Avoid the rainy season is one of great truisms of travel. But is it always good advice? I was intrigued by the idea of taking a more counter-intuitive approach by visiting the tourist honeypot of Siem Reap at a time when most visitors stay away. These rainy, crowd-free weeks are when Cambodia comes to life.
The Khmer Empire, responsible for the astonishing temples of Angkor, understood water and built complex systems of channels and reservoirs to manage it. Modern-day Cambodians manage it still. This is a culture built on water: not just the stuff that falls from the sky in sometimes apocalyptic deluges between June and October, but the Himalayan meltwaters that pour down the Mekong river from May onwards, reversing the flow of its tributary, the Tonlé Sap river, and tripling the size of the lake of the same name, where the northern shores come within a few miles of Siem Reap.
By mid-September, when I visit, Tonlé Sap is the biggest freshwater lake in south-east Asia, measuring up to 150 miles (240km) long by 60 miles (96km) wide. More than 170 villages dot its marshy margins, the houses either floating on pontoons as the waters rise or perched on tall stilts with provisions, bicycles and even livestock slung in makeshift cradles beneath.
Twenty miles (32km) south of Siem Reap, Kompong Phluk is a stilt village, its main street resembling a kind of ramshackle, tropical Venice as I drift down it in a painted boat rowed by Mom, a villager who has a gold tooth and wears a blue knitted sun hat. Mom chatters away through my guide, Chan Monychoth. She says she is happiest in the rainy season. The lake is big, it is easy to travel by boat and fish are plentiful – she catches up to 22lb (10kg) a day. To either side, kids splash in the water and women squat on verandas surrounded by profusions of vegetables and tropical fruit.
At the end of the village, Mom paddles us into a mangrove forest, where reflections in the water dapple the twisting branches, and macaque monkeys swing manically overhead. No, she is not married, Mom confides, despite being nearly 40; she was too busy being a “second mother” to her seven younger siblings to get around to marriage, and now she is too old. Telling us this, she grins like a winner in the lottery of life and places a banana in a vee of branches for a monkey to snaffle.
This is a lovely vignette of rural Cambodia, so green and fecund at this time of year that people apparently want for nothing. But it is far from being the whole story in a society still traumatised by war and hamstrung by political corruption. My guide on the next day, who wishes to be known as Mr Paul, paints a more complicated picture. “People are still suffering, but we are still smiling,” he says. “Cambodia is the smiling number one country” (in Mr Paul’s international index of smilingness, Scotland comes a commendable eighth, while England is unplaced).
He tells me this while we are visiting a clutch of early (ninth-century) Angkor temples known as the Roluos Group, after the village of that name about eight miles east of Siem Reap. On a rainy morning of headlights and ponchos, we are the sole visitors as we clamber over the ruins of the three temples: Bakong, with its elephant statues missing their trunks and tails; Preah Ko, with its six towers; and little Lolei, found within the precincts of a modern Buddhist temple.
At Lolei, it is not the old stones that draw my eye but a memorial to the people murdered here in the late Seventies, when the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, its genocidal leader, were responsible for the deaths of at least two million of their fellow countrymen. Lolei was one of the many “killing fields” and the ashes of the Cambodians executed here rest behind glass in a simple shrine. It is while we contemplate this that Mr Paul finally stops smiling.
His father, he says, was among the first to be “disappeared”. The Khmer Rouge then subjected his family to an animal existence: “For three years, eight months and twenty days, all we ate was three spoons of rice a day.” A spoon was the only personal property a person was allowed. “It hung around your neck on a string,” he adds.
Cambodia is still not free of the terrible legacy of Pol Pot and decades of conflict, including American bombing during the Vietnam War. The countryside is contaminated by landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXOs). Since 1979, hidden explosives have killed nearly 20,000 people and wounded 45,000 more. Scores of people are still being killed every year and Cambodia has more than 25,000 landmine amputees, more per capita than anywhere else in the world.
“I try to explain to people, Cambodia is a fantastic country,” says Benjamin Carrichon, project manager for Apopo, a Belgian NGO. “You have temples, you have Pub Street [the tourist hub of Siem Reap], but in front of my eyes I see people who have suffered for so many years, and the worst thing is, they had no choice.”
The excellent Apopo visitor centre confronts that reality, but also moves the story on by offering stories of progress and hope. As Carrichon tells me: “I didn’t want to do something sad here. We are happy to be making Cambodia safer.”
That afternoon, as the skies darken, I retire to the Anantara Angkor, a luxurious, small hotel slightly out of the city centre, with one of the best restaurants (Chi) in town and a youthful, endlessly thoughtful staff that would rank at the top of anyone’s index of smilingness. Every night, the rain drums thunderously on the roof, but by the next morning the skies have cleared (except on one occasion, on that visit to the temples of the Roluos Group, when I get wet).
On a succession of memorable mornings, I take excursions out of the city, through green-and-silver landscapes where children fish in creeks and water buffalo lounge in flooded rice paddies. Lost in the jungle, the mossy stones of Beng Mealea temple glow like cough sweets. On Kulen mountain, the waterfall that empties into the sacred Siem Reap River is in such extraordinary spate that it has turned into a force field of drenching mist and ear-splitting noise.
Finally, fearing a washout, I risk Angkor Wat at sunrise. The last time I visited this most enchanting of temple complexes, in the dry season three years ago, the crowds were dense and relentless. Now, with the temple still shrouded in night, there are many fewer visitors.
After following a crocodile of Chinese tourists, I peel off and manage to find a solitary spot on the stone edge of the moat facing east, hoping I will catch the sunrise as, rain permitting, it backlights the temple. Here I wait, eating a hard-boiled egg and keeping a keen eye on the dark scudding clouds. But the rain holds off, the clouds part and as the sky lightens behind the famous “corncob” towers, the moat at my feet echoes to a surreal chorus of plopping fish and chanting frogs. In this most watery of lands, it is as if the water itself is bursting into song.
The rainy season in Siem Reap lasts from May to November, with the wettest months being September and October – though even then there is an average of five or six hours of sunshine a day.
Audley Travel offers 10 days in Cambodia and Thailand, with six nights at Anantara Angkor in Siem Reap and three nights at Anantara Siam Bangkok, from £2,115 per person (based on two sharing), including flights, transfers, B&B and guided excursions. Apopo Visitor Centre is at Trapeang SES Village, Kouk Chauk Commune, Siem Reap Koumai Road. It is open 8.30am-5.30pm Mon-Sat, admission $5 (£3.90) or $15 for a guided tour. Book by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.