Angkor has been at the very top of every travel bucket list I’ve ever written, and this year my Mum and I had the eye-opening opportunity to actually visit this vast religious complex deep in the jungle of Cambodia. The flight from Singapore was short, and the best take-off and landing I’d experienced since leaving the UK.
I desperately wanted to see the ancient Kingdom of Angkor, and the promise of temples hidden for centuries by tropical rainforest is always compelling. Central and South America next, perhaps?
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling is a family favourite, so much so my little cousin had the characters as depicted in the Disney adaptation painted on her bedroom wall as a child. They’re still there, and this is now the room I stay in when I visit. Kipling visited Cambodia in the 19th Century, and the ‘Lost’ City of Angkor is cited as his inspiration for the dwelling of King Louis.
As well as the odd gang of pesky rhesus macaques, many of the temples have an ensemble of landmine victims at the entrance playing traditional Khmer instruments to make the most beautiful atmospheric music. Another stark reminder of how wrong I have been in the past to wish for communism – the Khmer Rouge surrounded these temples with landmines. You see many amputees in Siem Reap. Many of the buskers are also blind.
The sounds are hypnotic and melodious, a perfect calming welcome providing a serene ambience on your journey through the temples. The music blends in well with the calls of the jungle, and the hum and chatter of the charming tuk tuk drivers.
Siem Reap is Cambodia’s bustling second-city, and literally translates to ‘Siam Defeated’, which is an incredibly f*** you name referring to the defeat of the Thai army by King Ang Chan almost 500 years ago. Invading hordes have turned into hordes of tourists, but there’s still a sore spot among Cambodians about Thai imperialism.
While I’m on the topic of tourists – there’s a few things I’m going to take this opportunity to complain about. Tourists are a nightmare, and in many places across the world tourism in its current form negatively impacts on the locals. Tourism can effectively ruin the magic of a place, and the disrespectful or absent-minded behaviour of tourists exacerbates this.
On several occasions I saw well-to-do Western women taking videos and photos of unsupervised local children without consent from either the children or their parents. This is unacceptable. Children in the third world are not zoo animals. They’re not an authentic art installation. They’re not props for your Instagram feed. If someone were to hang around filming and photographing children in Europe they would be arrested, and rightly so.
The general lack of respect many tourists seem to have for the places they visit is astounding. Another example I noticed on almost an hourly basis in Cambodia was the way many tourists took opportunities to have long photo shoots, often holding up others. I don’t take issue with the photo opportunities themselves, but the vanity and disrespect of whirling around, hands in the air, doing the peace sign with a massive stupid grin on their faces – all I can say is – they need to get a grip, grow up, and learn some basic manners.
The French didn’t ‘discover’ the temples at Angkor, they’ve been living temples since their erection, and continue to be to this day. Almost every temple has a shrine to Buddha or one of the Hindu gods. These are sacred places. Not an Instagram ‘influencer’ pretend-model playground.
At Ta Keo, we even saw two Spanish tourists get to the top of the pyramid, take off their shirts, and spark cigarettes – sat behind a shrine with their backs turned to the Buddha. The security spotted them from the ground and radioed the shrine guardian at the top, and he subsequently scolded the lads, who hopefully learnt a lesson. Would this be acceptable at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or Notre-Dame in Paris?
Please respect the places you visit as a tourist, and respect the locals, their cultural traditions, and religious beliefs. This is a non-negotiable as a tourist, if you can’t do this then stay at home.
The cherry on top of the cake in this stunning setting was our tuk tuk driver, Kin. He was very knowledgeable, incredibly kind and thoughtful, I would highly recommend Mr. Kin to anyone visiting Siem Reap, and would be happy to provide his details. He took us around the temples in the opposite direction to the majority of tourists, and so we were able to appreciate Angkor for the most part in peace away from the hordes.
Kin drove us in his tuk tuk to a remote village about fifty kilometres away from Siem Reap called Kampong Kleang. This eco-tourism site was home to a delightful stilt village with countless cheeky and smiling children selling decorations made out of reeds. We took a boat down the river flanked by dozens of houses on stilts – you could fit a two-story building under some of them. I couldn’t believe how much higher the water will rise during the rainy season.
The boat took us through the wetlands and mangrove forests, and we arrived at a floating village on the edge of Tonlé Sap – the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Through the village we went, past a floating school and shrines on podiums. We were the only ones on the boat, and I’ll admit I felt a little worried we were about to be abandoned, or the boat would give up at any moment.
There were certain aspects of Cambodian life which felt very underhand. We didn’t pay the boat driver, we paid for the journey at a checkpoint just before entering the village, and when we tipped the boat driver we were unsure as to whether he would be able to keep that tip for himself, if it also had to be put into the pot for the whole community, or whether it went to Fagin.
Recently, Amnesty International has raised concerns about the Cambodian Government’s decision to relocate hundreds of Cambodian families living within and around the Angkor UNESCO world heritage site. The Government claim people are moving voluntarily to a new village set up 15 miles away from Angkor, but Amnesty’s research indicates the people are being threatened into leaving.
Furthermore, the Chinese influence on the region is putting a massive strain on the local economy and culture. A new Chinese airport is currently under construction just outside Siem Reap, and gaudy Chinese hotels the size of European palaces litter the roads surrounding the city. Many of the hotels remain empty until Chinese New Year, when thousands of Chinese tourists descend on Angkor. Large amounts of land are being bought up with foreign capital, and the locals are being priced out.
According to rumours from chatty tuk tuk drivers, the Government also plan to make Angkor a zero-emission zone, only allowing electric cars into the temple complex, which would potentially put hundreds, if not thousands, of Cambodian men out of work. If you want to help the tuk tuk drivers when you visit Cambodia, I recommend finding one you like and booking your tours with them directly rather than through the hotels. This way, all of the money you put towards the tours will go to the driver, rather than to the hotel for simply making a phone call.
Our hotel was reasonably priced and luxurious, with a large swimming pool equipped with a pool bar. Except for many of the other Europeans and the odd pushy tuk tuk driver, everybody we met treated us to a warm welcome, particularly the Cambodians. We found the hospitality to be exceptional, unlike in the UK where customer service seems to have lost all meaning.
I watched an interesting documentary about when a Chinese political diplomat of some description visited the Khmer people. His journals paint a colourful picture of the region at the height of the Khmer Empire almost a thousand years ago.
Something which struck me as particularly special about Cambodia was expressed in these journals, and it was very apparent this was still the case today – Cambodian women are fearless and for want of a better term, wear the trousers. It’s the women who initiate sex, for example, and who look after the shop, deal with the money, and manage the household – but not in a 1950s housewife way – they are in charge. There’s a real sense of matriarchy, certainly socially, perhaps less so politically.
I’m desperate to come across a Cambodian restaurant because the food was magnificent. Of course, you can get just about any type of cuisine, but you must try the local Cambodian dishes. They are truly to die for. I cannot wait to visit again.