This week, a photo from the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat…
While on this, read an old story I’d written for Mint – Temple Performance
Also see: Friday photo series
So you have risen at the crack of dawn, or even earlier, and made your sleepy way to the Angkor Wat to see the famed sunrise. You have followed in the glamorous footsteps of Anjelina Jolie to the ruins of the Ta Prohm temple (where parts of the film ‘Tomb Raider’ was shot), held captive for centuries by the ancient trees. And at the Angkor Thom complex, you have been awed by the sight of the smiling Buddha faces on the walls of the Bayon temple. So, now what?
Discover Angkor, Wats and all: If you have missed the sunrise at Angkor Wat (though it is entirely worth the effort, despite the pushy crowds), head to Phnom Bakheng for the sunset. Get there early before the hordes and find a vantage position from which to watch the sun go down the Angkor archaeological park. Take some time to enjoy the smaller temples; in particular the exquisite Bantaey Srei (translated as the ‘citadel of women’). Diminutive in size, the pinkish sandstone temple is a welcome relief from the imposing size and dull grey-brown tones of most of the other temples here.
Art at Angkor: It is impossible to visit Siem Reap and not get tempted into watching an apsara dance performance. The apsara is a symbol of ancient Khmer culture and the performing tradition of Cambodia has seen a revival in recent years. Most restaurants offer them as part of the evening meal, though if you have the money and interest, it is advisable to watch it at one of the more up-market hotels, such as the Angkor Village Apsara Theatre or the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor. And if you have the time, make a trip to the Artisans d’ Angkor workshop (near the old market) for Khmer handicraft including stone and wood carving, silk painting and lacquer work – or head outside town to the silk farm, also managed by the same trust.
Walkabouts: Walk along the river when the weather is cool, towards the Psar Chaa old market to shop for souvenirs and local food. Also drop in at the Angkor night market – open till midnight – just at the end of Pub Street (off Sivatha Road) for unusual Khmer artefact, and the experience. A good place to visit even before you get on the temple circuit is the Angkor National Museum (even if you are not the “museum types”) – at $12 for an entry ticket, it is an expensive but excellent way to get an orientation of Khmer history, both ancient and recent. Several hundred statues, hidden for the last century and therefore preserved, have found their way here and the stories on the well-made audio-video guides are interesting, if only for the striking similarities with Indian mythology. If you ever make your weary way to FCC Angkor hotel, a visit to McDermott gallery nearby is a must, for sepia-tinted glimpses of Cambodia and the Angkor temples.
Travel in style: And I do not mean the tuk-tuks here, even those unique Cambodian ones, pulled by motorbikes. Go up on a helium balloon or a helicopter for a comprehensive aerial view of the Angkor temples. At sunset, take a cruise on the Tonle Sap lake to see the floating village; Chong Kneas is the closest and has a floating school and church among other things. The boats usually dock at the crocodile farm (which doubles up as a small coffee and souvenir shop) and the view from the rooftop is stunning. The lake sprawls all round you like a minor placid ocean, and the Vietnamese refugees who have made it their home go about their routine evening activities, as the sun sets in the horizon. If you are fit and adventurous, hire a bicycle or motorbike to travel around the Angkor archaeological sites; the terrain is flat and most of the major temples are located close to each other.
Eat, drink and be merry: Siem Reap has some excellent café and restaurants, including several authentic – I am told – Indian restaurants (KamaSutra, Maharajah). Most of them are clustered around the main market area and the accurately if unimaginatively named Pub Street. Eateries here compete for business, not just with great food, live music and cheap booze, but also with clever names; I was lured by Kampuchino, Angkor what?, Blue Pumpkin and Laundry Bar. A drink at the FCC Angkor, overlooking the river is highly recommended, as is a (vegetarian) meal at the Singing Tree Garden Café.
This piece was published in the Sunday Mid-day dated January 17th.
More photographs from the Angkor complex here…
From a longer piece I had written on the Angkor experience some time ago…
*When I first catch sight of them, the apsaras are resting on the cold stones of Angkor Wat. One is flexing her foot, mimicking the action of the stone apsara dancing just behind her on the wall. The others are talking to each other in muted tones, bored expressions on their faces. The American tourist, khaki shorts and all, walks up to them and points with his camera, and they spring into action instantly. As a group, they strike well-rehearsed poses, peacocks flanking the line-up, the boy with the lion’s head in between, a dancing apsara on each side of the utterly discomfited tourist, as his friend clicks. As they pose for the camera, for a dollar, I notice the boredom doesn’t shift from their faces. Shot over, they get back to rest mode without so much as a smile at their temporary benefactor*
There are over a thousand apsara statues in the Angkor temple complex, it is believed. And most of them have survived, just as the temples and the country itself have.
Everywhere in Cambodia, the apsara theme – from the names of schools and restaurants to name of the temple preservation committee.
I was reading about the history of the apsara dance in Cambodia and learned that both male and female dancers were allocated to specific temples, for religious rituals and enjoyed high status in society. There is a lot of similarity to be seen with the devadasi tradition in South India – from this article:
King Jayavarman VII put more than 3,200 dancers in temples, according to inscriptions around the end of the 12th century There also were dancers for entertainment in the households of kings and dignitaries. And dancers constituted the king’s harem.
The most beautiful girls would be brought as young as six years old to the palace by their parents who were compensated according to the beauty of their child. From the time of King Ang Duong in the mid-1850s until the 1920s, dancers were cloistered in the palace – King Norodom, who had around 500 dancers at the start of his reign in the 1860s, allowed them one day per year to visit their families under escort.
What exists in performances in temples and restaurants and pubs today started off several hundreds of years ago as the Royal Cambodian Ballet. Apsara dancers were once part of Cambodia’s cultural elite, training and performing at the royal palaces. The tradition was destroyed along with almost everything else during the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, there is an effort to revive this dance form – in its classical format – since in its “popular” avtaar, apsara performances are everywhere in Siem Reap (much like the whirling dervishes of Turkey who whirl exclusively for tourists enjoying their drinks and dinner).
Several schools including the Apsara Arts Association trains dancers from a young age, as part of the long and painful process of rebuilding Cambodia’s shattered economy and culture.
Wanting to watch a performance, I book a table for dinner (“with live apsara dance”) in a restaurant on Siem Reap’s bustling Pub Street. We make our way up rickety wooden steps towards the dinner / performance area; the ground floor is a pub with pool tables. Groups of Westerners are sitting down to dinner, there is laughter and loud conversation.
And then suddenly the music begins to play, soft and haunting, and there is a hush in the room. The group of dancers, dressed in white, their costume said to be derived from those of the apsara statues in the temples walk in and begin swaying to the music.
The dancers are very young, perhaps in their late teens, dainty hands with long nails, big eyes and smooth skins. And most of them have a bored look on their faces; they go through the paces in a mechanical manner reminiscent of the costumed apsaras at the temples. For all that, the dance is graceful and sensuous, the movement of their hands and feet mimicking those of the statues immortalized in stone.
Each movement of the dance is said to have a symbolic meaning; all that is lost on the casual viewer like me. Perhaps due to its setting, the entire performance is folksy, the initial apsara dance followed by what is described as the dance from the villages.
I remember reading that the entire Ramayana of Valmiki has been set to music and is performed at the more traditional venues; now that would be something to watch.
Day one among the temples and I keep remembering a delightful phrase I had come across long ago. Vuja de. Looking at the familiar with new eyes.
I have seen all this before. Apsaras dancing to the imagined beat of drums. Asuras (demons) and devas (gods) churning the ocean of milk for nectar. Garuda and Vishnu and Brahma. Hinduism and Buddhism. Men and women lighting incense sticks in front of idols. After a while, the guide’s stories from the ‘Ramayaaaana’ fade away. I watch instead. Monks in bright yellow and orange robes walk about with disposable cameras, taking photographs of each other against the murals. And the children.
Khmer kids, pesky, persistent, adorable, running behind you, selling everything under the sun for one dollah! Only one dollah, this-t-shirt-very-nice-made-in-Cambodia-madam, they intone, the pitch rising to a crescendo by the time they get to madaaaam. Where are you from, asks one particularly bold imp. I tell her and she points to my bare forehead and asks, where is your bindi? Bindi, bindi, bindi, the chorus follows us as we walk away to the waiting cab. Another one says, another day, another place, give me one dollah, we become friends.
And why not? The visitors seem to be amused by it, even like it. And it is not only Cambodia’s one-dollah-kids who are doing what their guests like, the adults aren’t very different. The Khmers seem to be experiencing their own vuja de. After decades of the Khmer Rouge oppression that ravaged the country and kept the tourists away, the world has discovered Angkor. And so the Khmers have decided to see their own country and culture with new eyes, those of the outsider.
Except, in those days at Siem Reap, I also get the sense of locals cocking a snook at the world, enjoying a private joke at the expense of the thousands who drop in to stare at the temples in silent awe. Look at the earthly celestial maidens, if you don’t believe me.
When I first catch sight of them, the apsaras are resting on the cold stones of Angkor Wat. One is flexing her foot, mimicking the action of the stone apsara dancing just behind her on the wall. The others are talking to each other in muted tones, bored expressions on their faces. The American tourist, khaki shorts and all, walks up to them and points with his camera, and they spring into action instantly. As a group, they strike well-rehearsed poses, peacocks flanking the line-up, the boy with the lion’s head in between, a dancing apsara on each side of the utterly discomfited tourist, as his friend clicks. As they pose for the camera, for a dollar, I notice the boredom doesn’t shift from their faces. Shot over, they get back to rest mode without so much as a smile at their temporary benefactor.
That also explains why, in a town that has more than 100 temples, the guidebooks and guides gush only about the most magnificent of them all, Angkor Wat (built between 1113 – 1150 by King Suryavarman II). The average traveller heads to Siem Reap primarily to see that, or more precisely the spectacle of the sun rising from behind the temple which uniquely faces the west. At dawn, when we make our way through complete darkness with slow hesitant steps to the pond in front of the west tower, a few hundred people have already assembled there. Did they spend the night there, I wonder, as excited shoppers at the Walmart sale do each year? Or did the tuk-tuks and buses disgorge their eager passengers in the wee hours, the drivers giving out instructions in broken English on finding the best spots from which to view the sunrise?
If Angkor Wat – built on the Hindu concept of the world, with the tall tower in the middle representing Mount Meru (the residence of the pantheon of Hindu gods and the centre of the universe, says my guide; my learning for the day) – is the biggest tourist magnet, the most fascinating of them is easily the Bayon temple. Bayon is situated inside Angkor Thom, established by King Jayavarman VII as his capital city, soon after he ascended to the throne in the late twelfth century. Bayon has 216 faces of the King Jayavarman VII, embodied as Bodhisatva the Buddha etched on the outer sides of its 54 towers. Like the Mona Lisa, a faint hint of a smile lingers on each of the faces, and the beatific eyes seem to follow your progress through the massive complex; is it mockery or pity one sees in those orbs?
The French novelist-explorer Pierre Loti seems to have grappled with the same issue when he wrote of Bayon in Un pelerin d’Angkor (A Pilgrim of Angkor) in 1901: “I raise my eyes to look at the towers which overhang me, drowned in verdure, and I shudder suddenly with an indefinable fear as I perceive, falling upon me from above, a huge, fixed smile; and then another smile again, beyond, on another stretch of wall… and then three, and then five and then ten”. Now, more than 100 years later, the greenery has vanished, but catch a sudden glimpse of the frozen smile and a chill runs down your spine. I can only imagine what it was like for Henri Mouhot, the French explorer who cut his way through the thick dark jungle to discover the hidden temples, in the mid-19th century.
Not all the temples of Siem Reap are massive and awe-inspiring. My favourite, Bantaey Srei, is small and exquisite; delicate would be a better way of describing this “citadel of women”. The pink stone and the intricacy of some of the carvings convince scholars that the temple was actually built by women.
And then Ta Phrom in the middle of thick vegetation, dedicated to one woman (the mother of King Jayavarman VII) and made famous across the world by another. Angelina Jolie shot for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in this temple and, for most visitors, that fact is as dazzling as the sight of the giant roots of the tree holding the temple structure in a vice-like grip for centuries.
Indeed, “Anjelina Jolie was here” seems to be a bit of a theme song in Siem Reap. We follow her path later that night to The Red Piano, weary to the bones after a hot day among the ruins. This popular pub is at one end of Pub Street, overflowing with trendy bars and restaurants serving international cuisine. As we walk down the narrow lane, music from the cafes spilling out on to the road, the enigmatic smile of the Bodhisatva Buddha at Bayon seems as if from a distant dream.
No stars – Siem Reap is about temples and more temples, most of them in ruins, enough to make even adults weary after a while.
How to get there
Unlike a century ago when explorers had to cut through dense jungles to get to Angkor, now you can fly directly into Siem Reap from many places in South East Asia. From India, the best way is to fly to Bangkok and fly on to Siem Reap on Bangkok Air (prices start at Rs. 6000 one way) or Thai Air. It is also possible to travel overland into Phnom Penh from Bangkok and then take a car or boat to Siem Reap, though procedures at the border are said to be cumbersome. You can get a visa on arrival at the Siem Reap airport for $20.
Where to stay
You will be spoilt for places to stay in Siem Reap which caters to the budget traveller as well as the high end luxury seeker. We stayed at the friendly Palm Village (http://www.palmvillage.com.kh/index.php – prices from $30 a night) set away from the main town and closer to the Angkor complex. You can choose to stay in town though it involves some travel to get to the temples each day. The FCC (http://www.fcccambodia.com/angkor/) is highly spoken of in discerning travel circles as the place to stay in. Try to catch a meal at the restaurant overlooking the river, or drop in at their gallery to see John McDermott’s fabulous photographs of a sepia-tinted Cambodia.
One of the best eateries in Siem Reap is the Blue Pumpkin, a café serving international cuisine, open from breakfast through the day. Their main outlet is near the old market, off Pub Street. (Tip : go past the diners on the ground floor on to the mezzanine floor for relaxed lounge seating). They also cater to the Angkor Café, situated just opposite the main entrance of Angkor Wat and have another outlet at the airport. For authentic Khmer and Thai food, the Chao Praya on the road to Angkor Wat is highly recommended. Drop in at Angkor What? for a drink, if only for the name, as we did.
My article on life on the floating village near Siem Reap, on the Tonle Sap lake… appeared in HT Cafe today…
Read the article online here… or here now…
Our very first evening in Siem Reap, we venture tentatively in a noisy boat into the Tonle Sap lake. We are there for a ‘sunset tour’ of the Vietnamese floating village Chong Khneas on the lake. Tourist trap, I mutter darkly under my breath as our boat makes its way across the very shallow muddy waters of the lake. At regular intervals, boats keep pulling up next to ours, with men and children, mostly children, offering to sell everything a thirsty traveler may need, from cold drinks and bananas to massive coconuts for the “sweet coconut juice Khmer special”.
We finally give in when the most daring of them all jumps into our boat from the speed-boat that her dad has got close to ours. The stunt leaves us speechless, reminding us of similar scenes from Hindi movies starring Ajay Devgan; all just to sell us a lukewarm can of Coca Cola. We pay her, mainly out of respect for that kind of entrepreneurial spirit and she takes the money with a shy smile, poses for my camera and jumps back into her boat. And as we watch, father and daughter disappear into the distance, possibly in search of the next tourist boat.
Ten minutes into the water, the village comes into view; homes built on boats and barges, men lazing on hammocks stretched across the breadth of the tiny boats, old women with sharp beady eyes selling flowers and vegetables, little boys rowing across the placid waters in little plastic and tin tubs. Some of the homes seem to have their own tiny pier attached to them, four to five boats tied around the huts; they bobble around in the calm waters, as if in eager anticipation of the evening’s outing.
We pass the floating school (my boatman says the school has a floating basketball court too, though I cannot see it then), and just when I think I have seen – and heard – everything, the floating cathedral, well, floats into view. It is a jigsaw puzzle of colors and geometric shapes all around me, boats painted in bright blues and greens, protected from prying eyes like ours by orange and pink curtains, fading but cheerful.
Right in the middle of the lake, we stop to hop on to a ‘restaurant’ which doubles up as a crocodile farm, and are directed to the roof-top two flights up rickety wooden stairs. And from the top, we watch in silence as the sun sets in the distance, lights coming on slowly in the boat homes all around as women and children light fires to prepare the evening meal.
And suddenly, the clamor of ‘one dollah, mistah’ from a boat that has pulled up close to ours; three children on a small boat near ours. You want to play with snake? they ask, carelessly brandishing the reptiles around their necks like so many rubber hoses. At the same time, wagging their fore-fingers furiously, just in case we couldn’t hear them. The one dollah kids of Cambodia are famous for their insouciant demands from tourists. As we start our way back to shore, the tinny voices – you buy banana, mistah? follow us in the dim darkness of the lake as life floats by casually around us.
The Vietnamese refugees who have made their home on the waters of the Tonle Sap (translated locally as the great lake), are nomads in their own way, their lives dictated by the rainfall and water levels and currents. It is stunning to see how they have adapted to life on the water; a few homes even sport TV antennae, powered I am told later, by a centralized power-station carrying car batteries!
The Tonle Sap is the largest lake in South East Asia and is said to be home to over 5000 people living on boats or on temporary stilt houses (though estimates vary widely, with some putting the number closer to 8000). The ‘great lake’ joins the Mekong river at Phnom Penh by way of the Tonle Sap river. During the rainy season, the water from the Tonle Sap river flows back into the lake, causing serious flooding, as the lake expands upto four times its length. As the waters of the lake rise, the villagers, and entire villages move inland along narrow channels for the next few months. And by October, when the rains stop finally, they move back ‘home’ to the lake, to their boats and fishing nets. Till the next season of rains.
Getting there and around
Fly to Siem Reap from Bangkok on the fantastically cheap Bangkok Air or take the long way by road from Thailand. You can also fly to Phnom Penh and take a bus or even a boat down to Siem Reap.
The Tonle Sap is about 12 km, an hour’s drive in a taxi or a more exotic tuk-tuk
(local auto-rickshaws) from the center of the city. There are several tour operators inside the city who organize boat trips for $15 – $30 depending on where you get the tickets.
The entire experience is worth the money, especially as a good break to counter the overwhelming templitis that is sure to strike you after a couple of days among the famed Angkor temples of Cambodia. Angkor Wat is the most celebrated of them all and easily deserves half a day in itself. The others, just as alluring are Ta Phrom where overgrown ancient trees compete with the ancient crumbling temple edifice for your attention and Bayon temple inside the once great city of Angkor Thom. The newly created Angkor museum is also worth a visit, if only for the fantastic audio-visual shows scattered along the tour depicting Khmer history and culture through the centuries.
Cambodia seems to the flavor of the month – I may add, the hottest destination (considering it is the beginning of peak summer there and all that). In March alone, two of the most popular travel magazines, India Today Travel Plus and Outlook Traveler carried pieces on Cambodia. Specifically, the area around Siem Reap, home to the Angkor Wat group of temples. The former had a photo essay and the latter a cover story on IndoChina. And the travel story in this Sunday’s HT Brunch was surprise, surprise, Cambodia. I cannot ignore these calls… and so I am off to Siem Reap tomorrow for eight days, stopping by at Bangkok for more Wat-trips and shopping.
See you here mid April with photographs and memories…