By a fluke I’d managed to get through to England on a phone in the lobby of the basic hotel we’d been stopping over in. My friend in England could tell the woman looking after my place how I was doing. After the initial surprise it was a case of where was I?
“A town on the Mekong Delta.” was my reply. I think it was here I saw a Buddhist shrine lit up in the same way as Christmas is celebrated, but the tropical night gave a bizarre feel to it.
Was I well? “Never been better!” was my reply. I’d come through real trials of strength and stamina and felt fine and ready for anything. A captain in complete control. Master of my fate for a change.
“And I’d also like to say, I’ve just had grilled rat!”
And the response to that was a measured sentiment of ‘Ye-es, I see’. She knew what I was like. Someone who – when getting over the hilarity of seeing that on the menu – wonders what kind of lunatic would have that? Then thinks of the person looking at the menu and decides ‘I know one’.
It had seemed to take a long time to cook it. Or catch it. While I kept myself going with beer.
It was very well done – to the point of some of it being charred – but I’d trust the rat rather than the cold hot dog I had the following morning. The morning view from the balcony outside my room was of vendors laying out vegetables and fruit across the street with only a few scooters and bicycles for the noise, under ad hoc architecture one room wide. Anything from modern to corrugated iron. Basic hole in the wall hotels were the accomodation on these tourist trips; together with eateries serving unusual cuisine such as rat, or where geckos running around the ceiling and walls kept one company.
The plan from here was my version of ‘Apocalypse Now’. A journey as far as possible up the Mekong river system. Up the Mekong into Cambodia and its capital, Phnom Penh. From there up a tributary to a lake in the middle of the country. A town lay almost on its northern shore and beyond that was the fabled city of Angkor Wat.
This could have commenced by river from the town I was in but because of the complicated nature of the journey around the Mekong delta it was awhile before I realised we were going up a parallel road to the next river town instead; complete with the usual two wheeled traffic mayhem threatened by 4 wheeled idiots behaving like bullies blaring their horns while overtaking on the inside. The whole tedious stretch being flanked by hovels and flat vistas. What a swindle.
At the next town the boat turned out to be a ‘tourist express boat’ with an open and closed section and a powerful engine. The open section had been claimed by a party of Italians but once we got underway though I found I could still get photos from behind the boat windows despite the engine’s roar and flying spray. I’d been on one big tropical river before in my life, the Congo, and that was a much more stately ferry cruise through a region of outright jungle and isolated villages. There were similar broad level horizons here of huge expanses of water and stretches of tropical vegetation including some impressive trees, but amongst this was much more habitation, more river traffic, and often it was just agriculture; sheer sided riverbanks higher than a man barring one from seeing more than the edge of a maize or banana tree field, with odd farm workers and cattle.
The journey led up out of the delta to the even broader main river and the Cambodian border. The first experience there was a wait in a riverside waiting room come cafeteria. Where I got to know the Italians who became really friendly when I told them I was against Brexit. They were a young crowd including a bevy of slim attractive women, surprisingly stylish in that climate. We dissected Brexit and I got a laugh of popular support when I told them we ought to form a new European parliament. Then we took each others photos by the boat and inside the customs compound, we’ d be swapping them by email after returning home.
The customs compound was the most laid back customs post I’d been through. Where trees shaded several shrines and an ornamental pond with water lilies, with a view of the river beyond. The ultimate relaxed atmosphere was given to the customs office itself by a dog lying in the dust in front of it pretending to be dead; as they are wont to do in this part of the world perhaps. So: the most pleasant border crossing I’d had in all my travels. What of the rest of Cambodia?
The river scenery continued as it had before but with more temples. Russet brick red to sandy coloured steep gabled buildings were often in sight as we progressed northwards; with the odd spire, ornate embellishments on their roofs and on poles occasionally placed around the buildings. Cambodia was a land of temples in fact. The obvious claim to fame being Angkor Wat but I saw many before reaching there.
More in the way of industry, river traffic, refinery and dock, meant that the capital was near. Eventually its occasional high rise showed up on the horizon with a tropical thunderstorm as a backdrop. There was a palacial hotel, another temple and then the disembarkation point. Nearby was a showboat affair. The sort of craft I had been hoping to proceed up the Mekong on. Never mind there was still the tributary to the central lake and Angkor Wat.
After 2 stays in a windowless room I wanted something better. There were hotels and establishments one could stay at everywhere but somehow the prices were always more than I was expecting.
I’d been fending off taxi drivers and the like which wasn’t easy in the sweltering heat with a large, medium and small backpack plus camera bag. I gave in with a tricycle ‘tuk tuk’ driver. It was the cleanest machine I’d seen, all smart red paint and chrome with comfortable seats. He assured me of a good place and we set off through the narrow cluttered streets.
The room was actually the worst I’d stayed in. Windowless, grim, a bathroom that was really a converted space under the stairs; one had to bend one’s head when going to the lavatory. There was also a loose electrical fitting by the ‘bathroom’. It was probably a firetrap what with the kitchen below, close to the stairs with no other way out it seemed. So why stay there? Well apart from the lure of spending less money the downstairs part of this establishment was roomy with comfortable furniture – especially by the street – and a menu for just about anything it seemed, in English! I was expecting a language hassle in Cambodia similar to mainland China but it was extraordinary how considerate the Cambodians were what with printing so much in my hometongue. There was also the company. The people running the place were nice and the clientele included an ex Parachute regiment fellow from Aldershot about to get a job and an American hippy from Tenessee. Both were pleasant company to booze with and the parachute guy pointed out that at least the place was secure: usually a concern when travelling and especially so in parts of the world such as this. A bank of CCTV screens hung over us in full view which posed a deterrant for thieves.
Things were not going well though. At the top of the street was a travel agent. The response to my proposed journey to Angkor Wat by river and lake was a statement that the river was too shallow so no boats were going up. That was the biggest disappointment on this SE Asian oddysey: having to accept a truncated version of the river journey across the Cambodian border and give up on the rest of it, getting there by bus instead.
Then there was the museum. I wanted to check that out because I’d been given an Indiana Jones type mission by the woman I’d regaled with the grilled rat. See what I could find regarding astronomical influences on Angkor Wat. The sort of thing I relished! Together with the Chinese limestone landscape, cave adventure, getting through the Chu Chi tunnels and the river journey. It was another adventure to chalk up. Except I found nothing on astronomy being connected to Angkor Wat in the museum although there was a lot in there on the place.
Thought I’d check out the palace near the river too but that was closed for a special celebration. So I photographed the ornate exterior surroundings, a spire within topped by faces peering in 4 directions like an oriental version of ‘1984’ and – with maximum zoom – a shot of a sentry on a mobile phone.
Back drinking with my friends from Aldershot and Tennessee in easy chairs by the street I made the mistake of spending money in connection with a street vendor or maybe even being generous to Buddhist monks; I’ve forgotten. Occasionaly they were to be seen in their bright robes and one knew they were near when there was an atmosphere of calm and respect replacing the usual 3rd world city hubbub. Anyway word must have got round quickly for in no time our small party was crashed almost literally by a woman in a motorised wheelchair riding up like a pocket tank with a ‘don’t you dare reject me’ expression and boxing me in between the seats. Part of her armoured vehicle so to speak consisted of books. She was selling them and although I didn’t care for her technique I thought I’d better buy one. It turned out to be a good buy. I’d already bought a book in Hanoi about a Vietnamese man’s bicycle odyssey through his own country which gave one insights about the place. Same thing here since it was about Cambodia after the end of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign. According to the book things had not improved much because of the venal nature of the government, bribery and corruption being endemic. Many – particularly in the country – still living as they have done for a long time, suffering from dysentery by siting latrines in trenches near water supplies for example. One thing that did happen was a big aid effort from the United Nations and that accounts for English being in widespread use here on notices and on the menu I saw.
I made a foray by tourist taxi north of the capital to the ‘mountain’ of Phnom Udong. Much of what was here was destroyed by American bombing and the Khmer Rouge. Still an impressive array of Buddhist shrines and temples; many of which were ‘stupas’: pagoda like towers of circular design like colossal bells rising above the foliage of a low isolated wooded ridge.
I didn’t realise it at the time but the town of Udong was actually the former Cambodian captial! Udong being Cambodian for ‘victorious’. Something of a misnomer since it was named thus during Cambodia’s decline but several kings were crowned here. Henri Mouhot; the French naturalist and explorer who alerted the west to the ruins of Angkor Wat, gave this description in 1864.
‘Udong’, the present capital of Cambodia, is situated north-east of Komput, and is four miles and a half from that arm of the Mekong which forms the great lake…Every moment I met mandarins, either borne in litters or on foot, followed by a crowd of slaves carrying various articles; some, yellow or scarlet parasols, more or less large according to the rank of the person; others, boxes with betel. I also encountered horsemen, mounted on pretty, spirited little animals, richly caparisoned and covered with bells, ambling along, while a troop of attendants, covered with dust and sweltering with heat, ran after them. Light carts, drawn by a couple of small oxen, trotting along rapidly and noisily, were here and there to be seen. Occasionally a large elephant passed majestically by.”
Phnom Udong proved a steep enough climb in the heat up flights of steps through the wooded slopes. Flights of steps would lead up and down along this ridge reminding me of a majestic staircase leading up a sacred mountain in Japan through a forest. I thought at the time that it would’t be a bad way to end one’s life when one was old – as I now was – ascending that mountain to expire. Now I was just glad it was a lesser extreme, what with the heat.
There was a view of Kandal temple below: more a temple complex with a small formal lake, perhaps used as a reservoir. Rather oddly I haven’t been able to find out anything about it on the internet. Some reason for secrecy or upstaged by Angkor Wat?
The first stupas on Phnom Udong were massive stone affairs but little tended, judging by the odd plant growing heroicly out of cracks in them. The main stupa though was the biggest, further on, on the highest point on the ridge with grand staircases leading up to balustraded terraces and a very ornate ghostly white edifice guarded by elephants.
There was a terrific view of the great flat plain which makes up most of Cambodia. As well as woods, settlement and agriculture there were flooded areas near the river. It reminded me of the horizons of Africa where plains seemed to stretch in the same limitless fashion as seas do. On Google Earth I’ve seen great stretches of water in this region. It’s as though most of Cambodia’s natural state was a vast swamp. Not so unlikely when Michelin maps of overland travel through Africa showed vast forested areas of this in the Congo Basin. Sometimes I saw it: waist high water everywhere in the jungle going on for mile after mile.
Buddhist stupas were built for a variety of reasons and could be classified by form and function as follows:-
Relic stupas, in which the remains of Buddha, his disciples and saints could be interred.
Object stupas, in which belongings of the above were interred, such as robes, begging bowls and scriptures.
Commemorative stupas, to record and celebrate with respect the lives of Buddha and his disciples.
Symbolic stupas, built to symbolise aspects of Buddhism.
Votive stupas, where visits are commemorated or spiritual beliefs are sought.
Towards the other end of the ridge downhill were more of the older or less well cared for sort. At least one of these had the serene but watchful faces carved into the top of the structure like the one back at the palace. Their was also a temple with huge gold Buddha statues and paintings of lush colours depicting paradise and wisdom presumably, within its dark interior.
The descent lead past a tiger growling from the wooded edge of the track of all things. Not a real one of course but a vividly painted mock up. On the opposite side one could see another religious complex through the trees; which turned out to be a another temple and stupa complex laid out like an outsize cemetery.
After that I was to rendevous with the driver near a gateway where a line of hundreds of identical lifesize gold statues of devotees led one up a road to another temple. The taxi didn’t show up but this place probably had a beneficial effect: somehow I was laid back enough to find help at a local establishment, make contact with the driver and even get a ride to him on the back of a scooter.
Back in Phnom Penh I seemed to be pressured by the locals to see ‘The Killing Fields’. I’d been persuaded by a friend to go to Auschwitz 3 years ago and neither were the sort of thing I normally wanted to explore. I felt that there was a ghoulish element exhibited when hordes of tourists wandered in and out of these places at will when so many were previously trapped into a terrible fate there without hope of escape. There was another side to this though. A Jewish friend was in favour of a visit to Auschwitz because it was a result of evil that should be recorded so that – hopefully – a variant of that was less likely to happen again. Maybe the Cambodians felt the same way.
So I found myself taken with a group to a ‘Genocidal Centre’ a few miles south of town. It was a former orchard known as Choeung Ek. Now it was a mass grave of a small proportion of the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Nevertheless 8.895 bodies were there, killed between 1975 and 1979.
What was I doing then? Nearly starving in Capetown but soldiering on against the odds to win an all important contract and get a steady job at the same time. It felt like victory after a Boer War seige and I worked flat out at both successfully but that was marred by the failure of falling in love disastrously. What followed that was an expedition across the whole of Africa: some very tough days and nights but also some fantastic sights, adventures and achievements; ending with a return home to family and friends in the UK.
That time wasn’t without at least one trial I regretted but whatever went wrong then couldn’t equal or even approach what I was witnessing now. We were given headsets and told to proceed through a series of numbered exhibits where whatever atrocity that took place there would be described to us.
Shelters – welcome in the heat – presented us with printed information and in one case bone fragments. They could be also seen if one looked carefully within fenced off areas where the mass graves were. The grounds were laid out like something like a cross between a park and an open air zoo. At the rear was a large pond screened by trees, a variation on the grave theme I think. There was also a view back towards the city across flooded rice fields beyond a wire fence with a boy there looking into the grounds as though he wanted to get in. How many doomed souls would have been looking with longing the other way?
The victims included political prisoners but there were many others. Khmer Rouge executed almost anyone suspected of connections with the former government or foreign governments, or being intellectual or just professional, for God’s sake! Even Buddhist monks too – normally revered and beyond reproach let alone extermination – were also for the chop.
20,000 similar mass grave sites throughhout the Cambodia have revealed at least 1,386,734 victims. Estimates of the total vary wildly from 1.7 to 2 million, to 3.42 million out of something like 8 million Cambodians. That could easily be a comparable ratio to Britons killed by the Black Death when it was killing at least a third of the population of the British Isles.
What surprised me was just how many were killed without being shot. The Nazis who killed a million Jews at Auschwitz alone preferred the industrialised method of Zyklon B gas to machine guns to achieve their total. But here the Khmer Rouge bumped off so many using only farm implements or sharpened bamboo sticks to save ammunition. A palm tree in the grounds was notable for parts of it being used in this way. Children and infants had their heads bashed against trees. There was a ‘Magic Tree’ in the grounds too, where loud music was played to drown the cries and moans of those being dispatched.
‘This Genocidal Centre’ had a memorial: a modern Buddhist style tower whose acrylic glass sides revealed 5,000 skulls. What could one say or think? There they rested stacked up on shelves. Housed inside a white tower that seemed to symbolise an ascent up to far brighter heavens after the Hell they’d endured.
The bus up to Angkor Wat crossed the tributary of the Mekong I’d planned to explore, passed a new housing estate on the left hinting at or pretending there was going to be a brighter future for the country and kept going across the Cambodian plain. Brilliant green with the rice paddies like some never ending seamed garden lawn from an alien culture. Studded with mop headed palms and the odd home on stilts. Probably still with those disease spreading trench latrines. The route wound northwards towards the fabled destination. There was a town where I had to look for a place to stay just south of there. Krong Siem Reap. There seemed to be more motor vehicles on the roads in Cambodia than in Vietnam but I was told it was such a status thing; poor families remortgaged their homes to buy them.
I thought the bus would drop us in the centre and I could sort this out on foot despite the heat and my near crippling load of luggage but the ‘terminus’ was in a southern suburb: an overpopulated raucusly noisy broad urban street without a blade of grass flanked by buildings of the more decrepit sort with no relief from this scene in sight. Like I imagined part of a city in India would be, a part that one wouldn’t want to get stuck in. After 3 rooms without a bloody window since Song Doong Cave I needed a hotel verging on luxurious and it was obvious there was nothing like that here. It was also obvious that more money had to be spent on a ‘Tuk Tuk’ (a motorised tricycle combination) if I was going to get out of this hole.
After this bad introduction to Siem Reap things improved. Back on the road again in the one of these conveyances there was the surprise relief of a belt of trees up ahead where the centre of town should be. It was parkland along the river running through the middle of town and the centre was on the other side. The town centre road running parallel to the river was a definite impovement on what I’d seen and the driver – being asked to find me an inexpensive luxury hotel – managed to do just that! Up an alley was a multi storey one. The cheapest rooms there were right at the top, suiting me perfectly and this time I got a nice room with a real view out over the rooftops. Saw some impressive storms up there.
Right below was a swimming pool too. The paving beside it was being refurbished so one was obliged to walk barefooted on some rough stuff but after the caves plus the places I’d gone through was I going to complain? Come on this was just cushy by comparison! The pool came complete with towels, loungers, bar and restaurant area anyway. My first sampling of the bar’s alcohol led to a chat with an Australian and I had some pleasant times there. Even taking on the role of a DJ behind the counter when I was taught by the staff how to. My choices were popular. Being under the influence seemed to help.
I should have quit when I was ahead with the ‘Tuk Tuks’ though. When I’d been out walking and had a problem finding the alley to the hotel I asked one of them for help. He took me across the road and I found myself with a problem driver who insisted on taking the wrong road. Calling a halt to this outside a huge hotel I found those inside no better at directions. And this was their home town! It was a long hike back in the heat but persistence paid off in rediscovering my hotel. Must have been in sore need of a beer when I got there.
By now I was aware that Siem Reap was a town of many hotels. And not just any old hotels at that, but huge prestigious luxury ones! At odds with Cambodia as a whole it indicated there was a lot of serious money spent here beefing up the tourist industry for Angkor Wat. Clearly it was felt that this World Heritage Site was Cambodia’s main asset for reviving some of it’s fortunes. I say that because Angkor Wat had been the centre of an empire that had expanded Cambodia’s borders through Thailand, Vietnam and down the Malay peninsula when Europe was going through its Dark Ages into the medieval stage.
The museum showed some of that. It was bigger than the one in Phnom Penh. But again I could find little if anything on how astronomy might have influenced the design and construction of the wonder just to the north of here. The closest thing I could find to that was the alignment of the temples and earthworks: either north south or east west. Angkor Wat was not just one temple but a city sized complex and 2 massive rectangular reservoirs west and east of the main complex spread the affair out to 7 miles across! Add to that the associated suburban and village architecture, farming and trade routes which didn’t endure – although some traces can be seen on Google Earth – and you have one major civilised region for that time.
First though I went to see the ‘Floating Village’ on the shore of ‘Tonle Sap Lake’: the lake I’d hoped to use as an approach to Siem Riep after coming upriver from Phnom Penh. Instead I saw how low the water level was in what was supposed to be the wet season! As can be seen from the photograph this meant that the dwellings built to cope with this resembled tree houses! I couldn’t help but take global warming seriously when I saw this. Later I was pleased to find a electric scooter hire shop in Siem Riep town centre. The name is ‘Greenbike’ with a green colour scheme for the premises and machines.
We got there in the back of a truck which bounced down some rough tracks near the village, reminding me of my crossing of Africa. The village was extensive with a school. We were paddled around a dark swamp during which I had a Cambodian children’s exercise book pressed upon me by a hawker. I later passed it on to my Special Needs school. They’ve come to regard me as the hardy explorer type. The lake itself had no shoreline; like much of the Congo river. A vast grey plain of water encroached upon the vegetation under an overcast sky.
And so to Angkor Wat. I joined a tour group hoping to glean some astronomical information from the guide but when he inflicted a sermon asserting that people considered victims of the Khmer Rouge had been killed by the invading Vietnamese instead it seemed obvious one couldn’t trust anything he said. He probably had relatives who were Khmer Rouge anyway.
The name ‘Angkor Wat’ means ‘Capital Temple’. In a sense that name describes the place well. It was certainly a capital city of temples. The first day’s exploring was spent not at Angkor Wat itself but subsidiary ones around the complex. I saw much, including stone elephants guarding corners of the temple, rectangular carved recesses known as ‘false doors’ in temple towers shaped like giant pineapples or fircones, partially eroded faces and carvings giving the appearance of half rock half sculpture that reminded me of scenes depicted by the German surrealist painter Max Ernst and flights of steps leading up through striking ruins that reminded me of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Led Zeppelin. Most of the flights of steps were too steep for the tourists apparently: the stone ones could be seen under wooden ones constructed on a gentler gradient. Although it spoilt the effect in some ways it was necessary I guess. The ruins of Angkor Wat weren’t the challenge the rockpiles of Son Doong Cave had been but a fall amidst all this masonry could still result in broken bones. Anyway, the steps were steep because the approach to the Gods wasn’t supposed to be easy; as I’d expected and experienced in Son Doong Cave. No pain no gain. That was the trouble with tourism: everything arranged but the striving and the acheivement lacking as a result.
I’d noticed ‘nagas’, first coming across them down at Udong: sculpted hydralike snake like creatures rearing up like cobras complete with hood behind them, guarding the entrances to various temples. They represented a mythical race of half human half cobra shape shifters who were commanded to weed out overpopulated regions of the truly evil or those who were due to die prematurely. So the legends say.
Most of the building material was sandstone transported from kilometres away. The architecture was square in plan or nearly so, laid out in concentric fashion (squares within squares) or subdivided from the outer moats and walls through terraces, galleries, courtyards and subsidiary towers to a central tower or point. Sometimes one had to climb, sometimes the going was level but always there seemed to be an entrance half way along each edge leading straight to the centre. Around each temple were often the hollows of moats. Those with water were often carpeted with water lilies in flower too.
At the end of the first day I was dropped off to climb Phnom Bakeng, the only hill in the area to watch the sunset. The track going round the hill to go up it past another temple tower in the jungle. The top was impressive enough: a steep climb to the summit of a truncated pyramid of a temple, but the view west was obscured by jungle and the best of it over the western reservoir was at a stopping point half way down. I got established there early enough before the place became a crush of tourists. The 2 big reservoirs of Angkor Wat were 5 miles long but only about half the western one appeared to hold water. A great sheet of it stretching out below the horizon beyond a knoll which was yet another temple. Over a mile across. What a civilization this must have been to create something like this from religion and hard manpower work. Hence the fascination of archaeology: filling in the details to build up the picture of a mysterious alternative world such as this which one could then time travel to.
Ones reward for patience was the foreground foliage fading its details into a darker hue along with middle distance while the reservoir became a horizontal gleam of light under a sky losing its blue hue and glare, which coalesced smaller back and back towards sunset behind solid cloud. Eventually – when everything apart from the man made lake was black silhouette – it was a spectacular tropical one of burnished gold and copper, with lightning occasionally flashing in the mountain of cloud. There was a storm developing but I managed to get back before it hit.
The second day was Angkor Wat itself which I reached by tuk tuk, which became my way of getting up there when I gave up on guides. The area was forested not so much with the jungle I’d seen elsewhere but with grandly tall pale trunked trees. Although they belonged in a tropical rain forest they reminded me of Redwoods in their majesty. Below them on grassy swards by the road were occasional animals such as monkeys investigating whether the tourists had anything worth stealing. I also saw while in this area Water Buffalo, a white cow and a huge pig crossing the road.
Angkor Wat itself was a vast place – the largest religious monument in the world in fact – bordered by a square of moats that were more like lakes. It was planned on the Khmer version of the Universe; with it’s central tower representing Mt Meru: the central mountain of Hindu faith, the courtyards being continents and the moats the surrounding ocean.
The entrance to the main causeway leading across the moat was flanked not only by the nagas but also lions. How could an ancient SE Asian civilisation know about lions? Because at that time they were more widespread stretching across the Middle East to India and the temple was originally Hindu; constructed in the 12th century.
Within the outer walls and carved on the masonry are 3,000 ‘asparas’. These heavenly ladies and intricate bas reliefs depicting historical events and mythology. They’ve more or less survived through the ravages of time (bat urine and droppings) and a mistaken attempt to clean the temple complex with chemicals which damaged them. They were designed to be viewed in an anticlockwise direction which has similarities to ancient Hindu funeral rites, giving rise to the view that Angkor Wat was used both as a temple and a mausoleum.
The dimensions of Angkor Wat parallel the lengths of the 4 ages of classical Hindu thought. So walking through to the central tower can be thought of as a journey back in time. If one doesn’t feel that way there one could in other temples of the complex. Wherever the axial east/west north/south corridors – leading to the centre of a temple – are level one can peer down a vista of distant doorways beyond doorways: a glimpse of time perhaps, or passing through into other linked worlds, infinity and all that.
The central tower was besieged by a massive queue of tourists. Sod that for a game of soldiers, so I thought I’d take a roundabout route back, exploring near the moat and discovered a Buddhist academy complete with orange robed priests. One of them gave me the option of staying and attending a session but I had to regretfully decline. Inwardly cursing running out of time because of the rendevous with my tuk tuk driver.
The 3rd day brought wonders I relished more than yesterday. Beyond the main Angkor Wat was a forested area with wonders in hiding. There was that pavilion housing a statue of Buddha the size of a Dinosaur; complete with respectful offerings.
There was the sight of a causeway in the jungle leading to a man made mountain. A massive pile of a temple around which tourists moved like ants. Its tiers and heights composed not so much of sculpted carvings but blocks of stone reminding me of Inca constructions. At the very top was the incongrous frame of a doorway standing on its own appearing to be an entrance to nowhere, unless it was Heaven or some other existence, though most likely it had been the entrance to surmounting architecture lost over time. This edifice had the feel of Indiana Jones to it for I wondered what – if anything – was concealed within? Also it was awhile before I could find it on a map, so I could fool myself it had only just been discovered.
The best adventure for me though was Ta Prohm temple. Not a huge temple but big and strange enough to be used as a location for that Lara Croft film ‘Tomb Raider’. That should be a clue as to how spectacular it was. It was the trees that did it. Silk Cotton tree, Strangler Fig, I’m not sure which I saw. That was what these gigantic adversaries were supposed to be but either way it was the stuff of science fiction! Roots spreading octopus-like in vegetable tentacles, some as thick as a man or more, over and sometimes through masonry. A drama of mans’ construction versus life that will not be denied played out on a vast vegetable span of time, alien in its scale. Most of these trees were forest giants that seemed intent on smothering, squeezing, heaving and ripping apart the temple.
This was one place where I had to get a photo of myself for scale. One was taken of me in what was practically a cave entrance formed by 2 massive roots, one with a joint in it suggesting bone articulation. Although the tree I was under was sawn up so that only those roots and the buttress base remained the cloister it sat on had sagged under the weight. Also another giant was close behind growing up at an angle so it looked as though the photo had caught it on the move to exact crushing revenge! Imagine a planet with this sort of thing speeded up: stuff of imagination.
And so the time came for the final journey to Thailand, Bangkok airport and home. A smooth bus ride to the border broken only by a cavernous underpopulated rest stop: probably an overestimation for the tourists.
The Thai border was chaotic in total contrast to that and the Cambodian one on the Mekong. Building construction hammering away in the heat. Totally built up anyway with confusion over where we were going. An obstacle course of one queue after another, checkpoints and officialdom. A woman returning to London swore. I gave some medication to a Vietnamese girl who had a graze. Beyond this was a straight road with bus stops that were simple by comparison.
I had to wait in an office of a minor outfit though for my lift. Which proved to be a roundabout one through the countryside of farming land and occasional hills.
I’d been worn down by my adventures perhaps; I had a bug and wasn’t feeling 100%. The journey itself though wasn’t unenjoyable. That is until we sped past the turning to my destination and kept going too far into the end of the day to drop off one person in the middle of a town I can only call Traffic Crap Central. Endless jams. Traffic lights that seemed to remain on red for half an hour. Aggravations such as a coach doing a ‘U’ turn into our queue just ahead with an air of ‘you don’t Mind if I muscle in delaying you even further do you?’ It was dark when we left.
Then when my destination was finally reached it turned out to be the opposite end of town from the luxury hotel I was aiming for. “Oh Shit!” That lined me up for the sort of debate over a taxi fare I love to hate.
But my luck I’d trusted to in not booking a room at the hotel was in. They had a good room available on the ground floor and the receptionist even remembered me from last year. Bit by bit I got sorted out and recovered from the bug soon afterwards.
It was a stay I extended, going up to the airport on the last day. For 5 days I was able to do nothing much apart from sleep, surf TV, drink, read, doze again and – when I felt energetic enough – walk a few feet beyond my sliding window for a nice swim in the luxury hotel swimming pool. Well why not? What with an odyssey of over a month coping with all sorts of situations, including lugging luggage around while lost in China, tackling the world’s biggest cave and crawling through the Chu Chi tunnels, all in the relentless heat of a tropical summer, I’d trained up for and gone through the toughest physical challenges in that heat achieving outstanding adventures that demanded courage, discipline, strength of stamina and spirit despite being 66! It might just have equalled some aspects of a military campaign.
So that qualified me for a stretch of ‘R & R’ Marine style.
© D. Angus 01 18