A trek to Cambodia's temples is a spiritual as well as physical journey, says Shelley Bridgeman.
All the guidebooks agreed: April is not the best month for tourists to visit Cambodia because of the intense heat. But it was a convenient time for us so we braved the stickiness and headed to Siem Reap regardless.
We discovered the guidebooks were right. Leaving our air-conditioned rooms felt like stepping into a sauna and we quickly learned to shape our schedule so we were indoors when temperatures were highest.
Temples were visited either at the beginning or end of the day. But the heat lingered even at sunset when we walked 20 minutes uphill to Phnom Bakheng, which was built in the 9th or 10th century to honour a Hindu god. For those unaccustomed to such a climate, it's an exercise best described as "Bikram hiking".
At the summit, we joined hundreds of other sweaty sightseers jostling for elbow space while clambering up the steep steps to the main level.
Our second temple outing was to Angkor Wat at sunrise. We set our alarm for 4.45am and our trusty driver, "Mr One", collected us 15 minutes later as arranged. Having driven past its perimeter moat already and spied the tantalising lotus-bud-shaped towers a few times in the distance, I was excited to be walking across the paved causeway at last.
Said to be the largest religious building in the world, the sprawling multi-layered Angkor Wat is comprised of narrow galleries, darkened hallways, mysterious chambers, grassy courtyards and vertiginous stone steps. Decorative elements include statues of Buddha, bas-relief patterns and carvings of apsaras (heavenly nymphs).
After exploring we sat on a crumbling outdoor ledge, our backs against ancient rock walls, savouring the silence and waiting for the sun to rise over the trees.
Beware of the men who offer you lit incense sticks. As I took one, my friend tried to signal to me that I should just walk on. But it was too late. Following the man's lead, I waved the stick about, held my hands in the prayer position then touched a nearby statue.
With the miniature ceremony concluded, he lifted up a piece of fabric which was hiding US banknotes and indicated that I must pay.
Later, in a different part of the complex, I saw another tourist fall for the same ploy. She looked shocked when she realised this little ritual was not primarily concerned with her inner peace but rather what was inside her wallet. Respectful foreigners, simultaneously keen to participate in local customs and be culturally sensitive, are ideal targets of such ruses.
But our trip involved more than temples and counterfeit monks. We visited markets that displayed fish so fresh they were still flapping, rows of entire pigs' heads and baskets full of insects. We learned how to cook fish amok, a Cambodian curry served in banana leaves, and tasted pandan pancakes.
We rode in tuk-tuks and found the beguiling Miss Wong - a Shanghai-inspired atmospheric cocktail bar where we washed down wontons and spring rolls with Indochine martinis.
At our hotel, La Residence d'Angkor, we received a daily water blessing from a trio of orange-robed monks. Sitting on woven mats, we would put our hands in the prayer position, close our eyes and just breathe while they chanted and flicked us with jasmine-scented water. No cash changed hands; these monks were the real deal.
Motorcycles, tuk-tuks, bikes and cars all safely navigated the streets of central Siem Reap without discernible road rules or even street signs. The main form of communication seemed to be via friendly honking.
In the absence of traffic lights or pedestrian crossings, we had no option but to join this controlled chaos if we needed to cross the road.
The trick was to wait for a suitable gap then walk slowly but surely across. Our predictable, steady and unhurried path enabled fellow road users to easily avoid us. The first time we crossed I had to fight my instinct to run when I saw a vehicle bearing down on me. It demanded a hefty dose of faith. You had to surrender to the universe, and believe in the goodwill and driving skills of perfect strangers.
Like the temple visits and the water blessings, crossing the road was in some way a little meditative exercise that provided a glimpse into the heart of Cambodia and its people.
Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies daily from Auckland to Siem Reap via their hub in Singapore.
For more information: Visit tourismcambodia.com.