My Top 10 Travel Memories of 2016: #6

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Number 6: Swimming amongst phytoplankton on the island of Koh Rong

The inspiration for my Cambodia trip in February came from an article I read about the country’s tropical islands, of which I had not even been aware. The author described an island escape where electricity was only available from 6-10pm. I couldn’t think of a more perfect place to detox from the technological world and disconnect from the frenzied pace of modern life.

So, after my group tour ended, I made my way to the island of Koh Rong. That was an experience in itself and as I disembarked off the ferry from Sihanoukville onto the main shore of the island, I was quite shocked to see how quickly the claws of commercialism are making their mark here. I suspect this once unspoilt paradise will eventually become just another cheap tourist party island. I know I cannot begrudge a developing country the opportunity to tap into tourism as a source of revenue but it always makes me feel sad when it leads to nature being destroyed in the process.

Luckily for me, I was not staying on the main shore of Koh Rong but rather on the eastern side. I felt far more comfortable when, after a further 40 minute boat ride, I stepped onto white sand and saw nothing but a handful of wooden bungalows peeking out from amongst palm trees swaying lazily in the breeze.

My accommodation for my three night stay was a tent on the shore of the beach. The same chorus of waves welcomed me when I woke in the morning and provided a soothing lullaby as I drifted off to sleep each night. I switched off from ‘time’ in between and lived a simple life of eat, swim, sleep, repeat. (Do not repeat falling asleep in a hammock and waking up with tiger legs though. It makes for a most unfortunate tan.)

One of the things I was most excited about was the bioluminescent phytoplankton in the area. I’d seen incredible pictures of midnight seas aglow with electric blue water- a direct result of some pretty amazing chemical reactions occurring within these microscopic marine plants.

On my second night on the island, I had my first experience with phytoplankton but it was not quite what I was hoping for. For starters, the water was pitch black as we made our way to the beach for a late night swim, which made me wonder whether the photos I’d seen hadn’t been a bit generous in their adjustment of saturation levels. This was no big deal though, because when we entered the water, the phytoplankton were certainly there- however, I couldn’t really focus on their quiet beauty as I had to convince the somewhat inebriated owner of the bungalows that I was not interested in being anymore than his friend that evening, thank you very much.

I decided to try viewing the phytoplankton again on my last night. Around midnight, I walked the short distance to the beach with high hopes that this time, my experience would be better. The shore was deserted. Perfect. The night air was balmy and the water warm and inviting.

What can I say? This time, the experience was mesmerising! A real magic show produced by some of nature’s tiniest creatures. I was simply transfixed each time I twirled my hands through the water, to see hundreds of tiny sparks of liquid light shooting past my fingertips.  I don’t know how long I swam in that water but afterwards, I noticed even my skin was glowing!

It’s safe to say I will never forget the memory of this midnight swim. After all, it’s not every day that the sea becomes a galaxy of fallen stars, allowing you to dance in the light of the universe itself.

My Top Travel Memories of 2016: #7

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Number 7: Dancing among the crowds along Pub Street in Siem Reap

Disclaimer: I cannot dance.

When it came time for the fates to decide upon my ability to move rhythmically to music, they decided to bestow me, not with the elegant and graceful steps my mum is capable of, but rather, with the two left feet my dad possesses. Thanks a lot, gene pool.

Over the years, this has left me with the following options:

a) dance in the company of little kids who are just as uncoordinated as me (easy enough to do when you’re an early childhood teacher, though it makes it embarrassing beyond belief when you are outperformed by a five year old)

b) drink a lot of wine to boost confidence in my dancing skills and then, when I evitably fall over, blame it on the boogie booze

c) go to my room, lock the doors, close the curtains and dance like nobody’s watching (because nobody is watching, thank god)

d) think of the children and just don’t even go there

Lo and behold, when I visited Cambodia in February this year, I discovered that there is actually another option:

e) find a group of awesome people and just all dance like crazy together

Cambodia was my first adventure for the year and for the first time ever, I joined a multi-day group tour. I’ve done a lot of solo travel in the past and had always been happy just doing my own thing. But this year, I decided I needed to step out of my comfort zone and meet new people.

Now, in addition to being a terrible dancer, I’m also terribly awkward when meeting new people. Ask me to introduce myself to a group of strangers and I’ll probably mumble something along the lines of hello, I’m, um, Julie, and like, I like stuff, you know.

Safe to say, I was actually feeling a little bit terrified when it came time to meet my tour group. Which I laugh about now because they turned out to be the loveliest bunch of people.

Our tour was very short- only six days, and the first and last days were too short to really count. So, essentially four days. We checked out Phnom Penh and then took a bus up to Siem Reap.

On our second last night, we had a fun dinner at a karaoke bar and then proceeded to check out some of the bars along Siem Reap’s main nightlife strip- the aptly named ‘Pub Street’.

In one of the pubs along Pub Street, we hit the dance floor. We were happy when ‘Happy’ was played, we danced and jumped on it when ‘Uptown Funk’ funked us up and I may have screamed with joy when my request of ‘Billie Jean’ was played- because if there’s one artist which I’m willing to humiliate myself for, it’s MJ.

The best part though was actually when we decided to go back to our hotel. We stepped back out onto Pub Street, which was still teeming with life. We could’ve taken the normal option of walking through the crowds but no. We decided to dance down the street, adjusting our moves to the various styles of music that were blaring out from each bar that we passed- a little bit of rock, a little bit of rap, some disco here, some hip hop there.

And all this with a group of people who I’d known for a whole three days.

What a joy it was to dance with absolutely no inhibitions- and not because I was drunk, but simply because I was so happy and felt so alive.

What I love about this memory most of all is that, during our interpretation of dancing in the street, there was a lady who filmed us on her iPad. I know that somewhere in this world, there is now actual footage of my shockingly bad dancing- and I don’t even care.