The perfect trip: Cambodia
As evening approaches, sunlight inches across the gallery’s courtyard to probe the dim cool of the covered walkways. Here, bas-reliefs of apsara dancers and pillars enlivened with Sanskrit inscriptions celebrating good deeds take on a rosy hue. The source of the chanting is revealed to be the Hall of Echoes, on the northern side of the gallery. As newly crowned Khmer kings once did, a group of young boys is harnessing the unusual acoustics here by pounding their chests, a process thought to offer mental and physical purification.
The walled and moated city of Angkor Thom sits about a mile due north of Angkor Wat. The most common approach to this sprawling complex, built by King Jayavarman VII as a statement of power in the late 12th century, is the stone-figurelined causeway to the crumbling South Gate. Despite its graceful, moss-swathed decay, the gate is undeniably imposing, its four giant bodhisattva faces staring beatifically out. Disturbed by a passing motorcycle rickshaw, a macaque pokes it head from beneath the arch to observe the scene, before retreating nonchalantly into the shade.
At the exact centre of the city stands the enigmatic Bayon – the state temple of Jayavarman. Built nearly a century after Angkor Wat, its 54 stone towers are carved with more than 200 huge faces; their resemblance to the famously hubristic king is not thought to be coincidental. A Buddhist altar is tucked away in a dark tower of Bayon; outside, rocks thought to create curses if removed are piled in small, thoughtful arrangements.
At Ta Prohm, to the northeast of Angkor Wat, strangler figs spill like liquid over 39 temples in various stages of ruination, creating a tangle of tipsy roofs and dark hallways. Inside one temple, an altar of Shiva, replete with gold-foil decorations and offerings of mangoes and Sprite, is tended by a ‘wat granny’ – the term for older women, often widows, who have taken monastic vows and help maintain religious buildings between meditation and prayer. She whispers blessings into a string bracelet before attaching it to the wrist of a devotee.
Monastic communities continue to live throughout Angkor, with Buddhist monks often passing through the historic sites on their way to and from their pagodas (a blend of temple and monastery). Tao Lav is 18 years old and joined Ta Prohm Meanjay, a pagoda outside Ta Prohm, earlier in the year. ‘When I became a monk, it wasn’t difficult – just a little bit boring,’ he says, laughing. ‘The first few days, I missed my family and friends, but the longer I stay, the more I give up, and now I’m happy.’
He lives in a simple thatched hut and is one of only five monks at the humble pagoda, and also the youngest. ‘This is a good pagoda. There aren’t many monks or noise, so it’s easy to meditate. And this is a heritage area, so the government doesn’t allow it to get built up. It’s very peaceful. Now that I’ve learned how to meditate, I like doing it. I feel so fresh afterwards. I’m trying to meditate more and more – no more thinking about the outside world.’
Cardamom Mountains: Best for jungle
The early-monsoon rains are falling hard in the Cardamom Mountains, perforating the glassy surface of the Tatai River. Lightning cuts through the slate-blue sky, scaring off the fireflies that usually dance over the water at dusk. The forested foothills darken, as the leaves of thousands of palm trees twist and turn restlessly in the downpour.
When the rain finally eases, steam starts to rise off the river’s surface, and frogs emerge from their hiding spots to plop around, experimenting with the new water levels. Mist slides lazily along the surrounding hills, meandering through coconut palms, wild-plum trees and pendulous jackfruits. The Tatai Waterfall is for the first time this year rushing over boulders, the moss that clings to them now a little greener. Local boys backflip from the rocks, yelling as they drop into the swollen pools.