Cambodia – culture of calm

Posted by on Sep 23, 2014 in In print this month | 0 comments

Angkor dreams on the Mekong

For its gentle smiling people, vast majestic temples of breathtaking complexity and the mighty Mekong River flowing through it all, Cambodia touches you deeply. Whether you choose to walk on water in a floating village, dine on meals served in coconuts or have a pedicure by goldfish, it’s a place that’s enchanting and soulful where every day is lived to the brim.

By Keri Harvey

The way to Angkor Wat

The way to Angkor Wat

It’s raining softly over Angkor Wat, giving the majestic jungle temple an air of moody mystery. Not that it needs any enhancement though, this temple will take your breath away for its scale and intricacy. As part of the vast Angkor complex of ancient temples, Angkor Wat is the biggest temple by far and also claims status as the largest religious structure on earth. It’s Cambodia’s equivalent of the pyramids or Chichen Itza.

“Everything about Angkor Wat is indescribable. You just have to see it for yourself,” says temple guide Borith Roth, as he sidesteps a puddle on the smoothly worn stone path to the entrance. “It’s a special place for Cambodians, it’s even on our flag.” And Angkor Wat is only one of 1080 temples built by the Khmer between the 9th and 14th centuries, and 294 of these are right here in Siem Reap.

The Angkor complex of temples was also home to over a million people at a time when London had just 30 000, and Angkor Wat – meaning ‘temple that is a city’ – was its capital, topped with five domes that are enormous lotus flowers of stone. Inside, the walls are lined with reliefs carved by 6 000 sculptors depicting Hindu mythology and completed in the early 12th century. But today the temple is shared by Buddists, and shiny-headed monks draped in orange wander its halls in quiet wonder, lighting incense as they go.

An avenue lined by stone faces – happy on the right side and frowning on the left – stare back at us coldly as we approach the arched entrance to Angkor Thom. Here, inside, is the Bayon temple which from a distance looks like a pile of dark stone rubble through the trees, but once inside visitors are rendered speechless. Looking out in all directions, 216 massive stone faces watch you wherever you walk, all with an expression of perfect calm frozen in time for all eternity. In Bayon there’s also 1.2km of carved wall reliefs that include a staggering 11 000 figures. It’s hard to get your head around the combination of massive scale and intricate detail. As we descend the steep stairs out of Bayon, a Buddist monk in telltale orange robes, sits on the stairs quietly staring ahead. “The beauty is unspeakable,” he whispers to himself in Khmer as we pass. “It is from another world.”

Deeper into the jungle, steaming with still, tropical heat, Ta Prohm appears to be in a silent war with nature. Famous as the location for filming Tomb Raider, Ta Prohm was built as a Buddist temple in the early 12th century, and now it appears the jungle wants it back. Massive tree roots have the temple in a stranglehold, but Ta Prohm – the temple of towers – still stands steadfast. Inside, many of its narrow corridors are clogged with stone blocks dislodged by tree roots, and many bas reliefs are covered with lichen, making this temple the most evocative of all. Always in dappled shade, Ta Prohm has an otherworldly atmosphere.

The transition from ancient history to the here and now is swift on a drive south from Siem Reap to the capital Phnom Penh, on the mighty Mekong River. The Cambodian countryside is lush and watery. Rural homes are built wooden and boxy and raised on stilts, so residents stay dry during the long tropical rainy season from June to October. The red earth is fertile and iridescent green rice paddies stretch as far as the eye can see. Long-horned water buffalo work the sodden paddies, using methods unchanged through generations.

Rice, in its 20 varieties and prepared in countless ways, is the staple of Cambodia and the Khmer people. Accompanied by fresh fish, subtle spices and lashings of coconut milk, it also forms the national dish of Amok, deliciously served from a whole fresh coconut. Everywhere in Cambodia food is fresh and organic, and fruit, vegetables and fresh herbs are abundant, enticing and deliciously healthy – none of the oily, sugary, starchy, chemical foods of the West exist here.

In the countryside, people ply the roads on foot, bicycles and mopeds, but seldom alone. Mopeds are family vehicles and travelling six up is not unusual. These mopeds are also work vehicles for whatever needs to be transported, from water buffalo to double beds, fridges, or wedding flower arrangements, making for hilarious scenes. A step up from the moped is the tuk-tuk, which is really a moped towing a small trailer with bench seats and is also used as a truck equivalent to cart larger volumes of goods. Cambodians are the world’s best packers, carrying more on a moped than we do in a car, way more.

Without exception, Cambodians are warm and friendly, yet they are also amongst the poorest people in the world. Still, there is no begging, no sense of entitlement for wrongs of the past – of which there are many – and no victim mentality. These are inspiring people, all 15 million of them, with a dedicated work ethic, innate pride and a resilience that flows from deep Buddist spirituality.

Wedged between Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, Cambodia is a rare gem in South East Asia, a well kept secret and a place that will touch your soul deeply. It’s far more affordable than travelling right here in South Africa, and it’s way more evocative too. There is no crime, just a thread of peacefulness runs though it. Something like the magnificent Mekong, one of the world’s great rivers. Yet it’s the people who live here who are the greatest asset of all.

Travel advice

Best time to go: November to February as it’s the dry season.

Visa: on arrival in Cambodia and costs US$20

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies Johannesburg to Singapore and then on to Siem Reap, Cambodia with a quick connection on Silk Air.

Affordability: extremely affordable. A full dinner can cost as little as R25 and a meticulous 3* hotel with A/C, TV and breakfast costs around R120 per person.

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