UN­SPOILT CAM­BO­DIA

An in­tro­duc­tion to the coun­try’s lesser-known sights

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - TRAVEL - By HAR­RIET O’BRIEN

Storm clouds were gath­er­ing over Angkor Wat. The tem­ple looked eerily ma­jes­tic, its five great tow­ers spec­tac­u­larly off­set by a leaden sky. With palm trees sway­ing omi­nously around its base it seemed more brood­ing pres­ence than build­ing. Stand­ing by the main en­trance, I gazed spell­bound as the heav­ens opened.

Angkor Wat is Cam­bo­dia’s go-to em­blem; im­ages of the tem­ple are ubiq­ui­tous. But even the mood­i­est of pho­tographs had not pre­pared me for the real thing. The world’s big­gest re­li­gious struc­ture, the tem­ple cov­ers 500 acres, mak­ing it nearly five times larger than the Vat­i­can.

Yet it is sur­pris­ingly in­ti­mate, with cor­ri­dors of finely worked bas-re­liefs carved in the 12th and 16th cen­turies — vi­sions of heaven and hell, bat­tle scenes with ele­phants, a rhino and more. And then there’s the build­ing ma­te­rial, a type of sand­stone that ex­udes light with com­pelling ef­fect. I joined a throng of vis­i­tors surg­ing to­wards the tem­ple through the rain. Al­most as one, we stopped abruptly as we reached the in­ner walls, un­nerved by the grandeur and the por­ten­tous at­mos­phere.

What an over­ture. I had wanted to visit Cam­bo­dia for a long time. I was largely brought up in Asia and as a child in the Seven­ties I was mes­merised by sto­ries that In­dian, Burmese, Thai and In­done­sian friends told me, of the gem­like love­li­ness of the coun­try and then, of course, hor­ri­fied by re­ports of the mur­der­ous rule of the Kh­mer Rouge.

More than 30 years af­ter that regime was ousted, had the lit­tle na­tion been able to re­turn to its idyl­lic state of for­mer years? I wanted to get more of an in­side per­spec­tive than many tours and even in­de­pen­dent trips of­fer, so was pleased to come across Rick­shaw Travel, which last year added Cam­bo­dia to its des­ti­na­tions.

The com­pany em­pha­sises “real” travel and ro­bust in­sight, its USP be­ing that cus­tomers build their own itin­er­ar­ies from a choice of short, mostly ad­ven­tur­ous, trips of two or so days that it has de­vised in each of its des­ti­na­tions. You might, for ex­am­ple, opt to travel from ma­jor land­marks to pic­turesque ar­eas known prin­ci­pally to lo­cals; you might jux­ta­pose ho­tel com­fort with a night or two with a lo­cal fam­ily. With my sis­ter as spir­ited trav­el­ling com­pan­ion, I was trav­el­ling north to south from an­cient won­ders to quiet coast.

A cul­tural tour

Un­til about five years ago, most tourists to Cam­bo­dia came only to see Angkor Wat and some of the hun­dreds of other tem­ples in the great Angkor com­plex. Now there’s in­creas­ing in­ter­est in what else the coun­try of­fers. Gov­ern­ment fig­ures for last year sug­gest that, of the five mil­lion for­eign vis­i­tors ar­riv­ing over the 12-month pe­riod, half made a bee­line to the Angkor sites only, the oth­ers trav­elled more broadly to in­clude the cap­i­tal, Ph­nom Penh, the coast and sev­eral ru­ral ar­eas.

We hit the high notes first. From a stylish lit­tle ho­tel in Cam­bo­dia’s sec­ond city, Siem Reap, we ex­plored Angkor, mar­vel­ling not only at Angkor Wat but also at a mind-blow­ing Bayon tem­ple, en­dowed with more than 200 gi­gan­tic faces of Aval­okitesh­vara bod­hisattva — a Bud­dhist fig­ure em­a­nat­ing com­pas­sion. We vis­ited Ta Prohm, a 12th-cen­tury tem­ple en­gulfed by veg­e­ta­tion, and we went to smaller sites where we were the only vis­i­tors; at Bak­sei Chamkrong, a serene 10th-cen­tury Hindu tem­ple, we felt a world apart from the razzmatazz of the large, cel­e­brated land­marks.

We took in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, too. Acro­bat­ics are staged nightly by the re­mark­able Phare cir­cus, run by a char­ity that res­cues street chil­dren and trains many of them in the per­form­ing arts. Our show was edge-ofthe-seat stuff partly be­cause of the soar­ing feats, partly be­cause there was a wob­ble here, a jug­gling ball dropped there, raw de­tails that brought home how dif­fi­cult many of the acts are. The char­ity was set up by nine for­mer Cam­bo­dian refugees who fled to Thai­land in the 1970s to es­cape the bru­tal rule of the Kh­mer Rouge and who re­turned af­ter its fall in 1979, de­ter­mined to help re­build their coun­try.

Our driver took up the topic of the Kh­mer Rouge the next morn­ing. Cam­bo­dia is still so wounded by their cru­elty, he told us, it will take sev­eral more gen­er­a­tions be­fore the coun­try re­cov­ers. Like many other young Cam­bo­di­ans we met, he seemed al­most a trauma vic­tim him­self as he talked about how his par­ents and grand­par­ents had suf­fered. He was so im­pas­sioned he nearly missed our fi­nal turn­ing.

We were head­ing to Tonle Sap, the largest lake in south-east Asia. At its north-west end, an area of float­ing com­mu­ni­ties and vil­lages on stilts has be­come a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for day trips from Siem Reap. We, how­ever, were stay­ing over with a

CHINA DAILY

fam­ily. Ac­com­pa­nied by an English­s­peak­ing guide, we boarded a boat and about 45 min­utes later clam­bered up a rick­ety stair­way to our home­s­tay at Kam­pong Kh­leang. Chivan, our host, and Chan­tha, his wife, wel­comed us to the largest house in the vil­lage.

The ex­pe­ri­ence was as in­ter­est­ing as it was awk­ward. We oc­cu­pied the only bed­room; our guide and three gen­er­a­tions of the fam­ily slept on the wide ve­randa, which oth­er­wise func­tioned as a gen­eral liv­ing area. Meals were mag­icked from a cu­bi­cle with a gas ring and chop­ping boards on the floor. We tried to help — with Hun, our guide, trans­lat­ing — and proved in­ept even at rolling spring rolls, our hosts po­litely smil­ing all the while.

Mostly we sat on the ve­randa watch­ing the wa­ter world on the doorstep and chat­ting to Chivan, with Hun in­ter­pret­ing. We learnt about the pun­ish­ingly tough life of his wife’s fish­ing fam­ily and about his busi­ness in­ter­est in a new crocodile farm nearby. Did we want to see it? Well of course. So off we went in a boat to gaze at a well-se­cured tank where the eyes of 12 huge and thug­gish rep­tiles gazed out of muddy wa­ter. On we went to watch sun­set over the lake, beers in hand, then re­turn­ing for sup­per of snake­head fish soup and more. We were up the next morn­ing at 5am to join fish­er­men on the lake and watch cor­morants in the pink of the dawn.

Next up was ap­peal­ingly low-rise Ph­nom Penh, where we en­joyed the charms of a bou­tique ho­tel and a food-fo­cused tour of the cap­i­tal. To start, Cham, our young guide, took us to Wat Ph­nom, the city’s sem­i­nal tem­ple, which was brim­ming with pil­grims who had come to make lucky food of­fer­ings (a suck­ling pig, eggs and more). Feel­ing peck­ish, we pressed on to Cen­tral Mar­ket, where we sam­pled a chal­leng­ing ar­ray of fried in­sects, which are pop­u­lar snacks in Cam­bo­dia. These looked more daunt­ing than they tasted. Silk­worms were chewy, bee­tles crunchy, crick­ets crisp (and our favourite) and taran­tu­las well spiced — we shied away from eat­ing a whole spi­der and nib­bled on the legs in­stead. We moved on to taste a va­ri­ety of rice cake pack­ages wrapped in leaves and var­i­ously cooked with beans and ba­nanas.

Eye-pop­pingly lush

Phi­los­o­phy to farm­land, the next morn­ing we trav­elled three hours south to Kam­pot Prov­ince. It’s the up-and-com­ing tourist des­ti­na­tion, I’d been told. It is fringed by a calm coast, its limestone land­scape has in­trigu­ing caves con­tain­ing hid­den tem­ples, and it is eye-pop­pingly lush. Ev­ery­thing grows here; rice, durian, turmeric and par­tic­u­larly pep­per (dur­ing the era of French rule no self-re­spect­ing Parisian restau­rant would be with­out Kam­pot pep­per).

We moved on to the sea­side town of Kep. In French colo­nial days it was a sort of mini Nice, lined with glam­orous art deco vil­las. To­day those build­ings are derelict, some sport­ing graf­fiti, some with bul­let holes vis­i­ble. Dara told us how the gov­ern­ment has been try­ing to re­de­velop tourism here, im­port­ing sand for the beach and wi­den­ing the ap­proach road. We stopped at Kep’s large fish mar­ket and then wan­dered dis­con­so­lately along its seafront, de­serted save for a band of men­ac­ing mon­keys. As we drove back to our ho­tel, the sun was set­ting and the rosy light lent the rice fields an ethe­real qual­ity. It was heart­break­ingly beau­ti­ful.

YAN ZHIHONG / FOR CHINA DAILY

Angkor Wat is Cam­bo­dia’s go-to em­blem. Im­ages of the tem­ple are ubiq­ui­tous.

KHEM SOVANNARA / FOR CHINA DAILY

Cam­bo­dian vil­lagers ride buf­faloes through the street dur­ing the Pchum Ben fes­ti­val.

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