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A Temple Run Through Southeast Asia

Outlook 2019-01-11 10:00:43

With a gentle hiss the tyres of my Bangkok Airways airplane kiss the runway at Siem Reap. The flight is uneventful, but there is an air of anticipation shared by us first-time visitors. Today’s born-again Cambodia is the ‘successor-state of the mighty Khmer Empire’ that also held sway over Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, and became the cultural heart of Southeast Asia between the 9th and 14th centuries.

Late-afternoon sunshine and shadows cartwheel their way through the rural and urban Cambodian vistas, as we sync both our timepieces and hearts with this land known for its monumental treasures, architecture and cultural narratives documented in stone. And then we have the scars left by its days of war and no roses, under the brutal regime of the radical Khmer Rouge (1975–1979), with the totalitarian Pol Pot at its helm. It led to the near-annihilation of the urban middle class and the intelligentsia among the two million killed. Novelist Amitav Ghosh once said that this was not a civil war, but “an experiment in the reinvention of society.” 

Pol Pot’s name alone evokes unholy terror and human atrocities. Before donning such an avatar, he was Saloth Sar, a good village boy. He went to Paris to study electronics, but it was communism that began electrifying his world-vision. After returning home he became active in the Indochinese Communist Party, and one day in 1963 disappeared never to be seen again by his family. It was only years later, at the height of the Khmer Rouge regime, his sister-in-law recognised Saloth as the scourge of Cambodia in a poster.

After the fall of the regime, the country had to rebuild its economy. Tourism greatly helped—it compelled the world to look at Cambodia’s ancient past in the modern selfie era. Indeed, herds of youngsters thronging the iconic Angkor Thom can’t seem to get enough of snapping themselves with the enigmatic sculptures.

Upon arriving at Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort, we witness its verdant setting and soak in its French colonial nuances. Lily ponds flank the walkway to the hotel’s luxurious residential spaces, underpinning its quiet exotic mood. An added allure is its proximity from the Angkor Archaeological Park with its many 10th century temples. These sites were once an intrinsic part of the city of Angkor envisioned as a superlative Khmer capital for King Suryavarman II. 

Right after we check in, we are whisked off to the Banteay Srei (Citadel of Women) temple site. Not too long ago, visiting it was a hazard because of the landmines—courtesy the Khmer Rouge—but all is serene today as we wander about the place dedicated to Lord Shiva and admire the beautiful filigree relief carvings. A light drizzle decides to play spoilsport and we are forced to head back for a delicious early dinner.

Reflecting over that first encounter with Cambodia’s ancient architecture, I’m intrigued by how strongly it reflects the country’s ancient ties with India and its Hindu and Buddhist faiths. The next morning as we wander the immense sprawl of the 12th-century Angkor Wat (one of world’s largest religious monuments), this theme is further echoed. Standing close to the five towers that symbolise Mount Meru’s five peaks, it seems King Suryavarman II envisioned this complex as a masterpiece of Khmer art.

I follow locals to one of the two pagodas here, where I watch a Buddhist priest address their needs, and then visit the colonnaded galleries awash with narratives from Hindu mythology carved in the bas-relief panels. I find carvings of mythical beasts and graceful apsaras, dancers and musicians, and gods and goddesses done in intricate detail in the interiors. Originally conceived as a Hindu temple, the site became a Buddhist enclave in the 14th century. The guide tells me that the Khmer rulers worshipped Harihara—a fusion of Vishnu and Shiva.

As for Angkor Thom, it is the mighty stone-carved faces, smiling mysteriously, and the Bayon temple, which stand out. Mystery and many unsolved riddles await you at the Khmer empire’s last royal city. It reflects the legacy of Jayavarman VII (ruled 1181–1218), whose obsession to build nearly crashed the economy.

Located at the western bank of the Siem Reap river, Angkor Thom is accessed by five gateways with sculptures of 54 serene-looking devas and grimacing asuras flanking either side of the causeway. At the southern gateway, I perch myself along the gap between two devas to get a shot of the tranquil river with only the movement of a boatman chucking his net in the waters.

We move on to the temple ruins of Ta Prohm, built by Jayavarman VII as a monument to his mum. Here you aren’t as fascinated by the friezes and the statuary as you are by the dark narrow passageways that link the rugged towers and the rubble-filled courtyards. After all, archaeologists who restored this site deliberately allowed the ruins to remain as they were upon rediscovery. Abandoned after the fall of the Khmer regime in the 15th century, the jungle that grew around gave the place an eerie feel—something put to great use in Tomb Raider. Among the structures held in the deathless embrace of giant strangler figs and burgeoning silk cotton trees reaching for the sky, I wouldn’t like to be caught here after nightfall for the life of me… Exhausted by this overdose, we welcome dinner at Por Cuisine. The high point of the evening is a traditional Cambodian apsara dance performance. The art form has been painstakingly revived after the Pol Pot era, when many artists fled or were put to death or maimed. Interestingly, Cambodia’s present King Sihamoni is a trained ballet dancer.

Next morning, we are off to Bangkok, from where we catch the coach to the beachside Hua Hin, also quite the ‘Marwari wedding hub’, as revealed by a friend.

We are booked at the beachside Novotel Hua Hin Cha Am Beach Resort & Spa, known for its splendid sea views. But soon we have to scamper into the coach for a walk-around and seaside dinner at the SO/ Sofitel Hua Hin, a luxury resort located by the Gulf of Thailand. Once inside, I’m faced with a reflecting pool with statues of elephants, hippos and crocs, cooling themselves in the water. These are the brainchild of interiors specialist Donatien Carratier, and you will encounter these sculptures at the most unexpected places in the resort. The place is comfortable and luxurious—I even adored the swanky bathrooms in the spacious guest rooms, with their huge walk-in showers.

There is a trek planned for the next morning that includes a hike up to a cave shrine, but caves give me the heebie-jeebies! Setting aside my worries, I join the group. A steep mountain hike begins at Sam Roi Yot National Park, that leads to Phraya Nakhon cave, and though I’m feeling pretty chuffed having made it half-way, I gratefully agree to wait at the viewing station till the rest of the group returns from an even steeper climb to the top. Done and dusted and back in the coach in one piece, we head for lunch amid the verdure of Monsoon Valley Vineyard where we enjoy a jeep tour and chase it up with some joyful wine tasting and delicious food.

What’s especially welcome is the surprise in store for us just before a barbecue dinner by the sea at Novotel—a spa session. After dinner and a cracker of a gossip session, we proceed for some late-night barhopping. This way, an adventurous day ends in a relaxed manner—indeed, a picture-perfect send-off to my Southeast Asian immersion.

One-stop flights connect most major Indian cities to Siem Reap, while there are many non-stop flights to Bangkok (approx. 200km from Hua Hin). Sofitel Angkor begins from approx. INR 14,900 a night, while Novotel Hua Hin is approx. INR 14,400. (accorhotels.com). Indian passport holders do not have to pay Visa-on-Arrival fees from December 1, 2018 to January 31, 2019.