This is my first attempt at writing a blog. Thank you, Tanu for this wonderful opportunity to write on your blog site. I do hope the readers have a reasonable time with the piece. 🙂
For the most part of the year, I camouflage myself into a neat office going person to make a living. I try to appear presentable, make my way through scores of deadlines and endure endless meetings. But, come December and the traveler within me finds his way out to take me to a new place.
Last December, this traveler took me and my group of friends to a very special destination – a melting pot of the ancient and the modern. A kingdom of bygone grandeur, ravaged and ruined many times yet, triumphing over the most extraordinary circumstances to rise up once more. If this description is intriguing enough, the place itself is even more so. This small country is the erstwhile seat of the Khmer Empire, now officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia.
We visited three cities over a period of ten days. As I take you through present-day Cambodia, I will turn the hourglass on its head every now and then and take you back in time to tell you about an empire that embraced Indian ideas of religion, culture, and architecture.
The infinite temples of Siem Reap
Our first stop is Siem Reap. Hot and sultry weather greets us as we disembark from the flight. It’s a newly built airport and gives a glimpse of the classic Khmer architecture. Immigration is quick and hassle-free. Tuk-tuk (the motorized version of our cycle rickshaw) awaits us outside to take us to our hotel. The tuk-tuk ride acquaints us to the town’s decrepit charm that quickly casts a romantic aura.
Siem Reap is a land of infinite temples cast in stone many centuries ago. It’s impossible to visit all of them. Well, it’s impossible to visit all of them in five days. So, we decide to visit the four most significant ones.
The grandest of them all is Angkor Wat or the capital temple, originally dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Built in the twelfth century, over an area of more than four hundred acres, its size and purpose are baffling. Chumm Sovann is our wise, local guide. He takes us around the temple over three days to help us appreciate its enduring architectural feats.
As we enter the temple complex, we see a vast square mote surrounding the temple. “The mote represents oceans around Mount Meru, the legendary home of Hindu gods”, Chumm tells us. Once inside, we see endless corridors with intricate carvings with stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata and Samudra Manthan. But the sum is clearly greater than the parts. No words or photographs can capture its grace and magnificence.
For centuries, the temple witnessed the rise of the Khmer Empire, only to be abandoned by the fifteenth century owing to an ecological failure. “For many a century, the temple was lost in the jungles. But as the dawn seemed forever lost, it was relocated in the eighteenth century. Today, the temple is an object of pride for Cambodians and is depicted on the country’s national flag”, adds Chumm as we click some more photos for the last time.
Next on the itinerary is the 700-year-old Bayon temple. If you thought stone-faced was a very cold expression, you should see the 216 massive, sernely smiling stone faces at Bayon protruding out of its towers. “The temple was built by King Jayavarman VII”, we hear Chumm saying just as he shows the images of the king on Google. To our amazement, we find that the faces have an uncanny resemblance to its then ruler.
Our next visit is to Ta Prohm temple, nature’s ode to duality. Its beauty is enhanced by its state of ruins. As the temple lay abandoned for centuries, Mother Nature took her own course, playing the role of the destroyer and the nurturer. Both at once. “Roots of the trees ran amok tearing down the walls but also kept them from falling off completely”, Chumm tells us.
We have some pondering to do. Can the good and the bad coexist? Or is this distinction merely an illusion to keep us preoccupied with our judgments? Meanwhile, centuries-old fig, banyan and kapok trees with their roots entwined in the walls compete with the temple for attention.
Chumm then takes us to the miniature Banteay Srei temple around 30 minutes from Siem Reap. “Banteay Srei means the citadel of the women or the citadel of beauty”, he tells us.
Located within a fantasy forest, it appears straight out of a fairy tale and is a love at first sight stuff. Built out of red sandstone, the carvings at this petite temple include delicate women holding lotus flowers and some remarkable re-creations of scenes from Ramayana. “Sometimes,’ said Winnie the Pooh, ‘the smallest things take up the most rooms in our hearts”. Indeed!
Battambang and the joys of doing nothing
We have a comfortable bus journey to our next destination – Battambang in Cambodia’s northwest. We spend two days visiting a temple and something more sinister – ‘The Killing Caves’. We also find some time to while away in its sleepy locales and cozy cafes.
Day trip to Prasat Banan
We head 23 km south of Battambang to Prasat Banan. A 358-stone-step climb up is the only way to visit this 11th-century Angkor-era mountain-top temple. Well, reaching for the Gods was never easy. The X-factor: View from the top offers some amazing views of the surrounding countryside. 🙂
The Killing Caves
We then head about 12km southwest of Battambang to Phnom Sampeau, a mini mountain that leads to the Killing Caves of the Khmer Rouge era. As we reach the place, we meet some locals and realize that the aftermath of the genocide is still raw. Many people lost their family members and friends. At the site, we see a paradoxical juxtaposition – a golden Buddha lying peacefully next to a glass-walled memorial filled with bones and skulls. These are the remains of some of the people bludgeoned to death by Khmer Rouge cadres and then thrown through the skylight above.
A Vintage Stroll
We round-up our last day at Battambang with a lazy evening stroll through the town’s central market. On display, are the immensely charming sights of old French architectural buildings and local shops. The riverside cafes are a perfect way to spend the twilight time. If you are a Calvin and Hobbes fan, you will immediately recollect one of Calvin’s musings – “There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want”
Phnom Penh: the Asian Exotica
This time we have a longish bus journey to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. It’s a city in a rush. Motorbikes and cars whiz through its grand boulevards. Monumental mansions and skyscrapers share the cityscape. The riverside setting further ups its exotic quotient. This is our final destination and we make the most of it.
The Royal Palace
Our first visit is to the Royal Palace that glitters all the way in gold and is Phnom Penh’s most splendid mansion. The Kings of Cambodia have occupied it since the 1860s, with a period of absence when the country came into turmoil during and after the reign of the Khmer Rouge. As we wander around its spectacular buildings including a magnificent Silver Pagoda, we see the locals who have come to pay their respects.
The Killing Fields
Death is the only hope for freedom when brutal torture is the only other alternative. Or that’s what you think when you see over 8000 skulls on display, arranged by age and sex. Killings Fields give us another insight into the darkest and the bloodiest years (1975-79) in the Cambodian history when the notorious Khmer Rouge had taken over. About 17,000 men, women, children and infants were detained and ruthlessly tortured at a prison. They were transported to this site to be set free through death by extermination to avoid wasting precious bullets. Today, a memorial stands at this site to pay homage to the victims.
Wat Phnom Temple
Set on a hill, this Buddha temple is the tallest religious structure in the city. Local legend relates that the first pagoda on the site was built in 1372 by a wealthy widow called Lady Penh who found four bronze statues of the Buddha.
Inside, the walls are covered with murals of Jataka stories of the Buddha’s earlier reincarnations before his enlightenment. In each of the stories, the Buddha character intervenes to resolve all the problems and bring about a happy ending. Outside the temple, salesmen like to sell tourists the chance to earn some Buddhist ideas by releasing a caged bird. As we hang around for a while, we see the bird returning to its cage shortly thereafter.
This cozily lit night market located along the Mekong riverside is a perfect place to spend the balmy evening. Scores of stalls sell clothing, ornaments, souvenirs amidst pungent aromas of fried foods. After a round of boisterous bargaining, we pick up some handmade souvenirs.
Walk along the Mekong River
It is the New Year’s Eve. Mekong river promenade is bustling with young and old, locals and foreigners, partying and singing songs. As the countdown to the New Year begins, everyone erupts wildly amidst spectacular fireworks along the river bank. For us, it’s a mix of emotions. It’s one of the best New Year Eves we have experienced, yet in a few hours, we would be flying back to Mumbai.
In a few hours, I would again camouflage myself into a neat office going, person. Until come December.
I am an anti-consumerist marketer by profession. In my spare time, I try to experience the world through travel, leisure walks, photography, humor and art. Currently, I am attempting a DIY approach to make life simple and slow.