If one is given a choice of just one archaeological site to visit, without a second thought it should be Angkor Wat. It is the most magnificent, most massive, most impressive monument in the world. It is perhaps the only monument to have its silhouette adorning a country’s national flag.
From India, one has a choice of two routes to Cambodia. It is either via Kuala Lumpur or via Bangkok. We chose to go via Bangkok and return via KL.
We reached the border town Aran (Aranyaprathet) in a bus, which we boarded right at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport after three hours of a comfortable flight. I asked a local the direction to my hotel, showing him the hotel name on a piece of paper. He pointed the finger upwards. Perplexed, my gaze followed his finger till we both broke into a laugh. We were standing directly under the glow sign of the hotel!
Aran is a sleepy place with a small covered market yard but an ideal stopover for an early border crossing. Not surprisingly therefore, there are good hotels around. The market yard and the area around it come alive with activity in the evenings with small colourful stalls selling their wares to a small crowd of curious tourists and not so curious locals. We try local savory- roasted ripe bananas served impaled on a thin stick. It is sweet with a faint burnt flavour, luscious, and deliciously sticky.
Crossing an international border with passport control on foot has its own uniqueness. It becomes more of a thrill to do so without being a victim of one of the numerous scams that SE Asia is notoriously famous for. Having obtained a Cambodian e-visa beforehand, it was a cake walk for us.
Between the Thai and Cambodian immigration there is a strip of El Dorado. It is an arrangement of convenience to bypass the law of Thailand, to have casinos beyond the Thai border (but before the Cambodian passport control). It is a glitzy world of huge gambling houses in vulgar contrast to the abject poverty of Cambodia on the east and modesty of Thailand on the west.
Cambodia is a land where heavens chose to be frugal with their blessings for the past several hundred years. The glorious past of the mighty Khmer kingdoms till the 15th century was followed by the dark ages as a vassal state, colonisation, independence, getting sucked into the frying pan of the Vietnam war and then from the frying pan to the fire that was Khmer Rouge’s years of mindless genocide.
Democracy finally arrived in 1985, which in the eyes of the international community remains a sham, being a one-party dictatorial rule by the same prime minister ever since. No wonder it remains one of the poorest and among the most corrupt places in the world.
From Poipet — the Cambodian border town — we took a taxi. The driver spoke no English, convincing us of his genuineness by pointing to his laminated ID and a sticker bearing the state emblem on the windscreen.
He understood the name of our hotel in Siem Reap — the gateway to Angkor Wat. 135 kms flew by. The journey was comfortable, the road was good. Till just a couple of years ago, it used to be a nightmarish day long, back-breaking journey.
Not so long ago, life itself was a nightmare — irrespective of the definition used. Mercifully things have changed, slowly though, for better. Presently it is one of the fastest growing countries in the world.
We took a short break at a village. A little girl standing by the roadside addressed me. The language of hunger and yearning is universal. I offered her a sweet bun to eat. The expression that comes from a grateful pair of eyes is also universal. There were scores of amputees we could see on the roads of Siem Reap, all victims of landmines. Cambodia has one of the highest numbers of landmine victims in the world. It has, even today, large areas heavily mined, a grim reminder of the sordid past. They earn their livelihood by singing, playing musical instruments and painting.
This introduction to the country was further amplified by a small laminated note in my hotel room in Siem Reap. It read, “Do bargain, and bargain hard in Cambodia. There is scope for bargaining in everything — and substantially. But please remember, a dollar or two that you save by doing so actually means bread for the entire family for a week in this poor country.” I never bargained thereafter.
Across the road from our hotel is the Angkor National Museum. It is a large collection of artefacts relating to ancient Cambodia and is worth spending some hours there. The word national in its name is a misnomer though, being a private museum owned by a Thailand-based enterprise.
The same road takes us to the Angkor Archaeological Park. Stretching over 400 square kilometres, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains including that of the largest city in the world of its time, capital of the Khmer Empire till the 15th century.
The most famous are the Temple of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom including the Bayon temple, Te Prohm Temple besides countless other sculptural monuments.
The ubiquitous public transport in Combodia is the tuk-tuk. The tuk-tuk here is different from its counterparts in other South East Asian countries and is a fine example of jugaad technology. Hindu heritage is not the only cultural link they share with India; jugaad may be another one.
This unique mode of transport is actually a two-wheeled cart that can sit two comfortably, something like a Kolkata hand rickshaw but for a motorcycle becoming the substitute for the human traction. The yoke of the cart is fastened to the midriff of an ordinary motorcycle to make a tuk-tuk. We hired one for a princely US$ 20 for the day with the driver doubling as a guide.
Angkor Wat is a 15 minute ride from the city. On the first sight itself, the magnificence of the temple complex is commanding. Spread over more than 350 acres, it is the largest religious structure in the world.
Though time, the elements and more so the vandals have taken their toll, its grandeur still takes visitors aback. The five spires arranged as a quincunx, denoting mount Meru, the abode of Gods in Hindu mythology, are the first awe-inspiring sight to catch the visitor’s eyes. The design is inspired by early Dravidian architecture, made on jagati — a raised platform. Angkor Wat is laid out symmetrically on a three-tier platform rising to the central tower to a height of 213 feet. The entire structure is surrounded by moat with a substantially large perimeter. It was not only full of lotuses but luckily for us, they were also in bloom. Before stepping on to the pathway across the moat, it was time to admire the divine beauty of this timeless masterpiece in its majestic entirety.
As one climbs up to the temple proper, the colonnade on either side depicting the tales from Hindu mythology in bas-relief on stone walls interspersed with the statues suddenly come alive.
My wife is ecstatic: “See the churning of the ocean, see the battle of Mahabharata, see this is Yamaraj”. She goes on and on till fatigue sets in. It is six hundred meters of live stones telling the tales on the first level alone. From Ramayana, from Mahabharata, from the folklores and mythology, about karma, about heaven and hell, it seems to depict everything.
On the next tier, the walls and the pillars facing the courtyards are nothing short of an epic poetry in stone. Clicking of the cameras provides a constant background music. At the third level, at one place a monk was performing a ritual, chanting before a statue of Lord Buddha that seems incongruously out of place with incense sticks wafting the aroma of fresh flowers. Visitors ritually stop for a while, bow their heads before the lord and silently walk away.
A lot has been written about the design concept and on why it faces the west (no other Hindu temple faces west anywhere in the world). It was built some 800 years ago by King Suryavarman II as a temple and also for his own internment. It remained a Hindu place of worship only for a short while before it became a Buddhist temple.
After the Cham people of Indochina sacked Angkor Wat in 1177, King Jayavarman VII decided to convert to Buddhism. He built a new capital nearby, Angkor Thom, and dedicated it to Buddhism. Thereafter, Angkor Wat became a Buddhist shrine and many of its carvings and statues of Hindu deities were replaced by Buddhist art.
The Khmer empire declined in the 15th century and the great city slid into oblivion. It remained known only to the locals and was largely consumed by forests till it was rediscovered again in the 19th century. The main Angkor Wat temple remained less damaged by the jungle mainly because of the perimeter moat. Perimeter moat again is unique to this temple. Possibly it was built to symbolise the ocean surrounding Mount Meru.
Some distance from the Angkor temple, there are eateries offering food to suit palates from any part of the world. I request Hun, my guide to take me for a local lunch. On his recommendation, we had a hearty lunch of Kuy Taev. It is steamed with sauces to add to individual taste.
Cambodia is a rice bowl that grows more than 2000 varieties of flat rice noodle that was served to us with lettuce leaves, bean sprouts, chopped scallions and shreds of pork in the rice.
Angkor Thom is to the north of Angkor Wat only a short drive away. Jayvarman’s capital did not have the protection of a perimeter moat and therefore was more intensely claimed by the jungle.
Monumental restoration work is being done by a Japanese Government Team for the Safeguarding of Angkor (the JSA). In the centre stands the Bayon temple, best known for its picture postcard smiling stone faces on several towers in a cluster around its central peak.
They depict Avalokiteshwara, the earthly manifestation of the self-born eternal Buddha Amitabha. Some believe these faces could be of Jayavarman himself. Others find these claims to be not mutually exclusive; Jayverman himself could have been the Avalokiteshwara. Kings were, in those days, considered an incarnation of God. The temple has panels of bas-reliefs, which present a combination of mythological and historical scenes.
A kilometre to the east is the temple Ta Prohm, earlier called Rajvihara, which was a monastery and a university constructed during the reign of Jayvarman VII. Ta Prohm’s conservation effort has been uniquely to maintain the status quo of its interaction with the jungle. It is in more or less in the condition in which it was found.
It is a photographer’s delight to see trees growing out of the ruins in harmony with the jungle surroundings. Scenes from 2001 action movie Tomb Raiders that were shot extensively here suddenly come alive.
The only Indian film to have been shot in Angkor Complex was the 2015 Tamil film Om Shanti Om. All song sequences in the film have Angkor in the background. It is a place of intense romance between fig, silk cotton, banyan and kapok trees (the creation) and the Ta Prohm(Ancestor Brahma: the creator). The trees spread their gigantic roots all over, even into the stones, leaving one wondering about the source of nutrition. Is it Ta Prohm himself? This is a popular destination for the visitors and to our pride, under the care of Archaeological Survey of India.
We took our time, soaked ourselves into the experience as best as we could, and came out as if a pledge was redeemed. It was a visit that completely defies any description and the best photographs can barely do justice to the monument that is Angkor complex.
There were people from far and near, from across the globe. There was a young lady — a paraplegic on a wheelchair, who had come all the way from Canada — on her maiden overseas visit, to see Angkor Wat. Then there was a Sheikh from Oman, there were Europeans, Mongolians, Japanese, Koreans — you name it. All wore the same expression on their faces, of awe and fulfilment.
In New Zealand, I had met an elderly taxi driver who had been abroad only once: to Cambodia.
Just to visit Angkor Wat.