Bending to local customs in Cambodia
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: email@example.com. 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.