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What a Bumpy Bus Ride in Cambodia Taught Me about Leadership

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In 2012, I quite spontaneously decided to book a flight to Phnom Penh, the capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia in South East Asia, also known as the Pearl of Asia. The reactions of people close to me, as they heard about my upcoming trip, were quite astonished and anxious, with comments such as “How do you dare to travel so far away alone?”, and “What will you do there in the month of July, isn´t it a rainy month in that part of the world?”. The first leadership lessons I learned through my own actions, as well as through the reactions of people around me were: wow, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to travel, I am courageous enough to do so (on my own), and, I can listen to people around me yet I am the one who decides what to do with my life. 

I have to admit myself that traveling to Asia by myself for a month was something that made me feel very excited, especially after hearing the concerned comments of those closest to me. I do not even remember why I decided to go on the trip in the first place, but I guess it was the adventurer and explorer in me that needed to get away from the daily routines and to expand my knowledge about the world. It was not my first time in Asia, since I had traveled to Thailand many times; although never before alone. I had also read about Cambodia beforehand, and borrowed some travel books in my local library in Finland to plan my tour. I was going to tour around not only Cambodia, but also the neighboring countries Laos and Vietnam. The preparation also required a visit to the doctor who wrote me a prescription for malaria medication. Vaccinations against hepatitis and other diseases I already had from earlier trips. 

My anxiety vanished as soon as I arrived at the airport in Phnom Penh. Instantly, I met another woman, who had arrived with the same connecting flight from China. While waiting for our luggage, we started an interesting conversation. She told me that she had been in Nepal with her mother prior to her arrival in Phnom Penh. Since we were both heading in the same direction, we decided to share a taxi. Arriving at the hotel I had booked for the first two nights, everything was dark. It was about 2 a.m., so I had to ring a doorbell. I had informed the hotel staff about my late arrival, so it was no surprise for them. Soon after ringing the bell, someone came to open the door, checked me in, and gave me the key to my room. After a long journey, I slept very tight that night, and felt relieved as I woke up to the sunlight and tropical weather the next morning. 

After spending a day and another night in Phnom Penh, I took a local bus to Sihanoukville. There are no railways in Cambodia, so the only way of traveling from a place to another is either by bus or by taxi. Sihanoukville is a small town located in the very south of Cambodia, directly at the Gulf of Thailand. After two days of diving in the waters surrounding Sihanoukville, I left this backpackers paradise and headed towards Siem Reap. The local bus trip from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap was supposed to take eight hours, but the reality was very different. We left early in the morning, driving through Phnom Penh again, and from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. A few days before another tourist that I had met had told me about his travel experiences, and suggested that I under no circumstances would take the bus to Vientiane (Laos), due to the fact that the roads are very bumpy, and the number of mosquitos in the bus was everything but pleasant. I took his words seriously, especially when personally experiencing the bumpy bus trip from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. Despite of making acquaintance with interesting people during the bus ride, I was exhausted as we arrived in Siem Reap late that night. The bus ride had taken about 13 hours, instead of the eight hours indicated on the schedule, with most of the ride being extremely bumpy (the roads in Cambodia are not in excellent condition, at least not in 2012). At this point I realized that taking the bus from Siem Reap to Vientiane would take ages, and the only reasonable way to get there would be to fly directly from Siem Reap. This, however, is another story, or a continuation of the same story, perhaps to be told at a later point. 

On the way to Takeo/Siem Reap. Photo by Anne-Maria Yritys. 2012.

On the way to Takeo/Siem Reap. Photo by Anne-Maria Yritys. 2012.

The journey to Indochina, including the bumpy bus ride, taught me many things about myself, and about leadership:

  • If you never step out of your comfort zones, you will never grow as an individual/as a leader.  
  • To become a better leader, learn how to handle and respect yourself first.
  • Leadership is hard work. If you want to grow as a leader, you have to be prepared to “get your hands dirty”.
  • Whenever you meet new people remember, we all have a personal story to share. Instead of judging others, be compassionate and try to understand the other person.
  • Not everyone has to travel across the world to become a good leader, yet, seeing different countries and learning about other cultures is a learning experience, and great leaders never stop learning/growing! Traveling is an eye-opener. If you do not have the possibility to travel in “reality”, there are other ways of learning about different cultures, e.g. by reading and/or watching documentaries.
  • Pushing your personal boundaries will be worth the effort. Always do something to overcome your fears. However, never do anything that would harm you or anyone else!
  • Leadership is not only an external journey, but also a willingness to go inward, into your own mind, without fears. I met a local man on the bus ride, who had been a monk for some time before returning back to “normal” life. Hearing his story was fascinating. There are times for solitude. Never be afraid of being alone and tapping into your inner wisdom.
  • Great leaders are great listeners and observers.
  • Always be open for surprises and for changes. Planning is important, yet, the only thing that is constant is change. Do not fear change, instead, embrace it! It will make life much more pleasant for both you, and those around you. Great leaders are always willing to lead change.
  • Success is about overcoming your fears, and losing unnecessary boundaries. Leadership always requires some risk-taking and being capable of tapping into unknown territories. Brave leaders are both open and willing to expand their horizons.
  • You are never alone in this world, and the possibility of traveling is also a possibility of personal development, and growth. The more you know and understand about the world, different cultures, and people, the more abundant you become. I was surprised at noticing how many people travel alone in South East Asia. These countries are a paradise for backpackers, many of whom are very young and traveling even for months alone.
  • Always do some research before “jumping” into something. This applies to everything: business, relationships, traveling. Use your common sense, and learn from those with more experience. If there is no time for research, listen to your INTUITION. Your intuition will know what is the right thing to do. And, if you feel insecure about your intuition, do use ethical and moral codes before jumping into any conclusion/decision.
  • Always respect different people, and cultures, and be willing to adapt to local conditions.
  • Be grateful and thankful for all the experiences that life gives you. Hardships and obstacles are usually our best teachers.
  • Great leaders have patience. And if not, they exercise patience.
One of many temples in Siem Reap. Photo by Anne-Maria Yritys. 2012.

One of many temples in Siem Reap. Photo by Anne-Maria Yritys. 2012.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”

(Lao Tzu)

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