A Passage to India

One thousand years ago, Indian architecture and the Hindu religion influenced the construction of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temples. Earlier this month, I did the reverse commute, visiting India with 20 other Cambodian and Asean journalists.

In a 21st century update of an old story, India’s government now follows a Look East policy. We traveled to India as part of the Asean Media Exchange Program, an annual event. 

Ramoji Film City, India (Creative Commons)
Ramoji Film City, India (Creative Commons)

India has 1.3 billion inhabitants, almost 100 times Cambodia’s 15 million. Over the centuries, our cultures and histories have diverged widely. But as I wandered the streets the country’s vast capital, New Delhi, for the first time, some things were familiar.

All along the chaotic streets, vendors selling various aromatic foods and colorful fruits piled up on wooden stalls reminded me of Phnom Penh. Traffic, too, was reminiscent of home. But like everything else in this vast country, its scale was dissimilar—more extreme, even overwhelming.

Yellow, three-wheeled auto-rickshaws jittered and darted for space amid the bleep and blare of horns like miniature, hyperactive versions of Cambodian tuk-tuks.

In place of Cambodia’s swarm of modern scooters were motorbikes, many of them decades old and as rusty and smoky as everything else on the roads. But what was really unusual about the traffic clogging the narrow streets was that unlike in Cambodia, the cars here were mostly small and old, covered with rust and peppered with dents, belching smoke as their gears clunked and spluttered in the gridlock.

The convoys of oversized luxury SUV’s that traverse Cambodia’s boulevards were visibly absent. The relative youth of Cambodia’s modernization was underlined by its comparison to New Delhi, a city showing its age.

India is a much richer nation than Cambodia. It is the largest democracy on earth and a country with a huge, billowing middle class and pretentions of becoming a world superpower. But our first impressions in New Delhi were of a city swelled with poor people and conspicuous poverty. Perhaps it is not surprising that in a quickly developing country with so many inhabitants some citizens will be left behind.

During our four-day stay in New Delhi, we met Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, and External Affairs Secretary for East India, Shri Anil Wadhwa. They said we were playing an important part in building a bridge between India and Asean by helping the two regions understand each other.

We also met representatives of the private sector to learn if the Indian government is improving services and infrastructure. We visited the passport office. In India, this is now controlled by a private company and has become much more efficient as a result. A passport application used to take four months. Since it was privatized, the process takes only one week. This is one area where India might advise Cambodia.

Here, a complicated system and unofficial payments make applying for a passport a headache-inducing experience.

Just as no visit to Cambodia would be complete without visiting the temples at Angkor Wat, so is a trip to India without seeing the famous Taj Mahal mausoleum in Agra in the northern Uttar Pradesh province.
It is only a three-hour bus ride from New Delhi. Seeing its grand domes, startling white stone, intricate decorations and beautiful gardens was a highlight of the trip.

But I still think Cambodia’s temples are more mysterious and awe-inspiring. They merit a visit in the opposite direction for our Indian friends.

I have not yet mentioned India’s food. The food—or at least its profound effect—was definitely the dominant topic of conversation among the Asean journalists. Perhaps it was too spicy and our stomachs were unaccustomed to it. Perhaps we all succumbed to the infamous “Delhi belly.” But it was on our journeys within the country that it became most problematic.

When a journalist from Singapore confessed to us that he went to the toilet at least five times a night, we all could only laugh as we had experienced the same symptoms. On our bus ride to the Taj Mahal, and on our flight east to Hyderabad, the toilet was the focal point of the journeys. Many of us craved plainer food that might settle our insides.

Hyderabad felt more remote, less populated than New Delhi. There was a greater sense of space as we took in a variety of tourist attractions. The ethnic make-up of the city’s inhabitants differed and the city’s rich Muslim history was evident everywhere from the architecture to the clothes.

The 400-year-old Mecca Masjid is one of the world’s largest mosques, which was built by more than 8,000 workers and features a triple arched facade that was carved from a single huge piece of granite over five years, according to tourism director Prabhakar Singh.

A more modern, though more curious feature of Hyderabad’s tourist landscape is Ramoji Film City. At 809 hectares, is the largest film city in the world. The Indian government hopes to attract Asean filmmakers to its sprawling movie sets and production studios.

For visitors, it is strange to travel through its fake towns and past its imitation houses and shop fronts. But it is a popular destination for Indians, with annual visitors of 1.4 million and the city hopes to increase that number to 3 million in the next few years.

Back in Cambodia now, the experience of our Indian visit has stayed with me, spiritually and physically. One week later, the toilet is still a hot topic. I hope my body is just getting accustomed, in the expectation that I will return one day to India.

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