Everybody who goes to Cambodia will inevitably visit the legendary temple complex of Angkor Wat, often described as one of the greatest travel destinations on the planet, and a pilgrimage site for trophy-hunting tourists the world over. But if you put your mind to it, there’s much more to be seen in Cambodia, even if you only have a few days to do it in. Bay’s Nick Smith packs his cameras and notebooks and heads east to Indochina…
Strange as it may seem, I never intended to go to Cambodia, much less the vast and mysterious temple complex of Angkor Wat. My assignment – for the travel section of the Daily Telegraph if I remember correctly – had been to come back from Vietnam with a photo-essay on the tourist hotspots of the great cities of Saigon (now rather boringly called Ho Chi Minh City) to the south and Hanoi up north. It was in the former, sitting in a western-style bar reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American – which is set in Saigon – I got talking with Dave, a friendly beer-sloshing, sports-crazy Australian whose idea of fun was to tell me over several glasses of frosty Tiger beer his unedited and uncomplicated views on the Welsh national rugby XV. Since one of the first rules of being on the road is always to take everything in your stride with as much good humour as you can muster, I bowed to the inevitable and happily joined Dave in a few games of pool, while baseball blazed on enormous plasma screens in the humidity of the Far Eastern evening.
Under normal circumstances hanging around in bars watching TV is probably a waste of time. But I’d had an exhausting day photographing at the Củ Chi tunnels where soldiers of the Viet Cong masterminded their resistance to the American forces during the Vietnam War. On my return to the city I’d walked down the road where photographer Nick Ut had taken his Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of a girl running towards the camera after a napalm strike on the village of Trảng Bàng. Not unreasonably, I thought, I needed a drink. As it happened, so too did Dave. He was a travel tour guide he told me, shepherding a small party of British tourists around Indochina for a trip of a lifetime. Only, one of his charges had become ill and Dave had spent the day repatriating the patient, with all the hassle that went with it. I’m still a bit hazy about how the following happened, but by the time we were being invited to leave the bar, Dave and I had somehow agreed that I should take up the vacant place on the tour. The following morning, I went around to his hotel fully expecting him to have forgotten the entire incident. But he greeted me in the lobby of the Saigon River Hotel with a cheery ‘g’day mate’, before telling me that everything had been arranged with ‘no worries’ and all that was left to be done was for me to give him my passport and we were
‘good to go.’ We’d organise my visas for both Laos and Cambodia along the way. “Make sure you’ve got plenty of US dollars,” Dave advised, pointing me in the direction of the hotel lobby cash dispenser.
And that is how, after a few days of sailing along the Mekong River in Laos, I found myself tumbling out of a rickety old propeller plane at Cambodia’s Siem Reap International Airport following a short hop, skip and a jump from Vientiane, Laos’ capital city. I have to say that I rather liked this new arrangement, and before long I could see why there’s a category of traveller that swears by these so-called escorted tours. For one thing you don’t have to worry about booking flights, transfers and hotels. For another, you’ve got your itinerary all mapped out for you, and you end up doing things you’d probably never dream of if left to your own devices. This was never more apparent than my first evening with the tour group, when we were whisked off to the Royal Cambodian Ballet, which was about as far from the Sadlers Wells experience as is possible to imagine. As the audience cheered and clapped all the way through the performance, waiters brought an endless supply of truly poisonous Prasat Phnom Banon ‘grape wine’, product of the local khmer vineyard. And while you might be forgiven for thinking that Cambodia has still to acquire the knack for wine-making, it has got their version of ballet nailed to the floor, with the ecstatic audience showing their approval at the curtain call by leaping up on stage in droves to take commemorative selfies with the nation’s leading ballet corps, who seemed to relish the attention. Which left me wondering what Darcy Bussell would have made of such a scene. I didn’t need to wonder about what Dave’s reaction might be. Returning to the hotel in a dilapidated old charabanc, he confided in me that he’d “rather be watching Oz stuffing the Pommies at the Gabbatoir,” which I took to be a reference to the noble sport of test cricket as played at the Brisbane Cricket Ground.
The following morning dawned sticky and humid as the group made its bleary-eyed way through the rice paddies and coconut palm plantations to the legendary temple complex of Angkor Wat. “You can’t visit Cambodia without coming here,” intoned the ever-enthusiastic Dave over the bus’s crackly speaker system. He’s right of course because, while we all know of the country’s blighted 20th century history of the genocide under the revolutionary lunatic Pol Pot, most of us don’t need to be reminded of it and would be far more comfortable visiting an ancient Hindu-Buddhist place of worship than the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge regime, the ossuaries and memorial parks. It’s a subject that Dave maintained a dignified distance from, preferring instead to show off his local knowledge by smuggling us into Angkor Wat through the lesser-used eastern gate, which meant that we were able to watch the sun rise over the famous quincunx of sandstone towers far away from those clichéd tie-dyed, drumming and sun goddess worshipping crowds that, as entitled as they are to be there as the next person, are both annoying and embarrassing at the same time.
Provided you are prepared to step off the beaten path, you could spend weeks wandering among the lonely, deserted ruins and hardly see another person, except for perhaps the occasional monk in his saffron-dyed robes, or an opportunistic pedlar selling prayers in the form of woven bracelets. But most visitors, constrained by time, will stick to the well-trodden tourist circuit, which is dazzling in its own way, even if some of the spirituality of the place takes a back seat to the carnival atmosphere. You won’t have to look far to encounter a bewildering array of carvings,
friezes, devatas and bas-reliefs set among the whispering silk- cotton trees, whose immense buttresses weave their way in and out of the tumbled masonry. It may not be obvious as you gaze in awe at the heavily restored main complex, but much of the site is still in ruins. Given that Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious monument (covering more than 400 acres), that’s a lot of ruins. And there are previously undiscovered ones, Dave tells me, coming to light even now. Sadly, there are times when some of the mystique gets lost in the white noise of commercialism, the spell broken by the continual reminder that we’re on the Tomb Raider movie set. Maybe it’s not so sad after all, because watching hordes of German and Japanese tourists posing for their hero shots in front of all this architectural grandeur is surely part of the fun. Besides, everyone – even the most dedicated of amateur archaeologists – will get stricken with a bout of ‘temple fatigue’ from time to time, and so it’s a good idea to remember you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself.
After a few days exploring the ruins of antiquity it’s time to tear ourselves away from the past and head into the country. On our last night in Siem Reap, we walk into town to spend an evening in a local restaurant where we feast on steamed fish in banana leaves, sticky mango rice and spicy pan-fried noodles. Ambling back through the market I spotted an intriguing sign inviting me to try the unforgettable and efficacious foot massage of Dr Fish. Having experienced the local ballet I’m pretty sure that I’ve become inoculated to Cambodia’s weirdness, but I don’t think that anything could have prepared me for what followed. Working on the basis that you should never walk past a sign bearing the promise of ‘foot heaven’, I stepped inside the shady looking establishment with all the confidence of an apprentice lion tamer. Here at Dr Fish, for the sum of merely a few thousand Riel (about two American dollars) you can have the dead skin chewed off your feet by hundreds of ravenous flesh-eating tropical gourami. The length of time you can bear to keep your feet in the water in the communal pool is something of a badge of honour, as the sensation of being eaten alive is one that takes a little getting used to. I managed to last for half an hour before the seemingly insatiable shoal moved on to a new punter with (presumably) tastier feet. And although I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed the process itself, I departed with a definite sense of regret that this unorthodox massage had reached its end. As I dawdled back to the hotel soaked to the bone by a tropical rainstorm, the sky flashing dramatically and thunder clattering overhead, I discovered a new spring in my step.
There was to be one last port of call before my spontaneous trip to Cambodia would come to an end, this time with Dave driving us into the interior to Tonlé Sap, South East Asia’s thousand square mile ‘Great Lake’ in the heart of the Mekong Basin and home to the famous floating villages. To combat the effect of the dramatic rise and fall of the shoreline with the seasons, many of the local fishermen have built for themselves houses on stilts. But some go one better and construct floating homes that cluster together in drifting communities. The closest to Siem Reap is Chong Kneas, which we sailed to in a brightly painted fishing boat, weaving our way in and out of endless floating traffic making its way to and from the village. I don’t know what I was expecting, but when I got there I found that the village was like any other, only it was floating, much in the same way that Venice is like any other old-fashioned city in northern Italy, apart from the fact that its streets are canals. There’s a floating market, bars and restaurants. There’s a floating pig farm and a souvenir shop where I spent the last of my currency. There’s also a school and you can see children paddling their way to lessons. The older ones do this in small circular boats: everyone calls them the ‘bucket kids.’
Back to Siem Reap International for the short flight back to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam for the 12-hour flight home to the UK. Sitting in the departure lounge bar, having a final beer with Dave, I switch on my mobile phone for the first time in a couple of weeks to find that there are literally dozens of emails, texts and missed calls from people wondering where on earth I am. “Maybe you should have let someone know you were extending your trip,” said Dave helpfully, as I spent the next hour of my life digitally reassuring people I wasn’t dead.