Running Away from Exhaustion in Cambodia

Throughout the whole of October my dreams were bizarre, lucid and persistently awful – the kind of dreams that cling throughout the day and result in emails to loved ones back home:

‘Mum…all good? Just checking because I had a dream last night that you put your head in a vice and started twisting it slowly shut whilst singing Dusty Springfield’s Windmills of your Mind’.

I burnt myself out during a six week stint of intense teaching hours whilst substituting a teacher.

Exhaustion crept into my skin and my bones and started dragging its itchy little claws into the back of my eyes.

There was not much difference between being awake in my lucid dreams or awake amongst the surreal images that reality presented last month: the King in the moon, seas of orange robes and clouds of incense, dragon boat processions and streets crowded with white-shirted mourners.

When I returned to school the morning after the death of King Norodom Sihanouk, students rushed to the gates to greet me with the news,

“Cha cha, you know about our King….he died!”

In the classroom my grade 6 students crammed my head with their melodramatic updates concerning the death of their nation’s hero…..

“You know, in China they wanted to remove his brain because he was so clever they wanted to use it. But they are not allowed because it is our King’s brain. His brain is Cambodian…..”

In the afternoon, classes were cancelled at the last minute so I changed into a white t-shirt and headed with friends to Independence Monument.

In the blistering heat that normally only mad dogs and adjai-carts would brave, old ladies crouched under the miniscule shade of the tiny trees that line the park near Independence Monument, small children found their spot standing on top of rubbish bins and school kids posed for photos and flirted.

It was almost easy to forget the reason why we were all gathered until 5.15 when the whoosh of an impossible silence fell through the crowds and took my breath away. I stood on tiptoes to watch the beautiful procession as the nation’s loss hung in the air.

That night I shouted at myself from inside my own disturbing dream to wake up and then spent the early hours sleeplessly waiting to get up and face another long day at work.

It wasn’t the first time I had felt this kind of exhaustion in Phnom Penn; about once a year here I have slipped into a sort of mental and physical fatigue that leads to nightmares, early morning insomnia and a grainy-eyed inability to focus on anything properly. Usually I just wait for it to pass or if possible take a break somewhere out of Phnom Penh, normally to a beach.

A few times I have tried yoga or meditation. I don’t mind a bit of yoga but the meditation I have tried has just resulted in me cursing my cluttered mind for refusing to become a sea of pure bliss when I ask it to.

My own way of clearing my head back home was to put my earphones in and take my dog for a long walk through the fields. As Phnom Penh is a little lacking in green space walking has been out of the equation whilst living here.

However, towards the end of October I started going out in the evening for a run and have discovered a new form of music on, feet moving satisfaction that managed to chase away my October exhaustion.

My friend and I signed up for the Angkor Wat half marathon without ever having run much more than a few school cross country circuits or sprints for a bus. I always saw it as a pretty idiotic thing to do in Phnom Penh where the humidity is sometimes so high that you blink sweat away from your eyelids in your sleep.

Actually, once we started running I found the ‘well if I am going to sweat I may as well sweat it out properly’ approach quite a welcome relief from trying to stay still to keep cool.

After the seven days of mourning ended and the gridlock subsided a little, my friend and I began our 10 km evening runs from Independence Monument to Titanic at the end of riverside and back to the park for a few laps. Although at first I pulled my trainers on somewhat reluctantly after a long day at work, I soon came to realise that once on the move I felt great and afterwards I felt a wonderful feeling of mental calm that would lead to a deep, dreamless slumber.

Away from insane traffic and relentlessly idiotic drivers it is satisfying to feel my feet moving steadily past kids and balloons, sellers and backpackers with my eyes on electrical storms across the river.

On Sunday morning I woke up at five and ran from Tuol Tumpoung to the end of riverside, four laps round Hun Sen Park and then back again. I was delighted to discover that not only am I capable of running this 17km stretch but that I actually enjoy it. It was beautiful running past the hordes of aerobic warriors and through the mass of pigeons in flight as the golden sunrise blasted everything.

Running makes me feel as if I have turned on a tap in my skull and washed the cobwebs and grit away. My nightmares and insomnia have been laid to rest and a few long runs a week is my new approach to keeping mind and body connected and the weariness at bay.

Anna Spencer

One thought on “Running Away from Exhaustion in Cambodia

  1. Vicky Reply

    This writing is so real and says it how it is. Another piece really enjoyed. Thanks Anna! Sounds as if her mother might be a little weird if Anna’s dreams are anything to go by!

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