There is no shortage of seductive sounds in Cambodia. The soft tinkle of prater bells outside a temple, the sizzle of meat as it barbeque on a streetside stall or the splash of icy-cold Angkor beer as it pours into a frozen glass at the end of another day in this remarkable Southeast Asian country. The list of transcendent aural experiences to be found here is almost as mind-blowing as a first glimpse of Angkor Wat at sunrise.
As I rush along a bumpy track in the foothills of the Cardamom Mountains on a bike, however, it is the encroaching tone of water touching down on water that is sending my heart aflutter. Pouring over glistening lichen-covered rocks into a picture-perfect pool, the waterfall would look alluring in any circumstance. The fact that I have spent the past six hours perched on a saddle with the dimensions of a small garden trowel makes the prospect of a cooling dip seem almost unbearably exciting. I dismount, make my way to the water’s edge and dispense with my horrible sweaty clothing. I’m just about to step into the drink when my guide, Lee Heng, interrupts my reverie. “You can’t swim in there,” he cries. “Too many crocodiles.”
I’m not exactly surprised by these tidings. Like most meaningful relationships, my love affair with Cambodia has never been plain sailing. I first visited the country back in 1999 as a dilettante 21-year-old backpacker. First I was tossed around like a rag doll on the back of a pick-up truck for ten hours as we made the arduous journey from the Thai border to Siem Reap. The temples at Angkor brought some brief respite, but then it was back to the grind courtesy of another hellish pick-up journey to Phnom Penh. A visit to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum to get an insight into the myriad atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime was instructive and fascinating, but profoundly grim. And to top it off, the week-long sojourn was ended with a bout of food-poisoning that kept me in a hammock for two days, too weak even to protest at the endless loop of Tracy Chapman songs being played on the hostel stereo.