Wat Bo and Pre Rup. Ancient Beauty and Local Culture
As I reluctantly say goodbye to Saigon and Vietnam, I am excited to be seeing Cambodia. The Angkor Wat temple has been on my bucket list for too long and it’s time to make this dream come true. Having heard of the many stories of corruption at Cambodia’s immigration, I am somewhat nervous. But, with just a minor hiccup, which was resolved without too much ado, I was finally out in the warm, sunlit, heritage city- Siem Reap, Cambodia.
I check in at the Angkor Holiday Hotel in the heart of Siem Reap. Apparently, this tourist destination has 18 five-star hotels and 655 others to accommodate the 4.2 million visitors each year. Wow!
Eager to get started, I’m off with my tour guide Mr. Neak, and my travel companion, to see one of Cambodia’s oldest pagodas, the 400-year old Wat Bo.
The Wat Bo temple ground is quiet and devoid of people. A couple of yellow-robed monks sweep the grounds. Another chats to someone on his mobile phone. We have the entire place to ourselves. The late morning sun has a special effect on the collection of yellow and orange hued pagodas that make up almost the entire temple grounds. I walk past double lines of Buddha statues that are supposed to be the largest collection to be found here.
Cambodian temples have a distinct Khmer architectural design and since the 13th century, Theravada Buddhism has been Cambodia’s state religion (except during the Khmer Rouge period).
This temple is also famed for its 19th century collection of Reamker paintings, Cambodia’s interpretation of the Ramayana. This is a love story between Rama and Sita which has about 300 versions spread across Asia including India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam and China. In fact, many Cambodian royal families claim to be descendants of Rama.
After strolling through this picturesque temple grounds, I am off to ‘kill’ some time at the local market until sunset.
The market is divided into two sections: the old and new. The old market is located next to Pub Street, the hippest, and most happening place in Siem Reap. Both of them are a maze of shops that sell anything and everything. From local handicrafts and souvenirs to spices, silverware, (which are utterly beautiful), paintings, clothes, food, and even live birds! Bargaining is a must and Cambodians are very friendly and thus, the experience ends with lots of laughter and amity.
It’s time for the best part of the day…sunset at the Pre Rup temple. Built in the 10th century (961) by King Rajendraman II and dedicated to Hindu god Siva, this mountain temple is made of brick, laterite and sandstone. Pre Rup means ‘turn the body’ which suggests the Cambodian belief that while funerals are conducted at the temple, the ashes are ritually rotated in different directions during the service. This also suggests that the temple may have served as an early royal crematorium.
The temple is shaped like a pyramid with the top three tiers carrying five lotus towers. On the left and right sides of the east entry tower of the second enclosure there are libraries with high towers. They sheltered carved stones with motifs of the nine planets and the seven ascetics. In the centre there is a vat between two rows of sandstone pillars.
I clamber up to the very top and prepare to watch the sunset. As the minutes tick on, the crowds gather and occupy every available spot. Slowly, the sky begins to change colour and throws its light on the surrounding rice fields. The entire sky is a canvas of colour and a silence descends upon us as we gaze in awe as silhouettes dance the last dance of this evening.
It’s been a long day, and the best is yet to come….