Cambodia: A Leap of Faith

Welcome! So this post follows on from my previous one. I’m going to look at my experience in Cambodia (originally planned to have been Thailand) and the highs and lows in relation to my anxiety! Ultimately there were some high points (in some instances quite literally) and some low points but I survived. I won’t write about every single detail, instead I’ll cover a basic overview with more of a focus on the relevant points. If you want to read versions that focus on more of the travel aspects, scroll down to the very bottom to find links. Enjoy!

Thailand: Day 1

So as I already mentioned, my trip to Thailand was rather short lived. My first day there was a bit overwhelming and if I’d written a post on that day it would have been largely negative. Ignoring the 14 hours of travelling, the lack of food, the tiredness, dehydration or the fact that it was more than 30 degrees hotter than where I’d left, I was in pretty good spirits when I landed. I liked that I was on a little adventure and looked forward to kicking it all off.

That didn’t last too long though as I quickly got crammed into a train to the point that I didn’t even have space to pull my phone out of my pocket but getting off only added to my general discomfort: even with google maps I was incredibly lost and had 6 hours to kill before I could check-in to my hostel. At this stage I didn’t realise that most hostels allowed you to dump your bags. I’d never stayed in a hostel before and so, I travelled around with a gigantic bag!

I got talking to a very nice local man who gave me suggestions of what to see and where I could go to kill some time and who ultimately bargained with a tuk-tuk driver on my behalf. He had suggested that I visit the ARC reservation centre (or something similar) where I could ask about booking buses and other such things. I didn’t realise it at the time but this was somewhat foreshadowing for how my day would go.

Arriving at this place, I was greeted with an open door which I immediately walked away from as I had zero interest in booking anything right there and then. Instead, I chose to walk to my hostel which was about an hour away. Along this journey I met another friendly local. He began telling me all these things I could see such as the lucky Buddha or the Standing Buddha, both of which intrigued me. He then started telling me about this fabric shop that for one week was allowing members of the public to go in and see how everything was made, he also recommended a tourist information building as they apparently would help me see what else I could do in and around Bangkok.

This man waved down a ride for me and for only 30 baht (less than £1) he would drive me to all these places. So I went to the lucky Buddha and then the standing Buddha and even though I was supposed to have two stops in between, I told the man that I wanted to go straight to the Golden Mount which was pretty near to my hostel. Apparently that wasn’t really an option for me and I was practically kidnapped to this random factory shop which in actuality was a suit tailors.

Suffering from exhaustion and dehydration, my brain was not at its most functional and it didn’t really click what was going on so on I went into this “fabric factory” with no idea what to expect. What I got was a man trying to make me a suit. He gave me a nice cold bottle of water and started asking what colour of suit I wanted. I tried my best to explain to him that a) I was clearly very confused as to what this place was and b) I really had no interest in buying a suit. Of course “no” doesn’t mean no in such instances and so he kept selling and kept selling. When he did finally realise that I was never going to part with my cash, he went off in a huff. He didn’t say goodbye, he didn’t even say he was finished talking to me, he literally just wandered away; taking that as my cue to leave I went out and continued my Bangkok tour.

The next stop was the tourist information and once again, despite my protests, my driver insisted that I go and get “free information”. I was beginning to wise up a little at this stage and as I entered the tourist information, I knew what to expect. In fairness, the women here were actually pretty helpful and were a lot more understanding about the fact that I’d basically just been kidnapped and brought here and really had no intention of buying a tour to the jungle or a waterfall right there and then.

Leaving, I was ready to head to the Golden Mount but nope, my driver insisted we visit a 2nd suit shop. This time he was honest with me and explained that if he takes customers to these shops he gets a fuel coupon and he assured me that it didn’t matter whether I bought a suit or not. Somewhat sympathetic and in all honesty just too tired to argue, I agreed to go to this place. I was however beginning to lose my patience and as I walked into this shop and had the man explain to me that their suits were amazing quality and super cheap, I told him the truth: “I have absolutely no interest in buying a suit right now. I’m not going to bullshit you because I don’t want to waste your time but I’ve only been here a day and I’ve been taken to two of these shops under false pretences and if you don’t mind I’ll have a look and see if there is anything I like but I’d be buying it another day.”

Apparently honesty is not always the best policy as I was quickly thrown out of the shop and my driver did not get his coupon. He then reluctantly drove me to the Golden Mount and I gave him like 50 baht because I felt a little bad since he was after all just trying to earn some money. I’d never even heard of the Golden Mount (mainly due to the lack of research I’d done before this trip) but as I ascended the steps, I couldn’t help but feel that I was doing some sort of test. I hadn’t eaten since the start of my 2nd flight which had probably been about 8 hours ago at this stage, I definitely hadn’t drank enough water and I was carrying everything I had with me on my back. I’m also very pale (due to being from Scotland, a land that gets sun for about 3 days a year) and at this stage had no sun-cream on.

Each step made me feel more and more light-headed and by the time I reached the top, I really couldn’t appreciate how wonderful it all was. It was just too warm and so I made my way back down and decided it was time to get to the hostel before I fainted. Other than going for food with a Canadian guy from my hostel and then being shown around by a local woman that pretty much sums up my day. I’ll admit, at that point 3 weeks felt like an eternity and in all honesty I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it. I would feel that way another two times on my trip.

Here Come the Doubts

Just to get the negativity out of the way, here are the other two times I doubted I’d survive the rest of my time in SE Asia: the second time was my final night in Bangkok. We’d been out on the infamous Khao San Road until everything closed and had then stayed up at the hostel for another couple of hours. We had to get up at 7 for a “9 hour” bus journey to Siem Reap in Cambodia and at 5 or 6 in the morning everyone in our room was awake because some guy had come back drunk and pissed himself in the bed (I’m still not sure if he was on the top or bottom bunk).

At this point I felt awful: I was tired, a little nauseous and the thought of being on a bus soon just filled me with dread. I remember wondering if my whole trip was going to be like this? Should I just book flights home and call the mission a failure? Before this trip I had a real issues with taking a shit in public toilets.  I couldn’t shit if I was under pressure or if people could hear me. That night, I went and sat on a toilet just contemplating the likelihood of me being able to manage the rest of my journey. I felt better in the morning but I still remember the feeling well.

Doubt number Three

The third time I felt this way was for a much more valid reason: After staying on Koh Rong in Cambodia I made my way across to Koh Rong Sanloem with plans to attend a jungle party the night before the full moon party. I missed what sounds like the best party ever because I started being as violently sick as a person can be: Barely making it out of the room, id fall down the 4 or 5 stairs and just collapse to the ground as I threw up in the bushes, practically dragging myself through the dirt and up the rocky path that led the 100 or so yards to the toilets. Most of the time I’d be done being sick by the time I made it there but every single time I’d be in extreme physical pain as my body contracted as if I were being dosed with high voltage electrical shocks. When I did end up in the toilet I’d be so nauseous and light headed, the world spinning around me as if I could suddenly sense it spinning through space, that I’d be physically unable to walk back to my room.

On one occasion I had to actually ask two random girls if they could help me. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone and that was without a doubt the most ill I have ever been in my entire life! I have what could be described as a fear of being sick. I do anything I can to avoid it and a lot of the time when I get anxious, what makes t 10x worse is my worry of throwing up!

Journey into the Wilderness

I mentioned in my previous post that I had 3 main concerns about this trip: 1) The social aspect. I wasn’t sure how well I’d cope being forced into social situations with lots of new people and having to live in small rooms with strangers. 2) The food. As a VERY fussy eater I had no idea how well I’d deal with having less access to my usual diet and it worried me that I might literally starve to death. 3) Spiders. Without a doubt spiders are my biggest fear and given what I’d heard about surrounding areas, it concerned me that I might have to deal with what would be giant, potentially man-eating spiders. So how did I cope?

The Spiders

Surprisingly well actually! The only time I had any real issue with spiders was on Koh Rong when we were staying in little thatched huts that basically just had a mattress and a mosquito net inside. Walking past the toilets at one stage I noticed a massive spider on the wall which didn’t make me fully confident that I’d be able to enter those toilets the rest of the time I was there. As I reached my room just after this moment, one of the guys I was travelling with proceeded to point out that a pretty big spider had just ran under the bed.

To top it all off, after a night on the beach that ended with me being drunk and high, I walked back to the room with the same travelling companions only to notice a massive spider on the net. If I had been sober, I would have freaked and probably wouldn’t have slept but that night I slept like a baby! After that, I wasn’t too bothered about spiders. Not in the sense that my phobia was cured…not even slightly. Rather, I just wasn’t as anxious. Initially I’d automatically been on the lookout for spiders; my brain dropped down a gear and allowed me to relax a bit. I trekked through the jungle without any anxiety, I slept in the huts without worrying about any night time spider attacks, I even hung clothes on the hut walls and managed not to be overly concerned about the very real possibility of spiders crawling in. I didn’t even manage that in Scotland prior to this trip!

The Food

The next issue was of course the food which I did try to get over as early as the flights. On each flight we were given an option of three meals and both times I went for something that I wouldn’t have eaten normally. I’ll admit that my first meal in Bangkok was French fries but after that I tried various street foods and ordered stuff in restaurants that I’d never tried before. Did I try every single thing? Of course not, there was still some foods that even just the sight or smell of made my stomach churn.

That being said, I tried snake which I hadn’t expected at all. Did it taste bad? Definitely not, I actually seemed to be one of the few people who enjoyed it. The texture however was a little off-putting. I’m not sure all the chewing gum in the world could have prepared my jaw for how long I’d have to chew that snake before I could swallow it. While I did try new food to begin with, Western influence is very prevalent and in some places it’s easier to find steak and chips or a cooked breakfast than it is to find a local meal. When you’re hungry, sometimes a little hungover and often feeling a bit lazy it’s all too easy to simply eat at your hostel rather than go hunting for some food that you may or may not like. There is one food that I did go hunting for though: a happy pizza…but more on that later. So spiders, check. Food, check. How about the social aspect?

People…the Scariest of All

Really my first hurdle to jump was the flight itself. In the past I’d had anxiety attacks not from the flying but from being crammed into a small metal tube with strangers who ultimately invade your personal space. The last time I’d been on a plane I’d taken propranolol and even though I’d brought it with me on this trip, I never had any need of it. So I view that as a mini success.

I’ll admit that meeting new people wasn’t super easy but it also wasn’t difficult either. At the end of the day everyone is in the same boat and nobody really wants to sit on their own the entire time, not even me, so once you get talking to someone you pretty quickly feel like you’ve known them for a long time, especially if you truly connect with them (this does have its downsides though which I’ll discuss later). I met some people on this trip that were just incredible and I’ve never been in the company of as many like-minded individuals in all my life. Being able to start a conversation about something rather controversial back home might raise a few eyebrows but out there it was encouraged.

Sharing different opinions was just seen as part of the experience and as someone who loves to voice his opinions, I couldn’t have felt more at home. Nobody wanted to discuss football or gossip or anything dull. Instead people wanted to talk about drugs, politics, religion, entire philosophies about life and the universe.

I was travelling with a friend who arrived on my 2nd day in Bangkok and before the trip I hoped it would stay just the two of us for the entire duration we were travelling together. By the end, I can’t imagine how horrific that could have been (not that I minded traveling with him but more that the experience was just improved by adding group members). We amassed this group of wonderful individuals from all around the world who we travelled with at different points of our journey. It might sound a bit clichéd but they felt like family or like I’d known them my whole life.

New Experiences: Laughing Gas

In the nature of trying new things, I had my eye out for any new experiences that may be offered in Thailand or Cambodia. Considering I’d stopped off in Abu Dhabi where the penalty for bringing drugs into the country is literally death, I wasn’t sure how Thailand or Cambodia would handle the concept. On Khao San road I experienced “laughing gas” for the first time which to me was a bit of a stupid drug. I’ll admit, I had a lot of fun and probably bought 8 or 9 balloons while there but it felt a bit like a tease.

As someone who has partied with MDMA, I found that laughing gas momentarily gave you the feeling of coming up: you get pins and needles in your extremities, your head goes a little fuzzy and you find yourself feeling a little euphoric. For someone who has never taken drugs I can see the attraction but for me it was a bit like being promised sex, getting a lap dance only to find out that that’s it over or being promised pizza, watching it being made and then being given a crust. Like I said though, it was fun just not that fun. It’s very obvious why it appeals to the tourists, especially on Khao San Road.

New Experiences: Valium

While in Siem Reap, I encountered some wonderful people (one of whom was a doctor) who before we all left for an 8 or so hour bus journey had informed me of one major area that was rather lenient in Cambodia: pharmaceuticals. Now I’d never taken Valium and my only knowledge of it was based on US films so the idea of taking some had never really crossed my mind until it was explained that taking one before a night bus journey would help me sleep, something I have great difficulty doing while travelling.

For $1 I got 10 10mg Valium pills and as we all got comfy on our beds on the night bus I broke mine in half (following the advice of my new doctor friend) and sure enough, I slept pretty well initially. After two hours we stopped for a toilet break which it turned out I was in desperate need of and after getting back on the bus, I decided to take the other half. I’m not sure how much everyone else took but when we all woke up, we’d already been at our destination for 45 minutes and the driver simply hadn’t told us. I did this another two times on my trip, one time where it had been essential as I had a “12 hour” (turned out to be 16 hours which was a common theme with Cambodian travel) in what seemed like a single night bus bed with a fairly large Cambodian gentleman.

I do however see why Valium users have a problem with addiction. I tossed mine before my flight home. Not because of security but because I knew that it would be all too easy to take one whenever I was struggling to sleep or if I needed to relax. I’m not even sure what the risks are but it’s something I don’t plan on taking again anytime soon. One thing I wouldn’t mind taking again soon, however, is a happy pizza.

New Experiences: Happy Pizzas

I’d missed out on trying one in Siem Reap because despite searching I just couldn’t find anywhere until the day we left. Luckily, by the time we got to Kampot I was travelling with several people who were also very eager to try one. Finding a place wasn’t a problem and so we ordered a pizza and I also ordered a happy shake which didn’t taste too bad but involved more chewing than a typical shake does. A couple of hours after consumption none of us seemed to really be feeling anything. We were told that the happy pizzas here weren’t prepared properly and that Siem Reap did them better but having eaten at around 10, I found myself playing snap at 2 in the morning with one of the other happy pizza triers and we were both definitely very high.

I remember lying on my back just looking up at the stars for an incredibly long time. I mean I do that normally so that isn’t an indicator of whether I’m high or not but the thoughts that were going through my head were: I was picturing all these different stars and what sort of planets they might have and whether there are little aliens on these planets that are also high and looking up at our star, wondering the exact same thing. There is a star on the shoulder of the constellation Orion known as Betelgeuse which gives off a red colour and could literally supernova at any minute. While looking at this star I was imagining what it would look like and how I’d react if it happened right now.

There were even times I thought I saw the stars move which was probably more due to tiredness than anything else. So my experience with happy shakes and pizzas is definitely something I’d recommend and would repeat without hesitation. Anxiety when it comes to being high is always a concern of mine and had been going into the experience. I think as long as you don’t eat a whole pizza to yourself, you’ll be fine. I never once felt anxious while high from the happy pizza and shake.

Not All Weed Experiences are Positive

The one thing I would be less confident in repeating would be smoking the weed down there. While on Koh Rong, we stayed at this lovely little hostel where the thatched huts and spiders were located and they sold big joints at the bar for $3.50. I hadn’t smoked weed in a while and this was before the happy pizzas so one day I bought one and decided to smoke it pretty early on in the day while we chilling at the beach. Only one of the girls I was travelling with wanted to partake so we shared this joint and decided to kick back and relax.

I knew after just one toke of this joint that it wasn’t going to be all fun and games but by the end I basically knew how it felt to be a vegetable. Of course the rest of our group chose this moment to inform us that we’d be walking round to the next beach to get some food. The journey itself is a bit of a blur but I remember sitting at the bar ordering garlic bread which was the driest thing I have ever eaten.

I rarely get paranoid when I’m high and I’m not even sure I’d describe this moment as paranoia so much as just confusion but while at the bar these two girls sat to my left, pretty close to me, while all my group was on my right. My bottle of water (which is of course was as important to me then as air itself) was to my left. I’m fairly sure one of the girls drank from my bottle which threw me down this rabbit hole of asking whether that bottle was mine or not? Should I drink from it again or just buy a new one? If that isn’t my bottle then where is my bottle? I then started to think they were trying to steal my bottle from me because they thought it was there’s when in fact it was mine.

It was a lot to deal with but after a nap on a hammock I felt a little better. That was until I learnt of the hour long walk to another beach we were about to do. The distance itself seemed bad enough but as we walked we ended up clambering over rocks (which I usually love) and walking through the jungle. It was all a bit much and eventually we had to get a boat from some sketchy hotel we’d come across and I didn’t actually feel completely there on a cognitive level until we arrived at our final destination (which, by the way, had been so much further than an hour’s walk).

Now, I don’t blame the weed for how I felt. I definitely smoked too much (something I usually know not to do) but without a doubt that is the most high I have ever felt in my entire life and it’s certainly the longest lasting high I’ve had. After the first hour or two it was enjoyable but I just didn’t think I would survive it during the initial high. I didn’t make things better for myself that same evening when after enjoying a happy hour and returning to our beach to drink, I decided to once again smoke a joint. I know, I know, some people just don’t learn from their mistakes.

This time I didn’t even smoke half of what I’d smoked the day before but combined with the alcohol it left my lying on the beach clinging onto the world as if I could fall off. I couldn’t walk or talk or function at all really but we had stayed up to see the glow in the dark plankton and my friends helped me up, practically carried me to the water and then left me there in awe as I pulled my hands and feet through the water. The sight was truly incredible as it gave the illusion of a sort of green, static electricity. The walk back to the fire which was probably only 75 yards away felt like a marathon but at least I’d seen the plankton. This is an experience I can’t recommend enough. These phosphorescent plankton are truly remarkable and are a beautiful sight to see.

New Experiences: Moving Away from Drugs

Of course there were other new experiences out-with the drug category and possibly my favourite of these was the Thai massage (no they did not include happy endings, get your mind out of the gutter). I went for three in total, all a little different but all left me feeling pretty relaxed. A Thai massage is not what you’d expect it to be: if you want a soft, pain-free experience then I suggest you try something different because about 50% of the time you’ll be in pain. I actually witnessed a grown man practically sobbing after receiving one, much to the entertainment of the women that worked there.

Despite the almost constant pain, I still found myself drifting off a couple of times while receiving one of these massages. You wear these comfortable pyjama-like clothes and it’s usually dark and the atmosphere just invites you to sleep. Maybe some people would find it difficult to drift off while having a grown woman walk across your spine or twisting your limbs into unnatural positions but that didn’t seem to be a problem for me. Strange that I can drift off under such circumstances but can’t sleep on a bus or plane without taking drugs.

Another new experience for me was receiving a henna tattoo which is basically just a temporary tattoo that is done in a substance similar to permanent marker. I had been told they lasted around 3 weeks but mine was completely gone in less than 2 and had already begun to fade in less than 1. I had been tempted to get a less traditional symbol such as the Assassin’s Creed logo or something similar but instead I went for a sun with the eye of Horus located in the centre. Regrettably I never thought to take a photo of it and by the time I did it had already started to fade.

Even after letting it dry for several hours, I woke up the next morning with about 3 different versions of it imprinted across my body as well as several on the bed. I had also gone to a tattoo parlour on one of my last days, picked out what I was going to get and then had been told it would cost $80 which was just ridiculous. Really the only reason you’d get a tattoo over there (apart from a traditional bamboo tattoo) is because they are cheap. You know that it might not be a work of art and you know it might not be 100% safe which is why it is usually cheaper. While I did consider the idea, I decided that I wasn’t going to spend that amount of money on what could potentially be an awful tattoo or a trip to the hospital.

One final experience that I’m certainly going to miss is the bum gun; what’s the bum gun? Well, the bum gun is quite simply a hose that you use to wash your asshole after taking a shit (to be blunt about it). At first I was hesitant but once you’ve grown used to it, you never want to go back. It’s cleaner and less time-consuming. If I could install one in my bathroom I definitely would. I know plenty of people who refused to use it while over there and I was part of that group initially but I have seen the light and switched teams. If you are ever in a country with such an incredible piece of bathroom technology I recommend you give it a shot. Be warned though: in some places the water pressure is drastically higher and you can get quite a shock when you basically use a water cannon to try and spray your asshole!

Looking Back

Overall it was certainly an experience and one that I would love to repeat. I considered quitting my job several times just to stay out there for a few more weeks but realistically that just wasn’t an option for me. While I wouldn’t change a single thing about this trip (apart from maybe the getting ill incident that caused me to miss an incredible jungle party) if I were to go on a similar trip I think I’d avoid party hostels for at least most of the journey. I mean they are insanely fun and a great way to meet people but going out to drink every single night is not only expensive but also pretty damaging.

I also found that while I still managed to explore the temples and killing fields, I would be tired or even just hungover in general and perhaps didn’t appreciate them or experience them to the fullest. I also think that if I were to do it again I’d want to set out with a group of people initially and travel with them for the duration. Why? Well partly because travelling with one person is always going to lead to tension just due to the stress. As an introvert, I need time to myself in order to recharge and that’s something you just don’t get while travelling around hostels and so I know myself well enough to notice it stressing me out.

However, the biggest reason I’d prefer to travel in a group to begin with is because travelling alone or in small numbers leads you to meet new people. Is that a bad thing? Of course not, as I mentioned, some of the people I met on this holiday are some of the most wonderful and like-minded people I’ve met in my entire life but it all has to come to an end sooner or later and given that you’re meeting people from around the world, it is unrealistic to assume that you’ll see them again. I mean who knows, maybe I will see them again (I’ve seen one of them since) but you know it isn’t guaranteed.

I’ve gone to funerals without crying, I’ve watched sad films without crying, I visited the killing fields and listened to a man discuss “the killing tree” without crying, in all honesty I actually don’t remember the last time I cried but saying goodbye to these people certainly had me close to it. When I said goodbye to the first group it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced: how could I meet these incredible people and then have them leave my life forever? I’d only known them for a few days but somehow it was like I’d known them my whole life.

Saying goodbye to my final group as I left for Bangkok was truly painful. At first it didn’t really bother me: I said goodbye, hugged everyone, shouted some things as I walked away and it wasn’t until I was driving past them in the van that was to take me to the bus that I suddenly felt it: emotional pain, like the scene from Indiana Jones where a guy literally has his heart ripped from his chest, watching it beat in front of him. When I think back to that moment I still feel the exact same way and I’m not sure how often someone could repeat that moment before it started to take its toll. Do the positive emotions and experiences outweigh the negative ending? I’d say it does but it doesn’t make the goodbye or the memory of it any easier.

What about my Anxiety?

Was I cured? Hell no! As I left my group, I had several moments of overwhelming anxiety that I thought could potentially lead me to miss my flight! Even when I got back, I didn’t feel hugely different. I certainly wasn’t consciously aware of feeling less anxious. Going back to work still felt nerve-racking and I wasn’t any more comfortable talking to people.

The events over the next few months led me to change my opinion on that. I may not have felt any more confident with dealing with my anxiety but that certainly wasn’t the case. I met a woman who I went on a date with, something I certainly struggled to do before. I was sent away on two works trips (London and Paris) where I took charge in supervisor-like roles. In Paris I went on expedition trips into the centre without a care in the world. I moved into varying departments at my home store and while being on the checkouts had once been an actual fear of mine, I started to enjoy it. I began to get on better with colleagues and I even got employee of the month.

Things just continued to improve for me to the point that I’m now writing this from Spain! I quit my job, moved here with my girlfriend and now do freelance writing work as I improve my Spanish. Overall, it’s safe to say that my trip to Cambodia truly helped me with my anxiety. I can’t recommend a leap out of your comfort zone enough to anyone suffering from the same thing.


If you’d like to read a more travel-based look at my trip to Cambodia, then check out my guest appearances on others blogs: You can read my ‘Cambodia: Temples, Beaches and History Lessons’ article or my ‘5 Days in Cambodia Travel Guide’ one.

As always, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter! Send me your suggestions for future articles or if you want to appear as a guest writer, take a look at the ‘Write for us’ page or send me a message!

Hope you all have a great day!

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