Cambodia. Over the last two weeks since I returned, I’ve been procrastinating over how to capture my week there in writing. I thought one blog post would cover it, but trying to commit everything to a page is highlighting the diversity between the ancient beauty of Siem Reap and the still-raw history of Phnom Penh. Even within the cities themselves the contrasts continue.
In Siem Reap, centuries of spiritual residue cling quietly to the crumbling stone of ruined temples. I squirm at the very present experience of a freshly fried worm bursting between my teeth.
In Phnom Penh, I stand in a lush meadow in the brutal heat of mid-afternoon. Butterflies flit in the wildflowers around me. Ahead, a sign: ‘Please Do Not Walk on the Mass Graves’. I try to wrap my head around the sheer scale of the devastation; the murder of 1 in 4 Cambodians only a decade before I was born.
I think it will take me a few posts to tackle this country.
It all started when my friend Lynsey needed to do a visa run from Australia and was interested in spending a week in South East Asia. Imagining Thailand to be full of neon-painted teenagers drinking from buckets and vomiting into the sea, I suggested somewhere I believed to be more appropriate for the discerning late-20s traveller. We settled on Cambodia. And so it was agreed and we met on a humid Saturday afternoon at a hotel set back from a dusty side street in Siem Reap where I promptly ate dinner and fell asleep just after 7pm (on account of the fact that I had spent the previous evening in Thailand drinking from a bucket, etc).
Not to worry though, because the very next day we awoke at 4am. We breakfasted out of polystyrene packs as our tuk-tuk jolted us along towards Angkor Wat – the only ancient temple that hasn’t been allowed to fall into disrepair throughout Cambodia’s turbulent past.
As we pulled up in a clearing, the sun was just starting to cast light into the sky. The dark silhouette of the temple stood beyond us, a calm river separating us from the grassy banks from which it rose.
We crossed the river that was black in the faint dawn and walked along the bank, exploring the dark stone doorways and archways bordering the river. Through a short stone passageway, we came into a field wet with dew. A horse stood so still we thought it was a statue. A raised stone walkway stretched ahead of us across the green. On either side were two shallow ponds, their surfaces speckled with lily pads.
As the sun crept out from behind the stone, it cast light into the ponds. It mirrored the image of the towers and the pale sky behind in serene symmetry.
Despite still being in use today, Angkor Wat feels like a relic. The stone walls hum with history. Centuries of footsteps have worn grooves in the shady walkways, and the ornate carvings on the walls have been blurred with time. And yet, there is also something quite space-age about the alien architecture and rounded cones of the temples rising skywards.
We meandered along stone cloisters and ducked in an out of passageways. We crossed grassy courtyards and climbed up precariously skinny steps. Despite the number of people that were streaming through the gates to snap photos of the sunrise, there were still pockets where peace was easily found.
After a full loop of the temple, our skin was beginning to glow in the building humidity of the day. We passed back down the stone walkway and through the entrance, crossed back across the river and rejoined our tuk-tuk driver to head onwards to our next stop.
We visited many other temples that day, including Ta Prohm – perhaps most famous as the setting of Tomb Raider. The temple sits deep in the shade of the jungle and its stone is green with moss. Vast parts of it have been reduced to rubble, pillars teeter on the brink of collapse and vast doorways lead to nowhere. Most eyecatching are the trees that have sprung up on rooftops and high walls, their roots melting Dali-esque down the stone. Tiny tree seeds have caught in the wind and blown into small cracks high up in the stone. Fed by sunlight over hundreds of years, they have become small shoots, fragile saplings and eventually giant trees that swallow the structure beneath them.
The morning rush had begun and the hordes of tourist groups had descended. The contrast between the dawn serenity of Angkor Wat and sheer clutter – both human and stone – of the other temples was jarring. Human traffic was intense, all sensible sandals and selfie sticks. We got fatigued in the growing heat and crowds and, just before noon, we called it day, having been ‘temple tramping’ for eight hours.
Our impression of Cambodia at this point was of hot afternoons, lazy rivers and shady stone nooks. We associated it with monks draped in bright orange chatting quietly as they made their way down dusty tracks. We remembered the arresting beauty and stillness within Angkor Wat. “No wonder Beyonce and Jay-Z came here.”
The next few days would highlight just how incredible it is that this sense of peace pervades. We would realise what an achievement it is considering the atrocities experienced by the people carrying the country into the future. It was an interesting scene setting for the days to come.
But first I had to eat insects. It was non-negotiable. Apparently.