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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Phnom Penh - from Killing Fields to a Humane City

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Phnom Penh-a great Cambodian City


Time began with the Big Bang about 13.77 billion years ago. Our universe originated and began expanding from Day One which included formation of our planet Earth. But not so long ago, on 17th April 1975, a Cambodian school teacher Pol Pot (who had been to Paris on scholarship to study Radio Electronics and returned to Cambodia to take up a teaching assignment) declared Year Zero in Cambodia. That was in line with the concept of Year One declared during the French Revolution. The idea was to discard and destroy all culture and traditions within the society and bring in revolutionary culture. President Lon Nol fled Cambodia on 1st April 1975 following a bloody civil war that lasted for five years. And on 17th April 1975 a swarm of locusts in the guise of Khmer Rouge descended on Phnom Penh to devour teachers, artists and intelligentsia of the Cambodian capital. Pol Pot’s intention was to eliminate threats to his idea of agrarian society. That was the beginning of a carnage that even seemed to surpass the holocaust under Hitler in many ways. Pol Pot's army flushed out their own people, i.e. Cambodians. Forcibly sent those to toil and perish on remote agricultural fields due to vagaries of exposures to unfriendly and totally alien atmosphere, and those who showed or hinted even slightest resistance were packed off to detention and torture camp in the city (S-21 Prison – a High school taken over by Khmer Rouge).Brother Duch, also referred as Butcher Duch, was the head of this prison camp. The prisoners went through inhuman torture on instructions of this former school teacher before being taken for execution at an old Chinese graveyard about 15 km away from Phnom Penh. The executions were painful as axes, iron rods, shovels etc. were used in place of bullets which were found expensive. After execution the bodies were dumped in hastily dug shallow graves. As I walked down the Killing Field (which is now Cheung Ek Museum) near Phnom Penh with audio guide I was stupefied as to how such inhuman event could have taken place and that too for almost over four long years . So sombre is the tale of Cambodia in the seventies that it befuddles a normal human being to wonder as to how distorted and warped were the minds of the perpetrators and how they survive today with such memories as most of them went scot free. Strangest of all is that in the seventies, when we were students, we never even got an inkling of such a massive genocide. Whereas we joined the world in condemning the gruesome acts of Hitler and his army during World War II. So hush-hush were the acts that it was only in 1979 that two Vietnamese photojournalists first discovered S-21 prison camp  and since then till 2009 around 300 such Killing Fields and 23745 mass graves have been discovered in Cambodia. As on date a sordid statistics tell us that out of eight million Cambodians, Pol Pot wiped out three million from the face of our planet. Still he lived a full family life with his grandchildren in a village near Thailand border till his death in 1998.


 Phnom Penh today is a totally different metropolis. Kudos to the generation born after 1980. They have made the city benign and at the same time smart and lively. It’s a sheer coincidence that we stepped into Phnom Penh on the first day of three day long water and moon festival. Initially in our hotel rooms at Tea House Urban Resort we mistook the boom after sunset for thunderstorm. But when we were told about the festival we wasted no time and headed for the Mekong River. Illuminated Royal Palace, Illuminated boats floating slowly on the Tonle Sap river, fireworks producing huge multicoloured fire balls and exploding with thunderous sound just by the side of the full moon over the river were spectacles that heralded the start of three days water moon celebration. This festival signifies victory of the naval force during the reign of Jayavarman VII in 13th century, unique phenomenon of reversal of current in Tonle Sap river (the river starts flowing towards Mekong),beginning of fishing season and coincidence of full moon of the Buddhist calendar month of Kadeuk. With each boom of thunder ball the huge crowd would turn into an ecstatic rapture, cheering and clapping. A sense of euphoria prevails, which is commendable in a nation deeply disturbed and upset over the carnage that took place hardly forty years back. In the day Boat races take place on the Tonle Sap and Mekong where thousands of skilled oarsmen from all over Cambodia participate. As foreigners we were given a place in the tent next to their Royal tent for watching the events.. We were also served Cambodian Beers free – a part of their hospitality. The boat race was spectacular and colourful. We enjoyed every bit of it. We also saw the Royal Palace. The legendary King Norodom Sihanouk once lived in this palace. Now most of it is museum. Shunning all that happened in the past, Phnom Penh is a remarkable city. A clean city, wide roads, disciplined traffic, friendly Tuktuk drivers, nice Khmer and Vietnamese eateries and very hospitable locals- polite and always ready to help.



Water moon festival takes place in November and regarded as the biggest festival in Cambodia. Decorated and Illuminated Boats parade slowly on the Tonle Sap River at Phnom Penh. As this is an age old festival the boat is decorated with images of Angkor Wat and the nagas,


View of another illuminated boat


The Royal Palace on the shores of Tonle Sap and Mekong decorated and illuminated on festival nights.


Crowds throng the sprawling area outside the Royal Palace to watch the fireworks. The full moon can be seen behind the fire balls.


The cute mannequins of Cambodian ladies welcome you to the Royal Palace.


The Royal Palace of Cambodia


Another view of the Royal Palace


The main thoroughfare outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh


Colourful Boat Races take place on the river Tonle Sap and Mekong during the three day long Water Moon Festival. Skilled oarsmen come from all over Cambodia and is held on a grand scale in Phnom Penh



A view of the Boat Race


Pavilion for foreign tourists. 


Silk Island on Mekong River


Watching the process of silk weaving



Evening Cruise on Mekong

Phnom Penh from Mekong



Photographs of Choeung Ek Killing Field near Phnom Penh

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. This monument marked by Buddhist stupa encase around 5000 human skulls exhumed from the mass graves of the Killing field and can be viewed through clear acrylic windows constructed on all the sides of the memorial.

Killing Tree 

A view of the Killing Field . Pits are still littered with human bones and signs are put all over cautioning against stepping over the bones

This is the spot where trucks used to offload the hapless victims.


Working office of the Executioners


The Killing Tools. These tools were used as bullets were costly

Pol Pot
Photographs of a celebrated singer and actress of Cambodia who perished during Pol Pot's regime




Nice highway which connects Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and passes through lovely countryside,traditional Khmer houses and rice paddies.

Giant ibis buses are very comfortable. Although there are no on board toilets, these buses stop at places enroute where proper wash rooms are available.It stops for lunch or refreshment at Banyan Tree restaurant on NH 6 near Kampong Thom


Photographer : Arundhati Sengupta


Getting to Phnom Penh: We travelled by giant Ibis Bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. This is a comfortable and exciting mode of travel between the two places which are about 300 km apart. Bus journey takes around 5 hours. Tickets are available online.


Where to stay: There are several good hotels at Phnom Penh. We stayed at TeaHouse Urban Resort.It is close to the Royal Palace and also very centrally located. From the Ibis Bus stop we had taken a Tuktuk to come to this hotel.This hotel has excellent massage parlour,swimming pool, WiFi etc. Breakfast was complimentary. We booked this through Booking.com. There is a TukTuk stand right outside the hotel. TukTuk service is also available for S-21 Prison and the Killing Field which is around 15 km from the city. It takes around 35 to 40 minutes from the hotel to the Killing Field. It takes around half a day at the Killing Field.



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Sunday, April 2, 2017

THE LOST KINGDOM

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The Lost Kingdom - Khmer Empire


9th Century AD. Angkor was the largest city in the world. For the next 500 years it was the capital of Khmer Empire. The city witnessed construction of hundreds of world famous temples built by the Khmer rulers. This sprawling complex of Angkorian ruins lies north of a safe, friendly and pleasant town of Siem Reap on the shores of Tonle Sap Lake. Siem Reap earned its name after the Khmer empire defeated and took over the Thai kingdom in the 17th century. It literally means ‘Siamese defeated’. Because of its proximity to Angkor Archaeological Park it has turned out to be one of the lively and touristic cities of Cambodia over the last one decade. We stayed at Hotel Visoth Boutique, which is very conveniently located in Siem Reap. It is truly a boutique hotel. Homely with a warm and hospitable staff. We started off for Angkor Wat early in the morning when it was still dark outside. We did not want to miss the sunrise over the thousand year old divine wonder. We had to buy passes from Angkor Conservation Area Ticket Booth located on Charles de Gaulle Road. These passes came with our photographs and cost 40 usd per person for 4 days validity for visiting any of the temples within the Angkor Archaeological Park.  It was life’s awestruck moment when the silhouette of the magnificent sandstone temple loomed up against the dark background. The temple was built by a devout Hindu ruler of the Khmer empire King Suryavarman II during early 1100 AD. He venerated Lord Vishnu, and that’s why he installed a statue of Lord Vishnu in the central tower which is around 65M tall. What is highly wondrous about the temple is that almost all the walls, pillars, and the galleries are decorated with reliefs (mostly bas-reliefs) and sculptors of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, celebrated scenes from Hindu mythology like Churning of the Sea Milk, life of Krishna, Apsaras & Devatas, the narratives on Battle of Lanka from Ramayana and Battle of Kurukshetra from Mahabharata carved beautifully. There are also statues of snake Vasuka, Apsaras and also Lord Buddha which came up during gradual transformation to Buddhism during the 14th century. Since the temple orientation is to the west, unlike Hindu temples which are oriented to east, has led many to believe that Suryavarman intended it to serve as a funerary temple. The temple complex is surrounded by moat measuring about five sq km. The temple stands on terrace, higher from where the city used to be. The layout resembles Mount Meru, a home of Gods located beyond Himalayas, believed in Hindu mythology. Since it was built with sandstone it has withstood the ravages of time, and the huge moat prevented encroachment by jungle. Stones were reserved only for temples whereas constructions in the city were with perishable materials like wood etc and, therefore, almost nothing remains today except the road outlines, sets of steps leading down to the city and naga balustrades. The rest seems to have been devoured by dense rain forest. Although major restoration work on the temple was undertaken in 1960s, it was abandoned during the Khmer Rouge era and again taken up by the Archaeological Survey of India between late eighties and early nineties. It was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO only over a decade back. The Khmer were great builders. They built temples, canals, road network during their reign. As early as 9th century the Angkorian kingship under King Yasovarman I saw inception of massive barays with an island temple set at the center of each baray. Baray (Khmer) is a water reservoir and the largest baray constructed in the 11th century measures about 8 km x 2 km. The last baray was constructed in the late 12th century when Jayavarman VII was the Angkorian ruler. Although this baray is considered to belong to Preah Khan (a temple dedicated to both Hinduism and Buddhism), it is the temple of Neak Pean that sits at the center of this baray. Both these temples were constructed during the reign of JayavarmanVII, the most celebrated Khmer king. Most of the temples that have survived the wraths of nature were built during the rule of Jayavarman VII. There were around thousand temples but today only a few remain. Most of the temples were consumed by nature. Among the surviving and restored temples we saw are the Bayon, Ta Prohm,Preah Khan,Banteay Kdei,Neak Pean (representing heavens on earth with ornamental lakes surrounding it), Phnom Krom ( resembling Angkor Wat to some extent but built in the 10th century, long before Angkor Wat. This overlooks Tonle Sap Lake and one could watch the sunset from atop the temple).On our way to the Bayon we had to cross a bridge where most of the statues on either side were headless, apparently handiwork of robbers over the ages.We came across the Terrace of Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King. Used as a viewing gallery at Royal events it displays an outstanding depiction of elephants. The temple of Beng Melea, one of the several hundreds of lost temples, is about two hours drive from Siem Reap bordering Vietnam. This Hindu temple was also built by the same King who built Angkor Wat. The dense forest surrounding the temple seems to run amok over the centuries. The daunting ruins of this gigantic temple bog the senses as to how it looked centuries ago. Experienced a whiff of Indiana Jones as we clambered up and down the sturdy wooden walkways built to go deep into the nooks and corners of the temple. The trees, the huge roots of the size of anacondas, giant foliages all seem to have entwined and integrated with whatever remained of the huge stone structures. To add to the romantic adventure of exploring a lost temple, a board outside cautioned tourists of not venturing too deep into the forest as there was still possibilities of landmines planted during Pot Pol regime to ward off Vietnamese infiltration and also to prevent escape of Cambodians to Vietnam. However, a massive project of freeing the entire area of landmines is already underway. The most bewilderingly breathtaking experience was a switchover from the Angkorian era we travelled during the day to modern Cambodia in the night. A splash in the beautiful salt water swimming pool at Visoth Boutique Hotel, cooling down with sips lemon grass drinks, toning up at Cambodian massage parlour, a shopping spree at the Old Market, listening to melodious blues on the lawns of a Khmer restaurant over Khmer prawn preparation and Cambodian beer. Although Siem Reap is a sweet little compact town and our hotel conveniently and centrally located, we preferred to take breezy rides in Remorks (look alike of Tuktuk but 4 wheeler pulled by motorbikes – similar to the old concept of Phatphati which used to ply from Red Fort to Chandni Chowk in Delhi).We preferred these rides more so because of the friendly nature of the drivers very unlike the auto drivers one encounters in Kolkata. We always kept the last lap for Pub Street. As the name implies life is at its fullest on Pub Street. Lights dazzling,glistening,gyrating; Live bands churning out rocks and oldies; Fried Rolled Ice Creams prepared in your presence as per your choice; open spas for fish foot massage – all these and more to make you feel elated,refreshed for that moment. One night we had Barbecue dinner at Cambodian Barbecue Restaurant. Other nights we dined and drank at Temple Balcony & Bar Restaurant where from 8pm they host Apsara dance performance on the balcony. It’s superb. The spirit of Cambodia is so high that Siem Reap continues to beckon us. 

Cute and serene Siem Reap International Airport




Angkor Wat at the break of dawn


A beautiful reflection of Angkor Wat during sunrise

The steps and pathways at Angkor Wat are adorned with Naga balustrades


The architecture of Angkor Wat was designed on the impression of Mt Meru


An Indian couple at the moat of Angkor Wat



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Carvings of Apsara on the walls of Angkor Wat

Walls of Angkor Wat are adorned with carvings flowers,plants, Vishnu and other Hindu Gods



Artworks depicting details of battles from Ramayana, Mahabharata and also battles led by King Suryavarman adorn the walls in the temple complex of Angkor Wat


The bridge leading to the Bayon. The guard rails on either side of the bridge constructed over a moat are statues of human heads of which most are headless due to theft and ravages of nature.


The statues at the Bayon represent Laughing Buddha, though it is still a matter of debate as to who the faces may represent. Some say it might be a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII, the most celebrated of the Khmer kings. As a matter of fact  Bayon was King Jayavarman VII's state temple.


Another view of the classical Khmer art and architecture at the Bayon

Terrace of the Elephants


A view of Neak Pean temple that sits in the centre of baray belonging to Preah Khan


Approaching the Gopura of a temple

A close view of how a tree has integrated with the temple stones

The sprawling complex of Ta Prohm temple which King Jayavarman VII dedicated to his mother has been jointly restored and conserved by India and Cambodia. Massive fig and silk cotton trees growing from the towers and corridors have been intentionally left partially unrestored to get the look of a 'jungle atmosphere'

Preah Khan meaning 'sacred sword' is of similar design as Ta Prohm. Built by King Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his father. A sprawling monastic complex ,it served as a Buddhist monastery and school, and was also a residence of  Jayavarman VII for a brief period.The temple is full of carvings and artwork.



Phnom Krom is a look alike of Angkor Wat, but built in the 10th century long before Angkor Wat came up> It doesn't have the carvings,bas reliefs and statues one finds at Angkor Wat. However, one can watch the sunset atop the temple.

This board on landmines is located at the entrance of Beng Melea


Beng Melea like Phnom Krom is also located outside the Angkor Park Area. Since this sprawling temple complex is nestled inside a dense forest of Cambodia it is also referred as jungle temple. This Hindu temple was built by the builder of Angkor Wat, King Suryavarman

The temple lies in total ruins and wooden walkways have been built to give an adventurous 'Lost Temple' feel.


Beng Melea is largely overrun by thick vegetation

Another view of Beng Melea with trees growing into the temple. It is awesome!




Beng Melea ruins

Naga balustrades of Beng Melea lies in ruins

Crystal clear salt water swimming pool at boutique Hotel Visoth where we stayed 

Apsara performance at Temple balcony on Pub Street



Scintillating Pub Street at Siem Reap. So named as several bars. cafes, restaurants, spas fill up the street.




Cambodian Barbecue

Cambodian Barbecue. Food of ones choice is laid on the table and one can prepare the barbecue 

 Fried ice cream roll being prepared on Pub Street.

Fried Ice Cream Roll



Photographer : Arundhati Sengupta


Getting to Siem Reap: Air Asia offers direct flights from Calcutta to Siem Reap with changeover at Kuala Lumpur.

Where to stay: There are several good hotels at Siem Reap. We stayed at Visoth Boutique Hotel which we booked through Booking.com. It is a budget hotel,centrally located. Very warm and friendly staff. Special thanks to Piseth, a cute young Cambodian lady at the reception.

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