We officially have three holes punched on our seven-day Angkor pass. Which sounds silly when you think about it, why didn’t we just get the three-day pass? But actually, it worked quite well in our favour.
Tuesday morning we rented a car (a car? How fancy…but it seemed the best option when traveling over 150 km in a day and still wanting plenty of time to explore), and made our way to Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, Beng Mealea, and the Roluos Group.
We decided to start with the outermost temples first and spend our final day at Angkor Wat and Bayon – the most famous of the temples. We had a fairly early start to the day, because we heard tour groups take a little longer to get up and running and we wanted as much time to ourselves at the temples as possible.
Our first stop was the ticket office. The lines for the three-day passes were already twenty-or-so people deep (at 7:30 am), but we were the only ones interested in a weeklong pass (the three-day passes are valid for a week, the week-long passes are valid for a month). Bonus number one for spending an extra $20 on days we didn’t end up needing: We were in and out of the ticket area in less than two minutes.
Then it was on to Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, also known as the Citadel of Women. It is cut from stone that has a pinkish hue and includes some of the finest carvings in all of Angkor (and possibly the world). Construction began in 967, and it was the first major temple restoration undertaken by the EFEO using the anastylosis method – a method of recording, dismantling, and reconstructing ruins.
Then it was off to Kbal Spean. I should mention that when our driver asked us where we wanted to go (and gave us a list of options), he was surprised to hear us come up with Kbal Spean all on our own. You see, once again, we fell prey to Lonely Planet’s optimistic reviews – “Kbal Spean is a spectacularly carved riverbed, set deep in the jungle to the northeast of Angkor.”
In actuality, Kbal Spean is a handful of carvings, most of which are underwater during rainy season. The ones we could see were fairly interesting, but now I’ll tell you why I wouldn’t quite recommend this site…you see, LP had gone on to mention that “it is a 2km uphill walk to the carvings, along a pretty path that winds its way up into the jungle.”
Lies. Well, I suppose it was pretty. But it was no “walk” and it was a hell of a lot more than just “uphill.” Not to mention that the word “path” was used pretty liberally. As we neared the top (over 45 minutes later), the rains began and we were forced to take shelter under my umbrella. Chandler had once again forgotten his.
That said, we were incredibly grateful for the rain – Cambodia, like Vietnam, is unreasonably hot, and the rains are pretty much always welcome in my opinion. When we finally made it to the river, we were a bit disappointed at the absence of “a spectacularly carved riverbed.”
Luckily, we continued along the path (I had to forage this alone first and then return back for Chandler), and found the waterfall LP had ever so casually mentioned. Which I have to say was a lot lovelier than the carvings themselves. All-in-all, I enjoyed the stop (which took over two hours), but Chandler was definitely wishing I hadn’t felt so adventurous.
Bonus number two for getting the seven-day passes: Had we waited in line for the three-day passes we would have been mid-climb when the rains started. Trust me, you do not want to be mid-climb when it starts pouring.
Our third stop for the day was at Beng Mealea. This time, Lonely Planet wasn’t far off the mark, having called it the “ultimate Indian Jones experience.” Beng Mealea was built in the 12th century and has the same floor plan as Angkor Wat, however, unlike Angkor Wat, it hasn’t been used in quite some time and the forest has run wild through it.
Most of the temple is in shambles, but that’s actually what makes it so much fun. One of the caretakers zeroed in on us when we arrived and offered to show us around – turns out he’s not a fan of large groups or other Asians (maybe because they don’t tip? Haha). We figured he was probably worth the investment and our hunch proved correct…we followed him up and over and all around, going places we never would have thought possible. He knew all of the best places and gave us an incredibly informative tour that was actually interesting!
For instance, many of the carvings and statues at Beng Mealea are missing their heads. Apparently, it’s because the Khmer Rouge cut them off and sold them for $100 a pop. Actually, we couldn’t understand him the first time he said this and we thought he was trying to tell us that they cut off real heads and sold them for that fee – a much more harrowing thought.
We couldn’t believe how beautiful a place this was, and miraculously (or possibly due to the fact that it was lunch time), we had the place nearly to ourselves…
Our final stops for the day were for the Roluos Group – Lolei, Bakong, and Preah Ko. There’s not much to Lolei, it’s teansy-tiny, but there was some beautifully preserved script inside one of the doorways.
Bakong and Preah Ko were across the street from each other and were much more impressive. LP claimed that Bakong is an active Buddhist monastery, dedicated to Shiva, but we saw more monks at Lolei. Preah Ko is also dedicated to Shiva, but instead of being one giant temple (like Bakong), is composed of six stone halls.
My final photo for this blog is the beginning of the sun setting behind Bakong (complete with elephant-statue guardians, though you can’t see them in the photo). This was by far our longest temple day, but it was definitely a great start to our time in and around Siem Reap.