sunrise at Phnom BakengA few weeks ago I achieved a bit of an ambition at the old city of Angkor in northern Cambodia. It was a place I’d long thought about, even when this whole trip was just a faint wondering in my mind. The fact that we were in Siem Reap during one of Cambodia’s biggest festivals, Khmer New Year, made it that bit more exciting (and that bit more wet, as it turned out).

Siem Reap

Siem Reap itself was a likeable surprise. I had misjudged it, based on reports of the famous ‘Pub Street’ (yes, it really is called that) and the signs for 50 cent beer happy hours we saw everywhere. But walking along the waterfront, old colonial lampposts marking the way as day turned into night and the New Year lights winked on, this smallish city had a charm and an ease of life that I found a relief after the relentless roadways of Phnom Penh.

The biggest rice cake in the world - Cambodia

Suosaday Chnam Thmey!

….Or, Happy Khmer New Year! This three-day holiday takes hold of the country in mid-April, as many families leave the big cities and return to their home provinces for the best part of a week. Mostly, in Siem Reap at least, it seemed to consist of street parties, chucking water and talcum powder over each other and a giant rice cake. At just over 4 tonnes, the world’s biggest sticky rice cake in fact, Guinness World Records confirmed.

The water and talc part came unexpectedly for us, as a friend and I checked out some loud music next door to our guesthouse, and promptly got invited to a local shindig, or a big excuse to absolutely soak the foreign guests, repeatedly, without remorse. It was a good night.

Bayon temple, Angkor

Angkor Wat and other massive temples

To many, this is the main attraction and main reason for staying in Siem Reap. The estimated 1000 ruined temples from the Angkorian era (800AD – 1400AD) contained within Angkor Archaelogical Park do not disappoint. We managed to get round a good few in three days, from the many faces of King Jayavarman VII at Bayon temple to the silent and crumbling structures of Preah Pithu – despite hoards of visitors nearby, we had these smaller, time-forgotten temples all to ourselves. The third day was reserved for the splendour of sunrise at Angkor Wat (top image), the biggest religious building and teatowel design in the world, though sailing beneath the East Gate of Angkor Thom (the old walled city) on my bike was something I’ll never forget.

Preah Pithu temples, Angkor, Cambodia

Making it happen

None of these things, however, were my ambition. The sight I was most looking forward to was Ta Prohm, known for being the ‘Tomb Raider temple’, as well as the one the jungle tried to claim back (and won, as far as I could see). It’s difficult not to be awed by this sunken, half-eaten complex, where thick roots writhe between giant stone slabs and fully grown trees seem to sprout right out of the rock above. Spend any length of time here and no doubt a hundred ideas for a fantasy novel might appear.

It was here that I had imagined coming, all those months ago, years really. I had a Ta Prohm picture as the background on my laptop for ages, and I would look at it, and use it to mentally nudge myself into making this trip. Somehow, though I didn’t know for definite I would be volunteering in Cambodia then, this image came to symbolise what I wanted to achieve. And how would I know when I’d achieved it? Appear in the very same picture, of course!

Ta Prohm temple, Angkor, Cambodia

It was a nice moment. Before, it had seemed like a wish, and not a thing of reality. So, trying my hardest not to sound like one of those trite internet memes, it’s proof enough for me that you can make those sort of things happen. If I can, anyone can. It may not be easy, it may take longer than you think, but it is possible.

Happy New Year.