Day 1 among the temples and I keep remembering a delightful phrase I had come across long ago. Vuja de . Looking at the familiar with new eyes.
I have seen all this before. Apsaras (celestial dancers) dancing to the imagined beat of drums. Asuras (demons) and devas (gods) churning the ocean of milk for nectar. Garuda and Vishnu and Brahma. Hinduism and Buddhism. Men and women lighting incense sticks in front of idols. After a while, the guide’s stories from the “Ramayaaaana” fade away. I watch instead. Monks in bright yellow and orange robes walk about with disposable cameras, taking photographs of each other against the murals. And the children.
Tourists at the temple complex include monks. Charukesi Ramadurai
Khmer kids, pesky, persistent, adorable, running behind you, selling everything under the sun for one dollah! Only one dollah, this-T-shirt-very-nice-made-in-Cambodia-madam, they intone, the pitch rising to a crescendo by the time they get to “madaaaam”. Where are you from? asks one particularly bold imp. I tell her and she points to my bare forehead and asks, “Where is your bindi?” “Bindi, bindi, bindi”, the chorus follows us as we walk away to the waiting cab.
And why not? The visitors seem to be amused by it, even like it. And it is not only Cambodia’s one-dollah kids who are doing what their guests like; the adults aren’t very different. The Khmers seem to be experiencing their own vuja de. After decades of the Khmer Rouge oppression that ravaged the country and kept away the tourists, the world has rediscovered Angkor. And so, the Khmers have decided to see their own country and culture with new eyes, those of the outsider.
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Except, at Siem Reap, I also get the sense of locals cocking a snook at the world, enjoying a private joke at the expense of the thousands who drop in to stare at the temples in silent awe. Look at the earthly celestial maidens, if you don’t believe me.
When I first catch sight of them, the apsaras are resting on the cold stones of Angkor Wat. One is flexing her foot, mimicking the action of the stone apsara dancing just behind her on the wall. The others are talking to each other in muted tones, with bored expressions. The American tourist, khaki shorts and all, walks up to them and points with his camera, and they spring into action instantly. As a group, they strike well-rehearsed poses, peacocks flanking the line-up, the boy with the lion’s head in between.
When his turn comes, dancing apsaras strike their stances on either side of the utterly discomfited tourist. As they pose for the camera for $1, I notice the boredom doesn’t shift from their faces. Shot over, they get back to rest mode without so much as a smile at their benefactor.
The Ta Phrom temple was made famous by Hollywood. Charukesi Ramadurai
That also explains why, in a town that has at least 100 temples, the guidebooks and guides gush only about the most magnificent of them all, Angkor Wat. The average traveller heads to Siem Reap primarily to see that, or more precisely, the spectacle of the sun rising from behind the temple, which uniquely faces west. Just before dawn, when we make our way through complete darkness with slow, hesitant steps to the pond in front of the west tower, a few hundred people have already assembled there.
If Angkor Wat—built on the Hindu concept of the world, with the tall tower in the middle representing Mount Meru, the residence of the Hindu pantheon and the centre of the universe, according to my guide—is the biggest tourist magnet, the most fascinating is easily the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom, established by King Jayavarman VII as his capital city soon after he ascended the throne in the late 12th century. Bayon has 216 faces of the king as Bodhisattva etched on the outer sides of its 54 towers. Like the Mona Lisa, a faint hint of a smile lingers on each of the faces, and the beatific eyes seem to follow your progress through the massive complex—is it mockery or pity one sees in those orbs?
The French novelist-explorer Pierre Loti seems to have grappled with the same issue when he wrote of Bayon in Un pelerin d’Angkor (A Pilgrim of Angkor) in 1901: “I raise my eyes to look at the towers which overhang me, drowned in verdure, and I shudder suddenly with an indefinable fear as I perceive, falling upon me from above, a huge, fixed smile; and then another smile again, beyond, on another stretch of wall... and then three, and then five and then ten”. Now, a century later, the greenery has vanished, but catch a sudden glimpse of the frozen smile and a chill runs down your spine.
Not all the temples of Siem Reap are massive and awe-inspiring. My favourite, Bantaey Srei, is small and exquisite; delicate would be a better way of describing this “citadel of women” (the literal translation). The pink stone and the intricacy of some of the carvings convince scholars that the temple was actually built by women.
And then, Ta Phrom, in the middle of thick vegetation, dedicated to one woman (King Jayavarman VII’s mother) and made famous across the world by another: Angelina Jolie shot for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in this temple and, for most visitors, that fact is as dazzling as the sight of the giant roots of the tree which have held the temple structure in a vice-like grip for centuries.
Indeed, “Angelina Jolie was here” seems to be a bit of a theme song in Siem Reap. We follow her path later that night to The Red Piano, weary after a hot day among the ruins. This popular pub is at one end of Pub Street, overflowing with trendy bars and restaurants serving international cuisine. As we walk down the narrow lane, music from the cafés spilling out on to the road, the enigmatic smile of the Bodhisattva Buddha at Bayon lingers in the air, as if from a half-forgotten dream.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
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