Day 2: We left early for a 30km drive to other temples namely The Banteay Srei and Banteay Samre, built during the 10th and 12th Century AD, dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu respectively. Banteay Srei is well known for its very exquisite architecture and stone carvings and sculptures on its red sandstone blocks. Every enclosure and its set of buildings had its own story to tell from the Hindu epics. One particular carving that stands out is the depiction of the fight scene from The Ramayana of the vanara brothers Vaali and Sugreeva showing Lord Rama’s intervention at the behest of Sugreeva.
A closer look at this carving reveals the near accurate depiction of the feet of the vanaras to be more simian than human which even modern temples in India seldom depict through their paintings to represent Lord Hanuman. Among the other remains include carvings of Lord Shiva as Nataraja, the demon king Ravana and other animal headed demi-gods from Indian mythology.
Banteay Samre had less spectacular carvings; though the material used to build the temples are the same as Banteay Srei. We then proceeded to cover other less popular temples such as Preah Khan, Neak Poan and Chausa Thevoda and literally ran through these to ensure we leave the larger part of the afternoon for the famous reclining Buddha and the Kulen falls with its 1000 lingas at the Phnom Kulen mountain which was a frequently visited spot of worship by King Jayavarman II. This place was set among the jungles approaching the mountain which was called as Mahendraparvath during the ancient times. Our drive was one of adventure and learning, having an opportunity to view the typical Cambodian village houses that were constructed on a raised wooden plat form uniformly and passing through vast rice fields and water canals for irrigation.
The drive up the mountain led to a bird’s eye view of the entire country side full of greenery and fresh cool air which is a treat to any urban individual. The eight metre tall reclining Buddha inspiring and an interesting fact explained by the guide revealed that since the Buddha was reclining on his left side, it is believed that he is still alive and on the contrary if a statue should recline on its right side, then he is presumed to be no more. We also witnessed a lot of Buddhist devotees rubbing off currency on the huge stone head of the statue and we learnt that this strange practice is thought to bring good luck and money. We too, being eager not to miss an opportunity to gain luck rubbed with our currency note before leaving the place.
We walked past road side shops selling Cambodian artifacts made from animal parts like tusks, bones and fur. We came across a stall selling hot pan cakes made using traditional Cambodian utensils over charcoal fire. As we walked along, the noise of running water grew louder and when we reached the banks of the stream now knee deep and 15 feet wide with strong currents, we could clearly see hundreds of round shaped stones on the water bed which turned out to be those among the 1000 lingas once worshipped by the King Jayavarman II
One particular spot at the edge of the stream revealed a stone carving, not longer than 6 inches, depicting Lord Vishnu reclining on his Aadhisesha in Vaikunta with Goddess Lakshmi at his feet. We then had to walk across a couple of rope way bridges across small streams before reaching the water falls. The smaller one falling a dozen feet down and the second one a much bigger one crashing onto the rocks several dozen feet below.
The entire climb down to the bottom of the water fall was tricky and risky over old wooden stairway that was laden with moss and algae and could give way anytime. It was approaching evening and we knew we had to hasten to the other star attraction of the day which is the Ta Prohm temple.It was close to 6pm that we reached the temple and there was just enough sunlight to have a quick walkthrough before darkness enveloped the ancient 12th Century ruins. This temple is more popular in recent times as the Hollywood movie Tomb Raider was shot here and has the feel of the typical Indiana Jones locale. The temple is also unique as the authorities have not restored it fully as the jungle had completely taken over the structures causing extensive damage.
The tree roots all over the temple now also helps keep the overall structure intact with its strong hold preventing further stones from falling over. It was also a delight for us to note the big signboard at the entrance which read that The Archeological Survey of India had taken the joint responsibility with the APSARA (Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap) on conservation and restoration efforts of this temple just as other countries had signed up for the other temples recognized in recent times as UNESCO heritage sites.
With the Sun long set, we began our return and on our way to the hotel stopped at the local “Night Market” named for its several shops that remain open late night among other restaurants and pubs nearby mainly frequented by western tourists. We managed to locate an Indian restaurant called Maharajah and after a sumptuous meal walked around the market that sold a myriad of colourful handicrafts and paintings. We decided to call it a day and dragged ourselves back to our room and crashed for a well-earned sleep.
Day 3: We reached the Angkor Wat temple premises at 4:30am, our cameras fully loaded to catch a glimpse of the sunrise spectacle. We were surprised to find the place already crowded with many carrying their tripods to support their professional camera equipment. We witnessed the transformation of the skyline around the temple from pitch black to blackish blue to light yellow to a bright golden yellow. The sun rays forming a hallow effect over the tower complex of the temple all through, offering every camera person an opportunity to click non-stop, capturing every moment of this colourful transformation. After a much needed cup of tea we embarked upon a long drive to the Tonle Sap lake, regarded as the largest fresh water body in South East Asia notably, as it covers around 2700 sq km.
This lake also boasts of one-of-its-kind floating village. Every house, shop, school, hospital and church floats on the lake’s waters. We got into a speed motor boat which raked through the waters as it proceeded into the vast open waters passing through the village. It was an experience of a different level as the lake suddenly looked like an open sea when we stopped far away from the shores facing a huge passenger ferry cross our path which apparently began its journey near Vietnam. We then visited a crocodile farm at one end of the lake which housed a dozen of the reptiles and witnessed the locals play with pythons and snakes to woo the tourists. Handicrafts made of bamboo are a common sight here, including bottled reptiles and amphibians, supposedly drinks of aphrodisiac for the locals.
We then headed back ashore and on the way caught sight of what seemed a mountain half immersed in the lake and legend has it that Lord Hanuman had dropped part of the mountain that he was returning to its original location after offering Lord Rama and his vanara army with the sanjeevani herb. Hard to be true but nevertheless a point to ponder for the average tourist!
We headed straight to the Angkor arts factory called “Les Artisans d’ Angkor” which is worth a visit to shop local handicrafts including silver ware and fabrics.
This was the last leg of the whirl-wind tour and having been completely satiated, with pleasant experiences captured through our lenses, we returned home the next day. It felt like a dream come true in this three-day trip of Cambodia!