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the legendary temple featuring on the news every so often and only just last week resurfacing again as army troops were withdrawn and replaced by the police.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….?
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.