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Cambodia : Reloaded?

I guess it does work - advertising, I mean. After a typical 3-day temple pass tourist visit to the Angkor complex three years ago, I wanted to see a whole bunch of outlying Angkorian temples and do other stuff, so did an Internet search and came up with Tales of Asia, with all the info about the temples and other stuff, and the name of Hidden Cambodia all over the place. So I got hold of Paul and Sheila and we started talking- electronically, that is. I also found Andy Brouwer in my search and struck up an e-mail chat with him too.

SARS was still an issue then, and frankly so was my fitness level, after a torn cartilege required 3 visits to the Snooze and Loose department of the local hospital. The world financial markets had gone skiing down a slope, and I postponed the trip for a bit - one needs to be fit, both physically and financially, if you want to prove that you are divine enough to climb all those temple steps to heaven, although given the climate where these temples are generally located, it seemed a lot more like hell to me.

Then it hit me again- that irrepressible urge to go. Things got better all round, and Paul and Sheila and I resumed discussions. I worked on the physical fitness part, while fiddling with the family finances and saving everything I could, including all the Fuji Velvia film I could find. February was the agreed time- that would make it after high season for the airlines so I could get a travel AD, and dry season in Cambodia, so I wouldn't be caught in mud bath roads or days on end with no decent light to take photographs. The red dust would make photography late afternoon or early morning good. Then came the bird flu, but I convinced myself, with the help of Gordon Sharpless of Tales of Asia, that this was just another media orgy, and by that time I didn't care anyway- I had decided that I was going, whether the bloody birds were sick or not.

Hidden Cambodia had worked out three tours for me, the first being a day trip to the sacred Kulen Mountains and to the jungle temple of Beng Mealea; the second a 6-day trip going North and East, covering Anlong Veng, the last stronghold of the Kmer Rouge, Preah Vihear, the Temple in the Sky on the Thai border, Tbeng Meancheay, gateway to Koh Kher, and Kompong Thom, the town nearest to Sambor Prei Kuk and Santuk, and then some Ankorian bridges on the road back to Siem Reap; and then third trip being a 4-day journey to Battambang, and to Banteay Chhmar, another temple near the Thai border. This was great- all that was missing was Bakan (Great Preah Kahn) and Prasat Neak Buos, but one has to leave something for next time, not so? Sheila warned me that some of the accommodation would be "basic"- but so I had gathered from what I had read, so was prepared for the school camp routine.

There was a week in between the second and third trip, when Paul was busy biking around the Southern parts of Cambodia with some Germans. During that time I planned to visit the floating villages and the bird sanctuary at Prek Toal on the Tonle Sap, do a repeat of the 3-day temple pass routine at the Angkor Complex for some photography, and generally messing around with some photography in and around Siem Reap.

So, armed with jungle boots, Nike Aquas, sandals, shirts and shorts, and plenty of stuff to fight mozzies, malaria, Asian tummy, headaches, cuts and bruises, dusty eyes, tender livers and of course with my precious Canon kit, I got to Siem Reap via Singapore Airlines and Silk Air. A cheerful, smiling Paul arrived to fetch me in the Jeep, and took me to Peace of Angkor, the guesthouse that I heard about from Tales of Asia and Andy Brouwer. I had a delightful meal with Paul and Sheila that evening- good to meet and get to know each other after all the months of cybertalk.

Paul and I set off on the first trip next day. Jet lag? What's that? Just catch some sleep on the plane, don't drink alcohol and don't eat protein and you're okay - its only for one day, after all. We had a delicious breakfast at one of the stalls at Banteay Strei - the best Cambodian noodles, with fresh raw veggies like long beans, basil and other stuff, washed down with sugar cane juice mixed with pineapple and orange.

The drive up the Kulen mountains was amazing- and the walk up to the reclining Buddha at the top -"not bad at all"- to quote Paul. The waterfall was the best, though - standing under it, I washed all the past year's troubles and strife off my back. From now on I was just going to forget it all and enjoy the trip.

Then on to Beng Mealea, which was awesome. I clambered all over it with zeal, Paul, and a local guide, thanks to the newly constructed walkways. The proximity of the mines to the road, and the demining activity along the way gave me a chil - one can literally not step off the road in these parts. The deminers using metal detectors came up with some old tin cans as well- but the pace of their activity looks more like "keeping them busy" than focused, fast and furious demining. There did not seem to be any sense of urgency to get rid of these deadly things so that the country folks could plant rice again.

Next day was the start of the Great Trek- first off to the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, Anlong Veng. Got there just before lunch - delicious deer and stuff - at that place opposite the lake with the dead trees. Story goes that Pol Pot and Ta Mok had a bit of a barny about who "owned" which territory, so the road was decided on as the dividing line. Ta Mok then went about damming up the water flow, so that Pol Pot's side of the road didn't get any water. This caused a great big dam to develop, much to the delight of his followers, but also caused the trees to die. Then to Ta Mok's villa, with its murals of Preah Vihear and the map of Cambodia that was used to plan their strategy.

Pol Pots' funeral pyre was next - after a drive up a horrendous road to the top of the Dangrek Mountain escarpment. The grave was reached by walking through the bush for a short distance, until - there it was - in a small clearing near the Thai border. What a way to go - no comparison with Ho's mausoleum in Hanoi. Nearby lay Pol's last toilet - the seat of which I saw framed and hanging in the Ivy Bar in Siem Reap - and some old medicine bottles.

There are various stories surrounding the cause of his death. Officialy it was said that he died of natural causes. Reports said that he told his wife that he felt ill and then went to lie down and when she looked again, he was dead. There was also some speculation that he committed suicide. Local story however goes that Pol Pot was ill and needed oxygen, and that he just wasn't given any. Who knows… who cares…

We stayed over in cabins in a guesthouse on the edge of the spectacular Dangrek escarpment- belonging to an official in the Cambodia Planning Department and talked politics until late - about how the corruption was swallowing the foreign aid, and that it wasn't getting to those who needed it. I read that it was on a rock on the ledge nearby that Pol Pot liked to sit in the evenings. Next day we saw Pol Pot's bunker and spider hole - rather like the place where the Americans found Saddam Hussein.

Then off to Preah Vihear - the Temple in the Sky - up that 7 km road to hell on the Cambodian side. I knew it was hell, because it was paved with good intentions - or at least parts of it were. The rest was a "donga" as we call it in Africa, and required 4x4 capabilities - of the vehicle and the passengers. I also knew it was hell because at the summit there were those white sticks in the ground that I was convinced marked the graves of all those who had perished on the road, although Paul was adamant that it was Halo Trust's markers to indicate where they had successfully removed a mine. After walking part of the way to the top it was time for rehydration salts, as I was feeling a bit lightheaded - so this is "enlightement", I thought.

One of the goals of my trip to Cambodia was to climb the steps up through all 4 temples of Preah Vihear and sit on the edge of that escarpment to watch the sun set - a very special moment for me when that happened.

That evening there was a wedding in the village and me with only shorts and a T-shirt! One of the local ladies lent me a skirt, and I then felt okay to party with the rest of them. My dancing started off in jerky 70's disco style, until I realised that I was supposed to walk around slowly in an anti-clockwise direction and wiggle my hands around like a limp-wristed air steward, with no bodily contact - not my style at all.

The six guys I shared a table with kept on filling my glass with beer and my plate with food and couldn't figure out why I wasn't getting as drunk as they were. The beer did have an effect after a while, and my compassion for the poor Cambodians overcame me. I have a photo to prove that I adopted six Cambodian boys that night. I now need to e-mail this to my other children, so that they know who their new brothers are.

When I later collapsed on the bed in my "basic accommodation" room in a house in the village, I was convinced I heard the patter of little feet running around under the bed. I tossed and turned all night at the thought that perhaps now that I had hit the shady end of the sixties, all my years of drinking had finally caught up with me. When a cock woke me at 04h00 (no Mabel, it wasn't the bridegroom) by crowing right next to my room, my fears of having lost it were further confirmed. I threatened him with Bird Flu, but all that did was set off all the other cocks the neighbourhood in a protest chorus. I gave up on sleep that night, thinking of the bride..and of England, hoping that all I had heard were the ghosts of the Khmer Rouge.

After breakfast and a stroll towards the Thai border post, we took off down THAT ROAD again, heading off for Tbeng Meanchey. The guesthouse we checked into this time was clean, with aircon, en suite shower and Barang toilet etc. - a far cry from the "basic accommodation" of the previous night.

First visit was to Joom Noon, where the Vietnam vet, Bud Gibbons, has established both a prosthesis manufacturing facility for the de-limbed victims of land mines and those who have been disabled by diseases such as polio, and a silk-making and weaving "factory" for the manufacture of silk cloth, clothes and accessories. I was very touched by this initiative and the concept that he considered it to be payback time after the cumulative horrors that he, as part of the US forces in the war, had caused to innocent victims.

Then we went to the market for some souvenirs and had a chat to a woman who is involved in developing a written language for some or other minority group. Wow, I thought that was amazing! Had a great dinner that evening - a superb Cambodian pancake with frilly edges, lots of veggies and herbs and a tasty dip. Talked to a guy from Health Unlimited - sponsored by the EU who seem to be running the health services in the country. Afterwards went to have a Smoothie at the place recommended by Andy Brouwer. I didn't hear any critters under the bed that night, and slept peacefully in the knowledge that I was still okay and could continue drinking.

Next morning it was off to Koh Ker, the temporary capital of the Kmer civilisation for about 20 years - and the second goal of my trip. This was definitely not heaven - the heat was extreme as we got to the step pyramid temple just on 13h00. Not ideal for photography, nor for climbing those seven levels of steps, but I did both anyway - I had travelled all the way from the Southernmost point of Africa to do this number and wasn't going to leave it out now. So, Mad Dogs and this Barang Woman from Africa ("If you're from Africa, why aren't you Black?" - the Cambodians kept asking me) went out in the midday sun - and with the help of rehydration salts and Red Bull I gracefully and effortlessly flew up and down the steps - second goal achieved. I was not in the mood for exploring the other surrounding temples - the heat and the mines had somewhat dampened my enthusiasm, so I left it to those crazier than I. Took refuge back in the air-conditioned comfort of Tbeng Meanchey.

Early morning after breakfast was car wash time - while we played a game or six of pool. Next stop after Tbeng Meanchey was Sambor Prei Kuk, the pre-Angkorian Chenla capital near Kompong Thom. We headed off through the timber forests and rubber plantations, and soon it was a scorcher again and we got there in the heat of the day… again.

Interesting temple remains and interesting trees surrounding them, that also seemed to be melting in the sun. I pumped myself up with rehydration salts and Red Bull again, just to keep going, as lightheadedness was once more catching up on me. In Kompong Thom we checked in at a good guesthouse again. We took a drive around the town - after all, this was Pol Pot's home town. It still appears to be thriving.

Next morning early it was time to get to Santuk. The manager at Joom Noon had said that there were over 900 steps up the mountain to Santuk, which would take at least two hours to climb. Now that was pushing it a bit - was heaven really so difficult to get into? After all, I have been a relatively good girl for quite a long time now, and really love life, especially my own. So we opted to drive up that mountain in the Jeep - seeing that there was a road.

The mountain has been an ancient sacred site for centuries, and has meditation caves on its slopes dating back many years. It is still an active working temple with a monk school and all, some delightful temples and paintings, as well as lots of reclining Buddhas, which wasn't at all surprising, if they had to climb up all those steps. There is also some study going on by archaeologists based there.

Back in Kompong Thom we had breakfast and then started the drive back to Siem Reap. The road was much better along this strip, actually tarred quite a way, until we hit the Siem Reap province border, where the condition of the road reverted to the normal atrocious levels. Along the way were a couple of old Angkorian bridges, dating back 1600 years or so, still bearing the 21st century traffic with ease, and seemingly in better condition than many of the modern wooden bridges we had come across earlier.

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