TNT Magazine Digital Edition » Big Trip – Cambodia
Big Trip: Cambodia
With enough time in the jungles of South-East Asia, you'll find much more than mines and mosquitoes
“Listen,” pleads my guide, “skull and crossbone signs aren't markers for buried treasure.” Even though we both knew the stories of Blackbeard and Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, he still doubted we'd find buried booty in dense Cambodian jungle, hidden by pirates plundering the Asian coast.
Joe's eyes and hands are suddenly animated as he shouted, “These are mine warnings – one wrong step and boom!”
On a deserted trail outside Siem Reap, the lofty cast of Buddha faces from the distant Bayon temple still watched me intently. I was searching for the most isolated and until recently, undiscovered temple from the reign of the Khmer Empire. Just like Hiram Bingham and Howard Carter, I felt ecstasy at stepping where humans hadn't lingered for centuries. The swelling, mosquito-infested jungles of South-east Asia ticked that bucket-list criteria.
We'd been hiking for 3 hours, any hint of a clear trail a distant memory. It had taken me this long to find a rhythm to our bush-bashing, a mix of looking down to prevent a twisted ankle or snake bite then glancing up to brush aside eye-piercing palm fronds. Sharing my journey silenced my usual terrors of being hopelessly lost in a wilderness where blue sky was hidden by the towering foliage lusting for sunlight.
Hunting for the latest rediscovered temple built by the Khmers meant leaving Angkor Wat – the honeypot drawing thousands of selfie-snapping tourists daily and venturing vaguely north for about 40 kilometres, even though it was feeling like 400km at our pace. The dirt underfoot was lined with stagnant bogs, sucking my boots down as the acrid water bubbled upward. At our hourly rest stops, the jungle was silent, peaceful – once my wheezing stopped. Serene, not frightening, unlike previous adventures in the late-night darkness of the Amazon when jungle neighbours howled at my presence – cicadas, then birds, wild boars and caiman.
Pointing westward, Joe drew my gaze to a single stone pillar, obviously man-made despite the 12 centuries of dirt and weeds coating it. I followed his lead, stepping onto the Mountain of the Great Indra, one of many ghost cities abandoned after the Khmer civilisation collapsed. The site threatened to give me whiplash, my neck turning in all directions to ogle at the bas-relief carvings sharing the stone with luminous green and orange moss. Hindu gods were stubbornly standing in temple shrines or comically toppled by the encroaching tentacles of trees reclaiming the site. Wish granted – walking on ancient ground, recently only seen by satellites and drones but I still felt goose bumps as the eternal gods' eyes bore through me. I didn't want to join the frozen watchers in the jungle. Not yet anyway.
Heavy hand of history
Stepping off a bus in Siem Reap weeks ago, I sought out archaeological digs, following the throng of locals arriving at covered pits to join a few studious westerners. Negotiating with one of them seemed best – as he was a likely descendant of the original builders.
In the 12th century, the Khmer Empire was the dominant civilisation in South-East Asia, ruling Cambodia and much of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. After the usual royal romances, heroic battles, political betrayals and monument building, the empire steadily collapsed in the 15th century, largely from that pesky climate change as droughts drained their advanced irrigation canals.
Jump to 2015 because the intervening 600 years are probably worth forgetting if you had to endure them. Ruled by foreigners, beginning with their neighbours, then colonisation by the French, then Japanese in WW2 before locals took power. Sadly, these locals were Pol Pot and his misfits, the Khmer Rouge, a regime spawned from the Vietnam War during the 60s. They are dead now but the country's politics is still an ugly joke in Asia. The Khmer temples have silently endured, remaining one of the few sources of hope, pride and income for the average Cambodian. As tourists returned to the country in the early 90s, these temple cities received excited global coverage rivalling the wonders of the Incans and Pharoahs.
The legacy of foreign rule hasn't been all bad. French, Vietnamese and Thai culture has influenced the language, architecture and food of the country. We can now enjoy a unique and delicious fusion in a new Cambodia.
An island oasis
Leaving from Phnom Penh, the complicated capital, I arrived here to find a city blooming around the airport and the most famous of the Khmer temples. It's a matter of dodging the chaos of dusty roads filled with tuk-tuks, bicycles and air-conditioned coaches chugging toward garish hotels and resorts.
At 24 sq. km, Siem Reap is only a small part of Cambodia, a country featuring the haunting Bokor Casino, abandoned in the 40s, the beach town Battambang and the vast Tonlé Sap Lake. Just like the Strip in Las Vegas and France's Disneyland, it's borne from the urgings of tourists, in this case, desperate to gawp at Angkor Wat during sunrise and Bayon at dusk.
The place makes tumbling into a backpacker routine easy. A cycle of spicy street food, Angkor-branded beer, fried tarantulas and then collapsing into a pool until the sun rises to start again. Many tourists only visit the big 2 temples but there are over 50 other temples, honouring the vast roll-call of Hindu gods, the Buddha and the kings ruling the empire at its height. As I work my way through the long list surrounding my hostel, I jump off the merry-go-round of cheap delights and let existential questions fill my mind.
I start my quest at West Mebon, an out-of-the-way temple in the middle of a reservoir. Without tidal waves, it's eerie as I wade into the artificial lake, trying to forget the crocodiles dumped in these moats centuries ago. Slowing closing on the island, a few hundred metres away, it felt more like the endless Hindu sea of creation with each stroke. I finally staggered ashore, dripping and rasping, the elephants, cormorants and oxen etched on the stone looking on. The heart of West Mebon is empty, the Buddha statue plucked from the pedestal 50 years ago after a farmer dreamt it was begging for rescue from past flooding. The temple is now more ruin than hallowed hall, the wooden roof rotted away and only one of the walls standing against that flood.
The heavens open
Next morning, dreams of buried treasure and giant Buddhas wake me before sunrise, the fables I'd read and the graphic bas-reliefs had me running from hybrid beasts and demons.
Leaving for Indra's Mountain with Joe, we hire a motorbike, sharing the riding once he's sure I can weave round the knee-deep potholes and dodge the looming tanker trucks barging from the capital. Stopping to refuel, I finish another bottle of water as he pours petrol from rusty metal drums by the roadside through a garden hose into our fuel tank. Lucky we're obeying the 'no smoking or mobile phones' safety warnings.
By mid-morning, the sun blazing on my scalp, inhaling tepid, foggy air, we arrive on the outskirts of the temple, a slim mud track daring us onward. Wedging the bike into the undergrowth and removing the spark plug to ensure it'll be here for the return trip, we start walking, Aerogard burning my eyes. It's not long before the jungle's inhabitant’s howl at my intrusion, another slow-footed foreigner stumbling on ancient secrets.
They are right to screech. Tourists have found graphic ways to get into trouble here – motorcycles slamming into trees, land mines tearing through cargo pants and Croc shoes, even a tumble from a roller-coaster. Joe, like all guides here, ignores these fears, his confidence earnt from decades of respectful exploring.
Eventually the jungle gives way to the temple site, puffy clouds overhead. The outer walls crumble against barbed wire and crudely painted mine warnings on wooden boards. Standing in awe, the tales from King Jayavarman II alive in front of me, I agree to stay to the main complex, unmined by the US and Vietnamese soldiers 50 years ago, perhaps also scared of waking temple spirits.
Cambodia's suffering isn't the first thing you notice in the smiles of the locals. Poverty – high, corruption – high, happy memories – few. But the cliché of happiness amongst the poorest people is real here. Fulfilment without endless TV channels and a smartphone? Maybe so.
We step amongst the ruins, pondering our existence again in the same way the builders did, looking out to nature and listening intently for an eagle to chirp with the answer. Joe takes out a meal of Khmer curry, still warm from the tightly wrapped banana leaves, the chicken moist with the creamy coconut sauces soaking into the rice and sweet potato. Icy cane-juice cools my skin, clinging to clothes that'll test the bravest laundry service.
Joe gestures skyward, a signal we need to return to 'modern' civilisation. It's just long enough for this ancient shrine to etch into the part of my brain marked 'traveller's memories'. Joe sees my expression, his eternal smile proving he's way ahead of me.
Join an ancient guild: Carve your own monument
After seeing the thousandth delicate sculpture teasing you with a myth starring multi-headed demons, cheap plastic souvenirs from street vendors don't deserve a place in your carry-on.
Instead, you could spend a few hours at one of Siem Reap's Backstreet Academies. Don't be frightened – these aren't shadowy alleys filled with street-fighters, underground gambling and exotic 'substances'. The Academy is a collection of local artists, chefs, dancers and fighters teaching their skills in crash-courses for the hands-on traveller. Skills include stone carving, iron pencil drawing, aspara dancing, khmer warrior fighting, crossbow and knife making and 'evil khmer' cooking (not many thumbs up for this one).
In the stone carving class, you'll sculpt a palm-sized Buddha, aspara dancer, lotus flower or exotic animal with sandstone just like the Khmer builders used. My teacher had a saint's patience, making sure the four-hour lesson wasn't an angry mix of coughing dust, crumbling rock and bleeding fingers. For only $25, it's easily worth the time to create your own masterpiece.
Find your perfect Asia experience with Contiki
Big Indochina Adventure
Visit Thailand, Laos, Cambodia & Vietnam. From £2489
Asian Adventure tour
Spend time in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia only. From £1211