This time we our daughter Natasha, Roo’s mother Judie and his sister Barbara in tow. While Tash has more foreign visas in her passport than she’s had birthdays, Roo’s mum and sister had arrived in Cambodia via Singapore for what was their first trip to Asia.
Much had changed. Sixteen years ago, the civil war was still raging, the UN was running the country, and Roo and I had the temples virtually to ourselves. This time around, there were way more tourists, less jungle and more scaffolding around the temples. De-mining and better roads have made more temples accessible, but restoration and concerns about the impact of tourism have made parts of individual monuments off-limits: for example, you can no longer climb to the top of Angkor Wat.
But in many respects, it was as if we were visiting the temples for the first time all over again: they lost none of their allure on a second viewing, and being with Tash, Jude and Barb gave us a fresh perspective, especially seeing the temples through Tash’s eyes.
We visited Ta Prohm, a sanctuary dedicated by prolific builder Jayavarman VII to his mother, which has largely been left as it was when ‘rediscovered’ in the nineteenth century. Encircled with the roots and branches of spung and fig trees, the stone looks as if it is slowly being crushed by the jungle.
Jude and Barb were suitably impressed. Tash seemed more taken with the tiny frogs that lived among the piles of ancient stone than Ta Prohm itself, though she showed some interest in the carvings of apsaras-defined in one guide book as ‘mythological celestial nymphs’ and by Tash as ‘dancing princesses.’
Next stop was the former royal city of Angkor Thom, another legacy of Jayarvaman VII, with the ethereal temple of The Bayon at its centre. Huge faces smile serenely from all four sides of each of the Bayon’s 49 towers, the effect mesmerising. No one knows whose face this is-our guide Chamrong put in a plug for the Buddha-a mystery that only adds to the allure.
Bas-reliefs at the Bayon depict military and political history and daily life in exquisite detail. An abundance of animals, particularly crocodiles devouring fish and humans, kept Tash amused. But the real highlight of the Bayon for her were the dancers in traditional costumes-apsaras, demons and monkeys-who posed with her for photos.
Our last stop on day one was Angkor Wat, a holy city built in the early twelfth century by Suryavarman II, and a structure so significant in Cambodian culture that it features on the national flag. We had a wonderful, leisurely stroll around the complex, the inner courtyards of which feature some of the finest apsaras of all, and much to Tash’s delight, encountered another photogenic group of traditional dancers on the way out.
Minutes before boarding our minivan, I was hit by a gust of the coldest wind I’d felt in Cambodia and the heavens opened. Undeterred by the rain in the presence of two enthusiastic babysitters in Nana and Auntie Barb, Roo and I hit the town of Siem Reap for a pub crawl. For what it’s worth, my recommendations are:
• Dead Fish, Sivatha Boulevard: former crocodile farm turned bar/restaurant still housing eleven of the original residents in the basement, this eclectic venue has great atmosphere and horrifying health and safety standards. Best as a first stop.
• Island Bar, inside the Night Market: great décor and performing bar tenders; think Bryan Brown and Tom Cruise in Cocktail, only with more talent and better weather.
• Funky Munky, Pub Street: balcony seating in old French shop house; movie posters, cool music and potent cocktails.
The Hotel Borann L’Auberge des Temples is a great place to stay: family-friendly, lovely rooms, good pool, tropical garden; quiet part of town 10 mins by tuk-tuk to the action.
Day two took us to the tenth century Banteay Srey, ‘Citadel of the Women’, the only temple built in pink sandstone, also renowned for its deep carvings. Scenes from the epic Ramayana – called the Reamkeh in Cambodia – predominate. Tash was a bit bored here though perked up when she recognised Ravanna, the ten-headed demon from the children’s version of the Ramayana we read to her [Rama and the Demon King, Jessica Souhami, 1997, DK INK, New York].
After stopping off at the Landmines Museum, we visited Banteay Samre, a less glamorous but more accessible temple where, in the inner sanctum, you can make an old man’s day by slipping him a dollar to bless you by tying a red string around your wrist.
We’d taken the boat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap across the Tonlé Sap Lake, not as scenic a trip as I’d hoped, and marred by grumpy Europeans who kept giving Tash the evil eye – such a contrast from travelling on public buses full of Cambodians who make travelling with a small child a pleasure.
So for the return trip on Monday, we hired a minivan, steeling ourselves to idle in traffic in the build-up to Bon Om Touk, the three-day Water Festival that is Phnom Penh’s biggest party of the year, when literally millions of Cambodians flock to the capital. To our surprise and relief, we breezed through, with more than enough energy to take to the streets that night and join in the celebrations.
But the Water Festival – still going strong at the time of writing – warrants its own post.
[More photos to follow...]