Hidden Tracks of Cambodia20.08.19 | Robbie Sinclair
Oliver & Robbie tour Cambodia away from the crowds to hun out magical memories…
Written by Robbie, photographs by Oliver
As we descend through the clouds towards Siem Reap the sun is setting and an orange and pink glow bursts through the window onto the seat in front of me. I don’t know what to expect from Cambodia but I know that I’m excited. People often talk about Asia and they mention the usual places like Thailand and Japan; both of which I love but for some reason Cambodia has passed me by. I know next to nothing about the land that I am about to enter into, but I do know that it has a turbulent past. I am eager to learn more about Cambodia and as I look down at my itinerary for the next six days I’m keen to start as soon as I land.
Our driver picked us up and whisked us off to the Shinta Mani Angkor hotel (only 15 minutes from the airport). As we pulled up the street towards the building I knew I had made the right choice. A plethora of star shaped lanterns in glowing red adorned the tree lined street. The door was opened and we were greeted with a cold lemongrass infused towel and a beaming smile. I loved this hotel instantly, Bill Bensley’s quirky black and white striped theme ran throughout every floor and wall and I was blown away by his attention to detail. It’s easy to see why he is one of the world’s most renowned hotel designers. Bowls and vases are filled with water lillies that had been skillfully twisted and folded into pretty silhouettes in an origami fashion. The hotel manager tells me that they do their floral arrangements on site and points to a young woman in the corner. She sat amongst baskets of flora and fauna and I was hypnotised by her nimble fingers as she swiftly tucks and flicks water lily petals into shape.
We are guided passed an exhibition of figurative sculptures inspired by the hotel’s unique aesthetics. We walk by a statement, yet relaxing pool area and a stylised bar and head up the stairs to our suite. With only 18 rooms, Shinta Mani Angkor has a very exclusive feel and its staff are perfectly trained and warm.
After freshening up we take one of the hotel’s private tuk tuks (complete with black & white stripe design) from the hotel to have dinner at Viroth, an Asian restaurant with a great menu and a beautiful atmosphere. It’s a thrill to dine outside under the stars, the temperature was perfect. Viroth’s attentive staff served us a delicious feast which fused Thai, Vietnamese and local flavours catering for all palettes and of course, a few cocktails to go with it. After stuffing ourselves and feeling more than satisfied we meandered back to our quirky black and white oasis to get some shut eye before our busy day ahead.
A few pancakes, chicken fried rice (a traditional breakfast) and pastries later we are met by Sam, our guide for the next few days. He was everything we hoped for, cheery, warm hearted and full of knowledge. He handed us some cold bottled water and took us through our day’s adventure that he described as “Offbeat Angkor”. Our tour started at 8am, carefully scheduled to beat the crowds.
First up!… remote temples. After a 45 minute drive we are led up a path past a school of playing children and as we turn a corner I feel my jaw drop open at the sight in front of me. The 12th century Hindu temple is adorned with a crumbling carving of the Hindu God Shiva. In the years since its abandonment, nature has claimed back the land on which this historical masterpiece was built. Although the temples are protected by statues of Lions and seven headed serpents, they unfortunately were no match for the strangling fig vines and tree roots that have smashed their way through walls and doorways. Whilst this temple was in ruins, it is one of the most incredible sights that I’ve ever seen. As I climbed over huge sandstone blocks that had tumbled from the external walls many years ago, I felt like an explorer on the trail of Tomb Raiders’ Lara Croft or Indiana Jones… but I always did have a big imagination. Many archaeological sites around the world restrict access and no doubt in the future this may happen here, but for now at least, Sam had brought us to a spot where we could explore at our own free will. We were literally the only people there, just the two of us, our guide Sam and a few butterflies.
One thing I found interesting in Cambodia was the mix of Buddhist and Hindu elements in the same place. During the 13th Century when Buddhism started to take over from Hinduism, Buddhist temples were built on the land of Hindu temples. The Hindu temples and their iconography run through the heart of Cambodia and although over 90% of its inhabitants are Buddhist, its past is still respected, discussed and very much an important part of its current story.
After a spot of lunch we head to another unrestored 12th century monument. More seven headed serpents guided us towards the entrance and although there were a few more tourists here it was still very easy to walk around without hearing the click of cameras and the layered murmur of chatter of other onlookers. If the last place reminded me of Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones then the Chai Say Vibol, which was the original blueprint for Angkor Wat, served as a great introduction to explore this historic journey. As we wandered up ancient staircases and over walkways, Sam pointed out “easy to miss” carvings of dancing women that had fallen from the walls of this great site. The powerful vines and roots of huge trees have crept through the ruins and appear to have torn down some walls but also act as support for others. Nature and man-made seem to be at one here and it’s hard to imagine the two elements being apart.
These sights here were not alien to me, I had seen scenes of ruined temples, crumbled Hindu god statues and rickety walkways many times in movies. However seeing it for real seemed to play tricks on my brain and it took me some minutes to understand that this place was in fact very real. After almost burning out my camera with hundreds of photographs we head back to our hotel just in time for a quick shower before the obligatory cocktail.
Although the idea of waking up at 4.15am tomorrow makes me feel a little uneasy, by now I had no doubt that Sam’s early morning suggestion would be worth it. I knew we would see wonderful things so armed with my breakfast box, we jumped into the van with our guide Sam and our driver Jani!
Sam told us that we were on our way to a boat dock where we would speed through paddy fields and pass mangroves to watch the sunrise over the floodplain of the Tonle Sap Lake. The vehicle stops and we step out into the thick black night. The air is warm and the slice of a torch light appears in front of us cutting through the blindness, our boat captain has arrived to take us to our secret viewing platform. A lot of people I had spoken to about Cambodia had said that they really liked watching the sunrise but it was tarnished by the crowds of people at Angkor Wat.
Experiences like this, I think, should be intimate and calming, so I was pleased to have found something more bespoke and off the beaten track. We jump aboard a slim boat and as we whizz through the water we see the black night above us start to grow a little lighter. The twists and turns of the mangrove roots start to appear in the shadows with a warm orange backdrop that creeps from the surface. Sunrise was upon us.
After a few minutes we pull out onto a large stretch of lake. A structure sits in the middle of the water and I realise we really are the only people here. We disembark and climb to a platform as the sun starts its ascent. The stillness that surrounds us is like a picture postcard and I think about the overcrowded sunrise tours that people had told me about and smile.
A fishing boat appears from a channel in the floating fields and is silhouetted against the glowing early morning tones behind it. After many minutes of silence the sun slowly creeps up. Second by second the view in front of us changes. The growing sun casts purple and pink hues on the waters mirroring surface and as the sky grows lighter, more sights come into view. Fishing boats appear in the distance and birds fly overhead chatting away as the dawn of a new day breaks.
Our exclusive experience on tranquil waters had come to an end and we hopped on the boat and headed back down the track that we came in on. I’m astonished at the things I hadn’t previously spotted in the dark before the sun cast its light. A whole village was coming to life! Little houses sat on stilts six metres above ground. Children were brushing their teeth in the water whilst waiting for the school boat. Mothers sat on jetties washing newborn baby clothes whilst their husbands waved them goodbye as they headed to work on longboats. As we pass by a house a little girl of around five years old lifts both hands to her eyes pretending she has binoculars and looks my way, I do the same and we both wave a silent hello. I feel so lucky to have a glimpse into a life that is not my own and to share this ritual of getting ready for the day with a local village.
Sam’s timing is perfect! I can see that his many years of experience as a local guide is a huge benefit to me. He knows the area like the back of his hand and as he teaches me what he knows and guides me through paths he’s travelled many times before, I never get the sense that he is bored or going through the motions. He tells me the tales of Siem Reap’s history from his heart and his personal experience. He senses which parts I am more interested in and gives me just the right amount of time on each subject.
Once again we are in the cool climate of the car which is a welcome break from the rising heat. We are taken to another temple and as we pull up to the entrance I notice that we are just in time for the opening of the gates. Sam has a talent of avoiding large groups and the early start allows us to wander around and take pictures before any other tourists could crowd the shot.
Despite seeing many temples and historical monuments I am still hungry for more culture and excitement and what else could I finish with but Angkor Wat. One of the largest religious monuments, Angkor Wat is the main reason people travel far and wide to visit Cambodia. It’s even displayed on the national flag.
We arrive at the site late morning to avoid the early rush of tourists and as expected it is still very busy. However, Sam, with all of his knowledge takes us into Angkor Wat via an alternative, less busy entrance. As we enter the site I don’t even notice the other tourists around us, I’m just gobsmacked at the enormity of it all. At the beginning of the 12th century when it was originally constructed by King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat was a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu but when King Jayavarman VII came into power it slowly transformed into a Buddhist temple creating a rich mix of two strong religions.
As we walk through the busy corridors, Sam always seems to find a quiet corner or a quieter path for us to walk down. He talks us through the huge carved stories on the internal walls. Fish, horses, serpents, gods… there is so much to look at and the attention to detail is astounding. Many walls are unfinished and you can still see some of the sketches and marking out from the artists. We exit the monument and Sam gets us a fresh coconut to drink while we take some photographs. There is a perfect photo opportunity from one side of Angkor Wat that reflects the monument onto its surrounding waters.
As we walk away from this magnificent place I think of all of the wonderful things I have seen, and whilst Cambodia is full of beauty, it also has pain running through its veins. It would be ignorant not to mention its turbulent past. Spending two fascinating days with our guide and now friend Sam, we have learned so much. We learned about his own journey of being separated from his family at the age of five and that he would never see his father again. No photographs, no home videos, only a faint memory to remind him. We learned that he was forced to work 20 hour days in the rice field for the Khmer Rouge’s, surviving only on two small bowls of watery rice a day. We also learned that despite not finishing high school until he became a grown man and with all the odds stacked against him, Sam our guide was a truly remarkable man. He now speaks three languages and lives on to tell his story. He was one of the kindest people we have ever come across and we felt honoured to have met him. Sam’s story is not uncommon in Cambodia nor is his spirit. Despite the trauma of the past, the people of Cambodia are beautiful, kind, welcoming and warm.
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