“This flight was a breeze, I couldn’t even finish listening to two songs.”, seemingly Bangalore to Kochi isn’t that far away. This was a first in a string of flights which would bring us to Siem Reap in Cambodia, the home of the ancient temples of Angkor.
We’ve passed the immigration and security checks, now it’s time to sleep as much as we can, because the next four hours are going to be tiring as we move against time towards Bangkok. We board the plane at 1:30 am; cozying myself into the window seat, I sleep.
“Agh!” The sun is shining bright in my eyes, and Bangkok is glimmering beneath me. There are rows of houses, long empty roads in the morning, mind you. It is a sight to behold, the Chao-Praya flows through the city with a several hundred bridges across it. We descend on to Don Meang International Airport in Bangkok. I’m excited; too many different faces and a different airport in Bangkok with a busy runway and tourists from around the globe. After de-boarding, once again immigration and all, but I don’t care. We have two hours and we are already at the boarding gate. Buying a huge glass of pineapple juice for myself, I’m content. It is different with a sour taste in it.
Few hours later, we’re on a plane heading toward Siem Reap. My body is aching but eagerness is keeping me wide awake. From the plane, you can easily make out the difference between Siem Reap and Bangkok, the former having different shades of nature, green and blue while the latter having sky-scrapers and highways.
This flight also is going to be short, an hour later we’re at Siem Reap International Airport. It’s an empty airstrip compared to the Bangkok airport. The building itself is small and has a Khmer roof, and once again IMMIGRATION, this is too much! Outside the airport, “Welcome to Siem Reap, Cambodia” reads a signboard.
Siem Reap has an interesting meaning in Khmer language, the language of Cambodia. “Siem” means Thai, “Reap” means flat, this place got its name when the Khmer people defeated the invading Thai in this area. It is one of the most visited places in the world because of the legendary ancient temples of Angkor. The capital of Cambodia is Phnom Penh but is less developed than Siem Reap and the real currency of Cambodia is US Dollars because their own currency, the Cambodian Riel has very little value, one dollar is traded for more than four thousand Riels.
As we settle into the car, we meet our driver and guide Chandtriya, a Sanskrit word! He studies in a college, interested in history and wants to become an English teacher. We start from the airport and it starts raining heavily. The roads are right-oriented here, the American way and the driver sits on the left. I asked him, “Why are there so many Toyota cars on the road?”. He says it’s the most popular and trusted brand; indeed I would agree with him, the roads are full of them. We proceed to our condominium, credits to AirBNB.
The apartment is huge and there is a swimming pool on the top, but that is for another day, I am exhausted. It’s one in the afternoon (Bangkok Time), we take a much needed rest and set out to explore in the evening.
Hiring a Tuk-Tuk, a bike attached to a trailer and the cheapest and most polpular form of transport in Cambodia. We go to the Old Market Area to have dinner, the ride is a thrilling one, sitting in an open trailer with the cool breeze caressing my face. It is night-time and the streets are bustling with tourists. Dinner, in ‘The Red Tomato’ restaurant, two pizzas, lasagna and lemonades, it is simply scrumptious. It does have free Wifi. A few steps bring us to the famous Pub Street, with pubs on both sides, concerts taking place and crowds of tourists everywhere; it is a lively place to be in the evening. The atmosphere is lovely with tourists streaming in and out, restaurants offering different delicacies and the smell of good food. I just want to stay there, but have to go back to the condominium. As I sit to write, jet-lag overcomes me and I sleep.
Morning has come, and so no more sleep. Today, we’re going to Angkor Wat. It is a short drive from our place and after getting the required pass, we drive on to the temples. Angkor Wat is an architectural marvel, standing tall, it is surrounded by a moat, which used to provide water as well as protection. The moat has to be kept filled with water otherwise the structure will collapse. A bridge leads you inside the temple compound, the railings are sculpted as a snake. One can enter the temple through a gateway and continue on the walkway surrounded by gardens. “It is hot and humid!”
The temple has three hallways surrounding it, each one is more elevated than the previous. The walls are elaborately carved with the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata and even the Puranas. The carvings are intricate and all the scenes have been beautifully depicted. What is interesting to see is, the characters who have been depicted in Khmer style. One can see Rama killing Ravana with Lanka in the background from the Ramayana, Arjuna on his chariot from the Mahabharata and even the Sea-Churning (Samudra Manthan). Opposite the walls are columns which support the structure and sunlight filters through them. Walking with mom and dad is a tedious task, in my opinion, they take as much time as the sculptors to look at the carvings.
Climbing up, you come to the second hallway and out, you can see the temples elevated to a great height. At several places, the statues of Hindu Gods have been removed and a statue of Buddha has been installed. The original stairs leading up to the temple have been blocked because they are way too steep and dangerous. One can climb up the wooden stairs to enter the main temple. On the top, it is cool and the view is panoramic with the entire temple complex in view and forested areas surrounding the compound. Coming down, to ground level, the temple stands tall and the curved conical tops look beautiful from afar.
We sit into our car, and drive to the Old Market Area where there are a host of restaurants. Italian for lunch? “Yes”. The food is delicious and ends with chocolate fountain dipped dessert.
Afternoon, well we go to Ta Prohm which is being conserved and restored by a joint-effort by India and Cambodia. It is bigger than Angkor Wat and has a sense of mystery to it.
It is ‘Jungle-y’, literally as it is completely covered by the forest and the temples have a green tinge throughout. Most of the monuments have been hemmed in by the roots of the trees which actually hold the temples together. Passing inside the compound wall on the right, a huge tree seems to add to the grandeur of the temple.
This temple is most exciting, and moving inside the temple without a map can make you lose all sense of direction. Exploring the ruins is enticing and I could visualize myself as Gandalf in the ruins of Dol Guldur. I never realized when I reached the center and many a times, I could see slabs of stones fallen in the the open areas and several others have been kept on a side like the unsolved pieces of a puzzle. The outer fortification of this temple is still intact and is massive. This temple, unlike most others has a gateway which has a face carved onto to the top.
Just outside the temple, we refresh ourselves with juice and sit in the car for the next stop; Sunset at Preh-Rup.
Preh-Rup is built on an elevated platform like most others but it is quite higher. Climbing the steep stairs to the top, we see two statues which have been beheaded standing on either side of the now-in-existent doorway. From the top, this place offers great views of the forests surrounding it and the sun dipping behind the horizon. While the foundations are made of huge stone slabs but the temple structure is made of bricks.
It is night, we eat food at The Red Tomato, pizza seems good. Dragon Fruit Juice for drink is nice, it is sour and sweet. Dessert at The Blue Pumpkin, I will have a full blown, Berry Blast Ice-Cream and a jug of chocolate milk-shake. Going back to our apartment, we relax. I thought, it would have been so exciting and awakening for someone, when he would have discovered these temples in the thickly forested jungles like these. There may still be parts of this legendary empire which lie buried under the Earth or is lost in the thickly forested regions.