Thursday, April 9, 2009

Cambodia chronicles: Angkor Wat… who, when, where, why, how

22nd March 2009

Hidden in roots and lost in time
Haunting flutes and cowbell chimes
Blackstone sandstone crumbling structures
Come together with reason and rhyme

These are my thought as I think back of those temples; dating back to the 10th Century or more but still standing tall and stoic.

Angkor represents the Khmer empire's immense power and wealth as early as the 8th century. King Jayavarman II was the founder with his sons and nephews taking the glory forward. Staring off as a Hindu kingdom that primarily worshipped Shiva and Vishnu, over time the Buddhism influence grew much stronger. Therefore most temples have Shiv lingas along with images of Buddha.

We had to get a pass to visit the temples $20 for the day and $40 for 3 days. The temples are all far from each other and you will need at least 2 hours to just walk through each of them.

After an omelette breakfast we tuk tuk-ed for almost 2 hrs to Kbal Spean to see the 1000 lingas. It is up the Kulen Mountains and much glory was promised for the one who dared. It was a hot trek up meeting many on the way up and then down. Some kids offered me some boiled snails they were eating which I kind of refused. As always the journey was more fun than the destination as the lingas and the reclining Vishnu was not much to write home about. But we happily took pictures and came down…

On reaching back I went for a quick visit to the wildlife rehabilitation centre. I met Pok han Pokh a very enthusiastic and inspiring guy who showed me around the animals and birds…there were Brahminy kites, Serpent eagles, gibbons etc. He was really impressed with my knowledge of those birds…so I came off feeling all nice and special having made a good friend.

The next stop was Bantey Srei, a sandstone temple with the most intricate carvings ever. It means temple of the lady...yes in some cultures Sri means lady… It’s unbelievable how every stone, pillar, floor, window, door has the most beautiful carvings…and it’s withstood all the test of time.

By then it was late afternoon and we still had to catch the sunset at Angkor Wat. This is the largest of the temple complexes and was more like the royal residence with palatial ponds, monasteries, prayer halls, dancing halls, chambers etc in large architectural grandeur.

I liked the path leading up the back of the temple more than the temple complex itself. The evening sun was behind the temple and cast a halo effect and it looked and felt so lost in time. You can see the grandness of the temple a km away and as you walk closer it just looms larger. We were lucky there weren’t many people ahead of us.

As I wandered I wondered about all those people who would have walked the very same path…peasants, priests, monks, temple dancers and royalty. I might have been a monk or a dancer. Even as I write I feel trapped in that moment on that empty muddy road. 

We finally returned to our hotel legless and tired and decided to have our dinner there. One of the local specialities is ‘Amok’ which is a semi dry curry with local herbs like lemon grass, ginger, coconut, tamarind and others. You can have Amok fish, pork or chicken. I had decided to eat fish on this trip so that was it.

Night life there is good with nice restaurants and good food, and the famous beer here is Angkor. I always thought South East Asia was very crowded and claustrophobic… I was so wrong. It’s quite and yet people are there, very simple yet magical. Makes you want to stay back more to at least learn the language.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Cambodia chronicles: Getting there

Bangkok 21st March 2009
Hua Lampong station was just waking up at 5.28 am when Jenny n I got off the taxi, dragged our bags bought our tickets (48 Bhats each) to Aranya Prathet and plonked for a nice tea coffee and croissants. People normally fly to Hanoi so this kind of rail / road trip to Cambodia was a bit unconventional by local standards (and also a bit uncomfortable). Anyone attempting this should know in advance that there is only one such train and it leaves Bangkok at 5.50 am with only 3rd class compartments with no ac and not much food options on the way.

We were soon rushing pell mell to platform # 6 and scrambled up into a 3rd class train compartment. Now everything I had seen so far in Bangkok had set my expectations really high so obviously I balked a little when the strong smell of fish oil hit me that early in the morning. But I had decided to accept all and experience everything, so did what I do best with discomfort - pretend it didn’t exist…and all in the name of adventure.

The seats were unreserved so we raced to grab them. Quite unnecessary because the people are very polite and un-interfering and wouldn’t sit or push if you have a seat. Apart from a few giggles because of a ‘fragile’ sticker that got transferred from my bag to my back the next five and half hours to the border went pretty uneventful.

The locals are extremely clean, dainty and proper, so much so that a guy was drinking beer off a can with a straw. Since we weren’t Thai, there was no concern for local propriety and we hungrily gobbled a mango in the most un-lady like manner (mangoes there are a different; neither sweet nor sour).

The countryside is very much like ours…a mix of rice fields, mango, jackfruit, coconut, cashew, tamarind, cows, buffalos, drongos, kingfishers and egrets… You get the picture?

The hours passed by chatting, gossiping, discussing friends, brands, guys, work, styles, new interests and reliving old stories.

From Aryana Prathet one has to take a tuk tuk ( 80 bhats) to Poipet and then it’s a bit of a walk to the immigration office and entry gates to Cambodia. Be sure to pack some food from Bangkok as there isn’t much of a choice till you reach. It’s also a brilliant idea to get visas in advance. We had our Cambodia visas in place (Jenny got it online) so it was easier…and I just had to get a reentry visa for Thailand.

The borders are like most borders…boring, dry, empty, lifeless and makes you wanna quickly choose sides and get there fast. Entering Cambodia the first thing that hit was everyone's talking in dollars. Water, chips, cabs et all. No one talks in Cambodian 'Real' other than for tips.

You can hire a 4 seater cab for $15/person or a full cab for $40 and we did just that to compensate for the 5 and half hour train journey. The roads were surprisingly good and without potholes despite reports that the roads in Cambodia are no better than those in interior India.

We were on our way to Siem Reap; the tourist town nearest to all the temples. This is where we stayed for the next few days. Siem Reap simply means Siam defeated (Thailand is Siam). The Thai Army was stopped short of this place in one of the conflicts.

It was a 2 and half hour journey and we often stopped to refresh, and go to the loo. The loos there are like the Indian style loos and very clean (thats VERY high on my list). The loos were somewhat elevated off the ground-as if even there you could feel truly honoured.

At Siem Reap we stayed at the Golden Temple hotel (rooms from $20/night - bigger room upto $40). There are a variety of accommodations in Siem Reap and you can go from $8 shoestring to luxury of $2000/night. Most hotels have free internet cafes and a restaurant attached with fresh local and continental food. Vegetarians will be fine in Cambodia.
On first glance the hotel was orange in colour, hidden from the road and unassuming; more a house off the street than a hotel. A couple of trees hid it well and only on entering the gate can you see its quite splendour. A huge sculpture of Vishnu greeted us followed by a smaller Ganesha and a Buddha seated in a small pond by the side.

All guests had to take off their shoes before entering the hotel and we were welcomed with a ‘welcome drink’ and a 20 min free Khmer massage that could be taken anytime during the first 2 days of stay (we took it the next day and it was totally worth it).

After stuffing ourselves with food we went out that night to check out the local night scene. It’s a proper tourist village with areas like ‘Pub Street’ that have restaurants, bars and curio shops. The night market is nearby and so are all the atms, online telephone booths (but bad connectivity so get ur phone on international roaming) and tuk tuk points.

We soaked in the night with a free temple dance show, couple of beers, an absorbing discussion and hit the sack. That night I had some very dramatic dreams of falling off the edge of the earth. After all the next day onwards we were going back in time.