I was ten days into my time in Cambodia when I found myself at the entrance to a dilapidated rural hospital, pleading for help.
In front of me, half a dozen girls in nurses uniforms dissolved into giggles.
“Doctor?” I repeated. “Please? It’s urgent. Is there a doctor? I need help.”
And still, they laughed. They were teenagers, after all, only excited that this random foreigner had showed up at their workplace, not understanding that I was sick and losing blood.
I stared at them with wide, desperate eyes, panic rising in my throat.
Darkness had fallen and things weren’t looking good for me. Everything online had told me that my symptoms meant that I needed to seek immediate medical attention.
I was starting to learn, however, that in this small Cambodian town, where everything was closed, nobody could understand me, and even the hospital didn’t have a doctor, there was nothing I could do.
There was nowhere I could go.
And there was nobody who could help.
My friends, I have no idea how to begin to describe the nightmare that was February 2022. It was one of the most challenging months of my life, and as I write this now, I sit in my parents’ house, waiting for the results of the first of numerous tests.
One month of travel.
Three hospital visits.
Four courses of antibiotics.
And a flight back to the U.K. in a fit of desperation.
How did everything fall apart so rapidly?
I kicked off February in Melbourne, preparing for the trip of a lifetime. I had nine months of adventures ahead of me, which would see me hopping from the beaches of Southeast Asia to the mountains of the Caucasus. I’d be walking a Camino in Spain. Sailing in Greece. Road-tripping across Cyprus.
And despite having 11 years of travel under my belt, suddenly, I’d forgotten how to pack.
I therefore spent days and weeks agonising over what to take with me and which backpacks to leave behind. I’d amassed an enormous amount of possessions over my nine months of living-but-not-really in Melbourne, but I couldn’t take all of it with me. Could I still hack it as a carry-on traveller, now that I was accustomed to living out of four separate backpacks?
Answer: nope. But at least I managed to whittle it down to one pack.
From Melbourne, we’d be flying into Cambodia, where I had just one goal: to not be harbouring COVID upon my arrival.
Cambodia is a fantastic place to travel to right now. Entry requirements are simple, requiring just a single rapid test at the airport. On top of that, tourist numbers are very low and there’s barely any COVID cases in the country (200 a day). Vaccination rates are sky-high, mask usage is mandatory — even outside — and life is lived outdoors, from the tuk-tuks and the scooters to the numerous open-air restaurants.
The only downside to travel in Cambodia? If you test positive upon arrival, you’re placed in a government quarantine camp for two weeks. And they’re a million times worse than you’re picturing them to be. Think: sleeping on a hard wooden bench without a mattress, in a dusty, dirty room that’s home to poisonous snakes and spiders.
Yes, there was absolutely no way that Dave and I would allow ourselves to test positive on arrival. And what that meant was that we were going to have to isolate.
We planned our goodbye parties long in advance, held outdoors and socially distanced, as we met with friends and family for picnics and drinks in leafy parks, sharing our excitement over our travel plans and our sadness to be leaving. We undoubtedly had the most incredible year of adventures planned, but we couldn’t deny that we’d built a pretty sweet life and community for ourselves in Melbourne.
Then, ten days before our flight, Dave and I shut ourselves up inside and hid away from the world. No leaving the house, regular rapid tests, and plenty of supplements to boost our immune systems.
Yeah, it was a pain in the ass to do. But we knew all of these dramatic steps would be worth it once we touched down in beautiful Cambodia and regained a sense of normality.
Travel in the age of COVID is the opposite of a pleasure, of course. This was my first real pandemic-era trip, and let me tell you: travel is nothing like it used to be. It’s stressful, frustrating, and expensive, but I knew it would be worth it in the end.
Melbourne’s Airport is best place to get PCR tests for travel, but the only downside is that you need to have it done seven hours before your flight!
It was a long wait at the airport, then, as we had our tests, received our negative results, and then wondered what on earth we were going to do with ourselves now. Around us, people were being turned away, either due to testing positive or through having arrived at the airport with not enough time to get their results, but our sole problem was an abundance of time.
We sat outside in the fresh air for the rest of the evening, chatting about our upcoming travel plans and our thoughts on finally reclaiming some normality. It’s no secret that Dave and I have been relatively insulated from the pandemic down in Oceania, so the thought of simply taking public transport, eating in restaurants every day, and setting out on tours was an odd one: we hadn’t done that since 2019!
Our overriding emotion was excitement rather than fear, however. Omicron had been mild for everybody we knew, so we no longer wanted to prioritise isolation and boredom above all else.
At this point in time, however, I knew Dave and I were still in the minority because typically-busy Changi Airport, in Singapore, was close to vacant. Our flights from Melbourne to Singapore to Phnom Penh were all but empty, too.
Despite the lack of travellers, it had still taken us over two hours to check-in to our flight at Melbourne Airport.
It was the definition of a clusterfuck as check-in staff struggled to keep on top of the thousands of different pieces of paperwork that each individual country required. For us, it was simply our vaccination certificates, our Cambodian visas, and our negative PCR tests. For the family in front of us, who were travelling to Nepal, it was what looked like an 11-page booklet of travel information; one each for all eight members of the family; where every page needed to be checked and validated over the phone.
Things grew more frustrating when we landed in Phnom Penh.
Despite our flight being the only one to have arrived that morning, we spent close to three hours in that hot airport, queueing to show our vaccination certificates, queueing to be stamped in, queueing to show our negative tests, queueing to get another COVID test, and then queuing to get our results.
To my alarm, the couple I’d been standing behind for the past hour tested positive, and I watched as they were quickly ushered away from the herd. The calm expressions on their faces indicated that they had no idea where they were about to end up.
As expected, Dave and I tested negative and suddenly, we were back in Southeast Asia, surrounded by tuk-tuks and street food and cracked pavement with sporadic gaping holes. I grinned when I smelt an open sewer. It was good to be back.
I’d only spent a couple of days in Phnom Penh before, so Dave and I allocated five days of our itinerary to explorations. It took only a few hours to uncover further COVID-related challenges, as we discovered many of the main attractions were taking advantage of the lack of tourists and had closed for restoration work. I’d researched a long list of restaurants and cafes to check out before we arrived, but a solid half of them were closed: whether they were permanent closures, I couldn’t tell, but all of them were still marked as open on Google Maps, so produced exasperated sighs when we’d walked for 20 minutes to get to them.
But there were advantages, too.
For the first time ever in Cambodia, I experienced no hassle at all. There wasn’t a single person begging on the streets; no half-dressed children roaming around with their hands outstretched. Nobody tried to sell me a thing. Nobody asked me if I needed a tuk-tuk! Instead, locals assumed we were expats rather than tourists, and left us in peace, smiling hello and never once hassling us. If you’ve been to Cambodia before, you’ll know how gob-smacking this is: pre-pandemic, you couldn’t walk for more than a few metres without being approached by somebody who wanted your money.
It was like being in a different country and I loved it.
I loved Phnom Penh just as much as I had been hoping to.
We spent our days lazing beside the pool, walking alongside the river, and eating as many local dishes as we could find. We discovered hipster cafes with beautiful smoothie bowls, high-end restaurants with experimental takes on Cambodian food, and beautiful rooftop gin bars with some of the best cocktails in town.
What made it even better was staying in an incredible hotel with a rooftop swimming pool and paying just $41 per night for the pleasure! It felt like such a dramatic price drop to arrive in Cambodia after spending two years in Australia and New Zealand!
We celebrated Valentine’s Day in Phnom Penh, and Dave treated me to a meal at Malis for the occasion. Often regarded as the best restaurant in the city, we were so impressed with the quality of the food. We went for the six-course tasting menu, so definitely received a ton of food for our money, but we also knew that we’d paid 80 cents for dinner the night before!
My highlight was the creme brûlée with Kampot peppers. So good! I also have to give a shout-out to the baked river goby fish, the presentation of which had Dave and I both diving for our cameras. It looked so weird!
It was just as we were about to leave Phnom Penh that I woke up feeling sketchy. At first, I was like: oh man, food poisoning already?! I popped an Imodium and we boarded a minivan to Kampot.
By the time we arrived, however, I was starting to feel worse. Dizzy, queasy, agitated, restless.
I left Dave to wander the town while I tried to sleep it off, calmly waiting out the sickness and cursing whatever it was that had put an abrupt halt to my explorations.
As the days passed, I only grew worse. We extended our stay in Kampot when I was unable to leave my room or eat, and I encouraged Dave to explore alone. I was disappointed I wouldn’t get to wander along Kampot’s riverside, take another scooter trip around Bokor Hill, or even re-sample the backpacker-famous ribs at the Rusty Keyhole, but sometimes these things happen when you travel.
A clinic prescribed me a course of broad-spectrum antibiotics and I was devastated to have to take them.
Several years ago, I went through a period where I was contracting a dozen infections a year, and those antibiotics, combined with a bout of cholera, had left my gut destroyed and fragile. I’d spent the past couple of years carefully rebuilding my microbiome and doing everything I could to prevent further infections. For three years, I’d been proudly antibiotic-free. And now this?
Most frustratingly of all, the antibiotics didn’t work. After three days, I was doing worse than ever — so I returned to the clinic and they prescribed me Cipro. And of course, if you know anything about fluoroquinolones and being “floxed”, you’re already cringing. The class of antibiotics are widely prescribed across tropical countries, but the side effects and risks of taking them are tremendous.
I’d sworn off taking Cipro years ago after learning about the risks, but this time, I was desperate to feel better. After all, I’d taken it half a dozen times before and never had side effects I should have listened to my gut because within a couple of days of taking it, I found myself with a tingling pain in my extremities. Everything I’ve seen online indicates it’s permanent nerve damage.
I was convinced I had COVID, but I took so many tests and all of them were negative.
I began having vivid, terrifying nightmares, in which my body started to turn gangrenous while Dave screamed at me that I was minutes from dying, but as I ran out into the streets to call an ambulance, my phone stopped working, and I began to lose consciousness. One night, I dreamt that I was lying in bed but when I looked down, my chest was covered in thousands of swarming maggots, eating away at my flesh and revealing my bones.
I developed insomnia from the antibiotics soon afterwards, struggling to get more than an hour’s sleep a night. I hadn’t eaten in over a week. And then, I began to start passing blood.
In Kep, I continued my tour of Cambodia’s guesthouses while Dave hit the beaches and explored the town by scooter. There was no point in having him stay inside and stare at me for days on end, so I urged him to head outside and enjoy himself.
The hospital situation I described at the start of this post is something that left me with a significant amount of trauma. To know that I was desperately unwell, terrified about the new symptoms I’d developed, but had no way of receiving any healthcare? It was frightening, for both me and Dave.
There was no doubt about it: we needed to cancel our travel plans.
Dave and I boarded a minivan to Phnom Penh, where I planned to head straight to the best hospital I could find. Venturing to the city meant cancelling our island-hopping along the coast, but I was in no state to travel even further from healthcare.
To my relief, I slowly began to recover after we arrived in town, and with a respite from the worst of my symptoms, I felt ready to travel again. Dave and I boarded a bus to Battambang to celebrate. Finally, I was going to visit a new destination in Cambodia!
Battambang was the highlight from my three weeks in Cambodia.
There, I began to slowly rebuild my strength, sipping on fruit smoothies, easing my way into eating food once more, and scootering through the beautiful countryside.
We spent two days exploring this part of the country, visiting caves and temples and viewpoints, and yes: I finally got to ride the touristy bamboo railway. It was so much fun!
Our final three days in Cambodia were dedicated to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor. We arranged our sunrise tuk-tuk through our guesthouse, then set about having an early night.
An hour later, Dave suddenly threw the covers from our bed.
“Oh no,” he muttered.
“What? What’s wrong?”
He sprinted across the room and proceeded to projectile vomit in the bathroom
“Oh no,” I murmured.
Minutes later, the illness hit me, too. It was the middle of the night, our tuk-tuk driver was coming to pick us up before 5 a.m. and we were no state to spend a day exploring beneath the hot, hot sun.
This was Dave’s first bout of Cambodian food poisoning, but by this stage, it was my third. It had been three weeks of near-continual sickness for me, so I was struggling to stay zen over it all. When we went to get our PCR tests for travelling to Thailand, I came so close to fainting that I lost my vision.
Eventually, our symptoms receded enough that we felt well enough to venture to Angkor.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from my third visit to the complex of temples, but when we pulled up to an empty-yet-enormous car park, I was taken aback. Inside, we were the only people buying tickets from the counters, and it felt as though we were visiting a little-known museum instead of one of the most famous archeological sites in the world.
Things only grew more impressive from there. At Angkor Wat, I was gobsmacked to discover we essentially had the entire place to ourselves, and as we ventured further afield, we barely saw another person all day.
I cannot stress how much my previous visits were impacted by the stress of battling with crowds of people, so to have the opportunity to sit in silence and admire the structures without anybody else around?
I felt like the luckiest person in the world.
(And then I got sick again.)
From Cambodia, I would travel into Thailand, develop a recurrence of symptoms, head out for another hospital visit, be prescribed another round of antibiotics, then find myself battling with insomnia and an inability to eat once more. I’d lost 15 lbs in three weeks, couldn’t swallow food without retching, and hadn’t slept properly in days. I couldn’t remember ever being this unwell before.
Quite frankly, I couldn’t take it anymore.
And so, it was time to get help.
It was time to leave Southeast Asia.
A Note on Ukraine
I want to keep this brief, as I know many of my readers suffer from anxiety and have likely spent the past couple of weeks doom-scrolling and spiralling. It is my aim with this site to provide respite, entertainment, and distraction without adding to sensations of panic and dread.
But it also felt wrong to not acknowledge the atrocities that are taking place in Ukraine. Beautiful, wonderful Ukraine, which is one of my favourite countries in Europe. I named Kyiv in my top ten favourite cities in Europe a couple of years ago and visiting Chernobyl still stands out to me as one of the most meaningful travel experiences of the past decade.
I have been horrified and devastated by what Putin is doing to this incredible country. Ukrainians are strong, brave, and inspirational, and do not deserve this. I’m hoping every day for an end to this deplorable invasion.
Countries visited: 1
Places visited: 7
Angkor, Battambang, Kampot, Kep, Melbourne, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap
Distance travelled: 5,080 miles
Number of flights: 2
Number of tuk-tuks: 14
Number of minivans: 7
Number of scooter rides: 1
Highlights of the Month
I adored Battambang. This was my first visit to Battambang and I couldn’t get over how wonderful this town is. I’d always skipped over it in the past because I’d expected it to be touristy and boring, with little to do but ride the bamboo railway. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
Dave and I spent a blissful two days out in the countryside on a scooter, exploring caves and temples and hunting down magnificent viewpoints. It was one of my favourite things I’ve ever done in Cambodia! I can’t wait to write about it in depth.
Angkor Wat without the crowds? Amazing! Angkor is amazing, no matter when and how you visit. But during the pandemic? It was absolutely incredible. In pre-pandemic times, Angkor was selling around 7,000 tickets a day. And right now? It’s 250 a day.
And so, when we entered Angkor Wat and could see maybe five other people? It was jaw-dropping! I’ve been to Angkor Wat a couple of times before, and it’s always been absolutely rammed with crowds. It made for a whole different experience to wander in peace and solitude.
And after leaving Angkor Wat? We saw around three people during the entire rest of the day! We had the Bayon and Ta Prohm entirely to ourselves! It was just unbelievable.
If you’re looking for somewhere to travel right now, Cambodia is a fantastic place to be.
I will say, though, that after three visits to Angkor, I think this will probably be my last one. I was definitely feeling templed-out by the end of our few days there! And plus, it’s never going to be better than it is right now. I think any future visits would be a disappointment.
The prices in Cambodia blew my mind! Spending the past nine months living out of Airbnbs in Melbourne has been an expensive endeavour. A simple, one-bedroom apartment with a balcony, a desk, and a sofa we both could sit on, in a decent neighbourhood? That’ll be 4,000 AUD[!] (3,000 USD) a month. Yes, really. That’s how much we’ve been averaging on accommodation over the past year. It was kind of bonkers how expensive Airbnb apartments were in this city — renting would have been half the price — especially considering that the places we stayed in were all kind of small and dark and poorly-equipped.
And so, arriving in Cambodia provided such a blessing to my bank balance. For $50 a night, we found ourselves staying in the best hotels in town, with rooftop infinity pools and high-end cocktail bars. On the streets, we ate for $1 a meal. The pandemic has affected prices, too. Dave and I returned to the PrimeFold Hotel in Siem Reap, seven years after we were last in town. In 2015, I paid $120 a night for our stay. Right now? Rooms are $40 a night! And it’s still as luxurious as ever.
It sure is nice to be saving money again!
Having Dave by my side: Whether it was walking around for hours in search of bananas because that was the only thing I could stomach eating or visiting doctors and clinics on my behalf, having Dave with me on this trip was the only reason I was able to stay sane. I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d had to deal with this on my own.
Lowlights of the Month
*Gestures*. Everything? My friends, February was one of the toughest months of my life. I’ve never had to cut short a trip due to illness before (even when I had cholera!), but this time, I believe I had no other option. Even Dave was urging me to fly to the U.K., I was that unwell. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t function. I’ve lost so much weight, you can see my ribs poking through my skin.
And the worst part of it all? Not having a home. Every day, I would battle with this urge to cut my losses and go home, before reminding myself that I didn’t have a home. Emotionally, it was a lot to deal with.
Now that I’m back in the U.K., I’m relieved to be able to start the process of finding out what’s wrong with me. Some kind of parasite or tropical disease?
Obliterating my health within three days of arriving in Cambodia. If you’ve followed Never Ending Footsteps for a decent amount of time, you’ll already know that I’m kind of a… sickly person. In my monthly summaries, I’m always writing about my health disasters, whether it’s contracting cholera in Borneo or landing myself with four infections in four weeks in Mexico. It sucked, yeah, but it was also fine. I had simply accepted that my body was my body and it wasn’t all that functional. You have to make the most of what you have. I lived my life to the fullest, regardless.
And then the pandemic happened.
For the following two years, I spent the entirety of my life in England, New Zealand, and Australia. There was no off-the-beaten-track travel to little-known countries. No annual visit to Southeast Asia. No adventures in Africa. No explorations of India.
And no sicknesses.
Over those two years, I healed. I was thriving, in fact. For the first time in a decade, I felt strong and healthy and well. I didn’t develop a single infection and was able to finally work on replenishing my microbiome. I experienced no bouts of food poisoning. No strange rashes or allergic reactions. I even had a full remission of my autoimmune condition and was pain-free for the entire pandemic.
I was therefore absolutely floored by how this trip to Cambodia broke me. To go from feeling like the strongest, healthiest, and best version of myself to an absolute mess of a human? Within the space of a single week? An eye infection. Daily hives from insect bites. Three bouts of food poisoning. Four courses of antibiotics. Permanent nerve damage from one of the antibiotics! A return of my eating disorder for the first time in eighteen years?!?!?!?!
What. The. Fuck.
I will never return to Cambodia again. This was my fourth visit to the country, and I’ve only now twigged that every time I’ve been, I’ve landed myself with an enormous amount of health problems and infections. I think this country and I simply don’t get along, as much as I do adore it. But beyond Cambodia?
I don’t know.
I know that I’m no longer willing to put up with a baseline level of sickness and disease in life, now that I know that there is an alternative. I also know that this site is my livelihood and I need to travel in order to earn money. I know that health is wealth. And I know that travelling through tropical countries is what makes me happiest. I also know that being in these countries is the cause of my poor health.
Was this simply a case of bad luck or a sign that I need to change my travel focus?
Skipping out on so much that I wanted to see in Cambodia. My month-long itinerary for Cambodia sounded incredible! Phnom Penh – Kampot – Kep – Koh Rong – Kratie – Battambang – Siem Reap. And… I got sick while I was still in Phnom Penh. Kampot and Kep were a washout for me, as I was too sick to leave my room. And then we skipped out on Koh Rong and Kratie because I needed to go to the hospital in Phnom Penh. I was feeling slightly better in Battambang and Siem Reap, until Dave and I developed violent food poisoning the day before we were due to head to Angkor.
I feel as though I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore Cambodia at a time when there were close to no tourists in the country. And I essentially saw nothing.
Kampot has changed: Kampot was a surprise. For the past decade, I’ve considered this to be my favourite place in Cambodia. Kampot used to be this sleepy, riverside town with a laidback vibe and beautiful buildings.
In recent years, however, the nearby seedy town of Sihanoukville has been demolished to make way for three thousand four hundred and twenty nine casinos. And the sexpats who used to call Sihanoukville home? They’ve made their way to Kampot.
It had such an odd vibe, guys. And all of the restaurants have been replaced with pizza joints. I swear, 90% of the restaurants in Kampot are serving pizza! And it was rammed with tourists, too — easily the busiest place we visited. So many creepy old Westerners with their local, teenage-looking girlfriends. I know I said I’d never return to Cambodia, but if I was to return, I’d steer clear of Kampot. It was unrecognisable from even five years ago. (Well, to Dave it was. I saw nothing.)
The good news is that the nearby village of Kep is fantastic! Kep is now what Kampot used to be, and I fell in love with its chill vibes, abundance of nature, and clean beaches.
So there you have it: skip Kampot; head straight to Kep instead.
Incidents of the Month
An Angelina Jolie near-miss. Imagine our surprise when Dave and I received the news alert. Angelina Jolie spotted wandering through Angkor Wat! We looked at each other with glee. We were in Siem Reap, three miles from Angkor! Maybe we’d see her!
A few days later, we travelled to Battambang and there was another news alert: Angelina was in Battambang! Not that I particularly cared, but it would have been cool to have stumbled upon her wandering through the streets or staying in our guesthouse! (Apparently, she was staying in a random $90 a night guesthouse while she was in town!)
The nightmare that was trying to get into Thailand: We thought it would be easy: we needed to book a night in a government-approved hotel for our first night in Thailand, we needed to apply for a Thailand Pass, we needed to get a COVID test 72 hours before flying, and we needed to get a Thai visa.
Our first problem was the hotel: we booked it through Booking, but it turns out that you can’t book a hotel and the required arrival PCR test through Booking — you can only book the PCR tests through Agoda. No mention of that anywhere. And the hotel reservation was non-refundable. So that was $40 down the drain.
Then, we received an email from the Thai consulate in London, asking for our travel itinerary from the U.K. to Thailand, and when we explained that we’d been stuck in Australia due to COVID-restrictions, we were told that we can only apply for a visa if we’re currently in the U.K. (which hasn’t been the case before). That was non-refundable, too, so that was another $40 down the drain.
Then, we applied for the Thailand Pass, but because Dave had booked the hotel we were staying in, the hotel staff didn’t know I was going to be staying there, so I very nearly had my application rejected.
As I said earlier: travel in the age of COVID is frustrating, stressful, and expensive. I’ve spent $500 on PCR tests so far and I’ve only been to two countries!
My Next Steps
This is a tough section to write, as I know exactly what I should have been doing. So as Dave sends me glorious beach photos while he island-hops across empty stretches of sand in Thailand, I can’t help but feel a deep sadness for how things have ended up.
Dave’s currently following my planned itinerary for us, as I saw no point in him returning to the U.K., too. A few days spent catching up with friends in Bangkok, then flying down to Krabi to check out Ao Nang and Railay for the first time. A month of island-hopping, leading from Krabi to Koh Yao Yai to Koh Phi Phi to Koh Lanta to Koh Mook. An opportunity to see Thailand at its very best, without the crowds and the chaos. It’ll never be like this again.
And as for me?
I’ll be in the U.K., staying at my parents’ house, undertaking medical test after medical test, fighting off jet lag, buying winter clothes, and hoping that Europe doesn’t devolve into nuclear war.
So it hasn’t been the greatest start to my nine months of travel. I regret travelling to Cambodia more than I can put into words, but of course, I did what I could with the information that I had. I couldn’t have predicted something like this.
Hopefully, I’ll soon be able to find out what ails me, get on my journey to wellness, and can pick things back up again in six weeks, when Dave is finished in Thailand. Then, it’ll be time to start the European portion of our travels, and surely that has to go more smoothly?