“You India? You buy Indian god. One dollaaaah!”

I turned to tick off the tiny tots tugging at my trousers. The grubby little girls were displaying their wares – small metal idols of an elephant headed Ganesh striking an infant Krishna pose! At Siem Reap in Cambodia, the site of the Angkor Wat, the US dollar is the preferred currency and the Cambodian riel is universally scorned. India is held in high esteem though Hinduism and the names of the gods have long been forgotten.

Marching armies

Marching armies

Apsaras

Apsaras

Not all bonds have been severed though. Khmer classical dances still enact the Ramayana. Bokator grandmasters greet visitors with a namaste. Bon Om Tuuk, the rowing carnival, reminds us of Kerala’s snake-boat races. Cock-fighting is commonplace. And the Cambodian New Year occurs on 13th or 14th April just as in southern India. Trade relations with India existed from the 4th century B.C. and Indian influences persisted for two millennia. Sanskrit and Indian sacred texts were used. Today 95% of the people are Buddhists.

The Angkor, the biggest religious complex on Earth comprising hundreds of meticulously sculpted temples deserves to be acknowledged as the eighth wonder of the world. Angkor was the medieval world’s largest metropolis sprawling over a thousand square kilometers and housing nearly a million inhabitants. Obscured by jungles for centuries, the massive faces on the gopuras and the steep vertigo-inducing steps evoke a strange mixture of despondency and awe. In many a temple the towering trees have driven their roots so deep into the stone recesses that to disturb them would spell the doom of the temple itself.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom

Kampuchea, the local name of Cambodia, derives from the Sanskrit ‘Kambuja’ meaning ‘land of prosperity’. Ironically, this constitutional monarchy is characterized by lawlessness, human rights abuses, child labour, sex slavery, corruption and chaos. Landmines are everywhere. In the seventies the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot perpetrated a horrifying genocide, emptying the cities and driving people into the countryside.

Tuktuk refulelling

Tuktuk refulelling

Tuktuk travel was a hair-raising experience. Petrol sold on the roadside in Black Label bottles! Cars without registration numbers, reportedly smuggled in from Thailand. OMG! That was years ago. I wonder if anything has changed.

Cambodia was ruled by the Funan and Chenla kings during the first millennium. The Khmer empire which commenced in 802 with Jayavarman II proclaiming himself Devaraja, flourished for 600 years until Angkor fell to Siamese conquerors in 1431. The Khmer kings later built Phnom Penh, the present capital.

In the Phnom Kulen Hills at the headwaters of the Siem Reap River lies an amazing underwater shrine with hundreds of lingams engraved in the sandstone river bed. The earliest Angkor temples were built in the 10th century and include Banteay Srei (women’s citadel). The last temple was consecrated in 1295. Baphuon was a Shiva temple, the reclining Buddha being added centuries later.

The Angkor Wat built by Suryavarman II in the 12th century was originally dedicated to Lord Vishnu and is surrounded by a moat of stupendous dimensions. Stories from Hindu mythology appear in bas relief friezes depicting celestial dancers, marching armies, market scenes, cock-fights, wild boar fights, games and gambling, and even childbirth. The king’s face appears on the friezes. So do the battles of Lanka and Kurukshetra. Mysteriously abandoned in 1432, Angkor was enveloped by the jungle for centuries. Angkor Wat, however, was preserved by Buddhist monks till this day. Other temples were painstakingly resurrected in the 20th century. Remote sensing using Lidar technology recently revealed complex networks of canals and reservoirs, lavish boulevards and imposing structures. The 8 kilometre long West Baray is the largest hand dug reservoir on earth.

The assets of the temples, recorded on stone slabs, speak volumes about the social system and the way of life. Donations to the 9th century Preah Koh included little children. The 12th century Ta Prohm complex had 12640 residents including 615 dancers and 13 high priests.

Jayavarman VII was responsible for introducing Buddhism. A prolific builder, he created Angkor Thom overlapping parts of the old capital of Yasodharapura. Preah Khan built in 1181 had 60 tons of gold inlays. Bayon is a Buddhist complex with gigantic faces on the gopuras representing the king as bodhisattva avalokitesvara.

Face of Jayavarman II?

Face of Jayavarman VII?

Tonle Sap Lake

Tonle Sap Lake

The massive Tonle Sap Lake with its floating markets, stilted huts and 850 varieties of fish sustains vast sections of the population. Supermarkets in Siem Reap sport exotic wine bottles with snakes pickled inside. Ughh!

Floating Church

Floating Church

Floating market

Floating market

Child Life

Child Life

How to go there: Just fly to Siem Reap via Singapore. That’s what most tourists do. Give yourself at least three days to see the Angkor Wat complex. A boat ride on the Tonle Sap lake will be a learning experience. The people are poor, friendly and helpful. You can easily manage on your own – without travel agencies and tour operators. Speak to the locals, negotiate, strike deals. Never mind if you lose some money – they need it more than you. Fly to the capital Phnom Penh if you have more time. Road travel can be tough.

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1 Comment
  1. Neha 2 years ago

    Great informative post !! I am planning to visit Cambodia next week and your post will be of great help to plan my trip. Thanks for sharing !!

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