Friday, May 4, 2012

Ambling In Angkor Wat

Approach to The Angkor Wat Temple from the Causeway 

The Entry, Angkor Temple. 
It is one of the ironies of History that the biggest complex of Hindu Temples in the world is not in India, but in far away Cambodia, at Angkor Wat.
Gurmeet on the Great Causeway 
The Approach to Angkor Wat

Steep Approach Staircase, Angkor Wat.

This great temple complex, dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, was built in the early 12th century by king Suryavarman II. Later some of this complex was converted for worship to the Buddhist faith. It is unusual among Hindu Temples in being oriented towards the West, giving rise to the speculation among scholars, that Suryavarman II intended it to be his funerary temple.
Extensive, Lovely temples 

If this was indeed the case, it is by far the biggest labour intensive funerary complex ever built for one person, surpassing any pyramid or tomb built by any Egyptian Pharaoh to mark his ascent into the other world.

In the absence of any records or engravings, this just adds on another facet to the mystery as to why such a large temple complex was built here in the first place.
As it stands, the temple now defines Cambodia and finds a place on its National Flag.

Huge complex. No crowding
Combining pleasure with business, the author ambled his way to 
Angkor along with Gurmeet. Its easy to get to Angkor, as its gateway town Siem Reap is an International Airport, well connected to other airports in Southeast Asia. It is the easiest to approach through Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, which 
offer regular flights to Siem Reap. 
We took the Bangkok route. 
Nice Hotel Deals In Siem Reap.
A short flight, quick processing and Visa on arrival at Siem Reap and we were on our way to our hotel in double quick time. 

There is a wide variety of hotels in Siem Reap, to suit every style and budget. In the off season, high end hotels are great value as the traveler can get excellent discounts. We stayed at Victoria Angkor Resorts and Spa, a nice luxurious hotel, with very friendly staff. Recommended.

As there is an excess of rooms in Siem Reap for most of the year, except for some days between November and February, deals are normally available. Remember to check out various consolidators sites as well as with the hotels themselves to get the best deals.

The Central Courtyard, Angkor Wat.
The temples at Angkor Wat are located about 5 Km North of Siem Reap and can broadly be divided into 5 major groups:

  1. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the grandest temples next to the ancient capital.
  2. The Little Circuit, major sites to the east of Angkor Thom.
  3. The Big Circuit, major sites north and further out east
  4. The Roluos group, about 15 km east from Siem Reap along National Highway 6.
  5. Outlying temples, located over 20 km from Angkor Wat.

Pointed Arch Ceiling, Angkor
It is possible to spend weeks visiting these temples if one is interested. However, for most travelers, visiting Siem Reap for 3-5 days, the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom temples along with some major ones from the ‘little’ and ‘big’ circuits are more than enough to cover and digest.
Another view of the Angkor Complex

As this is not a ‘guide book’ blog, one will not weary you all with detailed descriptions. Suffice to say that the major temples of Angkor Wat have superb bas reliefs of ‘Apsaras', battles and other depictions from the Ramayana.
Enigmatic Face, Bayon.

These temples are one of the most important UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are being constantly restored with aid from all over the world, especially Japan and India. Specialists from the Archaeological Survey of India have been involved in the restoration for the last many years.

Beautiful 'Apsaras'
Bayon and Baphuon Temples with enigmatic faces carved all over. Scholars still debate as to who these faces represent, God Vishnu, Buddha or King Suryavarman II.
Subsidiary Temple in Courtyard, Angkor 

Phnom Bakheng, The ‘Temple-Mountain’ of 5 levels, with beautiful carved elephant terraces at Angkor Thom; the Ta Prohm temple, of the film ‘Tomb Raider’ fame, in the ‘Little Circuit’.

Baphuon Temples. 
Preah Khan temple showing buildings intertwined and being taken over by nature in the ‘Big Circuit’.

The Temple at Bayon. 
These monuments are worth spending time over and the level of Art and Sculptures is breathtaking. The sheer numbers and scale of the carvings is amazing.
The Jungle and the Temple, Preah Khan

The causeways and bridges, many with sculptures depicting the Hindu mythological tale of the churning of the ocean by the ‘Asuras’ (Demons) and ‘Devtas’ (Gods) with Mount Kailash as the fulcrum and the Giant Cobra ‘Sheshnag’ as the rope are absolutely stunning.
These have withstood the vagaries of time remarkably and are still in use today.
Phnom Bakheng the ‘temple-mountain’

Travelers are well advised to buy 1, 2, 3 or 7 day passes from the Apsara Authority counters, depending on the number of days they intend to visit the temples. Guides are a personal choice, that being said, people with limited time at their disposal may be better of hiring one.

Preah Khan Temples. 
Gods & Demons, Ocean Churning, with Sheshnag.
The author however, is of the ‘No Guide’ persuasion and bought the book "Ancient Angkor" by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques, which is sold by local vendors everywhere for US$ 8-10. This book is excellent, but may be not everyone wants to read detailed descriptions while viewing these monuments.

Many of the temples in Angkor have statues of Buddha, installed comparatively recently, which are used for day to day worship. Tourists are often offered incense to light before the images and then asked for a 5 - 10 US$ contribution for 'Upkeep'.
Buddha Statue, Angkor.
 This contribution invariably goes towards the 'Upkeep' of the person demanding it. It is, therefore, advisable to politely decline incense or flowers when offered.

At the Causeway Crossing
Hire a Car or ‘Tuk Tuk’ for the day, these are reliable and reasonable and many drivers are quite knowledgeable about the temples and their history. If you are alone or with one companion, hiring a motorbike is also an option. Lone travellers who are fit, may easily hire bicycles to get around on the cheap.

While exploring temples, especially the outlying ones, there may be many monuments or sculptures visible off the track, in the Jungle Vegetation. It is best not to go off the marked and used tracks and explore on your own.
Ignore at your own peril !.
There is a good reason for this, Cambodia suffered terribly in the reign of Pol Pot, the dictator who committed mass genocide of the intellectual fraternity of the country. The fall out later was a civil war, which resulted in Cambodia being one of the most heavily land mined countries in the world.

Bakshis on a Boat, Tonle Sap.
Tourists at Baphuon.
The area around Angkor was also heavily mined and many of these mines have still not been removed and regularly kill or maim unwary travellers. Discretion being the better part of Valour, it is better to stick to the ‘straight and narrow’ marked paths.
The intrepid backpackers who you see wandering around the scrub have high levels of testosterone allied to low levels of grey matter activity. They probably would consider it a social service if they were to step on a mine, as it would make that area safer for others.
Floating Village, Tonle Sap Lake near Siem Reap.

When you have had an overdose of temples and monuments, there is always the great ‘Tonle Sap’ lake, which is the great water reserve for the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. This great fresh water lake normally about 2700 sq km, swells to 16000 sq km in the rainy season.
Floating Gas Station.

Boat People, Tonle Sap.
The annual flooding an inundation of the rice paddies adds to the fertility of the soil in Cambodia, in the same way as the annual Nile flooding used to do for Egypt before the Aswan high dam was constructed. This lake holds one of the planet’s largest biodiversities of aquatic life and fish and is responsible for over 50% of the fresh water fish catch in Cambodia.

Slow Boat to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap.

A boat ride along the lake at sunrise or sunset, is beautiful. You pass scattered islands, floating villages, boat people who live in these self contained floating communities, patches of reeds teeming with bird life and fisher men catching and selling fresh fish. It is a great way to de-stress and a great antidote to an unending diet of temples and monuments. It is possible to take a boat to the capital Phnom Penh from Siem Reap. There are many boats that make the 6-7 hour trip.
Sunset on Tonle Sap Lake.

Those wishing to indulge in retail therapy, have ample scope in Siem Reap. The Old Market offers a wide variety of Cambodian textiles, handicrafts and gems. Cambodian silk is excellent and the ‘twill’ weave varieties are justly famous. Stone and wood carvings are of good quality but there may be issues of weight and volume if you intend to carry some in your baggage. The forwarding services are unreliable and not recommended.
Cambodian Silk Shawls. 

Temple rubbings are available everywhere, these are made by wrapping thick wet paper on carvings and marking the bas-relief by charcoal. These are relatively cheap and some are of good quality. The advantage being that they are light to carry and make nice gifts, being typically Cambodian.
 Cambodian Silk Handloom Weaver, Siem Reap

A display of fans and fabric.
Handicrafts Shop, Siem Reap.

Cambodia is also famous for its gems, especially aquamarine, sapphire and ruby.

Caution is advised, however, as the gem market operates absolutely on the principle of ‘Emptor Caveat’, let the buyer beware. The amount and quantity of fake gems sold is far higher than the total production of genuine gems. Do not buy unless you know your gems or the jeweler comes highly recommended by reliable residents.

 Cambodian Street Food.
While temples provide ‘sustenance for the soul’, sustenance for the body is of equal importance.

Cambodian food is excellent and Khymer cuisine is famous for its imaginative use of fresh produce with herbs and spices.
Traditional Cambodian Dishes.

Typical Cambodian Meal.
In fact Kampot Pepper of Cambodia is the king of peppers, with a distinct sharp and lemony taste. Kampot Pepper has been accorded Geographic Indication status, like Champagne, Darjeeling Tea etc.
Influences from the cuisines of China, India, Vietnam and Thailand allied to native produce and fresh water fish have produced a cuisine which is tasty and distinctive.

Amok Trey.
‘Amok Trey’ is probably the defining dish of Cambodian cuisine as far as most foreigners are concerned. Fish fillets are covered in an aromatic blend of shallots, peanuts, herbs, spices and pepper, moistened with coconut milk, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed to a soft texture. Delicious.

Nom Ban Chok.
‘Nom Ban Chok’ is the most popular street food dish, rice noodles piled high with vegetables, herbs, fish, poultry or meat, as fancy strikes, in a thick sauce. Cheap, nourishing and delicious. There are many other popular dishes, that can be tried out in various Cambodian restaurants or homes.
A sampling of Cambodian Fruit.
A wide variety of excellent fruit is grown in Cambodia and is mostly eaten as a snack or dessert.

Attractive vegetarian dishes.
The staple grain in Cambodia is rice, available in many varieties, it is eaten with every meal. Vegetables, Fish, Poultry, Meats, Herbs and Spices are combined to create a variety of tasty and colourful dishes of varying textures and tastes. A variety of fermented fish sauce called Prahok is the flavour base for many dishes, but is not normally used in noodle dishes.
Vegetarian Cambodian Noodles.

Cambodian Food for Vegans.
Vegetarians need not worry, vegetable choices are easily available, attractive and tasty. Inform the cook or waiter that you are a pure vegetarian so that they may not use even Prahok in the preparation. There are vegetarian restaurants aplenty in Siem Reap. Vegans, however, would have to explain in greater detail, or demonstrate by pointing at foods they can eat.

Exotic Cambodian Food Stall.

Many friends have asked the author about insects and other exotic foods that are eaten in Cambodia, Southeast Asia and China.
All one can say is that these are available, and, often form an important source of protein in many communities; but the typical traveler is unlikely to come across these during normal meals. Of course one can be adventurous and try exotic things, depending on how strong your stomach is. Fried crickets are quite crunchy and nice, while frog’s legs are a delicacy. One man’s protein is another ones exotic food.

Pub Street Siem Reap. Reasonable Drinks and Food.
Siem Reap offers a variety of restaurants catering to all budgets. Apart from Cambodian food, almost every cuisine in the world is represented in the town.
The Cuisine Wat Damnak is an excellent high end restaurant serving traditional Cambodian dishes.
The Green Star restaurant, which supports the Green Gecko Project, is a good budget choice with tasty food and reasonably priced beer.
The Chamkar is a superb, mid range, vegetarian restaurant.

Street food is invariably good, fresh, tasty and extremely cheap. You are advised to use bottled water, bought from reliable sources. Green coconuts are always available and are a good, safe and healthy thirst quenching alternative.

Pub Street in the Rain.
Drinks are quite reasonable, except in the high end hotels and restaurants.
A good evening spot is the aptly named Pub Street, which has bars and restaurants of every description. Local beer is normally 50 cents to a dollar while imported beers and drinks are slightly more expensive. The prices at most places, however, do not break the bank.

Tourists at Angkor.
Fewer crowds in the rainy season.
As summer is the vacation season in India, a word of advise to Indian travelers. The best way to get to Siem Reap is either through Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. The Singapore option is quite expensive.

The cheapest option is through Air Asia via Kuala Lumpur. You, however, need to book Air Asia tickets in advance to get the best prices; there is also the 15 kg baggage limit.
Bangkok is well connected with India and offers a variety of options which are only slightly more expensive, it may be a better bet.
Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur both have reasonable hotels and food, and, arguably, Kuala Lumpur is still the best value in Southeast Asia for high end hotel accommodation.
Another view of the Bayon Temple.

Remember that May to July is the rainy season in Cambodia and it will be hot and humid. It is still possible to visit monuments in the morning as it rains mostly in the afternoon, an added benefit is that it would be much less crowded and hotels cheaper.

Elephant Terraces. 
It is now the end of our Cambodian sojourn and we have to vend our way to Vietnam from here.

Baphuon Temple.
Entry View, Bayon Temple.
That however, is another story and shall be covered in a subsequent blog. Happy Ambling.......!!!!!.

Bayon Temple Complex, Angkor Wat