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Magical Cambodia


Sept 5, 2014

The Kuala Lumpur airport is beautiful. The last time we visited Malaysia in 2002 we had come from Singapore by train and went back to Singapore by train. We thought the KL train terminal was stunning, but the airport is just as stunning and the wifi is super fast and free for 3 hours. Just don’t eat at the Dome cafe – didn’t like the muesli much nor the lukewarm babyccino, we thought we were ordering coffee but it turned out to be chocolate :(. The toilets are not as clean but definitely usable. The Lonely Planet store has some interesting stuff, which we plan to check out on our way back. We got our entire day’s walking done at the airport and the cute little train between the terminals is fun.

A picture from the aircraft just after we took off, beautiful sunrise.

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We landed at the Siem Reap airport around 1 PM local time from Kuala Lumpur. We just walked to the terminal, no buses. The first thing I noticed was the Khmer script is very similar to the Malayali and Tamil script πŸ™‚ and the building reminded us of Kerala.

We got into the terminal and the immigration was no fuss, with soldiers manning the station. Got our luggage and got some Singapore dollars changed at the exchange booth just after the baggage carousel and instantly felt rich – for about Sing $160 we got nearly 599,000 Riels :). There are adverts for “SMART” SIM cards everywhere and that’s where we stopped next, bought a local SIM for $10. Using your own phone service is very expensive. As we looked around we instantly found our driver from the hotel and we reached the hotel in about 15 mins from the airport. The hotel Angkor Miracle Resort and Spa is stunning … Just beautiful and the service was excellent. They got us into our room which again was really nice and spacious.

The entire country of Cambodia has a population of 15 Million, which is less than the population of Delhi. We slept for some time and then met with Mr. Soeun (pronounced as Soon) our tour guide at 5 pm to agree on the program for the 6th. We then wandered over to the cafe and ate an early dinner. The chef made a special vegetarian curry for us and it was delicious. Hoping that it didn’t have any fish sauce :). We also had an awesome Pumpkin soup.

Got back to the room and we were fast asleep by 9 pm.

Sept 6, 2014

We woke up late, but really fresh. The breakfast spread is huge if you eat non-veg and really limited if you are a vegetarian. But the fruits are to die for. Ate the dragon fruit, rambutan for the first time and my favorite banana. The muesli was good too.

Mr. Soeun was at the door sharp at 10 am. We started by getting a 3 day pass to the Angkor complex at $40 per pass. The best thing is they take your picture and print it on the pass, a very cool idea. The first temple we visited was Baksei Cham Krong. Quaint and small, it is dedicated to Shiva as most temples in Cambodia are, except the Angkor Wat which is dedicated to Vishnu. It was fascinating to discuss Hinduism with Mr. Soeun. Garuda, Hanuman, Naga and the elephant are important in the Cambodian culture. Almost all temples depict the “Sagar Manthan” or the churning of the ocean of milk by the Asuras and Devas. Now get ready to see poetry in stone …

Entrance to the Bayon, a huge temple complex inside Angkor Thom (Great capital, of the Khmer regime). The Sagar Manthan in progress πŸ™‚ and the four faces depicting Buddha looking at all four directions. The fourth face is on the other side

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The reflection in the moat

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Inside the complex we got a chance to touch noses digitally with the Buddha… Bodhisattvas meeting the Buddha –

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The Bayon temple complex has 54 domes with four faces of the Buddha representing the 54 provinces of Cambodia. The entire Bayon complex with reflection in the moat –

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The Leper King who is worshipped as a Buddha even though he was afflicted with Leprosy because he did a lot of good for the Kingdom –

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The complex below him has again sheer poetry in stone.. Here’s a sample of a living poem watching poetry in stone πŸ™‚

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From here we walked to the King’s palace, which was originally in wood, that got completely burnt down. The stone one has survived and the King’s swimming pool can fit about 5 Olympic size pools … Size takes on a very different meaning here. Everything is MASSIVE and built a 1000 years back. Wonder if our sky scrapers will survive 500 years !

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The reclining Buddha at Baphoun

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After this we took a break for lunch. The beginning of a massive headache was made for me :). One thing you have to be clear about, if you don’t enjoy walking, don’t try Cambodia. You just keep walking everywhere and every place is huge. After lunch we went to Prasat Preah Khan temple where the attraction is the fig trees that have taken over the temple. The entry gate has a massive tree and the same four faces of Buddha like the Bayon. Inside the complex there are scenes from the Ramayana and then massive trees that have grown over the temples. It’s widely believed that the temples in Cambodia were destroyed due to earthquakes, but there are no earthquakes here, all the damage has been wrought due to fig trees growing through the stones.

Entry gate

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The actual entrance

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Battle scene from the Ramayana

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The trees taking over

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I needed a tablet and sleep for a couple of hours to feel normal again. Now getting ready for a sunrise at the Angkor Wat tomorrow.

Sept 7, 2014

What an amazing way to ring in our 24th anniversary … Our special day started with THE ANGKOR WAT. Nothing really prepares you for it. We left the hotel at 5.15 am to see the Angkor Wat at sunrise. The sky was overcast, and we were worried it might rain, but it didn’t. We got some amazing pictures of the temple. This is the only Vishnu temple in the Angkor complex, where most of the temples are dedicated to Shiva. There are five towers but the symmetry is so perfect that you see only three towers from any side.

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The Ramayana and Mahabharata scenes are depicted all along the walls of the Angkor Wat. It was fascinating to discuss with Mr. Soeun the different endings of Sita, what the connection between Ramayana and Mahabharata is. There is a gallery of bad relief which depicts scenes from heaven and hell. Cambodian belief is there are 37 levels of heaven and 32 levels of hell and once a person is a sinner, there is no hope to change his/her status. Fascinating discussion early morning about Hinduism and how the person who wrote the Ramayana, Sage Valmiki was actually a highway robber and completely changed into a saint !!

This is in the gallery that shows the 37 levels of heaven and 32 levels of hell.

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The Angkor Wat is on three levels. For a long time, only the upper castes were allowed in the third level. The third level has the 37 steps to heaven, that you need to climb. One of the tourists today was turned back as she was wearing tiny shorts and that is considered disrespectful. The original 37 steps are steep and tiny, so they have built a set of new wooden steps with railings that are easier to climb.

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You get amazing views from the third level. Some of the tourists struggled while coming down as the steps are steep. Finally we exited the Angkor Wat from the West gate and this picture is of the complex from the back.

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We got back to the hotel for breakfast and then started the tour at 10 am. The first visit was to Chau Sey Tevoda a small temple complex dedicated to Shiva and on the opposite side is the Thommanon temple complex, both mirror images of each other. They are a jewel like composition. Very beautiful. We then went through the jungle to a yet to be restored temple complex called Ta Nei. The Japanese government is helping with the restoration, but work is progressing slowly. Here too the fig trees have wrecked havoc !

Ta Nei pictures –

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After Ta Nei we went to Ta Prohm, the next most famous temple in Cambodia after the Angkor Wat, courtesy Angelina Jolie filming a few scenes of the Tomb Raider movie here. This was also special because the restoration efforts are supported by the Archaeological survey of
India. Felt very proud to see the really great restoration work done by the ASI.

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Here comes competition to Angelina Jolie :):)

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Sept 8, 2014

Today we went on a long drive (nearly 120 kms) and saw three temples built by Suryavarman the 2nd and Jayavarman the 4th. Jayavarman the 4th, ruled for a short period of 20 years and moved the capital to Koh Ker. The first temple we visited was Beng Mealea built by Suryavarman the 2nd. Similar in architecture to the Angkor Wat, the ruins are magnificent.

Some pictures –

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Thanks to wooden walkways otherwise it is a tough walk. While we did of the adventurous bit for some distance, we soon moved to the wooden walkways.

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Interestingly we found a couple of bas reliefs of “Kaalinga Nartanam” from Krishna’s life where he kills the snake Kaalinga in Dwarka.

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From Beng Mealea we went to another temple called Prasat Bram. The name simply means five temples. Prasat means temple and Bram means five. This is not on the tourist map much but all the temples are beautiful with two of them completely covered by trees.

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From Prasat Bram we went to Koh Ker in the Preah Vihear province. We first had lunch before getting into the temple. The more well known temple in this province is the Prasat Preah Vihear which is just one temple at the border of Thailand and Cambodia and it has been a disputed territory. The Prasat Thom at Koh Ker is a seven level pyramid like structure and there was a massive linga on the top, which ofcourse doesn’t exist anymore. Nothing quite prepares you for the 37 metres high structure of this temple and just the perimeter is a 1 km by 1 km … And you walk through ruins so quite an adventure. I also climbed the 170 steps to the top but it was tough in the hot sun. The views were rewarding ofcourse.

The simple entrance –

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The first view of the 5 tiered Prasat Thom

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Found Ganesha and Nandi for the first time though broken 😦

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The daunting 170 steps in blinding afternoon sun 😦

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I did it !! And the views were worth it.

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Sept 9, 2014

Today was an easy day, as Mr. Soeun had some work in the morning. We got the much needed rest, especially my knees :(. With all the adventurous walking, my knees have been paining a bit. Guess our trip to Yercaud was just in time to prep for this trip. Bhawani Singh’s oil works wonders !!

We went to the floating village of Chong Kneas today. It’s a fascinating gypsy lifestyle on water. The houses keep shifting to where the water level increases in the Tonle Sap lake. The Tonle Sap lake expands to 20,000 square kms and shrinks to 2000 square kms !!! It’s one of the largest lakes in Asia. These floating villages are complete villages with shopping and school and a church/monastery etc. From the airplane, the lake looks like a sea πŸ™‚

Beautiful floating villages and the lake –

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On the way

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Floating school

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We stopped at the crocodile farm which has a whole bunch of crocodiles in all sizes, fishes, a couple of cute dogs and water snakes. There is a shop as well where the souvenirs are far more expensive than at the temples.

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View of the floating village from the roof of the crocodile farm –

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A floating shop –

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It’s a complete ecosystem :).

After the floating village we went to the Silk Farm and yes I bought some raw and fine silk. This farm is setup as an NGO and the silk is the finest Cambodian silk. The tour is worth every minute and the shop and it’s products are beautiful. We had lunch again at Dakshin’s and the dosas were amongst the best we have eaten anywhere. For dinner we shopped at Blue Pumpkin as always :). Am getting addicted to their chocolate Danish.

Nice easy day.

Sept 10, 2014

We took the day off to just laze around and do some shopping. We left around 11 on the number 5 “romo” or “tuk tuk”. Our first stop was at the Asian Handicrafts showroom and we met a Kashmiri, who has been here for about 3 years. He was really worried about his parents back in Kashmir, given the floods there. Luckily I could give him the nearest police station’s number from the list that Ranjeet had shared on whatsapp ! Hopefully his parents are fine. We bought a beautiful wooden Buddha. From there we went to “Bambou Indochine” a T.Shirt place. Expensive stuff and a limited range of T.shirts made of Bamboo yarn. From there we browsed through a couple of shops and then went for lunch to Peace Cafe, an all vegetarian place. Outstanding Khmer food, and all vegetarian. We then went to Senteurs d’Angkor a place that makes soaps, incense, pickles and jams. Great stuff.

This day belonged to the circus, Phare. There is a daily show at 7.30 pm. The show starts from 8 pm and is for an hour. Please read about it on my blog Phare – Par Excellence.

Sept 11, 2014 – Phnom Penh

We took the 6.40 am flight to Phnom Penh and before we could open the bottle of water they served on Angkor Air, we landed :). It’s a 35 min flight from Siem Reap. Mr. Soeun’s friend was waiting for us and we started towards the first stop – the killing fields of Choeung Ek. The atrocities of the Pol Pot era are heart rending… Nearly a million people were killed, the genocide was hidden from the world and the Cambodian people are still paying the price with deaths and maiming due to the land mines. :(:(.

Some 8000 skulls and bones unearthed in this place are placed in a central peace monument (Buddhist stupa) and you have an audio tour that is quite detailed. It’s difficult to listen to.. Read more Choeung Ek

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From the killing fields we went to see the royal palace – very beautiful but there is hardly much to see. The silver pagoda next door is awesome and worth seeing. It has a jade Buddha, an eighty kilo gold Buddha and silver floor tiles. Photography is not allowed inside.

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From the palace we went to have lunch at “Taste Budz” and I got to eat the best Appams since school time and Girija’s tiffin box. The owner is “Sabu” and this is a must stop by restaurant for anyone visiting Phnom Penh. After getting some Appams packed for the evening πŸ™‚ we went to visit the Museum. We took a walk on the riverfront where the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers meet. It was humid and hot, so we quickly got into the car. The Museum entrance has a Ganesha statue with a cannon for company !! Someone must suggest moving the two apart … They really don’t go well together. You cannot take photographs inside the museum except for the Garuda right at the entrance. The museum is worth a visit as it has several exhibits of Rama, Vishnu, Shiva, Buddha, Nandi, Ganesha and other Gods. Interestingly Vishnu is depicted with a moustache and a hat that resembles a Pharaoh’s headgear. Interesting !

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From the museum we went to the Genocide museum… Basically it’s the most famous prison from that time called S-21. Only seven people survived this prison. We met one of the survivors called Chum Mey. This was a school that was converted to a prison and the pictures of the atrocities just make you cry and feel terrible. It’s not for the faint hearted and for some reason, it reminded both Krishnan and I of the cellular jail in Andamans. :(:(. The prison is called Tuol Sleng.

From Tuol Sleng we went to the Russian Market, which is like the Palika Bazaar above the ground. Didn’t buy a thing but it was nice to browse. We got dropped off at the airport by 3.30 for our 6 pm flight. Bought some stamps at the airport post office. The flight back to Siem Reap was on Vietnam airlines and the propeller type plane, very cramped and noisy, but it flew.

Sept 12, 2014

We decided not to go see the 1000 Linga river as the walk was long and we had to climb steps. My knee isn’t back to normal and I didn’t want to put more strain on it. This was a day of temples and some really beautiful ones – all made of bricks, nearly 900 to a 1100 years old.

This picture is of Prasat Kravan, a Vishnu temple and a temple dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi. The umbrella that I had bought in Nagaland with Geetu broke while seeing this temple :(. The rains were great though it made the going tough as there was slush everywhere.

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These pictures are from Benteay Kdei. Beautiful temple.
Entrance

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Krishnan with the Apsaras πŸ™‚

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The entire temple –

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From here we went to Pre Rup temple, another beautiful brick temple made around 961 AD.

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After Pre Rup we went to see the East Mebon temple, another brick structure that is even older than Pre Rup. This was built in 952 AD. The other highlight of this temple is, it has the only fully intact statue of an elephant πŸ™‚

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We then stopped at the Landmine museum. This is a must see for everyone travelling to Cambodia. During the Khmer Rouge period, when the population was around 11 million, nearly 10 million land mines were put around the entire country. Nearly 8 million of these have been removed, de-mined but still a couple of million land mines remain. The person who has setup the Landmine museum Aki Ra has single handedly cleared 50000 landmines. Read more about him here Cambodia Land mine museum.
He is a CNN hero and rightfully so.

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Our final stop was at Banteay Srei. This is also called the lady temple as the translation of Banteay Srei is “citadel of women”. This is a Shiva temple and one of the best preserved ones. Red sandstone has been used here and it’s really one of the prettiest temples in Cambodia. The access is also well laid out.

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From Banteay Srei we went to Preah Khan just to buy a couple of paintings – rubbings from the temples on rice paper. Then a short stop at Angkor around 1 pm to get some pictures… And we did get awesome ones.

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We ended the day with lunch at Dakshin’s – again awesome food today :). We got dinner packed and said goodbye to Mr. Pannir Selvam. Did some packing and I managed to complete the novel “Pharaoh” by Manfredi. I couldn’t have slept otherwise. Tomorrow is Battambang, the rice bowl of Cambodia.

Sept 13, 2014 – Battambang

We started at 8 am for the 170 kms drive to the rice bowl of Cambodia, the Battambang City in the province by the same name. This city is bigger than Siem Reap but off the tourist grid and is less populated. There is a temple complex but we chose not to visit. We wanted to see the French architecture and ride the bamboo train.

The city square that has a naga made of spent shells, broken guns etc. A fitting use of war material.

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We walked around a bit and saw the French built provincial hall and bridge across the river. Quaint and pretty.

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Fortified ourselves with sugarcane juice and went for a once-in-a-lifetime train ride, the bamboo train. $10 gets you approx 45 mins on it. There is just one track and the carriage is a platform made of bamboo set on wheels and a driver has his hand on the motor, that passes for an engine. It’s an exhilarating ride and the track is bent and has gaps along the way, so somewhat adventurous. We go over small water ways on bridges that could just cave in. :):):) We also saw how two trains coming in opposite directions manage to make way for each other. Just remove the carriage to one side, and the wheels, move the other train and re-assemble on the other side. How cool is that !

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We had lunch at “Flavours of India” which is run by a Nepali, and the food was quite good. Didn’t enjoy the tea much, but am always a difficult customer for tea and coffee with all my quirks πŸ™‚

We got back to Siem Reap around 5 pm. The road is really good. Bought some food for tomorrow at Cafe Blue Pumpkin…. And thus concluded our trip to magical Cambodia. This country and it’s temples have to be on every traveller’s itinerary, the people are wonderful and the temples are stunning.

Sept 14, 2014

At the Siem Reap airport … Waiting to board the flight to Malaysia and then onto Hyderabad. Looking forward to mom’s food and chai :):)

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13 comments

  1. Thanks for the beautiful travelogue…enjoyed it. Love, Renu

  2. Thank you for a detailed travelogue and your recommendations. You seem like a very reliable source.

  3. Hi… Did u arrange the stay , travel and guides thru some agency? – Jacob

    • Hi Jacob, no we didn’t use any agency. Did everything online. Called Mr. Soeun, after seeing his website and he chalked out an itinerary. We did our homework using the Lonely Planet guide. It’s an easy country to travel to and people are really nice. Mr. Soeun is fantastic, will recommend him as your guide if you plan to visit Cambodia.

  4. Hi,
    Do share Soeun contact if u still have it. Thanks in advance.
    Roji Jacob

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