As you’ll recall from the first part of our Cambodian adventure, I had been rather ill on the day that we arrived in Siem Reap. Luckily, by the time our little minibus offloaded us at the Shinta Mani resort, I was starting to recover. For this, I was truly grateful, because I didn’t want to miss a minute of the luxury that was about to be lavished upon us.
For the next three days, we were treated like royalty on Grasshopper Adventures Angkor in Style tour.
It started at the hotel. Shinta Mani resort is truly delightful. Our big airy room (with the most comfortable bed I have ever slept on) had a terrace that led directly to the pool. The staff welcomed us by name whenever we returned and handed us cold refreshing towels. Every single staff member said hello when we walked by. I was offered ginger tea to help my delicate stomach. I have never experienced such attentive service.
On our first night, our guide Chantha took us to a gorgeous restaurant by the river for dinner where we scoffed down an array of Cambodian specialties. Or at least Gav did. I hadn’t managed to get much of an appetite back yet, which was highly disappointing.
The next morning was an early one, because we had an appointment with the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Our hotel staff thrust hot coffee and pastries into our hands as we left (these were gratefully accepted). We were delighted to discover that our driver was once again the ever smiling, sometimes dancing Mr Mobitel. It was a happy reunion.
It’s worth noting that Angkor Wat is one of the busiest tourist attractions in the world, and we were there at the busiest time. Throngs of visitors from Japan, China and Korea particularly, but also almost every corner of the world all had descended on Angkor Wat to catch the sunrise, so it was important to have a guide who knows the best strategy.
We picked a spot on the wall of the moat on the outside of Angkor Wat and watched the sun gradually light up this truly iconic temple. It wasn’t the most spectacular sunrise of all time, but it was still pretty special to us. Then, as all the massive tour groups headed back to their buses and back to their hotels for breakfast, we stepped inside the walls of Angkor Wat. By this time, there were only a few other sightseers. Perfect. We poked around the temples and Chantha told us some of the history and showed us the spot where it is lucky to stand and beat your chest three times (it echoes quite impressively).
After a solid exploration, it was time for breakfast and we were taken to a gorgeous little pavilion, surrounded by forest on the river near Angkor Wat. We downed hot coffee, freshly cooked omelettes, crusty bread and fresh fruit while the river trickled past in idyllic fashion.
Then it was onto the bikes to explore more of this amazing temple complex. By this time, the crowds were starting to surge back again, but we needn’t have worried. We followed Chantha down quiet jungle paths with only butterflies as passing traffic. We rode along the edge of the huge moat, then joined the traffic as we headed through the very grand entrance into Angkor Thom. Unlike all the minivans and tuk tuks and motorbikes, we immediately turned left, walked our bikes up a few metres and found ourselves standing on the wall right next to the elaborate gate with a spectacular view of all the action beneath us. From here, we rode around – literally on the top of this ancient wall. At the corner, we stopped to admire a small temple and encountered a handful of other visitors for the first time since we had climbed the wall. Then we headed to the west gate, where it was possible to climb right up to admire the huge stone buddha faces. Back down at ground level, only a few local villagers used the gate. It was hard to believe that we were only about 1300m away from the hordes of tourists who were clambering over the spectacular temple of Bayon.
Bayon is my favourite of the Angkor temples. I just love all the subtle differences in the huge stone faces, but I’ll admit I did struggle with the crowds. We were being jostled constantly, there were large groups who seemed to move en masse, thereby making it difficult to negotiate the steep steps, and every time I thought I’d managed to frame the perfect shot of part of the temple, someone would wander into it. We watched some of the restoration work going on, then decided to jump back on the bikes and head to Ta Prohm.
Once again, in mere minutes we were riding down sandy jungle paths and the only noise was occasional birdsong. Amazing. We exited the Angkor Thom complex via the victory gate and cut through more jungle until we arrived at Ta Prohm, made famous as the Tomb Raider temple. Huge trees have grown through the temple walls and now it’s hard to tell if the temple is holding up the trees or the trees are holding up the temple. Either way, it’s quite spectacular.
We lunched at a lovely spot overlooking the expansive moat, before Mr Mobitel delivered us back to our hotel. In the afternoon, we were escorted to the hotel spa for a thoroughly indulgent massage. It was incredibly relaxing and we felt incredibly spoilt. What a great way to finish 2013.
We spent our New Year’s Eve dining at the hotel where a festive banquet was under way. The food was sublime – lots of Khmer classics as well as some delicious western dishes, and a Scottish magician kept us entertained. As midnight approached, we walked down to the river carrying floating candles adorned with flowers with our wishes for 2014 attached. Drummers and flame bearers led us in a sort of rag-tag procession. We floated our little boats down the river and admired the fireworks. It was a fitting way to see in the New Year.
The next morning we jumped aboard our bikes again and headed out of town past the airport and along the wall of the Western Baray, the artificial reservoir that provided water to Angkor Wat. It’s an impressive piece of engineering, considering it’s about a thousand years old. We stopped to snack on some fruit before cycling through the countryside. We stopped to watch the locals fishing in a small lake, using a variety of bamboo baskets and nets. Their success rate appeared to be low.
We road past rice paddies, waving children (being New Years Day, it was a holiday from school), water buffalo and laughing village women working in the shade from the heat of the day. We stopped to check out the work of a charity called Husk who were empowering the women of the village with skills to allow them to earn an income for their family. They also help by teaching English to the village children and by espousing environmentally sustainable practices. We were incredibly impressed by the work that they are doing. We lunched in a pavilion overlooking the rice paddies and had a little siesta swinging in a hammock.
After lunch we headed for Tonle Sap lake, the beating heart of Cambodia. Mr Mobitel stopped to buy tickets into this protected habitat, and a gaggle of scruffy kids crowded around our bus. One of them held up two little plastic bags tied up tight. They contained two little turtles. We bought them (for the princely sum of two dollars) and decided to release them back into the lake. Once we let them swim off into the lake, Chantha informed us that releasing turtles is a lucky thing to do. We figured it was pretty lucky for the turtles too. We took a boat to a floating village before stepping into a kayak to paddle around and take in the sights. Which was great in theory except that our paddling ability was, to put it politely, limited. It was put to the test even further when we were dropped into a mangrove swamp. We hit every damn mangrove in the place. And laughed so hard we nearly fell out of the boat. It took an insanely long time for us to realise that it’s the person in the back seat who does the steering. Our guides appeared somewhat bemused.
We dined that night overlooking the passing circus on Pub Street in downtown Siem Reap before getting our feet nibbled on in a fish spa. I doubt the fish actually made any difference to the dead skin on my feet, but it feels hilarious at first and kind of soothing later. We finished off with foot massages, and almost died of bliss. If that’s possible.
The next morning was our last. We rode through the relatively quiet morning streets of Siem Reap to Sojourn, a boutique hotel on the outskirts of the city, where we were taking a cooking class for the morning. Our host took us for a walk through the nearby village where we were invited to visit a local lady’s home to see her kitchen and check out her incredible kitchen garden. She was thoroughly delightful. We thanked her with a gift of rice.
In an open pavilion in the hotel garden, one of the hotel chefs taught us how to make several traditional Cambodian dishes. A chicken salad, a Khmer fish curry known as amok and sweet glutinous rice balls were all mastered easily. We dined on our creations in a shady little spot in the middle of a small lake. It was a sublime setting. And the food was delicious (I’ve managed to reproduce the fish amok at home as well. And it’s amazing).
After our beautiful lunch, we rode back to town via the extremely quiet Wat Athvea temple, then along some of the quieter streets on the northern side of the river. It was our last ride with our guide Chantha, before we farewelled him, and our delightful driver Mr Mobitel.
The Angkor in Style tour is not a cheap option, but we felt incredibly well looked after. Our accommodation was sublime, we were indulged a little every day, the food was fantastic and we experienced so much more than just temple hopping. Riding through incredibly beautiful countryside with villagers waving hello and water buffalo wandering past will remain an extremely fond memory.