Friday 2 December 2011

Cambodia, Siem Reap- Part I

As lame as it sounds, I had wanted to visit Cambodia ever since I had watched the first Tomb Raider movie. After reading up on the country, its turbulent past and its rich architectural history, I simply had to see it. Years later I finally got the chance to go there. We took a flight out of Delhi international and arrived at Siem Reap via Kuala Lumpur.

As we touched down at Siem Reap airport and made our way inside the terminal, I was pleasantly surprised to see a beautiful and very sensitively designed building, surrounded by luscious greenery and very much in keeping with the country’s heritage. The interior of the terminal building did not disappoint either. It was modern, but it celebrated Cambodian culture through its use of natural materials and its display of art and sculpture.

Angkor Thom

The next morning, we made our way to the Bayon Temple in the centre of the Angkor Thom complex. The temple was built by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century as his state temple. While it is a Buddhist temple, the influence of Hinduism can also be seen. The real highlight of this temple was the giant faces, each over 2m, carved into the towers of the temple. It is still debated as to whether these faces depict the Buddha or are carved in the likeness of Jayavarman himself.

Images of the Bayon Temple

Within the Angkor Thom complex

Ta Prohm

We next made our way to Ta Prohm, which was also built by King Jayavarman VII. It originally served as a Buddhist monastery. Shrouded by dense jungle, this complex has an almost mystical feel, although I have to admit that it looked a lot smaller than I had imagined. However, this did not take away from its magnificence. I was in awe of the way giant roots of fig and silk-cotton trees snaked their way through the stones of the structures seeming almost one with them. Sunlight filtering through the heavy foliage gave the place an almost ethereal quality. I only wished I could have come here earlier in the day, before it was so cramped with tourists angling to get the best shot. With fewer tourists bustling around, this would be a wonderful place for quiet contemplation.

Angkor Wat

After a quick lunch we headed for Angkor Wat. Our guide insisted the best time to go was around 3pm, when the light was at its best. (I know a lot of travellers insist that the best time to see the temple is at sunrise, but for that we would have had to be at the temple by 5am, and in our defence, we were on our honeymoon!)

The Angkor Wat temple complex, listed as a world heritage site by USESCO, was built for the king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city. It functioned first as a Hindu temple, dedicated to Vishnu, and then later, as a Buddhist temple. It is considered the world’s largest religious building.

The 190m wide moat encircling the complex

The grandeur of the temple and its sheer scale is breath-taking. This first hits you as you cross the huge moat (190m wide) to enter the temple complex. Within the grounds, you are struck by how perfectly the main temple building is reflected in the lake in front of it. Inside the temple, you pass through narrow passages having bas-reliefs on their walls which depict scenes from the Ramayana. You are struck by the skill, craftsmanship and technical skill that must have been required to build this temple complex almost 1000 years ago.

Phnom Bakheng

Finally, as we made our way away from Angkor Wat, I bid farewell to this magnificent example of Khmer architecture at its zenith. From here we made our way to Ba Kheng Hill. The temple Phnom Bakheng, built in the 9th century is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. The temple itself sits atop a hill. It’s a 15 minute walk from the base of the hill to the base of the temple. You also have the option of going through the forest atop an elephant! Once at the temple base, we reach the top via steps so steep that you have to climb/crawl sideways. This is quite a hair-raising experience and is not for the faint hearted, especially on the way down! But once up, the climb is worth it because the view is simply magnificent. Sadly we arrived an hour too early for the sunset and had to miss it. Tired, but happy, we looked forward to the next day, where we would be getting a glimpse into the country’s culture.

[All images by Shalini Pereira except where mentioned]

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