The temples and statues of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom still weave a mysterious spell across the centuries…
What to do over a three-day weekend? Angkor Wat's the answer! Just a hop across from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.
As you come in to land at Siem Reap (pronounced Si-em-Ri-ep), views of Khmer houses on spindly legs, built to handle the summer monsoon, set amidst endless greenery, is your first aerial sight.
Angkor means “city of temples”, Wat means “monastery” said our guide, as we drove out of the luxurious Raffles Grand Angkor Hotel. Siem Reap, Cambodia's once-sleepy town, has become a huge tourist attraction as it is home to what is arguably the eighth wonder of the world. Wikipedia says Angkor comes from the word ‘nokor', which has its origin in the Sanskrit ‘nagara' or capital.
Embellished by time
I had heard of leCambodgeas a student in Paris, three decades ago, as Angkor was a French ‘discovery'; it has been fashionable for the French to visit always. But Indians have only recently realised our reflected glory in the bas-relief carvings of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana on the walls of the amazing Angkor Wat temple, which has stood, nay, been embellished by, the passage of time.
And what an immense chunk of time that is. It was as long ago as the 12th Century when the Hindu influence reached this far. The Vishnu in the Parikrama holds a conch and discus in his hands, yet his face (or is it the hairstyle?) resembles the Buddha more than the other avatars we know.
Here a Saraswati, there a Lakshmi, now Hanuman, then Brahma, and, of course, the ubiquitous Ganesh — they are all present in intricate detail on the walls within this grand structure whose dome represents Mount Meru. The reflection of these towers in the lily-filled water body in front is breathtaking and we marvel at the steep steps leading to the top which we negotiate in the spirit of cautious adventure.
Angkor Thom is the old big city (Thom means big in Khmer) close by and the gateway to it has a row of majestic Gods and Demons — 54 lined up on each side of the road, representing the legend of the Milky Ocean churned with Kalinga, the serpent, as a rope to bring forth the pot of Amrita or nectar of Immortality. We are awestruck by the gargantuan statues, many decapitated, some with modern cement heads in lieu of the lost ones, others left enigmatically headless.
A revelation
Next comes the Bayon temple inside Angkor Thom, built by Jayavarman VII, the Mahayana Buddhist king. Angkor Wat looked impressive as a structure right away when we drove in from Siem Reap airport, but Bayon looks like piles of stones until you climb in and upwards, when it reveals its true beauty.
What is the secret beauty that comes alive when we see 216 faces of Lord Avalokiteshwara? It is the smile, despite the rocky countenance, that weaves a spell, and at least one seems to be directed at you! Scrambling over the rocks, Tomb Raider style (the film was shot in these Khmer temples), we pose in front of one of the faces where a funny photo session ensues with our guide, our profiles seem to meet that of a face, Eskimo-style in this trick photo opportunity area.
Surprising familiarity
Cambodians seem to know more of Hindu mythology than we Indians do though they are 96 per cent Buddhist. The Tuk-tuk driver speaks of saving and exiling fathers, Vasudeva and Dasharatha, while talking of the lives of Krishna and Rama, with the ease of discussing current affairs. His English is tinted with an American accent and his small talk is dotted with these Hindu stories. How many auto drivers or city dwellers would know as many details or think it ‘cool' enough to speak of them, we wonder?
For all tourists, Tuk-tuks are a must-travel, the Old Market is a must-browse, Cambodian silk a must-buy and spa massages a must-have while you drink in the splendour of Angkor.
For us Indians especially, Indian Renaissance 2.0 is the need of the hour, along with our Web 2.0 capability,and a trip to Angkor inspires this deep driving desire.
The writer is Founder- CEO of