Scorched land stretching to both sides of the road. The ground black. The few remaining trees charred or dead.
The first few days of Cambodia are difficult and a little shocking.
Slash and burn.
A term I learned in school once upon a time but never really imagined the reality of.
We see pillars of black smoke on the horizon from time to time, and soon enough find ourselves cycling through the smoke, pieces of ash and soot adhering to our skin.
Closer still we pass a tiny village, engulfed in smoke. There are masses of birds wheeling around in distress. A woman emerges carrying an infant, other children surrounding her. We see their wooden hut on its high stilts set back off the road. The fire is dangerously close but noone seems to be panicking.
Jamie explains that the climate is such that regrowth happens so quickly the farmers find it easier to burn the growth to clear the land for planting rather than hack through it. I can understand that, it is hot and sticky and we’re still at least three months away from the rainy season, before which the temperatures will only climb. I can’t imagine working the land in these conditions.
There is no shade. The ground is dusty. The heat makes the dogs and the cockerels and occasionally the people fight.
I try to improve my understanding of the land we’re in. I learn about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian genocides. Here anyone a little older than I lived through the extreme and horrific years of the Khmer Rouge – mass executions, forced labour, malnutrition, starvation and disease – resulting in the death of 24% of the population. I’m a little shaken by the details, and a little more wary of my own politically left leanings.
In all this there are good moments too.
Our ailments improve and our cycling capacity returns. We meet a quartet of French cyclists at a hostel and with them go out to dinner where we are honoured by the presence of Cambodia’s number one heartthrob – a pretty young man named Jerm.
The morning markets make me smile, we sit sipping the addictively sweet Cambodian coffee, made with a generous glug of condensed milk.
And we find friendly people, who smile genuine smiles, even as they charge us what we come to term ‘white man price’ (including the extra $5 we were required to pay for our visa).
After a few days we find ourselves amongst the temples of Angkor Wat. The epitimous temple is by far the largest, grandest and best preserved, but beyond there are countless others.
Some are smaller versions of Ankhor Wat temple, in varying states of disrepair. Some are very different. All have individual traits which makes them worth exploring over a couple of days without too much fear of temple fatigue.
Covering an area of 400 acres the temples and a few waterways are the surviving pieces of what was a truly vast city, estimates put numbers at about a million inhabitants. Only non-secular buildings were built of stone, so the other buildings have been lost.
The temples were originally Hindu temples, Angor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu. They later became Buddhist temples as the country converted to, or amalgamated, Buddhism.
The forest has been allowed to flourish here and the flora has taken what it can. In the luscious shade we clamber amongst semi-ruins, held together and destroyed by enormous groping tree roots. I love to see the forest reclaiming the stones.
As you may expect, such a famous monument draws huge crowds. Most tourists are ferried around by tuk tuks, but we happily pedal our unladen bikes through the woods from site to site. We chance upon a surprising piece of singletrack winding through the woods behind the massive lakes1 surrounding one of the temples.
On the second day we manage to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat temple for the obligatory sunrise/silhouette/reflection shot. We opt out of the crush and sit on the library steps and enjoy the view IRL.
We chat to a women nearby who works for an NGO in Cambodia teaching teachers. She explains a little about the education system, how it works (or not) and about the current population boom.
She’s with a dozen Australian teenagers who have been raising money for the cause, and who have been helping build a school in one of the villages. I bite my tongue and don’t ask the cynical questions that spring to mind. Voluntourism.
I’m saved by a savvy monkey who tries to take on Jamie for our breakfast.
Jamie wins and the monkey stalks off to harass a more hapless tourist.
By 4pm we’re knackered. Over our two days off we’ve managed to cycle over 80km, climb – literally in some cases – dozens of steep and crumbling staircases and walk round and up and over dozens of temples. We’re done in but really pleased we made the trip.
We leave Siam Reap early the next morning, catching a tailwind which has us sailing over the border to Thailand 150km away in time to catch the sunset.