The entire tourist economy of Siem Reap and Angkor works on US dollars as the official currency; even after spending five days, I have no idea what things are actually supposed to cost. The bargaining goes something like this: say a vendor stops you on the street; he or she will start “Sir, would you like this t-shirt for six dollars?” (Now mind you, as an aside, these local vendors at a minimum speak German, Japanese and Korean too; simply incredible what people are capable of learning when it comes to the survival of the fittest!) Anyway, while you are attempting to digest what this vendor is trying to hawk, they consider your hesitation to signify that you are looking for a lower price, and without you having uttered a word, they would say “How about two t-shirts for ten dollars?” and while you continue to stare, the price drops to “How about three t-shirts for eight dollars?” and as you start to walk away confused, “just take one then for two dollars!”
The ways to get to and around the temples of Angkor are as varied in style and cost as the choices for your stay in and around Siem Reap. You could splurge at the Raffles Grand Hotel for $250 a night if ostentatious opulence is your style, or stay at the equally comfortable but decidedly less ornate boutique guest houses in the Psar Chaa area for under $50, which puts you close to the night action on Pub Street and its surrounding Night Markets. In the former case, there are some who simply then take in the vastness of the Angkor Complex from a helicopter ride without setting foot in any of the temples, and see the temple’s looted artifacts in the air-conditioned comfort of the Angkor National museum instead. Most people end up either joining bus or minibus tours, or hire private cars or Tuk Tuks; we chose to tour by a simple retro Tuk Tuk driven by the amicable Mr. Khorn who chose to emblazon the back side of his ride as “Sweet Corn” (No really! It does rhyme with Khorn!)
Myths and History
The Temples of Angkor were built over a period of centuries starting with the 9th under the rule of Jayavarman II, followed by each monarch building bigger and larger number of temples, until the death of Jayavarman VII in the 13th century. Each wanted to be known by history to be the biggest builder, their quest leaving us a fascinating legacy to marvel at a thousand years later. As you tour the temple circuit, you will end up learning a lot regarding Hindu mythology, starting from the Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva trilogy to tales from Ramayana and Mahabharata; you will end up wishing you had remembered some details on those from your childhood as the tour guides definitely look at you suspiciously when you are uncertain where Kashyapa fits into the grand scheme of things despite your obviously uber Indian good looks.
Well if you must know, Rishi Kashyapa had married two sisters Kadru and Vinata, the latter of the two lost a wager bounding her into eternal servitude of Kadru. Kadru had borne Kashyapa a 100 Nagas (snakes) while Vinata had borne him Garuda, the king of birds. To break his mother free from bondage,Garuda promised the Nagas that he would fetch them the divine nectar in return, which, to his credit, he was successful in procuring. The selfless Garuda did not end up partaking this liquid of eternal life, but ended up begetting immortality from Vishnu himself anyway for his demonstration of devotion, while the Nagas ended up with forked tongues as they were tricked into licking some very sharp grass that they believed might have been contaminated by the divine nectar. Now you know!
Angkor Wat, the temple that boasts the moniker of the entire region, includes hundreds of feet of wall carved with tales of Ramayana, another equally long wall shows Mahabharata, and yet another has stories and images of Suryavaraman, the king who commissioned its construction, proving that selfies were in fashion even then. These carvings were originally gilded, and even though the gold is now completely gone, you find some of the walls painted red. The red paint was added by the Buddhists who took over four centuries later, it being their religious color of choice. They also moved the Hindu idols to the outer areas of the temples, and replaced the inner sacristies with statues of the Buddha in various poses—sleeping, standing or sitting in the Dhyana or Boomi Mudra. There is, at this time, no rhyme or reason why you are allowed to wear shoes in some of the sacred areas but not others. Whether to take your shoes off or keep them on can be confusing in other places too like stores, restaurants, salons and even your own hotel lobby!
More Myths and History
It took 37 years and 38,500 volunteers to build. It is amazing that workers did this out of love and dedication and were not slave labor like builders of other ancient marvelous structures like the Taj Mahal or the Pyramid. How do we know such precise information? Interestingly, there are intact Sanskrit inscriptions in stone that describe these statistics and the procedure of building these temples; most of these are now housed in the air-conditioned Angkor National Museum. The sandstone walls of the temple have holes bored into them as that was the way to drag them with rope from almost 70 kms away. These holes are not to be confused with the smaller holes in the walls that you will find in the inner sanctums; these held gemstones during the glorious past, and are now part of the loot that never made it to that air-conditioned Angkor National Museum.
Angkor Wat is best seen at sunrise; taking this advice to heart, there are at least 2,000 people who line up (more like crowd around) the lotus pool before dawn to catch a glimpse of the magnificence of the changing colors of the Wat’s reflection as the sun rises. Even if you are not an early riser in general, this experience is highly recommended. When you look at the picture of Agnkor Wat or any of the other temples, you see a quintet of towers that appear to be in a single line; this is an illusion as, in reality, the four smaller towers are laid out in a square with the taller central one smack in the center of the square. The reason they appear in a line is that these temples are so vast that the photographer has no choice but to snap them from a very long distance to enclose them in a single frame in their entirety, thus distorting their actual dimensionality.
Unlike in other Asian countries, after your bladder is full from drinking coconut water, sugarcane juice or palm juice (that drink of Neera which turns into alcoholic toddy upon fermentation), and you are still wandering around ornate temples with names like Preah Khan or Bnteay Kdei, neither of which are to be missed, do not fear about where you will relieve yourself, as the Angkor area possibly has the cleanest public restrooms on the entire continent, thanks to the portion of your $20 per day ticket being put to work for this absolute biological necessity.
Still More Myths and History
Trust me when I say that Preah Khan is no relation to any of the Bollywood Khans, but its name means Temple of the Sacred Sword, which we never managed to locate during our visit, not for the lack of trying. It’s for reasons like this that hiring a good tour guide is important; ours was not knowledgeable about the sword, but did show us the ensconced statues of Jayavarman VII’s two sister-wives, Queens Indradevi and Jayarajadevi. Hey, don’t blame him; it was Rishi Kashyapa who started the tradition, but at least Jayavarman VII married the younger after the older sister passed away. On our own, neither would we have found these statues nor would we have known the interesting tale that the younger wife had wrapped her soul in a shawl that the king carried with him to war. It was this shawl that protected him from certain death during a battle, but that virtual injury cost the wife back home her life!
Although many of the temples have a similar layout, it is most evident in Preah Neak Pean (the Temple of the Intertwined Nagas) where you can visualize the high point of the temple to symbolize the Hindu Heaven of Mount Meru, as theAsuras (demons holding the head of the serpent rope) and Devas (demigods holding the tail of that same serpent rope) on the pathways leading to it, churn the ocean of milk. When milk churns, it creates foam and what does this foam give birth to? You guessed it—Apsaras, the celestial maidens of yore.
Carvings of these heavenly beauties are found wily-nilly along various walls, nooks and crannies of the temple; these ensconced statues are bare from the waist up but are bedecked with heavy jewelry around their necks and ears. The tradition of dances by Apsaras continues into these modern times, possibly for the benefit of the tourist economy and you can catch these for free at the Night Market, or pay 10-15 US dollars for a buffet dinner while you watch, or maybe go all out to grand stage productions like Smile Apsara which would set you back 40-50 US dollars a pop. They are all “Same Same But Different,” an expression whose meaning you will only grasp if you travel to countries in that part of South East Asia. Oh, and do not fear if you have children in tow on your trip, these modern Apsara Dancers are family friendly and dressed up from the waist (as well as waist down).
Finally Templed Out
Unless you are a scholar of ancient architecture, it is very likely that you will be templed out; we ended up skipping the twin temples of Thomanon and Chau Say Tevoda. The one you do not want to miss is Ta Prohm, as many of its sights look straight out of an Indiana Jones movie (or Tomb Raider for the Angelina Jolie fans amongst us). A visit here serves to demonstrate how nature is much stronger than anything man made as you will see gigantic tree roots that have crept all over the abandoned site. Our Mother Earth will find a way to survive regardless of the destruction by her children. Amen!
The Temple of Bnteay Srei is 25 km away from the rest of the temple circuit, but it’s well worth the trip; this is where you will see the most delicate of the Angkor carvings (mostly about the stories of the various Avatars of Lord Vishnu), that survived for over a 1,000 years! The guidebook claims that these were made by women, again out of love and dedication, not enslavement. While you are in that vicinity, and if you are physically fit, do make the steep climb up to Kbal Spean along a well marked trail to reach the sacred waterfall of fertility, made so as it flows over a 1,000 lingas representing the male organ of generation and a single yoni representing the female reproductive organ.
When you are really really templed out, you may be tempted to go visit one of the floating villages, but I would recommend you avoid it; I am convinced that the waterways are highly contaminated with sewage and you will breathe in airborne bacteria, which was the most likely reason I almost threw up the delicious Amok curry I had for lunch later that afternoon. Instead, head to the free tour of the silk farm, where although you know this subconsciously, you will actually see for yourself that the production of silk is not a vegan enterprise; the worms are boiled to death in their cocoons before the silk threads can be spun. With that thought, let me end spinning my travelogue to the Magical Angkor!
Riz Mithani is a graduate of IIT Bombay and ekes out a living in the Bay Area by peddling simple business and technology solutions to highly complex problems that provide a real return on investment. When he is not dancing or traveling, he blogs occasionally at rizmit.wordpress.