It all began some time in December, when the Power That Be’s and I decided that March would be a good time to visit Cambodia. We were thinking of a four day trip, leaving Hong Kong early on a Thursday morning and flying back in on a Sunday night. Given the short distances, we estimated that this would give us almost four full days in Cambodia.
The plan gathered momentum when, during my visit to New York in January, I broached the topic to a person who is my Friend, Philosopher, and Guide. It turned out FPG was also very keen on visiting Cambodia, since her previous plan to visit in 2002 had been scuppered by the onset of SARS (the Zeigarnik effect
, again). Of course, this meant that FPG would have to visit HK as well—a contingency ably covered by my research budget. All looked good.
The plan gathered hiccups when we realized that there were no direct flights between Hong Kong and Siem Reap (the closest airport to the Angkor Wat). Rather, there was a direct flight from Siem Reap to Hong Kong, but not the other way, and that too, only on certain days of the week. So we had to look around for other, indirect, means of getting there and back again, and this job wasn’t really helped by the fact that most of the airlines that do this circuit don’t seem to have functioning websites. Anyway, we finally fixed on a plan. FPG to arrive in HK on Thursday night. The three of us to leave for Siem Reap via Bangkok on Friday morning. Retrace steps Tuesday. Cost: a five hour layover on the return leg. FPG rationalized it by saying we’d work at the airport, of course. Just like we had worked over 10 am glasses of wine in Paris cafes in 2001.
FPG’s flight into Hong Kong – reliable old Continental – was delayed by two hours. She reached home at 11 pm. Our cab the next morning was due at 5. We shook jaw for a bit, then retired for a brief night—she and I both wielding throat infections. I’d seen the doctor for mine and he’d given me painkillers and anti-inflammatories, and antibiotics to not use unless in dire need.Friday
The alarm clocks did not let us down. 6 am we were at the airport. They offered to check our bags in, but we said we’d carry them on since our stopover was very short. They said we’d have to get boarding passes for the second leg in Bangkok anyway. A new outlet at the food court contained two bright sparks who didn’t quite know how to serve coffee. The flight to Bangkok was uneventful, except for my realization that flying with two vegetarians can lead to a surplus of chicken sausages on ones plate. Always a new experience.
At Bangkok airport, we looked for the counter for our connecting flight, Bangkok Airlines. Styled as “Asia’s Boutique Airline”, we finally located it flaunting a sign that said CLOSED, with a bob of black hair behind the sign giving it the lie. We scored our boarding passes and made tracks for a currency exchange counter. We found one. They did not stock Cambodian Rials. We found another one. They were closed. We headed to the gate.
Asia’s Boutique Airline was over an hour late to take off, on this occasion. When we finally saw some action, it consisted of us being herded through a departure gate onto a bus, and thence planeside. Stepping off the bus into bright blinding sunshine, more than one passenger was befuddled by the sight of the plane—labeled DRUK AIRWAYS in bright orange. Were we en route to Bhutan, perchance? Every other person who ascended the steps took care to ask the attendant at the top—and her head almost fell off with the nodding and the smiling.
The big bright side of the flight was despite its short duration, about 45 minutes, there was a full meal service (but with no meal choices). My selection of traveling companions again ensured I landed up with over a dozen tasty pieces of duck
. A late but filling lunch—albeit only for me.
We arrived at the pretty Siem Reap airport, tripping down the steps and into a charming single-storey structure with canals flowing around. Immigration was a breeze, and on the way out we spotted the currency exchange counter. One US dollar translated to 3800 rials at this place. The ladies suggested changing all our dollars into rials, rather than having to hunt around for banks in the city. A Rough Guide we had, dating from 2005, said there were no ATMs in the city. (The Bangkok Airlines inflight magazine had debunked this claim.) Either way, we went to change a couple of hundred dollars—I ducked out the moment the smiling lady behind the counter started telling us we were getting a million plus rials. Later, a Siem Reap bartender (more about him anon) told us a joke about a welcome sign at Djakarta airport: “Welcome to Indonesia, where everyone is a millionaire.”
We took a prepaid taxi to our hotel. The driver tried to convince us to book him for our rounds of the temples the following day. His argument was that hotels always recommend their affiliated drivers. He said it as if it were a bad thing, but the rate he quoted was just the same as theirs. I felt sorry for the guy but I took his card nevertheless.
The approach road to Siem Reap town was littered with recently-constructed monstrosities.
All of them were hotels. In sharp contrast, our hotel, which FPG had had her eyes on back in 2003, was absolutely charming. It was laid out like an idealized little Cambodian village, with each room a little hut. The rooms had wooden planks for floors and walls, and simple wooden furnishings. It was all full of character.
We had a quick lunch, rather, the vegetarians did, and FPG then retired to sleep off her jet lag for a bit. TPB and I, in a first act of indulgence, booked ourselves massages. A van shipped us uptown to the hotel’s resort branch, which has a spa attached. They made us fill out a couple of forms, querying us on our preferences for oil and tea, and any diseases we may be carrying. I wrote SORE THROAT and BACKACHE. Full disclosure.
We were escorted to a double room by a couple of young masseuses. Fortunately or otherwise, TPB got the cute one. However, that didn’t really matter, since my eyes were shut the moment the massage started. I wouldn’t say the aches all just melted away, or I was cured as if by magic, but it felt really, really great. Somewhere along the line, I fell asleep. TPB claims I snored. All I know is that the masseuses giggled to themselves after they left the room.
It was after 7 by the time we returned to our hotel. FPG was awake, having slept for a refreshing three hours. We decided to head out for dinner to the Psar Chas (Old Market) area—known as the local hot spot. A common friend had recommended the Khmer Kitchen on Pub Street. Said eatery was located without any trouble (except for an extensive detour through an arty-farty store across the street, but hey, that’s democracy). We enjoyed a subtle dinner featuring three types of Cambodian food. The bor-bor was good, even if vegetarian, and I really enjoyed my subtle amok fish curry. The local beer wasn’t so bad, either.Saturday
The 6:30 wake up call came at 7, but we were well in time for our 8 am car. We had also hired a guide for the day. Mr. Thim Sothea was a quiet, pleasant person, whose only failing was in his seeming impatience to walk from one point on his itinerary to the next. On entrance, we had to stop to buy 3-day passes. They need a passport photo, but are kind enough to shoot them on the spot, free of charge. The only drawback is if there’s a long line of people waiting to get photographed – the wait can get quite painful, I imagine. As it happened, our relative tardiness meant that we had to suffer no waiting time at all. Instead, we were hit with a rude shock regarding the exchange rate. You pay 40 US$ if you pay in US$; the exchange rate is 4200 if you want to pay in rials. We lost a straight twelve dollars in transaction there itself. In general, we discovered that dollars are accepted everywhere in Cambodia—rials are used mainly as change. And most people will give you 4000 rials for a dollar. So you lose money if you use the national currency. That was a learning experience.
Once inside, Mr. Sothea took us first to Angkor Thom—the massive complex right next to Angkor Wat. (There are several temples in the Angkor Wat area, ranging in vintage from ~800 AD to ~1200 AD, which is when temple-building reached its peak with the Angkor Wat.) There we had our first glimpse of (a) the hordes of tourists, (b) the hordes of people trying to sell you stuff, and (c) the absolutely incredible carvings and architecture.
Right through our visit, at almost every single place we visited, we were accosted by little children chanting “Sir! One daa-lah!” and carrying kramars (scarves), flutes, books, postcards, and a range of other memorabilia. The poverty there was heart-breaking anyway, and to add to that some of the kids were heart-breakingly pretty (such as this one we met at Kbal Spean). Others were heart-breakingly charming. "Please buy something, sir! Good for you, good for me." One chased me, asking: “Where are you from, sir?” I said, “Hong Kong.” “What is the capital, sir?” “Also Hong Kong!” “Hong Kong capital of Hong Kong!” The kid broke off from the chase to giggle about this new discovery to himself.
We spent a few hours walking around the Angkor Thom area—-taking in the magnificent Bayon temple with its iconic faces, the royal palace, the Terrace of the Elephants, and the statue of the Leper King. We had our first exposure to the disaster that was Cambodia’s recent history, as en route to the royal palace we walked past a field that was strewn with ancient building blocks. I asked the guide why these were just lying around. He said that a French team had been renovating the Baphuon temple structure when they were expelled by the Khmer Rouge. Each block had been catalogued by the team, and its location recorded. However, the Khmer Rouge had destroyed all records. And so all that’s left today is a field full of ancient stones.
A tiny smidgen of the disaster, but that’s how it started coming home to me.
In other places it was clear to see how statues had been left standing, surgically decapitated. And everywhere, there were people without legs.
Around noon, we headed back into town, to Les Artisans d’Angkor – a school dedicated to preserving the ancient arts, in other words, to making replicas of old stuff. We took a brief tour of the workshops, where the local guide paused in front of a sculpture of an apsara and asked us if we could dance Bollywood style. (After two drinks, said I, to much approval.) FPG and TPB then spent a half hour at the shop. To my intense surprise I found a Khmer-jazz fusion CD. It’s good.
We then headed to the FCC – Foreign Correspondents’ Club – for lunch. Also recommended by a friend, this one had a great ambience, with wide open balconies, broad cane chairs, and slow swirling ceiling fans. My lunch was great but the vegetarians again complained. The highlight of this meal came when we asked whether we could move to the adjacent lounge for coffee. This lounge had big stuffed leather armchairs that looked very inviting. Moreover, it was empty. However, to our bemusement, the staff didn’t let us. “The lounge is reserved,” they said. So we had our coffee on the balcony where we were.
After lunch it was back to the temples—-this time, to Angkor Wat.
We headed in past the outer moat, where, just off to the right of the main gate, is a chamber with a statue of Lord Vishnu. You go inside past this statue and get your first untrammeled view of Angkor Wat. Our guide took us round the back of the Vishnu hutlet, to a broad ledge running from the back of the enclosure towards the main walkway. “You watch sunrise here tomorrow,” he said. We thanked him for the pointer and walked on. Sunrise is great here, he said, since unlike most of the other temples in the area, this structure faces west. So the sun rises from just behind it.
On the other, northern, side of the walkway approaching Angkor Wat, a little further along, there’s a little pool.
This is a key sunset spot, since it’s here that one can capture the beautiful reflections as the monument changes color as the light drops. We skirted this pool and entered the structure from the north-western corner. The Angkor Wat consists of three levels, the first of which has galleries on all four sides. The first gallery we saw, the western one, contains bas reliefs in incredible detail of the Ramayana on the northern side, and the Mahabharata war on the southern side. Going round the corner is heaven, earth, and hell, with a delightful depiction of evildoers being pushed through a trapdoor into hell, under the watchful eye of Yama. The next set contains a massive depiction of the gods and demons churning the ocean of milk—-a theme one sees on reliefs and statues in many places, such as flanking the approach gates to the Angkor Thom.
After one finishes the circuit, one climbs to the higher levels. The ascent to the third level is really quite steep, and all four limbs are required to make it up. (The idea being that you can't just saunter up to God.) It was a little unpleasant up there, however, since by the time we reached it was close to closing time and there were huge crowds jostling each other to get back down. I don’t mention the beautiful carvings. They are everywhere, and words cannot do them justice.
Once back down, we made tracks for the pond with the reflections. Got some great shots. And that was the day.
We had dinner at a restaurant called Chivit Thai in the northern part of town. The food wasn’t bad but the place was absolutely empty—-a very sharp contrast to the bustling Psar Chas area we’d been at the previous night. We resolved to stay downtown for dinner.Sunday
The plan was for a 5 am car to take us to Angkor Wat for sunrise. (No guide any more -- too unhip.) The wake-up call never came. FPG found the front desk napping on the front couch and woke him up and made him call the driver. Turned out to be the driver’s wake-up call. By the time he showed up it was 5:30, and everyone was anxiously looking at the sky, hoping day didn’t break.
It was still dark by the time we reached Angkor Wat and felt our way to the ledge our guide had shown us the previous day. A few people were already there, hushed as the light slowly broke. More people arrived steadily—-the ubiquitous Korean and Japanese tour groups laughing and chattering loudly to each other, shattering the sanctity of the moment. As it brightened, we looked at each other. There was light, but no sun. Too cloudy? Annoyed by the crowds and the noise, all three of us decided that that was it. We got up and started walking out.
Somewhere on the last stretch while crossing the big moat outside, two people raced madly past us heading inside. We turned to look, and saw a big red sun floating just above the temple wall. Instantly, I sprinted in the opposite direction and was rewarded with several beautiful shots of the sun reflected in the moat, hanging next to the Angkor Wat, with barely a soul in sight. Everyone was inside the complex. Serendipity.
We had a quick breakfast of omelettes and baguettes at a shack across the road,
where we learned Khmer for thank you (“orkun!”). We then drove to Ta Prohm. This was my absolute favorite of a mind-blowing set of temples. This temple consists of a basic structure like many of the others, over-run by the hugest of trees. When we walked in, there was no one there—just us three, the eerily beautiful ruins, the enormous trees with roots twining over and around the stone structures ("attacking" the temple, as our guide had described it), and the shrill screeches of a thousand parrots. The spookiest, most characterful place I have ever been. What more can I say?
The spell was broken by the sound of TPB’s astonished voice. “You did *that*? That wasn’t very smart of you, was it?” I turned to look—-a young Korean idiot had detached himself from his tour group and gone round the corner for a smoke... and stubbed his cigarette out on a carving on the temple wall.
Walking out of Ta Prohm we heard some sweet music that grew louder as we walked away. There was a group of five musicians sitting and playing on traditional Khmer instruments by the side of the exit path. Drawing closer, we saw the sign in front of them – they were all land mine victims. I got TPB to drop a note into their bucket. Later on, I found a CD recorded by them, and also one recorded by a similar group who sat outside another temple. That one, which I bought, says on the front cover, “Khmer Traditional Music. A group of the cripple musians at the east Prasat Preah Khan. Buy one CD of the cripple is that you have supported the cripple musians projested in Cambodia.” The music was good enough to buy – it wasn’t just the guilt. I shot a little video as well.
The next stop was the aforementioned Preah Khan.
No Bollywood starlet this – far older and prettier by far as well. Preah Khan in Khmer means Sacred Sword – dig that. This temple complex is like a companion to Ta Prohm, but much larger, and without the trees. Its distinctive characteristic is the number of doorways and open passages, long unending corridors offering infinite possibilities for shots with framing and perspective. I narrowly missed taking a classic picture of a Caucasian woman wearing a Rolling Stones t-shirt with the iconic lips and tongue emblem... walking past a lingam.
From Preah Khan we drove twenty kilometers northwards away from the temple complexes to Kbal Spean. This place features a 45 minute hike to a stream and waterfall with a thousand (or so) lingams carved on the river bed. Don’t ask me why. It was quite an experience to see dignified-looking old French people walking around pointing and shouting, “Lingam! Yoni!” We trudged the 45 minutes back and had lunch at one of the restaurant shacks next to the parking lot, actually, the last one. At the recommendation of our driver.
We then drove to the Banteay Srei temple (different because of its beautiful pink sandstone, and incredibly deep carvings), which lent itself to the appellation Bantasri (and thence, Santasri).
We encountered three arty looking Bengalis standing in the midday heat. They were standing around wielding fancy cameras, and saying, “I wonder where the South Library is.” I turned around and pointed to a building ten yards away, and said (also in Bong), “There it is. That’s the South Library, and the one facing it is the North Library.” The guy looked at me as if I were a ghost or something. Maybe he’d been looking for matching libraries all his life. “You’re Bengali?!” “Yes.” Well, maybe not.
A few words here about our intellectual looking yet recalcitrant driver. He claimed to be a guide (“my uniform is in the trunk”) but never answered any of our questions at any great length. Indeed, his responses never really went beyond the “this tempole, Ta Prohm tempole” level. The only two times he opened out were first when recommending that restaurant (which actually turned out to be very good, and the lady was very nice – she even gave us a bunch of bananas to take home), and the second time on the drive back to Siem Reap from Kbal Spean, when he started offering us his services for the following day. I tried to fob him off by saying that we might not take a car the next day, just a tuk-tuk (a carriage yoked to a motorcycle); he replied by offering the services of his brother, whose English he claimed was good but not as good as his. He then gave me his card. His name according to the card was Madonna Hun. I silently passed the card to the back seat. TPB, voice all a-quaver, piped up: “Is this *your* name? Or your... brother’s?”)
Mr. Hun dropped us back to Siem Reap. As per our plan, all three of us repaired to the spa in a bit. A minor sideshow en route. The van that was supposed to take us from ‘our’ hotel to the spa was delayed. The guy at the front desk was apologetic. FPG suggested we simply take a tuk-tuk instead. His response was one I’ve never seen at a hotel before. “No.”
We had to wait till the van got there.
Not wanting the repeat the massage from two days ago (variety-seeking, more than anything else), I found myself having been talked into my first-ever facial. TPB got her laughs for the decade when she broke off conversation at one point to innocently remind me to not scream too loudly if anything hurt. She’s pasted my face with mud once (when I was barely twenty, and a friend walked in to the house just then), and my nose with white gunk, so I’m pretty jumpy when it comes to these things. I can’t say I wasn’t apprehensive about my facial.
Turned out we were in the same room again. However, this time I was assigned to the pretty masseuse (who I guessed also did facials). TPB was assigned to a hefty young weight-lifter type—-who was later found to possess the girliest of giggles.
I was made to lie down on the same bed as before. A sushi plate was placed next to the bed, containing something that looked like wasabi, something that looked like green ginger, and three types of white gunk. I was then made to close my eyes as various things were rubbed into and onto my face, throat, shoulders, and arms (for a facial?). I made sure I didn’t snore this time. But it was hard. After the shortest eternity ever, I heard the masseuse’s voice. “Sir?” “Yes?”
I didn’t know what she was talking about. I said, again, “Sorry?” She repeated herself a few times in tones of increasing desperation, then pulled my arm out from under the sheet and pressed my hand to my face. I opened my eyes and looked over at TPB. “She’s saying you’re looking beautiful.” “Yayyys! Yayyyys! Beeyuttifool!”
I staggered over to the mirror. I could see no difference. TPB claimed my face was glowing. On our way out, we passed the two girls. “Thank you!” they said. “Orkun!” I replied, full of manly charm. They collapsed in giggles. We sat and drank our complimentary flavored tea. FPG had emerged from her massage, herself glowing in no small measure. On our way out, the girls again smiled and waved goodbye. “Beautiful!” I said, sealing my place in their hearts. (Or so I hoped.)
Dinner was back at the Psar Chas, at this Vietnamese joint called the Soup Dragon. Everyone seemed to be ordering hotpots, so maybe that was the way to go. We just had normal food. The “Cambodian” green mango salad looked very similar on the menu to the “Vietnamese” green mango salad. When I ordered it, the waitress said, "One mango salad." Either way, it wasn’t bad.Monday
Monday morning we headed south on a tuk-tuk (owner: Mr. Sophat) towards Tonle Sap.
This is the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and contains a ‘floating village’ – bunches of boats with people living on them. While the ride was very interesting, and picturesque at times, unfortunately much of what we saw at the lake was pretty commercialized. Our boat docked at a little curio stand, and again, other boats flocked round with merchandize. Cutest, saddest, most bitter-sweet of these was the boy in the bubble—-floating along in a little aluminum basin, trying to hawk bananas.
Back in town, we stopped by the House of Peace Institution, which makes and sells traditional leather puppets.
I wandered around outside, looking at monks hanging out. Then we had lunch in Psar Chas, at the Red Piano. Good stuff. We then slept off the hot afternoon hours at the hotel before heading back for one last stab at the temples—-the ten minute walk up the hill to Phnom Bakheng, scrambling up to the top of this 1100 year old structure for glorious views of the sunset to the west and Angkor Wat to the east. Right among the madding crowds.
We signed off the four wonderful days with a drink and a bit at the Angkor What? bar in Psar Chas. Sitting outside watching the nightlife build up, we saw a big-set dude with a handlebar moustache ride up in a motorcycle. The waiters jumped forward to help him off, and he swaggered into the bar like he owned it. Ten minutes later, he sauntered out to our table and asked in a thick Scots accent where we’re from. We gave him the easy answer – India. Turned out he was from India too. Bombay. Mazagaon. He almost blushed with happiness when I said “docks”. His father was Tamil and mother Portuguese. He lived and worked in Scotland for a dozen years. Came to Siem Reap for three days three years ago and never left. “How long have you been here,” he asked. “Four days,” we said. “So far.”
We asked him to recommend a restaurant. He told us about “Tell” – a joint we’d not seen mention of in any of the guide books. It was south-west of Psar Chas, and he was right—-it was the best meal we had in Cambodia.
We walked back to the hotel through the merrymakers of Siem Reap’s party district.Coda
I'm not at all a religious person and I cannot remember when last I visited a house of worship. So in retrospect I'm quite amazed when I realize that I spent the best part of three days visiting temple after temple after temple. (I even woke at 4:30 to go see the sun rising over the greatest existing Hindu monument -- FPG commented that we should have talked a little research while we were there, just for the karma. Hopefully the karma will get to us anyway.) I have to admit that towards the end of the trip I was getting pretty "templed out and sculptured out", as TPB put it, but in all fairness that was due as much to sensory overload as anything else. I really enjoyed viewing some of the carvings -- it was a great thrill to see Bhishma, one of my favorite characters from all forms of narrative, feature on a panel all to himself. (And I have to confess I didn't get corresponding thrills from seeing Rama or Vishnu, but I did enjoy the panel where Yamaraj was presiding over the cringing souls being pushed down to hell. Maybe there's no salvation for me after all, or am I beyond it?)
There's an air of eternal peace about the temples of Cambodia -- if one can ignore the hordes of package tourists, that is. Is it something about the place, the structures, or the people? As Mr. Madonna Hun, our laconic driver put it (in this little chant that we formed from his utterances, a chant that became the refrain for our trip) --Camm-bodyan pippole
Like to go to tempole
Because dey Boodist,
Dat-min also believe Hindew
Yes, they are a very pleasant pippole, gentle, smiling, bowing, courteous. Hindu and Buddhist monuments co-exist, and have done so for over a thousand years. Rulers of different faiths did not pull down their predecessors' temples, at worst they defaced them -- turning Buddhas into lingams and vice versa. Yet it's stunning to think that less than thirty years ago, some of these very same Cambodians killed off over one in five of their countrymen. Thousands of them are crippled to this day, and millions of landmines remain strewn over their fields and forests. The country is one of the poorest in the world. We talk about India as a land of contrasts, but this contrast, between the cruelty of the country's present and recent past, and the patina provided by the serenity of its heritage, could not have been starker for me. Whence the beauty, whence the horror? My mind is enmeshed in this contradiction, and I'll try and post my thoughts about it in a few days.
Till then, here's to beautiful.