Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Awe-inspiring Cambodia


Wed, Mar 11, 2009

Awe-inspiring Cambodia

Texts and photographs by Monisha Sharma

As we drove through the Cambodian vegetation on our three-hour journey from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, listening to dulcet Cambodian melody, nothing could have prepared us for the wonders that lay ahead.

Cambodian history is as rich as it is disturbing. Mired in political turmoil, genocide and cruelties by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world today. Yet, as we entered the realm of the Angkor, we could not help but be amazed by the bygone cultural splendour that surrounded us.

It is hard to imagine, when you look at the scale and grandeur of the temples, that these were once covered with thick tropical jungles. The rediscovery of the Angkor is widely credited to French explorer Henri Mouhot and it was the French institution École Française d'Extrême Orient (EFEO) that started the restoration process in 1901.

The complex is split into four main regions:
◊ Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom
◊ Le Petit Circuit
◊ Le Grand Circuit
◊ Roluos group

Angkor is the largest pre-industrialised city spanning 400 square miles, so it would be pure foolishness to assume that you could see it all in one day! It would be ideal to either pick and choose where you would want to go, or to put aside 10 to 15 days to see the entire complex. We chose to visit Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple, Phnom Bakheng (Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom) and Ta Prohm (Le Petit Circuit).

Angkor Wat is the largest and most dominating structure in the development. Almost Aztec-like in its construction, the towers are a popular symbol of Cambodia that is found on almost all its currency notes. There are wide lobbies, libraries and dance halls contained within. Local artistes in colourful period costumes continue to perform in the halls, and you may catch a glimpse of their performances by paying a small fee.
The climb up the Angkor tower is a must for everyone. Although the stairs are high and there is a constant fear of falling, the thrill of achievement and the view of verdant lush rice paddies are well worth it!

As you wander through the expansive compound, it is easy to get lost in the age-old splendour that surrounds you. Intricately detailed stone, sculptures of Apsara's (celestial dancers), war scenes, and other depictions from the Holy Scriptures are breathtaking. You will marvel at the manpower and skill required to complete such a colossal architecture in the 9th century. That feeling of awe never leaves you in Angkor.

There are numerous temples, primarily Hindu, within the compound that are still used, as well as Buddhist monasteries that surround the region. You will repeatedly spy monks at Angkor, their bright saffron clothing directly contrasting with the cool grey stone.

As it often happens in extremely hot tropical jungles, we were hit by a sudden Cambodian rainstorm. Sprinting through the courtyards, we found ourselves at the entrance of a monk residence. In one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had, they allowed us to stay under a shelter until the storm abated and showed us where they lived. There was no furniture or bedding of any sort and a huge hall was ambiguously split up into the kitchen and sleeping area. Their only possessions were food bowls and their brightly coloured robes. We had truly been transported back in time!

The Bayon Temple, part of the Angkor Thom city, is famously known as the "smiling faces" temple. To view the silhouettes perfectly, visit this temple at noon. The shrine dedicated to Buddha is still an active worshipping point at the temple, where the statues have been covered in saffron robes and surrounded by incense. The large welcoming smiling faces are reflective of the people you will meet during your stay here. Despite their hardships, Cambodians are excellent hosts.

Phnom Bakheng, one of the most popular sunset viewing points, was the first hill top temple constructed in Angkor. It is a half hour hike but there is the alternative Elephant transportation for those not feeling up to the climb. It took us at least thirty minutes to hike up the rain-ravaged, tree root covered stairs. The temple is a representation of the mythical Mount Meru and you really do feel like you are on top of the world. Enjoy the beautiful colours of nature, whether it is the bright orange pinkish hues painted in the sky, or the emerald green foliage that surrounds the base of the hill. There is typically a huge crowd at the top but, from that vantage point, nothing can come between you and the setting sun!

Ta Prohm is absolutely unique in its disarray. It is the only temple that has not been restored. With tree trunks larger than its pillars, one is transformed into an archaeologist on the hunt a la Indian Jones. This is also where Angelina Jolie spent about 6 months shooting 'Lara Croft - Tomb Raider' and then adopted the now famous Maddox Jolie-Pitt. The combined stone and wood ruins make for some great photography, so don't forget to bring your camera!

After about two days, it is easy to be 'templed out'. Thankfully, Siem Reap offers a great variety of restaurants. Wat Bo is one that is extremely popular with backpackers. If your palate is feeling exceptionally adventurous, you may find fried beetles and grasshoppers at Siem Reap's night food market to your liking. Khmer cuisine is in itself heavily influenced by the neighbouring Vietnamese, Indian and Chinese styles of cooking. Bok L'hong and Somlar kari nom banh jok are some popular local dishes. You can also catch an Apsara dance performance that often includes a buffet spread at many hotels in the city.

If you are an avid shopper like me, head over to the Central Market. Locally produced silk ties, scarves and cushions are great take home gifts for friends and family. Local art available in the Angkor compound make for great souvenirs and also provide an avenue to support the local talent.

When we boarded the plane out of Siem Reap's international airport, we left holding two bags bursting with colourful souvenirs and a camera full of vivid pictures. More significantly, we left with unparalleled memories of destitute but ever smiling Cambodians, visions of the monks at Angkor, and an experience to recount to friends!

Monisha Sharma is a poor analyst who considers herself very lucky to have any opportunity to travel. She loves experimenting with new foods, cultures and learning more about "the world around us". Currently working in Canada - surrounded by snow and below zero temperatures, she is incredibly envious of everyone in Singapore enjoying their tropical sun-filled winter.

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