TOMB RAIDING IN THE KINGDOM OF CAMBODIA

When I think of Asia I think of a kaleidoscope of colour and chaos with a knockout punch of smells and sounds. Sensory overload…with a bite. Lemongrass stir-fries and coconut curries; a barrage of bikes, cars and tuk tuks buzzing around; and crossing the road being a dead-set suicide mission. (OK, here we go…we can do this…deep breath…just walk…keep walking…don’t close your eyes…cross the road…ignore the horns. Don’t stop!) The Asia experience is exhilarating – but exhausting. In the Kingdom of Cambodia however, things are a little different.

We literally limped into Cambodia after the best day of our lives. Our wedding! 187 guests, together, dancing under the stars on a balmy evening in the Australian bush. Our wedding was perfect, beautiful, full-of-love, non-stop-fun, and now we needed a siesta. So instead of hitting Europe or Africa, Ben - now my husband - and I cruised through Thailand and Vietnam before settling into Cambodia’s Siem Reap. 

Unlike the wild bright lights of Bangkok or sharing Ho Chi Minh City with seven-million locals, Cambodia comes at a slower pace. It feels more relaxed and somewhat sacred. You still have your karaoke bars, Korean BBQ restaurants, five-dollar massages and jugs of ridiculously-priced beer, but there’s something special about the streets of Siem Reap. And it’s a lot to do with the spirit of its people and the mysterious temples of Angkor.

Back in the 60’s Siem Reap was full of the rich and famous. It was the uber cool place to go, and to be seen. However 25 years of sickening civil war destroyed the local tourist industry. But now, Cambodia has well and truly re-claimed its spot at the top of the must-see list.

Cambodia borders the Gulf of Thailand, between Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. It is a land of paddy fields and forests dominated by the Mekong River and Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake. From May to November the country is tropical – a rainy monsoon season. December to April – the best time to go – is dry season.

Most Cambodians consider themselves to be Khmers, descendants of the Angkor Empire that once extended over much of Southeast Asia. The population of Cambodia is just under fifteen-and-a-half-million and 96 per-cent are Buddhist. Khmer is the official language but French and English are widely spoken.

The Khmers have been to hell and back. Cambodia was placed under French protection in 1863, and it became part of French Indochina in 1887. Following Japanese occupation in World War II, Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953. But in April 1975, after a five-year struggle, communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh. At least 1.5 million Cambodians died from execution, forced hardships, or starvation during the Khmer Rouge regime under POL POT. 

It’s a harrowing history, but somehow Khmers have moved forward with their spirits in intact. The French influence is still here. Buckets of king snails are sold at market; good coffee, croissants and wine are readily available and French is widely spoken.

But it’s the temples of Angkor – regarded as the eighth Wonder of the World – that is at the heart of this Kingdom.

Angkor is about five kilometres from Siem Reap and stretches out over 400 square kilometres. The UNESCO World Heritage site is the land of Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones. It contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries. Here you will find the religious, political and social headquarters of a time long gone. You could walk for days and still not make a mark on the long list of exquisite temples.

I did say Cambodia is chilled, but Angkor draws a crowd. Our guide suggests we flip the itinerary on its head and leave Angkor Wat (the most famous and literally meaning ‘temple city’) for sunset and hit the lesser-known beauties early on.

We approach the breathtaking entrance of Angkor Thom, and learn that at its zenith, Angkor was a city with a population of one million people. At the same time, London was a small town of only 50-thousand. The front gates alone are jaw-dropping. The causeway is home to 54 demons and 54 gods - the statues all in stone - which give passing travellers the evil eye. 

Once inside, we are in awe as we stumble across the famous Bayon Temple. 216 enormous faces looking out from 54 towers. The faces give off a cold smile and are somewhat inescapable. From every angle they exert religious and regal authority. The symbolism and symmetry is equal in beauty to the pyramids of Egypt.

Next stop is Ta Prohm. Movie buffs will know several sequences for the 2001 film ‘Tomb Raider’ starring Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft were shot around here.

And of course, there’s also the Indian Jones factor. Ta Prohm is the perfect example of nature re-claiming the stones of the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’. The combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings are what make this one of Angkor's most popular temples.

Many of the temples of Angkor are still used by Buddhist monks and nuns. Along with temple hopping, we wanted our Cambodia experience to include a traditional Buddhist wedding blessing. We stumble across a small corrugated iron shed which a definite lean to the left. It looks plain and rundown from the outside, but inside it’s brimful of orange and red candles, burning incense, small, medium and large budda statues with offerings of exotic fruits and sweets at their feet. We make our own offering to the monk and in return Ben and I are handed a sarong and told to change.

We sit down on the cold, wet tiles of an open-air shrine, and are shown how to press our palms together at our chest. Slowly and methodically bowls of cold water are then splashed over Ben’s head and then mine. Another bowl poured across our backs. Another down our chests. Over and over again, as the monk continues to sing blessings in a quiet, rhythmic manner.  

Ben and I are drenched, hair plastered to our heads, our sarongs stuck to our wet bodies, our eyes and mouthes squeezed shut, shivering, but we’re loving every minute. Our marriage has been blessed. We are told our bad luck will now end and our sins have been cleared.

When we’re dry we move back inside the shed and kneel on straw mats.

We pray before the monk as he wraps bright red string around and around and around our wrists – blessing us again, with each knot he ties. Ben and I finally leave in silence, not wanting to break the peaceful spell we have so easily been placed under.

Immersed in our moment of zen, we continue the journey.  We are now ready for a lifetime of marriage, and are now also set to explore Angkor Wat - the largest religious monument in the world. Angkor Wat is the mother of all temples. It was first a Hindu, then a Buddhist, temple complex. It is literally Heaven on Earth and for Khmers, is a point of pilgrimage, like Mecca.

From a distance it appears to be not much more than a colossal mass of stones. But it is in fact a series of elevated towers, galleries and courtyards on different levels linked by stairways. The central tower is a staggering 213 metres tall.

We cram in with the other tourists ready to climb the tower. The line is so long it snakes back through the chambers below. Now, climbing the central tower is harder than you may think. By now our legs are a little sore and wobbly and the humidity is starting to take its toll. Ben shoots straight up, not bothered by the tourists or the intense incline. I, on the other hand, cling awkwardly to the flimsy thin rail, and carefully watch every slippery stone step. In front of me is a Korean grandmother holding a walking stick in her free hand. Behind me, a Khmer grandfather from Phnom Penh who’s waited 20-years for this moment. The balancing act is worth it. The view from the top of the tower and the treasures we discover inside, are the perfect reward.

Among many other things, the crowds make the pilgrimage to Angkor Wat to view the 1500 apsaras – cheeky yet graceful celestial dancers- which line the walls of the gallery. In Hindu and Buddhist mythology, apsaras are considered spirits that appear in the form of young, beautiful women. They blokes seem to like them. 

As the sun begins to set it is time to make our journey to the front of Ankor Wat, by the pond, to grab that famous shot. On our way out we pass a Buddhist nun smiling at travellers and offering more blessed red cotton bracelets. And off to the right, up in a secluded tower, we watch two more nuns meditating side by side in the search for enlightenment.

Angkor Wat is without doubt the most famous Khmer monument, but nothing prepares us for the pomp and grandeur it gives off in the flesh. We stand in silence and grab our shot as the light fades with the setting of the sun.

 We have done our very best to play Lara Croft and Indy Jones, and have even managed to throw a wedding blessing into the mix. Our clothes are dusty, our faces burnt and our feet are sore. We have well and truly earned a jug or two or that super-cheap beer.

HOW TO GET THERE

For ease, fly via Bangkok or Singapore.

Flying time from Sydney is about 13 hours and Qantas and Thai Airways offers return trips for around $2,000.

WHERE TO STAY

Heritage Suites Hotel

Wat Polangka - Phum Slok Kram, Siem Reap

+855 63 969 100

We wanted to live it up a little for our honeymoon. Heritage Suites Hotel is an intimate boutique retreat with its own tropical gardens, relaxing pool, and one of Siem Reap’s best spas, Bodia, hidden among flowers and ponds.

In our room we had a claw-foot bath, our own steam room and iridescent blue walls. A beautiful mix of Khmer styling, with a French colonial touch.

Free pick up from the airport in the hotel’s super cool vintage Mercs.

http://www.heritagesuiteshotel.com/

$190 a night per couple

WHERE TO EAT

Heritage Suites Hotel

Wat Polangka - Phum Slok Kram, Siem Reap

+855 63 969 100

Relax in the refined bistro mezzanine. A mix of the traditional cuisine with international influences. Rice paper rolls, pho bo, grilled Mekong lobster and a devilish dessert menu and mean cocktail list. Also great coffee and Harney and Sons fine tea.

 Pub St Alley

This is where you’ll find the fun. Everything from Cambodian BBQ to Korean and Italian restaurants. If you’re super adventurous, look for the street venders selling deep-fried crickets, cockroaches and tarantulas. No charge for the extra crunch! The night markets are near by.

The Sugar Palm

Taphul Rd, Siem Reap

+855 63 964 838

A beautiful mix of traditional flavours with a delicate mix of herbs and spices. Gordon Ramsey shot part of his ‘Great Escape’ series here.

 WHAT TO DO

 There is more to Siem Reap than temples and tomb raiding.

 Quad bike into countryside.

Cruise past rice paddies and off-the-track temples to get a glimpse of village life.

Quad Adventure Cambodia offers full-day rides for around $200 per person.

Cooking class

Le Tigre de Papier

Learn the tricks to a tasty dish. The experience includes a trip to the food markets.

Proceeds go towards supporting Sala Bai, a hospitality school for underprivileged kids, founded by the French NGO Agir pour le Cambodge.