Travelling out of your comfort zone – 3 lessons from cycling in Cambodia

“Every story in the world is about a journey into the unknown,” says Man Booker prize winner Eleanor Catton.  How lucky then for me to join a gung-ho group of voyagers launching themselves on such a journey, cycling from Ho Chi Minh City to Angkor Wat.

It was the hotter, wetter part of the year.  Many of the hinterland routes were challenging, and there were a couple of long days in the saddle.  But even though we were dirty, wet and occasionally bleeding, the experience of journeying into the unknown was overwhelmingly positive.

Some interesting lessons revealed themselves as our journey unfolded.  Here are a few of them.

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  • Real connections emerge when you throw together a bunch of people with some kind of shared passion. In this case, 4 bike tragics, a cycle commuter and 2 novice but adventurous fellow travellers all keen on testing themselves in an unfamiliar environment.  Turns out 5 out of 7 were or had been in banking and finance, plus one who was successfully managing his own SMSF, so there was already a lingua franca;  4 people who were happy to talk about bikes ad nauseam;  7 people with not much affinity for the Christian religion, but all with some kind of inner spiritual satisfaction.  Throw in some bonding via adversity, like cycling through torrential stinging monsoonal downpours, laughing while we did it.  We quickly formed, stormed and normed into a great team.

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  • Don’t make assumptions, as the Toltec wisdom says. One day as we stopped beside a back country rice paddy to watch and photograph what seemed to be a scene of bucolic contentment – 10 or so people planting the young rice.  I assumed that it would be a happy enough scene for them.  Not so according to our guide Vannak when I asked him later, “Were those people happy?”  They earn $2 or $3 US per day bending over for 8-10 hours with aching backs; not enough money if something goes adverse like illness, and being unable to pay for a doctor or medicine; no government safety net.  When we think we’re doing it tough (like say dodgy wifi in our hotel), it’s all comparative.

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  • Some places just seem to accumulate power. Vannak had grown up scrambling around the Angkor temples.  On one day he found Matt and me a quiet corner, away from the tourist rabble, where we could spend 10 minutes meditating in the venerable Bayon temple in Angkor Thom among the myriad towers with the 4-faced Buddhas.  Then, unbelievably, he showed us a pavilion inside the Angkor Wat temple itself, ignored by the crowds, where we reflected amidst ancient silence.

Everyone had some kind of affliction at some stage: loss of skin from bike tumbles, diarrhoea, nausea, a couple of heavy colds.  We were frequently covered in mud and dripping from the rain.  But the mood was always upbeat, at times inspired, at other times awed.

All in all, there’s a lot to be said for packing your bag and travelling outside your comfort zone.

David Rowan White

(Images my  own)

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