I’m not usually one to wax lyrical about anything, or anywhere, or anyone. But Cambodia was pretty damn amazing.
And, hot as it was and travel-weary as I am, I still had some of those “Oh, wow,” moments that I’d forgotten can happen with going somewhere new and seeing postcard stuff for real.
Not, I admit, because of Angkor Wat. Sure, the thing’s incredible. The fact that it’s still standing is incredible, considering the thousands of feet and hands clambering over its ancient limestone walls every minute of the day. But those thousands of feet and hands – or rather, the owners of them – were exactly why I was going to skip Cambodia altogether. Tourist stuff (as I’ve whined about too many times before) leaves me cold. I’d rather eat a barbecued rat than shoulder-barge my way through a certain over-represented nationality who seems to think nobody but them needs the footpath, or the bathroom, or oxygen.
But box-ticking got the better of me. And I needed a break from the drama of the previous month. So, to Cambodia I went.
I didn’t see the sun rise over temples. I didn’t see the sun set over them, either. The day after arriving in Siem Reap, I got up at my usual hour and went for a run. It was hot by 7am and the road was unsealed, and the rural Khmer people going about their daily lives were both surprised and amused to see a frazzled barang jogging amongst the mangy dogs and squashed rats.
On my way back, I somehow wound up alongside a leathery old bloke on his bicycle. “Very good running!” he chirped. “How long stay Cambodia?” We chatted for another couple of kilometres – he about his life, the war (“very bad, very bad”), and his English (“no good, no good”) and me about how wonderful Cambodia was (that pleased him) but that it was also very hot (he liked that even more). Then we parted, and I felt that I’d already had a much more worthwhile experience than joining the masses in a dawn pilgrimage.
Getting to Angkor Wat at any time, though, is something of an adventure in itself. Unless, of course, you hand fistfuls of dollars over to a tour agency who pick you up, drive you there, deposit you at the entrance of every temple, wait patiently while you explore/pose for selfies/eat lunch and then drive you back to your hotel. But this is not the way of Miss Stone.
It turned out I’d chosen what was possibly the busiest time of year to visit Cambodia. Some sort of Cambodian/Chinese holiday – the name of which now eludes me. In any case, the tour buses stretched some miles into the distance and you couldn’t walk five paces without photobombing a lash-fluttering posse of Chinese females.
Anyway. I arrived, wandered around, ate some pineapple, took some photos.
Yeah, Angkor Wat is a ripper. And I saw it. Tick.
But it was the walk I enjoyed. I don’t know how many kilometres I covered beneath that blazing sun (and, later, pouring rain) but they were in the double digits, and enough to earn me a beer or two that night. I got up close with crumbling relics, I saw a fat lizard in a tree, I tried Khmer fish noodle stew and I passed hundreds of families out celebrating the holiday. Khmer folk know how to picnic! Hammocks, barbecues, loungers, stereos, karaoke, mums, aunts, grandfathers, kids, dogs, bags of meat, mangoes, rice, vegetables. It was like Christmas. And all them, young and old, would wave and grin and laugh at the sweaty foreigner stumping down the road in her manky Tevas. Ha-lo! Ha-lo! Where you from!?
Later in the afternoon, thunder split the sky and the rain bucketed. I was a stupid distance away from civilisation. The Chinese tour buses hustled their delightful passengers on board and made hasty departures. I hovered under the dripping canvas of an elephant-pants stall for a while, but that got boring, so I bought a too-small plastic raincoat and began the long, wet trudge back.
Well, not so long. I’d been walking about ten minutes when four drenched youths zoomed up alongside me on their motorbikes.
Hello! Where you go? You want ride?
Only one girl spoke English. She insisted I get on the bike so they could take me wherever I was going – it didn’t matter where. None of them had raincoats and they were all soaked through. But they were happy and friendly, and utterly perplexed as to why a white person should choose to be on foot.
They ended up taking me all the way back into central Siem Reap, saving me about $US10 in tuktuk fares. It was no mean feat, either – the water was calf-deep in places and three people (plus my backpack) is a hefty load for any small motorbike. When they dropped me off in the city centre, I took out my wallet but “No no! We ok. We no plans, we just help.” And off they went.
Cambodia is beautiful, poor, filthy, charming, depressing and inspiring. Sure, places like Siem Reap are clawing for the tourist dollar, but if you ignore the cry of the tuktuk drivers and the sickening foreplay that is Pub Street, you’ll find ordinary families having dinner in their home-cum-general store, and kids playing basketball and women watching soaps and dogs chewing fleas and men barbequing rats (which, if you’re interested, taste rather like chicken).
So, I liked Cambodia, despite the mad heat, and I’ll definitely, definitely go back.
Now I’m waxing lyrical, so I’ll stop.