Brilliant moments in time in the Orient
So much to see, but nothing is better than the Cambodian people themselves, writes Trent Dalton
THE first wonder of Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia can be found about a kilometre from the airport, well before the gates of glorious Angkor Wat.
It’s a shack on the airport road, an energy depot you might call it, where a local family man has harnessed the electricity of about 100 found car batteries to help charge the electronic appliances of passers-by.
That’s Siem Reap for you right there, where Third-world ingenuity butts up against ancient illumination.
The wonders never cease. Take your pick: the smiles of the kids dropping fishing lines into the Siem Reap river, hoping to jag a catfish for dinner; the thrill of watching 200 Cambodians do star jumps and sit-ups to the sound of Kenny Loggins’s Footloose in the public afternoon exercise sessions at the Cambodian People’s Party building; the stories of one-legged men on the street who survived the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge; the cut and thrust of the city’s lively markets, selling everything from fake Ray Bans to hand-woven Cambodian silks, stone and wood carvings, statues and castings, contemporary Cambodian art, handicrafts and traditional musical instruments, temple rubbings, silver betel containers, gems and basketry.
The background to it all is the city’s great official wonder, Angkor Wat, the heart-stopping, mouth-gaping 425sq km temple complex that takes a day to properly enjoy and a lifetime to properly investigate. Find yourself a good guide, one of those guys who will tell you the significance of every leg, every arm, every oddly bending appendage of every Hindu and Buddhist god – they both receive tribute here – whoever rained hope or terror on the hard-working, kind-hearted, beautiful Khmer people.
If you shield your eyes in places, blocking out the many curious Chinese tourists paying for portrait shots of themselves sitting atop a donkey in a wild west cowboy hat, you are transported back to the 9th century. If your imagination is really running wild, you could creep into one of hundreds of small empty rooms and believe for a moment you’re alone in this archeological wonderland and that you’ve just stumbled across it, like some intrepid explorer, or, better yet, Angelina Jolie, who, my guide tells me, ‘‘ dispatched some villains in Tomb Raider’’ in a temple down the road.
The extraordinary jungle temple is a must-see, where giant kapok trees with roots like octopus tentacles are swallowing it whole like some beastly kraken in a pirate’s sea shanty.
A good Angkor Wat temple guide will spend 10 minutes on a single sandstone wall, describing the great battles, the great tests, the great miracles depicted within the endless panels of stonework.
Then he’ll invite you back to his house for a traditional amok trey, fresh