Cambodia – The very name flashes two distinct images in the minds of those who have either read their history books at school or the ones who had followed the news during the cold war era. To the former, it is the enduring silhouette of the magnificent Angkor Wat temple and to the latter, the rule of the Khmer Rouge.
My wife and I were looking for a short holiday to explore the South Eastern part of the world and it was the legacy left behind by the ancient Khmer empire that raised our curiosity to seek more adventure in the “rabbit” shaped South East Asian country of Cambodia. We zeroed in on the city of Siem Reap which had much to offer in and around it. We began our usual research over the internet and within a fortnight finalized our itinerary with a local Cambodian travel agency and were soon aboard a Singapore airlines jet to Siem Reap.
It was late October and a pleasant climate, though warm still in South East Asia, so loose cotton clothing is what we packed bearing in mind a lot of walking and climbing that lay ahead. Our itinerary of Cambodia tour reflected 3 full days of “must see” items and squeezed in time for that local shopping binge as any tourist would indulge in.
We touched down at the Siem Reap International airport just before sunset and once on the tarmac, were pleasantly surprised to note the very design of the airport complex which resembled a big temple/traditional resort building in Kerala with its distinct tiled sloping roof. Most of our co-passengers too were busy clicking photos of this very simple yet beautifully designed structure.
After a quick immigration process which included an on-arrival visa formality, our personal tour guide in all his cheerfulness greeted us promptly with his placard and within the hour, we were checking into our 3-star hotel on the national highway road. The location helped save travel time to and from the airport. Considering our short yet loaded tour package, we decided to opt for a decent 3-star comfort as most of our time would be spent outdoors with little time left for luxurious pampering indoors. The rest of the evening was spent unpacking and settling in and sorting things out for the next day’s tour programme.
The biggest of its kind among Hindu temples from the 12th Century AD built during the rule of King Suryavarman II of the Khmer empire. The temple was dedicated to Lord Vishnu, based on the widely followed Hindu religion during its time which eventually was taken over by Buddhist influence by the end of the century. As we walked up the first flight of stairs across a pathway flanked by huge stone statues of the mythical serpent Vaasuki and passed through the gate, a vast open area lay ahead and straight across the stone pathway the huge temple structure revealed itself. It is truly an awesome picture postcard sight which captivates every shutterbug or an adventure seeker to be rooted to the spot admiring its size and grandeur.
Mythological characters from the Hindu religion were evident in every pathway, corridor, wall and pillar of the temple in the form of carvings, sculptures and architectural designs.
The walls of the long-pillared corridors were covered with well-depicted sculptures from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Our personal guide, knowing we were from India, rattled away his knowledge of the temple explaining every stone and image trying to impress and at the same time clarifying his understanding with that of ours. After a couple of hours of exploring the temple premises, we reached the sanctum sanctorum of the temple which tested our climbing and balancing ability using an improvised wooden staircase built at a steep seventy degree ascent to the top floor which housed a huge stone monolith of Lord Vishnu though depicted in the form of Lord Buddha.
It was grand panoramic view of the surrounding areas from the top. Thus, all the walking and climbing was worth it after all. We were then told that one of the top attractions at this temple is to view the sunrise over the temple complex which we decided to do the day after.
We reached out to the nearest roadside restaurant aptly named “Angkor coffee” to replenish our spent energy before proceeding further. It was interesting to note that by and large, restaurant owners, shop keepers and tuk-tuk (their version of our own autos or phat-phatis of Delhi) drivers spoke reasonably good conversant English and the American dollar is well accepted too apart from the local Cambodian Riel currency, which is largely under-valued.
After a short drive, we arrived at the South gate of Angkor Thom, another architectural beauty reflected by the entire approach road to the actual gateway flanked by huge stone statues of the mythological characters of Asuras and Devas representing the third Hindu Kurma avatar involving churning of the Ocean for nectar.
This pathway led to the royal enclosures and the elephant terrace, so named as the king used to be seated at the raised platform to witness mock elephant fights as a recreation.
At the centre of this Angkor Thom lies the Bayon Temple built during the early 13th Century AD by the Buddhist king Jayavarman VII. It is most famous for its multitude of serene but massive stone faces of the king one each of its many towers. Each stone face so proportionately carved juxtaposed one another as though engaged in an eternal debate.
We proceeded to our next destination the Phnom Bakheng hill and had to hike along its rough patchy walkway up to the top for a view of the sunset among the Cambodian jungles.
It was quite an endurance test more so after our morning tour of the temple. It turned out to be a race to the hill top to ensure we get the best viewing spot as more tourists arrived out of nowhere. A couple of hours passed before the sun disappeared behind the tree tops in the distance before we began our descend. Our route to the car parking spot passed through a street market selling traditional Cambodian painting on rice paper.
We also saw some elephants busy servicing tourists for rides. We then drove straight to a local restaurant at the heart of the city for supper where we could choose from a variety of Cambodian rice, vegetable and noodle-based delicacies for a relaxing meal, listening to live traditional Cambodian instrumental performance. It usually accompanies a set of dancers representing the Hindu celestial apsaras from Lord Indra’s court namely Ramba, Maneka, Urvasi and Tillotama.
To be continued..