"Clink, clink, clink". Every strike of the hammer sends my chisel plunging into rough sandstone, dislodging tiny chunks which scatter haphazardly across the table. A tingly ache has begun to creep up behind my hunched-over back while dripping beads of my forehead perspiration dissolve into damp speckles on the red, earthy surface of the stone block.
It is Sunday afternoon, and I am learning the traditional Cambodian art of stone carving in the modest workshop of 31-year-old Poy Khet, a professional craftsman. An hour into incessantly chipping away at a square slab, an exquisite Romdoul flower - the national flower of Cambodia - is slowly but surely beginning to take shape.
"One by one, not too strong," says Khet as he watches me struggle to control the strength exerted from my hammer. Carving the delicate contours of the flower's petals proves to be the most difficult task for the day, and he soon takes over from my clumsy strikes and awkward balancing. Like knife slicing through a milky butter slab, the instrument weaves seamlessly in and out of the most narrow corners of the stone under Khet's skilful hands.
Miniscule stone flakes drift off freely into the wind, like a cloud of colliding particles caught in a dust storm. It is a hypnotizing spectacle of magic; within seconds the intricately curved outline of the flower's teardrop-shaped petals emerge into view.
In Cambodia, Khmer stone sculptures are ubiquitous- lined along the unpaved roads, hidden in obscure corners of grubby places, nestled within lush greenery of forest wilderness or hawked as valuable wares in thriving marketplaces. A stone deity stands right smack in the middle of a bustling traffic junction in Phnom Penh. With eyes shut and hands in a meditative position, she cuts an imperturbable figure of serenity as vehicles around her whir by.
Over in Siem Reap, two white, glorious lion stone sculptures with manes are perched proud along a sparse and dusty sidewalk. They stare forbiddingly into the distance, the striking richness of their detail incongruous with their comparatively under-developed environment. Peppered all over the land, these distinctive stone sculptures are the humans of Cambodia - upright, impregnable and unscathed by the constant flux of the city.
But it is in the splendorous Angkor Wat, the first stop of my temple tour, where the most magnificent stone carvings can be found. Entirely constructed from sandstone, Angkor Wat's grandiose Khmer architecture is a sight to behold even from a great distance. It is nearly impossible to miss the pointed peaks of the temple's iconic lotus bud towers thrusting into the sky, bearing down upon the milling tourist masses like a watchful tyrant overlooking his kingdom.