Cambodia – the land of Angkor marvels

“Cambodia and Siem Reap” – these words conjure up images of Angkor Wat, the largest temple complex and religious monument in the whole world. ‘Angkor wat’ roughly translates to the  City of Temples (Angkor derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Nagara’ and Wat from the Sanskrit word ‘Vaat’ meaning ‘an enclosure’) and was originally constructed as a Hindu temple by King Suryavarman II of the Khmer dynasty. Unlike most other Angkor temples, this is a West-facing temple built in the early 12th century and was dedicated to Lord Vishnu till the end of the century, when it gradually and gently was converted to Theravada Buddhism.

West Facade of Angkor Wat – The Temple and its Reflection

Symbolic significance of Angkor Wat:

Today, the temple is a symbol of national pride in Cambodia and finds a central place on its flag, representing Religion (Buddhism). It is a classic example of the Khmer architecture, carved in sandstone and known for its sheer size. It is a monumental complex spread across 402 acres, and is well-known for its extensive bas reliefs portraying devatas (gods) and apasaras (heavenly nymphs) on its walls. It is also famed for the harmony and proportions of its architecture with a central sanctum sanctorum enclosed by a concentric galleries separated by courtyards in between. These galleries are interspersed with gopurams at cardinal intervals, which are nothing but elaborately carved entrances, flanked by dwarpalakas or guards on each side.

This particular style of temple architecture is symbolic of the microcosm of the universe as per Hindu beliefs. When the visitor enters the temple, he or she is required to go through the following stages:

  1. Cross the moat to enter the temple, which represents the cosmic sea
  2. Go across the enclosure walls, which represent the mountain ranges signifying the obstacles one needs to cross to attain enlightenment
  3. Reach the five towers representing the mountain residences of Gods. Out of which, the central tower represents Mount Meru, the holy abode of Gods, atop which one is supposed to attain Nirvana!

Siem Reap – gateway to the Angkor region

We landed at Siem Reap on a fine Saturday afternoon and had 4 full days to roam around and absorb what the city had to offer. The first thing that struck us when we landed was the warm and welcoming hospitality of its people. Inspite of the visible poverty around, the people are super nice and sweet. The road from the airport to our villa reminded me of how India used to be in the 90s – small shops and eateries on both sides of the road; a river canal flowing through the city, muddy side paths; crowded streets, hawkers selling their wares on carts and tourists everywhere. The nostalgia felt inviting, and true to my vibes, we found it to be a clean, tourist-friendly and happening city at any time of the day!

Siem Reap is a small city and our meals, when we were not exploring the temples, were usually at the Old Market area. The Old Market area had a great atmosphere and was buzzing with hordes of western tourists. Actually ,we visited the market on the first day itself as we had arrived without  our luggages – courtesy, Malaysian Airlines.  Nevertheless, this delay gave us a good opportunity to explore the Old Market and interact with the locals there. Bargaining happens there without us even asking for it. I was happily surprised… Some shopkeepers were sweet, others were not so sweet but our experience there reminded me of our good old Mumbai’s Crawford market 🙂

Would like to mention that Pub Street is another such happening street which is quite close to the Old Market and the Night Market. It won’t be an overstatement to call it the most lively street in entire Siem Reap. It’s full of restaurants, massage spas, bars with live bands and night clubs. The food options are really good and so are the shops selling knock offs. You get most things under $5! It’s the apt place to unwind at night by taking a foot massage  and having a warm dinner after spending the entire day wandering the temples.

Pub Street on Christmas Eve

Right here on Pub Street, we found this vendor selling fried tarantulas and other such weird local delicacies. As he hardly had any tourists buying from him, he charged us a dollar to click pictures from his cart..it had all sorts of crawling creatures that one can imagine!

Exotic local delicacies

Before we started visiting the temples, we visited the Angkor National Museum. This is  a must-do 2 hours to understand the Khmer history and its transition from Hinduism to Buddhism. The museum houses numerous artifacts including the 1000 Buddhas and many Hindu deities. Sadly, many of the artifacts are in a damaged condition (eg: We saw many headless Buddhas-  The eyes of these Buddhas, embedded with precious gems were looted by beheading these sculptures) pointing out to the untold pillage and plunder that this country underwent till as recent as 1993.

  1. Angkor Wat:

We had bought 3-day passes of Angkor Archaeological Park. One day is not enough time to witness the past grandeur of the Khmer dynasty, so it is advisable to buy the 3-day passes beforehand. We had rented a tuk-tuk and a local guide for our sightseeing and off we started with Angkor Wat. As we neared the entrance, I saw a big lake on the way to the temple. I was mistaken. It wasn’t a lake but the mighty moat that surrounded the complex.  On we proceeded and this was our first glimpse of the sprawling temple complex (pic below). I was excited!

East gate of Angkor Wat – The entrance along the enclosures

 

We crossed the gate and started walking towards the main temple.

A glimpse into history from the East Gate

It is recommended to enter from the East Gate to avoid the crowds at the West Gate.

The entire temple facade from the East Gate. The 5 towers can be seen together – 3 in the front and 2 behind

The temple inside, as I mentioned earlier, has 5 towers each housing a shrine. The galleries leading us to the towers, were carved with bas reliefs depicting numerous apsaras and devatas on them. As we crossed one enclosure, we were welcomed by another concentric enclosure. There are 3 enclosures before we reach the innermost part of the temple. Wooden stairs are installed at places to protect the structure. Here is a pic of an entrance to the enclosure:

Entrance to another enclosure

We crossed this second enclosure and reached the area where the temple towers stand tall staring down at us. Some towers were under renovation and they are closed to public on certain days to allow for cleaning and maintenance.

One of the 5 towers of Angkor wat and the richly carved enclosure wall

 

One of the 5 towers – up and close. Entry is restricted on certain days

From the third enclosure, we spotted the ancient east-west facing library where the walls have inscriptions on them. Crossing this enclosure led us towards the central and the main tower which used to house the presiding deity of the temple.

The library where inscriptions on the wall, give us good insights on the history of this temple

 

The Sanctum Sanctorum which used to house Vishnu and now Buddha

 

The gallery and the courtyard beside the sanctum sanctorum

As we move along inside the temple, we find most of the spaces quite bare and empty. Gone are the bejewelled deities and gone are the riches that once adorned these now empty nooks and corners of this temple. Most of the artifacts are looted and the remaining ones are now preserved in the Phnom Penh Musuem and the Angkor National Musuem.

Ramayana and Mahabharata epics have been carved as bas reliefs on the outermost west-facing gallery:

Ramayana portrayed through bas reliefs

We soon reached the West Gate which is usually the main entrance to the temple.The path towards the West Gate is adorned with various nagas and lions guarding the gates. Now it  also crowded with various shops selling local goods. Not to mention the weirdest of food options the local people indulge in!

This temple was once taken over by the dense forests around it. This might be the reason that it was protected during the Khmer Rouge and the genocide that this country witnessed. The treasures of these temples are long gone but what remains behind is nothing less than a marvel – a mathematical and an archaeological marvel.

 

2) Ta Prohm aka Tomb Raider Temple aka Angelina Jolie Temple 😀

The next temple we visited that day was the Ta Prohm temple. It was CRAZILY crowded on that particular afternoon! It is one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors. The reason might be because this was the location for the popular Hollywood movie Tomb Raider.  Or most probably because of the picturesque vistas this temple offers after merging with the forests around. Yes!  The trees growing out of its ruins are perhaps its most distinguishing and eerie feature at the same time.

Ta Prohm temple

This temple was constructed again by Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist monastery and university. Now the temple is in a dilapidated state. However, the conservation and restoration of Ta Prohm is jointly undertaken by our Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the APSARA (Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap).

A must-see temple on your list when you are in Siem Reap.  Not much left to see in terms of carvings but it is fascinating to see how nature is taking over this marvellous piece of art. Just try not to go before lunch time to avoid the crowds.

It was past mid-day and our guide suggested a floating Khmer restaurant for lunch nearby.  That day we had some really good local vegetarian food, seated on platforms floating in water with lotuses in them. It was a lovely and relaxing place full of tourists. The country’s food culture is definitely not to be missed, even for vegetarians like us. The options were limited but we did try the veg Amok curry served in a large coconut shell served along with rice. Amok is a thick curry made of coconut milk with vegetables added to it and is the national dish of Cambodia 🙂

3) Angkor Thom & Bayon Temple

It was around 3 pm and we were already tired  with the all the walking we had to do in the humid weather. However, we could not afford to miss Angkor Thom!  Angkor Thom or the “Great City” is a walled city in Siem Reap which used to house the royal palace, numerous official residences and temples within its boundary. It was built in almost a perfect square and covers a large area of 12km in length and breadth alike, with a moat built around it. This fortified city was built by Jayavarman VII and was the capital to a population of around 1 million. Not much is left of the City today except the enclosure walls with towers and a few noteworthy temples and monuments including the famous Bayon Temple.

Bayon temple is situated exactly in the centre of this walled city. It represents the intersection between heaven and earth in the cosmic Universe which is represented by Angkor Thom. It was the last State Temple of Angkor and was originally named Jayagiri. The name later got changed to “Banyan Temple” and now the mispronounced name of “Bayon’  is stuck with it.

The beauty of this temple lies in the fact that it appears to be a stony mass of chaos like a misfit jigsaw, towering into the sky from a distance but as we go closer, we see the serene and smiling faces carved on the 54 towers of this temple. All the 216 faces are carved on the upper part of its towers and are said to be of the King (Jayavarman VII) himself. Some also believe it to be that of Avalokiteshwara.

 

Bayon temple with the smiling face of Avalokiteshwara

The Bayon temple is a baroque gem of the Khmer empire, quite in contrast to the classical architectural marvel that is Angkor Wat. There are many such impressive architectural masterpieces strewn all over this ancient capital city of the Khmer dynasty. Banteay Srei temple, Kulen mountain, 1000 shivalingas on a river bed and many others in this temple city are worth a visit. Take your own time and leisurely wander these ancient ruins with a local guide by your side. Therein lies the true charm of visiting Siem Reap and exploring its rich and golden history.

Tips:

  1. Buy a sim card for your phone at the Siem Reap airport itself. Cell card offers good data and mobile coverage under $10.
  2. We had rented a villa through Airbnb. It was quite a comfortable accommodation with the owner arranging for all the tours and guides, including airport pick up and drop.
  3. Vegetarian food options are limited but available nonetheless. Peace Cafe  (River Road 172, Bang Don Pa) is one such vegetarian cafe which offers both local and continental food in a relaxing setting. The Cafe offers yoga and meditation classes as well for those interested.
  4. Viva Restaurant – 697 Street 09, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia: Lovely Mexican food right next to the Old Market.
  5. Dakshin’s – Old Market,Opp Siem Reap Referral Hospital, Siem Reap 0000, Cambodia: Authentic Indian snacks and thalis for those missing Indian food.

 

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