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Snakes, ex Khmer Rouge soldiers, hidden pyramids, fighting with dogs and bleeding from both ends. The epic journey.
Leaving China to renew my visa, I chose to avoid Europe, and instead trail through Cambodia. So I landed in Siem Reap with a small bag and nowhere booked to stay. At the airport I checked trip advisor to find that Mad Monkey hostel is regarded by many as a legendary place. And so it was. The coolest people, the best party, roof terrace covered in sand, flip flops and bikini, swimming pool, beer pong, weary travellers looking for some fun time to break up the days of exporting Angkor Wat and the temples.
In the next few days I found myself on a long dusty route to Phnom Penh to meet my friend Mina Lee - an adventure photographer and model that is a staunch defender of Mother Earth and all that is holy. Together with her new buddy Antoine, she and I were planning to explore the islands to the south and test out the latest and best Tentsile tents.
We made our way to Koh Rong where we found a raw and wild island getaway - a bit like Thailand in the old days before it got swarmed with tourists. The island was covered by jungle, swarming packs of dogs, buffalo carts, pot head westerners and a generous portion of gormless teenagers. Hundreds of mosquito bites later, we negotiated our way onto a fishing boat to take us to the neighbouring bays and we set up our floating camp above the virgin waters of the Pacific. Paradise.
The village was almost untouched by western civilisation. A collection of wooden hurts perched at the side of the beach just before the jungle starts was the only available accommodation. No perks. Just a bed and a toilet.
The next day we took another fishing boat to take us past the impending storm and through the 10 foot chop and around into the bay further to the south. We were just throwing the anchor in when we saw a grey inflatable speeding towards us. Cambodian navy! Turns out that Hollywood had hired the military to maintain a perimeter around the filming location of American survivor and we were trespassing so we were promptly escorted out of the bay.
Snorkelling was epic. I'd never seen sea urchins sporting 12inch spikes nor glowing algae. Dangerous too. We all had blood streaming off us at times. I even had to carry Mina at one point but luckily Antoine had some left over bandages from a few weeks earlier when his arm got infested by a flesh eating bacteria. People lose their arms that way. Not a pretty sight.
But at that moment of joylessnes the bottom of my toes were shredded and looked more like flat noodles in tomato sauce than human toes. We patched up and set off back towards the mainland to lick our wounds. By that time we've been through dog fights, insect bites, cuts and bruises, and I even had somebody jump on my head (I'm not going to say who).
But I'd go back and do it all over again. What a place!
In the mainland we made our way up the Mekong and back to the temples. I was about to meet a top end lawyer who was a big fan of Tentsile and who wanted to take us around to some little known parts of the country where magic and superstition was still practiced and where tourist foot don't step. Together, we hired a guide to take us through some Tomb Rider type temples. He fought the Khmer Rouge and had his arm blown off in the process. The Khmer Rouge - the most prolific killers since the nazis - had slaughtered 2 million people in the 80s and early 90s. We were told that there aren't any old people around because the Khmer Rouge killed them all. Then we looked around and slowly realised that we are amongst ex Khmer Rouge soldiers, or their victims who survived their massacres. They were all now friendly and peaceful working on mundane jobs like waiting at our restaurant table or driving a Tuk Tuk. But what a spooky place. We were near the area of the Khmer Rouge stronghold, deep into the jungle and surrounded by witch doctors, snakes and stories of survival.
I enquired about the construction techniques of the temples, some of them were reminiscent of the interlocking stones of the Incas at Machu Picchu. Our guide had little idea but he gave us an ancient formula of a type of a multipurpose glue that was used to bind the bricks at the time.
Later that week we came across a little known Mayan pyramid in the jungle (what is a Mayan pyramid doing in South East Asia?) - the only one in Cambodia and here we discovered what looked like a hidden entrance. What lay beyond? Even the locals didn't know. The entrance was blocked by a large 6 ton slab of limestone.
To be continued...