Bril­liant mo­ments in time in the Ori­ent

So much to see, but noth­ing is bet­ter than the Cam­bo­dian peo­ple them­selves, writes Trent Dal­ton

Sunday Mail - Travel/Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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