From Battambang, a western town that is situated not far from the border with Thailand, I planned on leaving for Siam Reap, the cultural heart of Cambodia, early in the morning partly in order to avoid traffic, but also to get a head start in my explorations there. There were security concerns with travelling early, since there had been several instances of midnight robberies on the highway, violations of the law greatly facilitated by the absence of any proper lighting on the route.
While there had been great advancement in road-building across Cambodia, the same could not be said about the lighting on the highways or even the streets in many parts of towns and cities. It was as if some crazed town planner, incapable of multi-tasking, intended to make his improvements bit by bit. First, we will focus on roads this imaginary bureaucrat instructed his subordinates, and then we will take care of the lighting, and then move on to sidewalks and so on and forth.
When I spoke to my friend Fernando D’cruz, who lived in Battambang, about the hazards of driving around at night, his Jordanian wife Tamara broke in to check my time of intended departure, and then assert that I needn’t worry. While she accepted I would be traveling in the dead of night, a couple of hours before dawn broke – between three and five in the morning – the road from Battamgong to Siam Reap, she claimed, would be well lit at the time.
‘You’ll understand what I mean,’ she laughed. ‘Midnight is not safe, but three in the morning – that’s very safe. The insects will protect you.’
I was mystified, but she kept an amused smile on her face, and wouldn’t explain further, except to say: ‘You’ll see!’ Were there superhuman insects – and was there an Insect Man depicted in a Hollywood film – that protected tourists and ordinary travellers from robbers?
It was three thirty in the morning by the time I left the King Fy, my hotel with the unusual sounding name. It was pitch dark outside but as my taxi left the main town and entered the highway, I started to understand what Tamara had meant, and laugh. The main road was, in fact, extremely well lit, but this was not accomplished through electricity but by means of an alternative energy source.
I witnessed the amazing sight of farmers lighting fires to catch insects that would then be sold in the market to be cooked, spiced up, and eaten! Farmers from the countryside carried burning sticks which they held over buckets full of water. The light from the sticks reflected onto the water and the insects, which came out only at that time of the day between three and five in the morning, were instantly drawn to the light like the proverbial moth to the flame, and raced towards the bucket to a watery grave. Those fires lit up the otherwise dark roads in the morning, providing a substitute to street lighting.
* * *
Along the way, Savan, the taxi driver and I fell into conversation. A broad-shouldered, energetic man in his late fifties, he spoke reasonable English, a bonus for me.
Since the previous evening, when I’d first heard about restaurants where they served liquor and dog meat, as an accompaniment, the way we have kebabs in India, I had been wondering about whether Cambodia had dog farms where the animals were bred, like pigs, for human consumption. So I asked the taxi driver if this was the case.
‘Cambodians never used to eat dog,’ said Savan, distaste evident in his tone. ‘Personally, I love dogs. I even have a dog in the house.’ He snorted in disgust. ‘It’s only the drunks who go to these ‘special houses' where they are served dog meat.’
‘So when and why did Cambodians start to eat dog,’ I asked, ‘if you didn’t eat it earlier?’
‘It was the Vietnamese that brought it over,’ he said. ‘After the fall of the Pol Pot regime, when the Vietnamese came in and took charge, they asked locals to prepare dog meat for them and slowly, slowly the taste and the eating habit got transmitted to our people.’
‘What about those insects?’ I pointed to the farmers with their burning sticks.
‘As far as eating crickets are concerned,’ he said, ‘it all happened before the Vietnamese came, but it started only during the Pol Pot regime. Once there was a famine in the country and at the time he encouraged people to eat everything, including insects.’ I could see from the expression on his face that he was recalling the terrible time. It’s well known that Pol Pot was inspired by Mao in many ways, including the Chinese dictator’s so-called Cultural Revolution. Mao once instructed the farmers to kill all the birds because they feasted on crops; this was told to me by a Chinese flatmate during my university days in the UK. Some would argue that Pol Pot pursued a superior strategy for combating hunger but this was not the case for the Chinese were eating insects anyway!
We sped along the highway deserted except for the farmers lining the road on both sides. I imagined I was a medieval Raja riding on his chariot, and the common people had come out to greet him!
‘Earlier, we never had these “cricket traps,”’ said Savan. ‘Nowadays it is regarded as a delicacy.’
‘Is there good profit to be made?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘The crickets sell for 2000 reals a kilo and a poor farmer can manage up to 3 kg in one night, so that’s 6000 reals. Good money!’
The best time to operationalize the cricket traps was a few hours before dawn, as that’s when the insects came out. The robberies could only take place before the cricket hunting began. I couldn’t help but be amused at the thought that the robbers must not like the insects for their thieving hours had been restricted as a consequence.
‘A least we have natural street lighting at this time,’ I remarked, ‘to ward off robbers.’
He nodded in agreement, and went on to tell me how a friend had told him about how in Thailand – the border was just two hours away – the highways were extremely well lighted.
Savan was envious of Thai prosperity relative to his own country, but didn’t seem to like Thais very much. Historically their relationship had not been untroubled. While in Phnom Penh I had picked up a book titled, ‘When the Glass Floats’ which spoke of how the Thais had not been particularly helpful to refugees fleeing Pol Pot and his thugs during the time of the Khmer Rouge. A reference within the book referred to a Washington post article that spoke of an unsubstantiated rumour doing the rounds that Cambodian refugees were ordered by Thais to jump off a cliff!
A short distance before Siam Reap, the farmers left us, but the resort town’s street lights now emerged, and what’s more they were working. Although it was still early in the morning, compared to Phnom Penh, the capital, the town seemed far less chaotic and better organised. I suppose that the temple city brought in so much tourism and revenue that it needed to be better managed. Much of the tour management had been entrusted to a Vietnamese company.
‘We worry about the Vietnamese,’ said Savan, as we turned a corner towards the centre of town. ‘They have entered into a profit sharing arrangement with our government to manage tourism here.’
His annoyance was understandable; it was something one would expect the country to do itself. Imagine India outsourcing the tourist management of Ajanta and Ellora to another country.
‘Yes,’ he continued, ‘it cost them millions for the exclusive license but they are making huge profits now.’
Given their past history the Cambodians had good reason to be apprehensive of their neighbour. Both countries have been members of ASEAN for many decades (an opportunity that India missed out on). With the establishment of an ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 much like the European Union, a free movement of goods, services and labour will take place. Cambodians worry about their own competitiveness in the labour market and are concerned that the foreign companies will bring in trained professionals from overseas. In this regard they are particularly worried about Vietnam which has a superior educational system.
‘What about Thai’s? Do you worry about them too?’
‘With Thai’s we are not worried,’ smiled Savan. ‘You know, some time ago they raised a land dispute over a temple. Bah!’ He grimaced. ‘They could not do anything. The international community and the International Court of Justice made sure that they will not grab our land and heritage. We were very confident from the beginning.’
The Thai-Cambodia dispute over ownership of the Indian sounding ‘Temple of Preah Vihar,’ had been referred to the International Court of Justice some years previously. The ICJ had eventually ruled in favour of Cambodia. It was not a verdict entirely unfavourable to the Thais though for it ruled that the land beyond the peninsula over which the temple is built belonged to Thailand.
‘The Thais are very jealous of us,’ continued Savan, ‘because we have something that they do not have.’
‘And what is that?’
‘They only have beaches and prostitutes,’ said Savan, the hint of a sneer in his tone. ‘Maybe they have more beautiful ladies who sell sex to the foreigner. Our girls may not be so beautiful, but they are more natural.’
I wasn’t sure if by ‘natural’ he meant that they didn’t have cosmetic surgery done to their faces or bodies or by ‘natural’ he simply meant they were put on less make up and were less active in the sex industry.
He clarified that he had used the expression in both senses of the term.
* * *
In accordance with my early morning impressions of Siam Reap, after checking into the hotel and coming out to explore the city I found the Pub Street and the nearby Old Market to be well organised and by and large a neat and clean affair. Chinese, Japanese and Korean tourists were visible in great numbers. Bizarrely, inside a massage parlour that I ventured into, I found three fat, butt-naked Chinese getting creams smeared all over their bodies. Did they not have any sense of privacy?
I noticed some older white Western men who had paired off with Cambodian girls but relative to Thailand such couples were fewer in number. It was debatable though whether this was due to greater ‘purity’ on the part of Cambodian women or due to the greater attractiveness of Thai girls. It could also be that because Pub Street and the old market adjoined a great city of temples, and the spiritual presence nearby formed some kind of a natural check against in-your-face sexual service advertising. It did exist though in a muted form although to be fair the two girls who accosted me directly looked like Thai girls past their prime who had decided to look for business elsewhere, outside their own country’s more competitive environment.
In Siam Reap’s markets I discovered upmarket restaurants that held Apsara shows. Apsara is a Sanskrit word meaning goddess and indeed there were many carvings of apsaras inside the temples that I would later visit. Despite the subsequent Buddhist ascendancy such names and dances of Indian Hindu cultural remnants continue till this day.
Cambodians are so proud of their Angkor Vat heritage in which Hindu temples coexist with Buddhist temples in this ancient city of temples that for ordinary people the line between Hinduism and Buddhism is somewhat blurred. In nearby Thailand as well those lines are not so sharp; even at the Central World in Bangkok you see a temple of Ganpati next to one of Trimurti with dozens of ordinary Thai’s paying sincere obeisance and worshipping In India too there is a perception overlap, for Hindus do not see Buddhism to be a completely separate and distinct religion. It is only when you travel further east to say Japan that Buddhism assumes a more distinctive identity.
* * *
A tour guide told me that it would take me several days to see the Angkor Vat ruins properly. This was because there was not just the one Angkor Vat that I had wrongly assumed, but multiple Angkor Vats. The thought came to mind of how in more recent times there were similarly a dozen or more prominent Killing Fields although the complete number of documented Killing Fields crossed six hundred (although, when does genocide become less significant?).
I do not consider myself a religious person. At the same time as you approach Angkor Vat you cannot but help wonder how here in the same beautiful land, where you have a multiplicity of Killing Fields, you also have Angkor Vat 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on and forth.
Was T S Eliot right when he suggested that civilisation is moving backwards? On the one hand there was a Cambodian glorious past where people aspired to the higher levels of human consciousness when they were building these magnificent temples creating such exquisite temple art, but centuries later, in more modern times instead of progress, you had Cambodians who were busy massacring their fellow countrymen – by some estimates a third of the entire population – in a communist cause that was idealistic only in name.
As I came away from the Killing Fields I had seen in Phnom Penh and even Battambang a two hour drive from Siam Reap, I had been forced to ask myself this question: Even if one accepts that capitalistic economies created colonialism, and incredible suffering in the world as a result of greed and plunder, did not the communists, by their actions create not the higher good to which they allegedly aspired but rather an equivalent or even greater evil?
There is so much of Angkor Vat to see on the edge of Siam Reap that it would take weeks if you were to do it without haste. Of the multiple Angkor Vats I just managed to see Angkor Tomb (also called Bayon) and Angkor Vat 1.
Ticketing was professionally organised. I paid 20 dollars for a one day pass. For a one week pass it would have cost me 60 dollars. The official at the ticket counter asked me to look at a camera as they do at immigration and then printed out a ticket with my mug shot in the corner. This was just to make sure that I did not loan my ticket to someone else for part of the day or week when I myself was not visiting. On its surface the ticket stated it was not transferable – much like an airline ticket.
What struck me once again was the sheer number of Asian tourists, principally from China but also from Korea and Japan. Unlike Pub Street where the Western tourist and backpacker predominated, here during the course of the days’ tour at least Asian tourists clearly outnumbered their Western counterparts. As I wandered down the corridors of the temples I overheard guides providing explanations to tourists in several different languages: Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English. One interpreter spoke in Spanish to a group of South American tourists, and another who provided an exclusive tour to a solitary, elderly German in the visitor’s native tongue.
There were statues of Buddha that stood alongside those of Vishnu. Sometimes the new religion rails fiercely and violently against the older one, but the co-existence of these statutes suggested to me that while Buddhism had clearly supplanted Hinduism in this land, it was accomplished with a measure of grace. In the 8th century Buddha was considered in many places to be an avatar of Vishnu. The face was exactly the same. Did this suggest that divinity looks the same no matter who the God? At least this is how it must have seemed to the sculptor. The only way you could distinguish a statue of Buddha from the one of Vishnu was through the eyes. Vishnu, unlike Buddha, had three eyes, one in the middle of the forehead, the famous ‘teesri ankh’.
There were also impressive sculptures of Garuda and Naga. In local mythology, the two were said to often fight with each other.
Angkor Vat was impressive in terms of the sheer scale of things as well as in the level of detail found in carvings and statues of different sizes. By way of comparison, The Forbidden City which I had visited a couple of years previously in Beijing seemed miniature. Sometimes terminology can be deceptive and give people a false impression. In terms of size and hypothetical population given the dimensions, The Forbidden City is not really a city; it would not qualify even as a town, just a village and that too not a very large one.
The reason perhaps why The Forbidden City is termed a city is because in those days cities were smaller and also because it has within its compound a couple of palaces and residential quarters for others. On the other hand Angkor Vat though much much larger in scale is really all about temples; the term does literally translate into the City of Temples. There are other Asian cities that have received a similar nomenclature such as Kathmandu in Nepal and Bhubaneswar in India, but Angkor Vat, with its concentric walls, moats and temples surpasses anything to be found there and has a place and prominence all of its own raising questions in my mind about its omission from the list of seven ancient wonders of the world.
Inside some temples, unlike the well preserved Buddha and Vishnu statues standing side by side, I found dozens of statues with their heads chopped off. Perhaps they had just fallen. I couldn’t help thinking it was unlikely for statue heads to fall off after prolonged exposure to the elements, so was this some act of vandalism committed by the Khmer Rouge or someone else? Pol Pot had been responsible for the desecration of thousands of temples. Would he have spared Angkor Vat? But then why would have been selective with the beheading of some statues and not others?
I moved away from such musings to examine the untouched statutes of apsaras, and other lesser mortals. Wall carvings sculpted onto the walls gave out portraits of everyday life in those ancient times. A few showed the multi-ethnic processions of ordinary people, in which you could spot the Cambodian, distinguished by other nationalities by virtue of his large ear lobe. In one such portrait I found a Chinese man that stood at the end. The two civilisations were friends at the time, even as Cambodia derived its spiritual heritage from India, its neighbour on the other side.
Many visitors have been overwhelmed by the scale and grandeur of the place. Former American President Bill Clinton who visited some years previously expressed astonishment on the scale of the affair lauding the prowess of the ancient Cambodians as one of the world’s great builders.
* * *
I came back to my hotel in the evening, with my head buzzing with thoughts. If Angkor Vat was thus, what about India itself, the spiritual source of much that was on display. I had seen visible pride displayed on the faces of the Indian tourists that I had encountered. Without a word being exchanged I knew exactly what they were thinking and feeling. There are books written about the greatness and glory of Ancient India, but without reading any such history you need only to pay a visit to this City of Temples in Cambodia to understand the wonder that was India.
The modern world has seen the success of monotheistic religions, such as Christianity and Islam. The relative absence of remnants of so-called ‘pagan’ architecture in Europe and Northern Africa, is a pointer to the intolerance of this rising religions of the time, for man has been a believer in God for thousands of years before the arrival of Christianity and Islam, two of the great religions of our time. Europe would have been full of sculptures and monuments to the Gods that predated the singular Christian God, which were however taken down – perhaps unceremoniously? Christian fundamentalists and fanatics existed in the past, as Obama pointed out recently, and they would have taken down and razed many ‘pagan’ temples to the ground without regard to the heritage of the past, just as in more recent time the Taliban desecrated and destroyed the great Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan.
Like all great religions Hinduism too has its strengths as well as it weaknesses. India has been famous for its tolerance, despite the evil of caste that cuts across the religious divide, and recent public debates on the issue. One of the plausible explanations given for this is that it is a country of many Gods. Different regions of the country give different Gods more or less prominence but each region respects the others. No exclusivity is claimed, in the manner of other monotheistic religions. When the believers in Jesus, Prophet Mohammad or Zoroaster came, the people of the land were happy to allow them religious space and freedom.
Just like Europe today is bereft of its historical heritage, so too has India lost much of its ancient religious architecture. This is without in any manner casting any aspersions on the lack of tolerance of earlier Christian or Muslim communities, who may have, in earlier centuries, brought down much of the religious landscape in a physical sense in many parts of the world. The past is the past, and to paraphrase the title of one of VS Naipaul’s famous books ‘the world is what it is’.
Angkor Vat however still stands tall and wide, grander and more inspiring than much else built in more modern times, and serves to remind all Indians of our great Indian heritage, in many respects unique in the world today.