Earlier this year, in the late summer February warmth, I was feeling a little bit down in the dumps. My next overseas trip was so far away (in September) and I would have a whole Melbourne winter to get through, so I started looking at what I might do in the meantime. One of the companies I subscribe to is Insider Journeys (formerly Travel Indochina), an Australian-based company that does tours of Asia.
Lo and behold, an email arrived that very morning with the news that if I booked any tours before the end of February (just one week later) I would get 20% off. Some quick research told me that April was the hottest month in South-East Asia, but between May and August it became rainy (and almost as hot), so April it had to be.
I started looking at tours in Vietnam, and the consultant told me that it was very popular and most tours were already booked out; one tour in the last week of April looked promising. I also wanted to see Cambodia so she found a tour that linked in time-wise. Before I knew it I was also asking her about Laos and Thailand!
By the time I was off the phone, I had tentative bookings for all four countries, beginning in Thailand, then travelling down the Mekong into Laos, with connecting flights from Laos to Cambodia and from Cambodia to Vietnam. I would be departing Melbourne on 3 April and arriving home on 3 May.
In my life, I have found that often the most spontaneous things I do are the most rewarding. South-East Asia had always held a fascination for me, but somehow I had never actually imagined myself travelling there. Making a snap decision meant that I was soon rushing around getting injections and buying hitherto unrequired (and generally unheard of) supplies of rehydrating sachets, Gastrostop and anti-cholera medication. Also on my shopping list was long-sleeved cotton shirts – apparently essential for this area, according to my doctor who had recently visited the area. I bought four, wore one once!
Unfortunately, the trip was marred a little. A few weeks prior to the departure date I was injured – weirdly, suddenly, in a swift movement to the right my leg gave way under me. I had an ‘athlete’s injury’ without actually having done anything athletic (hamstring and ITB for those who know anything about such things). My physio was quick to act, giving the leg a good massage, supplying me with fisiocrem (a wonder cream that I will take everywhere from now on!), and instructions for exercising while I was away.
I was nervous about going away, but also determined. I felt quite fragile and, for the first time in my life, did not trust my body to get me around. These kinds of injuries can take a while to heal (I am still only 90% better after five months of continuous intensive work). I figured I might as well go, I could come home any time I liked, or if it all got too hard.
Nonetheless, I did the trip, and it was wonderful, but I also learned how to manage doing things with a disability (fortunately, in this case, a temporary one), and developed a gratitude for my usual healthy state. There were things that were very challenging (like getting down onto a low boat and climbing impossible steps at the Buddhist temples in Bangkok on the first day of touring), and some were just annoying (like needing to find appropriate places to stop and exercise five times a day). Every time I had to get down a set of steps I asked someone if I could put my hand on their shoulder, and the tiredness I experienced from managing this injury meant that I declined some activities and allowed myself the luxury of simply sitting still in a wonderful place.
My leg did slowly improve over the month. During this time I found people were kind; I often wondered if they thought I was just unfit and was making excuses for not doing things (if only they knew how much I hated having to think twice about going up a tower or doing a long walk). I began to understand how people with less obvious disabilities must feel when people say ‘you look fine to me’. I was reluctant to go too far away from my hotel on my own, as panic set in – what happens if I fall down and can’t get up in this strange place? This didn’t stop me completely, but it certainly did make me do less than I would have done normally.
What I learned most of all was about me, and about how being in almost constant pain had an effect on my personality. I was a different person on this trip to the one I usually am. Fortunately the people I was with didn’t know me as anything different, so to them I was probably just the fairly quiet person who went to bed early and who didn’t want to participate actively in everything. That’s OK, I’m fine with that. Pain is private, and it is just as emotional and psychological as it is physical. I’d love to do that entire trip again, with two good legs – but I doubt I will. It is an achievement of sorts, I suppose. It was certainly a learning experience that I will never forget.
I am glad to say that there were many other unforgettable experiences. Everyone should experience a sunrise over Angkor Wat at least once in their lifetime. Standing still, silently, on my own, forgetting that there were more than a hundred strangers around me, I showed my gratitude to the people who built this amazing place, to the civilisation that lived and worked here for their history and the vibrations they left, and to the other people who found it, hidden under the forest, hundreds of years later.
I was also grateful to experience what has become a whole community on Ha Long Bay. Looking past the magnificent rock formations and islands, there is a world of activity, from fishing boats to snack food sellers that makes this place thoroughly unique.