Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Journey to the land of the Khmer - Jul 31 to Aug 2

If there is one thing I am grateful for with regard to my current job, it has to be the opportunities it provides to visit so many different places, meet people from different cultures and backgrounds and ah! yes taste the various local beer brews that each country throws up.

I had the chance to finally visit Cambodia earlier this month thanks to Vietnam Airlines (my current customer) who graciously offered me free tickets from Hanoi to Siem Reap on Business Class (ended up being an economy trip one way but I will not bitch about that since I was traveling OC anyway).

The airport at Siem Reap reminded me somehow of Coimbatore airport. You get off the plane and just walk across the tarmac, straight to immigration. There was the customary Swine Flu paperwork and temperature check. Visa of arrival is available for Indian passport holders and it takes about 10 mins to get done. Costs $20 for a 30 day visa. I had made arrangements to stay at the Golden Mango Inn and they had already arranged for a driver to pick me up at the airport on a tuk-tuk (a 4-stroke bike that has a carriage welded to its back). The ride to the Inn was about 30 mins and goes through paddy fields for a while before entering Siem Reap town which has a lot of French architectural influence. You also see the standard Cambodian house resting on stilts. Somehow you feel you have entered a different world. Just how different, I would see the next day.

Day 1:
I got up at 4 and my Tuk Tuk driver Mao was already waiting for me. Nice bloke who spoke a little bit of English. We headed out towards Angkor Wat which is approx a 20 min ride from the Inn. I was told that the sunrise at Angkor is worth the trouble of getting up so early. I had to shell out $40 for a 3 day pass to visit all the temples in and around Angkor Wat. A 1 day pass costs you $20 and one is required to show the pass at the entrance of all the temples. Uniformed personnel offer you the traditional Cambodian greeting (pretty much like a Thai greeting) and take a look at our pass before letting you in.

The first thing that hit me when I entered the outer premises of Angkor Wat was the immense size. Although there was not light, the shadows cast by the buildings is an inspiring scene by itself. A sizable crowd had already gathered before the main temple and people jostle (albeit gently) for a good position to get those photo shots. Seemed like a page out an Indiana Jones book. The sunrise was not spectacular as the sky was overcast but nevertheless the scene in front of you is breathtaking.

The temple walls have fantastic carvings depicting the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Churning of the Ocean and the exploits of Suryavarman II who built the temple. Angkor is dedicated to Vishnu. The temple complex is massive and the carvings are out of this world. There are no idols in the sanctum sanatorium as one would expect in a temple. There are however numerous idols of the Buddha.

I had my new Canon EOS 450D with me and I had a blast trying out some of the features that the camera had to offer.

Pic 1: Angkor Wat - Sunrise

Next stop was Bayon. The temple has numerous carved images of the Buddha and is photographers delight. Totally Indiana Jones country.

Pic 2: Bayon
By 10 am I was sweating by the bucket. The humidity must have been like 99%. I went to several other temples. Most of the temple complexes are in a state of ruin and several countries are running restoration projects on several temples.

Another fascinating temple complex is Ta Prom. This temple is famous because the tress surrounding the complex have now grown inside the temple and it is quite a sight to see.

Pic 3 and 4: Ta Prom

The heavens opened up in the afternoon as is the normal case during the monsoon season in Cambodia. The skies cleared up at about 4 PM and gave me a chance to go back to Angkor Wat and click some more photos under better light conditions.

The evening saw me hiking up to a sunset point (Bakheng Hill) , about 2 or 3 kms from Angkor Wat. I was surprised to see at least a thousand people crowded around the temple ruins jostling for a place to see the sunset. Madness! The sunset is not as spectacular as it is on say a beach or other locations but sharing space
with hundreds of people across cultures and different lands amidst ruins from a bygone era is pretty special.

Pic 6: The Rush Hour at Bakheng Hill

Pic 7: Sunset at Bakheng Hill

I headed back to town for dinner and settled down for a veggie quiche and choco mousse at The Blue Pumpkin. Pretty good. The default currency for trading in Siem Reap in the US Dollar although you can use the local currency too. I din't come across anyone using it at the restaurants. Mao, my tuk tuk driver suggested that we go to Kbal Spean and Banteay Srey the following day and finih the Grand Tour of Angkor (which is basically a set of temples at the out skirts of Siem Reap.)

Day 2:

We started off at 5 AM and went back to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise as the skies were clearer than the previous day. I spent 25 mins taking more photographs and we then proceeded to Kbal Spean which is located about 45 kms outside Siem Reap. We stopped at Banteay Srey, a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva first. I was completely blown away by the carvings at this temple site. I have never seen such intricate carvings in my life.

Pic 8: Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Pic 9: Banteay Srey

Kbal Spean is located at the Kulan Hills
25 km from the main Angkor group. It is commonly known as the valley of a 1000 Lingas.It consists of a series of stone carvings in and around the Stung Kbal Spean river. There are rock carvings of Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. It stream is a good 1.5 km climb from the base and takes you about 40 mins to reach. Taking a hand towel is always a good idea and of course lots of water. I highly recommend having coconut water that is available in the small shops at the foot of the hill. They are totally refreshing.

Pic 10: Lingas at Kbal Spean

I then went downstream to a small waterfall which provided me another chance to play around with the EOS 450D. Some of the photos came out very well if I say so myself.

Pic 11: Waterfall at Kbal Spean

I managed to have some breakfast at Kbal Spean (old bread with some cheese..sot be $4!) and we headed back towards Siem Reap. Saw several more temple ruins and somehow I could never get enough of it. I was totally captivated by the place.

Cambodia is still living in a world that we passed a few decades ago. The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge are still visible when you visit the temples. Bands of musicians play peacefully at the entrance of most temples. All of them have been handicapped in one way or the other by the deadly mines that still dot the country side. Poverty is rampant and I could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of sadness and sympathy for the hundreds of children who are forced to sustain their families by selling souvenirs to tourists. The inequalities between the haves and have nots in this world is beyond repair. You can only be humbled and feel grateful for having a life that 80% of the planet cannot afford. Subtle are the ways in which god reminds you of how kind he has been to you.

More information on the temples of Angkor are available on Wikipedia and here

More photographs from my trip are available

Other Tips:

For the budget traveler visting Siem Reap, I highly recommend the Golden Mango Inn. A single deluxe room with AC costs $13 a night and the rooms are clean and very well maintained. The service is excellent too.

The bar street at Siem Reap has numerous restaurants catering to all types of cuisine. There are a couple of Indian restaurants too. Slightly pricey though.

International departure tax if $25 is levied when you leave Siem Reap. Only US Dollars are accepted at the airport so make sure you have enough change when you leave.

A tuk-tuk ride on the small circuit (covering Angkor Wat and surroundings) for a day costs about $12. Add $3 if you want to go see the sunrise.

A day trip to Kbal Spean and the grand tour will cost you $25-$30. Water costs about $1 a bottle.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

too fundoo - dood!