Sep 20, 2008

A Trip To a Religious Shrine in Cambodia

When the new Seven Wonders of the World were announced in July 2007, I was disappointed not to see Angkor Wat in that list. It raised questions in my mind about the selection process, which was based on voting through the Internet. That perhaps provided populous and resourceful countries like China, India, Brazil, Mexico and others an edge over small and poor Cambodia, where centuries of civil war and genocide has made the nation economically unstable.

However, the non-selection does not take the glory away from the grandeur of the Angkor temples; over a million tourists visit Cambodia every year to see them, and the numbers are increasing.

Today’s Cambodia is the successor state of the mighty Khmer empire which ruled much of present Vietnam, Laos and Thailand between the 9th and 14th centuries. Trade with India gave the Khmers their cultural contacts and the belief that the prosperity of the Indians was mainly due to protection from their gods. That inspired them to Hinduism and Buddhism and triggered the celebrated era of Indianised Khmer civilisation. They built their capital in Angkor, located in the country’s fertile northwest and utilised their wealth and vast labour force to build some of the world’s most outstanding temples dedicated to Hindu gods, mainly Shiva and Vishnu, which were later converted into Buddhist shrines.

The demise of the Khmer dynasty in the 15th century triggered the nation’s dark period, dominated by foreign invasions, French colonisation and civil wars, undoubtedly worst of the lot being the mass killings by communist leader Pol Pot in the 70s that ruined the state intellectually, socially and economically.

The situation stabilised only in the 1990s, when Cambodia sent an open invitation to the world to come and see their glorious past. The small laid-back town of Siem Reap became a hot spot as the gateway to Angkor where tourists rush to explore the ruins of over a thousand temples, which range in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble to architectural masterpieces. The most popular among them are Angkor Thom, Banteay Srey, Baphuon, Bayon, Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and the wondrous Angkor Wat which undoubtedly is the jewel in the crown.

Angkor Wat in Khmer meaning “City Temple” was built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century as a Vishnu temple; in fact, the deity of the eight-armed God is seen today at the entrance, though in the 14th century it became a Buddhist shrine.

I had seen countless images of Angkor Wat before, but the first sight of the edifice crowned with five towers was spell-binding. It was just like viewing a giant picture post-card against the blue sky. It sparked in my mind a quote from the travel notes of French botanist Henry Mouhot, who in 1861 discovered this site cloaked in the jungles for centuries — “It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”

The temple, structured on three levels, each comprising covered rectangular galleries, is built around open courtyards in diminishing size ultimately rising to the central tower. “There is a mythological significance about its construction. King Suryavarman designed this temple to represent Mount Meru, the abode of the gods in the Hindu religion. The towers at the top portray the mountain peaks; the outer walls, the moat and the open courtyards represent the mountains, oceans and the continents respectively, symbolising a long journey one has to undertake to reach the home of god.

The main shrine in the central tower at the top has four Buddha images. It is believed that the Vishnu statue at the entrance was housed there till Buddhism took over the holy place in the 14th century. The stairway to the central tower is very steep and sharply angled purposely, made that way to represent the enormous hardship required to touch the kingdom of gods. I felt short of courage to ascend through that route and offered my prayers to Lord Buddha from the lower end. The entire temple is full of carvings of apsaras, the celestial dancers.

There are almost 2,000 of them, in different styles and structure — young and old, lusty and modest, with exotic hairstyles, enigmatic expressions and lovingly carved jewellery. I saw some in mini skirts, which testified that showing pretty legs was trendy centuries ago as well.

Angkor became a world heritage site in 1992 and now an international committee has been established to oversee the planned restoration of these architectural wonders. The world has acknowledged Angkor icons as treasures of their own. As a result, several international agencies have come forward to work on the restorations.

While exploring Angkor, the province appeared to me severely underpopulated and I did not come across many people middle-aged and older. Ridh, our hotel receptionist in his mid-thirties, gave the clarification: “Pol Pot during the Khmer Rouge genocide wiped off a huge percentage of the Cambodian population. That included my father, elder brothers and uncles. We, the babies at that time, were fortunately left out and mainly constitute the country’s population today.”

There are a few who escaped death, but have lost their legs or arms in landmine explosions and I spotted some of them in groups around the Angkor temples, singing in a choir to attract tourist sympathy. They don’t beg, they are too proud to do so as they are the inheritors of these majestic temples, but their distressed faces say that they cannot live without external help.

Like them, most of the locals today consider Angkor an income-generating commodity — it is their lifeline. Being the gateway to Angkor, Seam Reap swarms with hotels, bars, restaurants and souvenir shops — they have all mushroomed in the last five years in an effort to utilise the tourist boom to revamp the struggling economy. Even tourism from India is on the rise, and to complement that there are a few good Indian restaurants in town where the paper masala dosa and chicken biriyani is as good as what you can hope to get in Chennai or Bangalore.

Fact file

Singapore Airlines operates flights to Siem Reap via Singapore. Log on to for more details. Getting around: Chauffer driven cars can be organised by the hotel for around $25 a day. Accommodation: Days Inn Angkor offers best value for money. Indian restaurants: New Delhi, Taj Mahal and Kamasutra in the Old Market area. Angkor complex is open daily from 5 am till 6.30 pm. Entry costs $20 for a day’s pass and $40 for a three day pass. One month tourist visa can be obtained upon arrival at Siem Reap International Airport on payment of $20. Two copies of passport size photos are also required.—Sandip Hor is a Sydney-based freelance travel writer. E-mail: