Friday, October 19, 2012

Destination Cambodia IV: Glory of Ancient Angkor

Angkor Wat
The next day we were off to a more relaxed start. Breakfast was leisurely, although not really up to the standards of a 5-star resort! It seemed like we were the only people staying in the resort - of course, the real tourist season in Cambodia begins in November, and the place would probably be packed then!

A vacation in Cambodia is a series of negotiations - we needed tuk-tuks to get to Angkor Wat, and after much debate, we hired 2 of them to take us there. They would stay with us for the whole day, for the princely sum of $15 each! Nobody uses the Cambodian currency here - all transactions are in US dollars, or sometimes Thai Bahts. Anyway, off we went to Angkor Wat - a 5km ride from our hotel. The tuk-tuks are surprisingly comfortable. A typical Asian innovation - a sort of horse carriage attached to a motor bike! We drove through Siem Reap - passing resort after resort. Tourism is about the only thing that keeps this town going - more than 2 million visitors annually, and the number is ever-growing! 

Angkor Wat is said to be the largest Hindu temple complex in the world. It is also the best preserved among the thousands of temples at the Angkor site. Built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, it is a prime example of Khmer architecture. The temple towers are meant to represent Mount Meru - which Hindus believe to be the abode of Gods. A huge man-made moat encircles the entire complex, and the original causeway across the moat still exists. Within the outer walls the temple is set amidst lush green fields. Smaller buildings - libraries, mostly - can be seen along the pathway.

Statue of Vishnu
The temple itself has 3 levels - the shrines were located on the third level. The footprint is rectangular- three rectangular levels, reaching up to the topmost tower, Mount Meru. The lower most gallery has intricately decorated corridors in bas-relief friezes. Representations of the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Samudramanthan cover 3 sides, while the 4th shows King Suryavarman II himself, and his battles! The level of detail is eye-catching, and I think we would have enjoyed the scenes even more with a better guide! Our guide seemed content to talk only about Hindu mythology, completely disregarding the fact that as Hindus, we probably could have taught him a thing or two! The first level also houses giant statues of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva - which were originally housed in the shrines on the 3rd level. The Brahma and Shiva statues are headless and dilapidated, but the statue of Vishnu is intact, and is worshiped by tourists even today!

The second level is known as the 'Gallery of thousand Buddhas'. It is comprised mainly of 4 water tanks, one in each of the quadrants - for devotees to wash up before ascending to the shrines. The water tanks are all empty now. Also present here are numerous statues of Buddha - thus the name - all headless and desolate. Most were destroyed in the Cambodian civil war, the remaining few ravaged by plunderers.

Original steps to the final level
The ascent to the third level is forbiddingly steep - as befits the climb to metaphorical heaven. Wooden stairways have been built over the original stone steps - although sturdy, they still seem precarious. Due to safety concerns, children under 12 are not allowed to climb up. So we took turns, my parents first, and then Ajey and I. The top level is again rectangular, with shrines on all sides. These shrines now all have statues of reclining Buddhas installed. The views from the top were good - the entire Angkor Wat site could be seen, as well as Siem Reap in the distance. We explored a bit longer, and then headed for the exit.

Shops outside Angkor Wat
The way out is lined with a multitude of tiny shops, selling every souvenir imaginable - T-shirts, scarves, handbags, magnets, little craft things - everything for sale! Just name your price! Ajey loves to bargain, so we often spend more time than needed trying to get the 'best' deal! We were so engrossed in shopping, that we got separated from my parents. It took us the better part of an hour to locate them - they had, of course, sensibly walked back to the entrance when they couldn't see us. Manasi is adept at thinking up all kinds of scenarios in situations like this, and she had me panicking a bit too! We would have probably eaten something in the local restaurants here, but in the confusion, everyone forgot about food!

It was already 5pm, and we still had one more site to visit before we called it a day! Phnom Bakheng, or 'Sunset Point' at Angkor. Back in the tuk-tuks for a 10 minute ride. Phnom Bakheng is a small hill, with a temple dedicated to Shiva. Offers a spectacular view of Angkor Wat from the top. As an added tourist attraction, elephant rides are available for the ride. At an outrageous price - $20 each way - considering that it is only a 15 minute walk to the top! In the end, Manasi and my mom rode the elephant up, and the rest of us walked. On the way up, we could see the huge West Baray or lake, which was built to symbolize the Hindu sea of creation. At the top, there was a large statue of Nandi, but other than that everything else was in ruins. It has historical significance though - Phnom Bakheng is the first temple to be built in the Angkor site. Tourists thronged the area, perched on every available surface, waiting for the famed sunset! Unfortunately, it was quite a cloudy day - no sun visible. After waiting for half hour, we decided to walk down while it was still light, giving up on the sunset!

At the bottom of the hill, we were again swamped by hawkers - but at this point, everyone had only one thing on their minds - food!!! I had picked up a brochure for 'Currywalla', and Indian restaurant, and there's where we had the tuk-tuks take us. What a wonderful find! A sign outside simply said 'Good food', and the place more than lived up to it! We started off with Indian tea and pakoras, and then kept on ordering appetizers instead of the usual dinner. The service was excellent, the food brought to our table steaming hot with a smile! We all ate till we were stuffed. Located next door, very conveniently, was a massage parlour. Who could resist a foot massage after the tiring day we had spent? It was absolute bliss!!

I had really wanted to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat - but the next day dawned with rain clouds. It was our last day here, so undeterred by the rain, we set off. Our tuk-tuk drivers were waiting for us, and we set of to see Angkor Thom, the capital city of King Jayvarman VII. The fortifications at the entrance were formidable. By this time, Angkor had moved from a Hindu to a Mahayana Buddhist regime. Inside the city, our first stop was the Bayon, which was the royal temple. From afar, it looked curiously like a pile of rubble, but up close it was a sight to behold! The top level of the temple has numerous towers all adorned with huge faces! Never seen anything like it before! There are over 200 faces, representing the king as the Bodhisattva Lokesvara. All the faces wear an enigmatic, serene smile - most could give the Mona Lisa a run for her money! Wooden stairways and walkways have been constructed for easy access to most spots of the Bayon.

Old lion, new lion!
Angkor Thom is huge - about 9 km square. We didn't have the time to cover it all - we just hit the main tourist stops. The 'Terrace of Elephants' was next - about 300m long and carved mainly with elephants, garudas and lions. This led to the 'Terrace of the Leper King' - don't want to know the origin of that name! The carvings here are fantastical - walls crammed with all kinds of fauna, predominantly nagas, and images of devas and apsaras. The exit led once again to a small shopping area with restaurants, where we had lunch.

It had started to pour again as we then headed to Ta Prohm - must-see for all visitors to Angkor. To get to the temple we had to walk about 800m - heavy downpour, the red earth turning to rivulets beneath our feet, an eerie jungle! Ta Prohm is famous for the huge trees which have all but swallowed the temples with their gigantic roots! And what a wonderous tableau this is!! The trees are almost reptilian in nature - sprawled over the seemingly puny temples. It is a formidable exhibition of the power of Nature - magnificent and menacing! This alone was worth the trip to Cambodia! I later found that some of these trees are 'Strangler figs' - didn't see any figs, but how fitting is 'strangler'!!

Once again, we headed to Currywalla for dinner - there are actually quite a few Indian restaurants in Siem Reap, but we knew what to expect at Currywallas! After dinner, it was time to get some shopping done at Siem Reap's night markets. Mostly souvenirs, a few jewelers and some silver shops. Of course, all kinds of fake branded items, from North Face backpacks to Burberry shirts! I usually only buy magnets as souvenirs - easy to carry and no clutter back at home! Also gifts for Manasi's friends, gifts for my mom to take home to India. We easily spent a couple of hours browsing there! My parents then left for the hotel with Manasi, and Ajey and I went off for a rare night together to check out Siem Reap's bar street. This was a small street lined with bars - not that big, about a dozen or so places - pulsing with music, obviously catering to Western tourists! We didn't stay too late, Manasi wouldn't sleep until we got back to the hotel, and tomorrow again was to be an early start!

So that was it, our vacation in Cambodia was almost over. One more night, and then back to Bangkok. We had hardly spent much time at the resort - the pool was actually quite lovely, and the spa seemed to be very inviting! Even at Angkor, we had only touched upon the most popular tourist sites, not venturing off the beaten path! There's a lot do and a lot to see here, but that would have to wait for another time! For now, I was happy to leave with memories of this exotic vacation with my family! Besides, we still had 2 days in Bangkok, so the vacation was not really over! To Bangkok....

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