Searching for hidden temples buried deep in Cambodian forests on a motorbike is as good as it gets. Here’s our month in Cambodia…
Thick roots wrap their way around ancient stonework like tentacles, slowly constricting and dragging the thousand-year-old temple back into the earth.
We switch off our motorcycle and gaze at what must be a nanosecond in an age-long phenomenon. If the hot pinging metal and whirring fan of our overheating bike quietened down, we would hear the brickwork gasp for air as the trees and vines slowly suffocate it. But it’s not cooling down anytime soon in this 35°C heat, and we can’t wait for it because we still have 2,999 more temples to find…
Cambodia is temple mad and cradles some of the most impressive religious monuments in the world. The Angkor region in Siem Reap is the most famous as it holds nine of Cambodia’s most impressive, including Angkor Wat: the largest religious temple in the world.
Over 2.6 million people visit the site every year. Two weeks ago, we arrived early morning to dodge the crowds, but not long after, tour busses unloaded hundreds of people who ran through the temples snapping selfies before jumping back into their air-conditioned busses to visit the next site.
We loved Angkor Wat and the temples surrounding it, but we love being here, alone in the forest with the forgotten, crumbling temples a lot more. It makes us thankful that we have our own transport. A motorbike that’s capable of tackling whatever we throw at it to get us to these undiscovered hidden gems. And we’ve been throwing a lot at it for the last two years and 30,000 miles now – we just hope it’ll keep going for the next 300,000…
We cling onto that hope as the rear tyre slips and slides on loose gravel and the front judders over jagged rocks. We’re ten times lighter than we were when we left the UK two years ago as we ditched all cold weather gear and most of our stuff for the hot southeast Asian climate. The bike isn’t groaning anymore as it flies over ruts. To us, this is hardcore enduro riding; to the locals whizzing past on their mopeds, we’re just two foreigners riding the main road through their village. We pull over at the local supermarket (wooden stall with the friendliest staff in the world), buy something cold and admire the bike coated in a fresh layer of dust. We haven’t seen thick red mud on it like that since the Gobi in Mongolia.
We’re told that there’s an asphalt road nearby, but we’d rather stick to this one. The main roads in Cambodia are sketchy at best. They’re single-lane carriageways and cars and trucks move fast on them. They use the opposite lane to overtake and flash their lights at oncoming traffic, which acquits them of any wrongdoing. If you’re on a bike, then it’s up to you to get out of their way – and that often means diving onto the sandy hard shoulder. Dogs, cats and chickens constantly run into the road. Cows and behemoth buffaloes wait until you’re close and then start their agonisingly slow cross. These ‘roads’ through quiet little villages are much more fun.
With sweat trickling down our backs, we work our way through deep forest until we ride past piles of stone. Every few hundred metres the piles get bigger until we arrive at an ancient tomb-like structure propped up by logs and trees. There’s no one here apart from a young Cambodian boy who appeared from the woods. He watches us delicately climb into the temple as if we have just made a first discovery, while he and his mates probably use it as a fort every day.
We find seven-tiered, Mayan style pyramids, jaw dropping mountain top sanctuaries, intricately carved stonework and floating temples as we slowly explore Cambodia. And we’re addicted.
There are around 3,000 discovered temples in Cambodia. But there were thousands more that were purposely destroyed by the Khmer Rouge during their four years of power from 1975-‘79. Over two thousand Buddhist temples were destroyed and 25,000 Buddhist monks were murdered. In total, it’s estimated that over 2 million men, women, children and babies were killed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge Party.
When Pol Pot took control of Cambodia, his Khmer Rouge party quickly set about ‘cleansing’ their new country and making it ‘pure’. They wanted a radical new order that was rid of anything that came before it like French colonialism, the former pro-US government and all previous institutions including religious groups like Buddhism. Despite being a part of Cambodian culture for at least six centuries, Buddhist monks were rounded up and sentenced to death.
Nobody was safe. Anyone the new government deemed as intellectual (from professionals to anyone who wore glasses) or who could contest their power were also killed. They set-up interrogation prisons all over the country – the most infamous being the S-21 prison where around 12,000 entered and only 12 survived. Hundreds of thousands of people were put through interrogation centres all over the country.
Men, women and children were brutally tortured until they signed false confessions, admitted they were ‘enemies of the state’ and also said their family members and friends were too. They were then taken to the Killing Fields. It’s estimated that 1.7 to 2 million people were killed in about 20,000 fields and mass graves all over Cambodia. They were executed with pickaxes, shovels and rods to save on bullets. Babies and children were held by the ankles and smashed against trees and thrown in large pits. Chemicals were thrown on the bodies to kill off people who hadn’t died immediately.
It became one of the worst tragedies of the 20th century. Death from execution, poverty and disease affected over 2 million Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge’s four years in power. Vietnam invaded Cambodia and put a stop to it all in 1979. But millions were displaced, millions more died and the country still suffers today from the horrors of its past.
While in the capital, Phnom Penh, we felt it important to visit the infamous Killing Fields and S-21 Prison to learn more about the Cambodian genocide. They’re gruesome and very hard to see and even understand, but also a part of Cambodia’s history.
Cambodia is a mesmerizingly beautiful history book with some of the world’s most impressive architecture and ancient cultures, but it also has incredibly sad pages in that book and it’s important to respect and read those too.
But tourism is on the rise and the country is recovering when you consider that only 7,000 people entered per year when its gates were opened to foreigners in the mid 1980s.
Cambodia and its lovely, friendly, smiley people have a lot to offer. From delicious food, stacks of history, out of this world architecture, gorgeous rural villages and even the mad roads. If you decide to visit, grab a motorcycle and go in search of the undiscovered. You’ll fall in love with what you find.
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