Exploring the Historical Treasures of Cambodia
by Ruth Atherley
My husband has had the temple of Angkor Wat (in Cambodia) – the world’s largest religious monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – on his bucket list for as long as I have known him (which is a long time!). We recently had the opportunity to visit Siem Reap and we learned so, so much. Not just about Angkor Wat, but also about the warm and welcoming people of this struggling country and about their not-so-distant violent history under the Khmer Rouge regime.
We decided that we wanted to spend more time connecting with locals while in Cambodia than travelling on big tour buses. And as excited as we were about seeing Angkor Wat, we wanted to see things beyond the typical tourist attractions. We chose a BikeHike Adventures tour of Cambodia so that we could have a more immersive experience. BikeHike has a range of tours – strenuous, challenging, moderate and easy. Our tour was “easy” – which means you need to be in good health because you hike/walk for up to three hours a day, but you don’t have to be a serious athlete or fitness buff. This was perfect for us because we are reasonably fit and it was often too hot (it was between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius each day we were there) to do anything but sit by our beautiful hotel pool in the afternoon. BikeHike’s maximum on any trip is 12 people, with a minimum of two, so it is always a small group and there is no single supplement. It fit our 40-something needs perfectly!
Cambodia is an interesting country with a complicated history – and a challenging present. Most visitors to the Siem Reap area come to see the jungle temple of Banteay Chhmar, famous for its signature faces of Jayavarman VII and to see Angkor Wat. Rising well before dawn with hundreds of others, we made our way to Angkor Wat to watch the sun rise over the ruins, which was as spectacular as it was brief – lasting less than five minutes. And it was definitely worth getting up early to see. After the sun rose into the sky, we spent the rest of that incredible day traipsing around the area’s abundant ruins.
We enjoyed seeing some temples off the beaten path, completely on our own, with just our guide. And by the looks of some of them – we were the first to visit those sites in many months. Some were very overgrown with jungle and it felt like we had been cast in an Indiana Jones movie and were the ones discovering the temple for the first time. Often, our guide would call us over and pull back overgrown tree branches to showcase amazing hidden treasures to us. It was an incredible experience.
One of the highlights of the Cambodia leg of the trip was staying overnight in the Cambodian jungle in a luxury tent, in the midst of temple ruins. As we sat on our deck chairs outside our tent with a cold, local beer – and as our chef and his helpers were busy creating our fabulous dinner feast – we had several of the temple dogs come over and spend time with us. It was interesting to see that they looked well-fed and cared for. We were told that the people who take care of the temples also care for the dogs and that made me happy. One of the dogs, a blonde female, was initially a bit shy (unlike three of the others who just threw themselves on us, giving us big doggie kisses). By the time I was ready for my second beer, the shy pup – who I named Pretty – had become my best friend. She stayed by my side the entire time, laying her head on my leg and nudging my hand to be pet. I fell completely in love with her.
We were fed an excellent three-course meal – all cooked onsite, in a kitchen set up out of sight behind our tent. Our server, a young man named Sovannasey, happily answered our questions about his life, the country and his culture. An orphan since birth, this young man told us about his life plans, his dreams and his ambitions – and he was really inspiring. He went out of his way to make our overnight in the jungle something special – helping to create a wonderful memory.
We have lifelong memories of this trip – visiting the ancient temples, relaxing in our beautiful hotel pool, and connecting with Sovannasey, a young man who has already faced so much hardship and yet has such a positive attitude and is building a bright future for himself. And, of course, I won’t forget Pretty, the dog. I found out as we were getting ready to leave that she belongs to the chef (who takes her everywhere with him) – or she would have been coming home with me…