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Monkey at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

I’m writing you this email sitting at a quiet internet shop in downtown Chiang Mai, and I’m just after having the best avocado sandwich ever… I spent a couple of hours at an organic café earlier today, sipping fantastic mint & honey lassi and reading a very interesting book about the origins of traditional thai medicine – my idea of how to best spend a hot and sunny day off :)

I’ve been back in Chiang Mai for five days already, after my beautiful and interesting visit to Cambodia. Perhaps you remember, going to Cambodia was very much a spur of the moment thing, and it was a very lucky one too!

Since coming back I’ve been studying oil massage with an excellent teacher named Jang (although I have to admit that all this time I thought her name was “Jane”…). It was an one-on-one course, so she would come to my room in the morning to give me a massage, and then I’d practice the same sequence on her. It was a great course – we had many laughs together, and I think I learned more than I expected. It was completely different from the style they teach at Wat Pho in Bangkok (the course I took at the very beginning of my stay in Thailand). Different in a good way. What I especially like with oil massage is the smoothness and the circular movements, the continuous rhythm and the pleasant smell of jasmine scented coconut oil slightly warmed up by the friction created between the two bodies… To be honest, it was sometimes very difficult to focus on learning the sequence and taking notes – especially when she would be working my arms, hands or back – simply because I was sooo close to falling asleep all the time, my mind just switched off… It’s incredible how relaxing a good oil massage can be!

Siem Reap, Cambodia

So, Cambodia then. Angkor Wat was everything that I expected, and so much more. My first impression was that of an airport taxi driver that pretended not to know any of the guesthouses I asked to be taken to, him asking me for addresses and directions how to get there. I’d gotten some recommendations from friends and other backpackers, and it turned out later that all of those places were (partly) owned by Westerners. This was apparently enough reason for the taxi driver to refuse going there…

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Monks and mobiles in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap, Cambodia

So, what about Angkor Wat? It seems everybody who comes to Siem Reap does so in order to visit Angkor Wat. By the way, do you know that Siem Reap means “Siamese Defeated”? That’s quite a cheeky name for a city, I would say… I spent three whole days visiting all the major temples and most of the minor, more remote ones. It’s amazing. It absolutely is… If you ever have a chance – go there! (And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, may I kindly suggest that you google it immediately…) I was very happy that it was still low season, which meant few other tourists. Quite often I would be all alone in the massive temple grounds, enjoying the space and silence, sitting in the shade watching butterflies playing. As long as you don’t see any other people, it’s very easy to lose the sense of time and reality. Some scenes and places look and feel as if they would be situated in a fantasy novel, others on another planet…

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

A very memorable moment was my first visit to Ta Phromh, one of my favourite temples in the area (in the pictures, the one with lots of tree roots hugging the ruins). The sunny sky would suddenly get unusually dark, and the vibrating sound of a powerful thunderstorm passing by very close would resonate through the grounds. I was almost alone there then, kept company only by the spirit of rain waiting motionless in the air. Very magical atmosphere…

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Another cool thing that looked really bizarre and beautiful happened during a sunrise at Angkor Wat. I was sitting there in the dark, on a rock, among other tourists (yes, *everybody* goes there for sunrise… apparently). Suddenly, as soon as the light started changing, they all took out their digital cameras and mobile phones, getting ready to take pictures. The displays of their cameras would all be bright, and the incredible number of cameras held in the raised hands of people in front of me made the scene look like a starry sky or a single-coloured caleidoscope or something… It looked awesome!

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The girls selling stuff, though, they really bring you back to here and now. They are everywhere, and they are very persistent… Trying to sell you books, bracelets, scarves, cold drinks, postcards etc etc etc, they try every trick in the book… telling you with teary eyes that they need money to afford going to school, help their old and sick parents, feed their young sisters and brothers etc. However, as far as I can tell most of these girls are not poor at all (at least compared to other people in their country). They all have good clothes, go to school every day, wear fancy earrings and so on. The really poor people you never see or meet, and therefore there is no easy way for you to help those who would benefit most from your spare change…

I would quite often engage in conversation with the girls. I wouldn’t buy anything, but I really enjoyed getting to know them a little bit. One very early morning (I got up at 04.15) I was trying to watch the sunrise at Sra Srang temple, but that turned out to be very difficult. The other tourists were all very rude to the girls, so they all ended up gathering round me… I think there were about 6-7 of them, at one point! However, I gave up hoping for a beautiful, quiet sunrise and finally managed to turn the conversation round from their sales talk to just chatting about life, play, school, family, hopes and dreams for almost an hour. It turned out to be one of my absolute favourite moments in Cambodia! They were so sweet, curious and open. I wish all tourists got to see a bit more of the people behind the very annoying selling game and the sales talk. Time went by quickly, and when it was time for them to run home and go to school one of them surprised me by giving me two pretty colour drawings of a house, with the message “Good luck”, that she made herself. Another one of them gave me a bracelet, before she waved and skipped away. None of them asked for any money, they just smiled and left. It really touched me.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

I had the fortunate opportunity to visit some of the more remote temple sites as well. My tuk-tuk driver Mr Vey would pick me up from the guesthouse early in the morning, and then we would be driving out in the countryside just after sunrise. It was fascinating to see the bustle of locals getting ready to face the new day, men and women going to work on bikes and mopeds, in the back of trucks and by foot. Later during the day the sights would change slightly, and there would be women cooking, children playing, little boys herding cows along the road, girls coming back from school on their too big bikes. The smells of exhaust fumes would mix with cooking fires and fresh food, flowers in bloom, cut grass and cow dung… It was very hot in Siem Reap, and I was extremely thankful for the cool breeze rescuing me from heat
exhaustion as soon as I got back in the tuk-tuk and we started moving.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

One day we went to a floating river village, which was also amazing to see. However, it felt too much like a “human zoo” to me, so I chose not to go on any of the arranged boat tours, but climbed a hill instead. The view from there was fantastic! There were a few cows and some goats grazing around me, and their munching sounds was the most brilliant soundtrack I could have ever imagined :) The water would also carry distant sounds up the hill side from the village far down below – boat engines chugging along, water splashing, boys playing football, people talking, pots and pans rattling and other everyday noise. In the evening all colours would change, and watching the sun set over cool green, vast rice paddies is a wonderful way of ending a long, hot day.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Temple ruins, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Another thing I remember very vividly is my visit to the ruins of the Bakong temple. On the way there we would pass several monks in saffron robes returning from their alms rounds, with heavy, filled bowls – a sure sign that there would be another, newer, temple quite close. Sure enough, while wandering round the grounds I noticed a modern but run-down temple just next to the ruins. A little while later I could hear some senior Buddhist monks chanting in Pali and ringing bells, the sound reverberating all the way through the temple ruins to where I was sipping water from a bottle in the shade, resting on what was left of a balustrade. There was that amazing atmosphere again :) Some local children was playing on one of the stairs a bit further away. They all looked scared when I said ‘hello’ to them, walking past. A few moments later, while the oldest of them sticks her head out from behind a massive pillar, the other three children standing very close behind her with big eyes fixed on me, she hesitantly says in a very careful voice “One dollar?”

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The Khmer food was a nice surprise! The national dish of Cambodia is called Amok, a spicy curry with fish (or chicken) steamed in banana leaves – bursting with fresh chillies, coriander, mint, lemon grass, garlic and basil… Yummy!! Influences from Indian and French culture are quite apparent in Siem Reap, not only in food but also in culture, architecture etc. I was enjoying them all – watching Bollywood music videos until late at night, having baguettes for breakfast ;)

Some of you maybe remember that I found the Lao men very handsome.
Well, I would have to say that the Khmers are a bit more masculine than the thai men, many of them beautiful, but nowhere near as attractive as the Lao men. And just in case you are wondering – the Western men are still my absolute favourites ;)

I didn’t learn much Khmer, since everybody you meet speaks English (and some even understands it when spoken to…). Only three words this time: “Hello”, “Thank you” and “Mango”. Next time “coconut” is the first word I’ll ask for :)

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

What turned out to be the big, unexpected discovery for me in Cambodia was the Traditional Khmer Massage. None of my friends who have been to Cambodia seem to have tried it, which really surprises me. Khmer massage is absolutely wonderful, although not the massage style that Cambodia is most famous for (yet?). The famous one is the 4-hand massage; two people (usually beautiful, young women…) giving a synchronized oil massage. The massage given by blind people in Siem Reap seem to be quite famous among travellers as well. However, after listening to countless accounts from people finding it extremely painful, I decided not to try it. I’m very happy I went for Khmer massage, that first night!

Copyright laws in Cambodia aren’t very strong, which makes for endless copies of things, concepts, clothes etc – all of varying quality… There is Espret, Nyke, Burger Queen and so of course Khmer massage ;) I didn’t manage to find out anything about the origins of Khmer massage from the locals, but to me it was clearly a very intriguing mix of Traditional Thai Massage, oil massage Thai style and a little bit of reflexology. It’s actually all the three massage styles I’ve been studying so far, all put together in a brilliant way! I fell in love immediately, it resonated very strongly with me. And I’m happy to say that I could easily copy it, since all the techniques are familiar to me. I’m definitely going to start giving Khmer massages asap! I couldn’t find any teachers or courses, so I decided to go for “learning by receiving”. I had massage every day, and some days even two of them. I went to several different places; enjoying, contemplating, memorizing, having several aha-moments/realizations, and after each treatment I would go somewhere quiet and take my notebook out for some serious writing and drawing :)

Siem Reap, Cambodia

I still haven’t figured out who are the most talented sleepers, the Thai or the Khmer. They seem to be able to sleep anywhere, anytime… in shops, in the streets, on tables, under tables, sitting or standing… Outside Siem Reap I saw a man sitting on his moped by the side of the road, sleeping over the handlebars… and in one of the temples I caught another one sleeping on top of a Shiva Linga stand – that surely would have brought him interesting dreams..! ;)

I found it very difficult to get good pictures, on this trip… The lighting conditions are not very easy (to me, at least… but I’m far from expert!) and my little camera doesn’t have either zoom nor a wide enough lens to capture things as I would like to. There is about one or two hours early in the morning and late in the evening when the light is absolutely amazing, but then you don’t want to be focusing on the world through a lens – you want to soak it in fully and whole-heartedly without worrying about composition, focus etc…

Got to go!

Lots of love,
มะลิ | mali

Posted in: Travel