|Beng Melea temple|
Temple-goers, novice monks, travelling hermits; nobilities, palace guards, servants of the royal households. Everybody's life story is worth telling, and I wonder what secrets these otherwise forgotten people once kept. It doesn't have to be a fantastic story, with clandestine meetings, political assassinations swept under the carpet, secret love affairs, and dark desires. I'm intrigued even by the simplest bildungsroman.
It has everything to do with my obsession with existence. I hate to be forgotten, to have my existence wiped off with time.
|Girl with lotus flower in Banteay Srei temple|
We landed in Siem Reap International Airport early in the a.m. and hopped onto the tuk tuk sent by the hostel. The Cambodian air was crisp, the weather lovely despite it being the height of the dry season. We stayed in Golden Temple Villa, a hostel which provides the services of a 5-star hotel at the price of an inexpensive youth hostel. The hostel was recommended by my fellow travel buddy, Reuben Teo.
You can get a private double room with ensuite bathroom for USD27 per night. It comes with free airport transfer, welcome drink (which was terribly refreshing and good. We even ordered it again the next day after exploring temples in Phnom Kulen), complimentary 1-hour massage, coffee or tea and bananas throughout the day, wifi, and 2 bottles of mineral water daily.
Besides being really friendly and helpful, the staff actually take the trouble to remember their guests. We were pleasantly surprised when they recognised even the water bottles we're carrying, and returned it to our room when we accidentally left one of them in the hostel's restaurant.
Food served in the hostel's restaurant was really good, be it Western or local. For USD4 you can get a breakfast set that includes eggs (any style), sausages, grilled tomato, yogurt with fruits, and a cup of coffee or tea. You may also opt for a local breakfast of simple grilled chicken with steaming hot rice, served with coffee or tea as well, at only USD2.
The hostel also offers transport packages to Angkor, via tuk tuk or sedan car. Prices vary depending on the locations chosen and the mode of transport. We paid USD15 for transport to the major temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park, covering Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom gates, Bayon, Baphuon, Angkor Wat, Prasat Kravan, Ta Keo, and Sras Srang). This is excluding the entrance fee to the park, rates differ according to the different packages.
|Ta Prohm temple|
It was my second time visiting the Angkor Archaeological Park. The bas-reliefs in Angkor Wat had left a deep impression on me 5 years ago when I first went to Angkor Wat. A personal favourite is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which showed the devas and asuras working together to extract Amrita, the nectar of immortality.
There's a kind of majestic aura to it, especially when you're walking on the causeway towards the central temple structure, flanked with Naga balustrades. Ruins, scarred with the occasional bullet holes from the civil war, but what opulence and grandeur it exudes. It remains one of the grandest reminder of the once golden Angkorian empire it represents.
|The many faces of Bayon|
Some find the thousand faces of Bayon eerie and unsettling. An interesting irony, since these are the faces of a boddhisatva. Alone he is serene, in hundreds he is like Big Brother (we were reading Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four during the trip, hence the reference).
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We hired a private driver and guide, Kimleng Sang (a friend of Reuben's), for a day trip to Banteay Srei, Phnom Kulen, and Beng Melea. It cost us USD235 for the whole trip, inclusive of petrol, parking, entrance fees (Phnom Kulen National Park is not part of the Angkor National Park, hence you'll need to purchase a different set of tickets for this), and bottled mineral water. Kimleng is very well-versed with the history of Angkorian temples. He's also a professional photographer, and always happy to point out the good shots. He even gave us a brief photography tutorial with his DSLR throughout the trip.
|Banteay Srei temple|
The intricacies of carvings will delight any artist, designer, and photographer. A very breathtaking site, looking at dancing apsaras in their resplendent garments, with their beautifully carved belts and rich jewellery. The story of Rama and Ravana was also meticulously recorded in Banteay Srei: from the abduction of Sita to Ravana's final defeat. It's time I start reading the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Kimleng also told us an amusing story of how a certain French man tried to steal part of a bas-relief from Banteay Srei without success, and ended up as the Minister of Cultural Affairs in France later in life. Where do you find that kind of determination and confidence nowadays? Oh well.
|Kbal Spean: River of a Thousand Lingas|
If you've read the Kama Sutra (which, I assure you, is not as scandalous as popular belief) and are as immature as I am, you'll have to try your best to hide that childish urge to laugh when you're at the River of a Thousand Lingas. The carvings are said to be at least a century older than the temples at Angkor Wat.
Though some say it's best viewed when the river is dried up, I think the site more beautiful with a shallow river. And if you're lucky, you'll manage to see glimpses of carvings depicting Vishnu and Lakshmi on the river bed.
|Vishnu and Lakhsmi|
Water current contributes to the natural erosion of these ancient carvings, which is actually really sad considering that the carvings were purposely commissioned to acknowledge the sacredness of this river, only to be gnawed away by the very waters they pay tribute to. We didn't manage to explore the river bed extensively, missing out on the famous waterfall carving of Vishnu and Lakshmi.
We headed to Preah Ang Thom after that, a temple that houses a huge statue of a reclining Buddha carved out of a stone boulder on the mountain itself. According to Kimleng, the statue used to have diamonds for its eyes, which were unfortunately stolen.
|Entrance to Preah Ang Thom temple|
Expect it to be crowded as it's a popular pilgrimage spot for Buddhist devotees in Cambodia. Near the steps of the temple is also a little fenced area, where you'll see the footprints of Buddha imprinted on the stone ground. Monks can be seen blessing devotees and chanting prayers in the temple compound. The mountain is thought to be sacred, so is the temple, you'll need to remove your shoes before stepping into the compound as a gesture of respect.
|Reclining Buddha in Preah Ang Thom|
Speaking of which, I personally feel that it is very important for tourists to be respectful at religious sites. It is appalling to see some tourists walking around temple ruins in bra tops, cropped tops, micro-mini shorts, and sometimes even topless. As much as you would like to criticise the Asians as being overly conservative, it doesn't hurt to show a bit of respect to their culture and religion. As the saying goes, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. As much as the heat is suffocating, what makes you think the locals aren't sweating just as much as you are?
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The waterfall at Phnom Kulen is a great place for a short respite from the unforgiving Cambodian mid-day sun. It's also a popular holiday spot for the locals, many of them renting the gazebos nearby for a big family picnic. The local children are nimble, and like children around the world, fearless. They would climb up the slippery rocks and dive, performing impressive mid-air somersaults.
|Phnom Kulen waterfall|
There are clothes for rent if you're itching for a dip in the cool waters but forgot to bring extra clothing. Feel free to haggle, I managed to rent a simple blouse for 2,000 riel (about USD0.50). The water is clear, you can see fishes swimming around your legs, which made me even more paranoid about accidentally stepping on fishes.
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I used to regard Bayon as my favourite temple, until Kimleng brought us to Beng Melea. While Ta Prohm enjoys its fame as 'Tomb Raider temple', Beng Melea is affectionately known as the 'Jungle temple'. However, do enquire further when tuk tuk and taxi drivers offer to bring you to the 'Jungle temple' as they could sometimes mean Ta Prohm as well. Like Phnom Kulen, Beng Melea is another park all by itself, so you'll need to pay an entrance fee of USD5 to enter.
|One of the ruined gates of Beng Melea temple|
Beng Melea seemed to be consumed by the jungle and its own ruins, the latter being yet another legacy of the civil war. It seemed like one of those ruins that you could only look from the outside, what with the entrance being buried in piles of large stone bricks. We followed Kimleng's queue and climbed up the walls to peer inside the temple. It felt very much like a real life Temple Run game, us treading precariously on fallen stones.
And then Kimleng hopped into what looked like a makeshift 'entrance'. I got really excited when he confirmed that we could actually enter the temple, that this was the less known 'entrance point' for tourists. I thoroughly enjoyed jumping from brick to brick, walking along the edges of temple walls, and peering into empty, abandoned chambers.
|From the inside|
Still not much is known about the temple, enhancing its mysterious allure -- a dilapidated temple engulfed in vines, trees, and little flowers. It's really poetic, with a name that means 'lotus pond' in Khmer, hinting that there used to be one in the temple during its glory days.
We also saw a smaller version of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk in this temple, a broken piece posed on the ground among the other fallen stones.
|Churning of the Ocean of Milk|
The journey back to Siem Reap took a little more than an hour. We also stopped by the exhausted quarry of Phnom Kulen, where the rocks used to build many Angkorian monuments were taken from. The rocks were transported to the building sites via a canal, a 35km journey.
History remembers names like Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII, but what about the nameless men and women who once carved, built, and walked the grounds of these temples? Only traces of the daily lives of ancient Khmers on the walls of the temples remain. Perhaps the beauty of a carved lady in Banteay Srei was inspired by a labourer's wife, the face of Ravana an inkling of a man's boyhood nightmare, the faces of Bayon a representation of the ideal serenity they seek.