The day after the London Marathon, Kasmira Jefford tells us where to head for the next race
IT IS is not yet eight in the morning but already the heat and humidity is cloying as I run down the long, red-earth road that skirts the south side of the Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The tall army of trees flanking each side of the path seems to be closing in on me and, despite having only just passed a water station, I am already craving another bottle to pour over my head.
I say run, but at this point I am practically jogging on the spot as I nurse a stitch in my side and watch hundreds of other, much fitter, runners speed past. I try to stay focused on the giant furry aubergine running at a steady pace in front of me and the lumbering giant on my right, whose T-shirt shows he’s had some practice washing down oysters and foie gras with wine at France’s Marathon du Medoc.
Just when I think I can’t run another mile, the road bends and I’m once again facing the five corn-cob towers of the majestic Angkor Wat – a timely wake-up call that this is no ordinary race. At each turn there are ruins to marvel at. The life-size terrace of the elephants, where the Khmer kings once lorded over public ceremonies, and the gigantic smiling faces of the Bayon Temple, gazing out from its 49 towers are two of my favourite sites.
There are also signs of modernity among the trees like a rusty blue sign above a tired concrete building that reads The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) – the country’s ruling political party who have been in power since Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge were driven out of the country 35 years ago.
I run on and on. The heat becomes more intense as the sun climbs higher in the sky. But hundreds of grinning children line the route, sticking their clammy palms out for high fives along the way to keep my spirits up. Before I know it, I stumble across the finish line and I feel completely elated – not only from finishing the half marathon but also from glimpsing some of the most spectacular sites in south east Asia.
Now in its 18th year, the Angkor Wat half marathon has grown in popularity together with Cambodia’s emergence as a tourist destination over the past decade beyond the traditional backpacking market. Last year, 2,655 participants from across the world took part in the 21-kilometre race, with this year’s event on 7 December expected to attract over 3,000 runners, in addition to the 2,000 who have signed up to the shorter 10km course.
People from all over the globe come here to run for different reasons. For the experienced runners taking part, the race is a chance to improve their time while experiencing something different from the usual marathon back home – another exotic location ticked off their list. For everyone else, including amateurs like me, running is a thrilling, if rather sweaty, way to take in Cambodia’s famous 900 year-old temples.
Over the last decade it has become easier to explore the country’s wilder side thanks to its burgeoning tourism industry and work being done by national and international organisations to clear the countryside of landmines – a fatal reminder of Cambodia’s sinister past and the Khmer Rouge years. The marathon itself was set up to raise money for landmine casualties.
One of the best ways to get off the beaten path and explore some of Angkor’s hidden temples is to hire a bike. The day before the race I cycle north out of Siem Reap along roads that take us past brilliant green rice fields and rows of traditional Khmer wooden houses that are raised above the ground, surrounded by grazing cattle. Tiny schoolgirls on their way back home for lunch cycle past on bikes twice their size, one hand gripped on the handle-bar and the other waving at us.
The guide veers left and takes me down a narrow muddy trail leading to a dilapidated temple, hidden among the trees and dense vegetation. Banteay Thom was commissioned by the prolific temple-builder Jayavarman VII in the end of 12th century and mixes both Buddhist and Hindu iconography. Images of the Buddha were sadly scratched out by his devout Hindu successor. But the smiling faces of the Asparas, the heavenly dancing girls, at the entrance to the inner courtyard are still intact.
The atmosphere of the temple has stayed with me. Unlike many of the other well-trampled sites around Angkor Wat, Banteay Thom remains isolated and blissfully tranquil. No wonder monks chose to live here. A gentle breeze brushes through the air, butterflies flit past the cobwebbed stones, and birds sing in the trees high above our heads. There is a splashing sound as a woman pumps water nearby and I feel as though I could drift off to sleep.
For an altogether different adrenaline-fuelled adventure, the Flight of the Gibbon inside the Angkor Archeological Park takes you out of the undergrowth and flying through the treetops of Cambodia’s rainforest. The highest of the 10 zip-wires is 80 metres above the ground and looking down makes my skin crawl and my heart leap into my throat. To make matters worse, the guide informs me that all of the structure had to built in such a way that it couldn’t be bolted into the trees. When I finally pluck up the courage to step off the platform the feeling of sailing through the air at high speed is one of pure euphoria. And if that doesn’t get your heart racing, the staff go into the forest to catch some tarantulas for you to hold after taking out their fangs. I passed on that one.
All of this activity, however, would be no fun without having some time to unwind and La Residence d’Angkor is the perfect place to retreat to. Built out of a dark wood, the Orient Express-owned hotel sits discreetly on the banks of the river at the heart of Siem Reap centre, near the old market and the famous nightlife on Pub Street.
The peaceful four star hotel has 54 rooms overlooking over a leafy inner courtyard and a salt-water pool, which has been made to look like one of the Angkor ruins itself, with turquoise, hand-painted tiles and a terracotta-coloured lion keeping an eye on bathers.
After days on your feet – and running – nothing is more rewarding than an hour-long massage. The staff at the hotel’s Kea Kong spa ushered me into one of the treatment rooms and, with one waft of lemongrass I quickly drifted off to sleep.
Enjoying the hotel’s pool, spa and excellent cuisine felt like pure indulgence after days of cycling, running and flying through the trees. It also made for a perfectly balanced holiday in which I felt I absorbed a good portion of the culture, adventure and luxuries Cambodia has to offer.
So if you missed the London Marathon or have just finished it and want a new challenge, pack your trainers and book a flight to Cambodia for this year’s Angkor Wat Half Marathon. The finishing line may be a 13-hour flight away but the adventure is worth every moment of the pain and the heat.
10 other great races around the world
1. Safaricom Marathon, Kenya
This spectacular race is within the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya, home to 400 different types of animals and birds and 1,700 metres above sea level. safaricom.co.ke
2. Marathon du Médoc, France
Passing through the wine vineyards of Bordeaux, this race is as much about drinking as it is about running as some of the region’s best Chateaux open their cellars. marathondumedoc.com
3. Jungle Marathon, Brazil
Known as one of the most extreme races on the planet, runners have to dodge their way through dense canopy and wade through swamps filled with anacondas to finish. junglemarathon.com
4. Gobi March, Mongolia
Now in its tenth year, the Gobi March in May will take runners through 250km of grasslands and valleys on the edge of the Gobi desert in the northwestern Xinjiang Province. 4deserts.com
5. Comrades, South Africa
Started in 1921, Comrades is one of the world’s longest ultra-marathons, stretching a brutal 90km through mountainous Pietermaritzburg and the coastal city of Durban. comrades.com
6. Inca Trail Marathon Race, Peru
The 26.2 mile Inca Trail Marathon is said to be the toughest marathon going, taking in gruelling upward curves as well as the cultural heritage of this UNESCO site. andesadventures.com
7. Jungfrau Marathon, Switzerland
Starting in Interlaken, the course weaves through the alps giving runners a chance to soak in the panoramic views of Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau mountains. jungfrau-marathon.ch
8. Mongolian Sunrise to Sunset Marathon
This course follows a lakeside track north of Camp Toilogt through woods and over windblown lowlands before heading up over 700 metres into the mountains. ms2s.dk
9. Te Houtaewa Challenge, New Zealand
Running on sand is hard work, however this 60km challenge at the northern tip of New Zealand offers scenic views under clear blue skies and endless miles of soft sand. tehoutaewa.co.nz
10. Antartic Ice Marathon
Antarctic Ice Marathon is the southernmost marathon on earth. The 100km route is on a brilliant expanse of solid ice and open white landscape at the foot of the Ellsworth Mountains. icemarathon.com
NEED TO KNOW
Activities around Siem Reap:
THE ANGKOR WAT HALF MARATHON
Indochine Exploration, offers walking trips along an ancient Angkorian highway to a temple called Banteay Ampil. Have lunch next to the Chau Srei Vibol temple. indochineex.com
FLIGHT OF THE GIBBON
Fly through the rainforest on an 80 metre high zip wire. treetopasia.com
SEE THE ANGKOR WAT TEMPLE AT SUNRISE
Local company Golden Asia Vacation will help you avoid the crowds. goldenasiavacation.com
WHERE TO EAT
■ Try the delicious Tuna Tartar and Crab bisque at Mie Café: miecafe-siemreap.com
■ Marum restaurant trains street youths, ex-offenders and young people to become chefs. friendsinternational.org
Five night stay at La Residence D'Angkor from £1,540 per person based on two sharing a Royal Deluxe river-side room on a B&B basis including international flights and transfers. Book with Abercrombie & Kent on 0845 485 1142 or visit abercrombiekent.co.uk