Rarely does a place ‘abroad’ gives you absolute freedom with a sense of familiarity, Siem-reap was something like that. This destination is in the list of every travel photographer given its grandiloquent temples and serene countryside and so obviously, it was on my list as well. Due to last minute changes in the plan; it turned out to be an absolute solo backpacking trip. With the fear of unknowns, I planned it carefully but I always knew it is an absolutely safe place to travel alone. I found a stark similarity to India while travelling in Cambodia, maybe it was the temples or the people. It’s an extremely commercial place, and at times you would find more Europeans than Cambodians on the street. And I was puzzled why there were no Indians at all? May be July is not the best season to visit Cambodia as per the travel experts, but for me it was perfect. You get to see those colorful umbrellas around to break the monotony of green and there were dry days in between to give me a different flavor of Cambodia (which was sweaty of course).
The first few things to do in Cambodia were to see the local bazars and get familiar with people and their local food and culture. The bizarre smell of fish and meat products can lead you to old market and it is as colorful as you can imagine. I tried food on sticks to get my pallet familiar to local food. It was initially irritating to get interrupted by Tuk-Tuk drivers every two minutes for a ride or the shouts of “$1 $1 Lady” from shop keepers, but that’s how it is. Soon I was roaming around in my loose cotton pants, Angkor tees, bamboo hat and could hardly be differentiated from locals due to my similar round nose.It was embarrassing to be mistaken as a local when you are a tourist, but I had my share of fun. And when I got tired of walking, I got an instant foot massage while sipping Angkor beer. This was my kind of place where you get good food, cheap beer and luxury for a very little amount. Laziness is in the air of Cambodia and hammocks are the symbols of laziness hanging everywhere: in the shops, in front of houses or in the midst of jungles; I bought one for myself which is yet to be used though. As the sun goes down and the pub streets get alive, you experience an amazing pub culture .I set myself ready to have a Khmer meal while watching the Apsara dance show in Temple pub.
It is hard to believe that something so horrific had happened to Cambodia and the people are still trying to recover from the genocide and the pains caused by it. Almost 2 million people were killed and the artists and intellectuals and the arts and dance suffered the most. When the Khmer Rouge seized control of the country in 1975, the dancing had to stop. Khmer classical dance suffered a huge blow during the Khmer Rouge regime when many dancers were killed because classical dance was thought of as an aristocratic institution. I felt privileged to see this ancient dance form and also the hotel manager was kind enough to let me talk to the dancers prior to the show. It was great to see that the young girls are into Apsara dancing again and can enjoy in free-spirited way and also make a living on their own.
And then my remaining days were divided between temple visits and country side of Siem-reap. And there were one after another beautiful things to see as I explored more. I was surprised to see how easily young boys jump into the brown water bodies to catch fish which is the meal for their families. The picturesque houses of Kamplong, standing on four wooden pillars and were painted blue, green, purple and what not! As I went further, to add more surprise to my eyes I saw floating houses and schools which reflect the poverty which prevailed in the nation. People of Cambodia are extremely religious and their lives revolve around the strong beliefs and society rules. Parents give up their child to become a monk for a few years at least as it brings them good name in society and also ensures good upbringing for their child. Certainly to live a life of monk is not easy but sometimes such circumstances when families do not have enough food or education to provide, it can lead to one choosing this path.
Buddhism is the major religion in Cambodia with almost 90% people following and you would besurprised to see the young monks everywhere. At first glance, the life of a Cambodian Buddhist monk does not differ much from the life of an ordinary person. They sleep, eat, shower, talk, and laugh just like anyone else. But the orange robes signify that they have dedicated their lives to meditation. But indeed you would appreciate their practices if you find a day to sit with them and have a real conversation. I was lucky to have a lunch in the Pagoda where groups of monks were eating their lunch after the prayer.There were female monks as well, who were mostly widows; helping in cooking and cleaning and a few of them could speak good English to explain the rituals and food. Needless to say, my encounter with monks completely changed my view of the mystique surrounding the monks and I appreciate the Buddha and his teachings even more.
A trip to Siem-Reap rejuvenates you; I am not surprised that it is one of the most popular destinations among the backpackers of the world.