Synchronicity in Siem Reap

IMG_5513 The International Departures gate at Chennai Airport remains as baffling as it was back in March – with its state of the art glitzy front but the same old grotty route to the departure gates. Au revoir for now to Madchenn. I reckon I’ll be spending a lot of limbo time in many a departure lounge, now that our travels have resumed in full force. The one in Kuala Lumpur where we stopped for a few hours was the usual overload of shiny shops that have come to symbolise modern living – brash and bright – they seem to demand that the ordinary traveller take note that life is a lot more expensive than we think. Avoiding the Harrod’s tea-room (which I’m not sure is real or fake) we decided to queue up at the Old Town White Coffee for an early morning breakfast of soft-boiled egg on brown toast with honey lemon tea. Sofas most comfortable inside. Landing in Siem Reap after a couple of hours, it felt as if we’d been flown into a huge chalet in the Alps – this was the airport in the ancient Khmer capital. No sterile chrome and steel, but warm tiled roofs that felt most welcoming. This is where the feeling of being in complete sync in a strange place started. Our guide waving the placard bearing our full names (spelt accurately) came to us with hands folded in traditional Namaste – something I’ve become used to on a daily basis from good morning, hello and thank you wherever we go. Why do we exchange sweaty palm shakes when there is such a graceful alternative? IMG_5523 In Khmer cooking, the green curry is made with real coconut and not canned milk – the food is fresh and mildly spiced and presented beautifully – inside a coconut for example or in a bamboo box lined with banana leaf…as for the fruit, if ever I get stuck in a desert island, may it be a Cambodian one with bright pink dragon fruit, mangoes, sapotas, pomelo, papaya and water melon. I’m happy to leave the smelly jack-fruit to those who appreciate it. We walked on the bridge over the traditional moat into Angkor Thom the first day – this was the last city built by the Khmer ruler Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. The bridge itself is a piece of drama – on either side the long balustrades are shaped like tapering serpents with their giant hoods at the front. Resting on them on the left are heads of demons – the asuras – grumpy and heavily jowled, representing evil. On the right are the devas – serene faces inspired by the Buddha representing good. IMG_5556 Every pagoda or gopuram inside the temple compound has a four-headed Buddha looking in all four directions, to represent love, compassion, sympathy and equanimity. It could also be Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation as this must’ve been a period of transition from Hinduism back to Buddhism in the Khmer empire. Inside, there’s evidence of a missing Shiva Linga and a Buddha replaced in its place. Visitors light incense and pray to the many idols of the Buddha that are there inside. IMG_5794 Presiding over the cremation terrace outside is the God of Death, Yama, also known as the Leper King – as his statue has patchy spots and praying to him helped cure leprosy in olden times. The sunset on the moat back on the bridge has been well documented and can be confirmed to be as breath-taking as they appear. IMG_5796 The uppermost feeling was that this was a most surreal experience – the moss laden stones, the temple structures – almost but not quite the same as we know it, the tumbled stones of the ruins that are still being restored and the alien language (Khmer is closer to Chinese sounds) all made it seem as if I was within a long dream choreographed by Dali, written by E M Forster (Passage to India)….and there was more to come.

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