Angkor Wat did not come easy to us. We drove all the way across the Cambodian rural landscape from Phnom Pehn to Siem Reap to discover her in all her glory. However, This was one journey in my life which will always be worth the sun, the rain, the lack of sleep and all the tough terrain to climb. A celebrated UNESCO world Heritage site and the largest religious complex in world, a history’s mystery and a place that attracts history , art and architecture lovers from around the world , Angkor is a heady experience that shakes you up from inside.
We landed in Phnom Pehn a weekday morning and met Phalla our drive, guide and friend for the next few days. In his car we set out on the road to Siem Reap the closest town to the famed Angkor. The road trip was brilliant. Bright blue skies, green paddy fields, raised cottages and large water buffaloes splashing water on each other in shallow lotus ponds – what is not to love. However if you do not want to take the road Siem Reap is directly connected to most South East Asian major airports via flights through the day. On our way we stopped at a tiny village where Phalla’s wife rain a small eatery and had a lovely Cambodian style lunch made with fresh produce and served with much love and care. Food in Cambodia might not be as fancy as elsewhere but with its simple spices and strong fresh flavours have been my favourite on the trip. During our lunch we also made friends with Phalla’s daughter the super cute Lansa and bonded over some hair clips. The evening we reached Siem Reap we also walked into its famed night market, old town and Pub street. The streets were bustling with young and old travellers from around the world making merry. This Hippie street is a must visit if you like a good long party.
The next morning, the rain giving us company we entered Angkor Wat. The 1-day visit ticket costs $37. Also, the temple complexes are huge and you need to research and study before you come here ( especially if you have limited time) and keep a list of the must-visits ready. We had decided on 3 places we wanted to spend considerable time in – The Angkor Wat Main Temple, Bayon at the center of Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom. We took almost a full day to walk the sites and observe the drilliant Bas-reliefs, wall carvings, stepped terraces and figurines of repute. It is advised that you wear comfortable clothing (must be well covered to show respect to the temples– a need specified by the entry board) and good walking or climbing shoes. Also carry fluids so that you do not get drained out in between the visits.
The erstwhile Khmer dynasty with their Capital seat in Cambodia was a Hindu ruling dynasty with its first great king as SuryaVarman, responsible for the Angkor main temple. Under the flourishing rule of Khmers from SuryaVarman the devout Hindu to Jayavarman VII , the Budhhist, the region saw much prosperity through advance agricultural practices and trade with China and India. During their rule the dynastic religion switched between Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism and later Theravada Buddhism – the strong influences of each of which is visible on the temple architecture. The structures here were built between AD 802-1327 and show brilliance in proportion, aesthetics and storytelling. The Ramayana especially popular in these regions till date, had been carved on the walls of the main temple with such brilliance that you could actually spend hours admiring it. The temples transport you back in time. When I later reflected on why these structures moved me so much this is the reasonable explanation I could find. While it is difficult to pick and chose places of interest in a site like this, I would still like to strongly recommend the Ta Phrom in its entirety, The face pillar of Bayon and the reclining Budhha and the gatekeepers of Angkor Main temple. Also the long hallways of the main temple, its view from the rear approach and the carvings wall reliefs on the eastern side. You could build your own list, based on some pre-travel research. Do note the huge number of headless and damaged figurines at the site. This is a primarily a result of the art-robbery gang that operates around the world to destroy and vandalize our ancient historical sites.
Being an avid lover of History I have travelled to several Indian Heritage sites – Nalanda, Gaya, Mahabalipuram, Konark being some of them.I have lved and been amazed by each of them. The restorations at these sites have been such that today you can pretty much see them in entirety (of whatever is remaining). There remains little romance of the unknown. At Angkor the restorations have been done in a way that the natural element around the sites has been kept intact. You see roots of silk cotton pierce through the temple walls to create a mesmerizing sight. The Man versus Nature conflict is alive in these relics and especially on a rainy afternoon as ours one is guaranteed to fall in love with the eeriness of the sites- especially Ta Phrom. It is a jungle where you never know which turn opens your sight to a an ancient temple wrapped in Banyan stems housing history of the ages inside its sanctum.
I bought a book to understand the structure further and if you want to do that I recommend you to pick up one as well. Also, if you want to make the best of this place gives it 3 days at least. You would discover a lot more magic than we did. Siem Reap has good stay options and commuting to and from the sites have multiple options. It is also important to note and be thankful to the tireless work of Archaeological societies of India, France, Japan and other nations who have led the restoration efforts here and are still involved in numerous projects.
A lot remains unseen. Angkor can never be complete discovered, or understood and that I guess is the beauty of it. I will for sure come back to see history living again. In the ruins of the jungle and muddled sunlight I will see Angkor for the her unparalleled beauty, again!
Shakuntala is an entrepreneur and runs a venture Maaati.com , in which she closely works with traditional artisans from corners of India and gets to the consumer markets Indian handmade products of diverse source and designs. In her personal life she is a book worm, hippie, lover of art and history, and strong feminist rolled into one. Her business partner, Debraj collaborates with her via his photographs in most of her travel writing, otherwise she is a self proclaimed Technology-Bum, and can not handle most things that come with a switch,!