The perfect trip: Cambodia
Sok Ang has lived in the village for more than 30 years. Four years ago she opened up a shop, connected to the family’s one-room home, which she runs while her husband and children do the fishing. Today, however, the kids sit behind with some neighbours, watching a soap opera on a TV connected to a car battery – the main source of power in the village. The shop sells all the necessities, from shampoo to cooking oil as well as lotus-seed snacks. ‘I sell whisky, too, but beer is more popular around here – especially Klang beer, which means strong,’ says Sok, laughing. The shop doesn’t have a name – at least not officially. ‘Everyone calls it Yeay [Grandma] Ang’s shop. I don’t have grandkids, but the village calls me that.’
Me Chrey is one of the less visited of Tonlé Sap’s villages and seeing it by kayak is the most atmospheric way to experience it. There is none of the noise or fuss of a regular tour boat, allowing the visitor to glide past a clump of water hyacinth and observe a gaggle of black-and-white mynah birds cavorting undisturbed. The sedate, unmotorised pace is also more in tune with village life. Following guide Chin on a meandering tour of the back streets, a wooden boat squeezes past in a narrow channel. It’s powered by a small girl, with equally diminutive oars. From the back, her baby sister waves excitedly. Children look up from swinging hammocks to note the kayaks’ silent passing.
Paddling a kayak is easy, but not effortless; the perfect refreshment comes in the form of a strong, sweet iced coffee served by a mother and daughter in a covered boat that is part coffee shop, part convenience store. Competition for Grandma Ang – but here, in this remote, placid, water world, it’s no surprise to learn that cooperation holds sway. ‘The whole village are friends,’ says Grandma Ang. ‘I know everyone. If a family has a celebration, we all go to help out. Same if someone is sick – if one family has a fast boat, they’ll bring them to the mainland. We all have each other.’
Angkor: Best for temples
It’s late afternoon in an incense-filled hall in Angkor Wat. A tough-looking teenager in sunglasses and ripped jeans approaches an altar. On woven plastic mats, women pray to a Buddha statue, barely visible through the thick jasmine smoke. A fortune teller earnestly reads Jataka tales – stories of the Buddha’s former lives – and from the surrounding cloisters, lined with smaller, standing and seated Buddhas draped in saffron silks and fresh garlands, the sound of distant chanting echoes. The teenager takes off his trainers, carefully placing them next to the women’s flip-flops, and silently puts his hands together to join the group in prayer.
Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious structure, an architectural representation of the Hindu universe and the undoubted star of a massive temple city built, over the course of 600 years, by dozens of rulers who considered themselves part god, part king. Known today, rather prosaically, as Angkor Archaeological Park, the 150-square-mile site was the political and cultural centre of the Khmer empire and at its peak supported a population of one million.
The temples are still active centres of faith and everyday life today. Among the tourists who cross Angkor Wat’s sandstone causeways to explore its warren of chambers, courtyards and covered galleries are ranks of the devout. The Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas is now bereft of the vast majority of its eponymous statues – a legacy of the brutally destructive Khmer Rouge era of the early ’70s. Yet its spiritual significance remains undimmed.