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For a Lara Croft style adventure, Cambodia is the trip. In fact, “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” was largely filmed in the extraordinary ruins of Angkor, near the town of Siem Reap in Cambodia.

I had heard of the magnificent ancient temple of Angkor Wat and wanted to go there for years; engulfed by jungles, mysterious- a Khmer masterpiece. What I didn’t know was that Angkor Wat is only one temple in a surrounding area of close to 100 ancient temples, blending creative ambition and spiritual devotion.

Ancient, rock-carved serene-looking face at

One could get lost among the bas-relief pillars featuring beautiful asparas (a heavenly female divinity who pleases the gods and goddesses with song and dance) and dimly lit corridors, some containing present day shrines.

The Khmer civilization in all its glory existed in Cambodia from 802 to 1431 A.D. The architecture was Indian inspired with a strong and unique local influence. Depending on the king in power the religion was Hindu or Buddhist or a mixture of both. In the sculpture of the time one can often see gods from the Buddhist and Hindu pantheon together.

The best ways to get there is from Saigon or Bangkok, and then take a domestic flight to Siem Reap. I flew from San Francisco to Saigon with a short refueling stop in Hong Kong. Be forewarned; the trip is close to 20 hours long so bring a good book and your iPod.

Cambodia has two distinct seasons, the dry and the monsoon. It’s best to go during the dry season from late October to April when the weather is milder. I expected the humidity and heat to be overbearing, but I didn’t feel it much because I was having so much fun.

It’s good to visit the many ruins early in the morning, take a break during the hottest part of the day and head out again in the late afternoon. When we were there, November, the beginning of the high season, there were other tourists to be sure, but I found the ruins to be relatively uncrowded and tranquil. You’ll find that many of the sites are more photogenic at different times of the day. I was on a tour with the excellent Photo Explorer Tours (www.photoexplorertours.com) that designs tours specifically for photographers. They took care of everything, from getting a superb local guide to finding the best photo opportunities and places to stay. I recommend taking a tour, or at least hiring a guide.

Your hotel choices in Siem Reap vary wildly from backpacker basic to pampered luxury. We stayed at the wonderful three-star Hanuman Alaya Boutique Guesthouse (www.hanumanalaya.com). It’s just a short distance form the temple monuments. The rooms are finished in wood and elegantly decorated with local antiques and handicrafts. All rooms are air-conditioned and have satellite TV. There is a swimming pool and soothing spa to help you relax, and you can get an hour-long massage for just $15. Rates for the hotel range from $65-95 per night.

The first day the kitchen served us their version of western food. However, I found it’s best to stick with the local cuisine. We requested Khmer food and were not disappointed. The menu features a large selection of local dishes including amoc, steamed fish with coconut, chili and lemongrass in a banana leaf.

The encroaching jungle fighting with theNow for the main attraction: the temples themselves. Our first stop in the early morning was to Ta Prohm, a temple left untouched by archeologists, except for a path through the site. Covered in jungle, the tendrils and roots of fig, banyan and kapok trees twist their way into and around the stones, walls, corridors and pillars that make up the site, a visual poem of nature and man coexisting. Spiritually quiet, occasional bird calls were clear and crisp, with no wind to soften them. I mostly heard the sounds of my own awe and breathing. There was a smell of decay of the old ones (timber) and the growth of the new. The smell was rich with the fermentation of life, a jungle forever being reborn and the air was thick with humidity and the spores of life. I felt like I could spend hours there finding new passageways and discovering rooms of sculpted treasures.

Outside of Ta Prohm children and women greeted us with handicrafts of all kinds. I bought several handmade silk scarves for $2 each and an Angkor T-shirt for the same price. I was delighted to discover how far American money goes in Cambodia. Our next stop was Ta Keo, which was never completed, and, as such is the only temple in the area with no ornamentation.

Then came Banteay Kdei. King Jayavarman VII built this structure as a Buddhist monastery complex. Here we found many Buddhist monks in their saffron and orange robes milling about. Their presence emanated serenity. We all took many photo ops with monks throughout the trip. For the most part they were gracious and kind considering we often descended on them like flies with cameras (not recommended).

Outside of Banteay Kdei was a group of men playing Cambodian music on traditional instruments. What made these men special was that they were landmine victims missing limbs, a stark reminder of Cambodia’s war torn past. The money raised goes to support children’s schooling and to create jobs for disabled persons.

Banteay Srei, Angkor, Cambodia

Next was Banteay Srei “Citadel of the Women”. The temple is a small gem with the doors being narrow and barely five-feet tall. The structure is covered with intricate and exquisite decorative features. Some of the wall panels feature lively scenes from the Ramayana and other Indian epics. Many people cite Banteay Srei as their favorite temple, so leave as much time as you can spare for it.

The highlight of Banteay Samre was an encounter with a Buddhist holy man at a handmade shrine consisting of candles, incense and flowers. He spoke incantations in Sanskrit and told us to bow three times before the shrine for good luck. Whether sham or sacred ritual, the feeling was ethereal.

The next day we arose bright and early to see the famous temple of Angkor Wat “The City that is a Temple”. This monument, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu is the largest of the Angkor group. It is an architectural masterpiece, the high point of Khmer art, and rivals the Egyptian pyramids. As I approached the monument I wasn’t prepared for the spectacular vista I encountered. It was so well preserved, I felt like I had slipped back in time to an ancient Asian city. When I got closer I was amazed by the details in the architecture. Ornate carvings of mysterious heavenly beings decorated the walls and doors. According to legend Angkor Wat is a symbolist replica of the universe. Outside Cambodian children did spectacular flips into the water of the moat around Angkor Wat. I don’t know how safe the water was for swimming, but they were having a heck of a good time.

A wide shot of the magnificent ruins ofWe begrudgingly left Angkor Wat and headed towards the wonderful monument of the Bayon. There were lines of stone sentries on either side of us leading to a large ornate tunnel structure. It was interesting to observe the overloaded motorbikes and cars that shared the tunnel with tourists on elephants. I think Bayon and its huge carvings of ornate faces was my favorite monument. I felt a spiritual awe while there that was unexplainable. In a corner a young Cambodian man painted watercolors of the beautiful structures. I gladly purchased two of them.

Later that day we visited Artisans D’Angkor (Artists of Angkor), a training school that helps young, disadvantaged Cambodians rediscover traditional handicraft making. Most of the skilled Cambodian artists were killed during the war and genocide. We walked into the workshop where artists cut wood into amazing figures, some in bias relief and some as stand alone sculptures. Then we were escorted to their store. The items were gorgeous but fairly expensive.

We couldn’t resist going back to Angkor Wat to photograph the temple with its reflection in the water of the surrounding moat. As a wonderful surprise there was a huge Buddha decorated as a shrine with young Buddhist monks attending to it. We talked with and photographed them.

That night we went to Amazon Angkor (amazon-angkor.com), a restaurant where we had a hearty meal from a huge buffet of international dishes. The space seated 600 people, large enough for a theater. We were treated to beautiful and exotic Khmer dancing with traditional costumes and music. I enjoyed it despite the Hollywood-like slickness of the performance. It made me wish for the days of ancient Angkor and it’s dancing asparas.Traditional Cambodian dancing at Amazon

On our last day we visited the wondrous Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s biggest lake. The Tonle Sap River drains the lake during the dry season, while during the monsoon season it reverses its flow under the pressure of the Mekong River. The lake’s unique hydrology, ecology, biological diversity and cultural significance were recognized when it was listed as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1997. Here we leisurely observed a floating village of fishermen whose families lived on the lake. It was fascinating to see the villagers doing everything from swimming, fishing, washing clothes and eating from their stilted houses and boats. There was even a bright blue Catholic church on the water. Later that day we boarded a plane to Vietnam. It was sad to leave Angkor, but we were on to our next adventure.

SIDEBAR- TRIP PREPARATIONS:

MEDICAL: Check with your local travel clinic to see what vaccines will be necessary. I got inoculated for Hepatitis A and B and Typhoid. Get a prescription for malaria pills and Cipro (for travelers diarrhea). Bring a good mosquito repellent (containing at least 30-40% DEET) and use it. A variety of mosquito-borne diseases may be present, although the risk of contracting them is low. Also, purchase a basic first aid kit.

LEGAL: If you don’t have a passport it could take months to obtain one. Also, you’ll need a visa to visit Cambodia. You can speed up the process markedly by using a travel document expediting service such as Travel Document Express (www.traveldocument.com).

INSURANCE: You’ll want to get traveler’s insurance in case the unthinkable happens and you get sick or your luggage gets lost. Travel Guard International has a variety of plans (www.TravelGuard.com).

MONEY: Cambodian riel is the official tender in Cambodia but the US dollar is the de facto currency. Carry some small riel for motorcycle taxis, snacks, beggars and other small purchases.

TOURS/GUIDES: First time travelers should seek out well established US companies that have been in business for some time and have a proven track record. A trip like Cambodia would be considered a “soft” adventure trip (off the beaten track travel itineraries and small groups to access remote places) if googling for information. Reputation is important. Check independent resources such as ITN (International Traveler’s News with reports from travelers), Rough Guide and Lonely Planet. Ask a company you are interested in using for the contact information of travelers that have previously gone on their trips. They can be a wealth of knowledge. Once with a US based travel company get contact information from local guides that are used on your trip so they can be contacted for later travel. Your hotel may have some suggestions too.

PLACES TO STAY: Use the internet. Note that in Cambodia we saw evidence of several new 4-star hotels (e.g. Marriott) opening. If you don’t know the area it’s best to stay with known chains. US chains are now in the most remote places. If you’re looking for something less expensive try the aforementioned ITN, Rough Guide or Lonely Planet guide.

For more information about travel in Cambodia, check the many resources by searching online. Be certain to check the US State Department website before you travel at http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1080.html

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 113 - September 2018
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