A mixture of nerves, anxiety and excitement accompany me to Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok. I’m flying to Phnom Penh to catch up with my ‘old’ friend of twenty years. Worrying about the children began the minute I booked the flight, then other worries kick in like missing the flight, talking to strangers, finding the gate, have I packed the right stuff. I’ve travelled a lot as a single woman, but not travelled alone since becoming a mother. I need to dig in, find my confidence.
I post a photo onto Facebook, my friends give me encouragement, my host reminds me I’m only traveling the same distance as Liverpool to the Isle of Wight, which makes me laugh.
There are too many 50-odd year old males in cut off denim shorts and vests with faded tattoos on my flight and I can’t help thinking they’re sex tourists – why else would older men travel in packs? Is it a Saga destination? I hope their arms don’t brush against mine, or they want to chat and boast, I’m irritated by one man’s lack of spacial awareness with his backpack. I bury my head in a book my friend left for me “Wild: A Journey From Lost to Found” by Cheryl Strayed. I’m relieved to get three seats to myself on the plane. I’m fed a meal, it’s steak but once thoughts of dog enter my mind I eat the salad.
I land, navigate the visa entry, have my fingerprints taken, join a group and wait to be shouted at to get my passport back. My friend and chariot await. We have a ‘whoop’ and a hug, jam my backpack against the front of his scooter and set off into the dusty, busy roads. Phnom Penh looks like I imagined Bangkok would thirty years ago. There are no rules to the roads, a lot of horn tooting and no giving way at cross-roads. We avoid eye contact with the police who pull Neil over once a week and fine him a few dollars for nothing other than having a white face and therefore potential affluence.
There are no buses, no trains, the country’s capital lacks infrastructure. There are 4 year old girls carrying babies through the rush hour traffic, begging. I don’t want to look. I think of my two at home and I feel like I ‘should’ be with them, that this is what society expects of me, the absence of their mother makes my absence feel unnecessary. I want to see the world, I want to challenge myself, to dare, to see, not to disappear and not to identify as ‘mother’ alone, but at times this is the price.
We take a boat trip along the Mekong River at sunset with Neil’s university colleagues. I’m asked what I do. I find the question a challenge.
“I do yoga, I raise my two kids, I’m 31,000 words into my first novel”.
“Why are you living in Bangkok?” asks the man in the hooded coat in 35 degree dry heat.
“My husband’s job”, is the answer in it’s simplest form.
“What does he do?” I explain James’s role.
He follows me saying “I’m very interested in your husbands work”, even though I’ve explained I know little of his job role. My inquisitor asks nothing of my life.
Neil throws a party, invites all his friends who are from all around the world – it’s like the United Nations. He’s made friends easily, unlike me in Bangkok. He says he found it hard to meet people in Bangkok, it’s so much bigger, spread out. I’m missing the kids and after last night’s reunion drinks, not really in the party mood. Plus he’s been building me up and now I’m under pressure to be ‘fun bob’ and can only think of serious topics of conversation. I find comfort in a sober 23 year old from Maryland who gives good chat. She sneaks home as I sneak to bed and witnesses my “I’m nearly 40 Neil, can you get the drunk boy out of my bed, OR I WILL” conversation. I consider taking a tuk tuk to the airport and flying home but go to sleep instead, the boy evacuated and replaced by a three-legged cat.
The next day we meet a few of Neil’s pals in a cafe, cured by laughter and Eggs Benedict naturally we decide to visit the Choeng Ek Genocidal Centre – The Killing Fields. The road we take is under construction, we’re on a little moped, driving over broken concrete and rocks. I can’t see for dust, my eyes streaming with the bits behind my lenses. We pull over and buy surgical masks and bump along until we reach our destination.
Nobody talks to each other at the Killing Fields. It’s both peaceful and eerie. We take the audio tour and listen to the damage Pol Pot did to a nation the year before I was born. “Imagine 1 in 4 of your community being slaughtered, tortured, killed”. We walk past landmarks and hear survivor stories, ‘rape leads to shame’, ‘witness to a killing’, I can’t listen to ‘loss of an infant’ and I miss The Killing Tree, where the children and babies were brutally murdered. We’re told to look at our feet and notice the red fabric of the Khmer Rouge and the broken bones and teeth of their victims. There’s a glass box of teeth and bones an the ‘magic tree’ where revolutionary music was pumped into the fields to hide the screams from the torture and the murders. It’s as awful as the film without the hope of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and the reunion of friends who survive against the odds. I’m glad I went but we don’t talk about it afterwards, it’s a lot to process.
I meet my friend’s husband for the first time, we eat Indonesian food and chat about where the “sophisticated cocktail” party went wrong. Neil and I go for drinks in an Irish bar where one man in tinted lensed specs offends a room with slurry abuse, we counteract the Robin Thicke video of Blurred Lines with the feminist version through the YouTube juke box. We drink Jameson’s and talk about how hard/easy aspects of our lives are, friends we miss, the perks of living abroad and the sacrifices.
James has to travel with work, he gets the fear before he goes, mixed emotions. While he feels privileged to see the world he misses his family and he wants to be home with us, or travelling with us, but that’s not always possible. Without my family, in a bar in Cambodia, I know how he feels.
When I come home the children both have coughs. Each of them come into our room in the night to be comforted. Their neediness allows my feelings of missing them to be condensed and I take and receive a big love hit.
I distract Abe from his heavy nose-bleed with tales of how Neil and Farouk found a kitten in the gutter on Christmas day, mangy and flea-ridden, and how they took it in while people shouted to leave it to die, how they saved Kitty’s life and how she slept by my head every night after pouncing on my toes. He loved the tale, I repeated it until he fell asleep. Abe wants to come with me next time and I want us all to go back. I have more business with Cambodia, I’ve barely scratched the surface.
When I come home, Neil writes on my Facebook wall “here’s to mum’s who travel”. I love him for that. I have a search on google for female explorers with children and I don’t find any, they must exist surely? Maybe it doesn’t seem relevant that women who explore have children, it seems very relevant to me.
I think people who leave their home and travel alone are brave. I love that Ameila Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, that Kate Adie reported news from war torn countries, that Judith Chalmers presented the holiday programme – the only one with kids amongst the aforementioned.
I got drunk in Cambodia with an old friend, which hardly makes me intrepid but it did take some self-kicking-up-the-arse, a supportive family and 100 GBP – I know not everyone has these things. My trip has taught me lessons I’m still absorbing.
I want my children to think it’s the norm to travel, for us all to visit places together, or that mum and dad sometimes go off and experience adventures. I’d like them to think that stepping out of the home environment is good, and when they’re older, if they’re ever parents, they can do it too. I want them to see the world.