When An Ancient Temple Becomes a National Symbol

“Angkor” is the word you will hear and see all around Cambodia. From the national flag to popular beer, influence of the Angkor Wat temple found its place everywhere in the country. Restaurants. hotels, consumer goods brands, travel agencies, roadside stores etc., all feel recognized when they associate themselves this national symbol. How an ancient temple became such an iconic figure? It was a good project to undertake while exploring the country.

I had around two weeks to travel through the country. “How could I know Cambodia and its history?” This was the question in mind when I crossed the Vietnam- Cambodia border to get to Sihanoukville, a coastal town in Cambodia. A travel route from south to north along the river Mekong was the most optimal path to be familiar with some of the major population centers, touristic spots and historic places.

Koh Rong island was the first stop to soak in the Cambodian way of life and chill before the hectic travels ahead. When I got off the speed boat, my first impression was that it’s  a backpackers’ crash landing zone. More I walked away from the village center,  more I was charmed by the island’s sedating feeling. I started my project right away: ordered an Angkor beer, which is the most widely consumed beer in the country.  There wasn’t any special taste, but there is a special feeling when Cambodians drink the locally brewed beer. Hike, swim, eat, party and just lose yourself in the lulling effect of the island.

The project to learn about Cambodia got serious as I moved further north to the capital city of Phnom Penh. Once a hub for Khmer Empire and known as the “Pearl of Asia,” it was considered one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina. Word “Angkor” and the images of Angkor Wat temple were displaying in every corner of the city. The city also has many imitations of the original temple. There are dance clubs and bars flaunt the name and images of the temple. The modern city has taken brand “Angkor” to a new level of glory in every aspect of life. However, a sad history is buried underneath the shiny and noisy streets of today Phnom Penh. Just an hour from the city, the Killing Fields tell about the dark period of the country (the Killing Fields topic will be covered in a separate post). Whatever the city has gone through, it has beautifully come back to vibrancy. The national flag with Angkor Wat depiction on it was high and waving with pride.

I woke up with the peaceful sunrise and chants in Battambang after an overnight bus ride. Nobody was in rush in this city, neither was I. The old town is transforming itself into a cultural and art hub of Cambodia. Angkorian architecture and its influence can be seen everywhere, even on Tuk Tuks that display Angkor Wat sketches and portrayals to attract more tourists. Whether you are in rush or not, ride the famous Bamboo Train of Battambang.

After seeing representation of Angkor Wat and its glory all around the country, it was time to see the real thing and its home. The bus ride into Siem Reap was like walking along the alleys of deep rooted history and culture. Siem Reap is trying to maintain a subtle balance between the old and new: new-age cafes next to traditional old temples are not uncommon. Angkor Wat tour advertisements were common. Tuk Tuk drivers were selling the Angkor Wat temple complex tour all over the city. I opted the best way to explore the complex: rent a motorbike. The complex is so huge that many people take 2-3 days to see everything. Before I got immersed in the beauty and history of the temples, I was intrigued by fact that the Angkor Wat temple complex contributes significantly to the Cambodian GDP coming from tourism industry. One day pass cost $37, and approx. 25 million visitors showed up in 2017. Why Angkor Wat would not be a national pride when it gives back to the country more than it takes.

When the sun rose behind this iconic temple, its beauty amplified. My eyes and my camera were ready to capture this magical moment. The camera did not stop here. The 12th-century Bayon temple in the middle of the Angkor Thom complex is a perfect display of architecture genius of the time. My brain was overloaded and my camera’s memory was full after spending almost two days with temples, ruins and monuments. The question changed to “How Cambodia would look like today without Angkor Wat?” when I was in a bus to cross the Cambodia-Laos border.

 

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