The Siem Reap airport, gateway to the architectural treasures of Cambodia, exuded a homely atmosphere. I felt as if I had landed in India’s northeastern city of Shillong, or Guwahati. The landscape with waving coconut trees and multi-hued hibiscus, and even the people — gentle and ever smiling — looked familiar.
My destination was, however, a group of Angkor monuments, including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom (with the Bayon temple in its centre), which date back to 9th century. UNESCO has recognised the site, spread over 400 sq km, as a World Heritage Site and set up programmes to conserve it.
Angkor, the word which has roots in the Sanskrit word nagara or city, abounds in temples with barely any remnants of living quarters of the people of those times. What attracted me to Siem Reap instead of the capital city Phnom Penh was the famous Angkor Wat, which the Guinness World Records lists as the largest religious structure in the world.
But during my stay here, I discovered several other wonders that are barely mentioned in travelogues. In fact, Siem Reap teems with temple cities as each king of the Khmer Empire built a new capital, often with well-developed irrigation and water-supply systems, usually dominated by either a Hindu or Buddhist temple, according to his inclination.
The city of Siem Reap, lined with several palaces, exuded an old-world charm which transported me to the gentle pace of life that must’ve existed 200 years ago.
Angkor Thom, a temple city built by the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII in 13th century, is still in the process of being restored. This was the last of the cities built by the kings. It has been featured in the Hollywood film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Engines must die
Touring the Angkor complex is in line with being eco-friendly. No motorised vehicle is allowed near the monuments. Younger tourists like to hire bicycles, while the older ones prefer to walk. I entered the main gate by crossing a moat bridge lined on either side by large stone carvings of devas and asuras having a tug of war with a serpent during the creation of the Universe — a depiction of Samudra Manthana.
After crossing the Terrace of Elephants and the Terrace of Leper King, I came to the Bayon temple at the centre of Angkor Thom. This striking monument, made of laterite with over 200 giant faces dominating the central crumbling towers, could be a representation of Mount Meru.
Nobody is sure about the identity of the faces. They could be of the builder of the new city, the Buddhist king Jayavarman VII, or bodhisatva Avalokiteshwara. All the faces, however, have a gentle smile, as if they have achieved Nirvana. The surrounding walls have bas relief carvings depicting the daily life of those times.
Having come to Cambodia, can elephants be far behind? An elephant ride to another hill where excavations were being carried out by the UNESCO rewarded me with an aerial view of Angkor and a blood-red sunset from West Baray, the largest reservoir at Angkor, the construction of which began during the reign of King Suryavarman I in the 11th century AD.
After crossing pristine green wood, I saw the imposing Angkor Wat looming over the horizon. In the light given by dawn, the gopurams looked so ethereal that it was easy to believe the legend that they were built by Indra, Lord of the Devas. The place attracts almost 2 million tourists every year.
The wat (or temple in Khmer language), built according to Vaastu Shastra, has imposing shikharas and parikramas, but differs from the texts by having its main entrance to the West. Built in early 12th century by the Khmer king Surya Varman II to Lord Vishnu, whose direction is West, the temple stands testimony to his grand vision and devotion to his favourite deity. Some archaeologists believe that it could have been planned as a final resting place for the king due to this orientation.
The bas relief gallery has scenes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana carved on the walls, and also an image of Suryavarman II, the builder of the wat. The guide who joined us passionately narrated the scenes from the epic battle of Kurukshetra, oblivious of the fact that I was a visitor from the land from where these legends originated.
Towards the end of the 12th century, he explained, in pidgin English, that the temple complex was converted into a monastery, and that the Vishnu statue had been converted into a Buddha figure in the sanctum sanctorum. I could see hundreds of apsaras on the walls, each of them sporting a different hairstyle.
Satiated by a day spent at Angkor Wat, I decided to visit the city market and explore the vibrant nightlife in Siem Reap.
As I walked down the touristy Pub Street, the place was swarming with people from all over the world. Babel of French, American twang and other European languages floated in the air drowned by loud pop music. Psychedelic lights of signboards added a distinct excitement to the place.
Lined on either side of the fairly wide street were restaurants offering global cuisine, and souvenir shops selling famed silk scarves, fridge magnets and woven baskets. There were street magicians and dancers in costumes. If you are a vegetarian, however, you may have to look more closely at the menu card, or give your own recipe for the obliging cooks.