Wednesday, November 29, 2006


This blog piece will conclude our trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia. The next day we visited the temple complexes called as the Roluos Group, featuring sites such as Preah Koh, Bakong and Lolei. This group is about 13 kilometers away from the main complexes near town.
Preah Koh, Roluos Group, undergoing restoration work by archaeologists
Preah Koh was first on our itinerary, a late 9th Century C.E. temple built by the King Indravarman I. The Roluos group (like most Angkor sites) had a different name in ancient times and was called ‘Hariharalaya’. This site is unique in the sense that the temples and complexes have been built using baked clay bricks unlike the later, larger edifices that were built out of granite rock and laterite blocks. These bricks were covered with lime mortar. Pictures speak for themselves and I’ll keep my narrative short and simple.

Nandi the bull and mount of Lord Shiva guarding the entrance to Preah Koh, Roluos Group

Next on the list, we went to the Bakong Temple complex, the early Angkor style of architecture is seen here. Built again by Indravarman I in the late 9th Century, this style prevails throughout the Angkor empire in all complexes built later on. The main temple tower is tall, built high up and this tower (gopura as it is called) is again meant to resemble Mount Meru, considered holy in Hindu mythology.

View from top of the Bakong tower looking towards the entrance to the complex and the moat

Bakong Temple, early Khmer style gopura architecture

Bakong Temple from the entrance

Last stop in the Roluos group was Lolei, a small complex of brick construction in very dilapidated condition, supported by thick wooden pillars and supports to prevent the entire structure from falling.

Lolei, in a dilapidated condition, unsafe to enter, matter of time before it all crumbles down
We then went to a site called Prasat Kravan, built by King Harshavarman I in the early part of the 10th Century C.E. This complex has been built with bricks, in perfect symmetry covered with Stucco plastering. A small portion of the original stucco covering has lasted through time. One must visualize that the entire exposed brick structure that exists today was covered entirely in stucco. This temple complex has the finest brick work carvings that I have ever seen, anywhere in the World during any period of time. The brick carvings depict Hindu deities such as Lakshmi the Goddess of wealth, Vishnu, Maheshwara (Shiva), Vishnu riding on his vehicle Garuda, all carved or preformed in baked clay bricks! Fantastic.

Depiction of Vishnu at Prasat Kravan, all clay brick carvings!

The stucco covering remaining on a small part of the brick work at Prasat Kravan

Depiction of Vishnu riding on Garuda, his vehicle, again made of clay bricks at Prasat Kravan

Maheshwara, looking like a Lord of the universe, with representation of the 108 original hindu clans behind him, again made of clay bricks atPrasat Kravan

Depiction of Goddess Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, made of clay bricks at Prasat Kravan

Coming back towards Siem Reap and with less than half a day to spare and all worn out, we stopped at Bantey Kdei, a typical Angkorean architecture complex built during Jayavarman the VII sometime in the 12th-13th Centruy C.E.

Opposite Bantei Kdei’s entrance is the Srah Srang, a huge man made lake (700 metersX350 meters) that reportedly has had water in it for more than 900 years! This man made lake was actually the swimming pool built first in the late 10th Century during Rajendravarman’s time and possibly remodeled during Jayavarman VII. The inscriptions on the rocks give the details that this was meant as a pool for all creatures except Elephants. Maybe they had a bath somewhere else! It is typical for travelers to this area to end the day watching the sun set over Srah Srang. Typically we then head back to the hotel, a shower later, we are all making a bee line for Pub Street for some local beer and food.

King's swimming pool at Srah Srang

The next day we went really out of town, the farthest that we had been out of Siem Reap, venturing out to the Phnom Kulen Mountains. These mountains are the origins of the Khmer rulers because it is here that they started their revolution of sorts. Cambodia and the Khmer people had been ruled by the Java Kingdom and early Khmer rulers overthrew them and came down to the plains to rule Cambodia and the rest, as they say, is history and the rich legacy they left behind in the form of all these innumerable temples and complexes. Up in the mountains, there is a stream that contains a thousand lingas (manifestation of Shiva) and also carvings on the stone river bed of Vishnu, goddess Lakshmi and Brahma the creator of the universe. This stream that ends up as a river is still called as a holy river because of the carvings of deities on the river bed. In the dry season, one can take pictures of it, but since we had caught the tail end of the wet season, the water was a bit too deep. While we could clearly see the carvings, it was tough to take pictures.

The stream ends up as a waterfall a little distance away and people stand under the falls to take a dip in the holy water. Phnom Kulen also has a large Buddha carved out of the top of a natural granite boulder. The Buddha is in a reclining position and they have built a temple on top of the boulder enclosing the carving.

We came down to the foot of the mountains for some lunch and we tried vegetarian Khmer style curry made and served in a coconut accompanied by some white sticky rice. Heaven is best described (by me!) as a place where one can eat good curry cooked and served in a coconut with the coconut meat still inside and eaten along with the curry, if one wishes!
Back in Siem reap, our resourceful driver took us to a handicraft school run by the Government, where the local people from different villages are brought, trained in Cambodian handicraft and sold in a showroom. We bought some silver made pelican and other small stuff.

Not wanting to waste time at pub street this early in the evening, we decided to drive to the Ton Le Sap Lake, the largest fresh water lake in Asia and take a boat cruise. This is a very interesting part of the trip, not having to see any temples and a good way to end the trip looking at how the local people live. The Ton Le Sap supports a population of boat people. I mean a whole village floats on the lake, I’m not kidding. We went past floating homes, floating schools, even a church, post office and administrative buildings.

Somewhere along the way, the village is separated by Cambodians and a floating village of Vietnamese people! It’s so weird. Anyway, the floating homes have dogs, cats and even floating pig pens. This is a ‘must see’ for anyone who wants to see how people live around here. It is an eye opener, the people living on the lake, washing in it, bathing in it, cooking with it and so on. The people here are of limited means and when you see them living such simple lives, one’s eyes really open to what’s going on in the World and how we think we have it so good. We ended the day drinking Angkor beer (what else?) on a floating restaurant that had some crocodiles breeding on site (it gets weirder, doesn’t it?).
Floating School below:
Floating Village on the Ton Le Sap

Floating Church (left) and house (below)

The next day we spent relaxing, taking walks around Siem Reap town to the old market where we bought a fabulous hand made Bronze Garuda, some masks to hang on the wall back home, the masks resembling the face towers of Angkor Thom Bayon temple that I wrote about in my first article on this trip. I had to indulge in a oily Khmer style massage to bring life back to my limbs after nearly a week of intense traveling, climbing and sweating it out on the sites of Cambodia.

Pictures of the old market where one can bargain for local handicrafts and a place to browse

It would be shame to say that this is all about Cambodia, because it isn’t. While we covered most of the talked about sites and ones that the hordes of tourists don’t visit, we still have to go back to Cambodia. There’s still Phnom Penh, the capital city, to see. There’s still Sihanoukville to hang out, with its pristine (at least for now I heard) white sandy beaches in the Gulf of Thailand and maybe I’d also discover an unseen temple complex in the jungle like Indiana Jones. Maybe it will be the dry season and we’d be able to take the balloon up over the Angkor Wat complex, now that would be a sight. I’m really looking forward to the time that I can go back. This was my first trip there, for sure not my last!

Thanks for reading and hope you were able to travel through Siem Reap, Angkor Kingdom and through time with me on this trip. I'll try and post some pictures of us in Cambodia in a different topic. Watch for them!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


This post continues from the last one, based on our trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia. There’s lot more to see than Angkor Wat and the Angkor Thom complex in Siem Reap. The first day had been hectic and we had covered lots. We decided to slow things down a bit since we had bought a $40 pass good for three days at all the temple complexes spread all over the place. There are shorter tours that one can take and not see everything on offer, but that’s not us.

The second day’s tour was beyond the main complex, starting from the Bantey Srei temple, and a good 32 kilometers away from Siem Reap town. The roads were not in great shape and the journey takes a bit longer because of this plus we had torrential rain coming down literally in buckets. Bantey Srei is located at the foot of the Kulen Mountains. This site is rather small but contains many rich and intricate stone carvings representing various stories in Hinduism. This temple was constructed by a Brahmin priest called Yajnavaraha who later reportedly became the guru of King Jayavarman V. He must have indeed been an influential chap to have had the kind of resources that are required for a sculpture rich site such as this one.
Narasimha (half man half Lion) tearing open the demon Hiranyakashipu's chest at Bantey Srei
This was one of the best sites for me, to see intricate carvings, from stories that I knew from Indian mythology, stories that we grew up with. Some of you may recollect stories that were told to us or read in comic books of Narasimha killing Hiranyakashipu, fight between Vali and Sugreeva that ends with Lord Rama vanquishing Vali and many other incidents, all stories carved out in pink sandstone.

Sea Faring chaps, these Angkoreans, from a relief in Bantey Samre'
We spent the rest of the day visiting Bantey Samre’, Preah Kahn and Neak Pean (pronounced Puan). Bantey Samre’ was constructed early 12th Century C.E. by King Jayavarman II and is a typical Angkor style with the gopura or towers representing Meru Mountain and so on. This temple has some unique representations in the carvings such as the sun and moon deities, very large carvings of stories from the Ramayana including building the bridge between India and Lanka, saving Lakshmana after he is injured and so on.

Pink Sandstone doorway carved with the Narasimha relief at Bantey Srei

For non Hindu readers, this may all sound completely confusing but bear with me, I will not go too deep into Hinduism or the philosophy connected with it. That’s too big a subject to handle in a blog, at least for me. It is sufficient to say that such detailed carvings of ancient Indian philosophy and mythology are almost never found anywhere in India. However, due to lack of awareness (I’d say) Indian tourists were absent. Our cabby told us that Indians were rare during any season. I’d also like to emphasize that one need not know about Hindu and Buddhist culture to appreciate the intricate carvings and architecture of the sites in Cambodia. All you need is a good eye for appreciating all things ancient and beautiful.

Bantey Samre' complex

Back to the subject of temples and Preah Kahn was next, built in the late 12th Century C.E. in the Bayon style by King Jayavarman VII and later additions by Jayavarman VIII. This is mainly Buddhist in nature and therefore you’d see a few Naga depictions common to Hindu and Buddhist sites and specifically stories centered on the life of the Buddha. This site was not just a temple but a Buddhist university with more than 1,000 teachers, according to the inscriptions found there. Later in the late 13th Century, this place reverted back to Hinduism and one can see giant 15 meter tall rock carvings of “Garuda” the mythical eagle that is known as the vehicle of Lord Vishnu. Garuda is seen clutching two serpents (his favorite food, of course!) and spreading his wings in delight. I saw a smirk on his beak, I swear it!

All Angkor temples and sites are surrounded by a moat and during the wet season, these are full

A two story structure at Preah Khan

A photo that got here by mistake-from Ta Phorm Temple mentioned in the previous blog post

The Garuda, mythical bird and vehicle of Lord Vishnu clutching two snakes, see the glee on his face! This was at the outer wall of Preah Khan complex, mentioned above.

The Horse in the pond at Neak Pean

Neak Pean is unusual and it has a central square pond surrounded by square ponds on four sides. The small temple is in the middle of the pond. This place apparently used hydraulics to create a fountain of sorts. It started out as a Hindu concept and structure but changed to add Buddhist ideas and motifs in the temple. One can see a large stone flying horse (unfinished) in the central pond and when observed closely, one can see people hanging on to the horse, even at its tail. This is based on a Buddhist story where a Bodhisattva took the form of the horse called Balaha and rescued sea faring merchants from an Island that was ruled by an Ogress!

After finishing visiting all the sites, we went back to Siem Reap and wandered around town mainly around an area known as “Pub Street” where all foreigners hang out to have a drink and eat. Some of these “pubs” have live performances of local dances based again on Hindu Mythology and it’s good to see them. Some of these places offer free performances so long as you stick around and drink something. The local dances are commonly known as “Apsara” dances, named after the beautiful Apsara women that are thought to inhabit heaven! Apsara carvings dominatemany of the Angkor sites, in various dance positions.

Another tree growing out of the temple at Ta Phrom complex mentioned in my last blog

There are lots more temples, complexes, photos and even mountains and rivers on this trip and they’ll be featured in my next piece and I’ll call that “Roluos and Kulen Mountains” because that’s where we went next. Those temples pre-date the Angkor period and is actually the origin of the empire. It’ll also have a bit more about Siem Reap and boating on the Ton Le Sap Lake as well.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Literally Siem Reap means Siam Defeated, based on a war that the ancient Khmer civilization of Cambodia had with the Thai kingdom. Siem Reap today stands as the gateway town to the World famous, UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Wat and all the other numerous temples, complexes and archaeological sites of the Angkor dynasties.
We took a vacation to Cambodia recently, spending five full days there. We left Singapore, having paid for a really cheap air ticket on JetStar from Singapore having made reservations at Angkor Star hotel, a nice air-conditioned three star variety, also for a song. We flew in early morning over thick jungles and Asia’s largest fresh water lake called Ton Le Sap. The season was just right; we caught the tail end of the lean season that also happened to be the tail end of the monsoon season as well. Perfect timing indeed.

Getting in through Siem Reap International Airport, a really nice local architecture based complex, was a piece of cake. Visa was on arrival, one needs to pay $20 bucks for it and submit a photograph and fill up a form. We did not find that tedious at all. We took a cab into town and the driver was so good that we hired him for the rest of the trip to take us around. The cabs are generally used Toyota’s that are air conditioned. Costs $25 per day and nothing extra and worth it. Budget travelers may opt for the Tuk Tuk, a different version than the ones you’d find in Bangkok.
Angkor Thom South Entrance
The first day we managed to visit Angkor Thom, the Bayon temple, Bapuon and the Phimeneakas. These were built in the late 12th Century C.E. by Jayavarman the VII. Details of these sites may be found on various websites and a book that is locally available called “Ancient Angkor”.

The "Face Towers"
Angkor Thom is the famous temple complex having the “face towers”. The Angkor kings started by being Hindu religion dominating Cambodia and this is evident from all the intricate stories of the Ramayana and some Mahabharata and other Hindu mythology carved in stone at various Angkor temples and sites. Buddhism replaced Hinduism in later years and today Cambodia is mostly a Buddhist country. One can see that their art, crafts, dances and culture is still rooted in Hinduism and stories that figure in Hinduism.

Angkor Wat Complex

We went next, to the Ta Phrom Temple, where Indian Archaeologists, still working at the site, have managed to push back the jungle. It is this spot that is featured in movies, simply because of the massive silk-cotton trees that literally grow out of the stone monuments as one can see from the pictures. I’ve seen similar trees growing out of stone “temples” on the other side of the World at the Copan Ruinas in Honduras, those being the remains of an ancient Mayan Civilization. Striking similarities between two different civilizations or maybe it’s my perception and a theory that perhaps ancient civilizations had some contact between them. The aliens from space built all this, in my opinion (Just a joke!!!).

Ta Phrom Temple Complex with the Silk-cotton Trees growing out of the stone complex

The Phimeneakas, Kings Palace, Angkor Thom

The entire afternoon we spent at Angkor Wat temple, the World’s largest religious complex. This huge edifice was built with a huge moat surrounding it. All Angkor kingdom sites have moats surrounding the temples and complexes. Angkor Wat can be grueling, especially on a hot afternoon. This is perhaps the best time, though, since most tourists are away. The huge complex needs a lot of time, a lot of climbing very steep steps.

Angkor Wat was constructed in early 12th Century (between 1113 and 1150 C.E.) with later additions. The towering temples are massive and the central tower or “gopura” represents the holy Hindu mountain called Mount Meru, symbolizing the centre of the universe in Hindu mythology. Later additions included Buddhist relief’s and a hall called the “hall of a thousand Buddhas”, self explanatory!

I’ve got to continue the rest of the story in the next blog piece. The downside of visiting Cambodia is the street kids and adults who want to sell you everything (except Angkor Wat!) and almost everything is quoted at $1. I suppose that is typical of any developing country. But, the people are very nice, friendly and always smiling and the upside to visiting Cambodia and Siem Reap is far greater than the downside. Actually, I should not even call this a down side.

We had loads of fun in this country and will definitely go back and I will recommend all those with or without interest in history and archaeology, to visit the country, it’s worth the trip, every cent of it. More details of the other sites and our experiences in the next blog piece, I’ll call that piece “Beyond Angkor Wat”.