A surprising number of people will ask me “Where is Cambodia?” when I tell them where I am. I’m sure an even greater number secretly consult Google maps when I mention it. If you’re still wondering, it’s a quiet and impoverished little nation in Southeast Asia, right next door to Vietnam.
But in Cambodia, people will sometimes ask me “Where exactly is Ta Khmao?”
Ta Khmao is a town right next to Phnom Penh. In fact, these days it’s more or less a satellite city. It’s famous for bread (a yellowish, strangely-flavoured brioche which I frankly find unappetizing), for a theatrical troupe, and for a quite beautiful and picturesque Chinese temple situated on the river.
Outside the temple is a shrine to Ta Khmao – the “Black Grandfather” – himself, though he is barely peeking out of his elaborate box.
Just underneath him, on the hot afternoon we were visiting, lay a lazy cat, glaring at us with yellow eyes. He was basking in the protection of the communal deity.
The statue of Ta Khmao looks out over fisher-folk, at this time of the year all of them wallowing in the mud, with just a shallow strip of water left flowing.
Everyone is waiting for the wet season, when the river will come alive again.
You get to Ta Khmao invariably by Tuk Tuk (just tell him “The Chinese temple in Ta Khmao” – he will know where to go), and while we visited the temple and made our prayers, he parked on the riverbank, ordered a Sting from the softdrink stall and took some well-earned rest.
The temple is beautifully and intricately ornamented, with wonderful roof details, and statues of mysterious deities and mythic figures hiding up there away from prying mortal eyes.