Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom

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Backpacking Cambodia: Day 02 (13-Feb-2019) 

Angkor Thom - A Forgotten City!

After contemplating it for a while, I had finally decided to go on a sunrise tour offered by the hostel. A couple of hostels get together and arrange this tour that is placed at a reasonable price. One could spend weeks or months exploring the ruins of Angkor Thom if one wills or just do a day trip to cover the popular sites. I realised that going on your own might be a few dollars cheaper but time consuming as I would have to find my way to the main temples. A guide, on the other hand, would be helpful in this vast ancient city.  I found this arrangement perfect for me. 

My ride arrived at 4:40 AM. On this tour, I was with a middle aged man from Holland and two young girls from France. Our local guide Prem, sitting in the last seat, updated us about the agenda for the day. First, we had to stop at a ticket counter in the city to buy a day pass  of $ 37. Here, you can buy a day pass, three day pass or I think there are others for longer durations depending on your interest level. If you are here to just explore few famous temples then I think a day pass would be more than sufficient. If you have time, then a two day pass would be good to take a guided tour on one day and explore on your own on second. 

We directly headed to the Angkor Wat temple (11kms) where already the tourists had gathered to witness the sunrise. We picked a spot by the lake and awaited the moment. As  dawn broke, there was a magnificent display of colours behind the impressive temple complex. 

Our guide soon directed us to the temple before it could get crowded. We climbed to the topmost chamber of the temple and observed some intricate art work. Though this was initially a Vishnu temple, today, we find a Buddha idol in the main shrine. To enter the temples, you must cover your shoulder (Do not wear sleeveless) and wear at least a short pant that covers your knee. 

Prem narrated the history to us. He was a bit nervous that an Indian was in the group because the Cambodians do not know much about Hindu mythology. He kept saying that I could clarify the doubts as I would know better. Though there were several mistakes in his narration of our epics, I did not interrupt or correct him. It did not matter as he never went into depths of any concept, nor where the listeners very keen. Of course the Cambodians knew little about this place and its history as they had abandoned this beautiful city for several centuries and were unaware of the fact that these forests hid this marvel. 

Angkor thom was the last and the most enduring capitol of Khmer empire located at the west bank of Siem Reap river. King Suryavarman II had established this city of 9km2 that encompasses several monuments and temples. Angkor Wat is the largest religious complex on earth and was built in 1150. By the end of 12th century, the influence of Buddhism had began and soon the Khmer empire replaced Hindhuism with Buddhism as their official religion and the temples too saw a change. The idols of Shiva and Vishnu were replaced by that of Buddha. But in the 15th century, the empire decided to abandon the city all together and move south (To Phnom Penh). The city was totally forgotten until a young French explorer named Henri Mahout discovered it in April 1858. Many of the temples were in perilous state of disrepair and hidden in dense forest with trees growing all over them. Currently, the archeology department of India is working closely with the authorities to renovate the temples. 

Our guide also told us an interesting fact about Khmer culture. In their society, after wedding, the men quit their maternal house and lived with their wife and her parents. It occurred to me then that what may seem perfectly normal to us may not be the same for others. He could not believe when I told him that it was the contrary in India. 

Prem also told us that there is a common joke in Cambodia that their father is Indian and mother, Cambodian. Well, this comes from the fact that an Indian sage Kaundinya had set foot on this land a long time ago and married a Naga woman thus forming the first dynasty in Cambodia. Back then this place was called Kamboj. No wonder the French still call it the same - Cambodge. 

We next visited the Ta prohm temple which have humungous trees growing over them. It was here that the movie Tomb raider was shot. They are incredible. Our guide taught me the vertical panorama on iPhone that I thought was cool. 

Next stop - Breakfast. I got my much needed tea. I decided to have my brunch and thus ordered some curry with rice. 

It is here that I got to know my co-passengers a bit better. Nick is from Holland and is traveling in South East Asia for a few weeks. Lucile and Fanny were doing the same too. We bonded pretty well and shared our travel stories. We stopped at another temple along the way that had a pyramid like feel to it. 

We then headed to Bayan temple. This temple was initially dedicated to Shiva. Our guide indicated that we could still notice the third eye on some of the faces. I was extremely impressed with the sculptures here. I haven't seen a temple of this kind. It is magnificent and enormous and at the same time, extremely detailed. The almost identical faces are impressive. 

Finally, we stopped at a bridge next to one of the cardinal gates. The bridge represents "Samudhra Mathana" - Churning of the ocean of milk by the demons and the gods.

At around 2 PM we were back in town. I said good bye to the others who where staying at a different hostel. After freshening up, I walked to a near by boulangerie and sat there sketching - Henri Mahout’s Angkor. 

Back in the hostel, I met my new inmate from France. I had been thinking of going up north to see the temple of Preah Vihar but it is about 200kms from Siem Reap and there are no clear directions to get there. Apparently, he had rode a bike all the way to the temple from the nearest town. I simply did not have time to go that far. If I did the north, I would have to skip some places in the south. So, I instead decided to hire a scooter like him and travel some distance up north to explore some lesser known temples. 

Two girls from Germany joined our dorm as well. As a practice, I updated them about what ever little I had learnt about the town that could help them. They were super nice and one of their friends had recently been to India and had worked in an NGO. The Women solo travellers often ask me if it is safe to travel alone in India and I am never able to answer that question with certainty. There are so many people in India who come from different cultures and backgrounds that to tell that everyone is good is impossible. I just assure them that they would find tonnes of kind people on their travel but I know, I can’t give them a definite answer. Cambodia on the other hand is a country poorer than India but it is super safe. Women can travel alone without any issue. Nobody bothers you here. They don’t even stare at you. Hence, I understand very clearly now that poverty has nothing to do with safety. It’s just lack of certain ethics.  

Evening, I walked to the market area and enjoyed browsing through the night market. I met Nick there.

On my way back, I went to the shop suggested by the hollander from my hostel and rented a scooter for a day. I had to hand over my DL in exchange to the scooter. The lady showed me a map and asked me not to ride on two of the roads on it. She said that the cops would catch me if I go there. I nodded though I did not understand why it was so and where those streets really were. Moreover, I had not seen a single traffic police on the streets, so I really wondered if it was as risky as she made it sound. 

At dinner, in local restaurant I coincidently met Lucile and Fanny. They joined me at my table and we dinned together. It was fun conversing in French. Apparently, everyone around us were French and slowly all began to talk to each other and it was awesome. I felt like I was in France. I bid them farewell and wished them a safe travel to Phnom Penh and headed back to my hostel. It had been a long day but an incredible one. 

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