Last year I scanned countless Indochina tours, weighing the prices and musing over the itineraries. When Cambodia made the menu, I spotted the same key ingredients popping up: Angkor-Wat, Phare Circus, zip lines … but never all together in one recipe.
I settled on a simple solution: concoct my own tour.
The day after church and wandering in Bangkok, I chased this ambition to Siem Reap: a city with its own dedicated airport that welcomes visitors to the ancient temple complexes.
COVID restrictions leveled the local economy, and it has still not recovered its tourism stream. For me, this meant steep discounts at all the local accommodation. I upgraded just days before my visit, captivated by the fabulous colors and traditional-inspired art deco of the Golden Temple Hotel.
Golden Temple began impressing me by arranging my airport transfer: via tuk tuk, an upholdstered carriage latched to a motorbike. The moment I alighted on the doorstep, staff advanced bearing a cool towel and tray of refreshments. I sank into the sofa pillows and marveled at the lily pad entrance walk, the intricate columns, the aquamarine pool beckoning just steps away.
My reservation blessed me with one free lunch: three courses, from beef salad and a curry-like entree to fabulously presented mango sticky rice. A cool dip in the pool, coconut oil massage at the in-house spa (literally across the hall from my room), then I snuggled down in advance of an early morning.
I would rise before dawn for a sunrise tour of the temple sites – by bicycle!
We breezed through the main site while the guides regaled us with snippets of Cambodian history: the migrating capital, libraries of bamboo leaves, a tug-of-war between Hinduism and Buddhism.
They escorted our party of five (myself and a British family) to a breakfast of scrambled eggs and sliced papaya, served alongside the rice fields at a local cafe. Rejuvenated, we snapped on our helmets and hit the road.
Before cycling in earnest, we detoured to the rice fields for an impromptu lesson: one guide dispensed a bundle of green shoots with the confidence born of an agricultural upbringing. “Just use your thumb.”
Then we set off over hills and around the moat, cruising under sweeping trees and through wet clay. The road bikes mastered anything. I exulted at being back in the saddle after a few weeks off wheels. Our trail circled Angkor-Thom, a massive abandoned city that dwarfs its more famous neighbor, via the grassy tops of the very walls at its perimeter. Gods and demons flank the bridge leading to its front gates: one rank grim and leering, the other serene.
We oggled a monkey tribe chilling on the pavement before stopping for a snack. Over pineapple skewers and bites of dragonfruit, we admired the luscious pink bodhi flowers of the ‘buddha tree’ — so-named for its role in one of the many myths surrounding his life.
Throughout the trip, the guides confided their experiences of the politics and violence that have grieved Cambodia for the past several decades. Both are old enough to remember the civil war that followed Pol Pot’s massacre, when students hid in shelters during the school day should the guerrilla fighting pass too near. Our cycling expert left his village as a teenager to escape the land mines, joining a Buddhist monastery.
For our final stop, we ventured into Ta Prohm. Famed as a Hollywood set, this temple presents visitors with carefully preserved remnants of the overgrowth that once dominated all the surrounding temples. Curators reconstructed the Dancing Hall (named for its carvings of heaven’s entertainers) but maintained several trees rooted in the stones. They grow down from the ceilings, the guides explained, gathering strength from rainwater until ready to establish themselves in the earth.
On our way back from marveling at the “anaconda tree” (named for its mighty coils), I turned left while the rest of my group went right. Thus commenced a bewildered search where my guides and I managed to pass each other coming and going. A guard finally intervened to point me in the right direction.
What’s a vacation without losing yourself in an ancient temple?
The tour treated us to lunch to celebrate racking up a full day of activities by one in the afternoon. Almost everyone ordered the recommended fish amok: a savory stew served in a coconut shell!
Back at my hotel, I begged a photo – to remember these men, their service and their stories.