Not counting the trips I made to Kuwait as an Non-resident Indian, a round trip made by my husband and me to Bangkok, Phnom Penn, Siem Reap, Singapore, Kulim and Hong Kong was my first trip abroad as a tourist. The excitement of course was palpable. I had never been to these places. I had basically never seen any place beyond a few destinations in India, and of course Kuwait, having lived there as an expatriate. Siem Reap was an afterthought. The holiday plan had been chalked out by a friend who was a travel agent, but the idea to visit Angkor Wat had happened quite by accident. It was while looking at the map that my husband noticed how ridiculously close it was to Bangkok. And of course, if it wasn’t for Rip Kirby*, we’d probably not even have considered a visit to Cambodia.
A view of the town
Like with all such reliefs, the engravings depict the life and times of the people those days
I know now that my spouse is very spontaneous. Our decision to visit Siem Reap was of that nature, sudden and unexpected. It also means we weren’t wholly prepared to visit the place. We had no clue where we were going to stay. As the whim garnered intensity, we knew we would fly to Phnom Penn and from there we would take another flight to Siem Reap. Suddenly the rest of our holiday itinerary didn’t seem as exciting anymore. And Cambodia those days wasn’t exactly a tourist hotspot, neither was it considered the safest of places.
The damage that time has wrought
Eventually the travel plan was tweaked, our days in Bangkok were shortened to include two days in Cambodia. One morning in the middle of sightseeing and window shopping in Bangkok, we took off to the comparatively laid back town of Phohm Penn. At the airport we were approached by this young Cambodian man who insisted on helping us plan our visit to Siem Reap. He said his brother would help us find a place to stay and also get someone to show us around the important landmarks. We decided to trust our instincts and this stranger.
When the treasury began to run dry, the ruler was forced to abort the construction of temples like this one…
Sights like these are common, where whole trees have grown around little shrines…
The aircraft that took us from Phnom Penn to Siem Reap was small, it shook a lot because of the altitude and I had my first sinus-related headache that made me think my head was going to burst. The man from the airport had been true to his word. His ‘brother’ was waiting for us and had been probably given a description. He approached us with a wide smile. He took us to a not-so-fancy hotel. Our room, large enough to fit a bed with a television fixed high up on a corner stand on the wall and an attached bathroom just about managed to meet our bare necessities. Food could be ordered in an open restaurant on the ground level. An amusing anecdote we love to recount is when the waiter misunderstood us when we asked for ‘snacks’ with our tea.
‘No snacks,’ he said, shaking his head vigorously and probably taking a step back.
How can the people there not have any special snacks, we wondered and rephrased our question making the waiter even more anxious. That until my husband realised that the waiter thought we were asking for ‘snakes’. I think we did finally manage to get some ‘snakes’ with our tea, and if I recollect correctly they were ripe banana fritters.
Guarded by the divine…
These giant Buddha sculptures at Bayon are believed to be made in the likeness of the then ruler
Meanwhile our guide, an erstwhile Red Cross worker, arrived to take us around, revealing to us the marvel that was Angkor Wat. Without getting into the details which you will find enough of on online portals on tourism and blogs of more recent visitors, the sights that met our eyes just took our breath away. Amusing as it was to hear words like ‘Apsara’, ‘Hamuman’ and ‘Garuda’, the sculptures and carvings left us in open-mouthed wonder and absolutely spell bound. You could also see huge trees growing off walls, or standing tall and proud atop shrines that still bravely withstood the weight of a whole full grown tree.
But what was even more beautiful were the little children who would come crowding to you, selling memorablia and such other trinkets. At one particular point where these frightfully steep steps led up to a certain attraction, a little boy accosted tourists to buy a bottle of water from him. Since we didn’t feel the need to drink any water just then, we refused him politely. He communicated to us that he was willing to follow us up the steps so that we could buy the water bottle on reaching the top. Impressive salesmanship we thought from a salesman who was barely a couple of feet off the ground.
When we asked the children who sell trinkets and memorabilia to pose for a picture, most of them turned shy and moved away, while these two obliged us…
Red Cross trucks still plied the roads while we were visiting Angkor Wat. Mines that still lay hidden were a huge threat and as tourists we were warned against leaving the oft-trodden path. All in all, it was an amazing experience, a trip I’m glad we made. A few months after we visited, there was some turmoil and we were once again reminded of the risky decision we had taken. Needless to say Siem Reap and Angkor Watt is a popular destination these days. But for us, it was a risk taken that had worked in our favour.
*The eponymous Rip Kirby from a popular comic series by Alex Raymond is a private detective and in one of his many fictitious adventures, he visits the ruins of Angkor Wat. This is how my husband first heard about the place…