A satisfied customer
Tomb raiding, fried tarantula and sunrise over the world's greatest wonders in Cambodia - by Richard Johnson (The Mail Online 6/4/09)
When I appeared in the film Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, I played against type. My role was a superrich, scheming, manipulative leader of a gang of miscreants bent on taking control of the world. (Yes, a banker - how did you guess?) Fortunately, Lara Croft, played by Angelina Jolie, saw through my evil plan and made sure it failed. In fact, she disposed of me before I even had a chance to reach pensionable age. Recollections of that period of my life flooded back as I stood at one of the vine-encrusted doorways that led to the interior of the ancient Temple of Ta Prohm, part of the Angkor Wat complex in northern Cambodia. The movie featured these doorways - and they supposedly led to a vast underground chamber housing a gigantic time machine. Alas, I never went to Cambodia during filming - the doorways were cleverly and expensively constructed at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. So it was a thrill to be given the chance to experience the real thing, especially as Angkor Wat is widely, and rightly, counted among the wonders of the ancient world. Mind you, we had to get up at 5am and miss the excellent buffet breakfast at our hotel, the Raffles Grand, in favour of a packed one in a knapsack in order to arrive at the Temple in the dark. Then we had to wait patiently for the sun to rise beyond the five dominating sandstone towers, the tallest of which is more than 200ft.
As I peeled the second of my hardboiled eggs, dawn began to arrive. It was astounding, turning the towers into dark sentinels of the secrets they guard. The waters of the lake that lay between us and them shimmered with red, pink, amber and gold. Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th Century - about the same time as Peterborough Cathedral - by King Suryavarman II to honour the Hindu god Vishnu. Peterborough may be proud of its cathedral but compared with Angkor - reputed to be the largest religious building in the world - it is as a fly to an eagle. The complex covers an area of more than 20 acres. There are thousands of exquisite bas-reliefs, some extending for hundreds of yards along covered galleries; others more intimate, depicting the king's handmaidens. Considering that it is in a tropical forest area, and has been fought over in several wars, the Wat is in good condition. Time has not dealt so kindly with many of the other temples scattered around the area. Among the buildings that have been effectively consumed by the jungle, with giant fig and silk-cottonwood trees spanning and gripping the delicate stonework with their roots, is the romantic and fascinating temple of Ta Prohm.
You could probably visit ten such places in a day if you had the energy, which is unlikely given the heat you will encounter during the dry season. Angkor Wat is one of the pinnacles of world tourism - glossy coffee-table books insist that we must see it before we die. The authors of such books are right. The place is unforgettable. It has such beauty, such atmosphere, such mysterious spirituality. I'm glad I've made my pilgrimage. The Raffles Grand is the oldest in Siem Reap, the dormitory for visitors to Angkor. Since the Nineties, the town has expanded massively to cater for the ever-increasing tourist trade. There were more than two million visitors last year. More hotels are in the planning stage, including one with 1,000 bedrooms. Obviously, all this places a huge strain on the resources of the area.
A few days earlier we had arrived in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, aboard Thai Airways' efficient overnight service from Heathrow, which landed us there spot on time after a stopover at Bangkok. Phnom Penh has four significant tourist attractions: the Royal Palace, the National Museum, S-21 prison and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Our first stop was the Killing Fields, a 12-mile drive from the city. We arrived, somewhat pale and jetlagged, and waited while our guide obtained the entry tickets for three American dollars - about £2. With our fee paid, we passed through the gate into a strangely quiet and peaceful place. Confronting us was a stupa - the most sacred Buddhist monument. Filled with relics and other holy objects, it is believed to emanate blessings and peace. The stupa - tall, circular and glasssided - also contains the bleached skulls and bones of some 8,000 of the 17,000 men, women and children who, naked, blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs, were shot or hacked to death in the killing fields before their bodies were shovelled into mass graves. As we walked the paths between the burial pits, our guide disturbed the whitened arm-bone of a small child. It was a shocking and terribly moving place - witness, if any were needed, to the monstrous inhumanity of man.'We will now return to the city to visit S-21,' said our guide as we sat, silent and stunned, in the cool of our minibus. In the days before the Khmer Rouge took power, Security Prison 21 was a high school. The regime converted the classrooms into torture chambers, covered the windows with iron bars and enclosed the whole area in electrified barbed wire. Of the thousands of prisoners who passed through the site between 1975 and 1979, only seven survived - the rest were sent to the killing fields. Of the 1,729 staff at the prison, just one has been put on trial. Now S-21 is the Museum of Genocide. As we passed through the buildings we were confronted with the ghastly instruments of torture, such as the electrified metal bedsteads to which prisoners were shackled. Most moving of all were the thousands of images of the victims - men, women, even small children, their hands tied behind their backs, staring uncomprehendingly at the camera as they were meticulously photographed by their captors. Our Phnom Penh guide lost her uncle during the Khmer Rouge regime; our guide in Siem Reap lost his father. Both speak constantly, almost compulsively, of those times. Perhaps this ritual of conducting tourists to these terrible places somehow assuages the pain, and bears witness to their suffering. I hope so. That night there was certainly a sober mood among our group.
The following day, we visited the Royal Palace, a creation that is beyond palatial. There are gilded buildings with graceful, curving roof-lines; the massive ceremonial Silver Pagoda; solid gold statues studded with thousands of diamonds; staircases made of Italian marble; gardens carefully tended and lush with tropical flowers and trees. It's spectacular. However, we were not permitted to view the royal apartments, which are at the back of the complex, away from the king's loyal subjects and tourists. You may think the $3 entry fee for the privilege of strolling around the grounds is a bargain when you remember it costs £14 to visit Buckingham Palace on open days. But when you consider that the average Cambodian earns about $300 (just over £200) a year, it's perhaps not such a good deal. I was beginning to feel the heat, so I passed up the opportunity to climb 300 steps to view a temple on the way to our next stop, the National Museum, preferring instead to laze under a tree and listen to the cicadas' shrill conversation in the palms. Not far away the temple's elephant munched his lunch placidly in the shade. The National Museum is really interesting. There are four galleries arranged around a central garden courtyard, where ornamental carp swirl among the water lilies of formal pools. Inside, there are some wonderful examples of sculptural art: giant wrestling monkeys carved from sandstone; a king of the 12th Century in meditative pose, his head bowed; serried ranks of Buddhas, some of them rescued from Khmer Rouge desecration by devotees, many of whom paid for their bravery with their lives. Again I was touched by the suffering these people have endured across the centuries.
In the evening we went for the last of our Phnom Penh excursions - a sunset cruise on the mighty Mekong River, on whose banks the city has evolved. The Mekong is the lifeblood of Cambodia, as the Nile is of Egypt. It has its source in the Tibetan Himalayas and winds its way 2,700 miles through China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before discharging into the South China Sea. In northern Cambodia, the Mekong flows into the huge freshwater Tonle Sap Lake, entering it near Siem Reap. About a quarter of Cambodia's 20million people gain their living directly from the lake or the Mekong, either from its huge and extraordinarily diverse fish population or from the flooding of the surrounding paddy fields. As we set off downriver, we passed massive dredgers scooping silt from the river to form whole new islands; on the right bank the sweeping roofs of the Royal Palace glistened in the evening light. Further on, we cruised past the floating village of Chong Kneas whose inhabitants trawl to satisfy the capital's ever-increasing demand for fish. That night we dined at the atmospheric Khmer Surin Restaurant in Phnom Penh, founded in 1996, which has an excellent menu of authentic Thai and Cambodian dishes. Try the fish amok served in little pots, each with a subtle difference of flavour.
The next day we left our hotel, the Raffles Le Royal, at 7am for the start of the long drive from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and our visit to the magnificent Angkor Wat complex. As we ploughed through the massed ranks of rush-hour motorcyclists, I discovered the best way to drive in Phnom Penh. Just point your vehicle in the direction you want to go, maintain a steady speed and somehow, miraculously, the motorcyclists get out of the way. Be warned, once clear of the environs of the city, the road gets rough and savagely pot-holed. We had a brief respite at a cafe in a small roadside market, where the boast of locals that ' Cambodians will eat anything' was borne out by the trays of fried tarantulas, crickets and ants on offer. One of the adventurous girls in our party even volunteered to try a tarantula leg. The expression on her face as she tried to swallow it was, however, enough to dissuade her friends from ordering the mixed insect platter.
Four bone-rattling hours later we stopped for a picnic lunch at the ruined temples of Sambor Prei Kuk. The area was blessedly devoid of other tourists so we were able to enjoy its crumbling sanctuaries, guarded by elaborate stone lions that looked marvellous in the dappled sunlight. We then rejoined the road - well, track is a more apt description - for another four-hour rollercoaster ride to remote Koh Ker. For a short period in the 10th Century this was the capital of Cambodia, but now it is another romantic ruin. We were spending the night in what our tour company called a 'luxury safari camp', with the promise of a 'traditional local dinner'. My immediate thought was of a tarantula starter, followed by civet cat, gently roasted after being shot out of a tree by a member of the kitchen staff armed with a catapult. The orange canvas tents of the camp were set up almost against the walls of an ancient temple, in a forest clearing. As darkness fell, oil-rag torches lit up the pathways to the dining area. A substantial table with matching chairs, crisp tablecloth and napkins had been set up for the traditional local meal. It also came with a printed, gold-embossed menu and waiters in uniform. Soon a long glass of gin and tonic was coursing into my pot hole-battered limbs, followed by a substantial goblet of Chardonnay. Boy, the locals around here really live well, I thought. The dinner itself was a slightly rustic version of a menu that might have come from the kitchens of a Raffles hotel.
Later, I settled down on my bed fully clothed - well, what's the point of getting undressed, especially after a bottle of excellent wine has been settled with a couple of fine post-prandial glasses of Cognac Napoleon? For a while I was disturbed by the thought that if one of the burning torches were to fall over, the whole tinder-dry area would go up in flames. But then I thrust the idea out of my mind and slept until dawn, when the breeze sighed through the sides of my canvas dwelling. It was as if our camp were being visited by the ghosts of Angkorians past, disturbed by our presence. After viewing the ruins at Koh Ker, we resumed our journey to Siem Reap, arriving at the Raffles in time for lunch by the pool. We enjoyed this spot of R&R after the rigours of the journey, and looked forward to the culmination of our trip - the visit to the Temples of Angkor Wat.
Cambodia has much that is strange to Western eyes. The juxtaposition of great wealth and the extreme poverty of the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants; the almost blatant levels of corruption; the certainty of environmental disaster unless the world can prevent the destruction of the Tonle Sap Lake, eliminating pollution and outlawing water abstraction and damming upstream, especially in China. All these problems are obvious. So why go to Cambodia? Well, this small country's main source of foreign income comes from tourism. They need us. And the people's welcome is heart-warmingly open and generous. Cambodia is rich with extraordinary antiquities, while its tragic recent history is borne with courage and even humour. The people are truly wonderful. Go, enjoy them. You'll return with memories that will last a lifetime.
Travel facts: Cox & Kings has a nine-night tailor-made trip to Cambodia that combines three nights at Raffles Le Royal in Phnom Penh, four at Raffles Grand Hotel in Siem Reap and two in a tented temple camp from £3,195 per person. The price includes return flights with Thai Airways via Bangkok, breakfast and some meals, private transfers and all excursions. The trip was organized in Cambodia by who else? - Hanuman Tourism of course.
Labels: Hanuman Tourism