Cambodia is, for the average tourist, synonymous with two things: the ancient city of Angkor in Siem Reap and the “Killing Fields Museum” in Phnom Penh. The sheer expanse of ancient Angkor is itself a fascinating sight, with Angkor Wat as the piece de resistance; the museum documents rather graphically the aberrations of the Pol Pot regime with little or no information about other colonial (European) depredations.
Angkor is at the core of Cambodia’s tourism, a major source of revenue for the country’s economy. COVID-19 led to a big dip in tourist inflow from East Asia, India and Europe in 2020-21, but since then arrivals have increased. According to Sonbek, a young woman staffer at the Elias Greek Restaurant at Pub Street, a popular haunt for foreigners, tourist footfall was 10-20 per cent of the inflow before the pandemic but was steadily picking up.
Siem Reap literally means “Thailand defeated”, widely acknowledged as a not-so-appropriate term for a city with an international border. It was the site of a battle where Siam (Thailand) was defeated by the Khmer army, hence the name. It is another matter that Siam defeated the Khmers subsequently. The Thais seem to have, at least outwardly, accepted the title with grace and little fuss.
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There’s no public transport in Siem Reap. Motorcycles and mopeds are the popular forms of transport. It was a pleasant sight to see women driving motorcycles. Other forms include improvised mopeds attached to a four-seater buggy called the Remok, also known as the “Tuk-Tuk”. They are licensed vehicles with permits to park and enter the airports as well. One advantage of taking a Tuk Tuk is that one gets to see the countryside, with palm and coconut trees jutting out of paddy fields on either side of the road, which incidentally is in very good shape. It is a common sight to see women selling vegetables, meat and local wares.
The road to Angkor and its temples, unlike today, must have been inaccessible all those centuries ago until the French chanced upon the ruins in the forests. No narrative is complete without mentioning the ubiquitous guides. These licensed linguistic geniuses—they speak French, German English, Spanish and most of the East Asian languages—warn those who are reluctant to use their services about the dangers of “getting lost” amid the sandstone temples and their Byzantine corridors.
In The Civilization of Angkor, the archaeological researcher Charles Higham says that Angkor, according to Sanskrit and Khmer inscriptions and early accounts of Portuguese traders and Chinese travellers, was the capital of a civilisation (800 to 1400 CE) that commanded the rich lowlands of Cambodia and much of modern-day Thailand. Its god kings lived in cities built to represent Mount Meru, the mythical mountain home of the Hindu gods , “surrounded by huge moats”.
History has it that Jayavarman II unified the warring independent Khmer states into one empire. The historians Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques, authors of Ancient Angkor write that Angkor Wat (Wat means Buddhist monastery) owes its origin to Suryavarman II, a grand nephew of Jayavarman VI in the 12th century. His rule, they say, marks the peak of Angkor’s power and influence. There are temples like Banteay Srei which radiate elegance despite their diminutiveness, and there is the city of Angkor Thom whose sheer scale inspires awe. Whether it is the imposing Buddha figurine in Angkor Wat, its bas-relief gallery depicting the Battle of Kurukshetra, the delicate stone carvings of Apsaras (described by one guide as “celestial goddesses”), Siva’s dance of destruction in Banteay Srei, or the labyrinth-like galleries at the sprawling Preah Khan temple complex, it is apparent that the then rulers wanted to mark their territories in the grandest way possible.
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The other unique feature is the coexistence of a confluence of religious streams: Shaivism, Vaishnavism (within Hinduism) and Buddhism. There is no doubt that Hindu rulers brought with them their religion and the associated epics before Buddhism established itself in the region. But what is singularly missing is any information about the craftsmen who erected the sandstone temples, with their huge slabs, each weighing several tonnes and locking perfectly into the other without any cementing material. The rocks have faces cut into them, besides exquisite carvings of dancing apsaras, but little is known about how the stones were hoisted to those heights on the towers and elsewhere. Due to their antiquity and constant threat of erosion, the Angkor temples are under restoration work with assistance from India, Germany and Japan, among others.