The sunrise at Angkor Wat – mystical, magical or just man-made hype?

Every tourist brochure shouts loudly not to miss the sunrise at the world’s largest temple complex of Angkor Wat. There are thousands of pages on the internet describing how people watched the sun rising behind the triple towers of Angkor Wat. Not to regret later, we decided to make it to the sun-rise experience – whether it’s mystical, magical or just man-made hype.

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We got up at 4.30 am, well before the roosters start their wake up calls and while the dawn moon was still above. Brushed, dressed and jumped on to the Tuk-Tuk (we had arranged the previous day) and off we went thinking we will be one of the early ones to see the magic. Mistake: there was literally a Tuk-Tuk race on the road ferrying tourists to watch the sunrise! The 30 minute ride on a cool… rather chilly morning was enough to rev up our senses from the morning blues. Reached the place only to find there were already hordes of tourists having occupied prime spots.

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The place is picture postcard…. The temple towers standing majestically with their faint reflection on the still waters of the pond in front with a splatter of Lotuses and water Lilies. The misty, foggy atmosphere and the gibberish whispers of the waiting spectators added a surrealistic aura around the place. 

I nudged myself into the crowd and positioned in a corner of the banks of the pond…. and waited patiently for THAT moment.

As the dawn was cracking up slowly, cameras and smart phones of all sizes and shapes started snapping endlessly, capturing each slight change in the skyline. Then the magic started unfolding; streaks of light in a stunning mix of glowing orange and rustic gold peeked out from behind the towers, beautifully and artistically disrupted by the intricate grooves of the temple sculptures. A stunning reflection of Angkor Wat was slowly spreading out on the still waters of the pond.  With the water lilies and lotuses spouting between the reflections, it looked like a classic painting. As the sun slowly peaked above the Wat, the veins of light grew bigger bathing the colossal monument in golden glory and the beauty and power of the Khmers’ masterpiece erupted in full splendor. I stood speechless watching the magical spectacle! Moments later the climax was over and the crowds dispersed… some heading back and some heading to the Wat to start their day’s itinerary.

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Is the experience worth all the trouble…. ditching your early morning deep sleep, braving the chill wind, jostling with an over-enthusiastic crowd etc…?

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I think it is an experience worth its every moment.  An hour of mystic, magic and dramatic light and shadow play over one of the most elaborate and stunning tributes to the Gods. Probably the Sun is thanking the Khmer kings and blessing the Angkorians with this cosmic show every day.  Do not miss it.dsc_9635a

It’s the living, who scare me

Most of us would have seen churches and been inside at least a few them. There are churches plain and simple in far-flung towns and villages, there are churches known for their splendid architecture and ornate decors, and there are churches known for their world’s most precious artefacts. But ever heard or seen a church decorated with… a mind-boggling 40000 odd bones and skulls?

DSC_1045aWhile looking for off-the-track places for a day trip from Prague during our recent visit, we came across the strangely titled “Bone Church” in a town called Kutna Hora. Our Lonely Planet’s Prague guide had a page on it and a simple Google search also threw in several links. So off we went to explore.

An hour’s train journey from Prague central train station, Kutna Hora is small, sleepy, laid back, typical East European town, with its own history and landmarks behind. And most important of them is the “Bone Church” or the Sedlec Ossuary as it is known locally.

The church is barely 300 meters from the unmanned Kutna Hora – Sedlec station, past St John’s church- a signpost directs visitors. The streets are practically empty with an occasional car passing by or a human being in sight. The “Bone Church” is in the middle of a cemetery and is fairly small. As we entered the gates of the cemetery, we could see a few people (like us) wanting to explore the unique church.

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At the entrance is a reception desk with a lady issuing tickets with a customary smile. Our curiosity began right at the reception area where the walls and the roof were adorned with … skulls and bones ….in all sorts of creative designs. A flight of steps led us to the basement were two chambers on the left and right with heaps of skulls compiled into pyramid shape welcomed us! We walked further down to the main hall or chamber and you are surrounded by even more bones and skulls arranged creatively in to lamp poles, bells, chandeliers and even a royal insignia. The chamber is lit by few dull lamps and faint rays of sunlight coming from two small side-windows adding to our eerie feelings and spooky atmosphere. The main altar is actually small: a dark alcove with a Cross in the middle surrounded by …. again skulls and bones.DSC_1031a

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We came out and went upstairs where, much to our relief, there were less bones and skulls and it was brightly lit with an array of photos of the church’s various stages over the years.

A handy flier given out along with the entrance ticket describes the history of the church. The Ossuary contains the bones of about 40,000 people, who died in the 1318 plague in and during the Hussite wars in the 15th century and were originally buried at the church cemetery. When the cemetery was closed at the end of the 15th century, the exhumed bones were transferred to the chapel and compiled into pyramids. In 1870, a wood carver/ carpenter named František Rint was commissioned by the local royalty to arrange the bones and skulls into creative decorations.

On our way back we stopped for a coffee (actually to get out of that grim experience). We were wondering why would anyone want to preserve the remains of the dead and the old lady at the coffee shop answered, “we believe that these people are not dead but live among us and the church reminds us every day of this belief.”

DSC_1049aCall it unique, macabre, eerie, creepy or spooky but a visit to the church is an experience you will never forget.

Just then I remembered a website I browsed, where a visitor said he asked the lady at the desk if she ever felt bothered to be working there. She flipped her hand in a dismissive way and said “Pfft! They’re only bones, they won’t hurt you; it’s the living who scare me”.

Madrid Musings:Mercado de San Miguel

Vibrant, colourful, exotic, noisy and a bit chaotic,…these words came to my mind when we entered Mercado de San Miguel food market, Madrid.

One of Madrid’s oldest, well-known and not-to-be-missed landmarks in Madrid, just a couple of hundred meters from Madrid Royal Palace, the San Miguel market has been a favourite rendezvous for Madrilenos (or Madridians or Madridans?) for a few centuries and until now.DSC_0507a

Once inside the large, beautifully carved iron and glass structure, rows of stalls welcome you with an indescribable concoction of strange flavours floating in the air. Benches and stools (yes) were crammed with locals and visitors while many more were hovering around trying to find a place to squeeze in and enjoy the exhilarating atmosphere.. Joining the happy-go-lucky crowd, we squeezed our way through to scan the culinary fare on show.DSC_9141a

An exotic variety of dishes were on display – from the most popular Spanish Paellas and Tapas to mouth-watering Calamari fries (neatly packed in designer cones), bizarre-looking Gulas on bread slices to spiky Sea Urchins(cooked and top open), from cooked bi-valve molluscs to steamed Octopus (in full and just the arms) …..indeed quite exotic!

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Gulas on bread

The quick-serve bars were doing brisk business serving a range of Spanish cocktails – the ubiquitous Sangria to colourful Mojitos and Bajitos and a range of Spanish and Port wines – to customers who just stood at the stall counter drinking and chatting unmindful of the world behind. A walking bar (yes!) – a tall Spanish guy was doing his rounds selling (yelling!) wine by the glass, served from his cleverly designed large tray that held a number of wines and glasses.

It was well over 2 pm and having done a half day walking tour of Madrid, we were hungry and the whole market atmosphere was so invigorating that we felt even hungrier!

I settled for plate of seafood Paella and a large glass of Sangria to wash it down. Though never tried to be adventurous with food, the sea-urchins somehow caught the fancy of my daughter and me and we decided to bet on it for 4 Euros. Mustering up my guts, I took a small scoop of the yellowish meat inside the shell and tasted….Far from getting repulsive, we actually started liking it and finished it in no time! It tasted like a dish made of mashed potato with a stash of ground fish.

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Bi Valve Mollusc

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The lunch was complete with another famous Spanish Churros dessert.

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Churros in chocolate sauce 

One thing that I observed during our stay in Madrid…. Madrilenos just love life…. 24X7.. From the cream-da-la crème to the commonalty, I could feel a jolly good bonhomie in every place- squares, restaurants, Al fresco dining places along the picture-postcard boulevards, bars you name it…. Mercado San Miguel is a typical example.