The Diplomat and I have a spare weekend, so we park Isla and Joshua with the nannies and hop on a Bangkok Airways ATR – twin propeller, cartoon fish adorned, cramped seats – for a 50 minute due East flight from Suvarnabhumi to SIem Reap. We are off to meet “KC” (never found out what it stood for…’kool cat’?) a driver of the Cambodian hybrid version of both a Thai tuk-tuk and a Vietnamese velo.
I like it. French colonial wood decor. Kind of like a motorized chaise. KC is bright, bubbly, young. He has a dream. Though he wasn’t sure if it was running a hotel or an old people’s home. Still for $20USD (everything is in $$ in Cambodia so take plenty) he promises to take us everywhere for the day. Given we are there for Saturday, returning Sunday that means KC being the equivalent of Speedy Gonzalez. Of course we start at Angkor Wat but if there’s not 10 billion blogs and photos of the place I’ll eat my severely munched-upon fedora so I won’t bore you with more gushing verbiage about the UNESCO site.
Ta Phrom? That’s a different matter. After all, Angelina Jolie bestrides its ruined beauty like a gun-totting behemoth. The film “Tomb Raider” firmly places it on the map of the male consciousness. We decide to go, KC stamps on the pedal of his tuk-tuk and we leap away like a slightly drunken banteng. After about thirty minutes we screech to a dusty halt by the east entrance of Ta Phrom. KC vaults lithely down, ready to string his hammock inside his tuk-tuk and wafts us towards an entrance.
“See you in an hour or so” he cheerfully encourages us and we stride away. A cloud of Cambodian children swarm towards us.
“Flute. One dollar!” screeches the most adventurous. The Diplomat is hmming and aaahing. We only have $10 bills. There’s a muttered, heads together, debate about how to get change to the sucker tourists. Eventually, they hit on a plan….make us buy more! A girl unfolds a set of postcards that are identical to the hundreds of others we’ve already seen. “$2”. Then an older teenager approaches with a book – $10. Sold! Especially as it is identical to the one we bought for twice the price in Bangkok and left on the Fish Airline. The flute seller is persistent “2 for $5”
Eh? One for $1 and two for $5. This one’s the next Donald Trump.
What saves us emptying our wallets is me pointing over their heads, wide-eyed. They all swivel as one. “Go see them. Look!” I am gesturing at a large group of Korean tourists. I can tell this because the leader is waltzing along with a South Korean flag fluttering in what is a freshening breeze. Behind them, away to the east, the skies are ominously dark and a low rumble of thunder mutters at us. The kids rush away towards the other hapless tourists.
We enter the sandy, tree-lined alley, going past a band of disabled musicians under an awning. As the skies begin to flash we step into Ta Phrom and I praise the archaeological decision to leave it as it was found covered in jungle all those years ago. For the historian in me it’s like wandering into the Playboy Mansion by accident: I am goggle-eyed, my bucket list is ticked firmly and I could stay for quite some time just wandering and looking. It reminds me of another great ruin you can wander through – Old Wardour Castle, in England.
I went to Old Wardour castle in 2006 with my son, Daniel. When we arrived it had just finished raining, a rainbow arced over a misting sky of blue and grey, plunging into the ground seemingly where we stood. Our own pot of gold. The castle was empty and we could climb, explore, run, shout and make merry mayhem to our hearts content. Just before we left, I spotted a placard (I am a sucker for placards as the Diplomat will wearily attest) which had a picture from the Kevin Costner epic: ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’. The image was wrong as it was taken from a scene at Maid Marion’s nunnery, not at Old Wardour Castle which was the scene for Robin’s family home. We wandered back to the car and the caretaker emerged from his English Heritage hut for a brief chat given his lonely sentinel lifestyle. I mentioned the incorrect placard. He congratulated my pedantry and then told me, in his soft West Country accent, that he’s got something in his hut that I’d “want to see, for sure”. He disappeared for a few minutes and then emerged brandishing a sword.
Not just any old sword. But the one Costner used in the film! Gadzooks!
Somewhere there’s a photo of me with son in one arm, Robin Hood’s sword brandished in the other, Old Wardour Castle as the backdrop.
Greatest day of my life in 2006.
Anyway, the Diplomat and I scamper among the tree covered ruins as the heavens rage down on us. A storm crackles and thunders overhead, turning the ground into a muddy mire, the air into a humid sauna the Swedes would be proud of, and drench a bunch of tourists who are squealing in dismay. Awesome stuff. Take a look:
I could give you the history of Ta Phrom, but that’s what Google’s for. What I will say is that if you love ruins, history, ancient culture, archaeology….go. Just go. You will be in seventh heaven. One of the best days I’ve had out here in Asia.
Oh…and here’s a picture of the original Tomb Raider just because I read H Rider Haggard as kid, and nothing beats that, not even Angelina 😉
Is this what diplomacy is all about?