One morning Kai, Amit and I met in Bangkok. Amit disappeared and then reappeared, fetchingly attired in a tight T-shirt that read ‘Same Same’, then skipping around for us to read ‘But Different’ at the back. We cooed over him, but I was uneasy. Because here, on a T-shirt bought on the streets of Bangkok, was the story I wanted to tell of my trip to Cambodia.
I had been thinking along less pithy lines, thoughts I was hugging to myself as profound. That this trip was the kind that resonates, rings shrill exciting bells of familiarity, but somewhere deeper, in an unthinking place, a muffled bass of ancient shared connections. The landscape, the gods, the faces, the foods, the textiles, the dance... I had left Cambodia both exhilarated and unsettled.
I entered giddily. It wasn’t simply fatigue caused by silly flight connections; Phnom Penh is immediately entrancing. As my taxi pulled into the city centre, I felt like I was driving into the city of my eternal childhood. It wasn’t my city, of course, but it was the city of the pretty name I knew from childhood, one that was faintly Soviet, like the country of my childhood. It’s also a city in its own infancy — the broad boulevards, many of them lined with gracious mansions, have the obligatory charm of the colonised enclave but there are no massive malls to counter the nostalgia. The shopping centres — they’re still only that — are modest 80s-style buildings, hosting neither Gucci nor Prada nor even Mothercare. Monivong Boulevard is crammed with little shops garishly decorated in anticipation of Chinese New Year. The traffic is not nearly as chaotic as the guidebooks prophesied, but a thick, fluent glide of two-wheelers. Old women push handcarts laden with tiny salt-and-chilli mussels.
Feeling like I know this city in a secret wishful place of the mind, I arrive at the fabulous Raffles Hotel Le Royal. And then, inexpressibly happy by having been made to feel like the ancestral cousin of the housekeeping staff, I venture out to grapple with a chief trauma: figuring out local transport in a new land. But just outside the gates is a row of tuk-tuks. One of the drivers waves, but before I can get to him, a young man on a motorcycle has pulled up in a flash and is beaming, “Moto?”
For the next two days Leap, management student, is my faithful companion. I engage him to take me to the National Museum, a $1 ride through these beautiful streets with smiling people that I almost look like. Once we get there, Leap offers to wait. I’m overwhelmed by such niceness, naturally, being a resident of Delhi, but I later learn it’s routine here.
It’s getting easy to be charmed in Phnom Penh but the National Museum is about the loveliest I have seen. Housed in a stunning building built in vernacular style by the French, the Musée du Cambodge opened in 1920. Before the country was stained a bloody rouge in 1975, it had acquired a magnificent collection of Khmer artworks in stone and bronze, many of them transplanted to its safe quarters from the crumbling temples of the Angkor kingdom. By 1979, the museum was just another traumatised survivor of the reign of terror.
Regaining its strength and beauty must have been a slow, painful process, but today the museum — like its city — only radiates serene Buddhist qualities. I walk past fine sculptures, walk through shrine-like rooms scented with jasmine, study paintings of the epic Reamker in fascination. Preah Ream, Neang Seda, Preah Leak, Preah Bhirut, Preah Sutrut, Sugriava, Valin, Souphanaka... Yes, that’s right. Only evil has an altogether unrecognisable name — Ravana is Krong Reap. Same same but different.
Leap whisks me off to the city’s only other bonafide tourist attraction — the Royal Palace, which features the Silver Pagoda, named for its 5,000 1kg silver tiles. I obediently followed a walking circuit into and around other buildings in the grounds. All built in traditional Khmer style, they are also virtually all reconstructions. Jostling for space with Italians, Germans, Japanese, Koreans, I get a presentiment of the present scourge of Cambodia — flaring package tourism. I break free of the crowds outside the Pavilion of Napoleon III and hurry into the Pavilion of the Footprint of the Buddha only to witness another aspect of the same annoyance, familiar to all of us from Rishikesh to Kerala — one western woman prostrate in front of an incense burner and her companion cross-legged by her side, eyes closed, looking for nirvana or moksha or whatever it is they are calling it these days.
It was probably foolish to be shocked by a third aspect of the phenomenon, which I first glimpsed on an evening walk down busy Sisowath Quay, awash with beggars. At first I was only puzzled, as I watched a nearly grotesque white man of considerably advanced years walk with the support of a young, slender, spectacularly beautiful Cambodian woman. When the penny dropped, I felt a bit sick.
But not as sick as I had felt earlier that morning. Smiling Leap had said, “I take you Genocide Museum?” I was a bit startled by his matter-of-factness, but Tuol Sleng or the Museum of Genocidal Crime is now officially Phnom Penh’s third major tourist attraction.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over a high school and turned it into Security Prison 21. At least 1.2 million Cambodians perished bloodily between 1975 and 1979; of these, some 17,000 citizens of Phnom Penh were incarcerated within these walls. Seven came out alive. If you didn’t know the facts about Tuol Sleng, you aren’t going to get any when you visit, but this is a horror that needs no explanation. I walked from room to room of this quiet, inexpressibly tragic place looking at photographs of the prisoners — men, women, children, babies. Then into other rooms divided into cells; some have just the single iron cot, another a rusted tin can, a third a bloodstain. The circuit of horror includes a visit to the Choeung Ek ‘Killing Fields’. But I could do no more than flee back to the waiting smile of Leap, onto his moto, and then into the surge of Phnom Penh’s warm humanity.
Early tomorrow morning I will take the boat to Siem Reap, down the Tonle Sap river, across the great Tonle Sap lake, past the floating village of Chong Kneas. The boat is neither the cheapest nor the fastest way to get there (bus is cheapest, plane is fastest) but I was hoping for local flavour. The boat turned out to be an unromantic, fairly high-speed affair, packed with every kind of foreign tourist from gap-year white kids to elderly Koreans to me. The first hint of drama arrived in the shape of, well, arrival. In the wet season the waters of the Mekong, which meets with the Bassac and Tonle Sap rivers at Phnom Penh, start flowing into the Tonle Sap lake. At this time, its boundaries swell outwards. In the dry season, when I travelled, the reverse happens — the lake pulls away from the land and the currents flow in the opposite direction. So, my boat stopped where the water ended; meaning, there was no jetty. But there was a plank — a steep, foot-wide length of wood leading from the boat down. The passengers, especially ones such as me with 20kg hardtop Samsonites, looked down the plank in disbelief. I closed my eyes, clutched at a pitying hand reaching from below and descended, virtually into the arms of Mr Leng.
Mr Leng in Siem Reap is what Leap was to me in Phnom Penh, only this winged angel drove a Toyota Camry (like everyone else in Cambodia, seemingly, who isn’t driving a moto or a Land Cruiser). He drove me past village huts on stilts, several with small signboards bearing such legends as ‘Donated by Mr and Mrs Oakley from Wisconsin’ or ‘The India-Cambodia Joint Project on Water Sanitation’ and so on. The NGO-ness of Cambodia is impossible to miss, the near-dollar economy constructed (or reconstructed) almost entirely from foreign aid.
Depositing me at the Auberge Mont Royal D’Angkor hotel, Mr Leng gives me “fifteen minutes, okay?” to check in, wash up and lunch. I’m entirely cooperative because he will then take me to Angkor Wat.
In the middle afternoon sun, the towers of the great temple are aglow. But, in only the first of the optical illusions I experience at Angkor Wat, they seem to be lit up from within as if a great ancient fire burned gently, beckoning to the faithful. I watch hundreds cross the long causeway across the immense moat that guards this abode of old gods, as if drawn by that flame-which-does-not-exist. This is an emotional illusion; it’s the faithful tourist hordes come to worship dead gods with their digital cameras.
My camera remains in my bag. “My emotions lose their force when I endeavour to interpret them, and my words seem very inept.” I return at sunset to the hotel, order a coffee and curl up in a wicker chair to make my acquaintance with Pierre Loti. I’d bought his A Pilgrimage to Angkor on an overwrought impulse after my visit to the Wat. And my heart was hammering hard again, for the second time in one evening. In 1901, writes Michael Smithies in his translation of the 1912 classic, Loti “went by steamer upriver to Phnom Penh, where he stayed two nights and saw the royal palace, and resumed his journey to the Tonle Sap lake... he stayed less than two days in Angkor... he was not able, therefore, to describe in great detail the whole site of Angkor, nor did he intend to.”
Of the several uneasinesses I’d felt thus far on the trip, I’d been beginning to feel most guilty about the narcissistic one — the one that felt like looking into a mirror and seeing self reflected (same), then warping to something else (different), then self again (same). The connections seemed facile, self-indulgent and impermissible in a postmodern world. Then I read this Orientalist par excellence, a Frenchman who wrote freely in a High Romantic style, who made the same journey as I under different conditions a century ago, who found the dramatic words in spite of his self-deprecation to convey the same sense of awe I had felt at Angkor, and went to bed elated.
When Loti visited Angkor a hundred years ago — barely 40 years after its ‘rediscovery’ by Henri Mouhot in 1860 — he wrote of the famous bas-relief of the churning of the sea: “All these pictures...have taken on, under the seeping of the eternal humidity, a sad blackish colour...” The beautiful bas-relief is no longer a sad black; in fact, there is virtually no longer any section of the Wat that has not been cleaned to the original gentle rust of sandstone.
Restoration teams — from France, Germany, Japan, India and elsewhere — are busy at different monuments across the Angkor complex. This has been hailed as a landmark international initiative in heritage conservation. The story of the restoration work at Angkor is a long and fascinating one (in which our ASI played a pioneering if controversial role — it was the first international team to attempt restoration of Angkor Wat in the late 1980s), but it’s another story.
While the remarkable restoration means that the contemporary traveller will never see Angkor the way Loti did — a mammoth, brooding temple nearly devoured by the forest, in utter solitude save for ancient bats — I console myself with the thought that Loti never saw it the way we can. The jungle will not have allowed him that first impression of immense scale — its width, height and stupefying grandeur.
But even though I linger for long moments at the periphery of Angkor Wat, I realise that this is a monument impossible to fully comprehend at first sight. Surrounded by a massive 1.5km by 1.3km rectangular moat, the Vishnu temple is apprehended in layers. The familiar bells are going off again — this is a classic Hindu temple plan — but are quickly subdued by the realisation that this is also by far the grandest execution of that idea. I walk across the causeway to the outer enclosure. Then, enter and walk down another long causeway flanked by two ‘libraries’ and two pools. And only then, finally, do I perceive the full glory of the temple. The main shrine, topped by the tallest of five towers symbolic of Mount Meru, is surrounded by three enclosures, each higher than the last. Access to each level is up sturdy wooden steps with railings, laid over the original steep stone steps — a comfortable stairway to heaven — but, all things being symbolic here, there is no access to heaven itself: the innermost shrine is covered in scaffolding, closed for restoration.
I listen briefly to a guide explain to a tour group the bas-reliefs — the churning of the ocean, the battle of Kurukshetra — and move away to more quietly enjoy the fine, smooth, curiously flat carvings with the cultural knowledge ingrained in even the Hindu without religion. But Hinduism in Cambodia is pure iconography; its gods are not to be found in these shrines but statues of the Buddha are worshipped in countless galleries. The kings of the Khmer Empire (800-1300 AD) bolstered their claims to greatness in the manner of the Chola kings — by building grand temples and monuments by self-proclaimed divine ordainment. The two greatest builders, the successive rulers Suryavarman II (Angkor Wat) and Jayavarman VII (the city of Angkor Thom) were, respectively, Hindu and Buddhist. Jayavarman VIII returned to a Hindu state. But after him began the disintegration of the great Khmer Empire, and Hinduism faded in the land forever.
Before I left India, I had been fretting about the inadequacy of two days in Angkor. I needn’t have bothered, because inadequacy supremely understated the fact, it being more in the nature of an outrage. I held the mirror of Pierre Loti’s exactly-as-short visit to my mind, but it did nothing to enhance my encounters with the other great temples. The Bayon, with its 54 towers sporting the faces of the Buddha Avalokiteswara facing all directions, or Ta Prohm, the one that the jungle is claiming for its own, or Banteay Srei, considered the most exquisite of all the Khmer temples. At each of these sites, I waged a lonely battle against the camera-flashing, posing, grinning, swarming hordes who obscured my view of this fine carving and that impressive tree growth and (I think) the other magical play of light. I lost every battle.
Driving back to my hotel, Angkor Wat is sprawled to my left. The moving car makes of the five towers a silent documentary film on the nature of perfect symmetry — three towers at once, now four, then five, then four again, now three. The car turns the bend and I look back one last time but the film has ended.
That night, I’m at a guesthouse called La Villa Loti. It’s another coincidence, I swear, a hotel booked on the Internet long before I got here, not important, just another of those things. But how many things in Cambodia.
By air There are no direct flights from India to Cambodia. Both the capital Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor, have airports connected to cities in Southeast Asia. I flew Delhi-Bangkok-Phnom Penh on Thai Airways and returned Siem Reap-Bangkok on Bangkok Airways and then Bangkok-Delhi again on Thai; the total ticket cost, including taxes, was approx. Rs 39,000. By land For those visiting all of Indochina, overland travel is also a possibility. There are land crossings between Thailand, Vietnam as well as Lao. Transport options range from uncomfortable bus journeys to luxury cruises (see www.pandaw.com and www.cfmekong.com).
Cambodia issues visas on arrival in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. If you’d like to get yours beforehand, apply at the Embassy of Cambodia, N-14 Panchsheel Park, New Delhi 110017 (011-26495091/2, email@example.com. net.in); a one-month, single-entry visa costs $20. If you’re travelling by land, three checkposts on the Vietnam border as well as three on the Thailand border issue visas on arrival (but not at the Lao border). An excellent new option is the online visa: log on to http://evisa.mfaic.gov.kh, enter your passport details, upload a photo and pay by credit card. The visa will be issued in three days by email; print the document and you’re all set.
You can, as I did, fly into Phnom Penh from elsewhere in Southeast Asia. If, however, you decide to visit Seam Reap first, there are flights between the two cities ($81 on Bangkok Airways). You could also take a bus (5hr/$4-6) or taxi (4hr/from $35) on good roads. Or take the boat from Siem Reap on the Tonle Sap lake (5-6hr/$35).
Walk out of your hotel or any tourist attraction and you’ll find an array of tuk-tuks (like autos but bigger) or motos (mobikes whose pillion is for rent) or cyclos (cycle-rickshaws). A moto can be hired for the day for $8-10, tuk-tuks for a few dollars more. Liked the sound of my moto friend Leap? Contact him at +855-11-241142, firstname.lastname@example.org. Hotels are helpful with private taxi hire.
Where to stay
High end The place of choice is the Raffles Hotel Le Royal ($300-2,500; 23-981-888, www.raffles.com). Built by Ernest Hébrard, the city’s most prestigious hotel opened in 1929. After a few glittering decades as host to various celebrities (including Charlie Chaplin in 1936), it too went through a period of trauma during the Genocide years. The charm of the city’s most luxurious hotel lies in its warmth — an intimate hotel that feels genuinely old. Choose a landmark room (French balconies looking out onto the beautiful tree-shaded pool, claw-foot bathtubs, etc). Excellently situated on Sisowath Quay, Amanjaya (from $120; 23-219579, www.amanjaya.com) is Phnom Penh’s poshest boutique hotel. The Intercontinental (from $150; 23-424888, www.ichotelsgroup.com) and the Sunway Hotel (from $100; www.sunway.com.kh) are good business hotels.
Mid-range: Here’s where Phnom Penh hotels really begin to shine — for $40-80, you can get an excellent room in a charming hotel, usually with breakfast included. The famous Foreign Correspondents Club ($55-100; 23-992284, www.fcccambodia.com) is set in a colonial mansion in the middle of Sisowath Quay. The Pavilion ($40-80; 23-222280, www.pavilion-cambodia.com) gets a lot less publicity than the FCC and it likes it that way — the colonial building is impossible to spot from the street, access is through a door set in the wall, and you have to walk through a thick garden framing the central pool. Other pretty hotels include Kabiki ($50-70 doubles; 23-222290, www.thekabiki.com), Boddhi Tree Aram ($72-78; 16-865445, www.boddhitree.com) and Bougainvillier Hotel ($60-88; 23-220528, www.bougainvillierhotel.com). Budget Boddhi Tree has two other guesthouses (Boddhi Tree Del Gusto and Boddhi Tree Umma) with doubles for $14-24. Also try California 2 Hotel ($20-28; 23-982182, www.cafecaliforniaphnompenh.com) or Walkabout Hotel ($11-30; 23-211715, www.walkabouthotel.com).
Where to eat & drink
Phnom Penh offers the visitor a staggering choice of cafés, restaurants and bars. If you, like me, want to eat local, go to a Cambodian-cuisine restaurant but many others serve at least a few Khmer dishes. I ate well at the Sugar Palm (19, St 240) but found Romdeng (21, St 278) special — set in a restored old mansion, this is run by an NGO that provides employment opportunities to Cambodian youths. The menu is limited but careful (my fabulous Khmer Muslim beef curry came with a fresh crusty baguette) and the ambience peaceful. Also well regarded are Malis (136 Norodom Blvd), Khmer Surin (9, St 57) and Khmer Borane (389 Sisowath Quay).
What to see & do
- Visit the Royal Palace complex, with its Silver Pagoda. Entry $3; 7.30-11am & 2.30-5pm
- Take a full hour to inspect the magnificent contents of the National Museum, and linger at the charming inner courtyard with lily-filled pools. Entry $3; 8am-5pm
- Muster the strength to visit the Tuol Sleng Museum (entry $2; 8-11.30am & 2-5.30pm). Go and recoup at the garden café of Boddhi Tree Umma, across the road.
- Hire a tuk-tuk for the visit to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Entry $2; 8-11.30am & 2-5.30am.
- Visit the city’s various wats: Wat Phnom, Wat Ounalom, Wat Botum and Wat Langka.
|- Take a sunset cruise, available on Sisowath Quay (from $10 an hour).
- Watch a performance of Apsara, the Cambodian classical dance, and shadow puppetry (Sovanna Phum, at 111 St 360, 7.30pm on Fridays & Saturdays).
- Shop at the old markets: Central Market (Psar Thmei) for souvenirs; Russian Market (Psar Tuol Tom Pong) for cut-price garments.
The same range of transport options as in Phnom Penh, but you can also hire bicycles for $1-2 a day from guesthouses and the shops around Psar Chaa.
Where to stay
High end Siem Reap has Cambodia’s biggest selection of luxury hotels. The old favourite is the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor (www.raffles.com). But it’s got serious competition in the $200-plus bracket: Amansara (www.amanresorts.com), Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa (www.victoriahotels-asia.com), La Residence d’Angkor (www.residencedangkor.com), Hotel de la Paix (www.hotel delapaixangkor.com), Le Meridien Angkor (www.lemeridien.com)... For $100-200, there’s the FCC Angkor (www.fcccambodia.com), Shinta Mani (www.shintamani.com) and Angkor Village Resort (www. angkorvillage.com). Mid range and budget As in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap’s smaller hotels and guesthouses offer astounding value. I stayed a night at Auberge Mont Royal D’Angkor (from $30 doubles; 12-630131, www.auberge-mont-royal.com), an outstanding little hotel, with a peaceful garden café, stylish French-Khmer effects and good service. La Villa Loti (from $44 doubles; www.coconut-hotel-angkor.com) was incredibly charming, with only eight rooms in a slightly ramshackle wooden house staffed by the friendliest people I’d met in Cambodia. Decent rooms are also available at small guesthouses for as little as $5 a night (see www.canbypublications.com for a long list).
Where to eat & drink
Siem Reap has a selection of excellent restaurants — serving everything from Khmer, French, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian to Italian. The streets around the Old Market are a good place to head: popular restaurants here include The Only One, for French standards as well as a few Khmer dishes, and the Khmer Kitchen restaurant. Viroth’s, near Wat Bo, is becoming famed for its Khmer food. Dining at the FCC Angkor is a refined experience.
Anyone seriously interested in the temples of Angkor should plan on staying for at least a week. For the shorter-staying visitor, here’s a checklist of Angkor essentials:
- Begin by visiting Angkor Wat, the first of the monuments you’ll encounter as you move northwards, out of Siem Reap. Devote either a morning or afternoon to take in the huge 12th-century complex. Make the trip to the exquisite Banteay Srei (32km). You could also combine a visit to the famous tree-entwined Ta Prohm on the same trip. Alternatively, combine that with the walled city of Angkor Thom. The ‘sights’ begin at the entrance gate itself with its huge stone face of Avalokiteswara; the same theme is replicated to immense effect at the Bayon temple. Also see the Baphuon temple, the Terrace of the Leper Kings and the Terrace of the Elephants. Other important sites in the area include Preah Khan, Beng Melea and Phnom Bakheng (for great views).
- The most comfortable way of getting around is to hire a car for the day. Prices begin from $25. I heartily recommend Mr Leng (12-890382). Alternatively, take tuk-tuks. This works better for those who have more time, as it’s certainly slower. However, it’s pleasant and cheap, and since the temples are best visited early morning or late afternoon, the heat will be less of an issue.
- Take plenty of sun protection — hats, sunglasses, bottled water — it’s always warm, and hot in the summer.
- A good guide can help make sense of the temples for you. I used the services of Mr Ke Nit (12-970-420, email@example.com) but hotels can arrange one for $25 a day.
A simple way of getting a taste of the country is to take a package tour. Indochina Services has a 3D tour that goes like this. Day 1: Dinner at the Angkor Village Resort, overnight in Siem Reap. Day 2: Visit Angkor Wat, ascend a stationary balloon for views over Angkor, Phnom Bakheng, the Western Baray and Siem Reap (10min), afternoon at leisure, overnight in Siem Reap. Day 3: Fly to Phnom Penh. Go sightseeing: the Royal Palace, National Museum, Central Market, Russian Market. Dinner cruise on the Le Deauville II. Overnight in Phnom Penh. The package, which includes stays in 3- or 4-star hotels, costs $360 per person. Note that the price is indicative and subject to change. Contact Outbound Marketing (011-26236525).