Monday, November 9, 2015

We Visited Siem Reap – Cambodia 14 Oct to 16 Oct 2015

We had been planning to visit Vietnam and Cambodia for a really long time but it didn’t happen. This October we planned to visit Kaziranga National Park, which unfortunately got cancelled at the last minute. Not wanting to stay at home during the Dussehra holidays, I started planning a trip to V and C. The weather plays an extremely important part when deciding to visit these countries. October appeared to be reasonably ok – December being the best.
Jai’s colleague from School – Sushama with her daughter Anoushka very readily agreed to join us for the trip.

The history of Cambodia is too complicated to be understood by reading a short write up from a blog. It suffices to note that at various periods of its history - India, China, Vietnam, France and Thailand have played a major role in influencing the fabric of its society.  

The Indian influence reached Cambodia through the land route via Myanmar and Thailand and over the sea. Historically, India-Cambodia relations are a product of Hindu and Buddhist religious and cultural interaction. The interactions between India on the one hand and various parts of Southeast Asia can be traced back to 4th, 5th and 6th century AD.  At various periods of their religious calendar, Cambodians embraced Hinduism, worshiping Vishnu and Shiva and at a later period - Buddhism. Their temple architecture was greatly influenced by Dravidian style of architecture.  

Siem Reap – 14 Oct

Figure 1 – Siem Reap airport – Traditional Cambodian architecture.

After a very exhausting journey from Bangalore via Kuala Lampur, we landed in Siem Reap in the afternoon. The name, ‘Siem Reap’ can be translated to mean 'Defeat of Siam', Cambodians call Thailand Siam or "Siem". The presence of various ancient temple complexes has made Siem Reap a staging post of sorts. This temple town attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world. Over a period of time the town has developed into a friendly, warm and lively get away for tourists. The town offers a heady combo of ancient history, breathtaking temple architecture on one side and lively pubs, dance and music with exotic food at the other end.

We checked into the ‘Golden Banana Boutique Hotel – Rambutan’. As usual our very dear friend Kshama helped us to plan the trip to C and V – where to stay – what to eat – places to visit et al. Big thanks, Kshama! The hotel is located in the historical centre of Siem Reap – within 5 minutes walking distance of Phsar Cho the Old market, Pub Street and the River Siem. Rambutan is a very special kind of hotel, full of old world charm. The hotel is built around a small pool with lots of tropical plants and comfortable seating. The rooms are airy, clean and spacious. More importantly the staff are extremely friendly, courteous, helpful and polite – a very welcome sign for any weary traveler. The management missed sending us a car to the airport and was very apologetic all through – one hot afternoon they gave us beer on the house to make up for it – cheers.  Food served in the hotel is very good, especially Cambodian cuisine.

Figure 2 – Jai, Sushama and Anushka at the hotel reception with Rambutan fruit lamps hanging above.

Figure 3 – The pool and the tropical setting

Figure 4 – Rooms at various levels

Figure 5 – Another view

The weather is extremely muggy and warm. It is best to venture out early in the morning, rest by the pool in the afternoon – a bit of Zzzzzzz and then head out well after sun set. On must carry enough light cottons, as you will end up changing clothes at least twice daily. Carry sun shades without fail and pick up their traditional bamboo hats.

Figure 6 - Setting sun by the River Siem

After a good rest we headed out to the old market area. The market resembles Sarojini market of New Delhi in many ways. Apart from a few knick knacks and souvenirs there is not much of shopping.

Figure 7 – The market area – very clean in spite of the crowd

Pub Street

After a bit of window shopping we entered the famous ‘Pub Street’. Having gone through all the hype about the place on the net, we expected a great deal. We were not disappointed in any way. Pub Street comes alive around 2000 hrs and it rocks into the wee hours. The street is full of pubs – each clamoring to get the patronage of the travelers. Hundreds of international travelers dressed very casually end up here to unwind with chilled beer and exotic food. Music, dance and merry making fills the air and inspires one and all to celebrate and absorb this amazing atmosphere. The peppy mood of Pub Street is contagious – nobody minds.

We had an excellent time watching the crowds go by, listening to some really good loud music, dancing and eating some excellent food. We wondered what fun it would be if Church Street, for example, were turned into a similar place to attract tourists and local Bangaloreans alike over the weekends; a no traffic zone with open air cafes on either side and people walking on the road and lovely weather. 

Figure 8 – The unforgettable “Pub Street”

Figure 9 – Pubs on Pub street, Anoushka, Sushama and Jai

Figure 10 – Angkor What? –Promoting Irresponsible drinking since 1998 J

Figure 11 – Capturing the moment – behind them is the ‘Welcome to Pub Street’ banner

15 Oct – The Temples – Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat was built by king Suryavarman II roughly between A.D. 1113 and 1150. Encompassing an area of about 500 acres, Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed. Its name means “temple city.” Originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, it was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, and statues of Buddha were added to its already rich artwork. The complex consists of a huge moat,outer wall, walk way and finally the temple.The sheer size of the temple complex is mind boggling. The sandstone blocks from which Angkor Wat was built, were quarried more than 50km away (from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen) and floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts.

The temple faces West, symbolically, it is the direction of death, which once led a large number of scholars to conclude that Angkor Wat must have existed primarily as a tomb. The debate continues to date. Angkor Wat is famous for having more than 3000 charming ‘apsaras’ (heavenly nymphs) carved into its walls. Each of them is unique, and there are 37 different hairstyles for budding stylists to check out.

It took 30 years to complete the construction. To get a better perspective of these great temples one should note that the temples of Hampi were built around AD 1336-1570.

Figure 12 – Angkor Wat from a distance with the moat 

Figure 13 – View from the inner wall – see the distance between the two

Figure 14 – The inner wall with a carving of Apsara and various other

Figure 15 – Anoushka in a very pensive mood.

Figure 16 – An attempt to capture the enormity of the temple comlex from a height.

Figure 17 – The exact centre of Angkor Wat – along with our Tuk Tuk driver – Mr Saya

Figure 18 – Photo op for Sushama and Anoushka

Figure 19 – In the glory of Angkor Reflection

Figure 20 – The long walkway connecting the temple

Tuk Tuks in Cambodia

The best way to travel in Siem Reap is by Tuk Tuk – a cousin of our own ‘Auto’. Unlike our autos, a tuk-tuk is a motorcycle with an articulated passenger trailer. It is extremely convenient to hire them for short distances – generally 2USD for a short ride and 15USD for the whole day. Four of us could fit in comfortably with Mr Saya at the helm.He also doubled up as a guide with resonably good English. We used his services for two days to move around Siem Reap. A ride on a Tuk Tuk is very comfortable,convenient and a good experience too. 

Figure 21 -  On the Tuk Tuk with Mr Saya

Ta Phrom

In the afternoon we visited Ta Phrom – yet another temple complex built around the same time as Angkor Wat. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm has been left in much the same condition in which it was found – one can easily say the temple has been swallowed by the forest. Originally it was named ‘Rajavihara’. The Archeological Survey of India has restored most parts of the temple complex, some of which have been constructed from scratch. Large portions of the temple have been closed for public viewing due to reasons of safety.

Figure 22 – A distant View

Figure 23 – Massive trees enveloping the temple structure

Figure 24 – Some more of them

Tonle Sap

After a good lunch at the Rambutan and some much required rest we headed out to see ‘Tonle Sap’. The Lake is the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia. Its dimension changes depending on the monsoon and dry season. During rainy season from June to October, the lake is filled by water flowing from the Mekong and the surface area of the lake expands to 10,000 square Kilometres. The Lake is also an important commercial resource, providing more than half of the fish consumed in Cambodia. The lake is located about 15 km south of Siem Reap town. One can do a six hour ride in a speed boat to Phnom Penh, instead of road or by air. The lake supports a large number of houses on stilts. These houses and other structures constitute the floating village - a complex habitation system with hundreds of people living in these floating villages.

The vastness of the lake is to be seen to be believed. At one point it appears like an outing into the sea from all accounts. Whilst on the boat and waiting for the sunset we were badly hit by a storm and ended up having a totally different kind of adventure.

Figure 25 – The boat ride

Figure 26 _ The floating village

 Figure 27 - With the setting sun and the approaching storm

Figure 28 – Look and feel – being at sea

Angkor Thom – 16 Oct 

Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire, was a fortified city enclosing residences of priests, officials of the palace and military, as well as buildings for administering the kingdom. A drive through the inner perimeter of the city gives a glimpse of what the city may have been hundreds of years back.

The whole day was spent lazily driving down in the Tuk Tuk to Banteay Srei temple complex and Kabal Spein. Tourists have to buy only one ticket for the entire temple complex in Siem Reap. Banteay Srei is a 10th-century Cambodian temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It is located about 24 Km from Siem Reap. The architecture is closer to Indian style and carving is better than Angkor Wat. Kabal Spein is also known as the "The River of a Thousand Lingas". One reaches the source of the river after a very tricky and arduous uphill trek.

Figure 29 – Gate way to Angkor Thom

Figure 30 – Some more temple structures

Figure 31 - typical landscape

Figure 31 A - At the reception of Banteay Srei

Figure 32 - Intricate carving at the entrance

Figure 33 - Square Lingas - unusual

Figure 34 - Temple entrace

Figure 35 - A group of temples

Figure 36 - On the way 

Figure 37 - End of trek

Last Night in Siem reap

We visited the Pub Street once again to indulge in some more Angkor and Tiger beer. Egged on by Anoushka I took to the street – literally and joined a pony tailed oldish South American and danced away – to be joined by others in merry making. Three day stay in Siem Reap came to a beautiful end. We will remember Siem Reap for a very long time.

Figure 38 – Their National Beer

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