From Phnom Penh we caught the newest and shiniest bus service in Cambodia, the Giant Ibis, for the seven-hour journey north to Siem Reap. The number of lengthy bus journeys we’ve taken recently makes you thoroughly grateful for trains; since we left Mui Ne in Vietnam this was our third seven-hour trip, and even modern air-conditioned buses rarely have toilets on board. Cambodia, sadly, has no passenger rail infrastructure whatsoever, and although ‘national’ roads are paved, they’re often badly rutted, cracked, and either flooded or coated with dust from the constant undertaking by motorbikes and tuk-tuks. We arrived at Siem Reap and fell into bed for a lie-down gratefully.
Siem Reap is, of course, the town that has become a substantial and luxury resort due to its proximity to the legendary temples of Angkor. There are dozens of structures, in varying states of repair, which sprawl out over more than sixty kilometres, and the dedicated temple-explorer can spend more than a week poking about. We elected to hire a guide of our own rather than joining a group tour, and opted to spend two fairly busy days seeing some of the key sights, since even thousand-year-old temples can eventually lose their awe. Our guide, Ngang, was a slim, soft-spoken Khmer who couldn’t have been more than twenty-two; in between temples, he asked us shyly whether London was very different from Cambodia, and what was the most popular mobile phone there.
Ngang took us first to Angkor Thom, which is almost a small city in itself, with huge stone gates. From each gate the face of the Bodhisavatta Avakokitesh stares out tranquilly in all four directions, keeping an eye on the whole country. Between the temples are moats, stone statues and walkways, and the inevitable legacies of the twenty-first century; souvenir stands, cold drink and T-shirt hawkers, and begging children. You have to scramble up steep wooden steps to get to the top of many of the temples of Angkor Thom, and see the 216 coldly smiling faes of Avalokiteshvara that look out from the Bayon Temple. After this, Ngang took us to Ta Prohm, now popularly known as the “Tomb Raider temple” since Angelina Jolie swung from the walls on vines. When Ta Prohm was rediscovered, it was half-overgrown by the jungle, and it’s been left that way, with mighty root systems half-strangling and half-supporting the walls. This has had the perverse effect of making the trees, which are arguably continuing to destroy the temple, as famous as the statues.
“The Koreans and Chinese have no manners,” said Ngang. “Always pushing and shoving. But I take you when they all having lunch and it very quiet.”
After lunch, we walked in the oppressive heat and relative quiet towards the legendary Angkor Wat, holy of holies, pride of the Khmers, listening to the constant shrill fire-alarm whine of cicadas and breathing the green smell of standing water. A group of monkeys by the gate were squabbling over a plastic bag, then began trying to tug a water bottle out of the hand of a startled girl on the main path. Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world, and, unlike many of the other temples, has been in continuous use since it was built in the twelfth century. A huge moat surrounds it, scattered with waterlilies and algae. Inside, the long galleries have intricate stone engravings recording events from Hindu mythology, and depictions of heaven and (much more detailed) the torments of Hell. Ngang showed us where to put our backs to the ‘echo wall’; when you thump your chest, you can hear the sound reverberating through the stonework all around you. The next day, we went to Banteay Sray, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Angkor art; it’s a small temple of red sandstone and volcanic rock, butwith intricate carvings more delicate than those seen anywhere else. It’s sometimes referred to as the “Citadel of the Women”, because it’s said that the carvings are so fine that they could only have been made by a woman’s hand.
Once finished with Angkor, we decided to spend a day visiting the mighty Tonle Sap, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. From June to November, the Tonle Sap river, which normally drains into the Mekong, becomes so swollen with monsoon rains that it reverses direction, causing the lake to quadruple in surface area. Visiting in November, the waters had started to sink, and tops of flooded trees and sunken forests began to appear. The rains had been heavy this year, our guide told us, and the lake had hit a depth of 15 metres, as opposed to its usual 9 to 11. The lake features several floating villages, some Cambodian, some predominantly Vietnamese, and we chugged through them in a narrow “longtail” boat, watching masked and hooded figures using what looked like badminton rackets to flip tiny whitebait out of their fishing nets. The floating villages are poor, our guide told us, and have similarly poor life expectancy; they drink and wash in the often badly-polluted lake water, and can only fish legally for a proportion of the year. Fortunately, they have a few new cash crops, as we discovered when we sailed on to the visitors’ centre; catfish, which will live in dirty water and eat anything; crocodiles, which are sold for their skin; and tourists. At least ten full-grown crocodiles were visible on a viewing platform at the bottom of the centre, a few with just their eyes visible above the water. The locals had come to prey on the tourists as well; a mother had brought her three small children, each with a python draped around its neck, to the visitors’ centre to beg. We repaired to the company’s riverboat for lunch, and I swung in a hammock above the water, reading Jane Austen while looking out on a scene she couldn’t have imagined.