Trundling along in a tuk-tuk, along the straight roads of Siem Reap, my husband and I were excitedly soaking up the sights and sounds of Cambodia. Our swollen backpacks were gently bumping up and down, as the charming half motorcycle-half wagon sped on its way to our destination. Past glistening rice fields and wooden houses we went, till we caught the sudden glimmer of water in the distance. We picked our way through the slightly muddy pathway to boat number 36 that was taking us to Kampong Phluk, one of the many floating villages that dotted Tonle Sap, the great lake of Siem Reap. Tonle Sap is the biggest freshwater lake in South East Asia and is also unique as the waters expand and decrease according to the seasons. As we rode the waves, our tuk-tuk driver turned guide told us that we were still more than forty minutes away from the actual lake. Our boat was traversing a portion of the waters that was actually a tarred road for eight months of the year. Amazed, we sat back and watched as the ‘floating village’ came into view. “Water dwellings” is what comes to mind as you see the group of houses perched atop eight-meter wooden stilts. Children row themselves to school waving and smiling widely as they pass. Babies precariously balanced on the topmost steps of their homes. Families going about their daily business as naturally as we do on land unmindful of the water that lay all around them. We halted at a local house for a snack and then watched the world drift by, as we waited for our boatwoman to arrive.
The wait was well worth it. We followed her to her wooden canoe and balanced ourselves as she rowed to the mangrove forest through the village. Half submerged, the branches brushing the water, the forest is silent except for the occasional crickets chirping and the throaty warbling of birds. We sit wordlessly soaking in the dreamlike environment. Siem Reap is already proving to be a lot more surreal than its reputation.
And nothing proved that to us more than watching dawn break over the biggest religious monument in the world, the Angkor Wat. Built in the early 12th century, the structure stands with four out of its original five towers standing proud. Adorned with bas-reliefs depicting the scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and royal processions of past kings, walking through the temple is like taking a stroll back in time. As we walk up the steep stone steps and along the stone corridors, we stand in awe of the skill of the ancient Khmers and at the way in which their architecture has endured over the centuries. The feeling resurfaces at the early 13th century temple of Bayon that is known for its complex of face towers. With as many as thirty-seven towers soaring upward, each etched on all four sides with a face with an enigmatic smile, this temple is one of the most impressive of the temples in the Angkor complex. The faces look down on us as we explore the temple attempting to search for an Indian connection in the bas -reliefs. To me, the mysterious smiles on the faces seemed to be of those who had seen much transpire over the centuries.
Nowhere in the town of Angkor do you feel as transported back to the past as you do at Ta Prohm. A popular tourist jaunt, since the temple was featured in the 2001 hit Tomb Raider, its best visited in the wee hours of the morning, when there is scarcely anyone around. Huge silk cotton trees and strangler figs have taken over the once magnificently carved temple. Roots thicker than trunks have ripped through stone roofs and grown over structures, forcing them to bow to nature’s far superior strength. It almost seems like nature is forcefully reclaiming the land that rightfully belonged to her. It’s an overwhelming sight that seems to be telling us, that no matter what man achieves there are always forces that are beyond his control.
For those who are interested in symbolism and sculpture, Angkor Wat and the temples that lie across the four hundred square kilometre regions are treasure troves of knowledge. They say a lifetime is not enough to absorb all that the region has to offer. We had, but three days. While we attempted to give the must-see temples the attention it deserves, we also decided to explore a few temples that lay off the beaten path. Notable amongst them was Banteay Srei, a temple with sculptures so intricate and exquisite that female artisans were rumoured to have crafted them. We gaped at the sandstone carvings of mythological figures and a thought crossed my mind. Have we really progressed as much as we claim to in architecture and design? I am yet to see any modern building that matches up to what we saw at Angkor. Yet another site, Kbal Spean was entirely a series of religious motifs etched on either sides of the riverbank, where the water gushes past them, in the way it has over the centuries. The fact that the site is more than 2100 metres uphill, through a dense forest just added to the mystique of the region.Temples, floating villages, abandoned ruins; we explored and absorbed all that Siem Reap has to offer. And yet I found it impossible to label Siem Reap either as the gateway town or as any thing else. To me, apart from the incredible sights, what stood out were the people. Welcoming the masses of travellers to their town with palms clasped together by their chest and a warm, genuine smile, they make you feel at home. No matter which part of the town we trudged to, the smiles were unwavering and unconditional. And while the sight of seeing the sun rise slowly over the Angkor Wat will remain one of my fondest memories of Siem Reap, so will the smiles of the Khmers.