Whenever I told my friends in India I am planning to travel to Cambodia, I used to get raised eye brow and question back to me. “Where is it? Africa?” Such is the ignorance among us about this ancient Hindu kingdom, which has the world’s largest religious monument. Kingdom of Cambodia is a country in Southeast Asia, situated between Thailand, Laos & Vietnam.
Me and my friend Ajith Kamath and our families wanted to travel and visit Angkor temples in Cambodia. Siem Reap is the closest city to Agkor, luckily it has the International airports. Our search for the bargain rates for travel started around 3 months back. Tourist season in Cambodia starts in November. So we decided to reach before hordes of Western tourist land there as visitors approach two million annually.
All the photographs in this series of travelogue were captured by using only one camera and two lenses. I had a very compact set which was wonderfully light to travel. Fujifilm X-T2 Mirrorless Digital Camera which was most of the time fitted with Fujifilm XF 14mm f/2.8 R Ultra Wide-Angle Lens. For occasional closeups I opted for the Fujifilm XF 50-140mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR Lens. Using 14mm throughout made me go out of my comfort zone as it was equivalent to 21mm in terms of full frame sensor. Since it was a prime lens, I had to zoom using feet to get closer. Even though distortion was minimal, getting used to using ultrawide lens was tricky part.
As it is situated completely in tropics there are two seasons in Cambodia. The northeast monsoon season runs from December through April, bringing sunny, dry weather especially in January and February. The rains come when the winds shift into the southwest monsoon from May to November, with the most precipitation in the months of September and October. Cambodia heats up steadily from February to April, with temperatures peaking as high as 40°C in April. Temperatures remain high in May and June, and the southwest monsoon brings in more humidity and some very sticky days!
From July through October there will certainly be some rainfall but it usually comes in short showers. Unless you’re in remote areas with bad roads traveling is perfectly comfortable during these months, and it’s nice to see the rice paddies and tropical foliage at their most green and lush. The best months to visit Cambodia are December and January, with dry weather and lower humidity levels — of course, this is also the busiest time of year so expect huge crowds and higher prices. That made us choose September as the month for our visit. We booked tickets and accommodation for 2nd week of October.
Our idea was to stay at Siem Reap and concentrate on Angkor group of temples, even though Cambodia has lot of other tourist attractions. We took Train from Mangalore to Kochi. We had earlier booked Air Asia tickets from Kochi to Siem Reap via Bangkok. Mid night flight from Kochi had 3 hours stop at Bangkok. The Don Mueang International Airport of Bangkok where we stopped over is considered to be one of the world’s oldest international airports and Asia’s oldest operating airport.It was officially opened as a Royal Thai Air Force base on 27 March 1914, although it had been in use earlier. There we changed the flight iand reached Siem Reap International airport at 11AM local time (Cambodia is +7:00 GMT).
It is a “Visa on arrival” for Cambodia. Procedure is really painless. All you need is to fill a form and attach passport sized photo and submit at the Visa Counter with $30 as Visa fees. You can also avail e-Visa by filling details online(https://www.evisa.gov.kh/), but we opted for physical visa on arrival (saving $7 processing charge). Most officials will ask for tips, which you should nicely refuse.
We had booked our stay at Tanei Boutique Villa. This cozy hotel Located on a quiet lane of Siem Reap, is very close to interesting places such as Phsa Chas (Old Market), Pub Street, and Angkor Night Market. All these places are 2-3 minutes walking distance from our hotel.
Even though official currency of Cambodia is Cambodian Riel (KHR), Cambodia’s second currency (some would say its first) is the US dollar, which is accepted everywhere and by everyone, though change may arrive in riel. US$1 = KHR4,000. Make sure that you have plenty of US$ in small changes ($1). Also make sure US$ is of recent origin as older US$ (pre 2000) notes are not accepted.
Cambodia is one of the cheapest country to travel. Here are the budget options US$50/day – Cheap guesthouse room: US$5–10, Local meals and street eats: US$1–3, Local Tuk Tuk: US$15 whole day. Midrange budget will be around US$50–200/day – Air-con hotel room: US$15–50, Decent local restaurant meal: US$5–10 Local tour guide per day: US$25
Top end will be US$200+ per day. Boutique hotel or resort: US$50–500, Gastronomic meal with drinks: US$25–50, Car rental per day: US$60–120. Tipping is not traditionally expected here, but in a country as poor as Cambodia, tips can go a long way. Salaries remain extremely low and service is often friendly and attentive.
Airport is around 7 Km from the city and our hotel had sent a Tuk Tuk to pick us up. The tuk tuk has got to be one of the most pleasant forms of intraurban transit in Cambodia. The official name for them is the French word remorque, but everyone still calls them tuk tuks. These two-wheeled carriages pulled behind a 100cc Moped are a breezy way to travel and are marginally safer than going by moto–mostly because they go at about half the speed. These two Tuk Tuk and its drivers became our constant companion for the temple tours on our subsequent journey.
As for the internet and mobile communication 4G connectivity is available extensively with great connection speeds. We took 2 free traveller sims from Smart Telecom right outside the airport and topped it with 5GB data pack costing 6$. Almost every restaurant you visit has Wi-Fi connection and the staff of the restaurants are very courteous in giving passwords when asked. Sim purchase is not necessary as you can browse without using your original sim card. Please be aware to keep phone in aeroplane mode throughout your stay if you are using your Indian SIM as even the incoming calls are charged at exorbitant rates by our Indian ISPs.
As we started from the airport, weather suddenly turned worse as we reached the hotel and there was a huge thunderstorm. We had a really sumptuous khmer lunch at the restaurant attached to our hotel and decided to take rest in the room till evening. We booked Apsara dance at Kulen Restaurant along with buffet dinner.
Koulen Restaurant in Siem Reap provides both Apsara dance & buffet dinner. Seating capacity of 650 people, buffet dinner service starts at 6.30 PM and the show starts at 7.30 PM. One can continue eating and drinking during the show so practically there are a full two hours to go through the elaborate buffet. The Apsara show and the ‘all you can eat dinner’ cost 12 USD per person if booked at the venue. Our hotel provided the same for $9. Drinks including water cost extra. The food includes vegetarian food, Khmer food, Chinese food, western food, and Khmer desserts and fresh fruits – pineapple, papaya, & dragon fruit. There is a choice of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian snacks too.
The show begins with a traditional Khmer music performance which sets the mood for the rest to follow. There were a total of 5 acts. It started with Coconut Shell dance, a traditional folk dance.
Cambodia has two seasons, the dry season and the rainy season. You see coconut & palmyra palms are found throughout Cambodia and after the meat of the coconut is carved out Cambodian people often save the shells, polishing them and using them for decoration in their homes.
The dance grew out of a popular game that used the coconut shells. The game was played during all kinds of ceremonies, but most often during weddings, engagements, and when the groom is escorted in a procession to the bride’s house.
The Coconut Shell Dance is one of the most popular and well-known of the Cambodian folk dances. In its original form, it was a one-man show but in the modern-day dance, an equal number of male and female dancers perform the dance, signifying friendship and courtship.
“Dance of Moni Mekhala” was next dance. Even though the name Mani Mekhala is same, story is totally different from Manimekalai by poet Chithalai Chathanar, which is considered as one of The Five Great Epics of Tamil Sangam Literature. Moni Mekhala in Cambodia, is considered a goddess of lightning and the seas. In the classical dance traditions of Thailand and Cambodia, sacred dramatic dances depict the goddess Moni Mekhala, and an Ogre Ream Eyso; according to legend, the phenomena of thunder and lightning is produced in the clash of Moni Mekhala’s crystal ball and Ream Eyso’s axe. Here is the story I gathered for you.
Long ago in Cambodia, there lived a hermit who possessed magical powers. Moni Mekhala, the water goddess, asked the hermit to be her teacher. The hermit agreed. The ogre Ream Eyso decided that he too wished to possess magical powers. The hermit agreed to teach him as well.
The two learned a great deal. As their lessons came to an end, the hermit gave each an empty glass, and said, “The first to return tomorrow morning with a glass full of dew will win a prize.” Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso then departed.
The ogre went to sleep early, as he planned to wake up very early and collect dew from tree leaves. The resourceful goddess, however, laid a cloth upon the meadow, and went to asleep beside it. The next day, before sunrise, Ream Eyso squeezed the leaves of trees, and dew slowly filled his glass.
When Moni Mekhala awoke, she squeezed the now-saturated cloth over the glass. In a matter of moments, her glass was full. She hurried to the hermit’s hut. The hermit gave her a magical glass ball as her prize. Overjoyed, she departed.
Arriving much later, Ream Eyso was furious when he learned of his defeat. The hermit gave Ream Eyso a gleaming gold ax as his prize. But Ream Eyso coveted the magical ball. So, he went to the heavens, to look for Moni Mekhala. When he found her, he growled angrily. “Give me that ball!” he demanded.
Moni Mekhala began to run away, and the ogre flung his axe at her. It narrowly missed her and, upon hitting the ground, filled the heavens with a thundering sound. Moni Mekhala tossed her ball above her head. When she did, it radiated a streak so bright, it blinded the ogre, and Moni Mekhala escaped. Ream Eyso howled and rubbed his eyes, but by the time he could see again, Moni Mekhala was gone.
“I will find you,” he cried. “I will chase you forever,” and with that he too raced into the clouds. This, the people of Cambodia say, was the origin of thunder and lightning. In Cambodia, these dance dramas are used in propitiation ceremonies called buong suong tevoda and were performed to invoke the rains to fall.
This fine performance was followed by folk “Fisherman Dance” with few romantic interludes. It is a story of fisherman and fisherwoman falling in and out of love performed in a light hearted flirting manner. This gave a much needed comical interlude.
That was followed by famous story from Reamker which is the Cambodian version of Ramayana. Hanuman falls in love with mermaid Princess Sovanna Maccha who is a mermaid and daughter of Krong Reap (King Ravana).
Reamker is a Cambodian epic poem, based on the Sanskrit’s Ramayana epic. The name means “Glory of Rama”. It adapts the Hindu ideas to Buddhist themes and shows the balance of good and evil in the world. More than just a reordering of the epic tale, the Reamker is a philosophical allegory, exploring the ideals of justice and fidelity as embodied by the protagonists, Prince Rama and Queen Sita. Scenes from the Reamker are painted on the walls of the Royal Palace in Khmer style, and its predecessor is carved into the walls of the Angkor Wat and Banteay Srei temples.
Though it is understood that Preah Ream (Rama) is an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, his characteristics and those of the others in the story are interpreted in Cambodia as those of mere mortals, not of the gods as is the case in India. The complex interplay of strengths and weaknesses, though couched in episodes lined with magic, nonetheless represents a decidedly human social behavior.
Hanuman, is the Monkey Warrior who helps to rescue Neang Seda (Queen Sita). They want to build bridge across the sea to Langka. Hanuman orders his monkey soldiers to build a bridge of stone to connect the island Langka to the mainland.
While gathering stones, Hanuman realizes that mermaids were stealing stones to prevent the construction of the bridge. Seeing that many of the stones put down by the monkeys were quickly disappearing, Hanuman dove into the water and saw princess Sovanna Maccha. Hanuman caught the princess of the fish and they fell in love.
Sovanna Macha reveals that she is daughter Krong Reap(Ravana) who ordered her fish to stop the bridge. Upon order from Sovanna Maccha, rest of the fish by carrying rocks in their mouths and putting them into place in the sea allow Hanuman to complete the bridge. Hanuman and Sovann Macha had a child called Mechanub who had the body of a white monkey and the tail of a fish. A yeak king called Wereap asked to adopt Mechanub and took him to live under the sea in the city of Batdal.
The bridge built, Preah Ream and Krong Reap face each other in combat and, with Hanuman’s aid, slay the demon.
Last performance of the day was Apsara ballet. Robam Tep Apsara (Dance of the Apsara Divinities) is the title of a Khmer classical dance created by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia in the mid-20th century under the patronage of Queen Sisowath Kossamak. The Apsara is played by a woman, sewn into tight-fitting traditional dress, whose graceful, sinuous gestures are codified to narrate classical myths or religious stories.
The costumes of the apsara role is based on the devatas as depicted on bas-relief of Angkor Wat. They wear a sampot sarabap, a type of silk brocade that is intricately pleated in the front.
The headdress of the lead apsara has five points or tips, with two rows of spherical decorations like the apsara pictured at Angkor Wat. Headdress worn by the subordinate dancers commonly have three points and only one row of sphere decoration. These crowns often include garlands of artificial hair with ornate adornments. The five-points crowns are frequently absent in modern dance routines.
This round decorative collar (red colored) is highly visible; found just below the neck, the collar is embellished with detailed gold-colored copper ornaments and beaded designs. The elaborate decorations is usually found gracefully decorated on two separate rows. Additional copper ornaments are found hanging below these rows, in the shape of difficult-to-describe warped spear tips, the largest of which is centralized.
Dangling earrings, which are bound in bunches, traditionally stretch almost to the shoulder. These dangling earrings are mainly duplicated from the design of the ‘krorsang’ flower (a large spiny tree with sour fruit) and are preferred to the ‘mete’ (chili) flowers, which are held to be less beautiful.
There are a total of four types of wrist jewelry: kong rak, patrum, kong ngor, and sanlek. The first is a truly beautiful diamond-like studded bracelet a fine and elegantly wrist jewel decorated in a tree branch-like fashion, the second is more of a spring-like coiled gold colored thick copper while the third type of bracelet (two sets are worn) are small round beaded orb/sphere bunches delicately connected to one another, the last bracelet is an intricate and well decorated thickly rounded jewel. Additionally an Apsara dancer may be found wearing a garland of jasmine.
Two types of gold ankle jewelry are usually worn by the Apsara dancer, the first being kong tong chhuk the second kong ngor (or kong kravel).
The sangvar is a loosely decorated band of beads worn crosswise. The golden flower is considered a body-decorating element, either worn on the waist or carried during the performance. It too is gold in color, and made of thin flexible copper.
All the performances are very entertaining and gracefully done. The best effort put in by the musicians in the background and the stage actors is clearly evident. Kudos to Koulen. At the end of the show, the Apsara dancers and other actors wait at the stage for about 10 minutes for the guests to get their pictures taken with the artists.
After these dance performance, we came back to the hotel and had a wonderful and much needed rest from jet-lag. To know our exploration of Angkor, the city of gods, will continue, but for that, you have to wait for the 2nd part of my blog next week.
Please let me know your comments, critiques, suggestions and questions regarding this travelogue in the comment section below so that I can improve it.
Thanks to all of you for being part of this journey and encouraging me to write this travelogue. If you have missed earlier, check all the 8 parts with links below.
- In Search of Lost Gods – Cambodia Part 2
- In Search of Lost Gods – Cambodia Part 3
- In Search of Lost Gods – Cambodia Part 4
- In Search of Lost Gods – Cambodia Part 5
- In Search of Lost Gods – Cambodia Part 6
- In Search of Lost Gods – Cambodia Part 7
- In Search of Lost Gods – Cambodia Part 8