Painted in stone: Cambodia

Photo of Painted in stone: Cambodia 1/4 by Ashish Thakur
Photo of Painted in stone: Cambodia 2/4 by Ashish Thakur
Photo of Painted in stone: Cambodia 3/4 by Ashish Thakur
Photo of Painted in stone: Cambodia 4/4 by Ashish Thakur

Part 1: First Impressions

The quintessential Tuk-Tuk ambled through the last hints of prosperity. The tall white building in the distance stood mockingly, a swanky new casino in the No-Man’s Land between the two sister towns, visible long before the dingy one room border check post came to view. The sister towns share similar names and similar people, even customs. They stand across one continuous swath of indistinguishable land, divided by an imaginary line and a literal one. And what a monumental difference does the imaginary one make. One side of the line enjoys the spoils of a richer economy, a stable past and a cultural heritage which wasn't systematically chiseled off. The other…is in Cambodia.

We finished the relatively easy immigration at the border post between Thailand and Cambodia and were immediately surrounded by a multitude of people selling everything from clothes to the charms of a woman or the thing that most people land in Poipet seeking: a passage to Siem Reap, the site of the remnants of the legendary, pervasive and powerful Khmer Empire. It was around the year 802 that the Hindu king, Jayvarman II set about sculpting one of the most impressive empires of the world: Angkor, spread over most of what in modern times forms Thailand, Laos, Vitenam and even parts of Myanmar and Malaysia. The next 600 years would be the glorious years of Cambodia. They would witness prosperity of the kind never experienced before, or after and an important shift from Hinduism to Thervada Buddhism. They would also see the construction of the world’s largest single religious structure till date (larger than Mecca Masjid or the Vatican) and what was also world’s largest pre-industrial settlement complex.

As we trudge through the relatively green and vastly unoccupied countryside of southern Cambodia, it betrays no signs of its ancient glory. Tan, our driver, is fighting along the two lane freshly paved arterial highway which powers the country’s tourism capital and connects it to both the administrative capital and border towns of Thailand. He is too young to be ferrying tourists. But as you would invariably discover trundling through this stuck-in-time country, this is very much a way of life: juggling all the things one is supposed to do with what one has to do. His ageing Toyota Corolla offers one to and fro ride every day to the border, ferrying tourists for USD 55 a side or better if he can bargain. But he can’t. The foreign words in Cambodia are limited and functional…yet. Quite like the smiles. There is an eerie quality to the Khmer smile which runs across the face of even the bas reliefs and statues of Angkor, a calm knowing smile, polite but not ceremonial. Wry but not sad.

The 140 odd kilometres from Poitpet to Siem Reap get covered in relatively short time and the fabled city unfolds itself. Angkor is one of world’s most visited cities and contributes more than 10% of the total GDP of Cambodia via tourism alone.

Aptly branded The Water Kingdom, Cambodia envelopes a vast tropical plateau lined with multiple streams flowing in and out of the great Tonle Sap Lake. It also gets a fair share of the mighty Mekong, flowing at its prime as it enters and passes through. This combined with the relatively low population density and a primarily agrarian society meant all through the ride we enjoyed amazing vistas of contrasting green fields and azure skies stretching far into the horizon. And the rain-washed colours of Cambodia have a particular pureness about them leaving you refreshed rather than tired during journeys.

The brilliant drive meant that we immediately checked into our hotel and were raring to get a taste of the already building evening buzz of what is an unmistakably Asian city. A short walk from our hotel was the tourist centre wrapped between Sivatha Road and Pokambor Street. Pokambor runs parallel to the Siem Reap River and we started our day walking beside, taking in the sparkling lights on both sides, and their reflections. The temples of Angkor, put on the world travel map by Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft, play host to travelers from all parts of the world. It is not uncommon to spot cafes playing football matches on large screen and serving European food and combined with the chalky smell of freshly brewing conversations, we were tempted to stop by for a beer. But our objective was to cover most of the massive Angkor Archaeological Park’s popular sites on Day 1 of the 3 day pass, making for a really early start the next day. So grudgingly, we cut short the charming walk and made our way back to Sivatha Road to tuck in early with a book I picked up on the street.

Part 2: Angkor to Angkar

I was wrapped in a warm blanket…but with the very first page, sleep would vanish from my eyes. It was between 1975 and 1979 that almost 25% of Cambodia’s population was systematically cleansed or succumbed to one of the worst genocides of modern times. Saloth Sar was born a peasant but brought up in the corridors of Cambodian royalty’s palace courtesy his sister, one of the many concubines of King Monivong. And that coincidence brought with it the many privileges: an education at the elite Lycee Sisowath (Colonial French School) and a technical scholarship to a Paris bustling with an underground Communist movement. When Sar returned, he came back as Pol Pot, an impressionable young man with misinformed ideas of nationalism and communism with Cambodia in the throws conflict. A world war depleted France was rapidly withdrawing from Indochina and Cambodia hurtled towards a monarchical independence. Added to the mix were the territorial ambitions of the Viet Minh and violent communist movements supported by China. And somehow, caught between all of this, a perennial underperformer with a peasant background would become Angkar: the invisible lord of the Khmer Rouge, one of the deadliest despots of all times. Pol Pot hadn’t only killed millions of people; his interpretation of the communist ideal was an absolute retreat to peasant lifestyle. And therefore, anyone having any connection to elitism, culture, education, sciences would be summoned by Angkar, never to return; Teachers, doctors, managers, scientists, classical dancers, musicians…everyone.

I woke next day with a new-found empathy for Tan. And many other nameless faces I had crossed on the streets. The smirk that appeared on my face the day before on how any and every one had tried to manipulate the name Angkor for commercial success had disappeared. What other choice did the country have other than to cling to the only connection to a forgotten glory?

The hotels in Siem Reap understand your need for carbohydrates in the morning. Because if you need to walk miles (and miles), climb uneven steps of the temples of Angkor and rush back in time to witness the sunset from the top of the prime Wat, you need to tuck in. The lavish breakfast spread at Somadevi Angkor helped us prepare sufficiently for a bright and early start. Tan, our driver from Poipet had agreed to send his brother as our driver and guide for the day. And in a short while, passes to the park bought and punched, there we were, in the huge all-encompassing arms of Angkor.

The old Hindu myth goes like this. In the everlasting tussle for power between good and evil, following a curse, Hindu lords of heaven, the Devas had lost the heavens to Asuras or the balancing evil spirits. It was then that the wily Lord Vishnu, operator of the world came up with the idea of churning the mighty seas (Sagar Manthan). The churning would bring to fore the largess from the bounty of the oceans. Amongst them would be Elixir of life, a promise of eternal life to both the Devas and the Asuras. The catch? Either could not do it alone. The mighty Mt. Meru would serve as the churning rod and the great king of serpents, Vasuki as the rope. Both Devas and Asuras agreed. And when the Elixir finally did appear, Lord Vishnu, donning the form of a beautiful woman, charmed the Asuras away, leaving the Devas to have the Elixir all to themselves.

If you are born a Hindu, the fables first strike you when you see the familiar form of Devas and Asuras holding a serpentine rope on either side of the entrance of the great Angkor Wat. The moat that surrounds the square Wat has four such entrances bridging over it, one on each side, each entrance sporting similar forms. Directly ahead, dead straight is the central dome of the Wat. You begin to walk in…and that’s when it hits you! Angkor Wat was a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. And the ancient Khmer chose that particular myth, that monumental moment in divine history which forever established the superiority of good over evil. The Wat is a living model of the churning of the great seas. The main dome itself represents Mt. Meru, the moat around it play the great seas and the bridges across form Vasuki. In that moment of realization…what was till moments before a mere building in stone came alive for me. The sheer imagination of their great architects immortalized their beliefs in such an indestructible way that nature in its strongest elements took control of the temple for 100s of years and failed to erase them. So indestructible that even 1000 years after a change of faith replaced the Hindu deity from the main chamber of the temple and still every part of the temple screams their intended stories in endless bas reliefs carved into stone. So indestructible, that the temples of Angkor remain the thin strand of roots, that connects this fragile country to its glorious past even after the Khmer Rouge attempted to wipe it off with the blood of 6 million innocent Khmers. Little did I know, that my wonder for this small dot on the massive Asian continent would continue to grow till the end of my journey?

So grand is the scale of Angkor that the 3 days we had there were woefully inadequate to visit only the important temples which include Baphuon, Preah Khan, Bantey Srei and Bayon apart from the Wat itself. But the more we saw, the more we got lost in these stories painted in stone. Deriving childlike joy in decoding the familiar fables in unfamiliar faces, we went from temple to temple. And when we finally turned on our heels as the sun set in the distance on the last day of our trip, exhausted but content, fulfilled but hungry for more the characteristic smile on Tan’s face betrayed just a slight amusement. Siem Reap town and the sight of its cars and ugly resort buildings with overdone facades was like a jolt of rude reality and we quickly sought refuge in the swimming pool of our hotel. When the water had adequately infused us with enough energy to survive one more night of wandering about, we hit the streets.

Beside the Angkor night market, which sells exotic perfumes and clothes woven with the stunningly soft cotton along with its many trinkets, tucked in, there is a square where every night bicycle-carts driven by traditionally dressed Khmers assemble. Within minutes of the sun setting, the square quickly transforms from being part of the road to an eat-street. The aromas (or smells, depending on your food persuasion and palate) waft through the street promising exotic wonders of a relatively unknown cuisine. And in food to, the history of this puny nation trumps all. Khmer cuisine is also one of the world’s most ancient cuisines and celebrates simplicity to prove it. The balance of flavors and respect for natural ingredients shine through. But like any other Asian nation, it is not for those with a set palate.

And then…we hit pub-street.


After 9 days of traveling Cambodia had already shocked and awed me in many ways. Its history, culture and Hindu lineage made me relate with the Khmer even more than would most people. But one thing I was definitely not prepared for….was the Pub Street. Just when the intellectual maelstrom from understanding Cambodia had ensured adjusting back in the drudgery of a routine life would be difficult, we went to Pub Street. The Temple Bar plays music loud enough to rouse the sleeping gods of Angkor and considers selling anything smaller than a pitcher of alcohol a shame. The street is lined with these pubs and people simply spilling over so much so that the whole street turns into one single party. People of forty different nationalities and beliefs. One people.

As I sat there at the Phnom Penh airport, my whole perspective about Cambodia had changed. The road trip from Siem Reap, again arranged by the very kind Tan, had passed by in a drunken haze. A splash on the face and a quick shower later…there we were, about to catch our ride home. And we were all exhausted, humbled and silent. We had come to understand the mysterious smiles of God’s of Angkor and the almost mechanical, disenchanted way Khmers go about their work.

In 5 years Pot managed to uproot Cambodia, bringing a thousand year old glorious history to a complete standstill. The Cambodia that stands today, under its bustling night markets and throngs of tourist wowed by the sheer scale of the temples of Angkor is a ghost of the magnificence it was. Angkor itself is far removed from a city which was the largest pre-industrial town of the world sprawling over a 1000 square kilometers boasting of an elaborate infrastructure system across its urban wonders. Angkor also had the most impressive water management systems insulating it from the vagaries of unpredictable monsoons.

The nearest ancient city which came close to this Khmer masterpiece was Mayan city of Tikal, a 10th the size.

And all of this, the Khmer managed when Paris was but a small hutment of 500 people. And here it was, more than 35 years after the Khmer Rouge…still struggling to find an identity, with only one constant witnessing it all: the Wat.

As the Khmer say…the boat sails by, the shore remains.

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