Sunday, February 21, 2016

Travelogue: Asia Pacific - Part 4a

O what a trip it has beeen… O o o.. Can’t replace ‘trip’ with ‘life’ at the moment. But maybe this Gadget man can do. I’m enjoying watching this show like nothing else. I’m sincerely praying he goes to Alaska, Egypt and each of those African and South American cities where different animal species including humans co-exist (or I want to know if that is so). Not digressing too much from what I intended to write in this post, I begin the story from Siem Reap. As you already have some background, photographic though it may have been (see last post), I will directly jump to Day-0.

Day-0:

I reached Siem Reap late in the night. The hotel had sent a Tuk-tuk driver (yes that’s what they are called) who was holding my name card outside a very small airport. A Tuk-tuk is nothing but a motor bike with a carriage on 2-wheels attached to it. The bike pulls the carriage which is covered at the top. This Tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Kun (the Tuk-tuk had his name painted on it) was our companion/guide for the next 4 days. The Tuk-tuks are mini-homes in themselves we soon realized. Mr. Kun used to open up a hammock from one of the corners of his Tuk-tuk and sleep deeply till we woke him up.

The first impression of Siem Reap was very pleasant and so was the warm welcome by the hotel staff. I was handed over a map as soon as I stepped into the room and my brain started storming around when and what would we be covering in the next 4 days.

Map of Siem Reap

Day-1:

He joined me early in the morning. I (& Mr. Kun) received Him from the airport. The hotel was in the center of the city and I was enjoying these small trips back and forth from the airport. The airport is surrounded by hundreds of hotels and one out of three has the name ‘Angkor’ in it (& I’m not exaggerating).  I kept on marking places on the map and at the same time kept confusing myself too much with what and when to do that He and Mr. Kun took in charge and we went first to Preah Khan temple. A day pass to the temples costs \$20 whereas a 3-day pass costs \$40. As you enter the ticket booth premises, you find counters selling only 3-day passes. We got the same too but there are counters on the opposite side selling 1-day passes as well. So if you are not sure whether you will like the temples, just look around and go to the other side. They take pictures of you on the spot and the entry card has your photo printed on it. Every day, when you enter the temple area, they punch a hole in your card. One nice bit about it is also the fact that the card is valid for a week so if you want to take breaks between visits to the temples, it’s still fine. 

Our Passes to Angkor Archaeological Area

All the temples in Siem Reap had one thing in common: there were gates in all the directions. So one could enter from the west, reach the center point and take either the North/South route or continue to walk towards the east or like what lazy guys (read ‘we’) would do, take a U-turn from the central point and come out from the same gate.

Preah Khan was built in the 12th century to honor the father of King Jayavarman VII. It had beautiful depictions of the Samudra Manthan story. There were Shivalings everywhere and the carvings were definitely a charm. But that was just a start. There was a big lake surrounding the main temple and people were meditating or fishing around there. Some adventurous bunch were walking around the forest trails surrounding the temple.

We met a “guide” while we were inside the temple. He gave us tips on how to take some interesting photographs and as we started moving forward he asked for a tip. You will find a lot of such people who would be willing to guide you and tons of people selling palm/coconut water, clothes, key chains, fridge-magnets, books, maps, post-cards,  peeled mangoes, handicrafts, etc. in their squeaky voices mostly targeting the women, “Lady… Buy this magnet. Only 1 dollar, lady.”

This was the peak season but still the temperature was 30-32°C during the day time and tourists were glowing red in the heat. The restaurants were filled with people. The highlight of the first day was us having banana fritters for the first time and they were delicious. Restaurants served all kinds of western cuisines, the traditional Khmer cuisine and a separate menu section for vegetarians. Siem Reap is a place made comfortable for tourists with all sort of customizations while keeping in tact the historical temples.

We went to the mystical Angkor Wat temple at noon. This temple was built by King Suryavarman II. There are many different statues of Buddha inside the temple complex. The center of the temple has 5 towers, 4 towers sort of making a square and a tall tower standing in the middle of the square. People can climb up the central tower (Bakan) to observe it from inside. The actual stairs built back in the 12th century are quite steep but they have built one metal staircase in the North(?) for tourists to climb. People are made to stand in queues and everyone is given a card before they start to climb these and the card is to be returned when they come down. I will come to these towers again because we visited Angkor Wat on our Day-2 and Day-3 of the trip as well. We didn’t go up on this day as the queue was terribly long as seen below.

The long queue to go up to the top level (Bakan) of the Angkor Wat

There is a long & wide moat surrounding the temple complex. Other than the moat, there are also a couple of lakes where the reflection of the main temple is beautifully seen. The reflection is even more glamorous during sunrise and sunset. There are pictures of apsaras making different poses everywhere in the temple. There are also libraries, ponds, prayer halls, etc. inside the temple complex which makes us realize that there were other civilizations like the ones at Harappa and Mohenjodaro, which were highly advanced for their times.

We went through the large corridors which had depictions of 8 stories in Hinduism. We could recognize the obvious ones like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Samudra Manthan, Vishnu conquering over the demons but there were four more about which you should(!) read here.

After spending good number of hours at Angkor Wat and with a plan of coming back next morning for a first hand experience of sunrise, we headed back to our hotel. We ordered a vegetarian pizza, fettuccini with cheese sauce and some drinks. The pizza turned out to be the best we had had till date in our lives.

Day-2:

The mornings and evenings are pretty windy and cold in Siem Reap. Mr. Kun was ready at 5AM to take us to the temple. On moonlit streets with several other tourists either on Tuk-tuk’s or their rented bicycles, we became sort of confident that the decision to get up so early was not wrong. We were amazed when we saw pro-photographers with tripods, bags of lenses and large cameras (somehow large feels professional to me but maybe I’m wrong) getting ready for the sunrise. We sat on the green grass watching one of the lakes at Angkor Wat while we waited for the Sun to rise. I was sleeping till I saw some colours in the sky. All of a sudden, the darkness had vanished and the world was lit. Such an extraordinary magic performance by nature I thought. He tried shooting photographs of the same.

Immersed that we were with Nature's beauty, still managed a few shots

As we started walking back, a child came forward to sell me fridge magnets. I was about to buy when a lady tourist came to me and said, “I know it’s none of my business but if you buy from her, her mother won’t send her to school. There are various other forms of donation which you can explore.” She repeated ‘I know it’s none of my business’ at least 3 more times. I nodded and replied, “Yes, I agree to what you say.” But I still bought a magnet. Maybe by doing that, I have made a child to not go to school. I strongly wish that’s not true.

We returned back to the hotel and after a nice breakfast which included dragon fruits, we slept for a while in our room. After that, we moved to our next destination, Angkor Thom. The first one in that group of temples was Bayon.

A. Thom had a more open architecture when compared to A. Wat. The Bayon temple had faces everywhere we turned. People say that each of these face is unique. There was one beautiful statue of Buddha here too and very many shivalings. By now it became clear to us that the foundation/insides of these temples was made of red stones whereas the outside was carved out of white stones. Many pieces of such white stones were first carved and then fitted beautifully on top of the red stones using iron rods. The iron rods gave both strength as well as binding to these sculptures.

The face more closely

There were quite a number of steep stairs at A. Thom and one could climb if one wished. We did try a few, successfully climbing some and climbing down halfway through others. With too many similar (yet unique) faces looking at us in all directions, we did fumble a bit to find directions to the exit. We wanted to go to Baphuon from here, a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and which has three floors. As we came out of Bayon, we saw the statue of ‘Big Buddha’. A few people were making offerings, some were praying and some like us were taking photographs. There were tall (really tall) trees – Banyan, eucalyptus, etc. surrounding this area.

Big Buddha from a distance

Baphuon too had a couple of lakes surrounding the main temple. We walked up to the temple to look at it from inside. Most of these temples in Siem Reap had a figure of Buddha and there were restrictions around what one could wear while entering those premises. Few tourists had come prepared, few were prepared for the change and the rest were (un)prepared to stay back or come back later I guess. As we climbed each floor, we counted the number of stairs and checked out the architecture. It was almost like entering one gate after the other to find a pleasant surprise inside. We came down on the other side of the temple and saw the formation of reclining Buddha (sadly we forgot to take a picture of this majestic scene).

Baphuon from Angkor Thom

After taking a lot of pictures in Baphuon, we walked towards Phimeanakas temple. Climbing up was not allowed here and we just looked at it from outside, rested for a while outside the temple and walked towards and on the Elephant terrace, finally entering the ‘Terrace of the Leper King’. It’s not a terrace as the word suggests but instead a small pathway where there are inscriptions of men, apsaras, warriors, Gods and animals.  There is another great Buddha statue as we emerge from the terrace. We had completed our journey for now. Mr. Kun wanted to take us to a restaurant with an air-con (that’s what he called it) for lunch. I wanted to tell him I come from the South of India where it is ‘Cambodia hot’ 10 months in a year.  But I didn’t and we did enjoy a warm meal with some cold smoothies there. On the way, we saw Sras Srang – a very large water reservoir. But it was too warm and sunny outside that we didn’t bother to take the camera out.

We moved to the last destination of the day called Ta Prohm after lunch. This was also founded by King Jayavarman VII. It was built then as a monastery and university. It’s a very popular place, you will know why when you look at the pictures. There are trees which have grown out from inside the small temples. You cannot distinguish if the shade is provided  by the temple or the tree. We spotted an interesting insect which looked like a speck of dust till we saw it moving as if it had some agenda.

Can you spot the insect?

After an exhilarating stint at Ta Prohm, we went back to the hotel to prepare for Day-3. Something interesting happened that evening. We had ordered 2 glasses of mixed fruit juice. I was not able to drink from the glass after a while. There could be only 3 reasons for that happening. Either I had forgotten to drink using a straw or the cooks had forgotten to grind a carrot properly for the juice or there was no juice in the glass at all. But I could see that the glass was $\frac{3}{4}$ full. After His questioning glares, I stopped trying to drink and instead stirred the straw inside the glass. To our amusement, the straw was stuck to a block of ice, which was half the size of the glass. That was something to remember from that evening.

To be continued…