Thursday, February 21, 2019

CAPTIVATING CAMBODIA


Our flight from Hanoi landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia 
after 1 1/2 hours, at 6 pm. Both the countries are in the same time zone - 1 1/2 hours ahead of IST. 
Siem Reap is a small airport, less rush. We got our Visa on arrival individually and it was really quick.
As our group came out, two young girls handed a lotus flower and a cotton stole to each of us - it was the welcome gift from the local guide company. How sweet! And the girls, who were assistants to the local tour guide, spoke really good English. 

We headed to the Indian restaurant 'Currywala' and enjoyed a sumptuous meal, which included Gulab Jamun - hitherto almost everywhere, we had surprisingly been served fruits for dessert. In Vietnam we had sit-down meals, here we had buffet but there was indeed a space crunch.

We then drove to our hotel 'Memoire' and checked in. 
We were to spend the next three nights there, so we were relaxed.

Cambodia gained independence from France on 9 November 1953 and has controlled Angkor Wat since that time. The site was nominated as UNESCO World Heritage in 1992.

We were to go to Angkor temple complex in three small vehicles, so that we could go to the parking lots closest to the temples. We were in bus no. 2 and we enjoyed ourselves with good humored banter and songs.

We left for Angkor Thom at 9 am. It was a 40 minute drive.
We got down at the office to get our tickets. Guess what - we were issued personalized tickets. 
We were photographed and it was printed on our tickets. Entry for Cambodians is free but for foreigners, the ticket price is 37 $ / day, 62 $ /3 days and 72$ / 7 days. Ours was a 3-day ticket (to be used within 10 days), so we had to be careful with it, as we had to show it at every temple for entry. We had to be extra careful with our pass as the penalties are severe - if you lose a one-day pass, you have to cough up 100$; the loss of a 3-day ticket will cost you 200$ and a 7-day ticket, as much as 300$. Anyway, all of us in our group were seasoned travelers.
We reached Angkor Thom, a very big tourist attraction . We were allotted over an hour to go around the place.

Angkor Thom, was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire, established in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII. It houses several monuments from earlier eras as well as those established by him and his successors. 

The walls, 8 m high and flanked by a moat, are each 3 km long, enclosing an area of 9 km². The walls are of laterite buttressed by earth, with a parapet on the top.

At the centre of the city is Jayavarman's state temple, the Bayon, the most notable temple at Angkor Thom, with the other major sites clustered around the Victory Square immediately to the north. There are gates at each of the cardinal points, 
from which roads lead to the Bayon but the temple itself has no wall or moat of its own. 
We entered from the South gate of Angkor Thom, the main entrance for tourists, walking  along the causeway spanning the moat. 
There is a row of  statues of 'devas' on the left and 
those of 'asuras' on the right, each row holding a naga in the attitude of a tug-of-war. This appears to be a reference to the myth, popular in Angkor, of the Churning of the Sea of Milk.
Angkor Thom is in the Bayon style. This manifests itself in the large scale of the construction, in the widespread use of laterite, in the face-towers at each of the entrances to the city and in the naga-carrying giant figures which accompany each of the towers.
Faces, faces on every side - there are 200 faces of Lokeswara on the upper terrace. 

The faces on the 23 m towers at the city gates, which are later additions to the main structure, take after those of the Bayon and pose the same problems of interpretation. 
They may represent the king himself, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, guardians of the empire's cardinal points, or some combination of these.
Look at the face seen through an opening!
Of course we did not miss the exotic carvings too - of devatas and apsaras. 


Another set of impressive carvings is that of war scenes.

The Baphuon is another temple here. Built in the mid-11th century, it is a three-tiered temple mountain, dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva.


The Elephant Terrace is another interesting attraction here.

The complex is so huge with several gates, that a few from our group exited from the wrong gate but managed to get spotted by our alert local guides.

We then drove to Ta Prohm temple, also built in the Bayon style, in the late 12th century during the reign of king Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. 

Originally called 'Rajavihara' (monastery of the king), it was one of the first temples built during Jayavarman's massive program of construction and public works.
 
We were happy to note that the Govt. Of India was cooperating in the conservation and restoration of this temple.

There are entrance gopuras at each of the cardinal points, although access today is now only possible from the east and west.
Bas relief on walls attracts visitors.

Interestingly the temple of Ta Prohm was used as a location in the film Tomb Raider. Although the film took visual liberties with other Angkorian temples, its scenes of Ta Prohm were quite faithful to the temple's actual appearance, and made use of its eerie qualities.
Tall trees have endless roots coiling around the ruins "more like reptiles than plants".
It is one of the most popular temples of Angkor, because it has been left in an unrestored state, swallowed by the jungle with trees overgrowing the ruins. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm is in almost the same condition in which it was found: the giant trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor's most popular temples. UNESCO included Ta Prohm on the World Heritage List in 1992. 
We felt proud to note that the conservation and restoration of Ta Prohm is a partnership project of the Archaeological Survey of India and the APSARA (Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap). 
Some of the ancient trees have huge 'hollows' that can devour you!
It is described as "one of the most imposing [temples] and the one which had best merged with the jungle, but not yet to the point of becoming a part of it". 
Nevertheless, much work has been done to stabilize the ruins, to permit access, and to maintain "this condition of apparent neglect."

As we were returning to our coaches, kids selling souvenirs and books engulfed us. They were selling 5 magnets for 2$. They spoke reasonably good English, so we asked them whether they went to school. They replied they went to school in the mornings and sold souvenirs and books on Angkor Wat / Cambodia in the latter half of the day. Our hearts went out to them - needless to add, lots of their souvenirs got sold.

It was 2.30 by the time we reached the Indian restaurant for lunch.

Our next halt was at Prasat Kravan, a small 10th-century Hindu temple consisting of five reddish brick towers on a common terrace, at Angkor, south of the artificial lake Srah Srang. The exteriors of the brick shrine do not look impressive. It took us just 20 minutes to go around this small temple. 
The sanctuary's interiors feature bas-reliefs of Vishnu and Lakshmi, flanked by devotees, carved into the walls of reddish brick. This type of sculptured artwork is rare in known Khmer monuments. 

Exhausted, we were glad to get back to our hotel and rest for half an hour. We then got ready for the exotic 'dinner n' dance' show - 'Apsara'. 

Guests were welcomed into the large hall laden with tables and chairs for dinner. The stage looked inviting.


We occupied our tables and were ready for buffet dinner. It was a huge spread and we filled our plates with little helpings of vegetarian dishes of the banquet made from Royal Khmer Cuisine. Someone discovered more vegetarian items lined at another end and informed us. So we did manage to find enough and more for ourselves. Coconut and tropical fruits and vegetables were a part of the cuisine. The non vegetarians too had an inviting spread, we were told.

We finished our dinner and the show was ready to start. Some had to turn their chairs, so they could all face the stage.
'Apsara' is the most popular form of traditional Cambodian dance, which dates back to the 7th Century. Apsaras are believed to be beautiful female creatures who came from heaven to entertain kings and gods with their dance.
The dance is slow, and hypnotizes everyone with its grace. Each of the careful hand gestures and foot movements holds its own meaning, with the elaborate costumes mirroring the majestic moves. The classical dances captivated one and all.


Interestingly the show also included folk themes,
and lasted for an hour, 
at the end of which interested spectators could go on stage and click pics with the dancers. Some of our group members 'did the honors'!

We returned to our hotel after the fantastic feast for our palates, eyes and ears.



Next day, after a hearty breakfast in our hotel, we started for Angkor Wat complex, one of the largest religious monuments in the world, on a site measuring 162.6 hectares. Breaking from the Shaiva tradition of previous kings, it was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to God Vishnu. But it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple by the end of the 12th century. 
The 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat is the masterpiece of Angkorian architecture. Constructed under the direction of the Khmer king Suryavarman II, it was to serve as the monarch's personal mausoleum and as a temple to Vishnu. Based on Dravidian architecture, it was designed as a pyramid representing the structure of the universe: the highest level at the center of the temple represented Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods, with the five towers on the highest level representing the five peaks of the mountain. The broad moat around the complex represented the oceans that surround the world. Angkor Wat, appearing on Cambodia's national flag, and a symbol and prime attraction of that country, is regarded at the zenith of the high classical style of Khmer architecture.

As we started on our tour, we noticed that the impressive moat surrounding the complex with beautiful water lilies beckoning to us  . 

We had a long walk along the bridge, as vehicles are not allowed within 1 km radius of the the complex. 

The temple is a representation of Mount Meru, the home of the gods: the central quincunx of towers symbolizes the five peaks of the mountain, and the walls and moat symbolize the surrounding mountain ranges and ocean. 

The splendor of the central tower and the four towers geometrically aligned was captivating.

The inner walls of the outer gallery bear a series of large-scale scenes mainly depicting episodes from the Hindu epics the Ramayana (Battle of Lanka) and 
the Mahabharata (Battle of Kurukshetra)
These have been described as "the greatest known linear arrangement of stone carving".

The main deity is Vishnu known as Ta Reach.
Fruits, flowers and incense sticks are the offerings.



Many of the statues have been maimed.
At some places, only the pedestals remain.

The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs, and for the numerous devatas and apsaras adorning its walls. 
Small apsara images are used as decorative motifs on pillars and walls too.


The architecture is awesome 
and vivid..

Long corridors beckoned us all along.


Each tower of Angkor Wat is fascinating, with exquisite carvings.
The view of the outer gallery looks cool.
A causeway connects the western gopura to the temple proper, 
with naga balustrades (ending with the head of a naga) and six sets of steps leading down to the city on either side. Each side also features a library with entrances at each cardinal point, in front of the third set of stairs from the entrance, and 
a pond between the library and the temple itself.

The central tower is raised above the surrounding four.
The middle tower of Angkor Wat symbolizes the sacred mountain, mount Meru.

This inner gallery, called the Bakan, is a 60 m square with axial galleries connecting each gopura with the central shrine, and subsidiary shrines located below the corner towers. The shrine itself, originally occupied by a statue of Vishnu and open on each side, was walled in when the temple was converted to Theravada Buddhism, the new walls featuring standing Buddhas.

There was a long queue to go up the central tower. 
The steep steps (representing the difficulty in ascending to heaven), the long queue and fatigue had dampened the motivation of some of our group members who decided to turn back. 
It was after a long wait of about 50 mins in the lineup that our group got a chance to go up. But the arduous experience was truly worth it - the steps were steep no doubt, but everything was safe and organized, with only 100 persons allowed at a time. 
The amazing views from all sides of the temple were more than ample compensation and worth the efforts. (Thanks to Ashwin Panchal for these photos). After the satisfying experience, our group came down and walked back hot and flushed, 


yet enthusiastic enough to click a few more fascinating pics.
The whole experience of going around the entire Angkor Wat complex took us more than 3 hours. 

What an amazing experience!


We seated ourselves at the coconut vendor's shed, and enjoyed the sweet water and flesh of the giant tender coconut - a treat from Veena World. Surprisingly it was priced at just 1$. I remembered that some had paid 5$ for a tender coconut at Hanoi airport a couple of days ago!

What was more touching was the generosity of the vendor's wife. She distributed fresh tamarind (which was more sweet than sour) to us and refused to accept money for that. Many of us also got to buy some local clothing at very reasonable rates.

We then visited a handicraft store .....

and even saw the artisans at work. A great idea - to provide airy work-space and ambiance to the artists to give shape to their creative talents!
Interesting handicrafts were also sold there but the price was forbidding!

Then we headed for the Travancore Indian restaurant and 
enjoyed a hearty Indian meal.

After this, we were told that we had free time in the evening. Someone from our group had suggested boat cruise on Tonle Sap Lake. Tonle Sap literally means large river (tonle); fresh, not salty (sap), commonly translated to 'great lake') and refers to a seasonally inundated freshwater lake, the TonlĂ© Sap Lake that is connected to the Mekong River by Tonle Sap River. Tonle Sap Lake is famous as one of the most vibrant ecosystems - it houses a great number of varied species of wildlife. In 1997, the lake was designated as a UNESCO biosphere. Our local guides managed to arrange it for 20$ per person. Almost half the group were game for it. 

We went in our bus to the jetty - an hour long drive, which we spent with songs and entertainment.

We reached the jetty and we looked for the our boat. It was a tough task getting into it as there was no proper jetty. 
But we made it and seated ourselves.
As we started cruising gently, we noticed the muddy water and the mangrove on the sides.
We also saw fisher folks and their houses in the floating fishing villages at Tonle Sap Lake. We could discern their tough life conditions and economic distress. The houses were built on stilts to avoid flooding during rains.
Through the narrow canal we cruised to Tonle Sap Lake, along with other boats, big and small. 

The lake is 250 km in length and 100 km across at its widest point, making it seem like an inland ocean. Surprisingly, it is actually shallow, with a maximum depth of only 10 meters.

After more than half an hour, we saw the floating restaurant -
Our boat got close to it and we got down one by one. I held my breath - literally - oh my goodness, where had we landed? 
'Crocodile Meat Restaurant'! We never knew we'd have to spend more than an hour at such a place, from where we were to watch the sunset. When I released my breath and inhaled again, I was relieved that the place did not stink.
Guess we were the only ones who chose to munch on our Veena World snacks tucked in our sling bags.
After some time,we took a look around the restaurant. Interesting! Fresh crocodiles!
Crocodile relics!
Even a live snake!

Nevertheless we sat ourselves on comfortable seats, 
enjoying the pleasant breeze and the boats moving around, as the majestic orange sun started setting. 
We watched fascinated, and clicked pic after pic till the golden ball dipped in the water on the horizon.

We went back to our boat and enjoyed the ride back. Once again an hour's drive and we reached the Indian restaurant, Curry n' Kebabs around 7.30 for dinner. 
Our friends from the hotel joined us shortly - some of them had relaxed while the others had gone shopping. Hmmmm.... that sent pangs of jealousy in some of us who chose to visit the night market located nearby, after dinner. We had decided to call it a day. 
I had already clicked some pics of the market during our drive and was content with that.

Next morning, we visited the nearby supermarket just to have a look ......
It was time to bid goodbye to our local tour group who had made our Cambodia segment so very memorable.

Our flight to Ho Chi Minh city was in the afternoon, so we were handed packed lunch of 'biriyani', which we were advised to consume after reaching our boarding gate. 

But during Security Check, many of us had our food packet confiscated and dumped aside. Our explanations fell on deaf ears. That left a bitter taste in our minds. Some of group members who had gone through another counter were lucky as their food packets sailed safely through the screening! May be we ought to have been more cautious ......

Anyway we had some snacks with us and of course the 'theplas', which came in handy. After the 50 minute flight, we landed in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam.