If only Hindus knew well what lays in the ruins and living of Angkor Wat, I would not be amused if they would stake religious claims on Cambodia. Alas, religious politics cannot be kept outside of architectural heroism in Angor Wat, the eighth wonder of the modern world, present in today’s Cambodia.
Cambodia, the country which had been crippled by the rule of Pol Pot in the 1970s, and dragged into the Vietnam War due to its geographic location, presented itself to be more than landmine victims and tragedy ridden family tales. The spirit of the country is witnessed in the Angkor Wat, the largest temple in the world, which was discovered by French explorers as late as 1929.
We planned our trip to witness the enigma called Angor and made Siem Reap our base. Siem Reap is a small yet a truly international city with an international airport and a service industry sustained by the tourism aroused by Angkor Wat.
Temples of Angkor:
The massive and greatest Angkor Wat stands out against any Hindu temple you would have ever seen. Built around the Hindu fable of ‘Samudra Mathan’, the temple is among the few relics which has remained a religious site ever since it was founded. Many other temple complexes show a strong Hindu presence in the region, both Shaivites and Vashnavites, owing to the strong trade domination kings from India had over most of South East Asia at that time, including Myanmar, Southern Vietnam, Cambodia and Sumatra. The Angkor Wat Temple, architecturally oriented to the west, is designed in the form of galleries and ‘South Indian mountain style’ temples, which represents Mt Sumeru - the mountain used for the churning of the ocean of milk. The galleries exhibit carvings from Ramayana and Mahabharata, a true eye tonic for a Hindu devout.
Though the Angkor Wat temple is more enormous and the most well preserved of the lot, there are also some significant ‘not-to-be-missed’ temples in the complex. The temples in the Angkor Thom complex such as Bayon, which was built by Mahayana Budhhist king Jayawarman VII, and exhibits what looks like a mixture of Lord Buddha and the kings own image on every tower of the temple.
Other significant temples are Preah Khan and Ta Phrom. Ta Phrom, the most wild of all temples is largely been held together, or damaged, depending on the way you look at it, is a ‘jungle relic’ which tree roots holding together most of the temple walls. The Temple restoration is being taken up by the Indian Government, and the ASI is doing a tedious job in the region. While you move around the complex in your ‘tuk-tuk’ you will see several temples which you may want to stop by and see. Just make sure you do not miss the important ones.
As we had allotted a few days for Angkor, we had the opportunity of venturing out of the Angkor complex and going out of town to visit a few more relics. A tiring ride of course in the heat, trust me we were not disappointed even for a moment. Our best endeavour was to visit ‘Kabal Spean’ – which has a thousand Shivlings. The steep climb led us to the most daunting Shiva masterpiece I have ever come across. The site, in the middle of the jungle is a little stream which has thousands of shivlings on the riverbed. These are sculpted on the river bed and are said to represent the ‘sahastralingam’, mentioned in ancient Hindu texts.
After a tired day visiting the temples, the only thing you want is a generous foot massage. You find these all around the city of Siem Reap, but the best and the cheapest can be found in the Night Market of Siem Reap. A relatively small night market in comparison to those of Bangkok, the market is a good bargain if you are looking for ethnic Cambodian souvenirs or just getting a sense of the Cambodian people.
Food and Stay:
By the end of the day we were hungry and our relaxed feet could only take us a few steps ahead. At this time, it is best to walk down a few alleys into ‘Pub Street’ which is a westerner’s world in Siem Reap. The street and its pedestrian walkways host the best Cambodian food and the smooth Angkor Beer. For sea-food lovers, you will find the best of the lot for a mere $2-3 anywhere in Siem Reap. For vegetarians, you will find at least a couple of vegetarian dishes on any menu. Also, almost anywhere we went, the chef is most willing to do a vegetarian version of the food mentioned. Try as many Cambodian treats as you can – they are far spicier than most South Asian meals and suit the Indian palate. You can also feel free to eat from any place; the smallest of roadside stalls are as clean and hygienic as the big hotels. Siem Reap has an array of good hotels, both luxury and budget. On an average, hotel costs are much lower and you can expect to get a good 3-4 star hotel room for about $25-30 per night.
Everything is negotiable, from currency to visa entry. Bribes are common and immigration officers can also fool you with the amount you need to pay – so be well prepared and alert.