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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Melbourne - At the "MCG"

We got on to the train at Ormond. I was wearing my lucky red shirt, and it had never let me down over the past couple of years. When it comes to sport, and especially Indian cricket, all kinds of superstitions apply, and they seem to work too. Atheists pray, teetotalers drink and the non-social gather in crowds. It was an 11km journey to Richmond, a ride that on a normal day takes 15mins. But today was not a normal day in Melbourne. Stops at platforms were longer. The train was crowded and noisy, so un- Aussie. And somewhere between Hawksburn and Yarra stations, the train came to a complete halt for about 10 minutes, and it felt like an eternity. Something must have surely broken down, and what a day to for that to happen, I moaned. By this time, the train was buzzing. Blue shirts, flags, bandanas, wrist-bands and even kerchiefs fluttered. Excited murmurs were agog, and bets on who would win, MSD or AB, India or South Africa kept going round (obviously India, duh). Mercifully, the train started before the crowd lost patience.
We reached Richmond, got off the train, and walked in to a sea of blue. Within minutes, train after train dumped more blue shirts on to the platform. Where did so many come from? Flew in all the way from India like me, or were they settlers in Melbourne like Cooks? Richmond for once resembled Mumbai, elbows were thrown, the young and the old were pushed, and there formed massive disorderly queues into the subway and at the exit turnstiles. There were enough police at the platform who kept appealing for calm, but calm isn't what you expect when it comes to cricket and India. The turnstiles promptly broke down, there simply weren't enough and the ones present couldn't handle the crowds. Couple of impatient youngsters promptly jumped across them, others tried, and there was more pushing and shoving. Imagine a herd of wildebeest trying to cross a river, driven by the lure of fresh grass, with only a narrow path leading up to it. A smart lady among the police suggested they open up the turnstiles, lest there be a stampede, and the crowd roared in approval. The station emptied in a jiffy.
The first look of the MCG was from the walkway at the station. It had me swooning, I had goose bumps, and out came the camera. Replicated by almost everyone else, most paused to click those incredibly annoying selfies and groupies. And so we walked, clutching our tickets, and searching for the gates. Where was Gate 6? Obviously after Gate 5! A few groups started singing, others chanted “India, India”. Amid a parade of blue. Would they let me pass through, with my backpack and my camera, two of the most “high profile” security concerns at an Indian stadium? And what about the lemonade I had carried? Typical Indian questions, for sport aficionados like me, who put up with having to discard all their baggage, and body-searched at every sporting event in the country. And learn the hard way to walk in empty-handed. But here it didn't matter. Turnstiles were quick, baggage search was even quicker, the helpers waved the crowd in with a smile, and walking in through the gate was a piece of cake.
What wasn’t easy though was the search for Level 4, Great Southern stand, Bay Q13, Row N. What do I search for, the level, the stand, the bay or the row? So along with a group of other confused Indians, we asked for directions from an elderly sentry. He said you are at level 1 mate, walk up to level 4, then keep walking to your left. The circular stairs that went from level 1 up to 4 were the quickest I had ever run, and there were a host of others running with me. And at the first sight of the lush-green ground and the hallowed brown pitch, I barged in to the first entrance, which turned out to be Q3. Keep going mate, the sentry said before throwing me out.
At this precise moment rang out the Indian national anthem. Strangers stood next to each other and produced the loudest full-throat rendering I have ever heard, and I have been to a few. I had tears streaming down my face, and shamelessly so. So did the lady next to me, and the next guy and the next. We hugged before resuming our search for the seats. It never ceases to amaze me, the way normal people react to “Jana Gana Mana”, I cry every time and a lump rises up my throat. There was something indescribable about it that day; the Indian anthem reverberated much louder than the South African one. Surely we out-numbered them. “India, India”, we shouted as we settled in to our seats. A group of Sardars in the row behind me were dancing to Bhangra music. The ground looked green and the crowd looked blue. Easily the most beautiful sight I had seen in Australia by a long mile.
20,000 kms for a view of the MCG must be the most illogical uneconomical decision ever. As a life-long cricket fan (so are most Indians), and having seen countless matches on the TV from 1991, this was not any other trip. I was a late convert to the “live sport” category, economics, laziness and a firm (and absolutely incorrect!) belief that it looks better on the telly than at the ground, left me glued to the sofa for the first 29 years of my life. Till a chance encounter and an incredible series of coincidences found me at an RCB match, at the Chinnaswamy stadium in 2010. That match changed my life, and  left me with a significantly lower bank balance. But how do you put a price on that incredible sense of joy, all those tears and those bragging rights? MSD at Wankhede, Roger and Novak at Delhi, Lee and Bops at Bangalore, Stan at Chennai, Saurav at Eden, Yanni and Metallica at Bangalore.
Australia took a year of planning, starting with booking the tickets to the four games in March 2014. It was a pilgrimage, and MCG stood at the center of my cricketing universe. For years, I have heard breathless commentators describe it as the “Mecca of cricket” and bristled, believing that our own Eden Gardens, Wankhede or my beloved Chinnaswamy were as good, if not better. How could an Aussie stadium compete with an Indian crowd? No way mate. The world cup provided the perfect opportunity to test the thesis.
The seats were slightly to the left of the side-screen and directly behind long-off. The first 10 minutes went by just gazing longingly at the turf which looked too green to be true, luckily the “drop-in” pitch was too brown to be true! MSD promptly won the toss and AB promptly ran Rohit out. The crowd gasped, and went silent while Shikhar and Virat rebuilt. We were hopeful but this was Steyn and Morkel, the most lethal combination in world cricket. A kid behind me asked his father “dad, we are going to lose na?” I gave him the half-turn and glared at the father. How dare he? Sachin waved as the camera caught him at the pavilion, and the crowd chanted “Sachin, Sachin”. How does the crowd always get the timing right? It must be instinct, and India built a good platform.
Virat went, so did Philander, and Dhawan flicked Morkel over long-on. Oh, how effortless, he made the giant look gentle. It was a reflection of the pitch too, there was no swing and the ball came along beautifully. Perfect batting conditions. Amla dropped a sitter, and he was jeered. And then Shikhar upper-cut Parnell over third man, and raced to his century. The crowd sensed we were on the rise and could win. And when Rahane blitzed Parnell and Steyn, the Mexican waves and the roars were so loud that the PYT in the row ahead couldn't hear her boyfriend on the phone. Rahane tonked Steyn over mid-off, in that classical elegant scoop of his, almost apologetic in the way he was treating the great man. It sailed ten rows back. The Sardars went nuts, I went bonkers. The loudest cheer and the most silent hush were reserved for MSD. He didn't deliver, but he didn't have to. Once the psychological 300 mark was breached, there was only one winner. The belief was palpable, and a couple of beers did nothing to diminish the enthusiasm. Getting AB out quickly was the key, said practically the entire stadium.
South African openers went cheaply, but Faf and AB looked like settling in for the long haul. And then it came, that one magical moment when the match turned. AB played to deep cover and quickly turned for the second. Surely it was on. Mohit swooped down, and delivered the knock-out punch, a direct throw. MSD jumped up and down and the crowd was on the edge of their seats. Had we run-out the quickest man in cricket? AB looked shocked. The umpire drew a square, oh, can the review be any slower? The first angle suggested AB made it back, but barely. The crowd made a racket and grew angry. The second angle was inconclusive. There were groans. And then, the third angle, he was short, he was short, the Indians knew it, they were mobbing Mohit, AB left dejected, shaking his head, he knew he had thrown it away. The crowd certainly knew, and it was the most deafening roar Melbourne had ever heard. 86,876 voices, all Indian it seemed. We knew it was just a matter of time now.

Cook’s friends left, and so did some other crazy unpatriotic souls midway through the African innings. Kids, do they realize what they were missing? There is nothing called a dead game. She came over to my seat, with half the row watching her every move, and wondering how such a thing even knew me! 147-4 was when she sat down, and what followed was a procession. Bad shots, tight bowling by Ashwin who seemed to have suddenly discovered the magical art of flight and loop, and another run-out. The match was over in the next 10 overs, barely 45 minutes. I made her promise to wear the same short striped dress to every Indian match at Melbourne; she saw a side of me that only emerges when I am immersed in sports. I wailed like a child and cried myself hoarse at the fall of every wicket, blew high-fives with the kid, and that nameless guy with the pretty girl in front. It didn't matter, it was delirium and I was high. The old Indian couple next to me asked where I was from, I said Bangalore. He said I live 5 mins away and I have been to the ground for the past 25 years, and I have never seen something like this. You flew all the way from India for this, he asked, incredulity written all over his face. Can anyone be so crazy, he seemed to think? Yes I did, and yes I am, and so did so many, where do you think 85,000 turned up uncle, I asked? Tiwary, turn in your grave, you missed this game for what?
One final act remained. MSD had to thank the fans, our boys must have felt right at home, and the crowd knew it had played a key role in the win. We were waiting, and on cue, MSD says, the support was wonderful. Thank you Mahi, thank you for the joy, the pain, the agony, tears and all these years. We had Sachin and now we have you. We know you will retire if we win the cup, that is the price we will pay. And oh we will cry those happy tears. On the way back, Richmond station resembled an enormous dorm party. Some were drunk, some were high, and most others were plain delirious, but all were loud and crazy, how did anyone have a voice left after the match? The national anthem and India chants continued through the 20 min ride. At Ormond, cars were honking in to the night, was there any suburb in Melbourne that wasn't celebrating? Streets of India must be a riot now, but I would rather be here. Time and place.
What is it about sport that makes grown-ups behave the way they do? Makes us laugh, cry, jump for joy and despair in agony, and brings out the best and the worst in us? Is it the primitive urge to bond and believe in something larger than the individual, feelings that are conspicuous by their absence in the materialistic society we have so proudly designed? Does it appeal to some part of the brain that we hardly use in our day-to-day life, some hidden crevice that wakes up to the right stimuli, and releases those “ooh and aah” moments? Or is it just the outlet to connect with our childhood again, feel those emotions and joys we get used to suppressing as we grow in to mature adults? The Romans had their gladiators and Indians have their cricketers. I discovered the magic of sport 5 years ago, and it has me hooked for life. Raw, primal emotions are so rare, they have to be cherished.
And I agree, MCG is magical. Maybe it is the capacity crowd, and the vibe. Or the enormity of the ground, compared to the silly 60 meters boundaries we are so used to. Or the way the stands rise almost vertically from the ground, making one feel right on top of the action. Or is it just the history and the fabulous, yet very expensive beer and food? It must feel very intimidating to the visiting team, as South Africa discovered that night. How did India become the home team? That's the Indian fan for you. No wonder the Aussies lose so little here, Boxing day at MCG with 100,000 screaming for blood would probably be one of the greatest sight in sports today. As amazing as the 110,000 in the old Eden gardens. I have been to the second, maybe it’s now time for the first. For now, bragging rights of being part of the second largest crowd ever at a one-day international will do. And the look on that kid’s face when I grabbed him and shouted “we won, we won”, high-fived his dad, and then hugged the old man next to me, with his wife blushing at all the silliness. Oh, cricket, what would I do without you!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Cambodia - Part 8 - Phnom Penh - Fascinating city of many faces

It looked alright, a proper 10-seater with Wifi, AC, TV and bottled water. Cambodians are known for their punctuality, and promptly at 730 AM, Mekong travels picked us up from our hotel in Battambang. It was either the road for USD12 or a flight for USD65, so the choice was obvious. And the roads seemed well paved, the driver was chatty and kept to under 80, we were soon passing through beautiful countryside with rice fields that glistened under the bright sun. We stopped at Pursat for breakfast around 930AM, delicious flavored rice with chicken and lovely tea. And then the road roughened up, turned from 2 lanes to 1, there were running repairs all along (the three local grumbled that it has gone on for ages), the sun kept getting higher, the potholes and pebbles got bigger, and the mini-bus started lurching and rolling. This was what the locals had warned, don't extrapolate they said. But the real torture was the last hour and a half, the closer we got to Phnom Penh, the dustier and pebblier the road became until we were literally hanging off our sockets, tightly gripping the rails and praying we would get there in one piece. The driver, to his credit, never let the smile disappear; kept saying in that typical Cambodian english "road construction, very bad".

The first signs of the capital were the floating villages on the river; then the shanties and the markets. I start calculating, if the capital extends up to 50 mins from the CBD (as per AP's google maps), it must be large. And probably crowded and polluted. The traffic and the noise added a couple more negatives to the check-list. By the time the bus dropped us off just outside the city, my hyper-active mind (AP swears I am getting crankier with age) has imagined the worst - the heat and the hunger surely contributed. It was a relief the hotel had sent a tuk-tuk, we would have been otherwise lost. The luggage were loaded and tightly bound, and the tuk-tuk had a wire grill around the seating area - to ward off thieves and bag snatchers, the driver said. My heart sank. I wore the backpack on my stomach and leaned as far back as the seat would allow, and kept my leg glued to my suitcase. AP looked unperturbed as usual, but he took out his ipad and kept checking the route every minute.

It turned out we had no reason to worry. PP (as it is called by most visitors, since the pronunciation is complicated) is the largest city in Cambodia, has a 2Mn population, and like every capital, attracts a large number of migrant workers, which combined with the villages along the Tonle Sap that runs all the way to Siem reap hosts the bulk of the populace. It is also the economic, political, cultural, and architectural power center. What it isn't though, is a metropolis, which is what my worst-case imagination had painted. The tuk-tuk passed through the downtown, the beautiful river-front,  clean neat and wide roads, and orderly traffic, and by the time we checked in to the "one-up banana" hotel, my fears were dissipating. Lunch and beer down the throat, and a friendly chat with the hotel manager, and they were almost gone.

Phnom Penh is first and foremost a city dominated by its rivers; "Chaktomok" - the city of four faces located at the intersection of Mekong, Tonle Sap and Tonle Bassac rivers, that shape much of the capital, and give rise to the beautiful river-front. The royal city has a rich legend surrounding its origin and has a history dating back to the 14th Century. Sisowath Quay, the river-front stretches from Wat Phnom (from which the capital derives its name) in the South all the way to the Royal palace up North, and an assortment of historical and cultural sites, hippest restaurants, bustling pubs, and trendiest hotels all line up along this one road, about 2-2.5kms long. The river-front bursts in to activity in the evening and gets quite glitzy with great food and drink, while the several parks and gardens around the Royal palace are inundated by locals, who turn it in to a happening picnic place. It seems the whole city literally steps out on to the river-front every evening; the pubs and restaurants are full, the cruises have hordes of tourists, kids are out playing on the streets, container ships fly up and down the river, and the streets are young and bright. The capital seems perfectly safe, we walked back all three nights late and drunk, there were single women selling food and fuel on the streets, we hardly saw any violence or unruly behavior, and there were very few cops around. It is a strange marriage of deeply Buddhist beliefs, a society that revers the king who towers over it as a father figure, yet permissive and open enough to accept modern life and the attending ills that tourism brings. The dazzling royal palace and the trendy river-front are barely 20 meters apart, and the two worlds seem to be in a state of blissful co-existence. Phnom Penh grows on you.

PP is a shutterbug's delight. Beautiful architecture, brilliant sunshine, lots of open spaces, large squares styled after the great european cities, wide open streets and boulevards, and all within a 20 min walk of the river front. It is usually 30'c but with the sun and humidity feels like 40 - a slight breeze hovers over the city till it gets stifling hot around 1PM, so the first half of the day is not to be wasted sleeping, said our helpful hotel manager. So, we took a walk. And ended up walking all the three days - up the riverfront and the sights, and down back to the hotel in the nights.

The Independence monument sits at the centre of the largest traffic roundabout in the city, at the intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk boulevards, and when lit-up at night, looks quite spectacular. A huge open square and a park serve both as lung-space and a meeting point for the adolescents, especially in the evenings, when the side roads are full of eating joints, large number of youngsters and is a melting pot of locals and tourists. Built in 1962 to celebrate the country's independence, most of the political celebrations are held here.

We were told the National museum opens up really early and is a must-visit to learn about the country's architecture and history. For USD5 per person, and after the positives we had heard from a couple of Brits the previous night, I really looked forward to this - but it turned out to be disappointing. Yes, it has lots of artifacts (numbering 5000 in total), chief among which is the famous statue of the "leper king" from Siem reap, has well-written descriptions of Khmer architecture and mythology, but focuses more on Khmer empire building rather than culture and history. I for one thought the rust red building that houses the museum was more a piece of art, built in 1920 and heavily derived from French architecture. The arrangement and audio narration could be much much better, crowd control is non-existent, and if you have visited the museum at Siem reap, there isn't anything new you would learn here. Worth a visit only if one is really keen.

What I would't miss though is the majestic Royal palace, which looks grand and elegant with its high walls, and is lit up brilliantly in the evenings, and together with the riverfront, is probably the core of Phnom Penh. We had passed along the palace the previous night, and what is striking is the rather limited and non-intrusive police presence; the guards smile, and allow photographs, people mill around the front-gate and actually open up their picnic baskets and laze around the palace gardens - a wonderful sight. It is a difficult place to get in though, open only from 730-11AM and 2-5PM, and a long queue builds up an hour before the gates open. While in the queue, one gets a glimpse of the classical pagodas, sloped tiled roofs, gold-plated spires and glistening motifs, and the excitement builds up, it is a mad rush to the ticket counters and a race to get in.

Once you do get in, the mind goes in to hyperactive mode. There is so much grandeur on display, and each structure looks so dazzling that the camera goes in to overdrive, and it takes a conscious effort to calm down and begin to enjoy the brilliant display of opulence. The really confusing map and the afternoon sun do not really help matters; what is for sure is the palace, constructed in phases from 1866-1920 and which serves as the residence of the king, is a truly unique exhibition of royalty and classical Khmer architecture. Everything here is grand, but if I have to pick one, it would be the "Silver Pagoda" which has 5,329 silver tiles, each weighing 1.125kg lining the floor, and where the king meets the monks. It houses the "Emerald Buddha", a resplendent jade statue that sits atop a gilded dais, along with several other historical objects. At the entrance stands a golden Buddha statue, made of 90kg of pure gold and studded with 2,086 diamonds. Clearly, it is a rich dynasty, proud to display its wealth and dazzle with its splendor. The mythical "Mount Meru" also makes its appearance, along with a scaled replica of "Angkor Wat". The map does play an important role, and the history and function of most of the buildings is well-described, and it may be useful to actually follow the path in the map; we didn't. I followed my camera and AP followed the crowds, and we both hung around till they shooed us out promptly at 5PM. It was with a twinge of regret, I could have stayed here for a lot longer and my camera could have taken a coupe of thousand more snaps. Truly one of the highlights of the city and a glorious reflection of its history and cultural richness.

We ended up following the river-front and found ourselves that evening at "Wat Phnom", the legendary temple from which the city of Phnom Penh derives its name. The temple stands on top of a small hill at the southern end of the river-front, and is dedicated to Lord Buddha, housed in a large room with high-ceilings that are painted with bright colors, and tell several traditional tales. A large stupa that contains the remains of the king who first moved the capital from Angkor to Phnom Penh  in the 15th century stands tall outside the temple. A large park surrounds the Wat on all four sides, it is a great location to hang around, and watch the sun set over the river. The place is bustling with a steady stream of devotees, some of whom the priest told me, offer their prayers every evening, locals who play some really distinctive board games on one of those park benches, and an array of hawkers and vendors. 

On one of those impulsive buys, I got conned at the national museum into buying tickets for an evening show, staged by the Cambodian Living arts. It was USD15 per person and the show was "Mak Therng". For that money, it better be good, I could get three whole meals. Turned out to be an age-old ballad, re-imagined and reinvented, set on a small stage with an audience of about a 100, mostly foreign; brilliant lightning, amazing music and orchestra, superb coordination, stunning lead acts, a vibrant support cast, and in all, a very cohesive and tightly strung performance, that left most of the audience, and me, in a spell, in spite of the fact that we understood nothing of the language, and had to rely on the subtitles to make sense of the story. Great art has a way of breaking through all barriers.

Did I mention the river-front? I sure did, but let me do that again. Phnom Penh is a great river-front city, and the choices one has is amazing. It seems there is enough to do every evening; take a cruise up the river, watch a play, walk along the river-front and breathe in that fresh breeze, get drunk at any of the watering holes that serve freshly brewed beer for USD2, and oh the sea-food! Some of us truly faithful EPL fans (mostly Brits) ended up watching a Chelsea game an an Irish pub. It was a cool evening, there were beautiful women around, lots of beer and lots of great food, and Chelsea won. Did I mention we took a midnight walk along the river-front? What a night and what a locale, surely I must be back here sometime. PP is such an amazing place, one could easily get by on USD35-40 a day without cutting corners.

There was just one more thing to do the next day; revisiting Cambodia's dark past and the genocide orchestrated by the Khmer rouge. For four years from 1975 to 1979, the communist dictatorial regime headed by Pol Pot tortured, maimed and killed anything between 2-3Mn of their fellow Cambodians (historians disagree on the numbers, but it is really irrelevant how many actually died), 20-30% of the population, in one of the worst genocides of the later 20th century. Some governments even accepted and supported the Pol pot regime, till it crumbled and withered away in 1979. Cambodians have chosen to remember the horrors of that era and build memorials to ensure the surviving generations do not forget; not that it is easy. The Killing fields and Toul Sleng genocide museum are two stark reminders of the depths to which humanity can descend.

When I was researching the trip, there were conflicting advice on the killing fields; some said it was not worth the long drive, others said it was too horrific to stomach, but when so much of the country's history is tied-up with those four years, it is difficult to let it go. AP and me took a coin toss to decide, as we usually end up doing, and the coin has been a great judge over the years.

"Choeung Ek Memorial" or the aptly named "Killing fields" lies about 18kms or 45mins away from the city, through some rough and narrow roads, and small villages. A small pathway surrounded on three sides by water and paddy fields brings one to the most notorious of the more than 300 killing fields in the country. It is hard to imagine that the location was once a sleepy, beautiful orchard, located in the picturesque country-side and a Chinese cemetery till the Khmer rouge began its brutality in 1975. It is today the largest site of programmed executions, mass-graves, and killing areas found in Cambodia and is visited by thousands of tourists every day. The tour (if it can be called one) is brilliantly organized right from the moment one buys the USD6.5 ticket and steps in to the premises, complemented by some truly informative voice-overs, incredible stories by the few survivors, commentary by prison guards, and some of the most authentic analysis of the history of the Pol Pot regime. 

Your stomach churns as you hear the narrations of the survivors and your blood boils as you hear the cold, almost philosophical explanations of the guards and the officials of the prison at that time; I found the recording of the infamous "Duch", the highest ranking Khmer rouge official tried in courts, very vexing. The tour is not for the weak-hearted; many enter the killing fields in groups, smiling, happy and chatting away, and in the two hours or so it takes to walk around, turn gloomy, silent, an introspective, as if they are trying to gather their thoughts as to how mindless and senseless those four years were. It took ages for the world to recognize the genocide, and more for the Khmer rouge to be brought to trial. 2 hours is too less to digest the depths of inhumanity that occurred here, but the tour bravely tries to paint a picture, and does a great job of it. If you can stomach the horrors, do visit. 

And the other part of the picture is found in "Toul Sleng genocide museum" or S-21, right next to the Russian market, which didn't catch my fancy. A school gets converted in to a heinous torture chamber, an orchard turns in to killing fields, and a Buddhist monastery into a place for organized torture, execution and burial grounds. What perverse form of cultural and moral decay was the Khmer rouge trying to impose, will remain one of the great mysteries of this generation. Hard to imagine that the peaceful, reticent, and simple Khmer population had to face such horrors, and have to live with it every minute of their lives. If the Killing fields were the end-game, the Toul Sleng was where it all began - an ordinary high school with tall walls, that became torture chambers, and from which only 7 survived. Seven, out of the countless thousands who passed through it. 

Toul Sleng has four sections, all of them in 2-floored buildings. Section A is the interrogation and torture chambers, section B is where the inmates were locked-up, section C is the solitary confinement rooms and the ghettos which are protected with barbed wires, and section D are still being deciphered. In the courtyard stand the hanging ropes, used both for torture and the actual hangings. The prison has immaculate records of the more than 17,000 prisoners who passed through its chambers, and most of them and the prison itself has been left in very much the same way as it was found in 1979, giving us a great perspective of what transpired here in those four years. It belongs to movies and nightmares. It is a really brave society that decides to let these two monuments of torture stand as they were, rather than tear them apart. Speaks volumes of the tenacity and resilience of the society, and is a symbol of the Cambodia today, recovering from its past, and looking to its future.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Cambodia - Part 7 - Battambang - Distinctly French, and wonderfully under-explored!

Knut was back-packing across Cambodia and passed through Battambang. Stayed a couple of days, liked it and kept coming back over the next couple of years. One day, the owner of the Khmer restaurant where he usually ate offered to sell it to him, she couldn't afford to keep the place open or pay her staff. So Knut, the tall German, sold his business in Germany, bought the ramshackle place, redecorated it, and opened up "Woodhouse", a nice little pub serving French & German food, along with some local cuisine and excellent beer. Says he may end up buying a house up in the countryside and live here for ever.

Wei, the second generation Chinese-Cambodian was born in Battambang. His uncle owned a seedy hotel which catered mostly to backpackers, till his luck turned and he went broke. Wei's mother took over the "Hotel Royal", and he is now the manager. Speaks excellent French (most of the local folks learn French in school), has renovated the hotel and plans to expand. Says the laid-back nature of the town will never let him leave.

Battambang has an allure, a little something one can't place. Maybe it is the distinctly French colonial architecture, high triangular roofs, and the wide clean roads arranged in neat parallels and perpendiculars. Or the exceptionally calm river Sangkae that runs right through the center of the town, and gives it a whiff of fresh air, and all those evening stalls with the great street food. Or as Wei said, maybe it is the nature of the town itself, delightful in the way it is laid-back and inviting, with only a little whiff of tourists. Or the gorgeous country-side passing through some of the prettiest rice fields in the country. It is hard not to fall in love with it.

But we nearly skipped it, it was really a compromise, since we didn't know where else to camp. We didn't fancy Sihanoukville the popular beach resort, owing to an acute overdose of sun and sand over the past couple of years, and had already penciled in 4 days at Siem reap and 3 days at Phnom Penh. So looked up a map we did, and there it was, right in between the two cities. And AP loves everything French, wine, women, architecture, language. Well, we thought a rural town would be good for a couple of days of recuperation, coming after the hectic temple mapping at Siem reap. And ended up taking a cab from Siem reap to Battambang one fine sunny morning, about 200kms, 3 hrs and USD33 lighter. 

Kal saw us checking in to the hotel, and asked us if he wanted to be shown around the town on a tuk-tuk. Oh, not really, we are just here for 2 nights, we just want some rest, we said. So Kal says, have your lunch, I will be at the hotel around 2.30 and then you decide. We ordered an aubergine, a beer, and a schnitzel, and he was there at 2, smiling at us. So, instead of taking a nap, as was the original plan, we ended up poring over a map of Battambang, reading up over AP's ipad, and "expertly" negotiating a USD22 fee for a tuk-tuk ride in to the sights for the rest of the day.

For a town that prides itself on its history (established in the 11th Century), centrality (connecting Phnom Penh to the Northwest and close proximity to Thailand), and agrarian economy (rice granary of the country), Battambang does a fabulous job of underselling itself. Nearly every tourist goes to Siem reap and Phnom Penh; not many turn up here. A blessing in disguise if you will, we saw a few intrepid backpackers around the town, and a few more at some of the temples, but not many. Much of the sights are under-explored, and the two most important are the Phnom Banan and Phnom Sampeau.

Phnom Banan lies a picturesque 45min drive from the city, through roads that wind through the lush country-side, and is a 11th Century mountain-top temple, similar in style to Angkor era, but almost in ruins. The 5 towers (prasats) are arranged in the 5-pointed form, made of brick and heavy rocks, and mostly crumbling. Reaching the temple requires a bit of a heavy climb, about 150 steps and a good 300-400 in height from the base. But the climb is well-worth the effort, for one gets a great view of both Sampeau, on the other side of the hill range, and the lush green an amazingly flat Cambodian countryside.

30 mins through a bone-rattling dirt track from Banan, and passing through some stunning locales, small dispersed villages, and totally off the beaten track lies Phnom Sampeau. Either Kal took us through the back alleys, just to give us the "true Cambodian experience" or he got lost. Either way, after some anxious moments where he didn't seem to know where we were, and had to ask the locals for direction, the mountain and the Wat that sits perched on it came in to view. You can't miss it though, the tallest hill in the area with a Wat whose bronzed roof shines brilliantly in the evening sunshine. It is called the Boat mountain, and has a wonderful legend of a girl that lends it the name. 

At the base of the hill, one hops on to a bike and halts at the first stop, the mid-way point up the hill, where three killing caves from the Khmer rouge time reside. The scariest of them is the one with a deep dark hole with a tiny opening through which the sun shines down; victims were hit on the neck and dropped down the steep cave, and were never heard again. A sleeping Buddha statue in the adjacent cave smiles serenely, as if asking for forgiveness and peace. A horrific and spine-chilling location.

After a while, the biker picks you up and takes you to the second stop, the top of the hill, where resides a rather unexceptional pagoda, but spectacular view of the countryside. Picture perfect setting and some great evening snaps. And on the third and final stop, the "bat cave", two of them rather innocuous looking giant openings by the side of the hill. But apparently not, as we ran in to a group of around 100 tourists, eagerly pointing at the cave and speaking in hushed voices. It was 530PM. There started a low buzz, first a light uncharacteristic sound, growing louder by the second, then a single bat flying out through the cave, then some more, all in a single file; then the explosion - a loud noise, and there they were, uncountable black wings flying away for what seemed an eternity. A million gasps and even more flashes, and the spectacle continued for a while, till the last bats were out of the cave. A mad rush then ensued with the tuk-tuks competing with each other to get other to get to the one vantage point a km away, where the bats can be framed against the setting sun and the dangerously perched Wat. What a sight! And we initially planned a nap. The best experiences are sometimes the most unexpected and unplanned.

We hired Kal for the next day too, for USD12. He said he would show us two of the oldest monasteries around the town, the killing fields of Battambang, and the bamboo train. The drive itself was worth the money. A single lane road twists and turns through several small villages, passes right through a small rivulet for about 15kms till Ek Phnom. There are acres and acres of stunning green rice fields, as far as the eye can see; surprisingly even in the dry season, they all seemed well-irrigated and all the rivulets seemed full. No wonder this is the rice heartland. Battambang has a large number of brightly colored pagodas, all of which lie on one single road through the city to Ek Phnom, which is a rather dilapidated early 12th Century temple, prettily located next to a small lake and what seems to be a rather recent pagoda. 

Wat Samroung Knong, though, has a rather grizzly past; it is the oldest monastery in the Battambang area, an early 18th Century temple. In 1975, it was taken over by the Khmer rouge and converted in to a prison; the prayer hall became prisoners barracks, the main complex turned in to the execution chamber, and the surrounding paddy fields became the "killing fields of Battambang". It is estimated to be the largest execution area outside of Phnom Penh, and a memorial to the more than 10,000 human remains found in this area serves as a stark reminder to the horrors of the Khmer rouge regime. Interestingly, a temple stands here now, and a school operates in the area. Maybe forgiveness and education are the way to ease the painful past.

When Kal said the final stop for the day was the Bamboo train, we were generally disinterested. And balked at the USD5 per person charge. The station-master (sort of!) though said it would be great fun, and winked in the typical Cambodian style. So, we got on to the mini-train, it is really a wooden dismantle-able carriage on four wheels, with a motor and a driver. Remember those long endless train journies you took when you were young? The roll of the train, the steady clickety-click of the wheels, the jar and the jump at the intersections of the rails? It all came back in a hurry.

The bamboo train runs on narrow gauge, surrounded by thick vegetation and wonderful smelling trees, and occasionally opens up vistas of the featureless, endless rice fields. And what happens when trains have to pass? The drivers get off, lift one car from the tracks, roll the wheels to the other side, and put it back on, all in exactly 30 seconds. And it can get pretty rough out there - we refused to get down, and hollered at the other side, they gave us the hee-hoo, all in good fun. There is something about a train journey that brings out the child in everyone, for the one hour we went up and down the 15kms of the narrow gauge, I was a child. Innocent, joyous, and easy to impress in a world full of wonders. Easily the best money spent so far. And reflective of Battambang. We came here with no expectations and thought there was nothing to do, and ended up loving every minute of it. The town grows on you, and you want to keep coming back. I now know how Knut feels.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Cambodia - Part 6 - The town of Siem Reap

I always wondered how first impressions are formed. Malcolm Gladwell says they are an evolutionary trait, a survival mechanism. Our minds are geared towards making snap, instinctive judgments and more often than not, they are right. Airports play a crucial role in such first impressions, and the first adjective on getting off the flight at Siem Reap was “laid-back”. It is an international airport, and the most popular tourist destination in Cambodia. Yet, the airport is old-world, one walks across the tarmac to the immigration under the hot sun, where a friendly officer greets you and hands over a couple of ugly looking forms; we gathered round a couple of distinctive wooden tables to fill them out, and then noisily stretched out in to a long queue. At the counter, a voice in broken English said “Oh, India, Bollywood, Mumbai, Cricket” and waved us through. All in barely 10 minutes. And as Rei loaded our luggage on to his tuk-tuk, and the winter sun started burning our faces (it was 30C and 90% humidity), AP remarked “if the airport is any indicator, the town will be sleepy”. How prescient he was!
When Angkor was rediscovered in the 1900's, Siem Reap's fortunes turned overnight, the sleepy town became the gateway to the now world famous Angkor temples, with “Grand Hotel d'Angkor” being the first “tourist resort” built in 1920's. Today, the town is connected by unnaturally wide and empty roads all the way to Bangkok, has several upscale resorts on the drive from the airport to the town (about 7-8 kms and 20 mins), a vibrant nightlife clustered around the ubiquitously named Pub-street and its namesake river-front, and boasts of multiple options for visitors, ranging from the glitzy to the downright seedy. The town survives on tourism and almost everyone is directly or indirectly connected to the moolah, the busboys, guides, tuk-tuk drivers, the restaurants, hotels and pubs, even the pimps and the prostitutes. Perry, the honorary Cambodian, told me of a time in the 70's when the town was just two streets, and a couple of hotels. Tourism sustains but also breeds several ills, a choice most emerging economies have already made, without fully understanding the implications.
We stayed at the “Golden Temple Villa”, a 5-minute walk away from Pub street in the quieter part of the town. Not exactly a backpacker's paradise, but budget at USD20 per night, basic amenities, and a great restaurant. Siem Reap is best covered by walk or on a bicycle, one can still see the French overhang on the old buildings, the neatly arranged river-front along which most of the commercial establishments lie, the clean and well-laid out streets that stretch parallel to the river; Pub street in contrast seems a modern addition, is loud, lively and gets crowded with its loud music, abundance of pubs and roof-top restaurants, street food and dazed tourists looking for a good time.
While the chief attractions, the Angkor temples and Tonle Sap, are out of town, the town of Siem Reap does have its attractions; Angkor national museum (about which I have already raved in Part.2) is a lesson in history and a great delight, while the town's several Wats, evenly spaced from north to south along the river are a must-see, chief among them being the attractive “Wat Preah Prohm Rath”.
The largest and the oldest Buddhist monastery in Siem Reap, the Wat has a history dating back 600 years. Built somewhere in the early 15th Century, and dedicated to an early 13th century monk who has several legends about him, the Pagoda is built in bright colors, has beautiful archways reminiscent of the Khmer architecture one sees in Angkor temples, and is today a practicing temple. Monks dressed in orange and golden robes, along with a few devotees in white, pray at the courtyard, while tourists are conspicuous by their absence. But what draws attention is the huge, seated Buddha on an elevated pedestal in the main temple, along with the serene, giant statue of a sleeping Buddha at the back. Surprisingly, over the next two hours, I was the only tourist on the premises, a bit of hand signals and broken english with a couple of devotees helped me figure out that not many actually visit the Wats, except the locals. The other Wats (and there are more than 10 of them around town) are similar in style and expression, but smaller. Temple overkill maybe. 

On the last day, me and AP covered almost the entire town of Siem Reap over a leisurely walk spanning an hour along the river front. It is amazingly clean, well-organized in typical French parallels and perpendiculars, bright at night and looked straight out of a movie set, not a speck out of place. A calm breeze blows across the river-front in the evening, the street food is appetizing, the Colonial buildings glean under the lighting, and the moon shines brightly on the slow-flowing waters. Barely young lovers gaze in to each other's eyes, while older tourists wander around, hand in hand. Pub street meanwhile is loud and full of vices, and can be heard a mile away. Stark contrasts. The town of Siem Reap is sleepy and retains an old-world charm, barely clinging on to its past in the face of unrelenting change, while Coldplay blares loudly from one of the many pubs right next to Wat Prohm Rath. Modern tourism anyone?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cambodia - Part 5 - Ta Phrom & Tonle Sap – The Living forest and the Great Lake

When Rei asked whether we wanted to visit the “Jolie” temple, we were barely alive. It was 2PM on the third day, I had just gulped down my third glass of lemonade (post lunch and a jug of beer), and AP his second banana milkshake and our feet were killing us. It is not surprising that Rei, and almost all other drivers in Siem Reap know all the movies of Angelina Jolie, especially "Tomb Raider" – they charge not only per day but also by the distance they drive, more the merrier. An extra 1 USD in Cambodia goes some way. If the temple was good enough to center a movie, make it to the UNESCO World Heritage list, and famous enough to be on the itinerary of most tourists, who were we to question; although its fame did make me ask the question “Will it be of any architectural importance, or is it just a tourist gimmick?”
It honestly doesn't matter. Ta Prohm is straight out of a movie, over-run by large trees and the jungle, the temple walls have large roots hanging down everywhere, and it seems nature has decided enough is enough. Man and his destructive ways need to be curbed, and nature reclaims what is rightfully hers. Is this the way our civilization ends? Or is it the way “water-world” depicts, at the bottom of the ocean? Either way, one cannot but help asking such irrelevant philosophical questions when faced with something as stark and photogenic as Ta Prohm. 

The highlight though, is the large hollowed out trunk of a huge branch-less tree at the entrance, while the other corner has a similar tree growing out of the temple wall, its huge roots dripping through the walls, and disappearing in to the ground. Most of the temple has several such instances, and the whole place is in ruins, except some corridors that have been cleared by ASI, and display carvings of dancing nymphs and other figurines. There are no signboards or descriptions, and it seems the authorities like to keep it that way. Considering the number of tourists Ta Prohm receives, they may be right. Most squeal in delight at being photographed with the roots or the walls, the whole place is lit up with camera flashes, and loud obnoxious
you-know-who nationalities. How do singularly individualistic societies produce such terrible travelers, who think nothing of elbowing others just to get a picture? And crowd around in unimaginable numbers, by the truck-loads and make such a racket everywhere they go? If you get caught in one of those groups, blindly run the other way.

Ta Prohm must have been a large living complex at some time in the 12th Century, considering the size and the breadth of the enclosures, most of which are in a state of decay today. The libraries in the southeast corners, the satellite temples , the large Hall of dancers and the House of Fire are consumed by the forestCredit goes to the archaeologists who decided to leave the temple much the same way it was discovered - a large part of its appeal lies in the symmetry between the complex and the jungle, as if they had existed this way since time immemorial. 
Tonle Sap, the great lake formed by the back-draft from Mekong and Siem Reap rivers, lies about 15 kms from Siem Reap town, the road passing through several fishing villages caught in a time-wrap, with their stilted huts, palm trees, paddy fields and idyllic village life. The attraction is not the lake (it should be!) but the floating villages that dot the embankments. A fairly large Govt. ticket counter charges USD 20 per person for a boat ride through the brown, muddy waters of the lake to the floating village, and around, till the water and the sky start merging at the horizon.
November is the dry season and the waters were about 8-10 metres deep, the high water signs we saw were twice that height, and about 200 boats-converted-homes are tethered on metal drums, supported by stilts, with the houses and the village seemingly fully self-sufficient. Vendors peddle wares and vegetables on canoes, most houses have a TV and a satellite, the village has a school and a church, a ramshackle bar, and even a “recreation” room. We asked Rei to tag along, and he knew the boatman who lived here. Almost all of the inhabitants are Vietnamese who come here during the dry season from the other side of the lake, or Cham Cambodians who are too poor to live anywhere. They are a religious minority, Muslims in a Buddhist country, and move back and forth across international borders to Vietnam or Laos during the high season. 
It is a unique community of extremely poor, marginalized border-less fisher-folk, who survive on Tonle Sap, which in turn sustains a million people and a large part of the fishing industry in the country. Surprisingly, we hardly saw any birds and very little fish. Or maybe we were too close to the civilization to spot them. A good early morning excursion is what Tonle Sap is, a nice boat ride and a pleasant drive in to the countryside. Is the drive and the ride worth the effort? No, have seen much better. Are the floating villages worth it? Seriously yes. There, that justifies the USD15 for Rei for the day. May his four kids get a decent education, so they need not depend on fickle-minded, value-seeking tourists like us. And the boatman claimed a share of the ticket sales goes to the boat dwellers in terms of Govt. dole towards education for the kids. He hardly looked 15, but said he was 25 and had three kids. In a country where youth marry the minute they turn 18, that may have been true. Poverty and hunger are afflictions all too common in the developing world.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Cambodia - Part 4 - Angkor Thom - The Capital city

Khmer “Angkor Thom” – “Great city”
Spread over a nine area, surrounded by high walls and a largish moat lies the administrative capital of the Khmer empire, Angkor Thom, on the banks of Siem reap river. The majority of the palaces, temples, ruins from the Angkor era, and several other historical remnants of the once-great civilization are strewn around here. Most of Angkor Thom is well preserved, especially those belonging to the Angkor era, while later era constructions are either lost or destroyed; the greatness of the capital coincided with the construction of Angkor Wat, and during the Jayavarman era.
Central Angkor Thom starts at the South gate, passes through Angkor Wat and the spectacular and mysterious faces of Bayon, one of the largest Mahayana Buddhist temples in the complex that demands attention. Twenty-three massive faces gaze serenely, seated on each tower, and seem to be gazing intently at us. Whose face was that? The King Jayavarman, Lord Buddha, or some other Hindu deity is a question that has stumped historians, as there are no inscriptions. Some say the temple-mountain that is Bayon, was the mythical Mount meru, around which the legend of “Sagara manthanam” was based. Unlike Angkor Wat, which is an exhibition of interior finesse and delicate carvings, the architecture and monuments of Angkor Thom are mainly carved on the exterior; the interior walls are almost bare and hardly deserve any mention.
Central Angkor Thom is not a single structure; rather a series of architectural exhibits, each one unique in its depiction and construction. Seven main structures are: 
Baphuon – which is a three-tiered temple built on a small hill, dedicated to Siva
Royal palace – dominated by the 3-tiered, three spired Buddha temple, accessible by a large steep staircase, and offers fabulous views of the central Angkor Thom area
Terrace of the elephants – A 500m long terrace with a continuous set of carved elephants on its entire length
Terrace of the Leper King/Preah Palilay/Tep Pranam/Victory gate
Take your pick, follow the map and the detailed instructions in the “You are here” sign boards. The exertions of the second day at Angkor Wat and the discovery of nightlife of Siem Reap had manifested in mysterious ways that morning, chief being a rather heavy breakfast at the hotel. Not a detail to be forgotten, since there are long distances to be covered, adrenalin takes its toll by mid-day along with the humidity, as the mind keeps pushing the body; most interesting structures though are the twelve dilapidated single storied structures on the opposite side of the road from the two terraces – a guide said they were the living quarters of each of the 12 wives/concubines of the king. Such was the opulence of that age, and it makes immense sense to keep the wives apart. Angkor Thom is not for the lazy or the weak-kneed, but the rewards far outweigh the exertions.
Rei drove us; both to lunch as well as through the afternoon iternary. He must have seen our enthusiasm the first day, and kept telling us about the wonders beyond the two “Angkors”. All for USD25 this day. Said the buses don’t go to the other monuments since the guides love their quick money, and the tourists are too tired to care by lunch. Being the intrepid explorers that we are, and hating the crowds the first two days, we quickly gobbled some grilled river fish and beer, regained a bit of our senses and energy, and merrily bounced along the half-paved roads through most of what turned out to be some pristine surroundings.
Preah Khan 
– Khmer “Victorious sword”
Over-run by the jungle, largely ignored and unrestored, Preah Khan is a largely flat, long, semi-restored, crumbling temple, dominated by long galleries and several mini-temples. Legend has it that this was the site of Jayavarman’s greatest victory, and to commemorate it, a temple was built in 1191. Probably one of the few with an engraved Steele that provides some contextual history, Preah Khan was one of the largest settlements, with people, monasteries and temples. A unique two-tiered independent structure with round columns, apparently never seen before in Khmer architecture is yet to be deciphered; no one knows the purpose nor the construction style of this structure. Some carvings of apsaras and nagas are seen on some of the walls, but a majority of the place is in ruins, and ill-maintained. Rei was right too, very few tourists were around.
Neak Pean – Khmer “Entwined Serpents”
While the temple itself is nothing worth mentioning, the approach to it is gorgeous; through a narrow wooden pathway in the middle of a man-made lake (3.5 sq. kms), the breeze blowing through the waters and birds chirping around, the small temple rests on an artificial island, and has several legends woven around it, chief being the medicinal pools around it.
East Mebon – Surprisingly ignored, and belonging to the early 10th C AD, this three-tiered temple has three spires rising from the elevated terrace, with the central spire dedicated to Buddha. Large elephants grace the corners between the two tiers, and the carvings display similar finesse as Angkor Wat. But the central spire rising about 40m from the ground, and the approach through a narrow staircase and a series of steps are the highlights.
We also visited several other temples namely Ta Som, Pre Rup, Banteay Samre, Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang and the Rolous group at various points over the four days. Suffice to say each one of them is different and has a deep history, especially the Roluos group; these are some of the earliest structures of the Khmer era, located about 15kms away from the Angkor hub, hence rarely see any visitors. We had time, and energy, and a willing guide in Rei; it depends. Most people I know would be content seeing the two “Angkors” and that would be fine; but if one wants to understand the evolution of Khmer architecture and history and spread of the empire, it helps to see as much as the mind and time allow. I was selfish, sounding knowledgeable is infectious; AP loves completing tasks. And we had lots of time, and it hardly cost us anything.
The spread, construction and archeological importance of Angkor Thom to Khmer history is unparalleled. A day at Angkor Wat and a day at Central Angkor Thom is the bare minimum to do justice, plus any other explorations one might be interested in. What we do know is that the 12th Century Khmer empire was one of the most significant in the South East Asian region, and left lasting impressions on the Cambodian culture, the remnants of which are preserved in Angkor Thom and the other temple groups. A great lesson in history and architecture. Exercise for the body and the mind. And a lasting tan.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Cambodia - Part 3 - Angkor Wat - the Temple

“Nagara Vata” – Sanskrit - “enclosure around a capital city of temples”
Khmer – “Angkor Wat” or “City of temples”
No motif dominates Cambodia as this temple; you see it on the national flag, in tourist brochures, in visitors’ iternaries, and in the country’s collective conscious. It wears multiple hats. Originally a Hindu temple, then Buddhist; first dedicated to Vishnu, then Siva, then the great king Suryavarman’s mausoleum, and finally to Lord Buddha; based in equal parts on Dravidian architecture and classical Khmer foundations; legends that place it in undated mythology and 12th Century AD; and either built in a single night by Viswakarma, the divine architect or in increments over three decades.
As a battle hardened wanderer, one quickly builds a cloak of cynicism and distrust; survival and preserving your sanity & wallet become priorities; avoid “typical” tourist hard-sell, explore away from the crowds, temper your exploratory urges, these become the mantra. But this was a world heritage site, visited by more than 2Mn every year, and the prime motivator for the trip. So, with a healthy mix of enthusiasm and growing apprehension, we hired a tuk-tuk for the day and set out the second morning at 8AM. Just 5 kms, and 15 mins from the hotel, said our driver-cum-trip planner Rei, but first we have to buy the ticket. Jostling with crowds that had already built up along the road, a good hustle and some old fashioned barging, along with an incredibly quick snap at the tourist center, got us the 3-day USD 40 pass.

What hits one at a first glance is the huge moat, the glistening water and the long walkway in the middle. As the tuk-tuk pulls through the road to the temple, a cool breeze blows across the open water, almost 200 m wide from the temple on all sides, surrounded by huge walls. From the main entrance, through the walkway to the large, partly collapsed, western gopura, and the outer structure, one first sees the famous spires and the large walls, with the sun directly above the main structure. The scale of the temple becomes evident as one keeps moving, along with what seems like hordes of thousands, jostling for space and the right camera angle, under the sweltering sun even in the “dry season” in November. From the outer gopuram to the main temple must be another 300 m or so, with the complex increasingly rectangular. The importance of Naga or the Serpent in Khmer culture hits by now, almost every other figurine on the balustrades being a naga or an asura, or some heavenly mixture between the two.
The central structure that contains the temple is built on a raised terrace, with three incredibly long galleries surrounding it, and rising up to the main spire. The museum suggested circambulation, in typical Hindu style through the galleries. What separates Angkor Wat from other temples of that era, and lends to its aura are the carvings and decorations on the gallery inner walls. Counter-clockwise from the western gallery is ideal, as the carvings are really stories from the oldest Hindu epics, in linear order.

The Western gallery depicts key battles of Lanka and Hastinapura from Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Southern gallery the victories and exploits of the legendary king Suryavarman, along with various versions of heaven and hell from Hindu mythology. Then comes the most famous, the Eastern gallery and the “Sagara Manthanam”, the churning of the seas, with the king of nagas, Vasuki the central figure with what seems like a million figurines and as many details covering the whole wall. The Northern gallery depicts Lord Krishna and his exploits. Not only is the scale of these depictions immense, the reliefs, murals and the stories are continuous and run through from one gallery to another, an extended tale from the epics. The detail of the carvings is absolute finesse and the murals occupy the whole inner wall of each gallery, even the roofs.
One almost loses sight of the main temple and the astounding spires, trudging along the galleries, visually assaulted by these unimaginable stories and detail, and it rather creeps out of nowhere. A small opening from the second gallery had some light filtering through, and following it lead us to an open enclosure where we first saw the celebrated five spires, rising through to the sun. The central tower is the mythical “Mount meru” and rises higher than the other four, about 60 m on an elevated pedestal, accessible through a steep series of steps. It is today a practicing temple, a mausoleum that originally held the king’s remains, and later dedicated to a reclining Lord Buddha. The other four spires denote the four elements, agni, vaayu, jal, pruthvi, or so the legend goes.
Volunteers at the bottom of the stairs check for “inappropriate” clothing, which means uncovered shoulders and bare legs. A great number of visitors, mostly foreign, do not fit the bill. A Russian couple, the guy in a sarong and a vest, and the woman in noodle straps and thigh-high slits come to blows with the smiling, tiny volunteer from Apsara foundation, she patiently ties a scarf around both waists and drapes an overcoat around the straps, explaining that the temple and the gods must be respected, and the clothing must be returned. An obese American exclaims there is no way he will make it up and down the stairs, and he has seen most of the temple anyway, and the volunteer smiles, and says it will be worth the effort.
The mythical Mount Meru hides some of the most stunning and complete views of Angkor Wat and its surroundings, right down to the blazing sun rising from the glistening water. I smile, and have my fifteen minutes of shutter madness from the various vantage points that open up to the countryside, AP and his ipad disappear and then reappear. The enormity of the surroundings hits me, so does the magnitude of what we have seen over the past five hours. The temple complex and its grounds stretch as far as the eye can gaze, and the carvings from the galleries and their tales leave the mind hazy. The finesse of the carved sandstone and bas-reliefs, the almost polished false marble seem in perfect harmony with the structurally magnificent and enormous temple complex. Scale and finesse, detail and volume, god and stone, king and the common, myth and religion, all blend in to create the magnificence that is Angkor Wat.
I switch from the past to the present, and wonder how on earth did Hindu mythology and Dravidian architecture take such a strong hold in a land so far away from India. And how and where did they find the huge volumes of stone and other building materials, in the 12th century? How did the artisans learn these skills and what time and wealth did they spend? And more important, why was it built? Historians are divided, and there are multiple theories. Angkor Wat remains an enigma, and maybe that is what lends to its mystique.
Crowds continue to jostle for space and selfies, and some die-hard camera addicts perch precariously on one foot along the far walls, hoping for the impossible - capturing the temple complex, from the moat to the five spires, and the sun, in one shot, and without the crowds. The Japanese, Chinese and Korean truckloads have none of it whatsoever; they buzz around with their selfie sticks and group photographs while their tired guides hustle them from one location to the next. I try, try again, and then give up. The snaps are terrible and nothing seems to match the images that my disorganized mind has ingested. Maybe some images are best left to the imagination.
We trundle back to the tuck-tuck, along the same causeway we walked on, the sun on the other side now, six hours after we first set foot at the temple complex. Two shades darker, drenched in sweat and tears, exhausted and famished. A tender coconut quenches the thirst, but I keep glancing back at the moat and the spires. Rei gives an all-knowing smile, and allows us to wallow in self-pity; then loads us back on to his tuk-tuk and other temples, all for USD 14 for the day. It’s a matter of perspective. He grew up around here, this is his backyard, and to him, Angkor Wat is his livelihood. To the rest of us, it is one of the most wondrous edifices of ancient architecture of this millennium, one that we should thank our ancestors for, it is astonishing, uplifting and wonderfully inspiring. We haven’t built anything close to it in a 1000 years, and we won’t.

This is a delightful article on Banteay Chhmar, wonder how many such unexplored treasures exist in Cambodia.

Cambodia - Part 2 - Angkor - The initiation

What is Angkor?
  • The largest Hindu temple and the largest religious monument in the world
  • The resplendent capital of the great Khmer kingdom
  • A World heritage site spread over 400 sq.kms dotted with architectural splendors, ruins and temple complexes
  • An ancient civilization, which at its zenith, dominated most of South East Asia and hosted a million inhabitants, between 7-14 C AD.
As a multiple choice question, the right answer would be all of the above. As Indians who are born into a culture dominated by mythology and architecture, and decades of temple watching under their belts, what drew us to Siem Reap was the “largest temple in the world – Angkor Wat”. Tick. And then came along “Angkor Thom”, the administrative capital where most of the architectural splendors reside. Tick. And then the great kingdom of “Angkor”, its unique brand of Naga dominated folk-ore that evokes the grandeur and cultural dominance of the Khmer empire. Tick again.
“Angkor” doesn’t merely exist; it lives and breathes, and begins when one’s imagination ends. In its temples, architecture, ruins, palaces, artefacts, culture, lakes and people. One can never claim to have seen Angkor; it takes a lifetime of committed exploration and arduous legwork. The Japanese and Korean buses trampled all over Angkor in half a day as if it were a Hollywood action movie, while Perry the life-long Angkor romantic from Salisbury (we bumped in to him at Ta Phrom) has now spent over two decades trying to map Angkor in its entirety (and accepts he may never be able to!).
A tip. The single day USD20 Angkor pass is worthless; unless you are one of those selfie shutterbugs who lives for the likes (what are you doing on this blog?). The 3-day USD40 pass works, at least as a basic initiation. And start Cambodia with Siem Reap. Angkor needs time, energy, patience and legs, and we were exhausted after just four days of incessant temple touring. And Siem Reap, as a town, has a lot more to offer, if one has the time.

Every tour company, hotel, guide or tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap offers an “Angkor itinerary” and a list of must-do’s; a bit of reading and some natural inclination to get lost while exploring, along with the old trick of listening to the locals, worked for me. But what they don't tell you is that a treasure trove of Angkor related information exists right in the town, 10 mins away from Pubstreet.
Angkor National Museum – The Initiation
A museum at the top of this list? Perry would say I have gone bananas. I sound like a broken record, yet most ignore the only well-intentioned piece of advice I have ever doled out. Always spend a couple of hours at the official museum before hurrying along to an architectural site. It helps to have some background and history of the site, and one gets a great perspective.
This is easily the best museum experience I have seen, AP in his infinite wisdom nods. Brilliantly designed, fabulously well thought-out, supremely informative, and unobtrusively run by the curator Ven, at USD12 entry price, the three hours we spent here the first evening was the most informative part of the trip. Luckily, we didn’t cheap out and got the audio option at an extra USD3 per head, must be the best money I have ever spent. Made the next four days a breeze, and saved a lot of “guide” money.
Designed in four levels, and arranged in seven sections, the museum has brilliant audio-visual presentations, selected clippings of the various monuments and architecture, some exceptionally fine linear history on the various Angkor eras; and in turns describes the architecture, history, art, dynasties and rulers, mythology, tools and other living conditions of the three eras that dot Khmer history, the pre, the Angkor and the post. The museum can easily pass off as Indian. There are so many references and borrowings from Hindu/Buddhist mythology, culture, arts, architecture, epics (names from Ramayana & Mahabharata are widely spread) that we felt right at home. Siva/Vishnu/Ganesh/Indra/Brahma kept popping up so frequently that after some time, the museum crew and the other guides started ignoring us the minute they heard our discussions and figured out we knew the history as well as they did.
While each section is worth spending time on, there were two clear stand-outs: The "1000 Buddha room", which radiates calm and shines through the induced darkness, and the Angkor Wat display which is breathtaking. The video of the sun rising above the five-spired temple is just one of those jaw dropping moments when you forget to breathe and stare, scared that it might just slip away if you took your eyes off only for a moment. So mesmerizing that I played the video thrice. The actual sunrise at the temple though, not lucky enough. Lazy, foggy, late, tired, in that order. Some things just aren’t meant to be.
Start your Angkor trip here. Worth every dollar, hour and effort. The Royal Gardens and the evening prayer at Preah Ang Chek, with several newly-wed couples, the girls in ghostly white, the grooms in brown blazers, set against a dark sky and a golden temple was just the right kind of start for what was to come.