For this day, we visited two destinations that are normally not in the itineraries of tourists going to Siem Reap. The first one is the distant and less-crowded temple of Beng Mealea, and the second is the even more distant and literally deserted ancient Angkorian capital of Koh Ker.
Beng Mealea is about an hour away from the city proper but still within the borders of Siem Reap province. The name translates to “lotus pond”, and the tranquility of the imagery is perhaps appropriate as this temple is quite free of the typical Siem Reap tourist crowd. For this temple, we had to pay USD 5 for a day pass.
Unlike the Angkor Archaeological Park, which hosts a number of temple complexes, Beng Mealea is just a singular temple literally in the middle of nowhere. It used to be a very inaccessible temple ruin until it benefited from the construction of an access road leading to Koh Ker, which passes right by it.
Before exploring the interior of the temple, I first took a lot of pictures of the outside and I actually walked the entire perimeter just to get an appreciation of the scale of this structure. Every few feet or so that I walked, I encountered fallen lintels and other rubble with ancient carvings. Away from everyone else, I lost track of time as I got caught up in the experience of walking along the ruins alone, with only the sound of my own footsteps, as well as the chirping and singing of unfamiliar birds puncturing the silence.
Oh, and in the course of exploring, I came across what I thought was a rat running across the grass and the rubble. Upon a closer look, it turned out to be a small squirrel. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve actually seen one.
Once I realized that I was spending far too much time outside the temple, I finally entered it. The main entrance is impassable due to the fact that it has completely and utterly collapsed, with a mountain of rubble blocking the way. I had to enter the temple via a constructed wooden stairway around 10-20 meters from the main entrance that goes over one of the walls. Once inside, I caught up with Leika who mildly admonished me for spending too much time outside.
Like Ta Prohm, the ruins of Beng Mealea are largely left as they are, with just a few support structures added to stabilize the ruins from further collapse. An elevated walkway has also been constructed at an irregular path within the temple that enables visitors to view as many areas in the interior as possible without further disturbing the ruins.
Despite the obvious danger to both their person and the precariousness of the ruins, I saw some tourists straying from the fixed path of the elevated walkway and finding their own way to some areas that, to my mind, were in danger of collapsing. Worse, they seemed to have guides who were encouraging them to do so. I could only hope that such actions would have very little effect on the remaining structural integrity of the site.
Despite the collapsed and overgrown walls and structures everywhere, some parts of the temple are still standing and well-preserved. I was able to see a thick and massive inner wall that will probably last a thousand more years. And I was also able to enter at least one well-preserved arched corridor, pictured below.
Because I didn’t have a flashlight with me, I didn’t walk all the way to the end. I really didn’t want to bump into something that would injure me or damage the structure in any way. After a few shots of the camera, I climbed back to the metal stairway leading me back to the path of the elevated walkway.
We spent some time at an elevated spot just resting by the shade of a tree that grew in the middle of the ruins. When we saw a crowd of East Asian tourists streaming into our spot, we took that as our cue to find Sam and leave for the next destination.
Earlier in the day, when we were halfway between the city and Beng Mealea, Sam pulled over by some road-side shops selling kalan – a type of sticky rice cake with some red mung beans sprinkled in it. It is cooked by placing the ingredients in a bamboo tube, sealing one end with husk, and grilling the tubes for a certain amount of time. Sam bought a few tubes for us to eat during the trip. But since we just had breakfast, we resolved to eat the kalan after we’re done touring Beng Mealea.
Later, we were able to eat them while on the way to Koh Ker. At first, I wasn’t too keen about eating the kalan because I had some apprehensions on the possible lack of hygeine in preparing it. But curiosity got the better of me that when Leika started with one of the tubes, I also found myself opening one.
How to eat kalan:
1. Remove the husk covering one end of the bamboo tube.
2. Peel off a portion of the tube as you would peel a banana (and just try to imagine that the peel is made of bamboo fiber.)
3. Do not discard the sturdy “peel”. Use it as your spoon to scoop out the contents of the tube.
I can’t help but compare kalan to the various rice cakes that we have over here in the Philippines. In terms of appearance, the contents most closely resemble suman, but the consistency leans more towards biko. (Update: I came across a piece of news and I found out that the tinubong of Ilocos resembles kalan a lot – both in external appearance and method of cooking.) I found the taste rather bland, with only a very faint trace of sweetness (and I’m not sure if Cambodians sprinkled sugar on it like we do to suman), but it’s one of those foods that you can’t stop eating once you start, and personally, I felt energized after eating the contents of one tube. I would not say it’s particularly delicious, but if I were to go temple hopping in Siem Reap again in the future, I’ll make sure I’ll have a few tubes of carbs-rich kalan as my baon for the needed energy.
THE ROAD TO PREAH VIHEAR
So we were snacking on kalan while Sam drove on. It was a good thing that we were riding in an air conditioned car as it was already getting hot outside. November and December are supposedly the time of the year when Cambodia experiences cool and dry weather. If this is “cool”, I couldn’t imagine what they have to go through during their summer. (Or maybe I can. Philippine summers can really be hellish, after all.)
I’m not sure at which point we exited Siem Reap Province and entered Preah Vihear, but 2 things were becoming evident: (1) the concrete road was beginning to have gaps, until it came to a point where we were just driving through a dirt road; and (2) the soil of the surroundings have become reddish brown. We found ourselves in an almost deserted road where houses were separated by miles and the same goes for vehicular traffic.
Unbelievably, this was also the first time Sam would be going to this place. But he does have relatives in the area, one of whom we would be picking up at a roadside stop to help us find our way. We were on the road for over an hour before we reached that stop to pick up that relative, and some 20 more minutes of driving after that when we finally stopped at a house in a farm where we were to have lunch prior to exploring Koh Ker.
To my shame, I never got the name of Sam’s relatives who owned the house we had lunch in. The small house was a simple typical rural home that was elevated about 2 feet off the ground (just like the ones in the Philippines) with the interior lacking divisions of any kind, presumably because it serves as the living, dining and sleeping areas. The only furniture of any significance was the TV-DVD Player set in the middle of the house. An entire section of one wall was covered with posters of good-looking young people, whom I presumed were Cambodian actors/singers. I was later told that they were actually Thai. This probably gives an idea on the cultural influences in this part of Cambodia. After all, Preah Vihear is a province that shares a border with Thailand. Outside the house is the dirt road and beyond that are the fields of cassava.
TRADITIONAL KHMER-STYLE LUNCH
We initially thought that we would just rest here for a bit before continuing on our way to Koh Ker, but apparently, Sam had asked them to prepare lunch for us as part of his drive/guide package. He actually specifically requested to prepare deer meat for us, but since none was available that day, they just got freshly hunted wild boar instead. We had the option for the food to be set at a table but Sam encouraged us to eat Khmer-style so it was set on a “dining mat” on the floor, and with all of us Indian sitting around the food.
There was a lot to be learned about this experience. (1) First, it turns out that traditional Khmer dining (or at least the rural variety) involved the use of chopsticks. (2) Next, the sort of default setting of Khmer food is “spicy”, and different dishes just vary in degrees of spiciness. Frankly, the only non-spicy food that was prepared was the rice. (3) Speaking of the rice, its presence as a staple food was quite expected since Cambodia is a rice-producing country. But it’s nevertheless nice to know that they treat rice the same way as we do – by serving as much of it as possible as a show of hospitality. (I never was a fan of serving rice in cups – it gives the impression of it being rationed.)
As for the wild boar, the meat was certainly tough and chewy. The first time I tasted wild boar was when I was less than 10 years old, so I’ve largely forgotten what it’s like. I expected that there would be an odor of sorts associated with the wild boar meat, but there was surprisingly none. I guess it was prepared really well.
I’m not sure if it’s also traditional but while we were eating, one of the household members turned on the TV and DVD player and started to play Khmer music videos. (Yes, the same ones that Mekong Express plays in their buses.) It seems that Cambodians really love their music videos. I didn’t want to be a boorish guest to a family that has shown me excellent hospitality so I just smiled when asked if I liked what was being played.
FYI: To be fair, I generally dislike all music videos – not just Cambodian. In fact, there’s a lot of Filipino music videos that make me cringe in disgust. So as the cliche goes, “it’s not [them]. It’s me.”
It was hard to participate in the after-meal conversations because only Sam spoke good English and we did not burden him with requests to translate every single line spoken by our hosts. They did notice though that Leika and I were very fond of the house cat, which made them inquire whether there were also cats where we were from. Also, I caught another comment that remarks how my features look so much like a typical Cambodian’s. It’s hard to disagree this time because the faces of our hosts (and also Sam’s) likewise don’t look foreign at all to me. If I somehow brought them to the Philippines, they would hardly get a second look from people. They’d fit right in.
Shortly after lunch we continued on our way to the temple complex in Koh Ker. Before boarding the car, we had a short picture-taking session with the family in front of the house in the farm because while, by now, my camera has a lot of photos of places, there’s a significant lack of photos with people as its subject.
KOH KER: THE FORGOTTEN CAPITAL
A younger member of the household was tasked to join us to direct Sam on where to go to reach Koh Ker. Again, I forgot his name, but he spoke basic functional English and wanted to practice more by talking to us. In hindsight, I wish I talked to him more, but being the tourist that I am, I was so busy hopping from one ruin to another taking pictures.
The very first prasat (temple) that greeted us just after entering the complex is a group of 5 towers covered in various states of overgrowth by strangler figs, and surrounded by a partially collapsed wall. This is Prasat Pram. Being the only tourists in the area, we eagerly explored the place. I even took a video with my Blackberry which I posted here.
From that point onwards, we hopped from one ruin to another and we just stopped trying to keep track of the names of each one because there were simply far too many. There were some prasats that we didn’t stop at anymore because they resembled the previous ruin almost identically.
In one temple, I saw ancient inscriptions carved on the pillars. I got so mesmerized by it that I couldn’t help but touch them and trace my fingers on the lines. I just had to have a feel of the centuries-old writing with my own skin. To this day I don’t know why I did not take a picture of those inscriptions. One thing that interested me is the fact that the inscriptions looked so similar to the Laguna Copperplate Inscription – the earliest known written document in the Philippines. To illustrate (click images to enlarge):
One more thing, the Laguna Copperplate is dated to have been inscribed at around 900 A.D., i.e. contemporaneous to when Koh Ker was at its height.
Everywhere we went, there were signs informing people that the area has already been cleared of very deadly landmines (a sad legacy of all the troubles Cambodia went through in the mid-20th century). Instead of assuring me though, I felt a bit nervous walking around because I kept thinking about what if they missed one landmine?
Remember what I said about the ancient Khmer empire’s penchant of creating an entirely new capital after each successive king? Well, Koh Ker is one such capital that was built early in the empire’s history at around AD 928. I haven’t read on exactly when it was abandoned, but its sheer distance from Angkor certainly contributed to the fact that it’s the least studied temple complex of the Angkorian period.
The highlight of any trip to Koh Ker is Prang, a 7-step pyramid located in the vicinity of the main temple named Prasat Thom. Prang is the largest pyramid in the region and resembles more the Aztec pyramids in central America, rather than any Angkorian-era building. Despite its immense size, the surrounding jungle ensures that it’s completely hidden from view unless you are already very near it.
Prasat Thom is an elaborate temple that has mostly fallen to ruin. Entire sets of pillars have toppled, very high walls lean dangerously on one side, and heavy sandstone blocks in irregularly shaped piles are everywhere. Sam remarked that it’s a very good thing Cambodia does not experience earthquakes, because if it did, all of its great temples would have been leveled and reduced to rubble even before they got rediscovered. Anyway, one can still appreciate the grandeur of the Prasat Thom if one puts a little imagination into it.
Again, I fell into the trap of focusing too much on what’s in front of me (Prasat Thom), to the point that I’ve temporarily forgotten that there’s a mega-sized pyramid (Prang) just behind it. By the time I realized my mistake, I hurriedly proceeded to the vicinity of the pyramid to view, appreciate and shoot pictures of it. There’s actually a metal stairway constructed that could lead on straight to the top of the pyramid, but I thought it would be too much work so I just stayed on the ground and tried to find the best angle to shoot.
As this was the last stop in our exploratory trip to Koh Ker, we prepared for the very long trip back to Siem Reap City. We dropped off our companion at the farm house, but not before also giving him a tip for accompanying us. As afternoon turned to late afternoon, I realized that it would be a terrible thing to be lost in this place as this part of Cambodia has no electricity (therefore no street lights) and almost no concrete roads.
In the words of Sam, once night falls, it’s like one is transported back to the 12th century. We saw a rural folk trudging back home from a hard-day’s work, barefoot and a lot were in their native non-western clothing. This is one large area of Cambodia largely untouched by modernity and has preserved their rural way of life for centuries.
For a while, I thought Sam was lost and he even stopped the car to ask directions from a passerby. But he never look bothered by the situation and soon enough, we reached a point where the road was concrete and electric roadside lamps.
BACK TO SIEM REAP
Since this was my last night in Siem Reap, I wanted to explore a bit of the night scene so I asked to be dropped off at an area near Pub Street, the busiest area of the city. By Leika’s suggestion, I had dinner at Khmer Kitchen where I had to wait for around 15 minutes to be seated because the place was packed. I ordered pork amok, a dish cooked in coconut milk, some vegetables and spices, which also had chicken and beef varieties.
As I was dining al fresco literally right beside a busy alleyway, I was at a good vantage point to observe the goings-on. Everywhere, there were east Asian and western tourists milling about. Across the alleyway was a row of fish spa contraptions where occasionally some tourists avail themselves of the “spa” service. (And to anyone who’s undergone this experience, it could be quite ticklish, and therefore noisy.) What impressed me was the absolute lack of beggars and roving vendors pestering tourists to part with their cash. If this were in, say, Boracay, beggars and vendors would have a field day with the sheer number of prospects.
After dinner, I decided to walk around and cross the Siem Reap river via a well-lit bridge to see reach a market complex on the other side. I didn’t really see anything as most of the shops by that time were already closed so I went back to the side where I was and walked some more. Soon after, I felt tired and started to walk back towards Happy Guesthouse to finally get some sleep. Along the way, I walked by some very poorly lit stretches of the main road and while it might look creepy to some, I was assured by the presence of policemen at regular intervals.
Back at the guesthouse, I ordered a soda as I settled my bill that night with Song, so that I won’t be in a rush the next morning when the van service of Mekong Express picks me up. The conversation with Song and the cold soda actually “woke” me up and I took advantage of this fleeting wakefulness by packing all my stuff. By the time I was done, I was felling sleepy again. Soon after, and completely forgetting to wash my face or brush my teeth, I slumped on the bed and fell asleep.
Next: Traveling back to Vietnam.
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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