Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Travel blog - Volume 1 - Cambodia memories

Recently someone asked me about my trip to Siem Reap. So I decided to look up my writings and locate them in one place. So here goes:

We flew in from Singapore into this gem of a town called Siem Reap. This holiest of holy cities, with lush green vegetation, including the tallest teak trees I have ever seen is home to the most magnificent temple architecture known to human kind. This gentle land with its doe eyed beautiful people is predominantly agricultural and is only now recovering from the carnage of the Killing Fields which took place between 1975 and 1979, when the Khmer Rouge took the lives of 3 million of its cultural elite. During this time, monuments and rare archival documents were destroyed forever making the task of heritage site restoration even more difficult.

We stayed at a beautiful French boutique hotel with verandahs overlooking greenery and the pool, and a scrumptious breakfast spread complete with french croissants, melon jam, delicious chocolate and banana cake (decadent indeed!), fresh tropical fruit and juices, beverages and freshly baked bread. The dollar goes a long way and a nice meal with wine and spirits sets one back only about $7. So we did it all. Massages everyday, high tea at the Raffles Hotel, out on the town in Pub Street every night, the Night Market and Old Market to shop to our heart's content.

By day, we visited the temples and the ancient monuments both Hindu and Buddhist. Hinduism was the reigning religion for about 700 years between 800 and 1500 AD and the priests at the King's palace, to this day, trace their origins back to Tanjore, India. After Hinduism came Buddhism, which flourishes to this day.

At 5 a.m., the day after we landed, we caught the sunrise at the Angkor Wat, a magnificent Vishnu Temple based on Cambodian and South Indian temple architecture. The same evening we caught the sunset at the Bakheng Mountain Shiva Temple. The next day we took the pilgrimage up to Kbal Sbean and drank from the holy spring that emanates from what the Campucheans believe is the mythical "Mount Meru". This holy place has the trinity, with a thousand lingas carved in stone on top of a hill 1500 metres high, has Vishnu in repose and Brahma seated on a Lotus. The water flows over this holy trinity into a rectangular pool also dating back a thousand years, as those rock carvings. I drank this water, considered no less holy than that of the Ganges and paid homage to the dancing Shiva in a place considered as sacred as Mount Kailas. The trek up was challenging over small and large boulders, several of which were quite steep and slippery. The climb down was a breeze. Shaded from the sun and flanked by tall tropical jungle this trek was the closest I had come to nature in a very long time. Our guide informed me that tigers and other wild animals in this jungle had fallen prey to the Khmer Rouge. He pointed to the places where these soldiers had sought refuge even as they had carried out their carnage. The trinity on the hill had borne silent witness to their violent acts.

After Kbal Sbean and wonderful cold coffee at the base of the hill, we visited the Crown Jewel of the temples we had seen in this trip, Bantey Krei. A Shiva temple in shades of pink and yellow, it still bears the most exquisite carvings of Shiva and Parvathy and stories from the Ramyana and Mahabharatha epics, rivalling those at the Angkor Wat. Built by a Brahmin, not a reigning monarch as with the other temples, and even older than the Angkor Wat, this has a sophisticated structure with rest-houses and a meditation hall, flanking the altars of Shiva and his consort Parvathy. At the entrance, there is a dismembered bull, the remnant of a Nandi.

Besides the magnificent temples, the Angkor Tham, the beautiful temple town with its 4 magnificient gateways leading into what must have been a thriving cultural centre, I was moved by the many monasteries, the orange clad monks who stand patiently outside homes waiting for their daily bhiksha and the rural poor and the simplicity of their lives. We went everywhere by Tuk tuk and passed through villages where people lived in homes on stilts built with wood or mud and coconut palm, with no electricity or running water. We stopped to watch the village folk process cane sugar in huge basins on firewood stoves. In these villages children run about scantily clad, dirty and malnourished and people peddle wares including bare essentials in food and drink, firewood, handmade bamboo and cane products and even gasoline in bottles or cans for tuk tuks and scooters. A simple sustainable life off the land and its bounty.

Siem Reap is sleepy, hot, muggy and lush. The City takes great pride in its World Heritage Sites and so it is easy to navigate, very safe and clean. The children who peddle wares outside each of these sites, evoke one's sympathy and are the only real sign that this is a tourist destination. The economic downturn worldwide has had its impact on the flow of tourists and so there were no crowds or waits or line ups anywhere. I urge everyone to make the trip..!

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