To lift our spirits after the tough visit to S21 prison and the killing fields, late in the evening we bumped and bounced in a tuk tuk over to a kickboxing match – a favourite sport in Cambodia.
This was set in a well organised arena complete with tv cameras and a live band playing background fighting music. A huge amount of gambling goes on with these fights and the crowd was packed full of passionate men yelling and shouting and spurring the boxers on. The winner, I think, is the person to either knock someone to the ground or have the most number of contact hits. It was less violent than I expected with a referee keeping the opponents under control and I was soon cheering for a fighter.
Our next destination was Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat – the famous Cambodia temples that were hidden for many years in the jungle. As we drove through the countryside this is what I wrote, hopefully it will give you a flavour of this unique landscape.
“Rivers, grassland, sugar palm trees, stilted houses made of brick and wood, white cows, water buffalo, dusty red dirt roads, road side stalls with colourful umbrellas, plants weighed down with red earth, bourganvilla, rice drying on the roads, lotus flower ponds, golden temples with dragons and snakes heads”
The road we took was the main highway between the capital and Siem Reap, but at times you could be mistaken. The terrain was often un-surfaced, very bumpy and filled with clouds of Cambodian snow – otherwise known as red dust. En-route we stopped to visit an amazing fishing village built on and in the river that leads to the huge Tonlesap lake.
This was something truely different to anything I had ever seen. I felt like I was being transported back in time. All of life was on display as our bus dodged dogs, chickens and children playing in the road. Tall wooden pole houses towered above us signalling what happens later in the year.
The whole area floods as Tonlesap lake, the largest freshwater lake in Asia, doubles in size and the water level rises by 10m. This happens when the Mekong river swells with melt water from the Himalayas.
We caught a boat out through more of the stilt houses and saw adults and children busy at work mending nets, catching fish, ploughing the river bank fields and swimming in the water. Our boat reached a floating fishing village of houses in the lake constructed on bamboo. These amazing constructions help the villagers to access fish quickly. The lake really is the life blood of the area and helps to feed 1.2 million people.
Our journey got us into Siem Reap just before dark ready for an early start to see Angkor wat at sunrise.
There was a sense of anticipation as we walked in complete darkness across an ancient stone bridge over inky black water and stepped through a large stone doorway into Ankor Wat temple complex. We could see nothing except shadows of stone and the ever growing crowds with cameras, selfie sticks and tablets gathering to get a snap of the rising sun reflected in the lake fronting the temple. The longer I stayed the more frustrated I got. I didn’t want to push and shove to get a space to see a decent view, so instead myself and one other lady walked away from the people and in to the temple itself.
This turned out to be a brilliant decision. The two of us had Ankor Wat and all its carved corridors, sanskrit writing and courtyards almost to ourselves, except for 2 young lads who were buddhist monks and had spent the night in the temple. It was for me, the most memorable experience. To walk in quiet and absorb the sense of the place without the thousands of people herded together outside was totally magical.
Another thing I will not forget in a hurry is our tour guide loosing 4 of his group which included me. In the rush to leave the temple we got split up in the crowds and we found ourselves abandoned. We waited at the entrance hoping he would return. This is when we discovered our form of “logical” thinking is not the same as his. After failed phone calls and desperation we decided just to start walking and hope.
This tactic worked and we discovered him waiting for us on a bridge where I felt both relief and annoyance for his poor planning and bad group management. Never mind, this is Asia, things don’t always go plan.
“Angkor” means capital city and “wat” means temple, and this amazing sandstone and lava feat of engineering built for the King orginally had around 1 million people living in near it from 800ad to 1300. The temple is a mix of astronomy based civil engineering, faith, fortune telling, superstition and stories. Its about marking the centre of the Universe.
Across Cambodia there are around 3-5000 temples. Each one different, several are still hidden by the jungle and unexploded landmines. Hinduism and Buddhism seem to merge and different figures from these two faiths appear in stone.
One of the temples we visited was built by the King for his sons wedding. They started the building when the son was born – now that’s forward planning! Originally it had rubies and emeralds stuck to every outer wall and was surrounded by water. The only way to arrive was by canoe. In my imagination this looked amazing. We also visited the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed and posed where Angelina Jolie burst out from the doors entwined with vines and tree roots.
Phare, a Cambodian-run circus is another fantastic night out. The circus emerged like a phoenix out of the destruction of the Khmer rouge. It was set up to keep Cambodian arts alive and provide young people with an education in the arts. The circus runs as a social enterprise, using the money from ticket sales to invest back in the training of several young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The theme was “ghosts”, which is a big feature of Cambodian culture. Many people believe in ghosts and are often scared to venture out alone in the dark. The performers were brilliant with talented acrobats and jugglers, often involving a great deal of risk and very good balance. Its a treat, not to be missed if you get the chance to visit Siem Reap.
Later in the evening I tried a flaming sambucca poured over a tower of glasses in the aptly named “Pub street”, followed by the most awesome game of “kick badminton” which is a favourite in Cambodia. We played in the street with waiters and passers by and massage girls who were bored. At one point a couple on a motorbike passed through and managed to kick the “shuttle cock” which went flying and missed the street bbq sellers grill by millimetres.
The next day was the long journey to Bangkok – I had to say goodbye to Cambodia, but I knew I would return in a few weeks.