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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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