We met our excellent driver Chheab in the lobby at 6:30 am and headed out for more temple crawling. First, an hour’s drive for about 60 km to Beng Mealea. It was wonderful to get out in the countryside, passing endless rice fields, mango plantations, countless little roadside shops and businesses—people making a living that didn’t involve tourism! We chatted with Chheab as we drove along, learning about his tourism degree, his family, his wedding, Cambodian industries … being a tourism graduate, he was full of information!
We stopped at a small roadside checkpoint to buy a US$5 entry ticket. While Carol went to the restroom I studied one of the small Buddhist shrines that look like little houses on a pole that you see everywhere. Little glasses held white coffee, black coffee, and water, the latter swarming with big red ants.
On to Beng Mealea, a huge early 12th century ruined temple in the jungle. We were lucky to have the place almost to ourselves for about an hour—enough time to explore along the raised wooden walkways through the monumental crumbling edifice, find a spot to have our breakfast, and enjoy the atmospheric surroundings and the sound of the jungle. The temple was almost Lovecraftian in scale—the phrase ‘cyclopean masonry’ kept coming to mind—huge hills of giant stone blocks, mammoth walls, green encrusted stone, and at the end of the system of walkways, a dark, mysterious passage, cool and silent and walked by ghosts.
Then, sadly, the hordes of prattling, mindless tourists arrived, busloads of brainless twits talking at the top of their voices, pointing their cameras at everything without composing the photos, looking with half an eye and listening with a tin ear. The peace and atmosphere was shattered—time to go.
We drove back west and stopped next to Lolei—one of the three temples of the ‘Roulos group, the site of an earlier Khmer capital. This small group of brick temples is undergoing renovation and covered in scaffolding. A colourful Buddhist temple next door rewarded a quick visit however. In one corner was a dusty glass shop counter filled with old bones and skulls.
Next in this trio was Preah Ko, two rows of three late 9th century towers.
Finally, Bakong, the most impressive of the group, a huge pyramid surrounded by other ruined temples and sanctuaries, walls and a moat.
Each temple has been so unique and interesting, but it’s satisfying to begin to recognise common decorative mythological motifs and oft-repeated beasties like garudas and nagas.
Driving back towards the central group of temples, we came to Prasat Kravan. This is a row of 5 shrines on a plinth (only the central one is complete), all constructed with brick. The highlight was some beautiful bas-relief sculptures of Vishnu in the central tower.
Our last temple for the day was Pre Rup. We paid Chheab an extra US$20 to detour to this one for us. Unfortunately the hotel has not been clear on what we can do with our car hire each day—we first got the impression we could go anywhere, but soon realised there were set tourist routes. So today it was US$87 to go to out Beng Melea and back, and the hotel takes a US$27 cut! We kept telling Chheab we wanted to be ‘flexible’ and that became a running joke between us. So if you’re going to Siem Reap, pre-book your own driver outside of the hotel. In fact, book Chheab!
Anyway, Pre Rup was a huge and impressive pyramid with a stunning view of the jungle from the top level, reached by a steep climb. Before we climbed up, we saw a fat German tourist bark “WAIT A MOMENT!” at his local guide, for all the world like a colonial-era sergeant major. We were so disgusted by this display of arrogance and rudeness it was obviously clear on our faces, and the guide saw us and made a gesture of frustration and then put a conspiratorial finger to his lips. As we passed we both gave him a cheery “suostei!” (hello) and ignored the rude German.
To me, Pre Rup was like something straight out of the fantasy world of Tékumel; I loved it. It’s a cultural reference from half a world away of course, but I could easily imagine sacrificed victims thrown down the step sides of the pyramid!
Back to the hotel, and a swim, and a drink by the pool, as we planned our next steps. Bantleay Chmarr and Preah Vihear were two possible destinations (both 6 hours drive away), but the former homestay people never got back to us, and the latter hilltop temple is located in a slightly dodgy area on a disputed border, so in the end we decided on Battambang and a homestay near a cave from which a huge colony of bats emerges every night!
A tuk tuk to Pub Street, a drink at a street side bar, dinner at Khmer Kitchen (again, we both had the delicious Cambodian curry amok), and a gelato to finish.
Another incredible day. It’s hot and muggy but not unbearably so, and I think neither of us would ever get tired of visiting all these fascinating temples.