Our dismay at the number of tourists at Ta Prohm (Tombraider location) the day before prompted a 5 am start on our second day visiting the Angkor Archaeological Park. We hopped on our e-bikes and headed in the pitch dark to the site. We weren’t the first to arrive, but the two British girls we encountered at the entrance with their slumbering tuk-tuk driver had been waiting for an hour. They ventured in with us, just as the sky was starting to lighten. We didn’t see them again. It was a bit too dark when we first arrived but we waved flashlights at some interesting parts, which made for some cool photos. Large strangler figs and silk cotton trees devour the stones, as this temple has been left largely to show the state it was “discovered” in.
It is one of the most popular temples after Angkor Wat, probably because of its immense size and maze of corridors, blocked and open. And maybe because of the fame brought from Angelina Jolie’s part in Tombraider. In many places, additional support beams and posts have been added for stability and safety. It was a completely different feeling wandering the ruins without the hordes of tour groups snapping photos and being overly loud. I was even able to spot the “stegasaurus” bas-relief, though it took me 40 minutes to locate. Who knows if they had found bones from dinosaurs, or just made up this imaginary creature. It does look remarkably like a stegasaurus, though the head is more boar-like. We spent about two hours here and I only ran into Riki once, to show him my favorite spot. Turns out it was one of his too, also discovered sometime that morning. Then the tour groups started showing up and we bolted for the next temple.
Pre Rup is a temple-mountain, with loads of laterite, an iron-rich clay used to make many blocks here. It has a dimpled finish though and was thus often finished in stucco or stone. The temple was very tall and we were able to see out over the trees, though all you saw was more trees, and a tiny bit of East Mebon (the temple after the next one). The laterite walls here were stacked in an odd arrangement to me. Rather than overlapping like bricks, they were stacked in a grid. One directly on top of the other, so the joints in the walls were straight vertical. Something that we learned in school was not stable, but since these are still standing, there must be some trick to it. Or they were reconstructed incorrectly?
At this point we were a bit worried about the life left in our e-bike batteries, but we decided to risk it and head out 4 km to the east (we were told the bikes could go 40 kms before dying and weren’t sure how far the next charging station was).
I’m very glad we made it out there, as this turned out to be one of my favorite temples. Banteay Samre is a bit isolated and doesn’t receive as many tourists as the other temples. It has tall concentric laterite walls enclosing a tight cluster in the central sanctuary. It has been completely restored and has so many layers and a moat-like interior. Despite following a Spanish tour around trying to figure out what was going on, my Spanish is not good enough to discern if it was a moat or just a raised temple. Either way, it was unique to what we had seen so far.
We backtracked the 4 km to East Mebon, the top of which we had viewed earlier from Pre Rup. East Mebon also appears raised, but actually it was surrounded by water, but is no longer, thus giving the illusion of a temple-mountain, though it is not. A large draw for this temple is the elephants placed on all corners. One is currently being restored, so they are in various states of completeness. There were also some incredible lintels at the top, one showing a monster eating an elephant. This temple also was largely constructed with bricks, unlike many we have seen. The bricks are heavily pitted, presumably to help decorative stucco adhere, though it is long gone.
Next stop, Ta Som, just to the north. This is a smaller temple, where many of the lintels have been left displayed on the ground rather than in their original positions. It has a huge tree growing over its east gate, which is a fabulous sight, but ominous, as when these trees ultimately die, they often leave little stability left for the stones, which can crumble.
Along the north side of the park is Neak Pean, a completely different type of temple. This one is basically a crucifix of ponds surrounding a small monument. We didn’t spend much time here as most of the area has been cordoned off and many people were already crowding the small viewing area.
Preah Khan is a huge complex, possibly a former Buddhist monastery. We dropped our e-bikes outside at a charging point and headed in for about an hour and half, hoping that would be enough charge to get us all the way back to Siem Reap, where we had to return the bikes. Preah Khan is a maze of rubble and cleared areas, easy to get lost in. A unique round-columned two-storied structure, of unknown use is one of the highlights at this complex. There are some incredible hidden niches filled with carvings that can only be seen if you know what to look for, or get lost, as I did.
With our bikes charged, we headed back south to Angkor Wat to check out the tower, which was closed the first night we visited and the bas-reliefs that we had not had time to see. The views from the top as the sun was lowering in the sky were great. And we watched as monkeys left the forest and climbed onto the roofs of the outer galleries. Using our guide book, we followed a path around the bas-reliefs depicting all sorts of stories, including victories, losses, heaven and hell. We left before sunset as we had been gone 13 hours and were exhausted from climbing over rocks all day.
Needless to say, we needed another rest day, physically and mentally. Too many temples can be overwhelming, especially when you are too tired to realize the uniqueness of each. We sent out our laundry (except for socks), caught up on some blogging/pictures and went for a walk to find an information center and prints of the layouts of temples (both of which we failed to locate).
LAST DAY – MORE ROCKS
Our final day, we arranged for a tuk-tuk ($40 all day) to pick us up at 6:30 am. He was about 15 minutes late, but we didn’t think much of it as he was good-natured and spoke English pretty well. However, not long into our drive, we realized something was definitely wrong with his bike. We were going at a snail’s pace, being passed by all the other tuk-tuks, even those crowded with fat tourists. We had left early to try to avoid the crowds and it was clear we weren’t going to be as early as we would have liked. We were headed to Banteay Srei, some 25 km from the other monuments. We managed to arrive before most of the big tour groups and walked around the relatively small temple with only a handful of other people. This temple is miniature compared to the others and made of pink sandstone. It also has a plethora of exquisite carvings, everywhere. I shadowed an Engligh speaking tour guide as he explained the details, before finding Riki just as numerous giant tour buses arrived.
Our last stop was Beng Mealea, some 40 km from the Angkor temples, but in the same direction as we had already travelled. Unfortunately, our slow tuk-tuk was not the only problem. When our driver pulled over to buy water for the slightly smoking motorbike, he also asked for directions. He’d never been there. Great. It took over an hour, with some very nervous moments by our driver, where he obviously didn’t know if we were going the right way, but we eventually made it. This temple is on private property and not included in the three-day pass we had bought for the other temples. We had to pay an additional $5 (did I mention everything is in dollars here) to enter, but it was definitely worth it. This temple is one Riki had shown me months and months ago as one he wanted to visit. He knew it would be harder to visit, but the pictures were amazing. We almost decided not to go, as the $40 for the tuk-tuk is a big hit in our budget. But that doubt was gone pretty much as soon we arrived. Because its much further than the other temples, not many people make the journey, though that appears to be changing as the roads get better. We ate our pb&j at the entrance and ventured into the un-restored and ruinous temple.
Wooden walkways have been added to make it easier for tourists to clamber over the rocks, which are everywhere. The central sanctuary is literally a pile of rubble. Riki ventured to the top and could see stones with intricate carvings in the pile. You can still climb over many rocks, but some areas have been deemed unsafe and the rangers in the temple will yell at you if you enter one of those areas (not a personal experience we had, but one we witnessed). We spent almost three hours here and the pictures really do a better job explaining than I could.
We had a long, slow, bumpy and dusty ride back, with a few trips to splash more water on the motorbike. Riki made a lot of little friends along the way. We rewarded ourselves with a $2 fish massage (including free beer) and bought our bus tickets to Battambang for the next day.