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Cambodia - Land of Temples - Photos by John McHale It surprises me to learn that Cambodia was once the center of the Khmer Empire controlling much of the area occupied by Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. This was at a peak during the 9th – 14th centuries, when the temples at Angkor represented the height of civilization at this time.
Cambodia - Land of Temples - Photos by John McHale Although Cambodia is still recovering from the horrific breakdown of society under the Khmer Rouge, and the warfare and violence following America’s crusade against Communism, Cambodia today is largely safe and peaceful.
Cambodia - Land of Temples - Photos by John McHale There is a deep sense of history represented in the temples of Angkor. These cover an enormous area outside Siam Reap. By far the best way to explore this area is by bicycle.
Cambodia - Land of Temples - Photos by John McHale Crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia is a fairly low-key affair. I eventually arrive at the Vietnam border post at Tinh Bien. On the Cambodian side this is nothing more than a mud hut located in the middle of a rice paddy. Two Cambodian border guards are sitting inside. This is one of the less popular border crossings and they clearly don’t get many visitors.
Cambodia - Land of Temples - Photos by John McHale Rather than check my passport they seem more interested in chatting. I’m worried that this is a preamble to some bribery, but they are generally friendly and relaxed, and I eventually head off with a wave.
Cambodia - Land of Temples - Photos by John McHale The tarseal ends abruptly at this point, and a lumpy, dusty, dirt road stretches off into the distance. I’ve just spent the last three weeks cursing Vietnamese roads, but at this point I begin to realise that I’ve been taking Vietnam’s rough, but always sealed roads very much for granted.
Cambodia - Land of Temples - Photos by John McHale The Cambodian countryside is amazing. So clean, vivid and unspoilt. The terrain seems to alternate between sun-soaked rice paddies divided by strips of jungle at regular intervals. My “water-proof” sunscreen as usual is washed off by sweat after the first 5 minutes, and I can feel my third layer of skin getting fried.
Cambodia - Land of Temples - Photos by John McHale The villages located in these shady jungle strips are very basic. Dirt and timber huts blending into the trees, with wood smoke highlighting shafts of sunlight. I stand out conspicuously with my gleaming 21st century steel and lycra technology, but instead of the usual “give me one dollar” chorus, the kids just stare while the elders give a friendly nod.
Cambodia - Land of Temples - Photos by John McHale The Cambodians seem very relaxed and quiet compared to the Vietnamese. Unlike the loud roadside cafes in Vietnam, I have no problem lingering in these peaceful villages.
Cambodia - Land of Temples - Photos by John McHale Eventually the midday sun is too much for me and I pull off into the shade of a jungle strip. There I meet “Ghayta” who is 23, and very pregnant. She’s a teacher, and speaks amazing English. We have a pleasant chat while drinking from coconuts, although there’s an unmistakable sadness about her. Seems her taxi driver husband found the mud-hut lifestyle a little too quiet, and recently disappeared back to the city. Mum is looking on anxiously, and it’s clear they are all hoping I am the one to take his place!
Cambodia - Land of Temples - Photos by John McHale Eventually the sun starts to simmer off. I wish Ghayta good luck as I head away. For a brief moment I consider whether a pampered, western male like myself could in anyway adapt to life in a remote Cambodian village. The answer is clearly no…. and I settle back into pedaling over the dusty ruts.
Cambodia - Land of Temples - Photos by John McHale My elation on finally arriving in Takeo, and the start of one of the sealed national highways is short-lived. Although things have sped up considerably since the dirt road, I’m now subject to a constant vibration from the pebbled, pot-holed tarmac. Sugar cane juice keeps me going all the way into Phnom Penh.
Cambodia - Land of Temples - Photos by John McHale Phnom Penh is a sprawling city with lots to see, including the sobering site of the Killing Fields, and Tuol Sleng: the inner city school converted by the Khmer Rouge into a torture facility, and which served as a holding pen for those scheduled for execution.
Cambodia - Land of Temples - Photos by John McHale There are stories of theft and violence in Phnom Penh, although I saw no signs of this while I was there. It’s difficult to gauge how much of a risk exists, but in any case, with my five week journey coming to a close, I’m anxious to get to Siam Reap and experience the highlight of the journey: the famous temples of Angkor.

All Photos and Text © John McHale.