A Cultural Expedition Through Cambodia

After a long wait at the Phnom Penh Pochentong International Airport, we boarded our colourful aircraft and were soon headed towards Siem Reap. In an hour-and-a-half, we touched Siem Reap International Airport, meticulously maintained and well on its way to complete modernisation. It was quite clear that Siem Reap’s local authorities knew their future was in tourism and all efforts were being made to ensure that it was well promoted.

From here we headed to the city, a half-an-hour’s drive from the airport. The landscape that flew past comprised mainly of paddy fields interspersed with quaint little houses, hoisted on stilts for protection against floods. Soon the green fields gave way to high-rising buildings — we were in the heart of the city. 

Early the next morning, we set off for Angkor Wat, the entry to which is rigidly controlled and expensive. Every visitor had to pay for identity cards with photographs. Interestingly, no one asked for Cambodian currency, the Riel, and all transactions were made in US dollars. The drive from the gate to the main complex took us past a troupe of cheerful looking Cambodian men and women on bicycles sporting large palm leaf hats, very similar to the ones in Kerala. As we approached Angkor Wat, we found many children skipping school to sell artefacts. Surprisingly, all of them spoke with heavy American accents, sounding like they had been schooled by the leftover American GI’s.

We proceeded on towards the Angkor Conservation complex, which houses many temple complexes, the most visited being Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. Our guide, Visith, had many a tale to tell. This temple, he said, was the work of many Kings, some of whom were Mahayana Buddhist and others who were Hindu converts. The religious influences stood out in the architecture and reliefs, which depicted the Mahabharata in detail. The other important carvings included the Churning of the Ocean, the many Apsaras and numerous busts and statues of Lord Buddha.

Each of the intricate carvings had a story to tell and reflected the ancient rulers’ deep desire for perfection and divinity. It is said that these temples were destroyed time and again, first by the Vietnamese Chams and then by the Thai invaders. They were then rebuilt by the Khmer regime starting with King Udayadityavarman I. Angkor Wat was converted into a Buddhist shrine by Khmer royalty in the 16th century and is now being extensively redone by the French Government. The intricate detailing leaves one spellbound and it is difficult to accept that people with such a rich heritage could have inflicted such intense destruction in recent years.

Our next destination was Angkor Thom, the walled city built by Jayavarman VII. Five monumental gates tower at the city’s entrance and are crowned by four gigantic faces of the Boddhisatva Avalokiteshvara. The Bayon, which is the most important part of this complex, has 54 gothic towers with over 200 smiling, but cold faces of the Boddhisatva; he is said to be watching over the 54 provinces which the old Khmer kingdom was supposedly divided into. The Bayon faces east and makes a stunning sight as the rays of the rising sun radiate each face of the Boddhisatva.

The reliefs in the Bayon depict the daily life of the Cambodian citizen — people playing chess, cockfights, military processions, Brahmins with their dangling pig-tails and even a Khmer circus! We spent the next two days visiting the many other temples in the Angkor complex, such as the Banteay Srei, a Shiva temple, which is, today, being restored by the Indian Government. As a matter of fact, many temples here are under renovation, and each is being restored by a different country.

Despite their brutal past, the Cambodians, as we soon discovered, were warm, cheerful and hospitable people. Yet, when one mentioned the Khmer Rouge (the Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979, in which approximately 1.7 million people were massacred), the fear on their faces was frighteningly real. It was hard to believe that man could be so cruel to his own kind. In fact, the Killing Fields at Cheoung Ek only re-emphasise the brutality of the Khmer Rouge.

Here was a country and people who were impoverished and far behind in time, with little access to what we in India take for granted such as electricity, education and medical facilities. Yet against all these odds, it was the “hope for a better future” that kept them alive.

Our next destination, a cheerful indoor market, provided that much-needed reprieve. We milled around stalls of jewellery, silverware, woodworked mementoes; there was so much to buy. The ever-smiling shopkeepers bargained enthusiastically and made sure that we left pleased. After burning holes in our pockets, we set out to an Art Center, for an extended shopping spree. It was interesting to learn that the Centre, which was funded by the French, taught art free to anyone who wanted to learn.

Soon, it was time to say goodbye. Suddenly the similarities between India and Cambodia were clear. Here were two countries with very similar cultures, religious affiliations and problems. Unfortunately, Cambodia had been the victim of a terrible and gruesome Civil war and was working hard to make up for lost time.

As we boarded the plane back home, we couldn’t help wondering if Cambodia had still been a part of India and the Cambodians believe it still is, would it have been so far behind?

Fact file

How to get there

By air: There are two international airports in Cambodia that are well connected with the neighbouring countries.

By land: All neighbouring countries have border crossing with Cambodia. Here are some tips when reaching Cambodia via these countries.

• Thailand:

Visas are available on arrival for both directions. Visitors can take the express boat from Koh Kong to Sihanoukville for $15 (one way) and pay an extra $5 to reach Phnom Penh by air-conditioned buses. The entire journey will take about three-and-a-half hours. Tourists landing at Poipet can avail of the one-way taxi service ($15) to go to Siem Reap, which is five hours away.

• Vietnam:

Visas are available on the arrival for both directions. You can take a taxi, van or minibus at Chhbar Ampov market, Phnom Penh, that leaves every early morning to Ho Chi Minh City. The ride costs $10 per trip.

• Laos:

Visa is not available on arrival. It is now possible to cross in both directions between Stung Treng, Cambodia and Voeung Khan, Laos, on the Mekong River.

Where to stay: Accommodation ranges from standard to luxury hotels in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, from $50-$2,000. Guesthouses are available from $5 to $30.

Getting around: Air travel, bus, ferry, taxi and pickup trucks are the most common means of domestic transportation.

-Nandana Sule Mariwala

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