I had backpacked a few days in Thailand and Cambodia in 2008 with Elvis D’Cruz, my colleague in DP World at the time. We landed in Bangkok with just return tickets and the intention to tour Pattaya, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. We have wonderful memories of that tour, particularly the manner in which we had walked across the border into Cambodia with our backpacks. A tour agency in Pattaya had arranged to drop us at the Thai border. Many Europeans were part of that bus ride to the border, whose visas were on the verge of expiry. They would get the Thai visa cancelled at the border, walk across the Cambodian border, get formalities of visa and in and out stamping done and return for another 30 day stay in Thailand. The bus would wait on the Thai side to return to Pattaya with them!
We didn’t have Cambodian visas, but were encouraged by stories of how easy it was to obtain the visas on arrival at the border. Our experience was not exactly unpleasant, but we had to wait for over 3 hours to get the formalities done, with some tension thrown in. By the time it was done, we had to make arrangements to stay in a guesthouse near the border. But, lasting impressions of the visit was of simple people, cheap accommodation, excellent street food, Angkor Wat, boat travel between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap on the Tonle Sap Lake and terrible road infrastructure. In Siem Reap we had befriended a tuk tuk driver who took us around for two days. He suggested a sunrise view of Angkor Wat on the second day. $.30 am was the time set for departure from the hotel. Frankly, I had not expected the tuk tuk driver to be on time, considering experiences in tourist places in India then. To my utter surprise he was sleeping in his tuk tuk when I opened the hotel gate at 4.30 am! I was reminded of this when I got ready and left the hotel this morning at 5 am to view the sunrise from Angkor Wat.
I did not engage a tuk tuk because it would have cost me about $25. I had to get a day ticket for visiting the Angkor complex, for which I had to go to the ticketing office first. I was pleasantly happy to see the organised process followed. There are different queues for one day, three day and seven day passes, mostly manned by women. Most of the ushers are women too, who are extremely polite and courteous. I paid the entrance fee of $20 for a day pass, which is valid for twelve hours from 5.30 am. The ticket is by itself a souvenir for it has the picture of Angkor Wat as well as your photograph on it. By the time I had parked the car and reached the site from where the sunrise was to be viewed there was already a large group of tourists, most of whom who had arrived by tuk tuk.
It was dark and torch lights were required to keep one from tripping and even falling, as a few did. The magic is to capture the reflection of the Angkor Wat Temple on the small pond in front of the entrance. People wait patiently for a few hours to experience the change of hues and professionals wait days to capture the right moment. I positioned myself behind a few Japanese women tourists, who were sitting beside the pond. Even if they stood they would not have obstructed my view. The wait from 5.30 am to 6.45 am, by when the Sun had fully risen, was worth it. I was happy to capture the transition. However, what fascinated me the most was the childish cry of one of the Japanese tourists, who exclaimed “she’s kumming”, when the Sun rose above one of the temple turrets! Many tourists began their tour of Angkor Wat Temple following the sunrise. I came back to the hotel, which was only 7 km from the complex, for a shower and breakfast.
By the time I got back to the Temple at 9.30 am it was already very hot. I felt I too should have done the temple visit early in the morning. It would have been good for photography too. When I did the rounds of the 12 century masterpiece, which was first a Hindu Temple complex – dedicated to Vishnu - and then a Buddhist one, it was energy sapping. It is considered the largest religious monument in the world. It was at the heart of the Khmer Empire at the time. It is still very much a place of worship and the ushers remind you of this significance when they ask you to remove your cap before climbing the steep steps to the top of the temple mountain. The Khmer architecture, which itself is early Dravidian architecture, is a symbol of Cambodia. Angkor Wat is supposed to represent the abode of the devas in Hindu mythology. At the centre of the temple are five towers, four at each of the corners and one in the centre. Many areas of the temple are under reconstruction and hence closed to visitors.
To recoup from the loss of fluids there are enough and more stalls vending food and drinks in Angkor Wat. I ordered mango juice from a stall manned by a young girl. She immediately called her friend to make the juice and started ‘marketing’ postcards, which she said would help her go to school. Even though I didn’t need them I fell for the emotional blackmail. As I paid for the juice and the cards another girl asked me to buy a further set of cards to help her too. I had to quickly move away and onwards to the Bayon Temple. A kind usher at the entrance to the Angkor Wat Temple had given me a laminated map to guide me to the various sights in the complex.
The iconic and richly decorated Bayon temple, that has served as backdrop for many films, was the last state temple built in the Angkor complex. It was built as a Buddhist temple in the 13th century. The most distinctive feature of the temple is the large number of serene faces that project from the many towers of the temple. The conservancy of this temple is being done by the Japanese Government, just as India is involved in Ta Prohm Temple. This was built as a monastery and university in the late 13th century and has largely been left as it has been found even though quite a bit of restoration of the Gopura has been done. With large trees growing out of walls and ruins in a jungle surrounding make it one of the most visited tourist sites in the complex. The entire Angkor complex remained hidden from public view for nearly four centuries till the 20th century.
I had to drag myself back to the car once the Ta Prohm temple was done. I was completely wasted and had to get to the hotel to rest and recuperate. The heat is incredible. Later in the evening I headed to the Pub Street for a fish massage. It was eerie, but enjoyable. I shifted from a tank with small fish to one with big ones and experienced it for over an hour. Initially, the fish nibbling at the undersoles and ankles is a funny feeling. After a while you get used to it. It is at times ticklish and at times a bit painful when the big ones get to your Achilles heel. By the time I was done I had some sore skin at the back of my feet where the big fish had got a bit aggressive with their nibbling. I had pork Lok Lak, another Khmer delicacy, at the Khmer Kitchen Restaurant for dinner. It has plenty of cucumber, tomato and greens along with eggs and paste on pork. The dish was accompanied by a large serving of rice.
The wonderful stay in Siem Reap was coming to an end. I had apprehensions about entering Cambodia, but once I did, I enjoyed it every bit here. Thailand is the next country in the itinerary with Pattaya the next stop over destination.