Cambodia: Part 2 – Distant Temples, Floating Villages, and a Country Recovering from War

Sunrise over the staircase leading up Phnom Krom, Cambodia

The country of Cambodia is a vast and mystical place, with literally thousands of historical sights and places to visit. A large concentration of these famous temples and ancient cities can be found in the Angkor region, near the city of Siem Reap.  I visited this area in January 2011 on a stopover immediately following a business trip to Vietnam and explored the area in as much depth as I could in the short time I had.

The sights I visited in Cambodia were so numerous and so picturesque that I made the decision to break this blog entry into two posts.  The first post detailed my visit to the temples in the Angkor region, including the famous Angkor Wat temple complex. This second post covers some of the temples further afield, as well as my visit to Tonlé Sap lake to visit a floating village.

As I discussed in my earlier post, these temples and city complexes were constructed around a thousand years ago during the Khmer Empire, and rivaled other famous architecture forms of the time in terms of beauty and balance. After visiting the temples in the Angkor region on the first part of my trip, I headed further east of Siem Reap to visit two particularly interesting temples, Banteay Srei and Beng Melea.

 

Temples Outside the Main Angkor Area

Banteay Srei

The temple of Banteay Srei is affectionately known as the ‘Women’s Citadel’ or the ‘Citadel of Beauty’, likely due to it’s smaller than average size and intricate carvings. The entire structure is composed of red sandstone, which gives a beautiful glow to all of the carvings in the complex.

Doorway at Banteay Srei Temple, Cambodia

The temple of Banteay Srei was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva in the year 967 A.D., and was only recently rediscovered less than a hundred years ago (1914.) The level of detail in the carvings here is impressive, as the sandstone provided a wood-like surface for the artisans to work with.

Detail inside Banteay Srei Temple, Cambodia

Because it’s relatively distant from Siem Reap, this temple doesn’t get nearly as many visitors as Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom, but there are still a relatively large amount who come here to view the extraordinarily high level of detail on this temple.

Banteay Srei Temple, Cambodia

By comparison to the other temples of the region, Banteay Srei is quite small. This size adds to its charm, however, as it feels almost like a toy temple or a temple for children.

Children playing in Banteay Srei Temple, Cambodia

The surrounding fields and marshes around Banteay Srei are filled with water buffalo, cows, and villagers engaged in agricultural pursuits, which further adds to its ambiance and adds a peaceful feeling to the complex. After exploring this beautiful temple, I jumped back into my car for the long drive to the lost temple of Beng Mealea, the highlight of my trip.

Village children and cows near Banteay Srei Temple, Cambodia

Beng Mealea

The most impressive ruins I have ever encountered in my life so far can be found in the temple complex of Beng Mealea. This temple was built in the same style as the famous Angkor Wat and is nearly as large (181m x 152m compared to 187m x 215m for Angkor Wat.) Unlike its famous contemporary, however, it was completely abandoned for centuries and the jungle was given free reign to tear it apart, stone by stone.

Self-portrait in the ruins of Beng Mealea, Cambodia

The roots of invading vegetation wreaked havoc on the structure, pushing apart stones and causing most of the structure to collapse haphazardly. Finding your way around the temple requires scrambling under collapsed passageways, climbing up rubble, and jumping across chasms. In short, this place is a real adventurer’s playground, and its distance from Siem Reap and massive size allows for a much greater degree of solitude than you get in many of the other temples closer to the city.

While I greatly enjoyed my time in more famous temples like Angkor Wat, I can honestly say that I had the best overall experience at Beng Mealea. Exploring this place was like fulfilling a boyhood dream of finding the ruins of an ancient civilization and getting the opportunity to crawl your way around it.

Strangler fig slowly destroying the temple of Beng Mealea, deep in the Cambodian jungle

This was a place that used to house thousands, but when you are there it is really just you, the jungle, and the remnants of a lost civilization. Indiana Jones has nothing on this place…

Inner ruined chambers of Beng Mealea, Cambodia

The western edges of Beng Mealea are also actively used for farming, grazing, and fishing by the local Cambodian population, which increases its charm and ‘reality factor’ in my opinion.  After exploring the temple, if you keep going west through the temple complex you can find the far ruins of the West gate in an area filled with rice paddies, grazing cows, and villagers working the fields.

Villagers near Beng Mealea, Cambodia

At Beng Mealea, as at many of the other Khmer sites in Cambodia one can find numerous statues of ‘Naga’ or a mythical seven headed snake-like creature that legend has it all Cambodian people are descended from. The statues are typically in the form of a balustrades, or railing on the pathways that lift up at the end to display the snake-heads.

Naga (Seven-headed mythical snakes) on the end of balustrades in the temple of Beng Mealea, Cambodia

Beng Melea presents some of the most surreal ‘Civilization lost’ moments for me. It has the feeling of those ‘Life After People’ specials that illustrate what would happen to the cities and monuments of the human race if we were to suddenly disappear.

Tree growing from a tower at in the temple of Beng Mealea, Cambodia

Incidentally, no one really knows for sure why this city was abandoned and exactly when. But what is clear is that this would have been the fate of Angkor Wat, had it not been at least somewhat protected from the jungle as opposed to completely abandoned.  All it takes to split some massive stones apart is a small seed from a ficus tree or other plant, plus time for nature to do its work.  A few centuries later and the end result is the ruins that you see in Beng Mealea.

Ruins of the temple of Beng Mealea, Cambodia

Like many of the Khmer structures, Beng Mealea is surrounded by a square moat, originally dug by hand as part of the construction of the complex. The inside dimensions of the moat are fairly large (1025m x 875m) and compare very closely with those of Angkor Wat’s moat.  The moat is now used by Cambodians primarily for swimming and fishing.

Villagers swimming in the moat around the temple of Beng Mealea, Cambodia

Oh, and by the way, up until a few years ago Beng Mealea was an ACTIVE MINEFIELD. During the wars that took place in the time of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s Beng Mealea was heavily mined, and it was only recently that it was demined by German sappers. As you wander through the grounds of the complex, you have to wonder…how well of a job did they really do? Am I about to take a wrong step on a spot that was missed and end up amputated for life? It really helps you to better understand the plight of a people who live amongst the vestiges of the world’s most massive minefield.

Sign Indicating the Removal of the Minefield at the temple of Beng Mealea, Cambodia

Indeed, Cambodia is only just starting to recover from the bloody history of the Khmer Rouge, who are estimated to have been responsible for the killing of one and a half million Cambodians during the late 70’s, an act recognized as genocide and one that affected nearly every Cambodian alive at the time. My driver listed off all of the family members of his that were killed at the time, and also pointed out the areas on the road between Siem Reap and Beng Melea that witnessed some of the last fighting between Khmer Rouge militants and government forces, a sobering reminder of the fresh scars of war in this otherwise paradisiacal place.

 

Floating Village of Chong Kneas

One especially interesting diversion in the Siem Reap area can be found on the shores of a unique lake known as Tonlé Sap. What makes this lake unique is that, during the rainy monsoon season, the lake increases in size from 2700 square km to 16,000 square km as the amount of water dumped into the lake from the rains backs up the water flow through the Mekong river outlet and causes the lake to rise from an average depth of around one meter to up to nine meters. This massive swing in lake level results in the flooding of a good deal of the surrounding land.  Most of the houses near the lake are subsequently built on stilts to keep them high and dry, or, alternatively, simply boats themselves are used as houses, as in the case of the famous floating village of Chong Kneas.

Boats tied to the Marina on Tonlé Sap lake. Note the huge drop from the current shore of the lake in dry season to where it ends up in monsoon season.

After my tour of Beng Melea, my driver recommended a final stop at the lake, so we drove the two hour ride back to Siem Reap and south towards the docks.  From there, I negotiated a boat rental and set off for the village down the narrow estuaries. It’s a great experience, and the guides will let you drive if you ask.

Navigating the channels of Tonlé Sap lake in a longboat.

When the rainy season comes, the village simply rises with the lake itself. It also keeps the villagers close to the best fishing, which the lake has much of.

Floating Village of Chong Kneas on Tonlé Sap Lake, Cambodia

The floating village is complete with churches, mosques, stores, and even schools!  What’s curious about the village is also the fact that the majority of the villagers are actually ethic Vietnamese, rather than Khmer, which is evident from the clothing styles (note the Vietnamese hats) and the language spoken, which often is Vietnamese (note the sign, written in Khmer, English, and Vietnamese.)

Floating church and floating school in the village of Chong Kneas on Tonlé Sap lake, Cambodia

As a word of warning, your boat guide may take you to a general store where he will ask if you would like to buy some ramen noodles to bring to the local children at the school. You are in no way obligated to buy them, as they are sold at hyper-inflated prices and, from what I understand, not really distributed to the children at all. After the tourists leave, the box of ramen noodles finds its way back to the general store. In any case, I can’t completely fault these guys for trying, and at a minimum it is interesting to peek into the general store while you are there.

Market in the Floating Village of Chong Kneas on Tonlé Sap lake, Cambodia

The boat guides will generally take you wherever you want to go in the village. I found it interesting to mostly observe how the villagers fish, especially the young children, many of whom literally grew up on the water and rarely see dry land.

Children fishing in Market in the Floating Village of Chong Kneas on Tonlé Sap lake, Cambodia. Note the Bar/Restaurant in the background that I would end up at.

If you take the boat ride later in the day, you can catch the sunset from a large bar/restaurant in the village where the boats typically take foreigners. It is an interesting place as you can check out an open pen that contains Siamese crocodiles that are native to this lake.

Longboats parked at the bar/restaurant in the Floating Village of Chong Kneas on Tonlé Sap lake, Cambodia.

Crocodile pens such as the one at this spot can help to keep the species from going extinct, but they also contribute to the decline of the overall population of wild crocodiles in the lake itself. This is due to the fact that captured crocodiles are often sold to the crocodile farms illegally, so I viewed this place with resigned skepticism while I was here. In any case, the platform above the bar allows for some great sunset views, and you can spend as much time here as you want before heading back to the Marina.

Children fishing at sunset in the floating village of Chong Kneas on Tonlé Sap lake, Cambodia.

After sunset on the lake, I headed back to Siem Reap for my last night in Cambodia. At this point in the trip, much of what I had eaten was amazing Cambodian street food that cost me no more than a few dollars for each meal. While I could eat that type of savory and spicy southeast Asian street food for years on end, for the final night I decided to splurge a bit and try some nouveau Cambodian fusion cuisine at the high class Meric Restaurant in the ritzy Hôtel de la Paix. While exponentially more expensive than the street food I had before this, the Khmer Tasting Menu I sampled was most definitely delicious, and worth the splurge.

Khmer Rouge Tasting Menu at the Meric Restaurant in the Hôtel de la Paix, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Probably the most interesting part of the Hôtel de la Paix was the Arts Lounge there, which at the time had a display that consisted of numerous melting large ice chunks suspended from the ceiling and dripping onto the floor. The vibe in this place was most definitely unique, to say the least.

Melting ice suspended from the ceiling as part of a display in the Arts Loung of the Hôtel de la Paix, Siem Reap, Cambodia

 

Farewell to Cambodia

Phnom Krom

The next morning, on a tip from my driver I went out near Tonlé Sap lake again and hiked up the large lakeside hill there known as Phnom Krom to watch the sunrise.  There is a Khmer era temple at the top of Phnom Krom as well, though this one is in much worse shape than many of the other ones I visited the day before.

Khmer temple at Phnom Krom, Cambodia

Watching the sunrise over the rice paddies and villages of Cambodia from Phnom Krom was a peaceful and serene experience, and provided a fitting send-off for my trip out of Cambodia.

Sunrise over Cambodia as viewed from the hill at Phnom Krom, Cambodia

Phnom Krom also includes an active Buddhist monastery at the top, which is where you can visit a statue that can only be described as ‘Cricket-playing Buddha.’

Statue informally known as 'Cricket-playing Buddha' in the Buddhist monastery on the top of Phnom Krom, Cambodia

Before I left, my driver and I descended down Phnom Krom and to his village at the base of the staircase that leads up the hill.

Descending the staircase on Phnom Krom, Cambodia

There, in the village at the base of the hill where he lives, my driver’s uncle served me one last home-cooked Cambodian breakfast before we took off for the border with Thailand and my waiting flight home.

Village at the base of Phnom Krom, Cambodia

The road between Siem Reap and the Thai border was fairly decent, and I’m told it has been upgraded substantially over the years.  Along the way, you get to see some very interesting transportation choices as well.

Cambodian motorcycle driver taking three kids for a ride in the countryside near Siem Reap, Cambodia

All in all, the drive to the border was a pleasant one past Buddhist stupas, rice paddies, and signs of the growing prosperity of the Cambodian people.

Motorcycle and unorthodox passenger speeding down the road in Cambodia

One interesting note about the border between Cambodia and Thailand; It is one of the few places in the world where, upon crossing, traffic switches from driving on the right side of the road to driving on the left. I had always wondered  how this was handled logistically and the answer is actually quite simple, trucks that pass across the border simply take turns moving from one side of the road to the other at a designated spot.

Thai truck moving from the left side to the right side of the road at the border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia

At the border, I bid my driver adieu and sped off in a taxi en route to Bangkok airport for the start of a long trip home. Even with my aggressive itinerary, I barely scratched the surface on what Cambodia has to offer, it is truly a place for those looking for amazing adventure, architecture, food, and art. At the same time, Cambodia is also blessed with some of the friendliest people you’ll ever come across.  For all of these reasons Cambodia is most definitely on my list of places I intend to return to in the (hopefully) very near future.

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