Just standing and staring

Watching the social media posts pile up from this year’s wonderful BGTW AGM in Charleston, I have to admit to a twinge of regret. I should have been there with them, but this year, I’m here at home instead of experiencing those clean sandy beaches and spectacular sunsets with my colleagues.

Our hosted AGMs are always a great way to discover new destinations, catch up with old friends and make new ones, but this year’s tempting event clashed with a long-awaited special holiday – yes, the H-word! – with a turnaround too tight to contemplate for someone who rarely falls asleep on planes.

But there have been unexpected compensations. After our magical Significant Double Birthday trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, I find I’m relishing the chance to process the last two weeks at my leisure.

Asia-virgins, my husband and I travelled in style with Scenic between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, a combination of city stays and river cruise that delivered new experiences by the hour. And suddenly I’m glad I’m not immediately diluting them with another appealing but totally different destination.

Novice monks, Wat Hanchey

I love travel but sometimes we can travel too much. Freelance travel writers frequently push themselves to the limits to squeeze in that long weekend, find time for that ocean cruise, or say yes to that press trip with possibilities.

I have often driven through France staying in 10 different beds in 10 nights for multiple commissions. But as we write up one trip and then instantly focus on the next, we can lose sight of the fact that most people travel as a holiday. That H-word again.

Sa Dec market, southern Vietnam

Rural Cambodia proved a stark contrast to bustling Vietnam, the intense agriculture and commerce of the lower Mekong delta replaced with villages where entire families sleep in a one-bedroom house on stilts. Vietnam ranks 13th in the world’s most populous countries; Cambodia way down the scale in 68th.

Yet in centuries past, Cambodia was the beating heart of the vast Khmer Empire, which included Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. Today 50% of its population is under 22, the educated older generations wiped out by Pol Pot in the notorious Killing Fields of the late ‘70s.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

But at last there is hope again. Tourism is Cambodia’s fastest-growing industry and charitable organisations from across the world are moving in to support community projects and skills training, which in turn are supported by tour operators such as Scenic.

Phare Circus, Siam Reap

We enjoyed a high-octane performance by the Phare Circus at Siem Reap, which featured young performers from a school in Battambang that provides free public education and vocational arts training to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Early morning commuters, Kampong Cham

We were entertained on board ship by dancers from the Cambodia Student and Children Organisation; we visited the silk weaving workshops and tempting retail outlet of Angkor Artisans; and toured the Cheung Kok eco village near Kampong.

Cham where children rushed to hold our hands, walk with us, and practise their English.

Cheung Kok eco village

Throughout our trip, I was often reminded of a favourite school poem by Welsh poet W H Davies, published in 1911:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

Davies laments the way we rush through life without stopping to enjoy the natural world, the night sky, or the smile on a woman’s face, and his conclusion is as relevant today as it was a century ago:

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Loading winter melons, Wat Hanchey

So whilst I’ve really missed the camaraderie and the laughter of colleagues, the new sights and sounds of South Carolina, that’s what I’m doing. Just standing and staring. Looking back over a life-enhancing trip and locking the experience firmly in my mind before I pack that suitcase again.

Gillian Thornton
By: Gillian Thornton Freelance Writer, Photographer