Cambodia’s Stairways to Heaven

Back from our 10 day Cambodian adventure which didn’t disappoint. We found Cambodia to be such a wonderful and fascinating country, not to mention its beauty and the people who are just gorgeous beings – despite the horrendous times they have been through.

We had a highly eventful time that could probably make a novel as besides tons of temples, jungles, waterfalls and boat rides, we also visited a silk farm and stilted village on the water. As usual these are the highlights, still a little lengthy but I hope you can stick with it and enjoy…

Our major inspiration for visiting Cambodia was of course Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples and, because this was a bucket list photography experience for Michael, I organised a wonderful guide whose specialty was photography and he took us around at the best times of day for lighting at the various temples as well as the least amount of tourists. For those of you who aren’t familiar with what this requires let me fill you in – VERY EARLY MORNINGS!

First light at Angkor Wat

First light at Angkor Wat

Our first day we started with the biggy, were up at 4.15am (for those who know me well you can imagine my joy)  and soon after were heading out to Angkor Wat to capture sunrise. It was pitch black and we had our head torches on to see, which unfortunately were attracting all the bugs to our faces but we weren’t quite hungry yet. Despite the hour, we were wide awake with excitement and anticipation of what we were about to see and knowing we were actually in the temple grounds of this place we’d seen so many photos of, admired and wondered if we’d ever see it in person, yet we couldn’t see anything yet. Our guide walked us through the wide, long stoned pathways and then we arrived at the ‘perfect photographic point’ and knew about it as there were already quite a few people setting up their cameras and many, many more came soon after. It was such a glorious moment as it started to become light and the typical Angkor Wat image appeared in front of us, the enormity of it really did take your breath away and even from a distance you could feel the grandeur and importance of the temple.

Scaffold snoozing

Scaffold snoozing

Our days were filled with early morning starts which did eventually wear me down. Day 2 I finally cracked 😉 I was so tired I felt like throwing up so took it upon myself to find a comfortable position balancing myself on some wooden scaffolding at the temple we were at and slept for an hour. ‘Yes’, it was extremely uncomfortable but that’s how tired I was. We saw so many temples and climbed many steep stairs as the idea is that the temples were built to represent heaven on earth and the steep steps are a symbol of you climbing up to it – I really got it as the thought you have when you finally get to the top is ‘thank heavens!’

Those stairs to heaven

Those stairs to heaven

Jokes aside, the temples are mind blowing – incredibly atmospheric and picturesque at the same time. From the scale of them, to the intricacy of the carvings and the way the  enormous silk cotton and strangler fig trees have grown in and around the ruins of these temples in the jungle. It didn’t disappoint!

We did also get a glimpse at normal life for Cambodians in the area as the tour company we went through are directly linked with a charity called Husk, which is doing such fantastic things for the people. So we did a walk and bike ride through some villages, chatting to the people and learning directly about what the charity is doing and how our money would be contributing to the community. We had developed a small addiction to coconuts during our time there as they were sold absolutely everywhere. When visiting one family who had some coconut trees on their property, one of the men insisted on climbing a coconut tree to get us some truly fresh coconuts to drink and then eat – YUM!

Sitting pretty at Ta Som

Sitting pretty at Ta Som

After all the temples and the wonderful city of Siem Reap, we wanted to explore another side of Cambodia so went down to Koh Kong, which is a centre for Eco-tourism. Of course we got right into it booking a jungle trek to Tatai waterfall in the Cardamom mountains. Now let me preface this all with telling you that this area isn’t really on the tourist trail yet and therefore not as developed as other areas along the coast.

Our soldier guide...calm, cool and collected. You might also take note of the engine.

Our soldier guide…calm, cool and collected. You might also take note of the engine

So….we start the day  covered from head to toe as they warn about leeches in the jungle. Humidity and heat were pretty high so tucking your trousers into hiking socks and wearing long sleeved tops isn’t ideal, but I wasn’t keen on leeches attacking me either. We opted for a 7am start to avoid the heat of the day and arrived at our boat that was to take us along the river to the trekking trail. Both of us were a little taken aback upon seeing this very old looking wooden boat, with four sticks of bamboo and a poncho as our ‘oh yes ma’am there is definitely a cover on the boat’, the motor looked like it had been pieced together from all sorts of different motors. To my eyes it looked as if it should have been a decorative antique ‘mood piece’ sitting on the water from many, many years ago rather than something usable. This was nicely topped with the reassurance that although our guide couldn’t speak a word of English, he would keep us safe in the jungle because he was an ex soldier and met us carrying a machete in one hand. Holy s#*t!! I really didn’t know if I should be feeling safe or not. Onward though we went and I have to say that the hour long boat trip was magical with the water calm, surrounded by all the mangroves with a backdrop of mountains and as long as we didn’t move around much, the boat felt fine. We got off looking forward to the return boat ride to experience a little more of this beauty and serenity.

Morning serenity amongst the mangroves

Morning serenity amongst the mangroves

The hike was incredible as it truly was a jungle and really did have leeches! After a big climb to a spectacular view point, dripping with perspiration and inspired by our two guides who only had shorts on, Michael decided to dump the trouser in sock look and roll his trousers up, I wasn’t so brave and turns out my instincts were right as sure enough he wound up with a leech bite. They aren’t as bad as you imagine though so it wasn’t a big deal for him however I still opted to remain tightly covered up. After a couple of hours we arrived at Tatai waterfall which was LOVELY! Made even more so by the fact we could swim in it and cool off. We were lucky enough to have this remote place in the middle of the jungle to ourselves, and spent a few hours there. Our guides looked after us, picking and preparing fresh durian to eat as well as chopping delicious pineapple they’d brought along for us. It felt so sad to leave this little piece of bliss in the middle of nowhere but we had a schedule to keep and thunder could be heard in the distance.

Michael's Little Mermaid

Michael’s Little Mermaid

Once back to our ‘boat’ it had started to rain a little and we could tell they were anxious to hurry on and get back to our base. 10 mins later we knew why as it began to rain heavily which wasn’t so great as the engine apparently cuts out if it gets too wet. So the idea of looking forward to this return trip full of serenity, was firmly out the window, especially when the wind picked up blowing a gale and we couldn’t see more than a few metres around us because of the sheets of rain. Topping it off the engine certainly did cut out a few times but thankfully the driver managed to get it started up again. Oh, and I haven’t mentioned that not only did we have thunder, there was lightning too and it seemed awfully close. We were smack bang in the middle of a huge storm and suffice it to say that I felt my life may well end on the Tatai river in Cambodia.  Michael was doing a great job of keeping it all upbeat but when the wind blew one of the bamboo sticks off and we all had one hand holding our ‘cover’ up and the other holding on to whatever we could, trying not to fall out of the boat, we were both making plans of how we would keep ourselves safe when we capsized.

Before the storm

Before the storm

This carried on for a very long half hour before it calmed down, we were completely wet through and ironically freezing cold. I think this too had a lot to do with the adrenaline rush from the shear terror we’d just experienced. We had a good laugh thinking the worst was over and felt we had bonded with our guides after surviving this near death experience. Oh but i do find life has a funny sense of humour sometimes!!!!!

Up to his knees in mud but still smiling

Up to his knees in mud but still smiling

Some areas of the river were too shallow for the boat motor, so the motor is stopped and paddles are used. The river is tidal, changing within 30mins and because the storm had delayed us, the water was almost too shallow for the boat. We hit a sand bank and simply stopped. Both our guides got out to pull and push the boat out of the sandbank and clearly struggling, Michael felt it only right he should jump out and help – hiking socks, shoes and all into the very sticky mud he went. I was certainly impressed, especially knowing what a Virgo he is when it comes to getting filthy. This happened about four times more before the driver called it quits, tied the boat up to a mangrove and indicated that we were abandoning ship. Oh my god!!! Rather than get my shoes and socks filthy and upon encouragement from our guides, I changed into my flip flops that I’d also brought along. Ready to tackle the mud I got out but when I went to walk found I couldn’t move as my shoes were quite literally stuck in the mud. Oh it was revolting! There was no other option but to take them off, embrace the mud and walk the 20mins back to our base- as you might imagine we were feeling and looking a million dollars but laughing all the way.

Moment of truth...please also observe our less then waterproof cover and less than seaworthy boat

Moment of truth…please also observe our far from waterproof cover and less than seaworthy boat

It was a huge relief to get back to our hotel, have a hot shower and wash away the filth! That night we watched the most spectacular lightning storm from the comfort of a lovely little restaurant that was on the water and sheltered – still not quite believing the events of the day and grateful to have survived.

Well then, this is my last post from Chiang Mai as we are now relocating down to the south for a bit of island living…..


8 thoughts on “Cambodia’s Stairways to Heaven

  1. Michael M says:

    Reading this reminded me of the time Okan nearly killed me with the photo trip to Dorset. You are such a light weight, good job you’re cute. Very funny post, glad we survived the boat trip and you didn’t have to drag me to shore.

  2. Gary says:

    What a great set of adventures! Loved the story about the storm. It really sounded frightening!!

  3. Yee-Liu says:

    I am so looking forward to the book … you write so well. You make your near death experience so romantic – so glad you are here to tell the tales! Yx

  4. Val says:

    Thanks for the latest installment from Cambodia. Your adventures get more dangerous by the minute! What an unbelievablely wonderful trip to store in your memories! Jealous!! Continue to add to your experiences and let me share by proxy. Love to you both, Val X

  5. Wonderful to see you guys exploring and really looking like you are enjoying your amazing adventure! Loads of love to you both – Tracy x

  6. Jacki Dunlop says:

    Wow you are really living the dream – sounds fantastic, particularly as summer appears to have been cancelled in Crouch End so you have definitely not missed out on anything here! x

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