To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Remembering Cambodia

I received a query at an online forum recently, for tips to someone visiting Cambodia.  I don't remember whether I've written here before of my visit to Cambodia back in '04, so thought I'll fill the gap now.  The account below is based on my experiences there at that time, and many things may have changed since then.

Phnom Penh National Museum
There are many things to do at Phnom Penh, the capital city. For a start, you could visit the palace (now more of a museum) - besides the intricate carvings, frescoes and panels, if you're lucky you may see the King waving to the visitors from his quarters nearby! In the markets, there are a number of quaint little eating places with quintessential French food, and you may enjoy a healthy breakfast at one of these. If you're historically inclined, you could go visit the quarters where Khmer Rouge tortured & killed hundreds of thousands (some say millions) during their reign - a sad effect is that you'd see most of today's citizens are pretty young!  

For the evenings, one can go to one of the restaurants on the 'riverfront', which overlooks the giant Mekong river which meanders through many countries in that region.  Many of the restaurants are built on 'stakes', on wooden platforms over the marshy area.  The food is a mish mash of local and continental (mostly French) delicacies.  One tip: Cambodia may be one of the countries where the US Dollar is almost legal currency - you can pay for everything with the dollar, and local businesses actually prefer the dollar (the exchange rate being what it is).

The multicoloured plane!
But I guess most people go to Cambodia for the Angkor Wat temple.  The magic at Siem Reap (a short flight from Phnom Penh) starts the moment you land there.  If you're lucky, you'd have been travelling in one of those multi-coloured small aircraft with traditional Cambodian designs painted all over. Siem Reap itself is a pretty laid back town, with old French-style vistas and a narrow canal.  

Siem Reap town

Entry to the famed Angkor Wat temple complex

Angkor Wat totally deserves its status as a World Heritage site. The main structure itself, as well as the surrounding grounds, are full of history, and you feel as if you're yourself standing right amidst ancients! And, be careful about coming down one of those steep open stairways with narrow steps (going up is easier) - don't try it unless your calves are strong, else they'll cry out for mercy.

Stranded midway on the stairs!
What I found interesting at Angkor Wat is the evidence of different period of history strewn about. You can of course see the prominent Buddha images throughout, some still being worshipped. But if you look closely (sometimes behind the life-size Buddha statues), you can see remnants of the Hindu culture and religion which existed before Buddhism, for instance relics of Hindu gods and goddesses. 

Ramayana at Angkor Wat!
A bird's eye view of Angkor Wat

Budha at Angkor Wat

Entry to Angkor Thom
But of course you can't come back from Siem Reap after just seeing Angkor Wat. The real treat, in my personal opinion, lies at Angkor Thom, a whole city in ruins. It takes your breath away the instant you get there, with the phalanx of a neat line of stone images (demons?) welcoming you at the very entrance. Inside the 'city', a whole lot of historical structures beckon you to explore the life of the kings of that period.  Apparently, before the ascendancy of Vietnamese empire (which at one time occupied much of South East Asia and part of China), it was the Khmer kings of present day Cambodia which held sway over that part of Asia.  Quite a contrast with the condition in which Cambodia finds itself now, made worse by the evil reign of Khmer Rouge in the '70s.
Angkor Thom ruins

What leaves one amazed is the giant stone faces (made famous by countless movies), some with long trees growing right on top! Actually, Angkor Thom is more like a jungle now, with the faces and structures strewn about. 
The 'Faces'

Back in the town, you may like to explore the nooks and crannies of local alleyways, while being careful of your belongings (not much organised crime, I guess, but it's always useful to be wary of locallised petty crime). And once done, one can spend the evening at FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) - at a nice buildinging overlooking the main vista with a canal - and start supper with some nice tomato soup! After that, the choice is endless... (well, for that place!).

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