This was my opportunity NOT to see another tourist for the next four hours! The sun was low in the eastern sky and all I could hear was the clip-clop of my horse’s feet, as I rode along the dusty tracks on the outskirts of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Not many tourists equate riding horses in Asia to their typical holiday pleasure, but for me, after 2 days of conquering the temples of Angkor it was the perfect way to connect with the rural people of Cambodia - people who are just like me: farmers. Horse riding is also a very quiet experience, a time when it is easy to gather thoughts and take in the sights, sounds and smells.
I had been warned by friends, about the possibility of being “templed out” before my trip to Cambodia to see the UNESCO Angkor Archaeological Park, which is one of the most important archaeological sites of South East Asia. The complex contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. I was fascinated by the story behind the “rediscovery” of these ancient ruins and had seen movie, Tomb Raider. I was also prepared for the heat, the countless steps and I carried plenty of water as the humidity can be quite demanding, even in the “dry” season of January. But I never considered the people! Tourists; people like me, from all over the world, climbing, complaining; a continuous conveyor belt of humanity who all want to see a huge pile of beautiful rocks, reminiscent of a past civilization and popularized by a movie. In fact, according to Cambodia Tourism, 2 million people visited this archaeological site last year and they are increasing by 20% year on year…That makes for a lot of tourists! “Peopled-Out” is the term I like to use now, which best describes when I want a little peace and quiet, however, I must consider that all those tourists visiting Cambodia are providing much needed revenue to a very poor country. Approximately one third of the Cambodian people are living on less than one dollar a day. I cannot even buy a can of food for my cat for under one dollar!
After two days of channelling Tomb Raider actress, Angelina Jolie, I was ready to escape the hordes and find a little peace and quiet in the Cambodian countryside. I wanted an authentic taste of the real Khmer lifestyle and what better way to see the villages, farms and some more temple ruins, than a sunrise horse ride! Like many Asian countries, agriculture plays an important role in Cambodia. More than 70 percent of the population is engaged within the industry, especially rice paddy farming which is the stable food. I always love connecting with farmers, no matter what country they come from. Clean air, shelter, water and food are a basic to the survival of humanity, so farmers are doing their bit to keep huge populations alive on this planet when most people have “lost” their ability to grow something from the earth.
The early morning air smelt earthy – a mixture of mud, buffalo/chicken manure and smoke as I rode through villages where people cooked their breakfast and prepared for the day ahead. Weaving my way through the lush green paddy fields, farmers were already planting rice seedlings, ankle deep in slushy mud. I passed small children on their way to school who waved and greeted me in their “best” English. Large, white oxen pulled old wooden wagons, carrying people, chickens in cages and timber along the well-worn tracks to villages in the distance. A friendly wave, a dip of the head was all that was needed to acknowledge my presence.
Without the crowds I got to explore Wat Althea, which is an active Buddhist temple and Wat Chedai, a contemporary pagoda built on the foundations of a much older Angkorian structure. Unlike Angelina Jolie, I did not have to race against time and villains to find Pandora’s Box – it was there waiting for me on that leisurely, early morning horse ride in the Cambodian countryside. As I rode back to Siem Reap through the paddy fields, I reflected on my sunrise temple experience. Cambodian temple ruins are well worth the visit but temples by horseback are even better!
For further information on horse riding in Cambodia –
Siem Reap Province: Group 4, Svay Dangkum Commune, Siem Reap District
June 12, 2014