The Siamese Wonder

Sachidananda Murthy discovers that Siem Reap in Cambodia offers culture, entertainment - and a world of wonder

the-siamese-wonder-3 Angkor Wat, the world’s biggest temple complex, is the jewel in Siem Reap’s tourist crown

A great holiday destination is supposed to combine physical activity, ample time for chilling out, familiarisation with culture, a dollop of history, lots of entertainment and a bit of hedonism. Barring hedonism, Siem Reap fulfils all the ingredients for a lovely holiday. Of course, sin is on the border with Thailand, three hours drive from the Cambodian city of Siem Reap. There are lots of casinos and pleasure palaces across the border, but Cambodia believes more in tourism with culture than its western neighbour.

Siem Reap, with its 400 luxury hotels offering facilities from spas, gymnasiums, swimming pools and fine dining restaurants to people from three continents and a dozen languages, is the hub of a remarkable cultural region. We could get the first glimpse of the 11 centuries of culture made famous by the world heritage temple Angkor Wat, at the airport itself. The architecture and interior of the airport—which connects to aviation hubs of East Asia like Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lampur, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo—has elements of the Khmer features of long galleries, exquisitely carved sculptures and plenty of light. Visa on arrival is 30 US dollars per person and the process is smooth (incidentally dollar is the key currency for foreign tourists as it is the currency at restaurants, pubs, markets and even for tuk tuk auto rickshaws, widely used in the city). While a large number of tourists come with advance reservations for hotels or with a fully loaded holiday packages through the agency network, there are tourists who came out of the airport, take a rickshaw to the market and find accommodation suiting one’s purse.

Angkor Wat, the world’s largest temple and the hundreds of temples in the 400 square kilometre Angkor heritage area, are the crown jewel of the holidays. But Siem Reap is full of other gems. Built during 9th to 12th century by Hindu and Buddhist emperors of the Khmer regime, Angkor Wat has been the victim of vicissitudes, witnessed by countries like India that are repeatedly invaded. The temple, with its three unique towers and extraordinarily long galleries, was built for Vishnu in the 12th century by Emperor Suryavarman II. Appreciated for the breadth and width of its planning where no mortar was used—each layer of stone supports the next layer—Angkor Wat is breathtaking at sunrise, sunset and full moon nights. Surrounded by a large moat and manicured gardens, it is hard to believe that the temple was first raided just 26 years after it was completed. Since then it was repeatedly invaded, and restored, until finally from the 17th century as the Khmer empire faded, and the population moved eastwards, it became obscured by a thick jungle. But the French, who made Cambodia their protectorate in 1860s, have restored the temple and its environs, although the precious idols, tapestries, gold and diamond ornaments have been pillaged over centuries.

the-siamese-wonder-4 A village on the lake near Siem Reap

Now, prodded by UNESCO, the Angkor complex is maintained by a local authority which charges 37 dollars per day to foreign tourists to visit the temples, while admission is free for Cambodians. Though Cambodia had been ravaged by a civil war from the 1960s to 1980 (with one million people killed in five years by the Khmer Rogue regime), the country is peaceful and stable. Siem Reap has a tower of skulls as a memorial for the victims of the genocide. Apart from Angkor Wat, the temple

which now attracts curious youngsters (as well as middle-aged movie buffs) is the Ta Prohm, a monastery for women built by a 12th century emperor. That’s where blockbuster movies like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider as well as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were filmed. The tourists gasp at the sight of massive trees growing out of stone sculptures.

Combined French and Cambodian conservation efforts have made the Angkor complex a delight for the adventurous, who can trek or cycle through the 400 square kilometre complex. Strict conservation rules have prevented urbanisation on the site, as one treks or pedals through shady paths and sits under hundreds of spirit trees that are said to have enchanting powers.

For lovers of architecture and history, the three rectangular galleries of Angkor Wat, through exquisite carvings on the stone, depict in entirety the epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavadpurana. While those in a hurry can do the complex in one or two days, there are enthusiasts who spend a week or more observing the dozens of minor temples, terraces and galleries in what was once a very populous city.

the-siamese-wonder-1 Pub Street is the place to spend evenings in Siem Reap

After travelling through time, it’s time to relax. While the hotels themselves offer comforts and conveniences at reasonable prices, the pub street is the place to spend the evenings. Situated in the heart of Siem Reap town and within walking distance from most hotels, the neon street - actually it is two streets, is full of aromas of every possible meat being spitted and roasted, with crab, fish, beef, pork and crocodile meat cooked in Thai and Cambodian styles being most in demand. There are restaurants offering American and European food, and there are a dozen Indian restaurants, offering Indian fare from butter chicken to masala dosa. The local Angkor beer made from the sweet waters of the Tonle Sap river is a huge hit, especially during the hot months. There is an abundance of massage centres, but they are severely policed to prevent any extreme activities. The local market abuts the pub street, offering a range of precious stones like ruby and sapphire, as well as dresses and garments in the Khmer style. Bargaining is a must for marketing as the motto of Siem Reap authorities is fun with responsibility. The pub street winds down by midnight.

For adventure loving tourists, there are interesting places to reach on bicycles and coaches. Cambodians from provinces outside Siem Reap prefer to hire motorcycles on which they vroom. The Tonle Sap river pours into what is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and tourists can take long boat rides to reach the fishing villages built on stilts in the middle of the lake. The villagers catch the exotic variety of fish and have their own schools, churches, temples and community halls—all built on stilts. As the water rises during the monsoon, they are evacuated to high levels, while the buildings get submerged. Once the rain ends, they paint and reoccupy the buildings for the eight dry months.

the-siamese-wonder Phnom Koulen

Another fun place is the Phnom Kulen, a low-lying long mountain, where the Khmer empire was founded in the 9th century. The thick forest on the mountain, with its rushing brooks, is a place for trekking, camping and picnicking. If there is a motif for leisure in Cambodia, it is the hammock. One finds hammocks in every home strung from trees and windows, as the locals enjoy their siestas. Thus on Phnom Kulen, too, the restaurants offer food and booze to groups which hire bamboo platforms fitted with one or more hammocks. After beer and food, one can snuggle in the hammock, as the streams burble and birds chirp. For the religious from Cambodia and Thailand, there is a two-kilometre stretch of the river where emperors had got 1,000 Shivlingas sculpted in the shallow riverbed, as the country first worshipped Shiva, then Vishnu and finally, Buddha.

After soaking oneself in the sun, water, forest, history and archaeology—along with lots of beer and exotic meals—one leaves Siem Reap with pleasant memories.

the-siamese-wonder-2

Escape to...

Call of the Wild

Reimagine Jungle Book in Sawai Madhopur, where Sher Khan is the hero

Answer the call of the jungle, and take a luxuriously wild break like the royals once did at Vivanta by Taj Sawai Madhopur. Remember to pack your camera, everything else is sorted for you.

Summer in Rajasthan is a living inferno, the sun’s rays morph into tongues of flames turning everything they touch into the colour and texture of brown paper. Yet it is also the perfect season to visit if you want to spot a tiger or a leopard in the wild. It is in summer that you are most likely to come face-to-face with the Royal Bengal tiger as it comes out to drink at the waterholes in the forest reserve of Ranthambore, the pride of Sawai Madhopur. Once the most preferred hunting destination of royals from across the world, it is now a must-visit on the list of travellers who love the wild.

The best part is, of course, spotting a tiger in its natural habitat. As well as seeing the rarely sighted royalty of Indian jungles, sloth bears, leopards, wild cats, deers, monkeys, crocodiles and birds also provide a dekho. The cherry on the cake is that you need not worry about the heat and dust when you return to one of the most luxurious ‘lodges’, in the country, the lush green Vivanta by Taj – Sawai Madhopur, Ranthambore.

The hotel is a 30-minute drive from the forest and it is easy to see why the royals camped here when they went to hunt big game. The original building stands proud with a spacious verandah, dining hall, bar and lounge. Their water-harvesting,and treatment plant ensure the property is always dressed in lush foliage. Each room has a large en-suite bathroom complete with a bathtub. You can chose to unwind at the spa, in the pool, or in the hammock outside your room. There’s plenty to keep you occupied here.

True to lodge tradition, there is no room service for meals, as you don’t want to excite the animals with food aromas. There is, however, a mini bar, some packaged snacks, and some fruit at hand, should you want a bite. But you must have your meals in the main building, after cocktails under the stars near the barbecue area. Do make sure to try the local dishes, the chef sticks to the authentic recipes and the produce is top notch.

In the evening, the folk singers of the Manganiyar community regale you with stories sung to traditional music as the air is perfumed with fresh bajra (millet) rotis cooked on a live chulha by women from the nearby village. The friendly staff here is largely local and well versed with traditions and folklore, and happy to share stories of leopard-spotting in their village, or of when a sloth bear came wandering into the garden. Like the call of the wild itself, this is a place you will want to visit again and again. Just like the royals once did.

HOW TO GET HERE

By road: An eight hour drive from Delhi through Bhiwadi and Alwar; the Jaipur airport is a four-hour drive away.

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