Our first day in Cambodia began at the fairly reasonable hour of 7.30am. Luckily the Coffee Fairy had flown in with me and was on duty (see earlier posts) which made the daunting task of waking up and staggering down to breakfast a little easier. Our Khmer guide Manay was waiting for us at reception and with a peremptory wave of his hand he summoned our tuk tuk for the day’s excursion. The tuk tuk, driven by its owner Mr An, was extremely smart with frilled, white satin cushions and a cool box filled with bottles of cold water and jasmine scented cold towels to wipe our hands and faces after each temple visit. Husband of course insisted on giving himself a full flannel bath whenever he was handed one of these towels much to the amusement of Mr An.
We set off into the morning rush hour of Siem Reap. The roads were buzzing with hundreds of mopeds, tuk tuks, bicycles and the occasional car and pretty quickly we realised that there are no road markings, no give way signs or traffic lights at any junction or intersection. All the drivers just go for it, keeping a close watch on everyone else and weaving in and out of each other. It is all done with great good humour and politeness and there is very little hooting. The mopeds generally had more than one occupant and I regularly counted four and once five people on board, including two small children. Mr An carefully wove his way through the apparent chaos and after twenty minutes we arrived at our first stop.
I have wanted to visit the temples of Cambodia ever since Lara Croft in Tomb Raider crept through the ancient stone door which was overgrown with unworldly looking tree roots, and the first temple on our itinerary was the very same one. Ta Prohm is amazingly well preserved with wonderful doorways and corridors still intact. The element that makes it unique are the four or five Spung trees which have insinuated themselves between the giant blocks of stone and whose roots resemble the tentacles of some giant alien. Above us in the uppermost branches were five or so enormous beehives, hanging like brown banners, each at least two metres long.
After fully exploring Ta Prohm we climbed back into the tuk tuk and headed off to a much less visited temple called Ta Nei. It is down a dirt track only accessible by bike, moped or tuk tuk so the tour buses don’t reach it. We were practically alone as we clambered over giant fallen blocks of stone and walked through passageways full of ancient carvings. By this time, the temperature must have hit 38 degrees C and Husband made full use of the cool towels and water offeredby Mr An on our return to the tuk tuk.
The next temple was much larger and had been well restored by the chinese. We decided to climb the ancient stone staircase to the top which frankly scared me to death. All the temple stairs that we encountered in Cambodia are very tall and narrow so you have to go up and down sideways. It also makes them extremely steep and the staircase in this temple was at least 20 metres high. Going up was nervewracking but worth it. We scrambled to the top to find an amazing view of the jungle and we were able to visit the towers on its summit. In one we found a golden Buddha and a little old man who offered us some incense to burn. Having paid our respects it was time to gird our loins and go back down the near vertical stone staircase. Husband and Manay started down apparently unmoved by the fact that any misstep would lead to instant death. I on the otherhand, had to descend like an arthritic crab, shaking and clutching onto the stone blocks at the side, trying not to look down. After what felt like hours, I reached the bottom in one piece albeit with very wobbly legs and was feeling extremely proud of myself when Manay mentioned conversationally that monks in their seventies would think nothing of zipping up and down the same staircase on a daily basis when the temple was in use.
In all we saw five temples that day. Each different from the last but still staggering in their scale and state of preservation. It had been hard work climbing steep steps and scrambling over ruins and even Husband was looking a little wilted when the tuk tuk suddenly veered off the road and after bumping down a dusty track came to a stop on the banks of the enormous moat that surrounds the ancient city if Ankor Thom. Manay motioned us towards a gold leaf adorned gondola with our own pilot who would scull the boat along the moat as we sat under a small awning.
As the sun set over the water, a million cicadas began to sing and Manay handed me a stiff gin and tonic and Husband a cold beer. It was the best possible end to an extraordinary day.