Love among the ruins in Cambodia's Siem Reap
Siem Reap in Cambodia has risen from the ashes and has thrown open its arms to visitors who are looking for history set in stone, authentic cuisine, insomniac night markets and people who love telling stories, finds Kareena N Gianani
Best from: Bangkok
You need: A week
Robin Hood waves his hand in front of us as we look at the rice fields from our tuk-tuk. I take my headphones off without regret. As usual, our guide in Siem Reap wants to tell us a story.
Only this time, it is a riddle. He rubs his hands conspiratorially, and we grin. That’s Robin Hood -- sharp, kind and the teller of chimerical stories. “A woman,” he begins in accented English, “is walking in Siem Reap’s markets one day. Suddenly, she faints and a crowd gathers around her but no one really knows what to do. Someone sprinkles water on her face. Nothing. Another shakes her shoulders and calls out aloud. Nothing.” We smile.
“Then, an old, very old man comes forward and bites her foot. But he falls unconscious, too. Why?”
We raise our eyebrows. Her feet stank, my friend says confidently. Robin Hood shakes his head and looks at me. “Er, I don’t really know.” Robin Hood waves his hands wildly and looks at my second friend, who shrugs.
I have no idea where this is going.
Robin Hood looks at us and says, “The man’s jaw broke because the woman’s foot was made of wood! She was shot in the genocide! Bang, bang! Come on, it was so simple!”
We shift in our seats. I am sure there is a protocol for times when you’re told macabre, often first-hand, war accounts, but I am at a loss. Robin Hood, oblivious (or not?) to our discomfort, cackles away. Unperturbed, he goes on to tell us something about his three sons (his “little monkeys”) giving him, the “King Monkey”, a tough time.
Cambodia has been to hell and back, and how. In the civil war between 1967-75, the Cambodia’s Communist Party of Kampuchea (commonly known as the Khmer Rouge), North Vietnam and the Viet Cong fought the government of Cambodia (supported by the US and South Vietnam). After the war ended, the country fell in the hands of the barbaric Khmer Rouge and over two million people were killed in what is called the Cambodian Holocaust or the Cambodian Genocide.
Now, Cambodia wants to move on. On the streets of Siem Reap, go beyond the small talk with a superhero-themed tuk-tuk’s bicycle driver and he will tell you -- the Cambodian are a stoic people who will do everything to build a new life. Agriculture is still the primary occupation but tourism is what will transform their lives and landscape, they say. In Siem Reap’s day and night markets, locals selling trinkets and souvenirs are still learning the ropes of haggling with travellers. After a sale, they smile and chide you that they will get better at it and you should watch out when you return. Spunky cafes and restaurants put every imaginable world cuisine -- and ambition -- on plate.
At Angkor Wat
They (which, here, is a better way of saying most people who have seen Angkor Wat) say that nothing prepares you for the sight of this largest Hindu Temple complex in the world. They are right. Every photograph, every lyrical description you may have read of this world heritage site is insipid when you meet Angkor Wat’s eyes.
The temple complex of Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II and dedicated to Vishnu. Robin Hood points out that it is the classic example of Khmer architecture, which is now called the Angkor Wat style and is characterised by the use of sandstone. The highest level of Angkor Wat was designed represent Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods.
Angkor Wat gives history buffs much to think about, and the uninterested, if any, will stand converted. Actually, with all its age and warmth, Angkor Wat isn’t very different from a grandfather’s gnarled hands helping you leaf through the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. One of the first things we see is a 49-metre-long bas-relief of the battle of Kurukshetra. The Pandava and Kaurava armies march as their commanders sit on chariots and elephants, musicians in tow. There, carved in stone, lies Bhishma on a bed of arrows. There is Karna, too, with his wheel stuck in the ground, seconds before he is killed by Arjuna’s arrow who we see in the distance, sitting on the chariot drawn by Krishna.
Another long wall depicts the Samudra Manthan (The Churning Of The Sea). Vishnu is at the centre with his trusted turtle, Avatar Kurma, while devas and asuras grimace and stretch the ropes to churn the milk. There is also the battle of the Ramayana carved nearby.
Then, Robin Hood points out to what are unmistakably bullet holes in the walls. “Made by AK-47s, no doubt. But we won’t cover it up; why should we?” As an afterthought, as if he springs it up on unsuspecting travellers every day, he adds, “Right after the war, I would enter these temples with an AK-47 myself, with tourists in tow. You never knew.” And then, he grins. We were getting used to it. Somewhat.
Angkor Wat has 3,000 charming apsaras carved in stone, and each of them in unique in style and facial expressions, we learn. Before we can ask Robin Hood a question, he points to one. “They sport almost 40 different hairstyles. Beauty parlours existed even then, and they did a damn good job,” says Robin Hood with a theatrical sigh and a hand on his heart.
Where temples take roots
Robin Hood recovers, but mostly because he says he is taking us to the site where Angelina Jolie bashed up the baddies in the film, Tomb Raider.
Ta Prohm is perhaps the only Angkorian temple which has been left untouched after the French rediscovered it in 1947, says Robin Hood. At first sight, we couldn’t distinguish the temples from the gargantuan roots twisting around them in a deathly embrace. And then it comes to us -- after having lain like lovers’ bodies since centuries, what’s there to distinguish anyway?
Ta Prohm was built by King Jayavarman VII in 1186 AD, in Bayon style, to honour his family. The complex was home to more than 12,500 people including high priests and dancers and 8,00,000 people lived around it. After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 17th century, Ta Prohm was abandoned and neglected for centuries.
Robin Hood holds a Kung Fu pose for us and says he wants to tells us about his love affair with Angelina Jolie. “Just don’t tell me wife about it,” he says. “She will not understand. Brad doesn’t either.”
Other temples in Siem Reap just as much awe. Take the Bayon Temple, for instance. True to its name (it means magic), this Buddhist temple has 216 gigantic, smiling stone faces on the top of its towers. Another temple, the Banteay Srei (The Citadel Of Women) has carvings so intricate and varied that some legends claim only women could have made them.
Outside, we hear din of children who yell, “Only one daallaaaar laydee!” for postcards, water and trinkets,” and decide to now soak the city of Siem Reap in.
We know we look gaga with owl-shaped bags, a dapper Pinocchio (he’s stuffed) and light baubles around our necks, but Pub Street has a way of making us feel at home. We spot fish foot massage signs every few yards. One sign, in no uncertain terms, reads: Dr Fish. Only Massage. No Piranha. Another one says, ‘Feels Weird But Nice. How Amazing That It Could Happen From Our Smart Fish?’.
The Night Market ensures that insomnia is a way of life here. There is something delightful about turning anywhere and always finding yourself in the midst of a higgledy-piggledy market. Pub Street works hard and parties even harder, as we find out every night. In the evenings, after some flaky croissants and hand-churned ice cream at the Blue Pumpkin cafe, your feet begin tapping and heads sway to the loud, thumping music. It’s The Temple Club, it always is.
Siem Reap, thanks to the Angkor Wat temples, is seeing much foreign investment in restaurants and cafes. There’s no cuisine Siem Reap doesn’t put on the plate, and does it best -- there’s Il Forno for Italian fare, The Grand Central for continental and Viva for Mexican cuisine.
You cannot know Cambodia well enough if you haven’t tasted its traditional dish, Amok. We were lucky to sample the best of it only once, and it was at Sugar Palm cafe. To prepare Amok, freshwater fillet or Mekong catfish is covered with pounded shallots, lemongrass, garlic and kaffir lime. Then, roasted peanuts, coconut milk, and egg are added and the ingredients are wrapped in banana leaves and steamed until it achieves a mousse-like texture.
On our last day, we try our best to miss our plane back home by telling ourselves that the ceramic lamps carved with geckos must be bought from the store of a poet turned potter. We lament not catching up with the French painter at Pub Street who paints only “happy Cambodian people” on canvas and tshirts.
We do make it home, though, safe with the knowledge that sometimes, stone tells stories better than people do. Of course, Robin Hood, the lover of all things lurid, is an exception.
A whimsical hotel
When in Siem Reap, do drop by at the Reflections Boutique. The hotel, we find, has the most whimsical design we’ve ever seen. They have a room for times when you feel moody, whose door is painted with the words, ‘Moody Moody Moody Moody Moody’ across the top.
There is a room themed on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, complete with Napolean standing guard outside and characters from the book printed on the rugs and bedsheets inside. On top of the door of another room were severed Barbie heads. The name of the room: Life Is Plastic.