Tuesday, 29 March 2011 12:00 AM
Alice Woodward marvels at ancient temples and avoids deep-fried tarantulas in Cambodia.
After a gruelling 31-hour journey from the idyllic Thai island of Koh Phi Phi and an angst-ridden trip across the border, I finally arrived into the bustling city of Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Reluctance at the time and numerous changes of transport, to complete the vast overland journey, did not deter me from wanting to explore the awe-inspiring temples that I had read about many a time in ‘things to see before you die’ lists.
One of the first things that struck me, upon entering the country, was the number of dogs around. They are the Cambodian equivalent of pheasants; viewed as pests by the locals and I had the unfortunate experience of being in the front seat of a bus en-route to Siem Reap that wiped out a stray dog, which had unknowingly ventured onto the motorway.
Following the unpleasant beginning to my Cambodian venture, I was relieved to be greeted upon arrival by a local tour guide, Panya, who kindly arranged a hotel for my companions and I.
The Angkor Discovery Inn is a lovely boutique hotel, quietly tucked away from the city centre and reasonably priced. We planned our itinerary and began the guided tour bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next morning with a trip to Angkor Thom.
The intricate detail of the temples is remarkable and monkeys run riot around the old ruins, like a tropical jungle. The temples are scattered across the vast kingdom – formerly Cambodia’s capital city – and if it weren’t for the stifling heat you could easily spend a day wondering around the captivating relics.
The next stop was the renowned Angkor Wat. Swarming with tourists, the temple does not lose impact, and the architecture is nonetheless astounding. Surrounded by a vast moat, it is easy to see why Angkor Wat is such a popular destination for sightseers.
I was approached by a young Cambodian boy, requesting to have a picture taken with me. The guide informed me that many Cambodians who live out in the country have never seen a white person before; it is somewhat a spectacle to them.
My first day was completed with an elephant ride up a hill to Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset over Angkor Wat. The view is quite spectacular and reveals extensive agricultural land as far as the eye can see.
In the evening we went for dinner at Pub Street, the atmospheric main strip of Siem Reap. Just down the road was a market, open well into the night, selling many artistic looking objects; sure to be a success with the tourists keen to immerse themselves in the Cambodian culture.
Amongst stalls, selling delicate handmade trinket boxes and rich fabric clothing, wove vendors selling deep fried tarantulas and other insects, which acting on prior warning, I evaded.
The following day, we awoke at 5am, and set off to watch the sunrise over Ta Prohm. This is a beautiful temple, overgrown by trees, and what’s more, it was absolutely uninhabited.
The main tourist ‘must do’ in Cambodia is sunrise over Angkor Wat, but this can be extremely overcrowded. Panya advised us to go to Ta Prohm instead and it was definitely worth it.
The pale peach sky makes a grand backdrop to the derelict temple and as the sun rises in the sky, it highlights the branches of the tall trees that occupy the site, spotlighting patches of the ancient architecture.
From here, we moved on to Banteay Srei, otherwise known as the ‘Lady Temple’. Built in red sandstone, it contrasts to the other temples and the detailed carvings and gargoyles make it quite unique.
Our next stop was the river of a thousand lingas. It was an uphill trek through the rainforest to reach the waterfall, but fascinating once we arrived to see the stone carvings that line the riverbed. The return downhill was more difficult and involved a lot of rock climbing and sliding down steep hills, where I found myself desperately clinging on to trees to slow down my pace.
We later arrived at Lake Tonlé Sap and took a boat out to the Vietnamese fishing village where people had moved during the Vietnam War.
The residents here have very small houses and move more than 15 times a year to follow the water. Many live on floating shacks or small boats, covered with bamboo and tarpaulin to make sheltered homes.
One of the floating structures was a crocodile farm, and upon walking upstairs to a terrace, a mass of crocodiles became visible in a pit below. Just outside the gallery area, which contained various facts about how the villagers earn a living from their fishing lifestyle, was a python in a poorly constructed cage.
Panya assured me that it was safe to hold, but I felt somewhat uneasy as I struggled to hold it back from wrapping around my neck.
After our last supper at the Red Piano restaurant, a popular eatery on Pub Street, we headed back to the hotel for an early night, in preparation for the journey back across the border into Thailand the following day – hoping not to witness another animal slaughter.
by Alice Woodward
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