En-route to the Cambodian border I stopped in Lopburi to find a KTM dealer who might be able to sell me a new battery and to visit the monkey’s temple. To paraphrase the Lonely Planet, the residents of Lopburi are fighting a losing battle with the millions of monkeys who live in and around the central temples and squares and are threatening to overrun the city. I can testify to this, I stopped for less than ten minutes to walk up to the temple and photograph the monkeys, I was less than 100m from the bike, but the minute my back was turned a monkey found the water bottle attached to the side of the bike, stole it, undid the top and necked it. I turned round to see him sitting smugly next to my bike looking like he owned it with my water in his hand. I’m amazed he didn’t nick the key and ride off!
The Cambodian border crossing made the customs experience in India appear to be even more ridiculous, if that’s at all possible. Getting the bike in and out of India using the international Carnet de Passage document was a long harrowing experience; getting the bike into Cambodia using the same Carnet system was a painless 15 minutes in an air-conditioned office with a very nice customs officer and a $35 fee for my visa. I like this country already, the people are happy and helpful and smiling, but it’s still too hot, wearing heavy black protective bike gear seems ridiculous in this weather but I’ve seen the results of hitting the tarmac without it so I’ll put up with sweating and drinking a few litres a day. Next stop, Siem Reap where Critical Dave happens to have holed up for a week or two while his Dad’s visiting S E Asia. Siem Reap is a bit of a magnet for tourists, what with the Angkor Wat where they filmed Tomb Raider; but it’s worth it. The Angkor Wat temple complex is stunning, it’s the largest religious monument in the world. Built in the 12th Century, originally to worship Vishnu the Hindu God it was converted to Buddhism a couple of hundred years later so there are strange deformations to the carvings as they removed certain Hindu features to make it more Buddhist. You can see why Hollywood came here; the whole place looks like an Indiana Jones film set, but it’s a real. The ancient crumbling stone temples with huge faces carved into the rocks set in the middle of a lush green forest with trees finding root around the buildings are more like the result of a crazy dream of a lost kingdom rather than a reality, but then that sort of sums up Cambodia, it’s a bit of a hidden gem and quite unexpected. The walk around Angkor Wat inspired some more of those “how did we all get here” type existential thoughts. The idea that the ancient Kampuchean societies were able to build such remarkable edifices is an existential feat of human creation. And what has become of all this human endeavour? Where and how has society developed? How does modern society meet the challenge of Angkor Wat at Siem Reap, or the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, or the Golden Temple in Varanasi? It builds temples to the new social Spirit; it puts the Angkor What? on Pub Street in central Siem Reap. The town centre has a party vibe but it’s not too overrun with commercialism; the bars, markets and restaurants manage to keep a bit of an authentic feel. So it looks like the Tomb Raider town is going to be the venue for my discovering the meaning of life, which, as anyone who’s read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy knows, is 42. My meaning-of-life day started well, exploring the ancient Khmer architecture of Angkor Wat, climbing up ludicrously steep stone steps to discover what the Hindus and Buddhists were on about to build such huge monuments to bow before, and it ended … well … it ended at the Angkor What? club on Pub Street (yes, it’s actually called that) with my head bowing after being buried in several beers and buckets of Mojito. And how did I manage to get myself from cultured exploration to inebriated insobriety? Easy, I met some English people, and one of them is from Essex!
My meaning-of-life-day involved bumping into three fantastic people in the slightly inappropriately named Luxury Concept Hostel in Siem Reap (it wasn’t that luxurious but it’s amazing what a name will do). As I was chilling in the insipidly air-conditioned room, debating with myself what to do with my significant evening, in walked Joe, Philippa and Helen. Philippa and Helen are touring S E Asia, and Joe (their mutual long standing college mate and Philippa’s recent bf) has flown out to join them in Cambodia; and so it started. Now there’s four of us out on the piss on pub street. We meet a guy who’d just bought barbequed spider and scorpion from a street vendor which seemed like a good place to start the silliness, we help him over his fears and bbq spider’s legs taste remarkably … err … normal, as if that’s ever an adjective you’d associate with eating spider. I didn’t try the main body, its huge abdomen looked too abnormal! All along pub street there are mobile hand-carts adorned with bling lights and PA systems selling cocktails by the bucket so the party just evolves in the street as people mooch between the cocktail vendors trying to secure the best deal. I have no memory of how many buckets of Mojito, Whiskey Sour and Margarita we got through. I have photos of Canadian, German, Dutch, French, Swiss and Spanish guys celebrating my meaning of life as Essex Helen orchestrates Tequila shots and more buckets and insists that I really need to down half a pint of Mojito in the time it takes half of pub street to sing that silly birthday song to me! Critical Dave finds us having managed to find a pretty Cambodian associate earlier in the day and we adjourn to the Angkor What? club which turns out to be disappointingly try-hard and empty, and sports an over-aggressive bouncer who tries to wrestle the beer out of my hand as we move across the road to Temple Bar (can you spot the theme in the bar names here). Somehow Critical and I manage to lose another few hours in various bars, sink some more beer and attract the attention of a Cambodian lady boy who follows me around like a lost dog. There’s really no point in following me at this point I have lost track of where home is, so I’m eternally grateful to Critical for delivering me back to my room just after 4am having established that the meaning of life is definitely not to be found with a lady boy in the dark alleys of Siem Reap. The next day involved a lot of sleeping and regretting that last beer or two, but definitely no regrets over spending my birthday being very silly with Critical Dave, Joe, Philippa and Helen who ensured a totally unforgettable and unexpected night out.