The road to Siem Reap in Cambodia is a rough one, alternately rocky and muddy, rutted but with occasional stretches of ancient seal. When it starts to rain the bus tyres send up huge sprays of red mud.
It’s a bone-shaking ride through beautiful countryside. Rice fields stretch away forever across the flat, flat land. Tall-standing umbrella palms stalk the Cambodian landscape like sentinels.
Small villages line the road. Thatch houses on stilts, some planted squarely up to their knees in water in the low lying land. A marching team of four small boys, stick rifles over their shoulders, look around and up at the bus in unison, providing an innocent reminder of more violent times.
The bus passes a group of young men bathing in one of the muddy roadside reservoirs. As well as themselves, they are washing precious possessions in the pond: the cow and the motorbike.
Siem Reap is a thriving tourist town, gateway to the famed complex of temples of the ancient Khmer empire at Angkor.
Hotel and guesthouse touts, moto-drivers, amputees with hat in hand and ragged children; none of these will leave you alone. But I do not begrudge them trying to earn a living.
There is a good range of accommodations, from luxurious to the cheerfully cheap. It was easy to arrange a moto-drawn cart to spend a few days exploring the nearby temples. Siem Reap also has a lively foodie scene with good restaurants and authentic vegetarian eats.
Exploring the Angkor temples
Wandering through the widespread temple complex that starts just a few miles away from Siem Reap is nothing short of amazing. Expecting it to be crowded with tourists I was pleasantly surprised to find myself exploring the ruins of the many temples in peace. Only at sunset, at the great temple of Angkor Wat, do the Cambodia tour buses provide a crowd.
I looked, imagined, wandered, climbed and marvelled. Looked up at the enigmatic and serene stone faces of the Bayon. Imagined parades and pageants on the Terrace of the Elephants. Climbed the temple mountains representing the spatial universe in miniature. Marvelled at the trees entwining the ruined jungle monasteries; their enormous aerial roots creating fantastic shapes as they become one with the stone (very Indiana Jones). Read more about the five monuments to see in Angkor Thom here.
The bas-reliefs and carvings in many places are exquisite. History and mythology, kings and armies, processions and battles, dancing princesses and concubines, portly elephants and bearded wise men. And you can’t forget the bare breasted, gauzy-skirted, celestial nymphs, the Angkor Angels, the Apsaras.
The main event, Angkor Wat itself, gives you chills as you cross the moat and approach the inner causeway through massive gates. This Cambodia treasure is 10 times more breathtaking than approaching any European monument, such as St Peters Basilica in Rome.
I was drawn through the courtyards and galleries; up the stomach-lurchingly steep steps of the central tower. Around every corner another stunning decorative flourish. I saw it at sunrise and sunset and many different times of the day.
Everywhere you go amongst the huge area of temples (and in Cambodia) you will be found by the children from the local villages, selling or begging or just making conversation. They are very sweet and it is all in good humour, they seem to enjoy the joke as much as the harassed westerners.
Again, it was only outside Angkor Wat that the pressure became more intense (though still hilarious): “You wan moto, scarf, flute, water, postcard, bracelet, baby?” Baby? Well it was an ugly baby.
Onwards to Phnom Penh
Heading to Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh was again a rollercoaster bus ride. This is a country where cattle are vehicles, pulling the plough through the muddy water of a paddy field, plodding along the roads in front of the high wheeled wooden carts the people have used for over a thousand years. Every square inch of land is turned to continuous rice cultivation.
By Natasha von Geldern