Phnom Penh; Mightier than the Sword

My introduction to the city of Phnom Penh is much like every other introduction has been during my time in South East Asia, whizzing by in a clapped out old bus…followed by a clapped out old shoddily-negotiated tuk tuk. This time I am arriving from Sihanoukville on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand with (increasingly ill) travel buddy Buffie.

We check in at Eighty8 hostel which touts itself at the ‘flashpacker’ market, those willing to pay an extra dollar or two for increased luxury. After the rat infested beachfront pad on Koh Rong, we feel we owe it to ourselves. This is the glamour to which we have not become accustomed.

P1000788 P1000787 P1000786

Named after the street it is on, it’s in the north-east of the city around 5 minutes walk from Sisowath Quay where the boats arrive from Siem Reap. So exploration starts with a long walk through the city from north to southern tip.

Wat Phnom is the first item on the agenda. It’s the hilltop sanctuary from which the city takes its name. Cambodian legend has it that a wealthy widow called Daun Penh (try saying it without thinking of Sean Penn) found five bronze and stone Buddha statues in 1372 during a walk along the Tonle Sap river. As a mark of respect, she built a sanctuary on the top of a hill to house them. It became known as Phnom Penh, translating as the hill of Penh. Over time, it became the shorthand for the city that sprung up around it.

P1000522

With $1.50 ticket in hand, I ascend the stunning naga staircase passing bronze carvings of battle scenes and Apsaras dancing, replicated to look like those at Angkor Wat.

P1000525 P1000523P1000530

The sanctuary, or vihara, at the top was rebuilt in 1926 and little of the original building remains but it is very close to the heart of the population here, so it’s worth spending some time at the summit surveying the city or cross-legged in meditation inside the Wat itself.

P1000561

P1000563P1000566

The inside is beautiful, vibrant and colourful.

P1000532P1000535P1000538

Behind it, a stupa has been built to honour Daun Penh.

P1000542

Not unlike neighbouring Laos, the Cambodian people also release birds from cages at the top of the hill to invite fortune and good health.

P1000568

P1000527

Offerings are left inside the wat for the statue of Buddha; some of food and some of local currency the Riel.

P1000547

Continuing south, at the crossing of Sihanouk and Norodom Boulevards, I see the Independence monument which has the dual role of commemorating independence from the French in 1953 but also stands as a cenotaph to those who have died in war.

P1000574

On display around it are the riches of various parliamentary buildings, in stark contrast to the poverty I’ve seen elsewhere in the country.

P1000586 P1000578

I swing into Mali’s for lunch and a couple of Kingdom beers on nearby Norodom Boulevard. It’s a grand spot, if a little formal.

P1000585

After lunch, I set my internal compass for Psar Toul Tom Poung (the Russian Market) but I seem to be following a slightly fraudulent map. I’m still walking 90 minutes later…but many of the sites along the way have kept me in good humour.

P1000520P1000580

Despite this, I swiftly come to learn two key facts about Phnom Penh:

1) It is nigh on impossible to cross the road. You’ll find many of your restaurant/shop/sightseeing decisions are led by this.

2) As a visitor, you’ll be offered a moto taxi or tuk tuk approximately three times per minute. It’s not at all irritating.

Eventually, (273rd time’s a charm) I grab a moto taxi to the Russian Market, so-called as all the goods would have originated from there, Russia being the only country to provide aid during the Vietnamese occupation. Browsing through the ramshackle tarpaulin-covered market, I find it’s the usual miss mash of textiles, hand-carved artefacts…and knock off electronics. Dr Dre was kind enough to reduce his speakers to a mere $3 here. What a philanthropic gent.

P1000593 P1000591P1000592

But there’s no show without punch…

P1000590

Back into the tuk tuk

P1000600

and (via the petrol station) I’m headed north again.

P1000602

Street number 240, just behind the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, is where you’ll find the craft boutiques and book shops. After a browse at D’s Books on 240 and Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard, I bag a copy of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’ before scooting back to the hostel to scoop up a much less peaky Buffie.

We head out to Bopha Phnom Penh, a beautiful outdoor restaurant on Sisowath Quay.

P1000617

Despite this being the site of our initial hoodwinking when we first arrived in Phnom Penh ($5 to tuk tuk 25 steps) we still manage to enjoy the lights twinkling on the Tonle Sap river and the Apsara dancers defying the laws of joint capability.

P1000616

They accompany our Fish Amok curry washed down with a house speciality cocktail made with their local spirit. Game.

P1000610

We dart across to the Flicks 2 on 136 which is a comfy, cozy cinema that regularly screens movie The Killing Fields.

P1000619

It seems a fitting way to mark visiting Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields) the day before (see previous post.)

The next day, we swing by Friends which is a not-for-profit cafe that supports the training of young chefs and servers in the hospitality industry.

P1000751 P1000748

There is so much to compute at the end of our trip to Cambodia. We do so with outstanding falafel burgers and raspberry rum cocktails.

P1000747 P1000745

Afterwards, we cross to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club to watch the world go by below.

P1000753P1000758

And I watch my final sunset over the Mekong (on this trip at least.) It’s how this trip started back in Ventiane so it seems right and proper to end it that way.

P1000765

The last supper is Pad Thai alongside numerous Pina Coladas and Angkor beers.

The next morning, we trip out to Psar Thmei (the central market) to pick up some gifts to take home. It is much more glamourous than the Russian market, housed in an actual hall with art deco arches stretched above.

P1000784

The art of the oversell is not lost here, and it is a fittingly frenetic final experience for my time in Cambodia.

To balance things out, we head out to the local Wat and are blessed by Buddhist monks. We are ceremoniously soaked by litres of water thrown over us as the monk chants his blessing.

P1000770

It’s a strange sensation, but there is certainly something very  peaceful about it. Blessed, and soaked, we tuk tuk back so I can pack for the flight home to London.

You might remember that when I embarked on this trip, it was after a fairly grim few months. South East Asia has helped me draw a line under that, with aplomb.

My tuk tuk ride to the airport is insanity personified, and with joy in my heart and tears in my eyes, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

And the soundtrack was:

Arcade Fire ‘Afterlife’

The Antlers ‘Familiars’

Him Sophy ‘A Memory From Darkness’

Sufjan Stevens ‘Seven Swans’

Midlake ‘Antiphon’

Edison Lighthouse ‘Love Grows’

 

Advertisements

Koh Rong but it feels so right

Time for another ambitious travel day as we make our merry way from Siem Reap to the arms of the sea. We start with a dart down the Tonle Sap river on this submarine-esque boat for around seven hours.

P1000368

As is usually the case in Cambodia, the advertised travel time is actually doubled. The boat’s captain even stops for a quick dip mid way. Still, I’ve always been about the journey rather than the destination, so long as there is music (sweet music), a decent read and some time to put your mind into neutral and take stock. The riverside views and Cambodian life whizz by.

P1000374 P1000377

We arrive at the capital Phnom Penh and tuk tuk to the bus station for the next connection to Sihanoukville. We are punished at this point for not looking at the map beforehand, and we’re immediately charged $5 by an industrious tuk tuk driver who then proceeds to drive us approximately 20 steps.

Six hours and one stop later (good luck to those who are weak of bladder travelling in Cambodia) we pull into Sihanoukville bus station for the mandatory haggle with the gaggle of tuk tuk drivers. The entertaining (and devilishly handsome) German (hi Lasse) I met back in Si Phan Don urged me to ditch the town centre in favour of nearby Otres Beach which is 6km east. Backpackers trade on recommendations like this, yearning as they do for turn offs from the well beaten track. In fact, the next few days will be spent in places that weren’t on my original itinerary.

It’s late and the tuk tuk drivers are trying to extrapolate $40 from us for 6km, which is pretty much on a par with London black cab prices. Negotiating skills need to be at their sharpest in Cambodia, but at midnight after 16 hours on the road, we settle on a generous $10 and scoot off to Otres Beach where we’re booked into hostel Don’t Tell Mama.

After a brilliant night’s sleep, we wake to the beauty of our little beachside bungalow complete with en suite bathroom and mosquito nets.

P1000402

It’s clean, well kitted out with amenities and secure. Perched right on the end of the strip, it’s also peaceful. The best (and most talked about) in Otres Beach is Mushroom Point with its unique round bungalows with thatched roofs shaped like little fungi. You’ll need to book early to get in there though, so it’s not an option for the more spontaneous traveller.

Otres is a fishing village set on a simple strip of coastline which can’t be more than quarter of a mile. Both sides of the red sand road are lined with hostels, bungalows, tour operators and quirky bars and restaurants. Tuk tuks ply the route swerving to avoid potholes and other ‘pedestrians’ like those below.

P1000398

It is a great place to relax and enjoy Cambodian cuisine. One of our favourite places to eat is the chic outdoor diner, Dune.

P1000396

Here, I enjoy my first taste of Fish Amok which is a native spiced curry with chilli, garlic, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, and lime zest. The view out to the Gulf of Thailand is cracking.

P1000382 P1000388

It’s also illegal in the Same Small World travel guidelines to sit beachside without a pina colada in hand. Standard.

P1000383

Here we watch the sun dip down into the sea as the bells on the fishing boats ding gently as they bob on the waves.

P1000390P1000394

The territory of the next part of the journey is so unchartered that it’s not even in my guide book! I’m fairly trad when it comes to travelling; ebooks will never replace books, my blog will never place my diary and the travel forums on my iPad will never replace travel guides. I used to be a Rough Guide sort of a girl, but Lonely Planet won me over during a trip to Thailand nine years ago.

ANYWAYS, the next stop is Koh Rong, the second largest island of Cambodia which is located in Koh Kong Province about 25 kilometers off the Sihanoukville’s coast in the Gulf of Thailand. The island has 43 km of beaches, unspoilt jungle, quaint beach bungalows, no roads or traffic and no electricity. It’s the classic island paradise, very rough round the edges and only for the seasoned traveller.

We wash up on the shore after a 45 minute journey from Sihanoukville.

P1000509

And first impressions are everything we’d hoped for.

P1000406

First things first, we’re taken into Coco’s for a briefing.

P1000496

The stark realities of living on an island paradise are outlined to us in no uncertain terms. We’re warned against jungle walks due to snakes,  told how to outsmart sandfly bites with coconut oil and advised to get comfortable at the sight of rats. It’s fair to say that for all the attractive lure of its underdevelopment, Koh Rong has sanitation issues that bring their own challenges.

Briefed, and on high alert, we troop to La Mami one of the only guesthouses set out over the water (a sensible place to be to avoid unwelcome guests of any kind.)

P1000494

We’re remarkably underwhelmed with the accommodation (including a drop loo into the sea…yeah the one we’re due to splash in later.) We ditch it and make for the White Rose Guesthouse at the end of the pier.

P1000493

The double rooms are spacious but basic, kitted out with tired looking mosquito nets and fans which run when the generators do. It has a sociable little terrace, a balcony with hammocks to swing in and two shared bathrooms at the end of each hall.

P1000490

Proximity to the pier is a plus point too due to the searing heat. And the view out onto the strip ain’t half bad.

P1000485P1000484

We set out on an exploration mission walking the length of the beach along the south-east of the island. We quickly surmise that the island is utterly stunning…

P1000451 P1000502P1000456 P1000499

We also realise that the population is about 5% Khmer, 95% tourist; something to be expected for the foreseeable future as word spreads on the backpacker network about this idyllic little spot.

My favourite local is this little guy who sports something we’ve seen a lot of in Asia, Premiere League football strips with a twist. On this one, unthinkably for Chelsea fans, the name Hazard is emblazoned on the back but the Manchester United badge sits proudly on the front.

P1000427

There is much to do here, from scuba diving and snorkelling the coral, boat trips to watch (and swim in) the twinkling plankton by night and fishing hauls to nearby reefs.

P1000497P1000413

Of course if you come, as we have, during a period of rough water and terrible visibility, there is nothing to do here other than eat, drink and bathe in the arms of the sea. We do all three with gusto.

P1000439 P1000452 P1000492

Daringly at times, we even forsake Angkor Beer and dabble instead with regional brew Klang. (Cue MEGAlols and wordplay around our beloved Scottish colloquialism ‘langers’ – meaning the state one gets oneself in when one has over-imbibed alcohol…)

P1000410 P1000444

The quality of the restaurants relate directly to distance from the pier, with one exception. Despite the accommodation options being underwhelming at La Mami, the food is exquisite. Whilst I am not usually one to go for the western option, their Italian menu is outstanding with handmade pastas and freshly prepared sauces. Between us over our four days, we tried tagliatelle bolognese, pesto fettuccine, blue cheese gnocchi, bruschetta and aubergine crostini. When in Rome right?

In fact the food was so good that a lapse in concentration caused Buffie, travel buddy du jour on this Cambodian jaunt, to drop her purse onto the pier which promptly fell through the slats and into the sea. The manager Leo and his pal nonchalantly reach for a fishing net to catch it and deliver it back safely. Points for service boys.

Another highlight was Monkey Kingdom, midway along the beach, which is a very popular hostel that has a brilliant and very sociable raised wooden bar. The view is great.

P1000409

The Thai chef serves up really flavoursome specialities including Guang Kua with pork and pineapple (it is outrageously good)

P1000412

and Pad Ka Pow with chicken.

P1000459

If you stop in early doors, the watermelon shakes are a winner too.

Further up at the end of the beach, far from the madding crowd, sits Treehouse Bungalows. They mix a mean Banana Rum cocktail and the prawn with garlic, ginger and pepper is ace. Order it at your peril though, I counted 14 cloves of garlic…

P1000420

The Seahouse is a relatively new restaurant that we tried, the music was admittedly better than the food, but as it sits on wooden stilts over the water its a good place to catch the breeze and cool down. I had the Beef Lok Lak, another of the national Cambodian dishes, which is marinated beef with a sea salt, lime juice and black Kampot pepper sauce served over salad.

The beach at the other end of the island fast becomes our favourite haunt and we manage days of sunbathing where we barely see a soul. It’s a beautiful walk and the water is perfect, kept calmer by its protective peninsula and shallow enough that you can stride out endlessly before the sand is no longer at your toes.

P1000472 P1000463

Its mesmerising to watch the sand crabs scuttle around on the sand, starting at every vibration. Can you see this little guy?

P1000479

There is just something very renewing about being by the sea. I have always felt that way, on coastlines all over this Same Small World. I can literally feel the stresses of the last few months wash away; the hospital stint, the excruciating work situation, the arduous 20 hour-long working days and the joyless relationship I had to pull myself out of. For that reason, I fall for this island…rats and all.

P1000438

P1000425

 

And the soundtrack was:

Iron & Wine ‘The creek drank the cradle’

The Lemonheads ‘It’s a shame about Ray’

The Antlers ‘Hospice’

Primal Scream ‘Screamadelica’

Phosphorescent ‘Muchacho’

Tomb Raiding in Angkor Wat

Some things in life grab you and you’re instantly touched by their beauty, like the opening bars of Corsicana by The Antlers or the smiling face of a friend meeting you at the end of a long journey. Angkor Wat is one of those things, and my first experience of it is at the break of dawn.

Whilst also shorthand for the dazzlingly impressive 300 kilometre squared temple complex which sits valiantly astride the Tonle Sap river in northern Cambodia, Angkor Wat is also one of the largest temples on the site, built of sandstone and laterite in 1150 by King Suryavarman II of the Khmer empire for the Hindu god Vishnu. And it’s here that we start.

After whizzing through the streets of Siem Reap at 5am in a tuk tuk, we are now stumbling in pitch black along the moat over the river through entrance gates and over stone steps which we can’t even see. We’re not alone, the respectfully quiet chatter around us implies that we’re amongst hundreds of people making their way to the well documented vantage point to watch the sun come up over Angkor Wat, their darting torch beams the only thing keeping us from falling over.

We follow the masses and exit the causeway, ending up next to a lake on the – of the site. It has rather a communal festival feel with groups cross-legged on the floor chatting. As we wait for first light, the chatter dulls and quietens, and slowly the rising sun (albeit shrouded in wispy cloud) reveals those unmistakable and majestic corn-cob towers atop 1500 metres squared of intricate brickwork.

P1000061

And suddenly all at once we feel like we’ve been here a thousand times over.

P1000054

After we’ve taken it all in from a distance, Bette Midler style. We leave the throng at the lake, all draped over the library temples like they were built to take selfies on, and head for the temple.

P1000117

 

P1000050

It is said that Angkor Wat took thirty years to complete, and you can forgive the slow workmanship when you get closer. Every nook and cranny boasts such fine detail, with each turn a new feat of crafstmanship surpasses the last. Its 3rd enclosing wall is embossed with a series of bas-reliefs, a particular kind of sculpture designed to be viewed from many angles without distortion.

P1000067

Scholars have ruminated that this particular temple was built for funerary purposes since its bas-reliefs are meant to be viewed anti-clockwise, a direction that was associated with death in the Khmer empire.

We walk round the walls taking in each gallery depicting battle scenes and tales from Hindu mythology.

P1000069 P1000065P1000071 P1000070

These were once embossed in red and gold, but it has worn off from thousands of hands caressing the complex and detailed stonework. Two of the most famous are the Heaven and Hell gallery, and The Ocean of the Churning Milk.. The latter is concerned with the life story of Krishna, one of the avatars of Vishnu. In it the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) line up against each other trying to churn the ocean to make amrita (the elixir of immortality.) I’ll tak a cup o’ that.

The pyramid at the heart of the temple is triple tiered. Up one level is the Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas, or it was until large numbers of the statues were removed for conservation and the remainder were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. We’re invited by a local to light incense and give thanks to Buddha by kneeling, clasping the incense between our palms, holding it to our foreheads and bowing three times. It’s a lovely, peaceful moment, but the bubble bursts almost immediately when the understandably industrious Cambodian invites us to donate $20 ‘for good luck.’

Nearby the Chamber of Echoes is a place where sound reverberates if you stand with your back to the wall and thump your chest. This what the locals do, three times, for good fortune. This time for free.

In the same cloister are the old library buildings and the south west and south east corner of the complex.

P1000083

Up another level is a stunning frieze of apsaras which are spirits of the clouds and waters from both Hindu and Buddhist mythology,  the emblems (and poster girls) of this beautiful country.

P1000090

It’s a steep climb to the third and final level, which only the high priest and king would have been allowed to visit in Khmer times.

P1000075

Here, your flesh will need to be covered to within an inch of its life to observe the tradition respectfully, a scarf over the shoulders won’t do. But, after the climb, in the excruciating heat, we are very much rewarded. The views outward are of the dense forests and rice paddies, the sheer scale bringing your jaw to a slack position.

P1000093

P1000096

The views inwards are just as gratifying.

P1000085

P1000094

Beautiful courtyards giving way to the 65 metre corn-cob towers themselves.

P1000103

If you can squint long enough into the debilitatingly hot sun, you’ll see garudas (large mythical birds), nagas (serpents) and apsaras (poster girls) on every inch of every spire.

On the way out at the gates, we stop in at the statue of Vishnu resplendent in saffron.

P1000126

Sounds just heavenly doesn’t it. Well, it does have its downsides. We are harangued relentlessly by local vendors to eat and drink almost constantly when outwith the enclosure walls. That I can deal with. The fact that they are all named Harry Potter, Lady Gaga, 007 etc, I can’t.

This could indicate numerous things; that Western tourists are so lazy they can’t remember a Cambodian name, that they’re so oblivious they can’t identify someone they just had a conversation with or that they are so xenophobic that the moment they see something which connects them to the part of the globe that they can relate to more closely they are so giddy with excitement they’ll by a $2 dollar Coke. Or all of the above.

We beat a hasty retreat after this due to the searing heat, returning the next day in late afternoon to the Angkor Thom complex and specifically the Bayon.

P1000139

When we reach there, a production team are setting up for a film shoot which is not uncommon here (parts of Tomb Raider were filmed at nearby Ta Prohm…of which more later.) In front of the temple, flight cases are lined up and lighting rigs are being assembled around us.

P1000144

But within the enclosure walls and away from the melee, we see the temple in all its uninterrupted glory. In this lower light, the setting sun seems to turn the stone pinkish in this dusky hue. It’s a beautiful time of day to see it.

P1000150 P1000164

The eye is drawn immediately, and mesmerisingly, to the temple’s unique selling point (marketing speak people…bathe in it) which is 216 faces carved into the temple’s 54 stone towers dominating the view from every enchanting angle.

Some claim that these were modelled in the image of the ever modest Khmer King. Others say that it is the image of Loveskara, meaning ‘Lord of the world’, the bodhisattva said to encompass the compassion of all buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism.

P1000171 P1000167 P1000160 P1000157

Not to be outdone, the Bayon has its own bas-reliefs adorning the walls…

P1000198 P1000177

…but many are unfinished and in poor condition, so I’d suggest swerving these and spending your time seeking out the faces and taking a moment to admire how the light dances upon the stone.

P1000165 P1000183

Next up the following morning is Banteay Srei, the veritable poster boy of Angkor Wat itself. Or perhaps we should we say poster girl given that it translates as ‘Citadel of women’, its intricate and detailed carvings in the fine-grained rose-pink sandstone lending themselves to the legend that it was built by women.

P1000217

This is the temple that adorns $2 dollar t-shirts the country over, and it’s understandable. Even if you’d spent a full week shuffling around temples in the excruciating heat, I defy your heart not to soften on sight of this charming beauty.

P1000219 P1000231 P1000239

This temple is the Kylie of Angkor Wat, positively diminutive compared to some of its contemporaries comprised as it is of one single level. It is richly embellished with floral motifs and scenes from the Ramayana, considered one of the great Hindu epics. The temple itself was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva in 967.

P1000220 P1000224 P1000229 P1000232

Mythical beasts with monkey’s heads and human bodies guard the temple steps.

P1000238

It’s a popular spot despite the 25km schlep from the main drag of Angkor Wat, so it is not conducive to linger here and the flow of visitors kind of carries you aloft towards the western exit. A local band of musicians raising money to support those affected by land mines plays us out with a beautiful soundtrack.

P1000250

It’s worth stealing one last glance over your shoulder at the resplendent temple before the off.

P1000253

Our penultimate stop is Ta Prohm, made famous by a lycra-clad Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. It was built in 1186 as a monastery dedicated to the deity Prajnaparamita. Over time, nature has battled with it and in this case, won. Enormous kapok trees wind their way over, above and through the terraces and walls.

P1000265 P1000270 P1000277 P1000282

Wandering around it feels like walking down London’s Oxford Street though, it’s overcrowded and mostly shrouded in scaffolding. We make a very sharp exit and head for Preah Khan.

Here, we find something unique to Angkor Wat…peace. It starts at the processional way entering the western gate.

P1000288

Preah Khan was built by Jayavarman VII on the site of a former royal city, and it was here that the king lived whilst he was overseeing the restoration of Angkor Thom. The name Preah Khan means ‘sacred sword’ is said to be a weapon that was ceremonially gifted by the king to his heir, so the person holding the sword hold’s the throne.

P1000329 P1000315 P1000291

Soon I’m clambering through the halls and corridors of the temple which once served as both a monastery and university. Nature has also had its way here and lichen encrusts the sandstone giving it a very ethereal feel here.

The walls are graced with yet more eye-catching carvings.

P1000297 P1000298

Taking respite from the sun, I grab a seat on the stairs facing one of the library buildings.

P1000310 P1000309

Right at this point I feel a calmness descend over me. The beauty of the temples hit me over the head from the moment the sun rose over Angkor Wat on the first day but it’s not until now, away from the bartering Lady Gagas and 007’s, that the serenity takes hold.

Maybe it’s the yoga, maybe it’s the full moon, maybe I just utterly love being back on the road again. But a switch flicks today for sure.

It seems like the right thing to do to pay my thankful respects at the stupa of Buddha on the way out.

P1000325

Our tuk tuk driver looks as knackered as us by the time we’re ready to traipse home.

P1000216

P1000129 P1000263

 

And the soundtrack was:

Youth Lagoon ‘Wondrous Bughouse’

Sharon Van Etten ‘Are we there’

Daughter ‘If you leave’

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.

Photo 18-03-2013 14 18 11

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.

Photo 17-03-2013 06 14 36 Photo 17-03-2013 06 07 29

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.

Photo 17-03-2013 06 06 58

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.

Photo 17-03-2013 04 38 01

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.

P1000002

P1000004

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

P1000028

From fragrant herbs and spices

P1000026

to shocked and stunned featherless chickens.

P1000029

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…

Photo 15-03-2013 06 48 12

P1000010

then there’s time for a quick sundowner.

P1000021

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

P1000025

to the ridiculous… (look carefully.)

P1000011

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.

P1000007

P1000006

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.

P1000013 P1000014

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.

P1000213

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

P1000207 P1000209

 

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.

P1000137

 

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.