Having spent the last fourteen years living in Siem Reap and steadily drinking, retired 52-year-old English-expat Paulo Bonini has turned to a new pursuit – temple hunting.
Or, as he puts it, he’s gone from being an alcoholic to being a temple-holic.
“The truth is I started all this as I am a recovering alcoholic, on a litre of vodka a day,” he says, “My anxiety and depression were crippling and I was truly lost, but it is without doubt having the draw of ancient wonders that got me out and on the road, and my life went from a complete lonely wreck to me being a very contented man.”
Now, instead of going to bars, he goes bush-bashing, hunting down little-known temples and ancient artifacts such as elephant statues hidden deep in the Cambodian wilds.
And instead of guzzling, he’s Googling to find more information about more hidden sacred edifices which are then filmed on video for broadcast via YouTube.
To do this, he’s armed himself with a growly imported Honda CB 500 motorbike, tricked out with a host of modifications. And he’s also buddied up with another Siem Reap temple-holic, American expat and photographer Scott Sharick, who is holed up in town because his “five or six year” bicycle ride around the world has come to a temporary halt in Siem Reap.
Scott first visited Cambodia in 2014 and moved to Siem Reap in 2015. “Since I was not working while I lived in Siem Reap I had a lot of time on my hands,” he says. “At that time Angkor Archeological Park was full of tourists and I began to search for quieter, less visited temples. I had no idea that there are thousands of sites around Cambodia. Once I started finding some temples relatively close to Angkor, I wanted to find more.”
He searched for temples from 2015 until March of 2018 when he left on his round-the-world bicycle ride. After two years on the road he returned to Siem Reap by bicycle on March 1 this year to get a new passport, when COVID-19 travel restrictions took him off the road.
Scott met Paulo after he wrote about searching for temples as a way to fill time during the pandemic.
“Once we met we found we were quite the same in our desire to find more temples,” Scott says. “He produces his videos, and I get to see some of the same temples in different seasons and light, as well as getting to find some new ones.”
Scott shoots the videos featuring Paulo and gives him tips, and in turn Paulo thanks him effusively.
“He has been the greatest influence for me and I will always be eternally grateful,” Paulo says, “He taught me so much, from the basics of cataloguing on spread sheets, to how to use online maps and of course camerawork.”
“Remember, I was locked in a dance with the devil that lay in a bottle, as I have been a heavy drinker since 16. I also overdosed three times and went into major seizures and had to be taken by ambulance to the Royal Hospital. I think I nearly died those times, I was very sloppy remembering how many valiums I was consuming,” he says.
“Every time I left hospital with a huge bill, I went back down the pub to get a few hits to make me feel ‘normal’ again. Now, 30 plus years later this is a new world to me, it’s odd, it’s like a different planet,” he adds.
“So when I met Scott, I was absolutely clueless how normal people do normal things. He aided me as I learned from scratch, and even now I am scrabbling to catch up. He has been extremely patient as I have a brain like Winnie the Pooh. I could not have done it without his kindness,” Paulo says.
And what Paulo has done under Scott’s influence is produce a hell of lot of ten-minute videos in a short time, well over 100, enough to post two videos a week until August on his YouTube channel, “Forgotten Temples Cambodia”.
Paulo originally kicked off his new obsession by photographing his favourite temple, Khpop.
“First was dear old Khpop, still a love of mine,” he says. “Khpop has not much to say for itself, sitting alone neglected in some jungle, and he ain’t much to look at, but that tiny temple helped me more than I can ever say.”
“I took photos of Khpop and put them on Facebook. But photos did not show what I was feeling, so I shot a short video. People liked the adventure, so I did more,” he adds.
“It was all so simple and what amazed me was nobody else was doing it. Now I have radio mics and huge amounts of editing,” Paulo says. “Trust me, it is a tonne of work and stress to make ten minutes of calm.”
Paulo says kindness and good karma helped him make the videos, so he hopes the videos create good karma for the viewers.
“If my videos make someone smile and seek adventure, I am paying on the kindness that others showed me,” he says. “The kindness that helped me becomes a member of society again, and not the raging addict that was certain of only a premature death.”
Connect to Paulo’s videos via this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLyYsRg5TfY