One of the many endearing mysteries in history is how on earth did the largest Hindu temple and the largest Buddhist temple on the planet ended up thousands of kilometers southeast of Varanasi. The conventional answer is that the South Indian seafaring merchants took the religion there along with the spices. But somehow they managed to ensure that the language that they left behind was Sanskrit, a language as different from Tamil as Greek is from Swahili. The local royalty, equally mysteriously, adopted Sanskrit as the state language, a language as different from Khmer as Piraha is from !Xhosa. For someone who would struggle to pronounce shri, they willingly took on as tongue-twisting a name as Tribhuvanadityavarman and Nripatindravarman. Strange indeed. Fret not! Yours truly is the perfect candidate to solve this curious puzzle. I can spell Noam Chomsky right without a spellchecker and I follow Ramachandra Guha on Twitter. If any, I am likely overqualified.
Before we embarked on our quest, we had to make some changes to our usual 9-day odysseys. As staring at crumbling ruins all day under stifling tropical sun, for nine straight days, isn't what strong long lasting marriages are built on, we decided to shave off two days and spend it checking off the one missing piece in our otherwise perfect Thai itinerary from two years ago - beach bumming. After a sleepless night and a tasteless aeroplane meal, we were in the largest island in Thailand - Phuket. After a pint of one half of the reason we came back to Thailand viz., its iced-tea, we were ready to take on the sights of Phuket. Our first stop was Wat Chalong, a 200 year old monastery, which was no Wat Doi Suthep, but nevertheless a pleasant place to start a trip. Next up was the Big Buddha which was only a tenth as old as the Wat, but offered our first view of the turquoise blue waters of the Andaman Sea. Rest of the day was spent between the beaches and the viewpoints. After a week of tropical heat, the windswept Promthep Cape and the view from the Karon lookout are the ones which haven't evaporated from our memories.
The agenda for the following day was the second half of the reason for our Thailand stopover - the hauntingly beautiful Phang Nga Bay. The limestone karst formations jutting out at gravity defying angles have made this corner of the planet one of its prettiest. And also one of its most famous, so famous that it became the backdrop of one of the movies of the only fictional character with the same first and last names: Bond James Bond. We spent the day trying (and failing) to find a yet to be photographed angle of the Khao Phing Kan, canoeing the nooks and crannies of Hong Island, dodging the mudskippers in the isolated lagoons and trying (and yet again failing) to name the different shades of blue that we could see from the Krabi islands.
After that elaborate pre-ramble, we finally arrive at the ramble and the main purpose of this trip - Cambodia. A head ache inducing early morning flight air dropped us in Siem Reap, an hour before roosters normally wake up. After a failed attempt to freshen up, we sleep walked through the National Museum and crawled to the Angkor ticket office. Our plan was to buy the 7-day pass starting the following day and spend the rest of the day in our beds. But we had underestimated the language barrier. We were finally in a country where I couldn't speak the local language. Three months, or the time since our China jaunt, wasn't nearly as enough to mug (Indian for rote learning) Khmer. An hour of wild gesticulation later, we walked out with a pass that started on the very same day. After a long lunch where the spicy Amok did a commendable job of waking us up, we headed to Ruluos, the present name for erstwhile Hariharalaya, the first capital of the Khmers. It was here that the first temples of the empire went up. Although there are several in this area, only three of the temples are tourist worthy and one of which, the Bakong, is an absolute must-see. Bakong, the first one built in the style of a monumental temple-mount. Inspired by the (then) century old Borobudur, Bakong in turn served as the inspiration for the Wat at Angkor, to be built a century hence.
The Wat at Angkor was where we headed to, bright and early, the following morning. Built over 37 years during the first half of the 12th century AD by Suryavarman II, this is the world's largest religious monument and one of its most famous. As gallons of ink have already been poured by writers far more talented that I can ever hope to be, eulogiaing the monument, all I need to say is that the temple exceeded all our imagination that their eloquence could help us conjure. The highlight of the visit was the never ending galleries of bas-reliefs that cycle the inner courtyard of the temple, the pick of which was the 49 m long panel on Samudra-Manthan. After three magical hours, we got out wondering if any monument will ever have the capacity to impress us after this one. Jayavarman, the seventh raised his eyebrows and said - hold my Sraa Tram. Almost literally. A couple of kilometers north of Angkor Wat is Angkor Thom, the new capital that Jayavarman founded, and in the heart of it is Bayon, a new state temple that he constructed and on the temple is the man himself. Not one or two, but 216 gargantuan faces look down upon the visitor from all around the myriad towers of Bayon, all with an uncanny resemblance to the king and all with an enigmatic smile that would make Mona Lisa blush. I swear one of the smile turned into a smirk when it saw me nearly trip and fall trying to photograph it from an impossible angle. The afternoon was spent huffing and puffing first up Baphuon and later up Ta Keo, coming face to face with Yama who got mistaken for a Leper King before we finally ended the day at Ta Phrom, a temple that was left almost as it was found so that the later generations can act out their Indiana Jones fantasy. In reality it was more like acting out a day in Disneyland where one has to wait an hour in queue to get photographed not with the mouse, but with a tree which once saw Angelina Jolie's backside.
The next day was the rest of Angkor. Since I don't expect a William Dalrymple to stumble here during his book research, I will spare you the details and give you my usual one sentence summary: We spent the day wondering why would anyone put up with the crowd in Ta Phrom when you have this, first at Banteay Kdei and later at Ta Som, debating should we, shouldn't we and finally deciding to climb and be thankful for it, first at Pre Rup and later at East Mebon, exhausting two memory cards at the picture perfect reflecting pools of Neak Pean, losing count of number of chambers we crossed at Preah Khan and finally dragging ourselves to the top of Phnom Bakheng for one of the great views of Angkor Wat. Somewhere in between time must have come to a stop. Because we still had a couple of hours to sunset once we got down from Bakheng. Saner people would have headed to a spa. We went back to Angkor Wat. That is the only temple to face west. There are as many reasons to explain this anomaly as there are Quora users and so any reason picked at random is going to be the wrong one. Thanks to this anomaly, the famed sunrise at Angkor would have you stare right at the rising sun rendering your pictures pitch black. If you want the picture of the glowing towers, then head there in the late afternoon and you will have the reflecting pool all for yourself.
The following morning, we headed to the place where it all began: Phnom Kulen. If you were puzzled as to what this "it" is and surmised it as the Khmer empire, you would be right. It was in Phnom Kulen that Jayavarman II declared independence from Java and proclaimed a new dynasty. If on the other hand, you thought "it" was the Angkor temples, then you would be right as well. It was in Phnom Kulen that all the stones for most of the temples came from. If on the third hand, you thought "it" was the practice of carving Lingams on riverbed, (well, first of all, thanks for stopping by, Vishnu), you also would be right. This unique Khmer art also had its genesis here and you can spot quite a few of them with the stream gently rolling over them. Apart from the riverbed protrusions, Kulen also houses a couple of refreshing waterfalls where we were forced to cool our legs for a couple of hours, thanks to the local traffic rule that prevents an exodus before noon. In the afternoon, under the shade of a thick forest, we walked the 1.5 kilometer trail to Kbal Spean, home to the most famous stretch of the river-bed reliefs. Apart from the Lingams, Kbal Spean also has other members of the holy trinity: Vishnu and Brahma. Next up - Banteay Srei, the only major temple not to be built by a royal - the credit goes to Yajnavaraha a physician at the court of Rajendravarman II. Finally presented with the soft medium of red sandstone, Khmer artisans have gone berserk in this temple. Every inch of the temple has been carved with such intricate detail that it would give the wobbliest of knees to the most jaded of tourist. The final stop of the day was Banteay Samre. Although it lacks the elaborate carvings of Banteay Srei, its compact nature and the towering central Vimana makes it an intriguing monument to visit and photograph.
In the early 900s, for a brief 16 year period the capital of Angkor was inexplicably and abruptly shifted 120 kilometers to the northeast, to the present day Koh Ker. And in that period there was such a frenetic building activity that the result is a tribute to the best humanity can produce - an astonishing group of temples set deep in tropical jungle. Stuff of dreams. Koh Ker was also where the Khmer Rouge retreated when Vietnam made their advancement to liberate Cambodia from their despicable rule. In more or less a similar 16 year period we had the worst humanity can produce - a depressing array of landmines planted indiscriminately all over the region. Stuff of nightmares. The place is still not fully de-mined and hence, only a fraction of the site is open to public and what is available is beyond belief: large temple towers completely engulphed by strangler figs resulting in a Schrodinger-esque situation where the trees are both preserving and destroying the structures at the same time; two of the largest Lingams that Cambodia has ever produced and to top it all, an astonishing Mayan style pyramid, the closest equivalent of which is at the other side of the planet, in Palanque. After a couple of incredible hours at the site, we drove back to Siem Reap. Enroute, we stopped by Beng Mealea, a site as different from Koh Ker as it can be - a single sprawling temple, one of the largest in the country, occupying an area which could encompass most of the Koh Ker temples combined, but in an equally atmospheric state of ruin.
We have now spent 5 days in Angkor region. The last person to spend that many days or more was Maurice Glaize. And he had to actually put these temples together from a heap of stones. So 5 days were more than enough to do the impossible - run out of temples and it was time to move on. But there was one last site to check off our list - the Tonle Sap, the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia. The Tonle Sap river that connects this lake to the Mekong reverses direction carrying water to/from the lake, the proposition determined by the monsoons. Along the lake are the famous floating villages which look like a city in the sky in the dry season and a floating one in the wet. After an hour at Kompong Phluk (to give the village its name), we finally did move-on. The move-on was only from Angkor, not from ruin hopping. Cambodian history did not start with Khmers. There was a dynasty that preceded them - the Chenlas. They had a capital - Isanapura. It has a present name - Sambor Prei Kuk. And a location - roughly midway between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Since we were driving betwixt the two cities, stop we did at Sambor Prei Kuk. It was a miniature version of Koh Ker, without the Mayan pyramid and the landmines. It had enough and more of the strangler figs. And the goosebumps - we were staring at no less than the oldest brick temples in entire Southeast Asia, with most of their unique brick carvings in discernible condition. The brief stop at Sambor ensured it was dark by the time we reached Phnom Penh, which was the right time to see the Independence and the Sihanouk monuments lit up in all its glory.
We started the last day of our trip at the Royal Palace. Built in 1860s, inspired by its counterpart in Bangkok, with the Silver Pagoda as its crowning glory, it was a wonderful complex to roam around for a couple of hours. A hop, skip and a jump away from the palace is the National Museum where we finally came face to face with the seated Jayavarman VII, the copies of which adorn almost every plush lobby of every upscale restaurant and hotel around the country. As we come to the end of another wonderful trip and were staring a three leg return journey, our minds wandered back to the puzzle we started with. There isn't a single direct flight that connects anywhere in India to anywhere in Cambodia. Only our NTSE geography champions can point out Cambodia in a world map. That is in this day and age of instant communication. Two and a half millennia ago, when information transfer was only as fast as a rock pigeon could fly, the two countries were comparing notes on high philosophy. Instead of solving the puzzle, our trip just made it more intriguing.
Click here for more photos from Phuket and Phang Nga Bay.
Click here for more photos from the Short Circuit in Angkor.
Click here for more photos from the Long Circuit in Angkor.
Click here for more photos from Phnom Penh.
Click here for more photos from rest of Cambodia.