We are in Cambodia, the country with quite possibly the most public holidays of any nation in the world, 28 of them, for a long weekend in March 2018, on a yoga escapade with 5 other yogis and their partners. This is the hottest time of year in Cambodia with temperatures reaching as high as 40 degrees C. We are here to do 108 sun salutations in front of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap.
Yoga retreats conjure images of endless yoga, meditation, cloistered away from the everyday world. Which has its place, however…. I am a great believer that insight comes when your yoga is integrated into the culture and countries you visit. This was to be a yogi escapade in a country of amazing history.
Our home away from home for our 4 days is the Shinta Mani Angkor. Styled by Bill Hensley, designer to the super rich. One can be just as yogi in 5 star as you can in something less. Welcome flowers (the lotus are a signature of this group) a lemongrass cool iced tea, and for some, an inviting swim in our secluded pool, we readied ourselves for WY evening reception. Khmer canapés, and a WanderingYogi signature cocktail (involving Palm wine and the lethal Khmer whisky) and a mocktail for those not imbibing, and a serious philanthropic note.
Proceeds from our room fees went to the Shinta Mani Foundation, one of the long standing organisations in Siem Reap dedicated to practical improvements in the lives of the Khmer people. Water quality and dental work being part of their program, and ones we were happy to sponsor (the fact that two of the yogis were respectively a water education officer and dentist seemed quite fortuitous).
Life is also beautiful and compassionate. A post evening reception tour by Sochea, our very funny and professional manager, took us to the Shinta Mani lux set of villas each with personal valet and own swimming pool (one lane width, but still). Rarely vacant, this was indeed an insight into the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Their other hotel across the road, The Shack, had the super large swimming pool, with a funkier and more contemporary theme. And where we were – boutique beautiful and cool, each room themed with a part of Cambodia (we had the famous Ta Prohm tree on our ceiling). Ponds with lots of koi, and genuinely attentive, kind and interesting staff.
The Shinta Mani Angkor became our daily refuge from the intense heat in our yoga escapade, which included the usual temple sight-seeing (a must in Siem Reap even if you have been more than once), and some escapade-y type things.
DAY 1 – Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, the Phare Circus
For most of us who visit Siem Reap, it is easy to overfill the itinerary. Resulting in being overwhelmed by all the history that the only thing we retain are the visual images of the three towers of Angkor Wat or the Buddha faces of Angkor Thom, or that tree in Ta Prohm.
TIP NO 1: See no more than 3 temples a day, finish by lunchtime, and get off the beaten track to some of the ones that are not at the main Angkor Wat area
We chose our temples based on the relationship of them to the story of yoga. Day 1 was Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm. Angkor Wat has the story of Baghavad Gita on its walls, is in the shape of the Ancient Mount Meru (ancient Hindi meeting place). Built by a Khmer King, who was Buddhist. It was intended to be where we would give the ultimate yogi salute, 108 sun salutations. We started them, well off to the side of the Wat. We didn’t finish and it became clear that the King’s intentions to meld Hinduism and Buddhism was unfinished business in Cambodia. We almost got arrested, but not before the guards brought their kids along on bikes and took photos of us with them.
Yoga is not well understood here, seen as being confined to a few nutty 1990s type hippies, involving illegal substances and crazy yoga poses. Couple this with a recent trend of semi naked European women draping themselves in yoga poses across Angkor Wat, and we managed about half our sun salutations there, and accepted that this was not going to happen, and continued on our way.
Back to temples… Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm has always been somewhat magical, the home of Lara Croft Tomb Raider (the one that launched Angelique Jolie). But restoration is now seriously underway, and the famous creeping fig trees are being chopped down to for this restoration. Be quick to visit. It doesn’t take long to get through, and is best done in conjunction with Angkor Wat.
TIP 2: Learn to be patient with others as you wait for that instagram shot. About 2 million people visited Angkor Wat last year. You read that number right. This place is really, really busy. Do not expect the place to be serenely quiet, none of it is anymore.
So this bunch of yogis with our suitably bright and funky yoga active wear, khmer scarves and designer sunnies, finished our temple tour, headed back to the Shinta Mani for a swim and down time before our next stop – the Phare Circus. Some of our yogis so loved the cool, they decided to stay by the pool. Cos options is what it is all about, too, when you are a yogi. Go where your heart desires.
An afternoon of learning how to be as flexible as these circus performers, who all came from the streets. Sometimes we forget the legacy of Khmer Rouge Regime, which is there are now generations of mothers and fathers who had had no mothers or fathers. Which translates into sending your child out onto the street to work, to sell themselves, drugs or beg. Because money is everything in Cambodia. These performers break that cycle. I learnt to roll forwards and backwards, almost do a one arm handstand (OK, it was two arms, but still it was the thought that counted), and juggle. If you miss the private coaching, go and see their show, there are usually 2, one early evening and one later. It’s like a mini Cirque De Soleil, but with the Khmer sense of humour (so there are no clowns running the show, doing slapstick).
TIP 3: Bringing Kids? Want to be a kid again? Get 8 of your friends together and book a private coaching session with some of the stars of the circus.
Day 2 – 108 Sun salutations, Angkor Thom, Temple of the Leper Kings, Elephant Wall, Group Dinner
Day 2, we are up bright and early, ready for our second attempt at 108 sun salutations. Sochea had found a great place, had staff mow the grass, tidy it up, and we were unlikely to be stopped other than by curious passerbys. For those who are wondering what are 108 sun salutations, and why, please ask any of our WanderingYogi family. Because many participated in the training, but could not get to our escapade. A couple of yogis a did their 108 sun sals back in Singapore as we did ours in Angkor Wat. They got to finish theirs, as they keep reminding us. But we did ours on Day 2 in record time – 43 minutes. Which might have been due to the great sleep and/or the food at our new home. Or that the venue was absolutely brilliant, and so we did yoga there every day.
Breakfast, and out to Angkor Thom, the temple with the Buddha faces, which is best viewed either early in the morning, or later in the evening. Built after Angkor Wat, it was the first full Buddhist temple built in the area. Next door are the Terrace of the Elephants, and the Terrace of the Leper King (which wasn’t, by the way). And again that blend of Hindi and Buddhism. Garudasana, by the side of the Monkey King, and the dancing mara sisters. Our guide, Vath, had the right amount of knowing when to pull us back together, and when to let us explore on our own.
TIP 4: Get a knowledgeable guide. How? Recommendations from friends, find out what they liked about them. There are so many guides, most can speak at least three languages. The experienced ones will cost more, and there is that saying, you pay peanuts, you get monkey kings.
Food in Siem Reap is one of its highlights. You can eat traditional Khmer – we all became partial to fish amok – a fish like mousse served in a leaf, sometimes with rice. But Siem Reap has become a hideaway for many a 5 star chef, with some of the best French and Italian food you will find anywhere in the world. For a pumperknickel (or close). And no tax on alcohol, so you have a 5 star night out on 2 star prices. Our escapade had some free time, and for many of us, it meant hopping into our dedicated tuk-tuks and exploring.
We did have a couple of favourites – Madam Wongs – a cocktail bar which pays homage to the Chinese opium den tradition (one of their signature cocktails uses lemongrass infused vodka) and Il Forno, where we had our group dinner that night. I heard the Barolo was stunning and at $50 a bottle, I saw a lot of them coming out. You can always judge a good Italian by the style of pizza – Napolese. Say no more. I heard some did try to party on afterwards, but were thrown out of the Foreign Correspondents Club at 12 midnight. It is not a party town.
Day 3 – Going Rural, Kulan Mountains
Day 3 is our rural adventure, where we have a spontaneous pit stop by the side of the road, meeting a woman who makes those darling wicker baskets we pay a fortune for here. For which she gets less than a pumpernickel, prompting all of us to donate forthwith, and make a resolution to not buy any more, even from Ikea.
More on temples… Bantei Srei, a pink granite and sandstone temple, with monkey kings and garudasanas guarding it. The last ditch attempt by the King in his vision of Hinduism and Buddhism, being a living integrated religious identity. Beautiful, and when I was last there, 4 years ago, hardly anyone went. But now, those 2 million tourists are all over the place.
We drive 45 minutes ‘up the road’ (Khmer and Australian language have some remarkably similar expressions), ate some roasted bee larva (some did, it cured hangovers, apparently) and made a side stop at a beautiful buddhist temple and received our blessing. Then… Kulan Mountain.
Kulan Mountain is the Khmer Big Day Out. It was Sunday, so we paid respects to the Buddha high on the mountain top, then joined everyone else by the river, who were dancing, singing and getting photos taken in what looked like Hawaiian native costume.
Battery charged speakers the size of large suitcases sat precariously on rocks, surrounded by people wet in full clothes (no one wore bathing suits), checking who had ‘liked’ the selfie they had just taken. We saw one other western tourist there, food and drinks arriving from somewhere to our little hut which we had reserved by the river, and our bellies survived.
What makes Siem Reap a place I go back to again and again? The temples are majestic, each time I learn something more about them. But more than this, it is the spirit of the Khmer, their unfailing good humour, and to be honest, their natural quirkiness. Which results in design that both provokes and delights, food that either explodes in your mouth, or hits the ground. And some seriously weird tastes in music. For a country that judged itself so harshly (about 2 million people died in the Khmer Regime because they were ‘different’), this current Cambodia seems to have beaten the current international ‘hate’ trend for anything different. And I do like Madam Wongs cocktails.