Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Impressions of a lost civilization

A short one-week trip to Cambodia which we undertook in end-September - the pictures are in the link below.

Few monuments leave you as stunned as Angkor Wat does. It is the largest religious monument in the world, set in the middle of dense rain-forests, majestic sculpted buildings of stone, lying desolate and partly in ruins. The scale of the buildings and the audacity of vision of the builders leaves you breathless, the desolation of its present state makes you ponder about what happens to even the greatest monuments in the hands of that ravager Time (reminded me of Shelley's Ozymandias), and its setting in the middle of untouched tropical jungles makes it almost surreal.

Angkor Wat, though the most famous, is not the only temple in the jungles around Siem Reap in Cambodia.  The kings of Cambodia in the tenth to twelfth century or thereabouts built several such monuments in worship of their Hindu Gods. Vishnu is the presiding deity, and the motifs for the sculptures are drawn from the Mahabharata. The influence of the Cholas who ruled South India during that period extended to the far east as well; even the culture and religion of the Khmers (the locals of Cambodia), though Buddhist, seems to be more a synthesis of Hinduism and Buddhism. Buddhism being as tolerant a religion as Hinduism has managed a synthesis of the Hindu religion that was there before without their monuments suffering the same fate as the Bamiyan Buddhas. One of the main deities in Angkor Wat is a large standing Vishnu from the neck down, with the head of Buddha. The head apparently was fixed by the Buddhists after some bandits carried of the head.  

A visit to Angkor Wat and the other temples of Siem Reap is like going into the sets of an Indiana Jones movie. Majestic temples lying desolate, dense jungles all around, in a country that still retains its rustic charm. Travelling in Cambodia is perhaps what travelling through the rain-forests of Kerala or Tamil Nadu must have been a hundred years back. Though the comparison is not strictly accurate, since the roads, where they exist, are much better than what we can manage to build today.

The population at around 14 million, is less than any of our metros, and the people are charming and mild-mannered. They have been through their share of troubles with the Khmer Rouge killings in the seventies; it looks like the society has still not fully recovered from that dark period in Cambodian history. The economy is not very strong, the two major industries seem to be tourism and garments. The food, which reminds you very much of Thai food,  is outstanding. Any place you visit from the most humble road-side eatery to the star hotels serve the freshest and most delicious fare. 

Everything is priced in dollars. The local currency, at 4000 to the dollar, is not in much use. As a result of this, you are likely to be quoted "one dollar" prices for things as diverse as a pineapple, to a T-shirt in the night market! It does make things a bit expensive, certainly more expensive than what you would expect in that setting. Hotels, though, are surprisingly cheap. You will be able to get 4-star quality accommodation at 30 to 40 dollars a night.

The attractions that the city offers are also quite good. They have a thriving pub street where all the tourists converge in the evenings, a bustling market that is open till late, and generally everything that a leisure traveler may wish for. Massage and "allied" services are freely on offer. Perhaps because the population is so low, but certainly due to the much better sense of neatness, the place is incredibly clean. Can you imaging a canal running through the middle of the city with not even a plastic bottle floating on it, the water looking fit enough to drink?

A nice place to travel to, and if you have more time, you can combine it with Bangkok (bus-able), Malaysia, Singapore or Indonesia. 

Pictures in the link below (the people you have to endure are self, wife, and wife's two cousins with spouses):


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sir, any suggested tour operator for your trip to Cambodia?

Mahesh B