And then there was Angkor Wat….
So nothing prepares you for Angkor Wat. Or well, nothing really prepared me for it. Not all the research I had done, not all the pictures I had seen on the net, not all the conversations I had with other travellers. And the funny part is that none of the research, or none of those people who had provided you with valuable insights were wrong either. In fact as strange as it sounds, this is one of the few places that looks exactly as it does in its pictures. No photoshopping, no editing, no false pretenses at all. And yet, yet I repeat – nothing prepares you for Angkor Wat.
So I knew that Angkor Wat meant ‘temple city’. Wikipedia also mentioned that it was the largest Hindu temple complex in the world. Travellers on various travel forums waxed eloquently about the spectacular architecture, about history seeping out of the ruins. Colleagues who had been there wholeheartedly approved of the place. But – well, to return to my point, I was not prepared for Angkor Wat.
The first thing was of course the sheer scale of it. I mean, yes, I knew that it’s almost a city, but until you traverse the breadth of it, you really don’t get it. And when you do, your mind grapples with the fact that all this was done so many hundred years back. Yes, I acknowledge that all those books and articles talk about it, but I could only process that information as I walked in stunned silence around boulders and rocks who seem to be talking to me in a different language. The second point is kind of obvious, but yes, you do get stunned by the outrageous magnificence of the architecture. So I have always been a nature enthusiast, and proclaimed that anything created by man, cannot be as beautiful or inspiring as one created by the Gods. Well, maybe I was wrong. Here was something created by man for the Gods, and there was something totally awe-inspiring and beautiful about it. As the hubby and I wandered in the scorching sun, gazing at the sculptures and carvings, we realized that there was a totally different feeling to the place. Even with the crowds thronging the place, the walls, the alleys, the domes seemed to tell us stories – stories of how man and God had lived in harmony and violence across the centuries. Each story had dramatic fervor to it, and each stone in the ruins seemed to be expressing its feelings. As hard as that is to believe, it’s true; it has to be true if someone as prosaic as me has to feel that.
And the finally the last point – Nothing prepares you for how clean and well maintained Angkor Wat was. Of course, I knew that it was a world heritage center, but well, so was Hampi, and while I love Hampi, I have to confess that it does not score on cleanliness. So when our tuk tuk wove its way into the complex, I couldn’t but exclaim in pleasure at the sights. So the road and landscape did not have the symmetry and preciseness in Europe, but it had a glorious lustful healthy feeling to it. The road was well tarred and sparkling clean and looked like it had been cut through a tropical forest (which it was!). The trees on either side of the road were tall and graceful and formed a huge canopy that looked more comforting than menacing. As we went further, and the day progressed, I was delighted when I realized that the cleanliness was not a freak thing. Each and every structure in the complex was well maintained, or as well maintained as ruins can be. There was no litter anywhere, the streets were well-maintained, the water bodies in and around the temple were clean, and gardens and lawns were well-tended. More than anything, the place had this feeling of well-loved prosperity. Much like a cherished well-scrubbed but rustic backyard in your house.
So the hubby and me had decided to take a 3 day ticket to the temple complex. Our chosen transport was a tuk-tuk, which of course we pretended was a chariot. As we went further, we met fellow charioteers and nodded hellos across our royal vehicles. Further down, we met some more evolved beings who insisted on travelling on bicycles. With habitual enthusiasm, I insisted that we discard our chariots, and cycle our way up the evolution chain. The hubby looked at the calf muscles of the cyclists, smiled at my well-oiled cheek muscles, and refused to do so. I sulked a bit, but it’s a little difficult to keep it up when you are chomping on every bit of food that comes your way. Two hours later, I was really glad about the hubby’s occasional bouts of disobedience. Nobody had told me that each temple consisted of different levels, and that each step in the stairs was the height of my legs. As I clambered up the boulders, I thought about how conceited I had been about my treks and my fitness levels. Man and man’s creations were testing me as much as nature was. It would have been of course a bit more tolerable if the hubby had shown the same propensity to collapse that I did, but of course it didn’t happen that way. It’s definitely not amusing when you are lying on your back in a darkened corner of an old musty room, suspecting a mild heart attack, with polite strangers walking over you giving concerned looks, while the man who promised to stick by you in heaven and hell (those are the marriage wows right) is playing around with his new SLR camera. In between gasping for breath, and looking for errant hubby, I managed to totter around the monuments. As tired as I was, or maybe because I was, I felt that every new place was more beautiful than the previous. Each structure was unique, and while I wouldn’t even dare explain the architectural details (I would fail miserably!), I can assure you that I was affected. In a manner I cannot explain in any logical way. How can you explain looking at old weathered temples with no deities and explain the almost religious fervor that grips you? How can you explain looking at piles of boulders lying in a haphazard manner and explain the possibilities that cross your mind? How can you explain gazing at carvings and scriptures that you don’t understand at all and talk about the stories that are revealed to you? How can you explain being part of a chattering noisy group of tourists and explain how alone and peaceful you feel in the midst of the crowds? How can you explain being totally blown away by an architectural, historical marvel when you have never come close to even understanding it? I know I can’t.
By late afternoon, I was a sweating, gasping mess who was moving her extremities on automation. The hubby either felt pity on me, or was terribly embarrassed of me, I am not really sure which – but he tumbled me down the stairs and bundled me into the tuk tuk. I grinned at the driver in painful ecstasy while he grinned back in amused sympathy. I love tuk tuks – even though they are driven by cheeky healthy 20 year olds. Soon the wind and hunger revived me, and I was back to my glorious sunny personality. The husband looked relieved when I demanded food; I could swear that he uses my requests for food almost as a thermometer – the moment I ask for food, he decides that all’s normal with me and the world! Anyway, we asked the driver to take us a restaurant where we would get local cuisine. And so he did. The trouble with being ignorant, and with being a glutton, is that you can never really gauge what’s authentic food. I fell over the rice and beef with gusto and proceeded to do full justice to it. When I took a break, the hubby was staring thoughtfully at my almost empty plate and asking the pertinent question – “is that really authentic?” It was my turn to be snooty. “Was it tasty” I asked with all the hauteur I could summon. The hubby is quite good at recognizing my combative moods, and beat a hasty retreat. But now that I am not looking at him across a table with beef in between us (no pun intended!), I have to admit that he had a point. The restaurant very obviously catered to tourists, and the tastes and prices were suitably altered. While the meal was cheap by western standards, at 18USD for a couple, it was definitely not the average Cambodian meal. Still, though it did not add to our Cambodian experience, I have to say that the place had a good vibe to it. The place was full of travelers (or tourists as you could choose to see), there was loud conversation, cheerful laughter, and gay bonhomie.
After the meal, I was in much better shape. The rest of the afternoon went by quickly as we explored the ruins with all the new found enthusiasm that we had. Towards sunset, we bundled ourselves into the tuk tuk and got back to the hotel where we were again treated to chilled lemongrass tea. The hubby’s not so well-intended showing-off at the ruins finally took a toll and he collapsed on the chairs, while I treated myself to some good old fashioned gloating, some lemon grass tea, and of course pleasant conversation with the Cambodian boys at the lobby. It was perhaps my vivacious personality, or well, more likely – their chirpy youthful exuberance, but they recommended we party through the night and recommended some “happening” night spots. Ignoring my own painful swollen ankles, I shifted blame to the hubby, who was playing the part of a tired lolling seal rather magnificently. Throwing himself into the part, he was lying supine on the couch, head, tail and all extremities in a state of exhausted abandon. But to his credit, and my disgust, he seemed to recover after emptying a few jugs of tea, and then threw himself into the party the boys were planning. I explained, and with all logical arguments I have to add, that we needed to have early start the next day and that meant an early night; I also managed to nudge the husband and whisper furiously that I was in no mood to party in a temple town! But by now, the husband was fully recovered, and full armed with all the youthful exuberance he had borrowed from the boys, proceeded to declare that if not party, we at least had to explore the night life in Siem Reap. “And besides, did I really want to be an old aunty and sit in the hotel and watch TV?” he asked with a glint in his eye. I was defeated. As much as my ankles screamed “Yes yes yes!”, I heaved myself up from the chair, gingerly walked up the stairs, changed into the slinkiest dress I could find, and then walked into the lobby in silent but pointed dignity. The boys and the hubby stopped their conversation, there was a pin drop silence for all of two seconds, then the hubby got to his feet, dusted his shorts, and proceeded to the door with a “hey, you are ready. Let’s go.” Sigh, I suppose I should be glad that there wasn’t any backslapping. The boys of course were sweet, and shyly offered lemongrass tea, which I think solves all problems from fatigue to injured pride.
So that was how I went about to Pub Street in Siem Reap – with swollen ankles, injured pride, and a totally evil intention of making fun of the place. And how I was defeated in my intentions! To be fair to me, would you really believe it if someone tells you that you can party in… say Mahabalipuram? (no offence to Mahabalipuram, but you get the idea). So I knew that the place was teeming with tourists, and there were bound to be watering holes, but a place with proper atmosphere, which was lively, and “happening” for lack of a better word? I didn’t know that could exist in a temple town. But it did! And it surprised the hell out of me. It was one of those surprises that travel keeps throwing at you, when your pre-conceived ideas about a place are totally shattered into smithereens. It keeps happening, and yet you are taken aback every time, and it’s these surprises which make you feel alive and yet grounded. So Pub Street was a total revelation. The streets was lined with the nicest restaurants and bars, there was music, outdoor seating, and aroma of the beer and barbeques. More than anything, there was an atmosphere of freedom and gaiety; it was obviously a place where travelers got together, chatted and exchanged stories. As we walked across the streets, people smiled their hellos, sometimes inviting us to join their groups. We were happy. Keeping the spirit of the moment, the hubby ushered me into a restaurant which promised “local exotic meat”. I have always been adventurous with food, and add the tasteful ambience of the place, I didn’t need much persuading. The theme was of course Barbecue, and I gathered that it functioned on the lines of “Namma bengaloru’s own Barbeque nation” except for a few key differences. So what were these differences? The first was that the meat was totally raw and there were no “masalas”, the second was that you have to cook it yourself – as in they bring you the meat, but you have to sear it along with the vegetables, and the third, there were 5 kinds of meat – beef, lamb, crocodile, snake, and tortoise. We have always taken the utmost pride in being carnivores, so we settled down to proceed with our adventurous culinary journey. The waiter came to our table, introduced himself, and gave us an update on the ‘process’, and congratulated us on being true explorers, unafraid to venture into the unknown(unlike those whinies who only ate lamb!). And that’s when the trouble started. It was the ‘snake’ word which freaked me, but it could also be the sight of raw beef on the barbeque. To my utter shame, I could suddenly see snakes and crocodiles in front of me, and the idea of a sumptuous feast did not appeal at all. I gulped, and when that did not work, twitched and fidgeted, till the hubby was forced to notice me. Warily he asked me what was wrong. Utterly revolted with myself, and knowing it was totally wrong, I did what no self-respecting woman should do. I made big eyes. I widened my eyes, trying to make them look as innocent and appealing as I could, and became a helpless delicate darling who could not left a finger or say a mean word. In my defense – I did it in the most unusual circumstances, AND – it worked like a charm. The hubby decided to restrict himself to beef and lamb, and we continued with our not-so-adventurous feast. This might be a good place to say that this kind of tactic should be used in extreme circumstances, as I had to.
The next day we started early with an intention of watching the sunset in the temple of Angkor Wat. Yes, it’s one specific temple, and while most people refer to Angkor Wat, they refer to the entire temple complex, which has a huge set of temples with varying names. Through the day, we wandered across the city, tired and enthused at the same time. The last leg of the trip was the journey to the temple of Banteay Srei which was around 37 kms away from the main temple complex. The long journey on the tuk tuk was enjoyable for various reasons – it allowed us some time to rest our legs and enjoy the breeze away from the calm tropical heat in the temples; it also allowed us to view the lush green uninterrupted landscapes of rural Cambodia; and it finally gave us a glimpse of the life of people in Cambodia. I have to admit – it was a very small glimpse, but it was enjoyable and insightful. We saw wooden houses built on stilts with children and cattle both taking shelter beneath the houses; we saw children hurrying towards modestly built schools, cycling in narrow roads across paddy fields; we saw hoardings of the Cambodian Nationalist Party all over and wondered about the politics of the country; we saw women making wooden carvings and selling them at atrocious rates to tourists. We saw children selling wares at the temples, and then playing in abandon in soft green meadows away from the eyes of the world.
Our 3 day trip to Cambodia ended as abruptly as it started. We left in the middle of the night on a small bus which was full of backpackers. As we waited for the bus near a Backpackers’s Hostel, we met and talked to a number of travelers. In conversation with them, I could not help the small streak of envy that ran through me, as I realized that they had seen Cambodia in a way I never had, and never would. These were guys who have lived in Cambodia for 2-3 months, gone all over the place, not the just the temples. They had wandered away from their Lonely Planet guides, explored the land, lived with the locals, and appreciated both the land, and what it had given them. Still, it was nice to meet them, to realize that you have been touched by a small part of their travel.
As the bus speeded towards Bangkok, I looked through all the pictures that the hubby had clicked on the brand new camera. As good as they were, I could not help thinking that we had not been really able to capture the spirit of Cambodia. Yes, the temples were awesome, yes, the landscape was green and beautiful, yes, the people were friendly, but was that all? Isn’t that true of any south Asian county? Yes and No. For an Indian traveler, who is looking for something totally different, Cambodia is not the place to go. The landscape is sometimes similar to Kerala (sometimes!), the temples are spectacular, but they are after all Hindu temples, and you would be familiar with them, and well – the economic conditions are similar, if not worse. While there’s enough to provide for the luxury tourist, it’s also impossible to deny the poverty that exists within the country. You could be awed by the temples and by the landscapes, but you cannot the escape the squalor or dirt in the parts where tourist buses do not typically stop. And there are the perpetual reminders of a third world country – child labor, petty crime and of course illegal trafficking.
And yet, yet I loved Cambodia.
I loved the quiet and peace of the jungles, as I loved their ferocity. I loved the temples, as I loved the spectacular stories that they told me. I loved the calm and quietness of its paddy fields, as I loved their richness. I loved the spontaneous friendliness of the people, as I loved their calm quiet and respectful attitude. Of course, I saw the problems, the ugliness, and dirt, but somehow the overwhelming image that I carried back with me was that of humanity and possibilities. Cambodia taught me that beauty was not just in nature, but it existed in everything that was valuable or treasured – whether it was a pile of ancient rocks, an ancient Buddha, or a conversation with a cleric in a jungle. It taught me that travel was not just about appreciating beauty, but it was about appreciating places. It taught me that enjoying myself did not always mean comfort, it meant exploring the unknown, and sometimes the unpleasant. It showed me that the unpleasant is temporary, and that’s why it important to take the journey, to bring along the possibilities of everything that needs to be experienced. It taught me that freedom has different meanings, some of it I was yet to decipher. As for romance – Cambodia again taught me a lesson. Away from the cheerful cafes, golden panorama trains, and snow-capped mountains of Europe, I hadn’t really expected to find romance. But when you walk hand in hand, through pouring rain, under a thick forest canopy, exploring an ancient ruin, your heart feel as mushy as the mud that you squelch under your feet. As you laugh your surprise away, in an appropriately named pub called “Angkor What?”, and dance with your man on swollen ankles, you feel as euphoric as you did on your first date. As you end your day, lying on a big fat boulder, looking at a star studded night, and find your hubby bring you some very spicy fried rice, you feel immensely grateful that you have a new measure of romance. And as you huddle next to him on a crowded bus, and see a new perspective to travel, you appreciate him for the guy he is. Yeah, Cambodia taught me a lesson on romance as well.
Would I recommend Cambodia to everybody? Yes. But not as a tourist destination, but as a place to travel and to explore. It’s a beautiful place, but more importantly, it’s a place with a lot of possibilities. It’s a place with a lot of heart. It’s place I know I would go back one day.