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Winter Sun - Cambodia

October 13, 2023

Winter Sun - Cambodia

I’m sitting here watching water buffalo in the paddy field. They’re less interested in me than I am in them which suits me just fine; happy to observe and enjoy without disturbing their day. The sun is warm, the drinks are cool and the atmosphere is blissfully calm.

Staying at the beautiful Phum Baitang resort in Cambodia, part of the Zannier hotels group, is a first for me. Perfectly set amidst lush gardens and rice paddies, the 45 traditional style huts on stilts envelop you in the essence of nature with all eco-luxury add-ons in attendance.

The main restaurant overlooks the pool and the first floor Sunset Lounge bar near the main building resonates with romantic tales of Indochine. It’s the perfect spot for sundowners before a gentle stroll for dinner either downstairs or across the decked paths that separate the paddy fields. Each restaurant serves authentic Cambodian cuisine with a global influence.

And I’ve learnt about rice. It’s a semi-aquatic plant, hence the paddies, and the plants can yield three times each year. So, one hectare (100m x 100m) can produce three to five tons of rice. Yields in some locations can be ten tons or more. But as you can imagine, it’s very labour intensive as much is still done by hand and buffalo in most countries.

Timing of the harvest is critical because too soon and the yields will be lower from smaller grains, and too late can result in poor quality as more sugars are turned to starch, fibrous characteristics develop, and if during heavy rains, the potential for mould growth threatens.

The cut stalks are left out to dry in the sun and here the timing is also important. If they dry out too much the grains can break up and if left too damp, they may rot in storage.

Phum Baitang is the perfect launch spot for visiting the historical sites of Angkor and shopping for quality artefacts from a shop called Phnom Da in Siem Reap.

Angkor Wat

The town of Siem Reap is the landing zone for Angkor, the largest religious site in the world. The 400 sq kilometre area has hundreds of temples and the 1, 3 and 7-day visitor tickets give an idea of this vastness, which was unknown to the Western world until French explorers were taken there in the 1860s. It is now on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

Angkor Wat is the largest and most dramatic of the temples in the Angkor site. This area extended to as much as 1000 sq kilometres at its peak, and housed previous capitals built between the 9th and 15th centuries by the Khmer empire, a power base that covered much of south-east Asia and what is now Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.

Angkor Wat was built in the early 12th century by King Suryavarman II at the height of Khmer power, as the king’s state temple and part of the capital city. The entire city of Angkor used more stone than the pyramids and occupied an area larger than modern Paris. With one million inhabitants, it was the most populous city of the pre-industrialised world.

5-10 million stone blocks up to 1.5 tons each were brought from 50km away. It is thought the build took 30 years and involved several hundred thousand workers. Originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu it was gradually transformed to a Buddhist temple over the next century.

The Angkor Wat temple covers 160 hectares and has a three mile moat around it. The water management infrastructure designed all around Angkor produced massive irrigation capacity. Rivers were dredged and straightened into canals, dikes were built along with huge reservoirs. The high agricultural productivity allowed for a larger population and greater political power.

Cambodia is a now a developing country and Health & Safety constraints appear basic. You get the chance to move around the rubble and through the rooms with, in places, charmingly rickety wooden scaffolding holding up the ceiling blocks of stone.

Everywhere there are piles of stones from a collapse, waiting perhaps for the money, time and patience to rebuild. It feels raw and unsanitized which I doubt will last. Nature has taken over dramatically in places with trees growing through and dominating the stone structures with their spread of tentacle-like roots.

Siem Reap lies about 5km south of Angkor Wat and has developed from shanty town to tourist hub with its own international airport. Not surprising when some estimates put the tourism value of Angkor Wat at 20% of Cambodia’s GDP.

Tourism was devasted by COVID, and even in 2022, visitor numbers were only 10% of the peak in 2018. So I enjoyed an unusually quite expedition to the temple ruins made more famous by Angelina Jolie in the Lara Croft Tomb Raider film shot here in 2000. This winter may be a good time to go.

 Michael Van Clarke 

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