by Harriet O'Brien from The Telegraph, August 28, 2017
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.
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-of-the-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 family. Accompanied by an English-speaking 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.
We would subsequently have free time in Phnom Penh, so we asked Cham what we should do. Most tourists, he said, go to Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields Museum to learn about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, but why not explore living Cambodia instead? So as he suggested, we later visited Champey Academy of Arts, which stages shows in the afternoons.
A non-profit school, it is helping to revive the country’s traditional arts by giving free tuition to young dancers, painters and musicians. We watched several engaging dances by 12-year-olds and called in on a rehearsal of a pinpeat orchestra complete with gongs and xylophones. Then we took a look next door at the glorious old monastery of Wat Sarawan. The head monk ushered us into its hall and in almost perfect English began a discussion about the correlation between mindfulness and Buddhism.
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).
It sounded idyllic, but proved poignant. The region was sapped by the Khmer Rouge and still suffers the legacy today, our guide, Dara, told us. From our rustic-chic hotel in fields near the eponymous town of Kampot he had taken us to see a 7th-century cave temple and a newly revived pepper plantation (spearheaded by a Belgian-French couple – entrepreneurial energy comes only from outside the area Dara said).
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.