Bend­ing to lo­cal cus­toms in Cam­bo­dia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - ANN CLOKE

It makes sense, if pos­si­ble, to visit coun­tries be­fore they are to­tally com­mer­cialised and over­run with tourists. To that ef­fect, we flew this time last year to Siem Reap in Cam­bo­dia. I know this coun­try has been “dis­cov­ered’’, but it still al­lows the imag­i­na­tion to run wild.

We step into a once-sa­cred crum­bling place, over­taken by Mother Na­ture; mould, mosses, reeds and great tree trunks thrust to the sky and push be­tween floors, walls, steps, pil­lars and tow­ers.

It looks fa­mil­iar and we could be on a movie set with the di­rec­tor yelling, “Ac­tion!” As we wan­der around Angkor Wat, we ab­sorb its mag­nif­i­cence and think per­haps we may be step­ping where An­gelina Jolie as Lara Croft Tomb Raider walked some years ago. The main city tem­ple boasts hun­dreds of stat­ues of Ap­sara, An­gel of the Gods and a beau­ti­ful lady. Sadly, many fig­ures have been des­e­crated, but it is still a spec­ta­cle.

A more sober­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is an ex­cur­sion to the “killing fields” out­side Ph­nom Penh, the cap­i­tal. More than two mil­lion peo­ple died dur­ing Pol Pot’s reign of ter­ror in the 1970s. Shrines filled with stacked skulls are set amid gar­dens and re­mind us of the hor­rors of war. Yet the gen­tle peo­ple, mainly Bud­dhist, go about their busi­ness with a sense of calm, pur­pose and for­give­ness.

Along the Mekong, the huge wa­ter­way that is the life­line of so many, we cruise through stun­ning coun­try­side, canals and float­ing vil­lages; thick jun­gle abuts neat rice pad­dies and fields, with rolling hills on the hori­zon. Chil­dren wave and shout “Hello!” as we pass in places where the river is so nar­row we feel we could touch the banks.

A Cam­bo­dian proverb says, “Ne­go­ti­ate a river by fol­low­ing its bends; en­ter a coun­try by fol­low­ing its cus­toms.” We visit fish farms and colour­ful mar­kets, bustling with ac­tiv­ity, every­thing hap­pen­ing at fever pitch, noisy and a lit­tle on the nose. I have fun try­ing to ex­plain to smil­ing traders — who of­fer every­thing from jack­fruit, co­conuts, salad greens, rich red toma­toes, ducks, fish, skinned rats and frogs to snails with or with­out shells, spi­ders and crickets — that I am “win­dow-shop­ping”. As a ges­ture, I buy a bunch of ba­nanas. I don’t think I’d sur­vive if I were stranded any­where too far from a restau­rant precinct, whether over­seas or in Aus­tralia, but it’s won­der­ful to wan­der else­where and em­brace the dif­fer­ence. Send your 400-word con­tri­bu­tion to Fol­low the Reader: travel@theaus­tralian.com.au. Colum­nists re­ceive a pack of Maine Beach prod­ucts cre­ated us­ing cer­ti­fied or­ganic ex­tra vir­gin olive oil from the McLaren Vale re­gion of South Aus­tralia; in­cludes Olive Oil Duo (hand and nail cream; body mousse) plus mini hand and nail cream and body wash. $84.90. More: cocco.com.au.

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