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Tuesday 11 November 2014

Siem Reap: Tales of Temple Hopping, Quad Biking & Boating in Cambodia

Last weekend the cooler weather suddenly set in here in Hong Kong. In the mere swish of a russet leaf, we've gone from breezing around the city in flip flops and maxi dresses to wrapping-up in jeans and cashmere jumpers. After months and months of stifling, hair-frizzing humidity, I'm delighted!

As an added bonus, the mercury dipping, gave me the perfect excuse for a snuggly Sunday night on the sofa and the chance to clear a huge backlog of photo sorting and editing. Which in turn means that I've finally whittled down the zillion snaps I took during my August trip to Cambodia to a much more manageable fistful. So, I thought I'd share the highlights of my trip starting with part one - four nights in Siem Reap

Ever since I moved to Asia six years ago, I've been desperate to go to Cambodia but somehow there's always been a reason to visit somewhere else. No direct flights, not in the mood for anything more taxing than a beach break, not enough time to do it justice, wrong time of year etc, etc, etc. Finally, back in July, I handed in my notice at my last job and pretty much simultaneously booked a trip to zip off to Cambodia for the ten days before I started my new role.  

Having spent the previous nine months in a whirlwind of interviews and non-stop work, I decided to take the lazy route and hand the trip planning over to my good friend and travel expert extraordinaire, Lucy Jackson at Lightfoot Travel. Best decision ever! Within hours of me emailing, Lucy had my flights on hold, had pulled together my itinerary and had whittled down my hotel options to just a couple of luxe boutique hotels at each of our Cambodian ports of call. A few clicks later and I was indulging in some serious swooning over hotel websites desperately umming and ahhing over which to choose (it's a tough life). Luckily Lucy had personally stayed at all the hotels that she'd recommended and given that she has impeccable taste, I was happy to let her steer me in the direction of the properties she thought I'd like best. Complete five star service and a distinct possibility that I can now never go back to trawling whingy TripAdvisor reviews for hours on end searching for a half-decent hotel to book - Lucy, you've ruined me for life! 

Cut to a month later, the handover note has been handed over, the contents of my desk have been packed-up into a cardboard box and I'm heavy headed with a killer leaving party hangover. I'm also just touching down at Siem Reap airport though, so all's not lost. Within moments all the stresses and strains of the last few weeks at work are gone and I'm chomping at the bit to get out temple hopping and sun soaking. Lightfoot have arranged for our guide, Suron, who'll be with us for the next few days, to pick us up from the airport. Suron bundles us into a blissfully cool four by four and regales us with stories about his country and plans for our stay as we zoom towards our Siem Reap hotel - The Heritage Suites.

As we pull into the driveway a gaggle of girls tumble out of two rickshaws ahead of us. They shimmy past a couple of vintage Mercedes parked beneath the hotel's colonial white archways and throw open the shuttered front doors of reception ushering a toot of trumpets and a clink of glasses out across the courtyard. We look at each other a little unsure if we've come to the right place, but it certainly looks like the photographs. Tottering across the gravel towing our suitcases behind us with a little trepidation, the jazz grows louder and the laughing more raucous. We pull back the doors ourselves to a roar of people and music and are greeted by the grinning panama-topped head of the hotel's manager. We soon discover that the hotel hasn't been overrun by hedonistic burglars. In fact, it's Thursday evening, which means the hotel lobby is transformed into Siem Reap's only live jazz venue where the city's beautiful people flock and a bevy of barmen shake up the very best mojitos you'll slurp outside of Havana. 

What better way to kick off our trip than with a party and several seriously strong rum cocktails? We decide that there's not a moment to waste and hurriedly wind our way past the glowing turquoise rectangle of the pool and through the jungly gardens in search of our room. And what a room!

Bigger than our flat at home, our palatial room is divided into a separate living and bedroom area with an open bathroom kitted out with a freestanding half-egg shaped bath, a wet room and a steam cabinet. Sliding doors from the living area open out onto a sweet little terrace boasting a plunge pool made for sunset gin & tonics. We hastily hang our clothes in the walk-in wardrobe and duck under the shower and pull on our evening outfits ready to head out into the night for mojitos, a scrumptious French feed and ultimately a bucket or two in the aptly named 'Angkor What?'

Which all lead to missed alarms, oversleeping and no possibility of anything more adventurous than a morning flopping by the pool with our books. But when it looks like this, that's hardly a hardship...

As midday strikes, we hit the poolside terrace for a hangover-busting feast of a lunch and a heated debate about how to spend the rest of the day. As the sky grows grey and gloomy, we agree that rain looks imminent (but that's hardly surprising as August is rainy season and it's a welcome break from the crushing heat). We figure what we really need is an afternoon that's guaranteed to blow the cobwebs away. Hello, quad biking across the Cambodian countryside!

We were right about the rain. A few hours later we return to the hotel after an awesome afternoon zooming around the paddy fields soaked to the bone and completely exhausted - nothing that a hot bath with a strong gin & tonic can't sort out. But, knowing that the next day will be packed with templing and that our alarms are set for pre-sunrise, we retire to bed early after a quiet dinner and dream of kermit-green fields ploughed by bodybuilder-big oxen.

What seems like minutes later, we're ripped out of sleep by our bleeping mobile phones. We grumpily drag our clothes on and grab our cameras before shuffling out of the room like zombies. Our bad moods dissipate though when we arrive in reception to find Suron wide awake and smiling ready to whisk us off to sunrise at Siem Reap's most famous landmark and the largest religious landmark in the world - Angkor Wat. 

A morning's wander around the sprawling complex later and Suron ferries us back to the hotel for a breakfast pig-out and a snooze in the sun by the pool to compensate for the pre-dawn wake-up call. Once we're suitably rejuvenated, Suron's back to whisk us off for a Khmer lunch followed by an afternoon jam-packed with temples. From the crumbling, overgrown Ta Prohm (where tombraider was filmed)... the temple of smiling faces - Bayon...

... through to a serene evening cruise along the temple moat.

Arriving back at the hotel ready to drop, we have just enough energy to wander round the corner from the hotel for Khmer tapas and a couple of glasses of wine before falling into bed and a deep, deep sleep.

The next morning we pick up where we'd left off the evening before - in a boat. This time Suron collects us at a more sociable hour and we drive for a couple of hours through country villages up to Tonle Sap Lake - the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. As we putter along in a long boat, we watch the fishermen emerge from their stilted houses, hop aboard their boats and head out to bring in the day's catch.

Next stop, the crumbling hidden jungle temple of Being Mealea where we clamber over huge piles of ancient stones left to run wild away from the madding crowds of tourists that swarm around Angkor Wat and co.

Quick pitstop back at the hotel for a dip in the pool and a change of clothes and then we're off again for one last afternoon of exploring (this time solo armed with just a couple of rain macs, a camera and a sweet tuk tuk driver with no idea what we we're talking about - queue lots of miming and pointing).

Completely templed out, and having been conned out of a fistful of US Dollars by a 'policeman' at the final temple, we speed back to the Heritage Suites for one last night in Siem Reap before heading off on the next leg of our adventure - four nights of complete and utter, luxuriously lazy R&R.

But because this post has already stretched on for far longer than I intended, that's another story for another day. For now I'll leave us, bouncing through the clouds daydreaming of settling into a subbed for the foreseeable future...

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