Bask in the glory of Angkor Wat before hitting Cambodia’s provincial backroads.
Just before the sun rises over Angkor Wat, the most imposing temple at Angkor Archaeological Park, the crowds muffle their chatter. The silhouettes of its five towers against the oranges and pinks of the Cambodian morning sky become more distinct. The misty atmosphere and breeze bring a welcome chill and dawn illuminates the feathery cirrus clouds that drape over the temple. Cameras click, lights flash.
Then, just as the decorative impressions of the temple’s sandstone bas-reliefs come into light, I make my exit.
“You miss sunrise!” says Narin, the tuk-tuk driver I have hired for the day. I explain to him my mission: experience the temples without the crowds. Narin smiles, nods and suggests an itinerary – he has done this before.
He takes me first to Preah Khan, northeast of Angkor Thom. Preah Khan was built in the late 12th century by King Jayarvaman VII, one of the most revered kings of the Khmer empire. The temple was built on the site of one of Jayarvaman’s greatest victories in battle and functioned as a city, monastery and university. At its height, Preah Khan housed almost 100,000 officials and servants. Today, wild vegetation grows over the temple’s rubble.
It’s deserted and the early-morning sun casts shadows over towering headless dvarapalas, temple guardians. They stand along the outermost enclosure, which once protected the bustling capital from attack. Now, lush green moss grows over laterite engraved with dancing apsaras.
It’s the hot season in Cambodia, and the sun is already scorching. A shady back corner of the temple offers relief and sweeping views of Preah Khan’s towering centre. A teenage Khmer boy sits in a doorway, painting. He and I are the only ones here, enjoying nature’s sound effects, the tranquil atmosphere and the occasional solicitation from vendors.
“Hey lady! You want cold drink?” asks a young girl on the path leading out of the temple.
I order a coconut and hand her a dollar. She grabs a cleaver, makes four slashes into the coconut, creating a lid, sticks in a straw and presents it to me. Five minutes and approximately 14 ounces of coconut water later, I give the coconut back.
She takes the cleaver and hacks the coconut in half. Then she slices off an edge, carving a spoon out of the shell, and hands the split coconut over. I scrape the silky, refreshing coconut meat into my mouth.
“Cambodia food,” the girl says. “I’ll take two,” I reply. But one cannot live on coconuts alone. Famished after a full day of temple-trekking, I eagerly await my first taste of Khmer cuisine.
Siem Reap’s Old Market, the main eating and drinking zone, feels like a southeast Asian New Orleans; French colonial facades line the streets and, with countless restaurants to choose from, I pick the one with the comfy-looking streetside seats. Jazz plays overhead, accompanied by calls from idling tuk-tuk drivers, while ceiling fans circulate humid air and the scent of pungent spices. The dinner crowd hasn’t arrived yet; the restaurant staff banter as they wait.
One of Cambodia’s most popular dishes is lok lak, the Khmer version of Vietnam’s bo luc lac (Vietnamese shaking beef), served with the ubiquitous Angkor draft, a fried egg, rice and a peppery, cilantro-garlic sauce.
I first taste the beef, dipped in equal parts gravy and the accompanying sauce. My eyes bulge; the beef, gravy and sauce weave together flawlessly. Garlic, for sure. Sugar, undoubtedly. Soy sauce and pepper. A dash of red wine. Is that a hint of lemongrass?
After testing the variations – and nearly licking the plate clean – it’s clear that Cambodian food extends far beyond the humble coconut. But Cambodian cuisine, landscape and people aren’t truly reflected by what you find in Angkor. Real Cambodia is experienced in the provinces.
This aim lands me in the front seat of an old Toyota Camry. Behind me, there are four children, three women and two men, with two more passengers in the driver’s seat. We share a taxi for the 180km trip from Siem Reap to Battambang, Cambodia’s second-largest city and a perfect base for exploring rural areas.
The sleepy riverfront city is studded with French colonial architecture: fragments well-preserved, portions dilapidated, all of it endearing in that Asian way – window shutters hang open and clothes dry on balconies. Knowing a bit of Khmer is useful here, as little English is spoken outside of hotels, restaurants and the friendly “hellos” from-giggling children.
My motorbike driver for the day, 21-year old Saphoarn, doubles as a receptionist at my hotel. He wears a clean and freshly pressed shirt and a wide grin.
“I love to be motorbike guide for foreigner,” Saphoarn says, eager to practise his English.
By the time we reach our first stop, a modern wat with peculiar sculptures, Saphoran has given a course on Battambang history. Inside the wat, a group of little girls wave and repeatedly shout. I learn “hello” is the only word they know and they’re thrilled to use it. They see my camera and let me take their photos – they’re thrilled when I show them the shots and giggle when I say sa’at – “pretty” – in my mispronounced Khmer.
Back on the road, we pass more glittering wats and villages – there are thatched-roof homes on stilts, each with a hammock and, more often than not, someone relaxing in it. Life moves slowly here.
We arrive at Phnom Banan Vineyards, Cambodia’s only winery, where several short rows of pruned vines stretch out alongside a terrace. Although grapes don’t grow naturally in this equatorial climate, they’re succeeding here, the air thick with the scent of fermentation.
For US$2, I sample a selection of red wine, brandy, grape juice and ginger-honey. The dry red wine is aromatic, grown from Shiraz grapes. The pale brandy is poured generously; its strength raises goosebumps even in the sweltering heat. After the last strong drop disappears from my glass, Saphoarn and I set off again.
We drive down soft dirt roads, bare-boned cattle grazing alongside. At Wat Phnom Sampeou, a gold pagoda stands on a mountain high above the city. Seven hundred dizzying stairs take me to the top, where I take in astounding 360-degree views. Mountain clusters soar to the south and trees polka-dot the pancake-flat fields to the north. Thunder rolls in, followed by rain, and I watch the lightning draw closer. I head down to the caves, where greenery envelops caverns that hold heartbreaking secrets – the Khmer Rouge regime used to bludgeon and bury victims here.
As the rain slows to a drizzle, I make my way back to the veranda to enjoy one last look at the view. An old man seated there, smoking a cigarette and staring at the horizon, points to a patch of the sky where the vivid arc of a rainbow stretches.
“Rainbow,” he says with a toothy grin. I sit beside him and we watch the rainbow brighten. Then I remember Saphoarn – it’s been two hours and he must be waiting. On our ride back into town, Saphoarn asks me why I didn’t stay for the sunset.
I tell him I’m happy to watch the sunset from the back of the motorbike; I’ve seen the rainbow and, in Cambodia, sunrise and sunset aren’t nearly as memorable as all that occurs between.