Cambodia's hidden treasures

Angkor Wat is a true world wonder, but there's far more to Cambodia than its increasingly crowded temples – as a new Mekong discovery trail illustrates

5 mins

My heart sank as fast as the sun rose over Angkor Wat. Sunrise was certainly sensational. It enflamed the great temple complex in much the same way it would have done when its creator, King Suryavaram II, was around a millennium ago. Yet all around me was bedlam.

Besides the hundreds of visitors clambering over Angkor Wat’s precious 12th-century ruins, my enjoyment was tempered by noisy crowds hurling stones in the famous reflection pool and a paparazzi-style barrage of camera flashes. The day had begun with a traffic rush of bumper-to-bumper coaches.

Farcically, at lunchtime visitors are ferried 8km back into Siem Reap for buffet lunches at their hotels, leaving Angkor’s perfectly adequate local restaurants filled with bitterly complaining staff. Then, as evening draws in, thousands again swarm, crowding the Bakheng temple to watch the sunset.

Cambodian tourism is completely dominated by Angkor Wat. In 2008 one million tourists will visit it – a number predicted to rise to a staggering three million by 2010. But for many, Angkor (alongside Phnom Penh) will be their only Cambodian stopover, part of wider South-East Asian tours. Cambodian tourism is booming, yet the country’s rural poor is scarcely feeling the economic benefits.

On the discovery trail

My plan was to travel to Cambodia’s infrequently visited north-eastern corner to experience a new project promising to encourage sustainable tourism and boost the incomes of some of the country’s poorest people.

The Mekong Discovery Trail is centred along a 200km stretch of riverside communities in the remote Kratie and Stung Treng Provinces near southern Laos. The brainchild of a Dutch NGO, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism, the project is helping develop the region’s infrastructure, enabling it to receive visitors. Homestays are being set up so travellers can experience true backwater Mekong life in traditional Khmer villages. In addition, guides are being trained in English, local foods and crafts promoted, and hikes and cycle rides devised, including an ambitious 190km mountain-bike route. With 40-50% of the region’s population living on less than US$1 (50p) per day, “the project is vital for alleviating poverty and achieving sustained development of the region,” stated one of its coordinators, Anne-Marie Makela.

The trail is also part of a last-ditch attempt to save one of South-East Asia’s rarest mammals: the Irrawaddy river dolphin. A recent WWF-commissioned report estimated their Mekong-based population at a desperate 71. If the new trail is successful in encouraging visitors to seek out the dolphins, it’s hoped this will encourage their appreciation – and, hence, conservation – by local communities.

I had a lot of travelling to do, however, before even so much as glimpsing a dorsal fin, I had to cross virtually the entire breadth of Cambodia to reach the new project at Kratie.

Like many visitors I entered Cambodia from Thailand, travelling by bus to Siem Reap. In attitude, Siem Reap is like a Californian gold-mining town joyriding a boom. Emerging out of the surrounding rusticity, it startles on first impression. As the money from nearby Angkor has rolled in the streets have added largesse to showmanship. There are spa centres, shopping malls and even golf courses, as well as a bewildering choice of hotels bearing ostentatious columned facades, water fountains or faux bas-reliefs like the nearby ancient temples themselves.

Tomb Raider to Mekong

Despite the challenges posed by Angkor’s growing popularity, I thoroughly enjoyed my two days at the site. It’s possible, with a little effort and canny timing, to see the ruins in a more responsible fashion and to share a little of explorer Henri Mouhot’s sense of adventure when he rediscovered Angkor’s temples in 1860.

My friend and I hired bicycles and pedalled towards the more remote temples before the coach parties arrived. My highlight was seeing – in relative solitude – the wonderfully jungle-entangled Ta Prohm (of Tomb Raider fame), built by King Jayavarman VII to honour his mother. Its temple walls, buckled by probing tree roots, lined courtyards piled with fallen fragments of Sanskrit-inscribed bas-reliefs and headless statues of bodhisattvas. Even Angkor Wat and popular sites such as the Bayon became blissfully bearable when they emptied at lunchtime.

Even so, a few days later I was relieved to be travelling far from the maddening crowds in the hope of experiencing a more authentic face of Cambodia. First was a day’s drive east to the capital Phnom Penh, where I finally glimpsed the mighty Mekong. Then my route led 340km north-east to Kratie, where the Mekong Discovery Trail begins.

Siem Reap’s sophistication soon gave way to rural simplicity as our mechanically challenged bus bunny-hopped along the Mekong floodplain towards Kratie. Stilted, thatched villages perched loftily above crumbling-dry paddies awaiting rain; farmers ploughed fields with dusty buffaloes, tended banana crops or piled bell-shaped, stupa-like hayricks. The region suffered heavily under the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) but, scarred memories aside, the few indicators of Pol Pot’s Armageddon are newish-looking temples with seven-headed serpents for decoration – all rebuilt since the Khmer Rouge plundered or destroyed them.

In search of the river dolphins

Kratie is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of town. A once- important river cargo port during 90 years of inglorious French rule, it is now consigned to tropical torpor. But I liked it. I strolled along its potholed promenade, shaded by dipterocarp trees, to watch the sun set over the sluggish Mekong, and caught a festival at the wat adjacent to my riverfront hotel. Orange-robed monks had arrived in numbers to revere Kratie’s recently departed head monk. Yet it was anything but solemn, with parades, barbecues, funfair games and melodic temple music playing long into the night.

Next morning (the monks were still celebrating) I made my first foray out to search for river dolphins. The Mekong’s cetaceans are an isolated population of Irrawaddy dolphins, a species that is declining rapidly across South-East Asia. During the dry season these slow-swimming creatures stay put in nine deepwater pools spread over their 200km Mekong range from Kratie north-eastwards into Laos. At the crack of dawn I took a moto (motorbike-taxi) to see them at Kampi pool, 16km north of Kratie.

“Over there!” called the boatman, rippling the silky surface with his paddles: “Psot.” In Khmer, psot means dolphin. It also onomatopoeically captures the abbreviated snort Irrawaddy dolphins emit upon surfacing. Their bulbous heads appear first, then dorsal fins and finally tails, before disappearing for games of aquatic hide ’n’ seek.

Watching them is a sedate affair – no Flipper-style antics from these boys. They are graceful, shy creatures. We’d nudge the boat closer; they’d drift further away. Yet why should they trust humans? They were slaughtered for their fat and for target practice in great numbers in Cambodia’s recent conflict-ridden past. Nowadays, accidental gillnet capture, river pollution, overfished food stocks and high calf mortality are paramount concerns.

“There are so few left we couldn’t focus the trail around the dolphins in case they disappear,” explained Daniel de Gruiter, a UNWTO project officer helping to launch the trail. “But if tourism comes it can change local livelihoods and help conserve the dolphins by moving fishermen into tourism jobs,” he continued.

Sweet delicacies

My boatman at Kampi was a former fisherman; the £4 fee I paid him was far more than he’d earn in a day from fishing. But more than just dolphins, said Daniel, the trail is aimed at adventurous travellers who want to experience all aspects of Mekong life.

I started by trying out one of Daniel’s suggested cycle rides, a gentle 14km jaunt around Koh Trong, a lushly forested island in the Mekong, from where I watched a floating village bobbing like a raft of water hyacinths. However, his next suggestion was more ambitious.

I was off on an overnight loop out of Kratie to explore the Khmer river communities and scattered temples along the Mekong’s west bank. Hiring a 125cc scooter I first dropped by Kratie’s animated morning market to buy fruit and krolon, moreish bamboo tubes containing steamed sticky rice and coconut. I ate the sweet delicacy while crossing the Mekong by ferry, just south of Kratie.

It was a liberating day’s travel. I set off armed only with a crude map, the Khmer word for ferry and a warning not to miss the turn-off for my overnight accommodation at a place called Vodthanak.

All day I rode northward along a coconut-palm-lined track, crossing rickety wooden suspension bridges that spanned Mekong tributaries. I breezed through picturesque hamlets with towering wattle-and-daub grain stores; in some, the entire population was busy shucking egg-yolk-coloured maize cobs. Everywhere I pedalled I attracted shrieks of “Hello foreigner!”, and curious throngs gathered whenever I stopped to buy roasted bananas or drink crushed-ice fruit cocktails laced with pungent durian. I thought of Angkor’s traffic jams each time I tailgated lumbering herds of water buffalo.

Artistically, the many colourful Buddhist temples I visited on my way drew on Hindu temple art, reflecting Cambodian Theravada Buddhism’s shared Indian origins. One such temple near Saob village was fronted by fierce, blue-faced demons with upturned fangs that could have walked straight off the pages of the Ramayana. Folklore is equally important in local beliefs, as I soon discovered at the impressive Wat Sarsar Mouy Rouy (the Pagoda of 100 Columns).

“So you’re saying...” I summarised, struggling to keep up with Somnang, one of the wat’s monks, “... that Thon, a 16th-century monk, magically transformed into a crocodile, accidentally swallowed his master during a fight with another crocodile that was turned into a mountain, then ate a local princess to avenge his master’s death?”

“Yes, exactly,” replied Somnang. “The ashes of Princess Varak Pheak were buried here, where our temple was built.”  I followed his gaze as he pointed towards a garish golden stupa mounted on a shocking-pink plinth. It was as flamboyant as his crocodile tale.

The croc-revering monks were great hosts


They had agreed to provide accommodation as part of the trail project and I was their first guest.

I spent an atmospheric evening at the monastery, one of Cambodia’s largest. Somnang showed me around the tall, mustard-yellow pagoda, inside which painted serpents slither down columns from a richly decorated ceiling depicting the story of Buddhism. Outside, the sloping, red-tiled roofs are supported by 116 columns beneath which, according to local mythology, lie the souls of royal handmaidens who committed suicide upon Princess Varak Pheak’s death. The temple was rebuilt in 1997 following Khmer Rouge destruction.

Buddha in neon

What my journey was missing was river travel. Other than cargo boats, few passenger vessels sail north of Kratie. Because it was dry season I’d also failed to find any boats venturing north from Phnom Penh. I learned, however, of a restaurateur who chartered riverboats, so I made a 140km journey north by share taxi to Stung Treng, an even drowsier riverside town at the confluence of the Sekong and Mekong Rivers.

The following morning, sharing the rental cost of a vessel with two German aid-workers, I boarded a motorised canoe for a four-hour voyage towards the Lao border. I could not have imagined a more stunning journey.

The river tumbled through a chaotic braid of channels flowing between thousands of islets, sandbars and flooded forests. These form part of important wetlands teeming with cormorants, kingfishers and storks. At times we’d whistle though chutes of white water forcing our navigator, Ban, to wrestle with his tiller. Otherwise it was a relaxing journey, passing riverbank villages with neat vegetable gardens and fishermen netting silvery fish.

I spent that night a stone’s throw from Laos at Ou Svay village. Several households in this 900-strong subsistence-farming community had opened their doors to visitors.

Again, they are being promoted by the new initiative, and participating hosts keep 70% of guest fees while the rest goes towards communal village projects. I was placed with Mr Chipsim and his family in a spacious, stilted house with an extravagant, neon-lit Buddhist shrine.

Rouge's reign

Guests can take guided walks to spot birds or learn more about the forests but I had time only to explore Ou Svay’s cashew- and mango-tree-fringed footpaths. But what really intrigued me were tales of life under the Khmer Rouge.

The former regime was influential around the village as late as 1999; on my walkabout with a local translator I met 83-year-old grandmother Pen Sin. “It was very miserable here under the Khmer Rouge,” she told me. “We would farm morning to night, on just a watery cup of rice, every day, it was never enough.” She patted her stomach. “If we complained we would disappear forever.” 

Later, after dinner, Mr Chipsim recounted that he lost six of his family during the Khmer Rouge’s reign. His wife lost 12. I sweated the night away listening to clucking geckos and falling mangos crashing onto hot tin roofs. By dawn it was time to leave this magical corner of South-East Asia.

For a finale we drifted by dugout to the dolphin pool at Anlung Cheuteal, straddling the Cambodia-Laos border. In serene silence a few glistening dolphins generated concentric rings that travelled out across the Mekong’s glassy calm. Suddenly they were frightened away by unseemly behaviour. Four novice monks in orange underpants appeared, splashing and whooping on a giant inner tube.

My boatman and I laughed; he started his engine and set course for Laos.

The author travelled independently. For more on the trail, visit the Mekong Discovery Trail website

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