We set off in the Jeep from The Navutu Dreams Lodge on an uncommon and deliciously cool Christmas Eve morn for a special day with Anke and Brando. Leaving Siem Reap behind we headed into a Khmer countryside of patchwork paddy fields dotted with sugar palms, interspersed by streams and ditches and small villages made up of clusters of stilted wooden houses surrounded by fruit trees.
A newly Tarmac’d road followed the route of an ancient highway East towards the hilltop temple of Chau Srei Vibol. The seasonal floods had receded enough for us to cross the baray or moat and bush-bash our way to the East entrance. We walked inside the walls and marveled at the precision of the individually carved blocks of stone in a jigsaw of masonry.
A light breakfast of croissants and coffee was served beside the temple pool followed by an exploration of the laterite foundations and sandstone carvings that made up the old library.
The Jeep came into it’s own as we followed the highway now a sandy track light years away from the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap.
At Andong Pei Village we left the vehicle because a few hundred meters further what was once the road and will be again in a couple of weeks, now appeared to be a lake. Anke and Brando looked a little apprehensive but before we had to wade through the water we turned off the path and walked along the dykes between paddy fields. Upon reaching a small patch of forest, we shuffled single file across a tree trunk bridge. Then bush-bashed a hundred meters to a forest clearing. There in front of us like a scene from a Harrison Ford movie, was the Tamarind Temple or Banteay Ampil.
Some facts first, it was built around the same time as Angkor Wat by Suryavarman II a thousand years ago as a point station along a canal that ferried blocks of stone from the hills of Phnom Kulen that were used to build the temples of Angkor. The temple consists of an outer wall still mainly intact with entrances from the East and South, the latter topped by a gopura with an intricately carved relief of a Bodhi tree. A central library remains now gripped by the roots of a silk cotton tree.
Back to today, Christmas Eve lunch commenced with a glass of champagne offered as we emerged from the jungle. While Anke photographed the mysterious ruins of an ancient civilization, lunch courtesy of Miss Wong Restaurant (and the ox-cart that ferried it across the flooded paddy), was laid out on linen inside the temple so when Anke and Brando were ready a gazpacho of infused vodka and Mekong lobster tails was served.
The Tonle Sap Lake is an inland sea slap bang in the middle of Cambodia, which fills and empties each year like a beating heart as the Mekong River surges South then North. The villages along the lakeshore have adapted to the rise and fall of the water by either floating on clumps of bamboo or towering on stilts eight meters above the dry season ground. Kampong Kleang where we were heading fell into the latter category.
Manus anchored the kayaks to the landing steps of Mrs. Om’s house and lead Anke and Brando up to the veranda where Tern, the maître’d for the night was waiting with the champagne. We watched the sun set over the village as the fishing boats returned to unload their daily catch. Dinner was ready so Tern served the first course of beetroot carpaccio with walnut bread accompanied by an Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc, followed by tender cutlets of seared Australian lamb and a Scott Base pinot noir.
The evening’s finale was a magical lightshow laid out across the lake. Small floating lanterns had been lit to attract insects which fell into the water and enticed fish to become entangled in nets below the surface. We motored gently through this sweet spectacle and bade goodnight and Happy Christmas to our guests.