I’m married, but never went on honeymoon. We had a three-month old son when my wife and got hitched, and since then haven’t been able to squeeze in said event. What I’m eternally grateful for, however, is that we visited Sri Lanka once upon a merry time.

We did so in September 2011. Having just come off a solo odyssey to western China, I needed a break, so she and I caught an Air Asia flight from Taipei to its capital city, Colombo.

Welcome to Sri Lanka!

Bandaranaike International Airport was relatively hassle-free, and once spat out to deal with humidity and smiley humans, we caught a bus to Colombo Fort Railway Station. I’d traveled the subcontinent before, so the enthusiastic bus driver’s speeding didn’t scare me. My wife (who was my girlfriend then), however, undoubtedly turned a paler shade over that half-hour trip.

Get on the bus, man!

A classic example of Victorian-style architecture, Colombo Fort Railway Station was a veritable hive of activity. Its interior reminded me of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus in Mumbai, albeit smaller in scope. English was widely spoken, and we used it to organize our travel arrangements. Between all the people and accordant noise, the thing that really caught my eye was the beautiful Sinhalese signage around us, its words reading like the dreamy declarations of poetic doves.

Piling on for the ride

We entrained to Mount Lavinia, a southern suburb of Colombo. I’m a Third-World traveler, which means I usually go for the cheapest, most culturally-authentic accommodation, but my girlfriend insisted we get a comfortable room for our first night. From the moment we arrived at its quaint, end-of-the-world railway station, I fell in love with the area, it blessed with a lushness (and accordant sleepiness) that had time melt away as we navigated its streets towards our hotel.

Mount Lavinia Railway Station

After enjoying twin welcoming Gin-and-Tonics, we put on our bathing suits and left the hotel for the beach. Crossing over the train tracks towards a bed of golden sand, Sri Lanka suddenly sprang to life, the lively beachside scene punctuated by smiley families, balloon-and-kite vendors, as well as pockets of locals playing cricket. Along with smatterings of sunglassed tourists, everyone seemed enthralled, and as the afternoon waves cooled my skin and the Colombo skyline glistened in the distance, I knew we were in for a good ten days ahead.

Welcome to the beach!

I suffered that first night, though. Caught up in my enthusiasm of the new, I ordered a spicy curry for dinner that was way beyond my digestive range. If anything, it was a good reminder to always be mindful of one’s culinary choices when traveling abroad. Healed up the next day, we returned to Colombo Fort Railway Station and bought tickets to Kandy, the revered Sri Lankan holy city set in the middle of the island.

Sri Lanka’s second-largest city was warm, but its heat was offset by a lively vibe as well as the location’s natural beauty. Passing by the splendid Bogambara Lake, our Tuk-Tuk driver delivered us to the Pink House, which was to be our home while in Kandy. A traveler’s institution, this centuries-old guesthouse was materially threadbare yet heavy on charm, it as ‘authentic’ a Sri Lankan home as I could envisage.

Pretty girl in Kandy!

Following wine with other Pink House guests, we walked back to central Kandy. That evening passed by as a blur, its highlights including baked dinner treats, aggressive touts jostling for dime, Lion Beer, Paan, and a swarming mix of people. The next day, we trekked up to the Bahirawakanda Temple, a hill-set complex home to giant white Buddha statue easily visible from the valley-set city below. Our adventure was fascinating if not exhausting, the views on display bought at the price of sweat-drenched clothing. Back down in the valley later, we chose not to pay to see The Temple of the Tooth, we of the belief that the ‘foreigner price’ to see a tooth relic of the Lord Buddha wasn’t worth it. This proved fortuitous, as I later saved a Tuk-Tuk driver from choking on Paan, and also helped some college-age students buy alcohol from a bottle-store owner who’d otherwise rat them out to their parents.

The way is UP!

The next morning we bused to Dambulla, and then on to Sigiriya. Home to a rock-set citadel lording over a paradisiacal rainforest-like setting, this Sri Lankan Uluru-equivalent proved to be a major trip highlight. We paid our entrance dues, and ensconced by heat trekked up to its peak, catching sight of ancient wall frescoes and troops of playful monkeys along the way. The sight from its two hundred meter high summit was sublime, it as if I were simultaneously gazing over two-and-a-half Earths at once. I’ve never seen anything like it on my travels, that view imbued with a supernatural otherness I found scarcely believable.

The Lion Rock, Sigiriya

Next up was Nuwara Eliya. Following two bus transfers from Sigiriya, the road twisted up misty tea-laden hills towards the region’s busy commercial belly. The world was spookily-colored then, and this foreshadowed subsequent accommodation options, the first two of which resembled horror movie sets. An hour of walking later, we found a grand (yet cheap) place just outside of town, and in the chilly, high-altitude weather sipped Ceylon tea out on the balcony while breathing in fresh air and contemplating the tea-growing region’s secrets.

We did Nuwara Eliya by foot over the next couple days. Cricket, horses, and palatial accommodations were ubiquitous, as were smiley locals who consistently wanted to know why we’d come here. While this hill-station area didn’t touch my heart the same way other Sri Lankan travel spots did, I must say that it’s memorable, its topography and personality quite unlike anywhere we experienced while traveling the island country.

Morning tea with a view

Next up were the famous southern beaches. We took an early-morning bus to Colombo, and immediately transferred to a Galle-bound ride. Sri Lankan ‘highways’ are misnomers, and although we only traveled a couple hundred kilometers that day, we were in transit for nearly seven hours. When we did finally reach Galle, we hopped onto a motorcycle taxi and went to Unawatuna, a small, verdant coastal town home to one of Asia’s finest beaches. It was too late to lay eyes on her golden sands then, but the seafood pizza I ate at a nearby restaurant that evening was one of the finest culinary treats of my life.

Southern beaches

We woke up early the next day and strolled across the gorgeous beach. We needed something to lighten our moods, as we’d been kept awake by mosquitoes most of the night. Later, we changed accommodations to a beach-set elevated cabin, it double the price of anywhere we’d stayed at previously. Its view and amenities were top-class, but there were simply too many people around to enjoy the location’s undoubted beauty.

Groovy views

But due to this, we found Mirissa. Ah, beautiful Mirissa. We rented a scooter in Unawatuna and drove east along the coast. Every few meters our eyes fell upon glorious water-fronted views, and by the time we arrived at hole-in-the-wall Mirissa, I was more relaxed than I’d felt in months. My significant other used her bargaining skills to organize a discounted rate on a room adjacent to the beach, and we subsequently indulged in paradise for a few days. Think a quiet palm-fringed beach, gentle waves, sweet breezes, and all the time in the world. We loved Mirissa’s seafood, reveling in its simple charms, and becoming lost in her world-ending sunsets. Really, if there’s one place on Earth I’d be happy to return to year-in and year-out, Mirissa would be it.

Sunset in Mirissa

Alas, we had to return home. On the morning of our fourth Mirissa day, we traveled back to Galle and then Colombo, only to catch another bus to Negombo, a city adjacent to the airport. We got a room at the creaky Star Beach Hotel, and strolled along its adjoining beach for hours, enthusing over how lucky we’d been to have experienced this magical isle.

On the flight back to Taipei, I knew I’d marry the woman sat beside me. I knew this because we’d lived Sri Lanka together: had navigated its idiosyncrasies, gazed upon its wonders, and had breathed in its sweetly perfumed air… together. Yes, while our honeymoon still hasn’t materialized, we did Sri Lanka together, and that alone is an affirmation of love more honest than a poet’s dying words.

Sri Lanka, you’re awesome!

I traveled to Cambodia in the summer of 2009. I’d come from Japan, and was all about experiencing the opposite of the technological octopus I’d just visited.

My flight left Taipei at ten in the morning, and I arrived at Phnom Penh International four hours later. Images of the mighty brown Mekong River were still buzzing round my mind as I paid for a visa at Immigration before being spat out to face a mandala of remork-moto drivers wanting to shepherd me into the capital. I chose the driver with the gentlest face and mentioned a bus station. I knew very little of Cambodia, other than I wanted to get to a coastal destination, ASAP. Upon reaching a transport hub, a middle-aged French hobo accosted me for money. I counted off some local currency and entered the fan-cooled interior where I learned that Sihanoukville was the de facto venue for a seaside holiday.

The ride there was punctuated by flat, open landscapes, hundreds of Cambodian People’s Party banners lining the roadside, and a non-stop video roll featuring two local comedians. When I arrived four hours later, the sky was dusk-colored and I noticed a collage of bedraggled-looking foreigners about. I soon learned they were fronting hotel operations along the beach, and, after hearing that a night’s accommodation would set me back a whole two bucks, I jumped on their bandwagon.

Gorgeous Sihanoukville

I quickly realized why the room was so cheap – I’d just walked into a rave. I paid my dime, set my bag down in a shaky, plywood box, and walked out onto a music-pummeled beach. The golden sands were beset by young Caucasians, the majority being Australians intent on getting smashed. I ordered a beer and sat at table looking out over the Gulf of Thailand. I was soon joined by a local Khmer lady named Sandy. Following a sweet, eyelash-flitting introduction, she made no bones about being my girlfriend for the rest of my stay. I politely declined, but she was insistent, to the point that I stood up and went over to a table of five guys I knew would happily oblige her.

They were decent blokes, youngsters on a break from Uni. They were green, but that was fine – with them in tow, Sandy had other options of attack. One was all gung-ho about trying a Magic Mushroom shake, which I wished him well with. Night soon fell, and feeling somewhat idle, I mentioned I’d head over to a cluster of watering holes located at the beach’s northern shore. The group thought this to be a good idea, and tagged along. I called veto upon arriving at a cozy bar where a smoldering local beauty sat alone.

Her name was Serainian. It was her birthday, and the group stared wide-eyed as I bought her a drink and said sweet, sweet things. She wore a big, unaffected smile, locks of black hair that fell over strapless shoulders, and effused a warmth that both emboldened and charmed. Things grew suitably merry after my second Long Island Iced Tea, at which I suggested my beautiful cohort and I take a stroll along the beach. My acquaintances had by then found their own ‘niches’, and a collage of winks passed as I left holding Serainian’s hand.

I remember looking up at the sky from a deck chair later, the birthday girl snuggled in close. The moon was completely white then, and the stars about shone dreamily. Serainian was a sweet girl, she like so many young Khmers down-and-out on her luck. Her parents were dead, and she lived with her sister, who worked earning pittance at a nearby hotel. She wished to see the world, and even though she could’ve been fishing, we both knew it wouldn’t happen with me. It was simply her enthusiasm – dashed with doses of innocence and humility – that captivated me then.

“Moonlight drowns out all but the brightest stars.”― J.R.R. Tolkien

The loud music playing midnight tenure at my ‘hotel’ was completely out of sync with our flow, so Serainian and I walked to the beach side road. We somehow found a cottage for rent, and showered and washed each other’s bodies with timeless sensuality. We then lay on the bed and talked for hours, but took it no further. When we woke up the next day – a gentle breeze lifting white curtains into the light – I knew Cambodia was something special.

The days that followed were filled with sunshine, jungle, beaches, and Serainan. Armed with a motorcycle and unadulterated freedom, we rode, swam, slept, ate and loved, our days as beautiful as the long, luxurious dreams of night. Come my fourth day, I knew Sihanoukville was drawing to a close; Cambodia’s other treasures were calling out to me. I told Serainan of this, and she took it gracefully. Come time to board my bus, her beautiful smile had branded itself onto my heart.

The trip to Phnom Penh was bittersweet, the sky outside like a manifest-accompaniment to a strange melancholy creeping over my soul. Conversely, a part of me was buzzing, the wonder of not knowing doing some mind-curdling tricks. Upon reaching the capital, I got accosted by hotel touts, and hopped onto a motorcycle and rode through to a guesthouse located beside Beung Kak Lake, a Phnom Penh treasure that’d been sold to developers who intended to turn it into a luxury hotel-casino complex. The guesthouse owner and I discussed this sore point over some Angkor beers and prime smoke. I found it difficult to sleep that night, my thoughts consumed with how merciless humans can be.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

I had a week left in Cambodia, so I bought a bus ticket to Siem Reap in the north. The scenery on the way there wasn’t dissimilar to what I’d experienced going to Sihanoukville, it mostly open and flat, interspersed with wooden houses and political banners. Of noted interest was what they sold at rest stops: Khmers evidently consider spiders and crickets good protein snacks while embarking on overland trips!

I arrived at Siem Reap come 1pm, and it was baking. I picked out a humble remork-moto guy named Barang, and asked him of suitable local lodgings. He took me to a hotel with a jungle-fringed swimming pool where I swam and drank beer before taking a nap. At around three, I met Barang downstairs, and he drove me to Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s premier attraction. It was a holy sight, its immensity matched by a spiritual subtlety that intimated cosmic intervention. It wasn’t too busy then, the touristy legions possibly thwarted by moody rain clouds settling on the horizon. Any hint of inclement weather fortunately stayed away, which meant plenty of legroom to contemplate this terrestrial mind-melter. What registered most then was the pervasive silence about, it both entrancing as well as terrifying.  Any ambiguous feelings were eradicated when I walked over the bridge leading out of the complex, the view I encountered upon turning to face it one last time crowned by a rainbow arching over the structure’s ancient spires.

The spellbinding Angkor Wat

Not unlike Sihanoukville, the days that followed passed by in a glorious haze. Barang continued shuttling me around the insane reaches of Angkor, highlights of which included visits to the Bayon and Ta Prohm temples. While these were impressive, for me it was the simple realization that I was in Cambodia that proved the greatest treat, it a beguiling land that grew better each day. Nighttime proved equally anthropological, the coterie of people and experiences on Siem Reap’s streets like a crash-course in angels-and-demons. I was happy to leave when I finally did, that northern city a whirlpool of energies that can either harden or break you in double-quick time.

Back to Phnom Penh. The route into the city passed a sculpture of a gun with a tied nozzle. Ceasefire, yes, I thought. But at what price? I learned more after setting my bag down at the same guesthouse I’d stayed at previously. They arranged for a driver to take me out the city to the Killing Fields. It’s obviously not a place for a family picnic, and this was rammed home when an illogical, bone-piercing chill arrested me upon arrival. Death is literally sewn into the land there, this soul-straitjacketing graveyard guarded over by nothing less than a pagoda of skulls.

My last evening in Cambodia was spent with the guesthouse owner. Looking over Beung Kak Lake, the past, present and future swirled together from his lips to my heart. I couldn’t deny I’d been gifted a slice of heaven while in this glorious county, it offering a diamond of love in spite of its torturous past. It remains my favorite South-East Asian country, its rawness, honesty, pureness of people, and loopy magic more like an out-of-body experience than a travel destination.

Beautiful Cambodia