Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Romancing the Stone (Temples) in Cambodia

In the recent decade, one of the top emerging tourist destinations in Southeast Asia is the beautiful country of Cambodia.

Its breathtaking temples-- both ancient and ageless, continue to lure the adventurous wanderer into a journey back in time only to discover once again, how infinitely gifted mankind is.

Who would have thought that this lush and majestic country, merely three decades after a brutal and traumatic chapter under the infamous Khmer Rouge regime, would now be
considered a top tourist drawer, not only in Asia but the world?

This sort-of travelogue will urge you to pack your bags and explore its endless wonders.

In the capital Phnom Penh, don’t forget to visit the Royal Palace, the residence of King Sihanouk. King Nodolar Sihanouk was the titular head of Cambodia (chosen by France) who, in 1953, led the efforts to liberate his country from the control of this European superpower. Today the Royal Palace features the impressive Throne Hall, the luxurious Silver Pagoda (made with over 5000 tiles of pure silver) and an iron house given to King Norodom by Napoleon III of France.

And for a deeper understanding of this country, you should not forget to get a glimpse of its dramatic history. About 15 km from the center of Phnom Penh if the Toul Sleng Museum which houses mementos, remnants and relics of the iniquitous Khmer Rouge genocide. Toul Sleng was a school converted into a prison and interrogation facility by the ruthless Khmer communist rebels. Thousands of innocent civilians are believed to have been murdered and tortured in its vicinity. It can be recalled that a coup de etat led by then General Pol Pot seized power from Cambodia’s legitimate government in the 1970s.

From 1975-1979, an estimated one to three million Cambodians died from cruelty,
abuse and starvation with the implementation of Pol Pot’s “ideal agricultural society” model. Millions were forced to evacuate cities and forced to work as farmers in the countryside. People were rounded up and executed for the most trivial reasons like, wearing glasses or crying for dead loved ones. Cambodia leaped a hundred years backward. Peace was finally forged among leaders of the conflict in 1993, leading to the downfall of Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge officials. Thus, the steady climb of Cambodia back into the world’s consciousness as a major tourism contender.

The quickest way towards the country’s tourist attractions is to travel to Siem Reap City, by land or air. The Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport now serves the most tourist passengers to Cambodia. It is accessible by direct flight from the country’s capital Phnom Penh and the capital cities of its neighboring Asian countries.

Siem Reap is the charming gateway town to the world famous heritage site—Anchor Wat. This fascinating city has a colonial and Chinese-style architecture in the Old French Quarter (Cambodia used to be a French colony.) Originally a cluster of small villages along the Siem Reap River, the main town is concentrated around Sivutha Street and the Psar Chas Area (Old Market area). The original villages were established around Buddhist pagodas called “Wat.”
Despite being transformed into a major tourist hub in recent years, its people have been able to conserve its culture, traditions and religious ceremonies. Numerous historical institutions feature traditional dance performances like the Apsara. Craft shops are abundant and so are silk traders. A serene bird sanctuary is near the Tonle Sap Lake.

Siem Reap is a thriving tourist haven with a variety of hotels and restaurants to choose from. Mid-range hotels are concentrated around the old Market area and along Sivatha. More expensive, larger hotels and resorts are located on the road leading to the Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport and the national road going to Anchor. The thrifty tourist need not worry, hundreds of budget guesthouses can also be found in the city.

A wide selection of restaurants serving international cuisine can be found in Seam Reap City. These include restos serving French, Thai, Burmese, German, Russian, Italian, Korean and Japanese food. As to shopping destinations, the Psar Chas (Old Market) area is deemed to be the best in the country. It also has a vibrant nightlife with western-style bars and pubs.

Most of the tourists come to Cambodia to visit the Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and other Angkor ruins.

Recently voted as the 2nd best in the Seven Wonders of the World, Anchor Wat is the largest religious structure ever built. All of 200 hectares, it contains more stonework than the great pyramid of Egypt. Located six kilometers from Siem reap, the temple was built in the early 12th century. Sandstone and laterite stone walls which encloses the temple. Moats surround the entire structure measuring 1.5 km from west to east and 1.3 km from north to south. At the end of a 350m long causeway is the central temple complex where ancient galleries can be found. You become spell-bound by the power and magnificence of the towering galleries, which in essence, depict the histories and mythologies of the unique Angkor world. Angkor Wat was built as an offering by King Suryavarman II for Vishnu, the Hindu God and took around 40 years and 250,000 people to build. It is now the largest and most impressive of the Angkor temples.
This amazing wonder can be accessed by car, tuk tuk or bicycle. Don’t forget though, to purchase a temple pass at the entrance or at local travel agencies.

Located eight kilometers from Siem Reap, Angkor Thom was the political capital of the King Jayavarman VII, considered as the greatest of the Angkor builders. In its time, this was the largest city in the world with over a million inhabitants.

Enclosed by a moat and high laterite wall, the city contains at its center the complex of Bayon. Bayon is an engraved showcase of the stone faces of King Jayavarman VII on its 54 towers. This ancient city is sprawled over nine square kilometers.

Also one of the more popular Angkor temples but a lot smaller in size than the two, is the Ta Prohm temple where portions of the movie Tomb Raider was filmed. Many other distant temples continue to lure and urge the adventurous to venture deeper into the heart of Cambodia’s forests.

For those who get a kick at exploring the unexplored, you can also go elephant trekking
care of Mondulkiri hilltribes. One of Cambodia’s numerous ethnic groups, the Mondulkiri have earned a spot in the hearts of countless tourists over the years with their friendliness and warmth.

For simpler pleasures, visit the farming villages and be prepared to discover how welcoming and engaging Cambodians are. You could also visit silk farms and quaint craft shops.
Lastly, for the real Cambodia, spend some of your moments in the wonderful countryside
complete with its lush rice paddies and unpolluted lakes and rivers. This, I think, aside from the Angkor Wat, is Cambodia’s legacy to the world—its unspoiled and unsurpassed natural wonders.

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