Following the itinerary set by Leika, and with our respective breakfasts just barely starting to digest, we were soon on our way to our first destination which was Kbal Spean at the outskirts of the city.
Kbal Spean is located in a mountainous area of Cambodia known as Kulen Hills. This is a contrast to the vast plains and fields one would see all the way from the Vietnamese border to Siem Reap itself. The name apparently translates to “bridge head” and is also known as the “river of 1,000 lingas”.
Lingas are sacred symbols among Hindus. (Some say they are phallic symbols but it’s a matter that’s being debated by scholars of Hindu studies.) In the case of Kbal Spean, the lingas were carved on the river bed itself. The intention was for the water of the river to be blessed by the lingas as it flows out of the hills and ultimately to Siem Reap where Angkor is located.
We weren’t too impressed with this place probably because it was hard to get a good shot of the carvings. I particularly liked the uphill hike but this can take a lot of time to accomplish if one is not used to it – time, incidentally, that can be used exploring other places.
After a while, we hiked back to where Sam was parked and we immediately proceeded to Banteay Srei, known as the “Jewel of Khmer Art”. Compared to other Angkorian temples, Banteay Srei is relatively miniature. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for it in the exquisiteness of its intricate carvings that have managed to escape the ravages of time, nature and war.
Adding to this temple’s charm is that it’s made of red sandstone which, also makes it unique among other temples, as far as I have observed. This is a favorite among many people, including myself, because of its aforementioned beauty and the very limited amount of damage.
After taking enough photos, we then proceeded to have lunch in one of the food stalls at the entrance of the temple complex. The food was good but overpriced at $4-$5 per meal. I wish we brought our own food instead.
Suddenly conscious that we had an afternoon left to tour, we quickly set off to return to the Angkor Archaeological Park to visit the major temples. Our first destination for the afternoon was supposed to be Ta Prohm, but stopping over for a few minutes at Pre Rup was too hard to resist as it was the first major temple we came across after returning to the park proper.
Pre Rup is something of a mystery because it’s one of the earliest temples in the area but there is scant record of what exactly it was used for. Common belief among Cambodians is that it is a place where funerals were held. (“Pre Rup” is a relatively modern name which means “turn the body”.) We only spent about 5 minutes here before finally proceeding to Ta Prohm.
Like a lot of temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park, Ta Prohm was “rediscovered” in the early 20th century. The land where it stands on has been reclaimed by the jungle after centuries of abandonment so much so that it was impossible to remove all vegetation that grew on the ruins without further damaging it. It has been decided that Ta Prohm would be largely left as it is for both safety and aesthetic considerations.
I didn’t enjoy this temple as much as I was hoping I would. Maybe it’s because there were too many people, or that there were too much modern structures such as cranes and wooden steps that obscured the beauty of the ruins. In addition, I simply could not find the right camera settings with which to shoot the surroundings.
We exited Ta Prohm at the opposite side from where we entered. And there, Sam was already waiting for us to proceed to the next stop. I wasn’t aware that the ice-cold water and wet tissue he was handing out to us on each stop was included in the package but it was very much welcome because temple hopping can be really dehydrating – even at this time of the year when Cambodia supposedly has cooler weather.
The Bayon is located in an vast compound named Angkor Thom, which is much, much larger than the Angkor Wat compound. One thing evident about the old Khmer empire is that each new king has a tendency to build an entirely new palace complex instead of merely just inheriting an older one. And in Angkor Thom, the royal temple is the Bayon.
The Bayon isn’t a particularly beautiful or eleagant temple. From a distance, it just looks like a pile of pointed rocks jutting out to the sky. But what it lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in being very richly decorated. For one thing, it has multiple towers, with each tower having a face carved in each of the 4 directions. According to old Chinese records, each of these towers used to be coated in gold. And since the towers face in multiple directions, one need not depend on the position of the sun to get a good shot. At any time of the day, there is a part of the Bayon that’s nice to take photos of.
Personally, I’ll always remember the Bayon because it is here where I got duped into praying to Buddha and being asked to pay for the “honor” of doing such. What happened was when I was walking towards the entrance, I was immediately handed three sticks of burning incense by a middle-aged man who just said “pray to Buddha”, and then coached me to bow three times in front of the Buddha statue. And then told me to put money on a small platter in front of it. (All this happened in a span of less than 10 seconds.) I got so annoyed by this that I placed VDN 2,000 – equivalent to a measly P4.00 – on the platter. I left him to figure out just how much that is.
ANGKOR WAT (Return)
The daylight was already turning golden as we finally returned to Angkor Wat approaching late afternoon. At that hour, a lot more people were still streaming in the compound, making their way towards the main temple. As before, I got separated from Leika and her friend as we tried to explore and take photos with the best possible angles.
Taking nice photos was actually hard to do because there were simply too many people straying into the frame. In one case, I waited for an entire minute for a tourist to walk off the frame of the shot, and just when he finally did, around 5 immediately took his place. Sometimes one has to alter the angle to hide as many unwanted details as possible.
One thing that was frustrating about the main temple was that the ongoing restoration efforts had a huge green net right in the middle of the central view. Finding no angle that would hide the net while still taking a frontal shot, I simply shot it in monochrome. (This is a tactic I use to hide unsightly trash in my photography.)
I definitely think that an entire day to explore Angkor Wat is not enough. For one thing, the bas reliefs on the walls of the temples are a sight to behold, even now that they have lost their gold coating. And within the temple, there are some areas that tourists rarely stray into that one can walk into and explore without distraction from the rest of the crowd.
Eventually, the fading daylight was slowly giving way to the evening and we reluctantly had to leave in order to not have a hard time looking for Sam in the parking area. Leika and her friend had different dinner plans from mine, so while they requested to be dropped off first at their hotel, I went straight to the restaurant I made reservations with.
Everywhere in Siem Reap proper, there are restaurants that offer a combination of buffet dinner with an Apsara show. Earlier in the morning, Sam helped me make a reservation with a restaurant named Koulen II. I’m actually familiar with this restaurant as it frequently popped up in my research prior to this trip. While others would choose a seat near the stage, I chose a seat far from it but near where the buffet tables were. (Which probably gives you an idea on what I think is more important.)
I got to the restaurant quite early and there were just around 10 people milling around. I still had enough time to visit the restroom to clean and freshen up before having dinner. Once I got out of the rest room, the number of people quadrupled so I promptly made for the buffet tables to take a bit of all the good dishes before hundreds of other tourists come rushing in.
Luckily, the tourists took their sweet time arriving so much so that I was already in the middle of my second plate before the place got really packed. Apparently, the show is not limited to Apsara, as there were at least 3 other cultural dances presented. From what I can tell, they were based on three rural occupations – rice farming, fishing and coconut farming.
From what I’ve read, the Apsara is a very old dance that used to be performed at the Khmer royal court. I’ve seen bas-reliefs in Angkor Wat showing Apsara dancers. It was said that only the most beautiful women of the kingdom were chosen to be Apsara dancers and this still tends to be the case in the present time, as far as i could see.
By the way, thanks to my 55-250mm telephoto lens, I was able to take close-up photos of the dances without having to go near the stage. (…Unlike some Russian tourists who earned the ire of some Chinese tourists when the former blocked the latter’s view when they tried to get a closer look.)
The show was finally over in around 2 hours, and while the Koulen II management allowed the dancers to remain on the stage to enable the tourists to take souvenir photos, the sheer number of other tourists who were trying to do so discouraged me and so I just started to walk back to my guest house.
Although it was a very tiring day, I didn’t really experience what they call “temple fatigue”. I wanted to explore more and the next day’s destinations were very promising.
Next: Beng Mealea and Koh Ker.
= = = = = = = = = =
This entry is part of the Vietnam-Cambodia series dated November 27 – December 3, 2011:
1. Preview: Contrasting Motorcycle Scenes in Vietnam
2. Preview: Temple-hunting in Cambodia
3. Suggested 7-day Itinerary for Vietnam and Cambodia
4. Budget Estimate for a 7-day Vietnam-Cambodia Tour
5. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 1 – Arrival in Saigon, Cu Chi Tunnels, City Tour
6. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 2 & 3 – A 13-hour bus ride, Angkor Wat at Dawn
7. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 3 – All-day Temple-hopping in Siem Reap
8. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 4 – Beng Mealea and Koh Ker
9. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 5 & 6 – Two bus rides to Mui Ne
10. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 6 – Mui Ne’s Natural Attractions
11. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 7 – Last-minute tour of Saigon
12. Vietnam-Cambodia Travel Tips
13. The 24-hour Mui Ne Travel Guide