after a two day struggle, I could exchange money!
Right away, I visited one of the parlours and treated myself to a foot massage, after all the walking that I had done! For foot massage and fish pedicure I was charged USD5. Then I went to a nice hotel to have the traditional Pork amok and banana smoothie. That day went by with more exploration around. And I went to bed early, I couldn’t miss the sunrise at Angkor Wat!
My driver, Lucky, had asked me to wake up at 5AM. But I was tired from the previous day and was in deep slumber. He was a good guy, though, and reached me through intercom and somehow managed to get me up in time for the view of a life time.
There is an Angkor one day Pass for USD20 with which you could visit all the temples like Bayon and Ta Prohm. The architecture of each of these structures are beyond words. A good treat to the eyes in the early morning rays.
I also made some friends over there from different nationalities. We helped each other in taking photos and had a jolly time.
In the evening, the driver dropped me and others at pub street. It was raining then. So I went inside one of the massage parlours and enjoyed an hour long foot massage. Theresa, the German girl I met in the van, was supposed to join me to explore the night life at Pub street. One good thing about Cambodia is that you get WiFi almost everywhere; even in Siem Reap. So I could be in touch with my folks back home, whenever I felt homesick. Finally, Theresa came, and we explored the place further and bargained for souvenirs. She was such a nice company!
Later, I met a Cambodian guy, Radell. He was so friendly. He was excited to know that I came from India. He asked me about the new Google CEO, Sunder Pichai; and I told him that I stayed in the area where he lived in his early days; and he was very happy to hear that. We had built a good bond, instantly. Then, we parted exchanging our Facebook contacts.
Everyone is photographed prior to being tortured and killed in S21
The next morning I went out to explore the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I asked a tuk tuk driver about the fare and he said, USD10. I tried to negotiate, but it didn’t help. Then I decided to contact Radell. He said, that was very high and offered to drop me to the place. I hesitated to take his help, but he was adamant. Finally, he dropped me on his motorbike, and we reached the museum before the opening hours. So, we had time to continue with our previous day’s chat. He loved India, I could tell.
I was grateful to him for the generous help, so early in the morning. He waited with me until the museum gates opened.
Tuol sleng museum is a former high school which was used as Security Prison and torture camp by the Khmer Rouge called as S2. Only few survied from the prison. “The prison had very strict regulations, and severe beatings were inflicted upon any prisoner who tried to disobey. Out of an estimated 17,000 people imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, there were only twelve known survivors.” (source:wikipedia).
I came to know about Khmer Rouge and this prison from an academy award nominated Cambodian movie, “THE MISSING PICTURE”, directed by Rithy Panh. It left me a deep wound. This is one of the worst genocides in history; so I had a deep eagerness to visit this place and pay respect for the vicitms. While I was there, I felt very sad for the victims; how they were tortured and isolated from their normal life. They display the instruments that were used for torture and beating, and also the demonstration paintings by one of the survivors, Vann Nath.
I met and said a hi to Chum Mey, who is one of only twelve known survivors; who is in the musesm to interact with visitors about the treatment in prison. After listening to his own experience, this museum left me with extreme feeling. I didn’t ’t have enough strength in my mind to move further on those killing fields; it’s a mass grave where every vicitms of Khmer Rouge were buried.
(To know more about Khmer rouge and this prison, please watch Rithy Panh documentaries; he was a surviour from Khmer Rouge camp; he later made documentaries based on his own experiences in the camp.)
Then, I was out of the museum. I got a good tuk-tuk driver who was very nice to me once he came to know that I am from India. His mother was in Bodhy Gaya last year for a tour, he told me. He asked only USD6 to drop me to the airport even though it was too far from the place.
While near the airport, I saw a Westerner begging using a shaker cup. All the locals passing by were looking at that guy. I got the answer for this, only when I met my friend Sasi in Malaysia on my return leg. He said that some would start their travel with whatever money they have; and once everything is finished, they would do any work for money. He had encountered a similar guy in Malaysia begging on a footpath, while playing his guitar. He went and asked why he was begging; and he replied that he didn’t have money to reach his next destination.
I realised that travelling is not for enjoyment, it is for learning; it requires passion and determination!
Once I reached home, I also realised, amidst all these learnings, that I had successfully completed a trip to two unknown nations, knowing no one, within the budget that I had planned: INR 25,000!
(Edited by Hoboist)