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Published: January 19th 2006
The strangest temple in Angkor Thom.
The tuk-tuk drops us off at Angkor Wat, I've been hoping to visit this place for three years. I can't believe I'm here, I can't believe that there are so many other people here. Angkor Wat by weight, 60% sandstone, 40% tourist. I'm part of the problem not the solution, so I get over it and enjoy my first few moments at this wonderful place. We watch as the sun begins it's gradual decline into yellows and oranges, spreading a warming butter glow across the hot sandstone of the temples. Reflections on the pools crowded with waterlillies give tantalising double images of orange sculpture and iconic temples. It's been worth the wait and worth the travel down from Laos.
After a long dusty journey from Phnom Phen, after a longer and dustier journey from Laos, Matt, Mary and I had eagerly headed straight towards the temples for sunset. Tickets purchased after 4.30pm are valid for the next day, so getting in that extra bonus sunset on day one is a great idea. Tickets cost $20 for 1 day, $40 for 3 days and $60 for a week, Mary and Matt opt for one day passes, I opt for three days;
The postcard shot.
time constraints and temple fatigue have hit the other two already.
A late start on the second day and we tour the temples from the comfort of a tuk-tuk, our cheeky driver guide who must be all of fifteen takes us around quickly, he isn't doing well on the tipometer; turning up too late for sunrise (oversleeping?) and having been late due to a flat the previous day. We have a price agreed but have said do a good job and a tip will follow. Matt and Mary succumb to sun, heat and just having seen to many damn temples; I start to find myself in my element once more, exploring, looking for the little things that other people miss, finding the perfect angle for a photograph that no one has found before. I delude myself, but I'm happy. The tour ends, we've seen the majority of the temples close to Siem Reap.
Alone and happy the next day cycling around Angkor at my own pace, I revisit the temples I most liked. I sit, contemplate, people watch, wait for exotically dress Chinese tour groups to flood by - full face visors are the latest hot item from
the fashion houses of Bejing - grabbing peaceful moments in busy temples and exploring quieter ones in depth. I explore the enigmatic Bayon, raid Ta Phrom and focus on the bas reliefs (carvings) at Angkor Wat. I wait while elephants race through sunlight shafted forests ridden back from Bayon to become part of the tourism machine at the gates of Angkor Thom.
My final day at the temple complex comes to soon, three days is not enough. I've decided to ride out the 30km to Banteay Sri, the temple known for it's impressive carvings. Fortunately the area around Siem Reap is a very flat plain and despite the heat it's a pleasant journey, kids crying out hello and waving enthusiastically the entire way. I meet up with Jen at Bantaey Sri, we'd chatted the previous day and I'd shown her the best bikes I could find to hire, but I was surprised that she'd gone out this far... so was she. More exploration and we cycle back to Siem Reap via Angkor Wat at sunset, it's easier going with someone to talk with.
I met up with Jen for another adventure a few days later. Having not quite
had enough of temples we both liked the idea of going out to Beng Mealea, one of the areas most jungle ridden temples. At 50km from Siem Reap it was beyond cycling distance, tuk-tuk or car hire would have been more than we wanted to spend, the only option remaining was local transport - in this case pickups. Ben (who I'd met in Burma and again here) had given us the basic information, head to the central market, find the pick-ups and go to Dam Dek, from Dam Dek find another pick-up to Beng Mealea. Finding the area where the pick-ups left from was the hardest part. There was no one around in the market with any English, but through a combination of gestures and guesswork we made it to the pick-up point. It was about 1km from the market, at the second gas station. There were pick-ups waiting there which was a good sign. But each time we spoke to one of the guys they misunderstood (possibly deliberately) and thought we wanted to rent the whole truck. We wanted to sit on the back like the locals. Eventually we found a crowded pick-up going to Dam Dek, negotiated a
fare of a dollar and perched on the side like everyone else. We headed back to the markets of Siem Reap, picked up another 5 passengers and bags of rice, bananas, vegetables and fruit. Now completely overloaded the pick-up was ready to head out to Dam Dek. The locals in the truck were surprised to see us, but friendly. At Dam Dek we made an efficient transfer to another pick-up for Beng Mealea, another pick-up, another bundle of surprised locals crammed in to a pick-up. One of the women in the back of the pick-up kept gesturing at me then Jen, then at her baby. "Jen - I think this woman wants to sell us her baby..." - the thought did go through my mind, I hope that she was trying to work out if Jen and I were married or a couple - we had to disappoint her and gesture that we weren't a couple and that we didn't want a baby (just in case she was trying to sell it). After a very bumpy and dusty diversion to an outlying mud shack to deliver a roll of corrugated steel, we made it to Beng Mealea. The fellow pick-up
passengers waved goodbye and smiled a lot.
Beng Mealea was a fantastic experience, climbing over and around and through collapsed masonry, in and out of jungle, dappled green light falling on abandoned carvings, halls, galleries and libraries (though these might have been cloisters or some other religious building). We felt like real life tomb raiders - I swear I found a hollow section of floor that the archaeologists really should investigate further... there is probably some kind of magical ancient artefact that could alter the destiny of mankind hidden under that temple.
Getting back was a little more difficult, the temple guards told us there would be no more pickups for the day, luckily a friend of theirs with a moto could take us back to Dam Dek for $8. This sounded a little too convenient for them, so we started a bizarre incredibly slow haggling process in which I hoped that pick-up would turn up, but also worried that it might be another case of being stranded out in the middle of nowhere being to stubborn to pay four times the going rate back to Dam Dek. Eventually we all agreed on $6, took about half an
Matt and Mary
At Angkor Wat
hour, damn these principles, 30 mins to save a dollar. Riding back doubled up on the back of a moto, Jen and I got to experience another form of local travel, there really was enough room for a couple of children - which explains entire families riding around on 100cc mopeds. The moto driver hooted at dogs, cats, pigs, chickens, pretty girls (extra enthusiasm), cars, buses, anyone he knew and stationary objects. Only a 40km ride to Dam Dek...
At Dam Dek we found a new pick-up, got on the back, then another pick-up turned up, this time stacked six foot high with sugar cane. Everyone started transferring themselves to the new truck, climbing up the sides, with some hesitancy I tried out the new pick-up, out of all the rides for the day that was the most comfortable. “Hey Mister, you wan cold drink?”
Tourism in the temples of Angkor is huge, vendors of drinks, rice, guide books and postcards attack the hapless tourists from all angles, tourist wildebeest to the vendor wild dog; although one little nip isn't enough to bring a wildebeest down the constant harrying wears down the dumb but larger animal,
eventually they fall victim surrounded by yapping flapping vendors. The wallet comes out and yet another unwanted overpriced flute or book or T-Shirt is carried home by the beast of burden. Occasionally though a cold drink is just what I need, but the chorus from the Cambodian street stalls can break glass and fray nerves; just remember the going rate for a water is 1000 reil (25c), 50c for a coke and not the $2 that vendors start the negotiations at. Temples, temples everywhere....
The temples are truly magnificent, I'll talk about five of the temples in some depth, the highlights of the complex, but there are many more than those mentioned here. Even though tourists and tour buses team around the complex it is possible to find quiet corners, or even quiet moments in some of the most popular temples. Patience is the key. The area around the temples of Angkor used to be the capital of the Khmer empire, home to one million people in the 11th century. Only the gods were allowed to dwell in stone buildings, the rest of the city was wooden and today only the temples. Angkor Wat
of all the temples, richest in detail, undoubtedly the most famous of the complex. The temple lies inside outer walls of 1025m by 800m, these are in turn surrounded by moats. The temple faces west and is thought to have served as both a temple to Vishnu and tomb to Suryavarman II. There are over 3000 apsaras (heavenly nymphs) depicted throughout the temple. Around the central temple 800m of intricate bas-relief sculpting depicting Hindu and Khmer epics, these bas-reliefs were mostly completed in the 12th century but additional panels were added in the 16th to empty sections. The eight sections are: Battle of Kuruksheta, Army of Suryavarman II, Heaven and Hell, Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Elephant Gate, Vishnu Conquers Demons, Krishna and the Demon King, Battle of the Gods and the Demons and the Battle of Lanka. As it faces west the temple is perfect for viewing at sunset and not as crowded as Phenom Bakeng, where most tourists go for sunset. Bayon
One of the most mysterious monuments in the temples of Angkor, huge enimatically smiling heads gaze down from four sides of every tower. There are 216 heads on 54 towers, the head is
thought to be that of Avalokiteshvara but also resembled that of Jayavarman VII who built the temple and ruled the kingdom. Located at the heart of the city of Angkor Thom, the temple must have had special significance to the realm.
Just after dawn or before sunset are the best times to visit this temple, the light at lower angles catches the heads and provides the most interesting angles. Ta Phrom
Setting for the first "Tomb Raider" movie. The temple is famous for it's gigantic trees that strangle doors, and complete towers. There are also some of the best preserved sculptures in the area. Due to being under a dense canopy the temple is good to visit at any time, the heat of the day is shielded by the leaves. The jungle may appear to be in control, but it is strictly managed, only the old giants are allowed to remain, young growth is removed. Built from 1186 as a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of Jayavarman VII. Bantaey Srei
The most exquisitely carved temple of all those I saw. Banteay Srei means 'Citadel of the Women' said to have been built by women
as the carvings are too fine for a man to have made. Dedicated to Shiva, the temple is smaller than most at the site, has a pinkish hue due to the type sandstone used. A large portion of the temple has been fenced off from access, to protect the carvings from sticky tourist fingers, but it is possible to get up close to many of the carvings on the outer sections under arches and around doors.
At 30km from Siem Reap, tuk-tuk drivers will want extra cash to visit the temple. I rode out on a rented bicycle - pick a good one with gears! Beng Mealea
Where at Ta Phrom the jungle is manicured and controlled, with only a few specimen trees allowed to continue embracing the masonry, Beng Mealea is overrun, jungle is in control. The effect is spectacular, being pulled back to the days of the explorers, imagining discoveries deep in the jungle. Being the first to stumble on the ruins. The temple has the same floor plan as Angkor Wat, and was built by Suryavarman II, other than that not much is known about the temple, no inscriptions have been found there or
at any other sites that mention it.
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