Cambodia: A place I didn’t want to go, but I’m glad that I did!
The jolt woke me up. The Thai airways plane I was travelling had just landed. I looked out of the window to find that I have arrived at one of the smaller international airports I have seen. I had arrived at Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and it was my honeymoon! ‘Cambodia for honeymoon?’ I remember thinking when my partner first suggested the idea. I had thought of Switzerland, Bali and even Bangkok as honeymoon destinations, but never Cambodia. In fact, I knew precious little about the country. Of course, I had read about Angkor Wat in my eighth standard text books, and growing up in Calcutta, had heard about the country in connection with the Vietnam War and Pol Pot’s atrocities. But beyond that, it was a trip to an unknown place.
As we came out of the airport, we changed $100 into the local currency: Cambodian riel. I instantly felt rich! $1 is around 4000 Cambodian riel. So I was a lakhpati with 400,000 Cambodian riel! However, most people and places use US dollars for transaction and by the end of the trip, we ran through all the USDs we were carrying, but still had a few thousand riels left!
The trip from the airport to the hotel we were going to stay in for the next two days, La Maison d’ Ambre, did not inspire great liking for the city. It was another slightly scruffy city waking up in the morning. Our driver did not talk much, but that had to do with the language barrier.
After spending the morning relaxing in the huge bath tub of the hotel with a welcome drink, we decided to explore the city in the evening. However, the receptionist told us about the plae pakaa performance that is organised every evening at Phnom Penh by Cambodia living arts. Plae pakaa is the traditional Cambodian dance drama. Khmer Rouge considered this form to be anti-revolutionary, and as a result killed many of the performers. Since the fall of the regime, Cambodia living arts have been trying to recreate the almost extinct art forms by training youth from villages in them and uniting old performers.
There are three different rotating shows. We were lucky to catch a performance of Mak Threng – a traditional yike opera which was popular in Cambodia till thirty years ago. As we bought tickets from a bunch of college student outside the national museum, we still had no clue of the treat we were in for. As the drums started a slow, soft and rhythmic chant and the vocalists joined in, the stage was illuminated to reveal six indescribably graceful Apsara dancers. With the fingers bending back at impossible angles and the head being perfectly still, for the next hour the dancers blended seamlessly with a simple story of a man going to great lengths to reclaim his love from the clutches of an evil prince. The power and the grace of the performers, whether they were performing an energetic dance with an elaborate headdress or a simple marketplace scene, was phenomenal throughout the one-and-half hour show. We came out mesmerised.
The next day we visited the royal palace in Phnom Penh and the national museum which houses a huge collection of Khmer art. The artworks beautifully trace the various traditions and influences on the Khmer culture. The museum also contains a large collection of sculptures that have been excavated from the Angkor temple complex. The evening was spent on a leisurely cruise down the Mekong river while listening to some beautiful Cambodian music.
On the third day of our trip we took a taxi to the coast city of Sihanoukville. Following a relaxing evening with my partner on the Ochheuteal beach, drinking cocktails and beer and watching fireworks illuminate the sea, we decided to take a holiday cruise the next day.
It was a day for which the phrase ‘picture perfect’ should be reserved. It was sunny, but not too hot so that I could lie on the sun-deck in my bikini, sipping a cocktail. The cruise stopped at various points for snorkeling and swimming and ultimately we visited a semi-forested island. The forests reached till the beach which was however almost blinding white. The fine sand merged seamlessly into the clearest water I have ever seen. The sea bed could be clearly seen even at the depth where the water reached my neck. It was fun to swim out into the clear sea with tiny silver and orange fishes darting around my neck.
However, everything in Cambodia is just a preface to the visit to Angkor. I knew the oft repeated “facts” about the temple city, had seen pieces of Angkor sculpture and even emptied bottles of Angkor beer. Now we were ready for the real stuff! We flew into the tenth century Khmer capital on the evening of the next day. We had the guidebooks ready and the travel plans chalked out. Choosing between hundreds of architectural wonders and exploring them in two days is no easy task. Yet this is what we had to do!
We booked a cab from the hotel started on our mission the next morning. The entry to Angkor Thom is through a gate with a four-headed Brahma looking down serenely from the top. The approach to this have reliefs of gods and asuras locked in an eternal and stony struggle for elixir.
Our temple visits started with Bayon. This twelfth century temple has 54 huge stone faces, apparently with a strong resemblance to the king Jayavarman VII, watching down on you. This gave me an eerie feeling – as if the long dead king was stonily watching my every step and tut-tuting over the desecration of this royal grandeur. That did not stop me from appreciating the powerful beauty of the towers or posing for the traditional shots next to the heads – which my partner called “head-shots”. There are also a series of breath-takingly beautiful bas-reliefs around the outer wall.
The visit to Bayon was followed by an exploration of various other structures and relics around the ancient capital of Angkor Thom, like the moken and the leper king terrace. A few other ruins, like Preah khan, Bantey Kdei and East Mebon, and lunch later, we were ready for the big boy of Cambodia – Angkor Wat.
I don’t think I can add much to the volumes that have been written on the Angkor Wat. Suffice it to say that it was the greatest, grandest and the most beautiful historical structure I have ever seen. From a distance you see the five imposing ‘peaks’ of the temple-mountain designed to represent mount Meru. As you stand outside the moat, you see the infinitely reproduced image – on t-shirts, flags and beer bottles – for real. As you walk towards the temple more intricate details come into view. As you enter the temples you are confronted with bas-reliefs of superhuman complexity and astounding beauty. The various galleries depict scenes from the Hindu epics. The individuality of the figures and the diversity of hair styles and garments seem to imply that the images reflected the prevalent dressing-styles in Angkor times. The temple gradually moved from Hindu to Therevada Buddhism. Thus, the scenes from Hindu mythology mingle with the statues of Buddha.
The Angkor Wat trip was obviously the high-point of the tiring first day and we relaxed in the hotel spa in the evening. The next day, we started on the ‘temple-tour’ with Banteay Srei, which is some distance away from the main group of temples. This temple had the most intricate decorations of all the temples we visited in Angkor. The bas relief of the apsaras would have jumped down from their plinths and started dancing if they had to become any more real!
Banteay Srei was followed by Ta Phrom of the Lara Croft fame! My partner was more interested to go here because of his fascination with the heroine. The temple has been taken over by huge trees. However beautiful stone structures peak through the stranglehold of the roots. The beauty of this place increased manifold for me because of the serene jungle setting.
After this, it was time for us to take a ride back to Phnom Penh to catch the flight back the next day. However, on the way back to the present capital we visited the Roluos group of temples. This was another abandoned capital of the Khmer regime and the temples here are slightly older though equally beautiful.
Our trip to the country I had come to love over the last week was coming to an end. I was sure that the warmth and the friendliness of the people will always stay with me Most of them couldn’t speak to us because of the language barrier but tried to communicate as best as they could. Yet, this was also the country where the signs of ravages of the Pol Pot regime still lingers. Around many temples groups of musicians played hauntingly beautiful songs. They had lost limbs in mine blast which are a legacy of the Vietnam war and are all too common. The dead during the Khmer Rouge regime are remembered in Killing fields and the prison Tuol Sleng where thousands were butchered. We consciously avoided visiting these doubtless historical sites.
Today, Cambodia negotiates a difficult modernisation path. With more tourists visiting it every year, the economy is improving and manufacturing has also picked up. However, as we flew out of Phnom Penh what we remembered were the smiling heads of Angkor.
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