Camels in Cambodia
Believe me, I did not see any camels in Cambodia and I did not go to look for camels. After we returned from our trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia, somebody told us we should have bought black peppers from there as the country is famous for this spice. We did not buy black peppers either.
Then people will wonder, what did we do in Cambodia? We sunned our bodies in ancient buildings that housed history more than a thousand years ago. We went to see Angkor Wat and saw a whole bunch of very unique things and had unique experiences, including very severe traveller’s diarrhea.
We were received at the airport by a driver who made a deal that he would take us around during our stay in Cambodia. He had been sent by the hotel.
The first day we wanted to see a unique site at Phnom Kulen , a little mountain just outside Siem Reap. They had underwater carvings of deities and the Shiva linga dating back to about 802 CE, when Jayavarman II founded the kingdom of Kambuja. First, we had to buy tickets priced at US$20 each at a ticketing office in town.
Here I must make a minor diversion to clarify that in Siem Reap, in the true spirit of internationalism, local people prefer using US dollars to the Cambodian riel. When I asked our driver why people prefer the USD, he explained that as 1 USD was equal to 4000 riels, it was more practical to do transactions in USD. The interesting thing was the transactions were always in terms of dollars and never in terms of cents. For example, the driver charged us US$100 for a trip to Phnom Kulen. Lunch cost us another US$48… never a transaction in cents or riel. This was really an interesting phenomenon in context of the current revival of nationalistic fervour among the voters for Brexit and the trumpeting of Trumpian followers.
To get back on track to Phnom Kulen, we traversed dusty uphill roads. The dust was orangish-red in colour. The driver told us he needed to turn off the air conditioning to make it up the path. The ride was like a roller coaster ride through hills and dales of untouched roads where modern machinery had not dared to trample. I felt like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft out on a new adventure!
We parked on a riverbed and walked to the Siem Reap river where we saw ancient carvings. Some of it was very clear and some, we could not figure out…
A few urchins followed us from the parking area. They were evidently trying to earn a few US dollars for their families. They were too poor to attend free schools provided by the government and had to try to supplement the family income otherwise they would starve, the driver told us. They need to work so that the families can eat! We gave them a dollar for photographing our whole family. They did a great job and were very enthused. They followed us uphill to the Buddha temple that had been built by later Buddhist kings. They looked after our shoes when we went to the temple and earned a few more US dollars.
It was interesting to see the way Buddhism had mingled with Hinduism here and had paved the way for a strange new set of myths. I read that the Hinduism that they followed in ancient Cambodia was tinged further by their local religious beliefs! Below the Buddhist temple on the hill was a statue of an apsara ( a heavenly maiden) drying the ocean with her hair to save drowned sailors . A Shiva linga stood next to it. And upstairs was a huge reclining Buddha. You could see a man taking care of the linga and a Buddhist monk praying and blessing people beside him. It was truly wonderful to see this harmonious existence of different religions.
After the temple, we went to the waterfalls. The water was cool, fresh and untamed. You could see nature at it’s best. Many local families could be seen picnicking there. We returned by a road built by Koreans for the locals. It was a great, smooth ride.
That evening, we went for the Apsara dance show at the Kulen 2 restaurant in Siem Reap. We had to give the hotel US$18 per head to get us tickets the day before. One thing I did learn in Cambodia was you could never make unplanned trips. Everything that savoured of local flavour was done against booking and tickets. The music and dance performances were interesting and the buffet the most sumptuous I saw in Cambodia.
The next day, we were to go our dream destination…the legendary Angkor Wat. Our driver picked us up by 9 am and we went to another ticket office. This time, the driver told all of us to disembark, as other than paying US$20 per ticket, we needed to have individual photographs on them! The tickets had our photos printed on them. I have never had a ticket with my photograph on it! The driver informed us that they did this so that we would not share the ticket with a friend…. not that we had one there… only the person with a picture on the ticket could explore the temples! And mind you there were security guards all along who checked and rechecked our tickets against our faces!
We could use this one ticket to visit all the temples in the Angkor region. We were told there were more than a thousand temples in Siem Reap alone. We made it to just three.
Angkor Wat looked fabulous from a distance but the carvings and the staircases were really worn out. It was made with rocks from Phnom Kulen. Because the rocks were porous, the carvings had partially eroded. I had seen the carvings in Ajanta and Ellora in India, temples and caves carved out of rock faces of mountains, and the carvings had stayed with me. Those were sixth century CE and older. The carvings at Angkor Wat were relatively new but were more worn out.
The temple also housed the mausoleum of Suryavarman II, the king who had the temple built in dedication to Vishnu. The grave was covered with rocks placed over it like a pyramid. There were no inscriptions in English or any other language explaining the history of the temple. So, one really had to depend on a guide. We had a guide who left much to be desired. He was found by our driver and gave us an amazing interpretation of Hindu lore, told us how violent Buddhist rulers defaced the Hindu statues of Vishnu and Lakshmi, which in itself was an oxymoron as Buddhism is a religion of peace, love and kindness. He told us that the building was being restored by Germans and had been found by French. This sounded closer to what guide books said. Angkor Wat had been found by the botanist, Henri Mouhot, in the nineteenth century, though recently his role has come under flak. And a German team had been working on some of the bas relief structures. One of the libraries had been restored by Japan in 2005.
The next temple we visited was Ta Prohm. This was a welcome surprise! It had trees growing out of the building. The temple popularly is called the Tree temple and is dedicated to the tree spirits, the driver told us. However, when I googled, I found the temple was built by Jayavarman VII in 1186 AD and called Rajavihara. It was a Buddhist monastery. The restoration of this temple is being carried out by the Indian government. Ta Prohm, literally means ‘ancestor Brahma’.
This was an amazing temple with trees and a wild magnificence! It was so spectacular that it had been used to film Lara Croft and the Tomb Raiders. So, in a way I was reliving Lara Croft adventures as I had felt in Pnomh Kulen.
A group of musicians playing local instruments performed in the open, near the gate of Ta Prohm. They had a notice that said that these were all land mine victims trying to earn a living without begging. We had earlier seen land mine victims on the stairs of Phnom Kulen Temple. It was sad to see able-bodied men unable to eke out a decent living because soldiers dropped land mines all over half a century ago. I wonder why the men who made and sold the mines could not find a way of de mining the rice fields of Cambodia and Vietnam and making it safe for farmers. Maybe, because there are no camels and too many monkeys in Cambodia.
We saw a monkey snatch a packet of bananas from a tourist’s hand in the grounds of Angkor Wat . The couple were trying to get it back from the monkey in vain. Our macho temple guide, we discovered, was good at dealing with monkeys even if not too sound on historical matters. He jumped to the rescue! He chased away the monkey and restored the bananas to the young blonde couple, who started to munch on it.
The last temple we visited was in Angkor Thom. It had huge elephant carvings, which were again very worn out. The city of Angkor Thom was a huge complex built by Jayavarman VII. Unfortunately, the whole city was in ruins, except for the fabulous Bayon temple with it’s giant faces of the Bodhisattva towering over the horizon. The Bayon temple with it’s unique and striking architecture is being restored by Japan.
One of the things we found in common is very few sculptures were whole within the temples and the city ramparts. They were mostly missing heads. We did locate the missing heads in the Angkor museum the next day. Again we needed tickets but this time without photographs…the ones with pictures were only for temple visits!
The Angkor museum with it’s audio-visual displays did a great job in explaining what history of the region has been unearthed. A lot still needs to be done.
We had an amazing four-day experience.
Siem Reap was unique in many ways. They used dollars instead of local currency. We could never just drop into any historic place…tickets and official guides needed to be pre-booked. Local people were very laid back and accepted whatever came their way. They had hammocks outside homes, restaurants and shops so that they could take an afternoon siesta…we discovered our driver in one of these one day. I could be paying more than the price even if I bargained. I had a unique experience while buying a temple guide book from a local vendor. Our temple guide, the one who chased away monkeys for tourists, looked on as the whole transaction was carried out. The vendor started by telling me to to pay US$ 28 for the book. To get rid of him, I said US$10. He agreed, but because I did not buy the book, still kept chasing us. Finally, my husband bought the book at US$10. Then we saw the same book being sold for US$5 at the back gate of Angkor Wat and for US$1 at Ta Prohm!
When it came to shopping, we were taken to very high-end emporiums. A packet of candles that cost S$2.50 in Singapore were being sold at US$ 25 there. The only justification was that the candles were made by handicapped people. Finally, we did our shopping in the Night Market, where bargaining is the only law. Buying souvenirs in Siem Reap was an exhausting experience…both for our pockets and our stamina!
As long as we explored the ancient temples, we did not feel the need for camels in Cambodia. But when it came to shopping, or listening to our guides, or avoiding stomach issues, a long camel ride out of adventure land avoiding all monkey antics would have been what perhaps Lara Croft would have done. And then, of course, she would take a warp speed plane back to the Brexit land of Britain.