Arise at 6am with plans to use the open air public gym equipment on the banks of Tonle Sap only to see that they’re already in full use. Good on you, Phnom Penhers! Instead pack up suitcase and recording gear and head down to meet NZ Trio musicians, Gillian and Dan Poynton, who’s arrived back for breakfast. We all catch up with news of fellow musicians and plans of the people present. We all lean on Dan to visit Aotearoa! Our minibus turns up and we load up for the airport, leaving Dan to his day.
Us leaning on Dan; rear Ashley, Front, KM, Gillian, Dan, Justine and Sarah.
Flying to Siem Reap takes under an hour from PNP.
Waiting for the plane at PNP airport
The flight gives us an eye from the sky view of the country – red earth roads, hot, moist-air foliage, emerald green fields and rivers, rivers, rivers. Building are beside, or nestled in, foliage. Which was there first? Gillian prepares us for the temperature increase we’ll feel and walking across the tarmac is all we need to feel the intensity of it.
Driving across town we’re struck by the number of large, ultra-modern hotels. Businesses are responding to the global tourist’s interest in historical relics, of which there are many, just up the road. Queenstown’s mentioned as a similar-styled destination with parallel regeneration . As the only one of us who’s been before, Gillian says that a decade ago Siem Reap and Phnom Penh were both seriously low-rise, meaning the national and cultural monuments were conspicuously impressive.
Our rooms are at the Soria Moria Boutique Hotel on Street 24, named after a Norwegian fairytale castle. There’s a Scandinavian feel – a jacuzzi on the roof terrace, an outdoor swimming pool and pickled river fish on the lunch menu. There’s a fusion feel – with statues of Buddhas at the end of every corridor.
Scenes at the Soria Moria boutique hotel
Our lovely, and seriously knowledgeable, guide, Sopal arrives with two tuktuks (her Dad’s one of the drivers) and we’re off at a gallop to the temples. The furthest from town is 20kms drive, through villages of houses on stilts, cows with tethered noses, roadside stalls and beautiful children with smartphones (or at least mobiles). I spot a group of men gathered around a small, grainy TV screen. It feels like Cambodians have leapfrogged several decades of invention, cherry picking their needs. I hope that’s the case.
Sopal, Ashley and Justine in Sopal’s father’s tuktuk
The houses are stilted to increase ventilation, prevent flooding and discourage insects and snakes (of which we see precisely none). We stop to shop for hats – one each, from sampans to panamas – and skirt Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the greystone temples, saving them for tomorrow, but marvelling at the intricacy of their architectural designs and carvings, even from a distance.
We tuktuk on, passing other tuktuking visitors, and arrive at the rose-stone Banteay Srei. It must be 3.30pm and the afternoon sun alights on the stone, setting up a deep blush. The entirety of the stone surfaces are finely carved with dancing women, smiling women, praying women, mythological creatures and a multitude of gods. Banteay Srei means Citadel of Women or Citadel of Beauty. Both work.
The repeated patterns in the stonework bring to mind Moorish art, but that, combined with the part-human part-animal figures and other symbolism makes this unique.
We soak up the meditative atmosphere of the ancient corridors and rooms and buy some postcards sporting rather blurry photographs to support the child-sellers, rather than to remind us of this captivating place.
Back on the road we’re off to Pre Rup to watch the sunset. Others have had the same idea and groups of us climb the incredibly steep steps to the elevated terrace to look over the surrounding area. Some people split away from their groups , others huddle to take photos. It’s a party of strangers, enjoying the same experience.
Sarah, Justine and Ash on the terrace of Pre Rup for sunset
Out to dinner at Khmer cuisine restaurant, Chanrey Tree. This is our last full evening together so we order plates and plates of food, stopping at the frog legs. Ashley and I have a Mai Tai (it just feels right).
Next morning, refreshed and chilled, we hook up with Sopal and our tuktuk drivers.
More temples to come.