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Marathon Madness in Cambodia

Copyright by Cambodia Event Organizer

Marathon Madness in Cambodia

Leave the gym treadmills firmly behind. Now is the perfect time to plan an unforgettable escape to Angkor Wat, and experience a half marathon with a difference.

An unusual noise emanated from around the thousand-year-old temples of Angkor in Cambodia as dawn broke. The magnificent structure—built as a representation of the sacred Hindu Mount Meru, the symbol of heaven on earth—was silhouetted against a cloudless sky as the sun rose on another scorching hot December day. But the sound wasn’t the usual early morning chorus of birds nor motorised tuk-tuks bringing tourists to the site from nearby Siem Reap.

No, the noise was a muffled, dull, cushioned ‘thud, thud, thud’ as thousands of feet pounded away on roads and red dirt. The annual Angkor Wat half marathon was under way.

Angkor Wat half marathon

Copyright by Cambodia Event Organizer

When it comes to fitness, I always need a goal and something to aim for. Not for me endless hours on the treadmill at a gym watching pop videos on an overhead screen with no particular end in sight. So here I was, on my way around the course with thousands of other runners, raising money for local landmine relief charities, while rather blearily daydreaming of being back in bed.

The course is not particularly arduous—no horrendous uphill inclines, for example—and it starts early enough to avoid the worst of the heat. But still, 21km is 21km, so it’s hardly a walk in the archaeological park. My fellow participants, Cambodian and foreign, seemed a varied bunch, from the young and super fit to the more mature doing it for the experience at a slower pace. It’s certainly an unusual way of seeing the sites.

Angkor itself isn’t just one temple but hundreds, although Angkor Wat, with its 3,000 stone-carved apsaras (‘heavenly nymphs’) is certainly the star attraction. In its heyday, Angkor had a population of some three quarters of a million people. From the ninth century onwards, successive rulers of the Khmer Empire sought to outdo their predecessors by building increasingly lavish sites of worship. But in the 14th and 15th centuries, invasions and severe droughts saw the power of local rulers diminish. Eventually the seat of government shifted south to Phnom Penh while the jungle reclaimed its territory, leaving just pilgrims and holy men behind.

The complex of buildings is spread out and certainly a splendid backdrop for a run. The course partially encompasses the moat of Angkor Wat, then winds onwards to the temples of Prasat Kravan, Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, Ta Keo, Bayon, Baksei Chamkrong and Phnom Bakheng. School children smiled and ‘high-fived’ us as we passed through their villages, while their parents maintained a slightly quizzical look as they prepared to head into Siem Reap for the day or tend their fields.

The latter stages were somewhat tough going, due to my lack of preparation, but with such a photogenic location and plenty of water stops, there were ample opportunities to pause for a photo or a drink. Then I powered on before a glory sprint at the finish line and the chance to collect my medal. I won’t tell you my time—let’s just say I got round and wasn’t last.

If ever there was an excuse to then stretch out in the Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor spa (which is a short car ride from the temples), this was it. A breakfast of mysteriously juicy fruit that had to be explained to me—do I peel this or just eat it?—and then a warm soak followed by a gentle 90-minute pummelling at the hands of a local expert was absolute bliss. It also ensured my walk around Siem Reap that afternoon was just that, rather than a hobble, before collapsing by the seductively calm pool.

If the half marathon seems a bit much, but you’d still like to keep in shape while here, the hotel can arrange for a personal fitness trainer to give you a bootcamp-style workout with the temples as a backdrop. You might not come home looking like Angelina Jolie—who filmed the movie Tomb Raider at Ta Prohm—but it will certainly beat the spin class at your gym back home.

Before I arrived, I had imagined Siem Reap to be a sleepy backwater, but I was mistaken. In the centre, French women shopped for ceramics, while backpackers shared their exploits with friends back home via smartphones in the numerous cafés. I treated myself to a celebratory ice cream and then, as night fell, a lemongrass-infused cocktail beneath the lanterns of the Miss Wong bar.

The next day at dawn the hotel arranged for me to hire a bicycle. I set off for the path around the temple of Bayon—perhaps most famous for the large, serene stone faces that stare down from its ramparts. The whole place was a photographer’s dream as the light and shadows dappled through tree branches and on to the carvings. I was alone save for a few locals working to repair the walls.

I stopped frequently to take out my camera, or to lift my bike over a tree trunk that straddled the track. At last I came across a spot that I recognised from the run the day before. Yesterday, thousands of people had jogged past but now it was just my thoughts and me—history, nature and a rather large blister in perfect harmony.

New at Belmond La Résidence d'Angkor

Belmond La Résidence d'Angkor

Belmond La Résidence d'Angkor

The next Angkor Wat half marathon takes place on 4 December 2016. Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor offers a marathon package, which features unlimited pre- and post-run massages, coconut water and a carb-loading dinner for two.

Half marathon guests will be among the first to experience the new-look hotel: Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor reopens in November after extensive renovations, featuring lavish new guest rooms, refreshed restaurants and bars and a new conference facility. The beautiful tropical gardens that surround the pool are also being replanted to create a super-luxurious retreat at the heart of the hotel.

by Will Hide