Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Two Tickets to Ride! A Journey Through Time on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, India

Our jeep judders to a halt to avoid colliding with an old man with a sack slung across his back who has been jostled off the nearby pavement. It’s teeming with rain and he struggles to hold his umbrella aloft in the crush of shoppers. The jeep lurches forward once more in a stream of traffic weaving its way through the narrow, busy streets of Darjeeling’s Chowrasta bazaar with its hole in the wall shops. Undeterred by the monsoon rains, the colourful market is absolutely thronged with people on the eye out for a bargain. The Hindu festival of Dussehra is just around the corner and new clothes are an essential part of the celebrations.

Through the constant downpour I spot several Victorian buildings cheek by jowl with the untidy concrete sprawl of urban India. Darjeeling, once a mere village in the eastern foothills of the Himalaya, grew in importance during the mid-nineteenth century after the British established a hill station here to escape the stifling heat of the Ganges plains. It soon became the de facto summer capital of British India when the Raj was governed from Calcutta. First leased from the Chogyal of Sikkim, it was annexed by the British in 1849 who discovered that the climate was perfect for growing tea and Darjeeling became synonymous with this beverage. Indeed the hillsides and valleys surrounding Darjeeling are still covered with deep green tea plantations. We are actually staying at a small eco-farm below Darjeeling 8 km down a spine jerking, teeth chattering unsealed road deep in a valley oozing with tropical vegetation. Tathagata Farm grows and produces its own tea, a delightful amber liquor with a smoky taste. 

Our driver takes us along Mall Road towards Observatory Hill. We stop briefly to view the Gothic St Andrew’s Church, an Anglican place of worship built in 1843 and rebuilt 30 years later, but now somewhat faded in its majesty, yellow walls streaked with green slime contrasting with its rust red galvanised roof. Close by are the Windermere and Elgin Hotels, elegant stone buildings which conjure up the opulence of the Raj. Nearby is the Darjeeling Gymkhana Club, established in 1909 and we also catch a glimpse of the Darjeeling Municipality Building with its famous Clock Tower, the four faces of which stare timelessly out over the myriad rooftops of the ‘Queen of the Hills’ which offers majestic views of snow capped Kanchenjunga, which is at the moment totally obscured in monsoon cloud.

But it is another facet of Victorian heritage that we are heading towards, one which for me truly evokes the grandeur of British India: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Narrow gauge (2 ft) and built to transport agricultural produce, this feat of Victorian engineering inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1999, was constructed between 1879 and 1881 to connect Siliguri, at the base of the Himalaya to Darjeeling, a journey of around 78 kilometres formerly made by carriage along the now horrendously congested and dangerous Hill Cart Road. Indeed, parts of it are ingeniously built into the side of this road, sometimes crossing it, running above precipitous drops and making numerous loops and Z-reverses to gain height. Remarkably, nearly a third of the original ‘B’ Class locomotives, the majority of which were designed and built in Glasgow by the North British Locomotive Company between 1889 and 1925, are still in use or under repair.

Due to landslides and catastrophic flooding events, a section of the track is damaged just before Kurseong and there is currently no service from New Jalpaiguri up to this point. Kurseong to Darjeeling and the Darjeeling to Ghum sections are operated by steam with other sections run on diesel. We wanted to travel on a steam train and, due to time constraints, chose the Darjeeling to Ghum option dubbed ‘The Joy Ride’, booking our tickets in Ireland. We now present the computer print-outs at the archaic wooden shuttered kiosk on the platform of Darjeeling Station to confirm our journey.

Having collected our tickets for the 4 pm train, there is almost half an hour to go before its departure, so we wander up the platform past a fast food booth with a sign advertising chai for 10 rupees where women are busy making puris, crossing the road to view the engineering sheds where several of the blue engines are undergoing maintenance. No. 802 Victor and No. 804, Queen of the Hills built in 1927 and 1928 respectively and an earlier engine No. 788 Tusker built in 1913, are lined up in the sidings, some of them stripped right down. There is no one at work and we wander along the shed pungent with the smell of engine oil and grease, to a group of dogs sleeping in the dirt below Tusker, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

Suddenly the air is pierced by a high pitched shriek which we immediately know is a steam engine whistle, heralding the arrival of our engine into the station. We run across the road to greet it, joining a knot of interested bystanders and train enthusiasts, as engine No. 779 chugs majestically into the station like a snarling beast, all steam and hisses, her name, Himalayan Bird, emblazoned in brass down the side of her diminutive body. Slowing slightly as if to allow her enthralled audience to admire her, she then picks up speed and passes beyond the station, only to reappear minutes later, her engine facing towards Ghum. This grand old lady of 122 years then comes to a graceful halt, gently hissing as she flaunts her beauty to the misty-eyed admirers flocked around her, cameras snapping away.

The stoker begins to furiously shovel coal into the small firebox which glows gratefully red and the engine driver lovingly wipes her bright work. The smell of coal smoke, grease and oil mingle together in a nostalgic whiff and a thrill of expectation runs through me like an electric current. What is it about steam trains that has the power to excite and enthral people of all ages and cultures?

Two carriages coupled and with an immense column of brown smoke now thundering into an overcast Darjeeling sky, its time to board. Chaos ensues as it's obvious there are too many people to fit into the carriages. The conductor looks on in open mouthed bewilderment, frozen into inaction in the melee. We push our way to our numbered seats in the First Class carriage only to discover two young men in salwar kameez occupying them who look bashfully at us as we show them our tickets. They depart the carriage with rueful smiles. A couple of portly Americans look decidedly uncomfortable squeezed into the very small, hard seats; indeed the seating arrangements offer an unparalleled degree of intimacy which some Westerners seem to find rather awkward! After some ten or so hectic minutes with much toing and froing, shouting and jostling for seats, a whistle sounds and the train leaves the station with a sudden jolt. A group of office workers from Mumbai seated near us break into spontaneous song and clapping, lending the carriage something of a festival atmosphere.

Whistle shrieking and soots flying in through the open windows, the engine puffs its way up through the narrow streets with a rhythmic clatter amid clouds of vapour past huge billboards advertising tea, weaving in and out of the traffic at a leisurely 6 miles per hour. Periodically, one of the engine drivers, a high cheek boned Nepali wearing a blue bandana, hops off the train to sprinkle some sand on the track to aid traction. At times the train lurches by mere inches from shop fronts, causing people to step back sharply and passengers to withdraw their heads from the windows, for fear of decapitation! I could literally reach through the open window to snatch fruit or clothing from the vendors’ stalls! Laughing children run alongside the carriages, people give chase to take photographs and traffic yields to the diminutive engine dubbed the ‘Toy Train’, a term I dislike, as this is no plaything but a serious piece of British engineering kept in service for over a century by Indian ingenuity.

The much feted view of Kanchenjunga is lost in monsoon cloud and the city of Darjeeling below peers though the murk like a faded watercolour as we enter the graceful double loop at Batasia with its neat gardens and prominent memorial to the Ghurkha soldiers of the Indian army who sacrificed themselves in battle during the War of Independence in 1947. We stop here briefly and I am glad of my umbrella as the monsoon downpour strengthens, sending up a strident hiss to match the steam escaping loudly from the engine. After a few minutes we pile back into our carriage to continue our journey uphill towards Ghum, the highest railway station in India at 2,258 metres (7,407 ft).

The train labours up the track spewing soots in through the open windows. A Russian woman sat nearby is clearly not amused as her white coat gets peppered in smuts and slams her window shut! The cold hits us like a sledgehammer as we disembark at Ghum station, built in 1881 which retains a Victorian atmosphere with its ornate wooden ticket counter and waiting room. A man with a rush broom almost as big as him, is meticulously sweeping the platform and the chai stall is doing brisk business in the cold, damp weather. There is a plaque denoting the World Heritage Site status of the railway at the end of the platform near a red post box and a small museum opposite the station dedicated to the railway, but this appears closed. We are, however, more interested in viewing Her Ladyship who is being prepared for the journey back down to Darjeeling.

Red hot balls of cinders are being raked out of her firebox, spilling onto the track and platform where they smoke and flame. The smell transports me back to my childhood reminding me of the Whitsun fair at Redruth when traction engines provided power for some of the rides. I’m especially taken by the brass eagle motif attached to her piston casing, which I assume is meant to be the Himalayan Bird. Uncoupled from her carriages, Himalayan Bird then exits the station to return minutes later, funnel facing downhill to Darjeeling where, steam up and carriages re-coupled, she waits, inviting her passengers to embark. A loud throaty whistle signals the arrival of a diesel engine pulling three carriages crammed full of people from Kurseong. It clatters through the station without stopping, sounding its whistle like a brash American freight train. It has more speed, but none of the grace or charm of Himalayan Bird.

Back aboard, we settle into our seats for the downhill trip to Darjeeling. Dusk is falling early due to the rain and car headlights cast pools of light onto the wet roads. The lights come on in the carriage casting a feeble amber glow over its animated occupants. The train breezes by the squares of brightly lit shops, vendors illuminated in lurid detail, contents flowing out onto the narrow pavement mere inches from the train track. Neatly stacked pyramids of fruit and vegetables; busy fast food stalls with lamps and candles flaring; brass pots and pans gleaming in the headlights of passing cars; damp clothes hanging like limp bats from bamboo railings. No one seems perturbed by the passage of the train, after all, she’s a noisy family member and clearly enjoys being centre stage, shrieking her way loudly through the bustling streets.

Just before 6 pm Himalayan Bird coasts into Darjeeling Station amid much steam and piercing whistles, our journey at an end. Although I disembark with a numb bottom from the hard seat, my hair full of cinders and my cream top flecked with soots, it has been a real pleasure to take a two hour journey back in time on one of the world’s most famous narrow gauge railways. The haunting shriek of the whistle echoing round the mist laden hillsides and the smell of the coal smoke and engine oil will linger long in my memory, as will the incredible snapshot the view from the passing train gave of everyday life in this mountainous and historic region of India.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

‘P-p-picture a penguin…’: A journey to Tierra del Fuego, Chile

A childhood dream

Throughout a spell in my childhood they appeared on the TV almost nightly, advertising a chocolate covered biscuit which we were exhorted to ‘p-p-pick up’ when we were a bit ‘p-p-peckish’: the king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus). I, like millions of other British kids, fell in love with the cute, comical-looking birds waddling about as if bedecked in morning suits. I never imagined that I would ever see them in the wild, as they are endemic to the southern hemisphere and inhabit far away islands at the other end of the world deep in the South Atlantic: the Falklands and South Georgia, and the even more remote and inhospitable Antarctica. Until fairly recently.

Last November I found myself in Punta Arenas, Chilean Patagonia, and learned that a colony had established itself on the island of Tierra del Fuego, at a sheep ranch in Bahia Inútil. To my surprise, I discovered that since 2011 tourists had been permitted to visit this colony which now lay but half a day's journey from me. Availing of the chance of a lifetime, Martin and I booked a mini bus trip there with a local tour company costing around $US 80 each, the price of which included a visit to the penguin colony, two ferry tickets, entry to a museum and transportation to and from our hotel.

On a chilly late November morning, just after dawn, we set off along with several other tourists in a battered old mini bus with dodgy rear suspension, for the Tres Puentes car ferry just outside Punta Arenas. The two and a half hour crossing to Bahía Chilota around 5km from Porvenir, a small town settled by Croatians in 1883, took us across the famous Strait of Magellan which joins the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The crossing was comfortable due to the lack of wind and swell on this notoriously fickle stretch of water, although the air temperature was so low it was too cold to remain on deck for any length of time. The most memorable aspect of the voyage was the incredible cloud formations: a line of lurid backlit sky on the horizon, above which gunmetal grey clouds swirled in eerie nodules that reminded me of the skies in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Bahía Chilota sits astride a desolate stretch of flat land, one of the more conspicuous buildings visible as you pass through the narrow entrance into the harbour being a bright yellow church, which added a welcome splash of colour on an erstwhile drab day. We disembarked as foot passengers, passing a sign warning of the dangers of toxic red algae and not to pick the shellfish along the coast, before being reunited with our minibus. We then drove the short distance to the bleak, frontier town of Porvenir with its depressing hotchpotch of shabby coloured buildings, to the Fernando Cordero Rusque Municipal Museum, denoted by its landmark circular astronomical observation tower outside.


The sad fate of the Fuegians

The museum has an eclectic mix of exhibits related to life in the region. Considerable attention is devoted to indigenous flora and fauna, including the aboriginal inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, which make for uncomfortable viewing if you are European. The native Fuegians belonged to several tribes including the Ona (Selk’nam), Haush (Manek’enk), Yaghan (Yámana) and Alacaluf (Kawésqar). The arrival of Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century saw the introduction of devastating diseases such as measles and smallpox to which the Fuegians had no immunity. Land grabs for ranching and gold mining, coupled with a deliberate policy of extermination of the indigenous peoples by settlers, resulted in the decimation of the Fuegians’ hunting grounds, cultures and languages, and their populations plummeted from several thousand in the nineteenth century to mere hundreds in the twentieth. Their sad fate seemed to be encapsulated in the mummified remains of a female called ‘Kela’ who died about 1424 in her early 30s. Her body was found in a cave on Tres Mogotes, a small island off Tierra del Fuego in 1974, but it is not known what culture she belonged to. Tourists leering at her grisly remains in a glass case filled me with sadness and shame. It seemed so utterly improper.

Leaving the museum we were taken to a site just above the coastline where a viciously cold onshore wind blew across the landscape. It felt like a hole was being ripped in the very fabric of history itself, for here stood a line of wooden statues of men, women and children wrapped in animal skin cloaks and bearing spears, staring through sightless eyes into the far distance, walking inexorably to their ultimate fate. They represent the Selk’nam nation, whose people were hunted like animals to virtual extinction by European settlers. It wasn’t just the cold wind that made me shiver at the sight of these carvings. They reminded me greatly of the statues erected at the Custom House Quay in Dublin’s Docklands in memory of another group of history’s hapless victims: the Irish who perished in their hundreds of thousands during the 1840s famine. Little remains of the Selk’nam nation today: some dusty artefacts in the nearby museum, this poignant line of statues and a sun-faded wooden plaque with peeling varnish, mere curiosities for passing tourists…

Plenty of food for thought on the long journey (almost 130 km) along bumpy gravel tracks through the bleak, flat, wind blasted landscape that comprises the northern part of the island of Tierra del Fuego, ‘The Land of Fire’. The name derives from the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, the first European to visit this region in 1520, who, from sea, beheld the impressive sight of many fires lit by the Yaghan nation. The southern part of the island is mountainous and densely forested, where firewood would have been aplenty, but the penguin colony is sited on a treeless stretch of land on a sheep ranch at Bahia Inútil (Usless Bay), a name supposedly coined by nineteenth century British geographers because it was not suitable as a port. Life here is undoubtedly hard and marginal, illustrated by the abandoned remains of several old homesteads and a windswept crumbling cemetery we saw on the way. I spotted a few herds of guanacos (Patagonian llamas) and some flamingos on a brackish lake in the distance, but most of the fauna consisted solely of woolly Corriedale sheep.

P-p-picture a penguin!

The lack of native fauna makes the sight of the king penguins all the more impressive. El Parque Pingüino Rey is a 125-acre plot on the 25,000-acre Estancia San Clemente, owned by Alejandro Fernández Vogelhummer and his family. We arrived there to be greeted by a tame grey fox belonging to the family which accompanied us towards the somewhat incongruous sight of a lime green geodesic tent sheltered from the wind by some white plastic sheeting. Here we signed the visitors’ book and were told a little about the penguin colony, the only continental breeding site in the Americas and the most accessible king penguin colony in the world.

The king penguin is second only in size to the Emperor penguin which can be found in Antarctica. Historically, king penguins have been present along various parts of the Austral coast; archaeological sites dating back 6,000 years reveal the presence of their bones. But these penguin colonies were consigned to the pages of history, scared away no doubt by European settler activities, until a number of the birds decided to reclaim their old turf around a decade ago, clustering at the mouth of the Marazzi River at Bahia Inútil. Their numbers increased year on year; courtship behaviour was observed and the birds finally started to breed here in 2012. When we visited, there were about 100 penguins present and the numbers were expected to grow.

The king penguin breeding cycle begins in November at the start of the southern hemisphere summer, when the female king penguin lays her first egg. The chick takes 55 days to hatch, then stays with its parents for 11 months. Once the chick is independent, the female must complete her moult before laying again, this time in late autumn. As a result, the king penguin’s breeding cycle takes 18 months and moves in and out of phase with the calendar year. Male and female king penguins look identical and they share the task of incubating a single egg. Instead of building a nest, they cradle the egg on their broad webbed feet, where it is kept warm in a brood pouch. The bodies of king penguins are protected from the cold by short, densely-packed feathers and a thick layer of blubber. They feed mainly on fish and squid found in the cold waters of the Southern Atlantic. At sea they are predated by seals; on land skuas snatch eggs and chicks, while the mink, a carnivorous introduced species, poses a significant threat to this colony.  

A small group of us made our way towards a grassy spit between a river channel and the seashore, beyond which lay the steel grey waters of Bahia Inútil, framed by a line of snowy mountains on the horizon. Visitor numbers are strictly limited to the colony and we had to keep a specified distance demarcated by a rope, so as not to disturb them. Borne on the wind, I could hear snatches of a strange, trumpeting sound. And suddenly, there they were! In the tussocky grass strewn with yellow flowers on the far bank of the channel we spot dozens of them. Some stood huddled together like statues or were busy preening themselves, occasionally flapping their wings or bending their heads backwards on seemingly elastic necks as they pointed their beaks heavenward to emit the unusual sound we could hear; others looking amazingly plump were lying down oblivious to the surrounding birds and a few adventurous ones were clambering into and out of the water, either returning from, or going fishing, in the bay.

The sight of these three feet high birds brought a broad smile to my face. They looked vaguely humanoid with their bipedal waddle and slightly comical too, as if decked out in fancy dress: oversized black wellie boots with webbed feet; a large, blue-black tailcoat with a long white shirt; a conspicuous, yellow-orange necktie and a black and deep orange face mask! Several birds appeared to be moulting and we could see their discarded feathers caught in the grass alongside the river bank. Moulting is a period of hunger for the penguin, as it cannot put to sea until it has a set of fully intact and functioning feathers. We laughed as one tobogganed down the river bank into the water with a loud splash, and giggled at the odd sly peck and occasional ‘trumpet voluntary’ as one of the birds returned from the sea to join in a huddle. I noticed a couple of the birds had a bloody smudge on their pristine white feathers. Our guide, a PhD candidate in biology who had worked at the colony studying the penguin’s behaviour, told me that these wounds were likely to have been incurred during a seal attack.

We then moved further towards the shore to a shingly beach strewn with brown seaweed. Here one of the birds put on a Charlie Chaplinesque display for us as it waddled round comically as if showing off, periodically flapping its wings and lifting its orange striped beak skywards to trumpet between spells of intense preening. I was struck by how dapper these birds are, quite beautiful in fact, with their blue-black, white and saffron yellow symmetrically patterned feathers.

We were loath to leave, but having spent well over an hour and a half there, we were beginning to feel decidedly chilly. There followed a long journey to a ferry at Bahia Azul for the 20 minute crossing back to the mainland. En route we passed through Cerro Sombrero, a bleak ‘one horse’ oil town with a toblerone-shaped church, a large building with a multi-coloured façade which looked like a Cubist painting, and a huge statue of an oil worker in front of three enormous glass buildings resembling huge greenhouses. Indeed, one had a tropical garden inside.

The crossing of the Strait of Magellan was rougher than the one we had taken earlier. The skies had cleared to the deepest blue and the sun was shining, yet it was bitterly cold on deck. We, however, couldn’t resist the urge to brave the chill to watch huge waves slamming into the hull of the ferry sending clouds of spray all over the cars on the deck.


I felt incredibly privileged to have been able to see king penguins in the wild, something I had dreamt about ever since I was a child. And it was great to know that these birds, which had been driven from Tierra del Fuego by human activity, had returned to reclaim their territory. Moreover, this tenacious little colony is now being protected by the local ranchers. A story with a happy ending. Unfortunately, unlike the king penguins, the indigenous Fuegians, whose land this once was, will never return because of the cupidity and ignorance of Europeans who drove them to extinction. A truly sad and sorry chapter in the annals of Latin American and indeed, human history.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Tomb Raider for a Day! A Moto Trip from Siem Reap to the Beng Mealea Temple, Cambodia

Heaven on Earth

Angkor Wat is a name that has summoned up adventure, excitement and mystery for me ever since I was a small child. The largest temple complex on earth, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, nothing can prepare you for its sheer scale and majesty. You are reduced to superlatives. Built over 800 years ago to express divinity - the setting down in stone of the divine power of the kings of Angkor - these enormous temples were surrounded by thriving cities built of wood and thatch. Here was the capital of a kingdom that ruled for over 500 years, home to over a million people, its engineering, urban planning and water management systems equalling, if not surpassing, cities elsewhere in Asia and in Europe.

We have been in Siem Reap, Cambodia, for three days, exploring the numerous temples which make up this World Heritage Site. We watched the sunset from Phnom Bakheng turning the stonework of Angkor Wat pink and gold, and stood spellbound awaiting the sunrise behind its five distinctive lotus bud shaped towers, the physical embodiment of the microcosm of the Hindu universe: the five peaks of Mount Meru. Charcoal grey and silhouetted against a kaleidoscopic sky of moving cloud tinted myriad shades of grey, purple, lilac, ruby red and apricot, all reflected in the water of the large moat surrounding it, the complex at dawn presented a spine tingling scene. In the daylight we wandered amid its ornately carved labyrinthine galleries depicting the battles from the great Indian epics: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Gods and demons, men and beasts, all exquisitely executed in sandstone. And the apsaras and devatas, so perfectly carved and lifelike - dancers and deities that might just take form and walk out of the very walls.

From a tuk tuk we gazed in wonderment at the great city of Angkor Thom, its entrance bridges lined with impressive avenues of carved heads depicting gods and asuras in the form of a stylised balustrade with ornate nagas (multi-headed serpents). These lead to a tower, a panoply of intricate carving featuring elephants topped by four enormous sandstone heads facing each cardinal direction. The narrow gateways below propel you to another world, a microcosm of the universe, at the heart of which is the Bayon.

We wandered in awe through this mysterious monument, its giant carved faces staring benignly into the surrounding jungle canopy, timeless, still, with knowing eyes and smiling mouths. We admired the history and culture of the Khmer, fashioned in exquisite detail: the great friezes of war - battles with the Cham and the Chinese - warrior elephants and soldiers in boats and chariots; nobles in exotic palanquins. And the prosaic, for the people who created this temple projected their everyday lives onto stone: a timeless portrayal of rural life still seen in the Khmer villages of today.

In the sweltering heat we explored the dark recesses of the pyramid-like Ta Keo, and the temple mountain of Bakong with its fabulously carved elephant statues surrounded by a moat studded with cerise pink and white lilies. We watched as a huge gunmetal grey cloud swirled menacingly above the pool of Srah Srang just before a monsoon deluge engulfed it, and sat becalmed at the peaceful scene of a man fishing on the lake surrounding the island temple of Neak Pean, as the heat of the day ebbed away and the sun slid low in the western sky.

We wandered speechless amid the photogenic ruins of Ta Phrom, marvelling at the stonework smothered by gigantic silk cotton trees and strangler figs as if in a desperate and deadly struggle with the jungle for survival. Merged with the jungle, but not yet a part of it, this was the location for the film, Tomb Raider. We marvelled at Banteay Srei, a small, bijou temple with ornately carved red sandstone bas reliefs nestled at the foot of the Kulen Mountains, where the air positively crackled with the ions of an impending storm, sending frenzied flocks of Red-breasted parakeets shrieking to and from their roosts in the tall trees nearby.

It’s now day four, we have used up our three day pass to the antiquities, and besides feeling a little more adventurous, we’re keen to escape the thousands of other tourists here. In particular the hordes of Chinese, every one a fashion disaster, who seem impervious to other visitors, talking loudly and persistently, hogging the best views to take endless photos but ruining ours by barging into almost every frame. So we have booked an off-the-beaten-track journey which will take us on a 125 km round trip to visit a stunning heavily overgrown temple complex hidden deep in the jungle. And we are going to do this by Moto…

On Yer Bike!

In Cambodia, two wheels definitely rule and the major means of transportation is the Moto. These motorbikes, usually of around 125cc, are veritable work horses, zipping along the narrowest dusty tracks deep in the Khmer countryside, or powering their way up muddy mountainsides where no four wheeled vehicle dare go. We have just been deposited by the side of a quiet road on the outskirts of Siem Reap and a helmet has been thrust into my hand. I haven’t ridden a moped for over 30 years, let alone a motorbike with gears, and to say I’m apprehensive is an understatement! Moreover, Martin has never been near a motorbike and is looking on with considerable bemusement as we are shown how to start the engine and operate the gears. No driving license is required and no questions asked about any previous experience. Sensing our trepidation, our young guide from Khmer Tours seeks to reassure us and we are given the opportunity of getting used to riding our 125cc Honda Dreams along this quiet back road before we set off.

I quickly get the knack of it and am soon whizzing up and down the road, waving as I pass Martin who looks as far removed from ‘Easy Rider’ as it’s possible to be! Within 15 minutes we’re deemed proficient enough to handle them and, following our guide, enter the hectic flow of traffic out of Siem Reap. After a short distance we turn off the main highway onto a narrow dirt track and the fun begins. Weaving at speed around pools of muddy water is much more difficult than it looks! I concentrate hard trying to maintain my balance and after several minutes I begin to relax and enjoy the scenery.

We pass through densely vegetated jungle to emerge into open countryside comprised of tall palm trees and watery flatlands vibrant green with young rice plants and dotted with cerise pink water lilies. A herd of water buffalo is slowly moving amid the verdure and a man with a net, submerged to his knees, is fishing. We pause to take photographs of this idyllic scene unaware that these paddy fields were once strewn with landmines which have been cleared by a Dutch aid agency. When told, we find it hard to believe that prime agricultural land such as this was mined and shudder at the evil of Cambodia’s notorious killing fields.


Alongside the road, half hidden and shaded by trees, are numerous wood and rattan houses built on stilts. Pigs and cows wander freely, chickens scatter in all directions as we pass and half naked children spill out onto the roadside to wave at us. The Cambodians are undoubtedly the friendliest people I have met anywhere in the world and its hard to reconcile the images of their beaming, beautiful faces with the brutality and horror of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

We emerge back onto a tarmac road as the sky overhead begins to turn an ominous shade of grey. Before long, large raindrops begin to fall and we are forced to take shelter at a roadside dwelling. We are instantly welcomed into a farmstead comprising a couple of houses and some small sheds for livestock, and are seated on a wooden platform under a rush roof as the rain comes down like stair rods. A wooden ladder way leads up into an upper storey with rattan walls and behind us a man is lethargically swinging in a hammock, seemingly oblivious to the deluge. A family of four is sheltering on a similar platform opposite, a small boy laughing loudly as a line of squawking chickens dart underneath it for cover.

The rain soon stops and back on the bikes we head towards a line of low hills in the distance. A steady stream of Motos pass us and I am absolutely amazed by what is conveyed on them: a family of four crammed together like sardines in a can; a man with a huge wicker basket from which bulging sacks are suspended; a woman almost hidden by an enormous load of freshly cut animal fodder; a young man with two pig carcasses slung across the back… It’s a wonder they manage to keep the bikes upright!!

Once again we leave the main road, turning down a rough track through cultivated fields. The underlying bedrock of laterite gives the earth here its distinctive rust red colour which contrasts sharply with the bright green foliage of acres of yams. Every so often we pass bagfuls of the tubers stacked up by the roadside and are hailed loudly as we speed past, by the workers either harvesting them or loading the bags onto huge trucks. By now the heat is great and would have been intolerable but for the breeze set up by our passage. After traversing a maze of roads and muddy tracks, we arrive at our destination, about 40 km due east of Angkor Wat.

Beng Mealea: ‘The Lotus Pond Temple

Having taken lunch in a small roadside shack, we set off under a ferocious midday sun to explore the temple of Beng Mealea which means ‘lotus pond’. Dating from the early 12th century and built on the ancient royal highway to Preah Khan Kompong Svay to the same floor plan as Angkor Wat, this site has only been accessible in recent decades due to the civil war and the presence of landmines in the area. It has not been restored and is largely in the condition in which it was found by French archaeologists. The bus loads of tourists that afflict the main sites at Angkor are pretty much absent here and intervention in the form of a wooden walkway round the site to facilitate visitors is not really intrusive. In fact, most tourists tend to stick to this walkway, but only metres away you can clamber inside the ruins and have the place virtually to yourself. With its authentic jungle atmosphere, the scene is set for a real Lara Croft adventure!

We walk up the southern approach causeway to the temple, past crumbling sandstone balustrades sporting huge intricately carved nagas. The air is absolutely still, the heat tremendous, and the sweat literally oozes out of me. At the top of the causeway we come to a jumble of fallen moss covered stones surrounding a collapsed entranceway above which enormous trees arch, offering some welcome shade. Continuing east along the outside of a large wall, we head towards the SE corner pavilion arriving at the wooden walkway. Eschewing this, we climb down into a narrow open enclosure and clamber carefully through a partially barred entrance over a tumbled mass of fallen masonry into one of the cruciform cloisters. The sun is mostly obscured by the jungle canopy and inside, all is bathed in a strange green light; the stones, still moist from the earlier rain and slick with moss and algae, present formidable obstacles and great care must be taken to traverse the chaotic jumble safely. We proceed, with the guidance of a local villager, to scramble in and out of the various enclosures spying small courtyards flooded with the all pervading green luminescence through intricately carved stone window balusters. These in particular lend an air of mystery and secrecy as it’s almost impossible to see what lies behind them.

The villager takes us on a tortuous route through dark interconnecting galleries, along narrow ledges and over roof tops. We often have to crouch down to squeeze through small spaces to continue our exploration, passing huge webs with terrifying-looking spiders lurking in the centre. My skins crawls! Lichen encrusted pediments and collapsed friezes depict legends of Vishnu, Shiva and the Buddha and finely carved apsaras, the very epitome of serenity, stare seductively from the walls. Even though the inner sanctuary has collapsed, the former grandeur of the site can be glimpsed in its ambitious vaulting.



But this is a temple engaged in a desperate struggle with the jungle which seems to be slowly strangling and choking the life out of it. Lianas the thickness of a man’s arm hang down from enormous silk-wood trees and the aptly named strangler fig, the roots of which have colonised the blue sandstone walls and roofs of all the buildings. It resembles a skeletal mesh that is stealthily encasing the entire site. I find the sight mildly disturbing and quite eerie as it reminds me of the visual effects created by Giger for the Alien films. Clouds of bright red dragonflies fill the air, and, apart from our laboured breathing and the constant drone of thousands of insects, the silence is profound and slightly unnerving. At this moment, I really feel as if I am in an India Jones movie!

Scrambling over the tumbled mass of stone is, however, absolutely exhausting in the relentless humidity. I had no idea it was even possible to sweat this much. My cotton shirt is totally drenched and rivulets of sweat are cascading down my spine and running down from my temples to drip off my chin. We complete our visit by taking a walk around the perimeter of the site, admiring the sheer scale of it and the mastery of its creators.

It’s then time to begin the journey back to Siem Reap on the Motos. After the stifling heat of the temple, I am relieved to feel the cooling effects of the breeze as we speed through the countryside past children playing in flooded paddy fields, people returning from working the land and women cooking out in the open on rustic clay ovens. We take a slightly different route this time, if anything more difficult and exhilarating, involving some very narrow muddy farm tracks and across rickety bridges where waves of panic sweep over me when I see how close I am wavering to the water’s edge! There is even a river crossing which is deeper than it looks: taken in third gear, my feet and legs get drenched. Local people stop to wave, amused no doubt by the sight of two foreigners struggling to stay upright on the slippery roads! Dodging slow moving ox carts and speeding Motos, we make our way along the bright orange tracks without mishap, arriving back at Siem Reap some eight hours later.

I’m not sure our travel insurers would have been too happy with our escapades, but I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to escape into the countryside to see the real Cambodia and to explore a temple tucked away in the jungle far from the tourist hordes. And, of course, fancying myself as Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft for a few hours... Well, a girl’s allowed to dream after all!