Prepare yourself, readers – this is a big day of temples. But unlike the loud, obnoxious voices of complaining overweight white guys of a certain age with their slim, young wives/girlfriends of a different ethnicity, we thought that the temples WERE all different!!It was a 4:30am get up for our 5:15am collection by our driver and guide for sunrise at Angkor Wat. Everyone’s fantasy of this item on the ‘bucket list’ is that it will be an atmospheric, romantic, soul-searching, epiphany-creating moment. But with the hundreds of others all vying for a spot, it became something a little different – especially with a local woman calling herself ‘Lady Gaga’ trying to sell the hoards breakfast, when we are trying to immerse ourselves in the spirituality of it all! It was, however, a very interesting people-watching opportunity.
There was more than a tiny amount of childlike-Indiana-Jones fun walking through the grounds in the darkness, embarking on an adventure through a magnificent temple, scouting out a good vantage point from which to watch the spectacle. In the cloak of remaining thin night, it was easy to imagine that we were alone in this vast stone complex, especially as our guide didn’t take us in via the main entrance. But as light quickly and quietly crept up on us, it revealed the masses.
In this part of the world, at this time of year, the rising and setting of the sun is a relatively fast action – only takes about 20 minutes, so you need to be ready, camera poised! One side of the grounds, the one with more water in its pond, was more popular with photographers and viewers alike. But we didn’t stay in one spot and hunker down, we strolled in the short time we had, and enjoyed the many perspectives offered to gaze on this iconic image.
Our next temple of the morning was 35km north of Siem Reap called Banteay Srei or Lady Temple. This was one of my favourites for its warm, rose coloured sandstone, modest size and clever design. Being only single story, it is nowhere near as imposing as so many of the others, but it was very charming. The decoration is quite elaborate – every surface showing finely carved floral and narrative designs. And the sense of intimacy created by the walled garden and moat surrounding it, is almost country cottage in feel. The dignified paved processional way that approaches the grounds is forgotten once inside the perimeter.
Throughout Cambodia we have seen little stalls on the side of the road selling home brewed fuel for the tuk tuks and bikes – fuel is so expensive that people have to resort to options other than going to a petrol station. This fuel is sold in 1L recycled Johnny Walker bottles, and looks a little disconcerting with its bright urine-yellow tinge in the clear glass!
En route to the next temple on our itinerary, we stopped at a privately owned land mine museum. This NGO is run by Aki Ra, a self-taught de-miner, who, barely more than a boy, was forced to lay the mines as a Vietnamese conscript. After seeing the damage caused by these awful tools of war, it became his mission to rid his country of all land mines. He has personally destroyed about 50,000 of them. We were lucky enough to have an ex-US army sergeant who now works for the organisation visiting at the time, and got a personal tour of the museum. His commentary and the answers he gave to our many questions made this visit extremely interesting. Without it, it would’ve been a not particularly engaging, fairly ordinary display, no matter how worthwhile the cause. There are still millions of land mines in Cambodia to find and destroy. Their mission is not to de-mine the land as much as release farming lands back to the people so they can eke out a living.
Banteay Samre is a temple that lies east of a village called Phum Pradak (12km northeast of Siem Reap). While there are no records to give an accurate date for this one, the architecture places it mid-12th century, the same time as Angkor Wat. This temple actually has two moats within the complex, and two libraries on either side of the temple, which would’ve only been reachable by boat when the moat was full.
Pre Rup is part of the Grand Circuit tour, the name means “turning the body” (linked to the cremation ritual). Its towers can be seen through the tree tops some distance away, and its bricks have a warmer tone than that of the sandstone structures nearby. Four lions guard the corners of the pyramid, various parts of them weathered away through time, neglect and vandalism.
The animal-guard theme is continued at East Mebon, where its four corners carry near life-size elephants. Most of them show damage of some kind, but one still has all her appendages intact, as well as her ornate collar.
Nearby 12th century tiny Ta Som was used by the Khmer Rouge as a hideout, and is a smaller version of Ta Prohm, but without the many ‘Tomb Raider’ fans photo-bombing all your shots!
Neak Pean is a very different temple – in fact, some people think it wasn’t simply a temple at all, but a spa where pilgrims came to take the waters. This would explain the numerous pools joined by walkways. Unfortunately, due to floods from the last rainy season, we were only able to glimpse it from the edge. This is the temple where the fast-walking and talking Brit (alluded to in the opening paragraph) gruffly mumbled, “Excuse me!” on the walkway approaching the temple when we were not walking fast enough (not possible!). We managed to reach the viewing point in time to hear him grumble, “What a bloody waste of time,” and stomp off in a huff, his poor wife looking confused as she, too, had only just got then when he left in a fit of temper!
Preah Khan functioned as both a monastery and a university; as a uni, it had over one thousand teachers and just under 100,000 ancillary staff. Records show that the daily rice delivery was enough to feed between 10,000 and 15,000 people! In 1191, it was consecrated as an interdenominational temple.
Our long sight seeing day ended a little before dark, and we headed into Siem Reap for a wander and dinner. The Ivy 2 Guesthouse was the venue of choice, mainly due to its wide range of vegetarian options and its $2 mojitos! It was a popular backpackers digs, and there was a relaxed feel in the courtyard bar, which is good if you are in no rush, as it did take a bit of time to get a bite to eat.
We had an early night – much needed after our long day. As we trudged up the stairs to our room, the many geckos scattered and hid behind their picture frames on the long balcony outside the rooms – their evening hunt for dinner near the lights halted by the interfering humans.
Tour guide information:
Sopheap Brem – Angkor Sopheap Guide Service, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com