Reaping the benefits in Cambodia’s Vegas

Siem Reap is like Vegas in comparison to the places I’ve visited elsewhere in South East Asia. Tourists are drawn there in their droves to Angkor Wat; a complex of Khmer temples scattered over 300 square kilometres of countryside between the Tonle Sap lake and the Kulen mountains in the north of Cambodia. The searing temple towers and their intricate brickwork give way to remarkable stories of the Khmer empire, and are a must-see for pretty much every passer by…even those jaded by the usual tourist trail.

By day, the town is somnolent as its visitors traipse round the grand avenues and grounds of the temple multiplex. By night, it comes alive with Khmer cultural shows and outstanding Cambodian cuisine all designed at the tourist’s behest. The impact of this is certainly felt, with bright lights, pumping European dance music and English signage all adding to that feeling of ‘I could be anywhere…’ Hyatt and Ritz have made their presence known, and there is even a road called Pub Street which really caters for the delightful 18-30s market.

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Thankfully for myself and my Cambodian co-pilot Buffie, we’ve chosen this city as a place to try to invest ourselves in the spirituality of the country, a spirituality that is a remarkable attribute given the atrocities it has experienced in terrifyingly recent years. To that end, we check into our yoga retreat The Bodhi Tree where we’re greeted by owners Bob and Claire, originally from Australia.

Staying here is a little like staying with family, more like living in their home than in their guesthouse. We’re very well looked after.

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During our time here, we rise at 6.30am for sun salutations then Kundolini yoga after breakfast. Free time is followed in the upper floor by either stretching classes, Nidra meditation, Kundolini chanting or Hatha Flow yoga depending on the day.

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There is even water meditation sessions in the beautiful garden, where we’re challenged to find our inner calm amidst peeping horns and whirring tuk tuk engines.

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We take absolute advantage of this, and of the incredibly early nights, by way of preparing our energies for Angkor Wat. Beforehand all that though, we get to know the city starting with a walk along Tonle Sap river to the Psar Chas market.

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The market is your classic South East Asian explosion of colour, unique sights and sounds.

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From fragrant herbs and spices

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to shocked and stunned featherless chickens.

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We take in a handful of bookshops along the way. Always good to be able to reacquaint yourself with the classics whilst on the road…

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then there’s time for a quick sundowner.

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As far as restaurants go, there is quite a broad spectrum from the sublime

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to the ridiculous… (look carefully.)

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For casual lunches, there is ex-pat haven Sister Srey which serves a mean mango slushy from a menu housed in these quaint children’s book covers.

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Or settle into the huge linen-draped beds at The Blue Pumpkin and treat yourself to a lazy brunch or some exquisite pastries.

Real, authentic Cambodian cuisine is best sampled at The Sugar Palm, where expert service compliments an extremely tasty stir fried fish with chilli and peanuts served in the airy, spacious restaurant.

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For dinner, some of the standouts are the stunning caramelised ginger fish at La Noria, set in a tranquil tropical garden on the Tonle Sap river. We also loved Nest Angkor which is a sleek, contemporary cafe bar smack bang in the centre of town.

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Look out for the stir fried prawns with vegetable and rice, but don’t forget to wash it down with their signature Tamarind Margarita.

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Culinary attributes aside, we, like hundreds of thousands of tourists before us, are here for the temples. Ahead of these less doomed Indiana Jones style adventures, our yoga retreat ends in rapturous style with Kundolini chanting and a tribute to the stunning full moon above us. It’s a session rich in depth and meaning and, aside from the fact that one of the mantras rhymes with the word Sat-Nav, I keep it together long enough to ohm better than I ever have.

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And the soundtrack was:

Bombay Bicycle Club ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’

The Spinto Band ‘Nice and Nicely Done’

Bon Iver ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’

Sigur Ros ‘Valtari’

Special thanks to Buffie Meekison for some of the photography on this post.

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