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Cambodia: Running the marathon in Angkor Wat

By: Shamus Sillar

What is it about Singapore that turns a perfectly sane man into someone who enjoys vigorous exercise? On arriving in this city two years ago, I was happily sedentary. For me, running was an almost abstract notion: something that people like Tom Cruise did in movies.  

Then I began taking morning walks in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. It was awesome: greenery, wildlife, no phone calls, no kids! Plus the occasional 20-foot reticulated python to keep things interesting.

These days, while I (mercifully) don’t wear high-cut running shorts or a special belt for holding tubes of energy gel, I’ve definitely become something of a hobby jogger. My transformation from lazy lummox to lumbering half-athlete recently became complete when I actually flew to another country to compete in a race.

The country? Cambodia. The race? The Angkor Wat International Half Marathon. (Not that I did the half-marathon, mind you – just the 10km event. I enjoy running, but I’m not a masochist.)

The opportunity
My trip to Cambodia came about through contact with Scott Coates, a Canadian expat who operates a boutique travel company out of Bangkok. Called Smiling Albino, the company hosts more than 20 unique and fascinating tours in Thailand, Tibet, Laos, Vietnam, Nepal and Cambodia.

I signed on for a four-day tour called “The Road to Angkor: Running, Cycling & Stunning Temples”. It proved a fantastic mix of culture, adventure and fitness, plus the chance to help out with a couple of good causes.

Our 13-strong group included people from Singapore, the US, Thailand, Scandinavia and Scotland. Highlights of the four days were many and varied: champagne and sunset at Angkor Wat, a two-hour bike ride through farmland to the remote Roluos temples, sampling fantastic Khmer cuisine in some of Siem Reap’s restaurants.

And the 10km run, of course.

The event
Into its 15th year, the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon attracted a record 4,000 entrants this time around. That’s small fry compared to something like Singapore’s Standard Chartered run, yet the event is growing. Most competitors are Cambodian, but there’s a good smattering of representatives from other Southeast Asian countries, including plenty of expats living in those countries. (A handful of the latter were representing the Free The Bears Fund and ran the 10km event dressed in massive oversized animal suits: a tiger, an elephant, a monkey and more. Their T-shirts read: “I’m suffering today to bring a better life to bears tomorrow”.)

A fortuitous combination of mild (for Cambodia) weather, a flat track, minimal jostling from the friendly field of runners, and the inspiration derived from competing in the shadow of one of the world’s greatest religious monuments saw me cross the line in the stunning time of 48:50. And when I say “stunning”, I mean in the scheme of overweight blokes who despise the gym and drink too much beer.

Perhaps if I’d foregone my pre-race breakfast of ham-and-cheese croissants and a chocolate brownie, I’d have gone faster. But missing a filling breakfast is a sacrifice I’m not yet willing to make in the name of sport. In any case, it was an innocent mistake: I thought I was “loading up on carbs”.

Still, to break 50 minutes was, for me, wholly satisfying. And I don’t mean in a vainglorious way; it’s not like I went around boasting about my time to slower competitors.

Okay, I did do that. But my self-congratulations were quickly cut short when I began to notice that many of the runners crossing the finish line had competed without the full complement of limbs. One was missing a leg – he ran on a fibreglass blade. Another had no arms. How utterly awesome and humbling.

In all likelihood, both were landmine victims. The Angkor Wat International Half Marathon raises money specifically for mine survivors (and for young people living with AIDS). Cambodia has an astonishing 25,000 amputees – and the number grows each year, despite ongoing campaigns to clear remaining UXO (unexploded ordnance).

The temples
Most of the rest of my time in Siem Reap was spent exploring the jaw-dropping temples of Angkor. Much has been written in this magazine about these stone goliaths, so instead of covering the same ground, here’s a short list of my tips for making the most of the 400 square kilometres of religious remains.

• Is Angkor Wat the biggest of the temples dotted around Siem Reap? Yep, without a doubt. (The world’s largest religious building, in fact.) Is it the most exciting? Not by a longshot. Let me go further and suggest – at the risk of committing sacrilege – that if you’re short of time, you could even skip Angkor Wat completely. (Cue collective gasp.)

• Part of the problem of Angkor Wat is the sheer mass of people to contend with, depending on the season. When it comes to the temples in general, enjoyment is inversely proportional to crowd size. My favourite spots included the many smaller temples at the outlying edges of the Angkor area, or those I saw in the middle of the day, when the bigger tour groups had buggered off for an air-conditioned lunch


• One cool activity that doesn’t involve crowds – I didn’t pass a soul in three hours – is the 12km hike on top of the overgrown ancient city walls of Angkor Thom. Hire a tuk-tuk driver (US$15 a day, or part of the package if you’re with Smiling Albino) and ask him to take you to the Southern Gate. Scramble up the rocky slope to the wall and set off in a westerly direction. That’s all you need to know. Make sure you arrange a meeting point for your driver so he can whisk you off to some more sightseeing or a cold beverage once you’re finished.

• Try to fit in a visit to one of the more far-flung temples such as Beng Mealea or Kbal Spean. This is best done with a group to minimise costs, since it’s easiest to reach these spots by car or van.