It’s 5 AM, I lay awake, listening to the wind outside and not daring to lift the curtain to check the level of grayness of the sky.
I contemplate the helicopter’s ability to handle different weather conditions and can’t help being slightly nervous, hey, it’s my first time…. I landed a unique opportunity to join a bunch of (lovely) guests and accompany them to the very exciting destination of Preah Vihear – the legendary temple featuring on the news every so often and only just last week resurfacing again as army troops were withdrawn and replaced by the police.
Andrew, Marc and Jose certainly know how to spice up a girl’s day at the office…. We are all settled in our little red squirrel, weight distributed evenly, the blades picking up speed; captain Phil cracks a joke or two into the mike and off we go. Smooth straight up start is something I would appreciate while travelling by plane, instead of the long run up and no doubt many crossed fingers (including mine) amongst the passengers hoping that the runway is long enough and we are actually able to take off. No popping of ears, just crackle of static and the occasional jargon that only the privileged understand.
As we smoothly sway and gain height, Phil gives us a brief run over the route ahead – approximately 45 minutes to destination with mild wind helping us along, over some temples, past Phnom Bok and over the Kulen Range towards the Thai border in the north. We make our way over the runway and continue towards Angkor Wat, majestic to the naked eye and from the ground, the monstrous religious monument now seems tiny and toy-like. The moat is glistening in the sun which is trying to come through the clouds. We then pass East Mebon and Pre Rup, leaving the Angkor Archaeological park behind.
The guys could not have picked a better time to rise above it and enjoy this country from bird’s eye view. The patchwork of emerald green fields combined with brown pieces of land yet to be tended to and those covered in water ready for new rice crop make for a spectacular sight of countryside geometry, palm and hedges breaking up the pattern giving this flat land another dimension. The blob of Phnom Bok breaks up the line of the horizon in front of us and we then sweep past the temple on top, glimpsing the old canons covered in blue tarps and thinking that this time it’s really no pain and all gain – evil 600++ steps down below in the jungle, waiting for my next visit on wheel and foot. But that’s next time, this time I am flying!
From near perfect rectangles to somewhat more chaotic patterns of green and brown we approach the long loaf of Kulen Ranges, recognizable from afar. Beyond this civilization ceases to exist. Jungle takes over and green gains a richer, deeper hue. Tall trees reach into the sky with their white branches and I love how they look from above. Occasionally we fly over a cleared patch which inevitably means logging. It goes hand in hand with another word – illegal….. Only now and again we spot tiny huts, settlements and small villages connected by red lines of dirt roads. Another few months into the wet season and some areas will be impassable.
The weather Gods are – so far – on our side and we thank Jose for sacrificing seven aubergines to the appropriate saints. Ahead, dressed in fluffy white and grey clouds and mist, looms our destination. I wonder if the power of aubergine reaches as far as that….We can’t land near the temple, as was possible in the recent past, we must touch down near an army base and then continue on the back of a pick up truck, past the ticket booth and then eventually reach the steep incline of the hill and to Preah Vihear itself. It takes us about 20 minutes to get there and the last few meters of elevation leave us in thick mist. It is windy and cold – at least for me, so I wrap my scarf around me a little tighter and enjoy this long forgotten phenomena. The road is now all paved and relatively smooth, our hair, on the other hand is very far from smooth and we may just never be able to brush it again.
Silhouettes of kids and other locals start to come out of the mist, like ghosts of the mountain, curious what the wind brought today. Friendly hellos and offerings of sweets follow us all along and at this point we also gain another member of the party – a policeman who claims to be the local guide. We have our own guide which creates a little bit of a tension due to – reportedly – a new rule that no outside guides are allowed to show visitors around. A small “donation” fixes the problem, but our new found friend sticks to us all along.
Those aubergines must be quite a powerful vegetable; from thick milk of mist in the lower levels of the temple we rise up into a decent soft light and the views of Thailand open up before us like magic. Tall grass is swaying in the breeze and as I try to capture the diamonds of dew caught on the stems, I catch a puzzled look on the face of Mr Shadow. He must have been thinking, without words: “You silly woman, you roll around in the grass getting covered in seeds and mud, taking photos of godknowswhat, and the temple is right behind you!” He even taps me on my shoulder and shows me the stonework to my right. Yes, yes, I know…I sigh as I am moved along.
We stop on the top with time to reflect and pray – Jose takes his hat off and wanders into a shrine to get in touch with his own gods, while Marc contemplates matters with serious face and Andrew continues to photograph everything, getting excited by the flash of an orange robe against the grey rocks. Mr Monk must have done it before as he is a true master of posing and needs no further instructions, the clicks of our cameras are doing the trick. Mr Shadow is always present. We feel very safe.
Heli Phil is ready to go, greets us with cheeky grin and folds his long limbs casually, move gained by years of practice, presses few buttons, and we are airborne again. The journey back is quiet and filled with contemplation. We are travelling lower it seems which provides even more opportunities to snap the green patchwork from above.
Touch down at close to 1 PM and my thoughts are filled with lunch ideas. Adventure makes you hungry. Adventure makes you covered in grass seeds and mud, although had I concentrated on the temples like Mr Shadow told me to, this would not have happened.
Being back in the office for an afternoon blitz and catching up with the mountain of work is an anticlimax but I have a grin on my face and knots in my hair. Happy days. I conclude that I need more helicopter rides in my life. Phil….?
I had arranged a date with Jack Highwood for the next day.
About 30 minutes outside Sen Monorom, “Heaven” stretches 650 hectares across pristine jungle, hills and valleys and the sight in the shimmering morning sun just takes your breath away. The jungle screams with life, moisture is rising in misty threads amongst the giant trees and vines and I am pinching myself hardly believing this is Cambodia, so very different from the parched plains and dry harvested rice fields of Siem Reap in the midst of the dry season.
Jack and his team rent this piece of Heaven from the local tribes and minorities. They take care of 12 elephants in total, leathery ear flopping giants rescued from tourism, agriculture and logging industries. Free and able to be just elephants again,
it’s a great experience and a sustainable alternative to what comes into the minds of many when Cambodia is mentioned: elephant riding and trekking. This project also provides jobs for around 40 workers who share passion of protecting their natural forest and jungle.
Jack’s passion shines directly out at you from his intense blue eyes. His views are firm and uncompromising, yet ring true and I found it refreshing that somebody actually cares for the welfare of animals in Cambodia (Jack’s history with elephants goes way back and reaches across many countries) and puts up everyday battle for this worthy cause.
By mid-day we were just about finished with our jungle adventures and back up the hill we headed across another valley to the project’s home. Here volunteers can stay and lend a helping hand for as little or as long as they like, community spirit prevails and the atmosphere is laid back. The views are stunning – rolling hills and not a sign of civilization as we know it in sight, screeching jungle on your doorstep and the food just amazing.
Visitng Sen Monorom certainly put things into perspective. Not only did I love the ELIE project and what is stands for but I could sample the atmosphere of the real Cambodia where time stood still – or so it seems. A place, where expats are forced out of their comfort zones and learn to speak Khmer with a surprising ease and in no time at all. A place where expat community counts roughly 20 souls gathered from different corners of the globe and from different walks of life. A place where quick catch up over a beer on Friday is over by the time the clock reads 9 and then it’s all over again. A simple life in the forgotten corner of Cambodia. Worth visiting while this lasts.
A word of warning to the faint hearted – luxury is a word of empty meaning there and tourist facilities are best described as basic.
For years living in Cambodia I have been fascinated by the complex, loud and sense assaulting phenomena of Khmer weddings. Colourful loud affair that gets the whole neighbourhood involved, whether you are up for it or not. The act of weddings alone is a subject of many of my moans and on the top of my “whinge list”is no doubt Khmer wedding music. Let’s steer away from this for now and focus on something much more fun and closer to my heart – the art of make up.
Sunday afternoon seemed like a perfect day for a Khmer bride dress up. For mere US$12 per person all the fun in the world can be had. Lacking much seriousness, us seven women – all from different walks of life but all currently residing in Siem Reap, gathered upstairs of a well known photographic shop to undergo a change of a lifetime – luckily reversible with a few rubs of a wet wipe followed by a meticulous cleansing routine.
Two Sarahs (in the town of too many Annas, they are catching up), Caroline, Nicole, Vicky, Tamara and I. All ready to be beautiful. To hand, two dressing assistants, two make up artists and two stations, dressing room glittering with gems and sparkle fit for Rio festivities, jewellery of unknown beauty, gowns worthy many a princess – all such a feast for our eyes! And to our great relief – a working aircon unit on the wall. Phew.
Two by two, we flocked to the make-up stations. Dressed in communal pink PJ tops with buttons on the front – to prevent damage of the final product – we let the magic roll. I was smart and waited for my turn later on to fully take advantage of the Khmer brides being born under the skilled brush strokes and make up piling up. In between camera clicks and trying to find the best angle to appreciate the magic in the making, I admit I haven’t laughed this much in a very long time. Not only PJ tops were communal… So were the sponges, brushes, fake eyelashes and even the bright pink lipstick. Sarah B commented, with a snigger: “It’s like we all kissed, ladies!” There is nothing like sharing….
Sarah C, a make up artist by profession, had to apply – or so it seemed – several breathing techniques to overcome the fear of a fake eyelash and bright orange tone of her skin. Not exactly complimenting her red hair…. Caroline was not much better off when her eyebrows were turned into caterpillars, in her own words. Nicole, with her Thai roots, was the only true princess of us lot as we were all jealously pointing out throughout the exercise. Sarah B provided a hair challenge with the masses of her blond curly locks, which finally ended up being tied up in a messy knot and then casually propped to the side. By the time I was sitting in the death chair, from behind emerged Vicky, fully clad in sparkly red creation completed by pointy shoes, a dazzling beauty. I had the privilege to watch Miss America next to me – in former life known as Caroline, when Dolly Parton wig was secured to her existing locks and then glued to her scalp with few generous pumps of unknown brand of hair spray. One fake eyelash on, one off. My eyelids were getting a workout and I was slowly starting to look like Miss Russia 1985. Then on went the fake hair piece, my own hair got twisted and singed by hot irons and fixed into place by generous spray of product. It is designed, we were sure, to keep your hair in place in all weather conditions and also while whizzing to your wedding destination on the back of a moto. The eyelash glue is also of superior quality.
Tamara chose to become an Apsara dancer so her routine was slightly different to ours and we all enjoyed her getting padded with fake curves, looking like a clown – ballet dancer who escaped the scene in panic.
There was a moment of panic. While we were all in the studio, through a glass door I glimpsed a cluster of people gathering around the door leading into the dressing room. It was obvious there was something wrong with the lock, and all our belongings behind that door…. I had a terrible vision of forever being stuck in my Green Queen outfit, not being able to get out of it without at least two people helping, have fake eyelashes until the day I die – which would not take very long, let me tell you. Then, a sufficient level of force was applied and the lock popped, we were saved. Had I been able to, I would have breathed a sigh of relief….
The shoot was a blur. Four hand and feet twisting poses each. Bright lights and heat. Flashes. The photographer frustrated by our lack of flexibility in hand areas and inability to hold the required position long enough for him run back to his camera and press the shutter.
Finally the group shot. A rainbow display of glittering beauty. Dreaming of being free, fresh air and being able to sit or stand unsupported. Last few moments we even found time to be silly! Grabbed a few props and posed for a last group shot.
When the zip went rrrrrrrrrrrzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzh the other way, I literally deflated and I am sure my stomach actually made a sound. It was like I was liberated. The best feeling ever.
Vicky had the brilliant idea of bringing wet wipes. It took three to take the most of the surface of my face off and what was left was then washed off under a shower at home.
It was a fun filled afternoon which I am well up for repeating. The choice of outfits is dazzling and next time I may opt for sky blue, purple or bright pink. Anything goes really.
The mystery of heavy make up remains. Sarah C, our make up specialist, has done some extensive research but can’t find the roots of this tradition. Locals shed no more light on it. We are grateful we could have experienced one day in a life of a Khmer bride and although we have taken this matter lightly and had more fun than any bride would, it should not be perceived as disrespect of local culture.
Skies just about to burst, view from my balcony, Siem Reap
It’s the same every year….
We choke on dust for 6 months literally gagging for some moisture sent from the sky. We beg the weather Gods to send us some rain. We bake in the oven aka Siem Reap and by April we are growling sweaty mess suffering the mango madness.
Then it comes, out of nowhere it seems. Heavens open and we are swimming, yet somehow Siem Reap still manages to be dusty. Beats me.
With the wet season I am entering a new era of identity. I ditch all my white tops purely for safety reasons - and I am not talking only about dirt! Black is the new black and that’s my rule. Splash of colour is provided by the ever so necessary scarf which is also a dust buster and I will not leave my house without it. I can safely retire my hair straighteners and look frantically for frizz fighting products on the supermarket shelves. Not much luck there as I try to manage my hair with mind of its own into a semi presentable head of curls. Note to self: try harder or shave it.
We talk about the rain. We talk about if, how or when it’s going to rain. We even have a bet how long before the rain. We watch the sky with respect and wait for the rain. It comes, as a general rule, during lunch break or just before knock off time which makes me reach for lesser used and not so flattering words. I also reach for my blue plastic rain coat, made of durable substance the smell of which takes me back to childhood, blow up pools and balloons. Cycling in the rain, looking like a giant condom, is great fun. You end up wet either way – inside out, as my blue plastic raincoat encourages sweating.
Breathability = 0.
This time I am not getting drenched, I sit in the safety of a restaurant with a clear view of the street, watching nature unleash its force. Rows of colourful “condoms”on bicycles amuse me. Today we have strawberry, banana and blueberry flavor battling the head wind and lashes of horizontal rain in a true rainbow fashion. God, there must be about 15 of them, I imagine all the tour members, minus their hats and flags, anxious not to be separated, so regardless of the weather they battle and pedal on. I am smart and have a beer instead. I can happily live without a TV.
The rainy season brings emerald green back to life. All shades of it. Cappuccino coloured lands transform almost overnight into patches of green, rice shoots promising a new rich harvest and cows are happily roaming and chewing. This time of year is lovely and very photogenic, despite the mud that comes with it. You must let Cambodia get under your skin. Ironically, in the middle of the rainy season, when you return from a day in the country and want to wash Cambodia off your skin,there is no water coming out of the tap. This, again, makes my vocabulary flare up as I use the more peppery expressions.
Miss N was in love with HP once. She stared dreamingly into his eyes and pressed all the right buttons. It was love at first sight.
He adored her auburn hair and pale green eyes, she made him feel good, important, smart, irreplaceable. He was part of her life. He couldn’t imagine the world without her. He never told anyone that the beautiful and smart Miss N was his first love.
They went everywhere together. They shared their thoughts and dreams. The first year was filled with happiness.
But then came a time, out of the blue it seemed to him, when HP felt tired. He felt he couldn’t keep up with the energetic and slightly demanding Miss N. He was after all an older man now.
He caught her looking at others and didn’t like the calculating look in her eyes. He felt she was slipping out of his reach, more distant each day. Communication was more and more difficult between them.
“Apple???! You were never into fruit much” he exclaimed, “so why now? What a silly name! Who calls himself Apple anyway? A bit gay if you ask me! He may be younger than me, slim, smart and trendy, but I thought we had something special!”
Miss N didn’t listen nor care. She had a new lover now. She didn’t know him well yet but already liked pressing all his buttons.
HP was hurt and his heart was in pieces. He went to see Miss A only because Miss N insisted and he still wanted to please her. The fact is that he didn’t want to meet anybody new. Not yet, not now, not ever….
Miss A was very nice. She opened her hear to him, that he knew. So he tried and for a while it seemed that they could get on, that it could work. But her touch wasn’t the same, nothing was the same, nothing was right in his world any more. He was tired. He felt heavy.
HP got depressed. He felt like sleeping all the time, like there was no point in being alive. Then he refused to eat.
One day Miss A came home and found HP dead. Stone cold. She panicked but there was nothing she could do. She tried to revive him but to no avail. She could only hope that he went peacefully in his sleep but the truth is she will never know.
Now Miss A is looking for a new “friend”. She will, following this sad experience, most likely opt for a young virgin without any previous ties or history. It’s easier that way, no baggage.
anna bella betts
Never still, always on the move, looking for the perfect capture... Cambodia is currently my home, presenting endless opportunities....
In this blog you will find no profound wisdom.
Just accounts of daily life, sometimes about photography, often about wine, occasionally about travel adventures and sometimes about nothing at all.