My country, my Beer – Cambodia. This is what every other poster states and indeed, sipping on one, I am recalling the events of the past weekend.
March and April, the hot and dry months, are best spent in A/C as many expats living and working in Cambodia would no doubt claim. The rains are yet to come and rice harvests have left the fields resting in a dress of cappuccino colour waiting for a coat of green in the months ahead. As we are speeding on national route #6 north, the pancake-resembling landscape shimmers in the heat and only a tree or two or the occasional cow break up the line of the horizon. This is no unknown territory to us, the three ABOUTAsia Travel ladies who finally, taking advantage of the low season pace, managed to set out to do what they promised to do a while back – spend a weekend further afield, explore something new, get away from it all in Siem Reap and have fun. Caroline, Valentina and Anna.
With little to see along the way we are dosing nearing Sisophon, which marks the turn off to follow a dusty corrugated road to Banteay Chhmar; our driver – Michael Schumacher’s long lost Cambodian half-brother, hands firm on the steering wheel, periodically announcing his arrival to all motos, pedestrians and cows with prolonged assertive horn blasting. This is indeed Cambodia and humble driving gets one nowhere; we are used to it, but still grasping onto anything near, white knuckled.
The 63 km stretch from Sisophon to Banteay Chhmar is to become a paved road in the next year or two, depending on how work flows along. It will no doubt make lives of the inhabitants of the area much easier, but today we are “off the beaten track” knowing that the harder the road the worthier the destination – as many of my travels through Asia proved in the past. Fine dust fills the air with every passing vehicle and on the tip of my (half bitten) tongue I have: “Are we there yet, are we there yet, are we there yet?” and at the same time I feel sorry for all the people who have no choice but to live along the roadside waiting for the road work to be finished.
And then we are. There. The Citadel of the Cat – a name which has fascinated me for ages and I am happy I am here. Shaken but not stirred, we arrive at our homestay – a simple set up which is exactly what it says on the tin – a home stay. We stay at somebody’s home. They have done it before and we are not as exotic creatures as we imagined but we still raise an eyebrow of the passersby and cute grubby children scream “hello” at the top of their little lungs. Several small and varied homestays are scattered throughout the village, centrally managed by The Banteay Chhmar CBT Homestay Program allowing visitors to take in the remote beauty of this forgotten corner of Cambodia at a reasonable pace, without having to rush back the same day.
For mere US$7 one gets a simple private room in the wooden upstairs area of this traditional Cambodian house (double bed) with a frilly mosquito net overhanging, clean sheets and battery generated electricity from the evening hours until the morning – allowing for a sleep with some fan generated breeze. Toilet facilities are very basic, shared, downstairs. Babies, grandma, chickens and dogs are also provided – free or charge. This is a truly unique and absolutely 100% genuine Cambodia.
Upon discussing with the co-ordinator of the homestays the events of the evening, meals and the various touring options, we get rid of our bags and set off exploring.
Banteay Chhmar, the largest temple in Cambodia discovered to date, is only about 10 minute walk through the village, in fact the moat filled with blooming pink water lilies is lining the main road safely leading us to the entry point. We are in the heart of Cambodia and civilization as we know it is far. The closest reminder of what we know is perhaps the ever present red can of Coca Cola but why would you buy this when, for 500Riel, you can have delicious, freshly pressed sugar cane juice? Zzzzing and we are charged up! This tasty treat is to be blamed for many children’s rotten teeth but we have brought our toothbrushes with us and are sipping happily along.
Smiling security guard cum ticket seller welcomes us at the wooden kiosk where we sign in. US$5 to enter and the fee covers the visit of all temples in the area (there are several but Banteay Chhmar is the largest) even for the next day. I am puzzled as no ticket is given. I ask: “but tomorrow, if we want to come in, and if we have no ticket……..” He smiles at me and says: “Don’t worry, lady, I know you, I have seen your face….”. We all giggle. This is a different world indeed.
Having broken all the rules of the travel industry, we are roaming free with only a guide book at hand which reveals that the famous carvings on the north section of the west gallery walls are best viewed in the late afternoon light. The guide book is right. And our local guide is going to be with us tomorrow as arranged.
Like Angkor Thom the temple of Banteay Chhmar was accomplished during the reign of Jayavarman VII in the late 12th or early 13th century. Preservation of Banteay Chhmar is currently being led by Global Heritage Fund, a non-profit organization based in California.
The temple of the Cat – with no cat in sight – is a giant jigsaw puzzle. Largely unrestored, this huge labyrinth of rocks and towering trees is a magical place to explore. We are completely alone save for a Spanish speaking couple crossing our path once but they soon disappear in the foliage and we are left to our own devices again. The gorgeous afternoon light shining through the trees provides for an excellent photo session with the girls, who eventually get sick of the clicking of my camera and pursue their own image capturing. I get busy trying to steady my lens on a stunning pink lizard basking on the hot rocks.
As the evening draws near and we are out of sugar cane juice power, having circumnavigated the temple, we head back just as the moon appears in the sky and the sun is setting behind us.
Earlier in the day we nodded “yes” to something which promised to be a “temple dinner”. Now ready for the evening covered in mosquito repellent we leave our darkened homestay with a torch ready for the walk and eventually end up back at the temple, under the cover of darkness with only torches and candles flickering in the wind signifying a rather out of the ordinary event.
Our dinner is simple (rice, omelet, soup with vegetables and minced fish) but the surroundings make up for it. In Siem Reap a Temple Dinner is a grand event costing several thousands of dollars, here, however simple and humble, the Banteay Chhmare temple dinner “cousin” is setting us back US$5 extra for the 3 of us. Bargain. As we finish our meal a small group of people counting about 11 souls arrive – they are, as we find out, Thai travel agents exploring new territories, eco projects and cultural heritage; here focusing mainly on the traditional Khmer dance. It is our lucky night and as we can’t beat them, we join them, arms and hands twisting and turning, accompanied by the oh-so-well-known ting-a-ling-a-ling-k’ching-bing tunes. Here in the candle lit settings, with complete strangers and a language barrier, we let go of our cultural differences and form a circle, assuming the role of the celebrities once more, flashes of compact cameras blinding us from time to time. I fear the images which are promised to follow…
When the night is no longer so young, or at least in Bantey Chhmar terms, we head back, exhausted from the day events looking forward to a horizontal position preceded by a much needed shower. Both
perfectly possible, however, the nearby wedding celebration, in a truly Gangam Style, ensures that earplug making business is still a lucrative one, or at least it should be. I wish I had thought of these amazing, squeezy, brightly coloured inventions before I left Siem Reap. They would have been very very handy.
The bass vibration and music eventually ceases – around midnight, my tired brain registers…. To my delight. And to the delight of Mickey the Mouse and his night roof surfing buddies who resume to have a party on the tin roof above my head. Scuffling of little feet and sliding noises. My brain plays a cartoon movie which makes me giggle. Am I delirious? Brilliant…. and yet again I am thinking of earplugs. I eventually doze off only to be brought back to consciousness rapidly by the nearby pagoda announcing yet another day of wedding festivities to all relatives and neighbours, near and far. Very far. It is 5 am and the sun is yet to rise. There is no point losing sleep over it, I figure – quite literally – and take the opportunity to enjoy the cool breeze and my vantage point of the 1st floor of the wooden house to observe the morning village activities of sweeping the yard, washing last night’s dishes, preparing new pot of rice for the day to come, people slowly waking up to another day in rural Cambodia. It ticks all the boxes and I slowly get over my underslept grumpiness. Coffee will fix it.
A strong one with condensed sweet milk. Plenty of it – a delicious taste of Cambodia available literally everywhere, the Mondulkiri coffee is a must try. We are far from Mondulkiri here, close to the border with Thailand (the border lies mere 20km east), where cassava business is valued in Baht and the drying (and rather smelly) root is filling literally every front yard. Laborious process of planting, tending, harvesting, transporting, cutting, drying and bagging of the produce – all done by hand with almost no machinery involved and for very little profit in return, makes the livelihood of most of the people in the area. Rice, it would be my guess, follows in the second position.
All Cambodians have a lifelong love affair with rice.
It is a part of almost every meal and it is indeed what we have for breakfast, along with some more eggs and fish. When, later on in the day, I ask the rhetorical question “I wonder what is for lunch” Caroline wittingly replies “I suppose breakfast….”she is right and Valentina and I choke back a giggle.
As the day starts to warm up and the sun is just over the crowns of the trees, with bellies full of rice we are embarking on another adventure – rickety old bicycles are our companions (mine has no brakes!) and the leadership of a local guide take us into the countryside, past ancient barays these days mostly dry and further afield where we come across more ancient temples, giant stone faces poking through dense undergrowth of spiky bushes and thick vegetation. I feel very privileged and rather Henry Mahout-ish. We pass more cassava processing plants (front yards with women fully clad head to toe shielding from the sun, sitting cross legged chopping, chopping, and chattering amongst themselves. We come to a standstill when we are stuck in a herd of cows crossing the road – a true traffic jam Banteay Chhmar style.
Then, covered in red dust and sweat we start heading back as lunch awaits and so does our taxi to bring us back to Siem Reap.
Back on the road through dustland with bum massage included, we hit the smooth surface of route #6 in no time it seems and all is plain sailing again.
I take home with me a newly found appreciation for the aircon unit in the office and the few creature comforts in my humble abode in Siem Reap. I make a promise to myself to buy earplugs. I have enough photos to work on to keep me busy over the week until the next adventure.
This was the Citadel of the Cat. Not for the faint hearted but worth writing home about!
Written by Senior Travel Advisor, Anna Betts.
You can book a 2D/1N Trip to Banteay Chhmar with ABOUTAsia Travel
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Banteay Chhmar temple information here
Read more on the Global Heritage Fund here