A shattered leg, not a shattered spirit: The story of a man’s journey through Cambodia

Kayaking in Vang Vieng, Laos. (Emilio Arca's Photo)

Kayaking in Vang Vieng, Laos. (Emilio Arca’s Photo)

Emilio Arca, 22, spent the afternoon sipping Angkor beer, embracing the evitable rain showers of the northern Cambodian climate. He remembers that day in Kampot, all the blood, sweat and fear. The memories flowing out of him like the Mekong River, describing the sudden shock that went through his body as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Blood seemed to drain from his forehead all the way down to his left big toe, which looked as it if had come into contact with a meat tenderizer. He saw his reflection in this large piece of glistening, jagged glass that was deep within his calf muscle. Everything went black after that.

Cambodia is a top pick for many travelers seeking a cheap, rugged, care-free backpacker experience. The ancient city of Angkor Wat enables foreigners to take a step back in time while visiting well-preserved temples intertwined among thousand-year-old trees and rivers once overseen by the monastery. The trees are overgrown and many have placed roots into the temples of kings, almost as if mother nature is taking back what is hers.

“I never made it to see Angkor Wat. It still has a prominent place on my bucket list, so I guess I’ll just have to go back,” Arca said.

Prior to booking a one-way flight to the land of the most delicious, all-you-can-eat spring rolls, Arca dedicated long hours to the Albertan oil industry where he worked as a rigger. As soon as work got slow enough that lay-offs were in the foreseeable future, Arca packed his most-needed possessions, his well-used hiking boots and a 60-litre trekking backpack. His Facebook status read, “See you in three months Canada.”

It rained for most of the day, every day, in Kampot. With the temperatures of Cambodia pushing almost 50 degrees, rain was a gift from the gods. Arca slept for a few hours in the hammock that day. The daily rain storm brought gusts of wind which rocked the hammock back and forth like a baby’s bassinette. The rainy season provided a free form of meditation.

Later that evening, when a World Cup soccer match had ended, Arca and his friends, a 20-something Latvian bunkmate and an Irish lad he had reconnected after a motorcycle fiasco in Vietnam, ventured into the downtown streets of Kampot in search of the Mad Monkey hostel. The walk reminded him of his very first night in Vietnam, when the scariest challenge was the ability to cross the street, weaving between taxicabs and honking motorbikes. Now, he wandered the streets of Cambodia a month and a half later, drunk, without a care in the world.

As they wandered without a purpose or reason, the night quickly became cloudy. The rain had subsided but the wind blew heavily, bringing a chill to the three musketeers who had left their hostel in nothing more than beach shorts and neon flip-flops.

As Arca ventured off the main street, he came to the edge of a creepy, dark, open road. He felt as if he had become a character from some corny Hollywood horror film. Not knowing what was lurking behind him, he continued into the black abyss until he reached a dull light hovering above a gated entrance at the end of the poorly paved road.

Mad Monkey was Lonely Planet’s #1 hostel in Kampot in 2014. It was four storeys tall, a modern white building that had a gigantic pool and a beach-styled bar out back. Above the bartenders’ heads was a giant chalkboard where there was a tally of every country from which someone had drank a glass of the hostel’s special concoction: an ounce of absinthe, an ounce of some nasty liqueur and a swig of Red Bull to help with the aftertaste.

Arca glanced up at that chalkboard and saw that the United States had a tally of nine while Canada had only six points. He just had to beat the states. Bartenders threw around high fives as backpackers downed their drinks. He almost puked after taking four shots to bring Canada’s total to 10.

“There was something about erasing that number and writing my own on the board that made it all worthwhile,” he said. “It was a sense of camaraderie.”

Intoxicated, Arca hopped off his bar stool as gracefully as a baby giraffe learning to walk for the first time. He needed to pee so badly it felt like a dam was about to collapse and a waterfall pour out of his crotch. “It was the Hoover Dam of all pisses,” said Arca.

It was pitch black. The only light he could see was the glow of tiki torches that cast a shadow on the walls ahead of him. His shoes were as wet as a drowned rat as he carried them in his hands. The walls eventually lead to an open doorway, or so he thought.

It all happened so fast. His hands came into contact with an invisible glass door. As the force of his weight pressed against it, it cracked and came smashing down onto the tile floor. It was earth shattering. Disoriented from the shock, he stumbled through the door-frame and fell against a wall, sliding down into the piles of shattered glass scattered on the floor.

He glanced at his injured leg. It was so covered in blood it looked as if a wild animal had mistaken him for dinner.

There was a foot-long piece of jagged glass sticking out of his calf muscle just below his kneecap. He grabbed it and pulled hard, thinking there was a chance it wasn’t that deep. The pain was as excruciating. Blood began to squirt out of him like a fire hydrant gone haywire. His eyesight blurred slowly until it went black.

He awoke staring into the eyes of Kampot’s local doctor, who had been woken up for the emergency. He started cutting the remaining chunks of embedded glass scattered across Arca’s leg, head and toe. His task was to stop the spread of infection by bandaging up all the affected regions.

“I didn’t get any atheistic, so I felt everything and none of the locals at the clinic spoke any English which wasn’t very reassuring,” Arca said.

He focused on the ceiling. The filthy white tiles distracted him from the pain of his wounds being stitched up and immersed in iodine. The stitching felt as If he had just been branded by the devil. “Goodbye leg,” he thought.

Arca has no problem showing off his gruesome scars as if they were his winning lottery ticket. His scars are now conversation starters that allow him to tell his story of a relentless journey backpacking in a distant third world.

His message to future thrillseekers is to never underestimate the importance of having travel insurance. “That’s the only reason I’m not in prison right now. Surgery wasn’t cheap,” he said.

His leg and his spirit have healed together. His thirst for travel remains unquenched even though his life is once again settled with a local construction job and a girlfriend who appreciates his adrenaline-seeking personality. He craves every adventure that will be hiding around the next bend.

The memories will never leave him. When he closes his eyes he can still taste that last sip of Angkor beer and hear the trickling sound of the Cambodian rain showers.


Alex Wilks is a fourth year journalism student attending Kwantlen Polytechnic University. She is an avid traveler and world explorer and focuses her writing on human interest pieces. She is currently working as a contributor to Peace Arch News, a community paper residing in South-Surrey, White Rock.

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