We only had about an hour and a half at Angkor Wat, which is a very short time to really explore the vast complex. We would return there on our third day, unaccompanied by our guide, to do some final exploring.
Upon the end of our first day (it was hard to believe we had been out only five hours!), we were beat. We had thought about exploring the central market or Pub Street, the places most visitors head for after a day at the temples, but the hotel was too comfortable. We sat outside by the pool, even as the rain came down, listening to the sounds of local music played on a roneat ek, a wooden instrument resembling a xylophone. The following day was to be a long one.
We started the next day with a morning view of Angkor Wat, from the opposite side of the main entrance. This stop was only for photo-taking from a distance, as our guide had a full agenda and wanted to make sure we covered everything on it. So, off we were, to Prasat Kravan, Pre Rup, Mebon, Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre, Ta Prohm, and Phnom Bakheng. Got all that?
Each temple was distinct in some way – in its architecture, its surroundings, its ornate-ness (is that a word?). Some were remote and peaceful, others were ringed with hawkers selling all kinds of souvenirs, complete with kids who would surround the car as soon as it came to a stop, selling postcards and books and all kinds of crafts. These boys and girls were persistent! And quite savvy, too. Claire tried to bargain with one little boy, and he replied that he wouldn't earn any profit at the price she wanted.
Following is a short summary of each temple we visited during our full day in the area.
Prasat Kravan: this peaceful temple is a small structure with the remnants of five towers, each of which holds a chamber or sanctuary within. While small relative to the other temple complexes, Prasat Kravan is significant for the bas reliefs on the inside each of the chambers, apparently the only example of this type of Khmer artwork in the area. I enjoyed the quiet setting - we were joined by only two other visitors during our time there.
Pre Rup: this large complex has towers arising from two distinct levels, which are accessed via long stairways. The ground level features large elephant statues at the corners and grassy spaces that separate the outer wall from the inner structures. From the top level, you looked out over miles and miles of lush jungle. This is another quiet space, even with dozens of other tourists around, and it provides a perfect atmosphere for peaceful contemplation.
Mebon: This temple is very similar to Pre Rup, and we viewed it only from the car. It is in a bit worse state of disrepair. I would have liked to visit a bit more closely, but we had a 30+ minute drive to our next destination, Banteay Srei.
Banteay Srei: This beautiful complex is compact enough to make it feel like an island (it is surrounded by a moat). It was built with a different type of stone, which gives it a reddish-gold color, and the level of detail and intricacy of the carvings is amazing. Its name means "Citadel of the Women", presumably referring to the delicacy of its decoration. What is striking about this temple is its miniature size relative to the other temples we saw, and that every inch of surface is covered with highly intricate carvings.
The area around Banteay Srei is bustling with hawkers and restaurants, so we stopped there for lunch. I had an excellent local dish, chicken amok, which is chicken and vegetables (spinach, I think) steamed with savory coconut rice and served in a coconut shell. With a cold Bayon beer, it was the perfect respite from the hot noonday sun.
After lunch, we headed back towards Siem Reap (Banteay Srei is about 20 kilometres north of the city). Our next stop was to become my favorite.
Banteay Samre: This remote complex has a distinct coloring, a striking gray and black that reminded me strongly of Minas Tirith from the Peter Jackson's film version of Return of the King. The interior of the complex and all the structures are accessed by elevated walkways, about six feet off the ground. Apparently, the grounds fill with water after heavy rains, giving the complex a Venice-like feel (which I would have loved to see!). Clouds fought with the sun during our stay there, giving us intermittent periods of light and shade. It was very peaceful inside the complex, with few visitors. I could have stayed there all day. We also found an interesting piece of history there, as well - a clip from an AK-47, left over from the bloody Khmer Rouge campaign in the 1970s.
Our next stop was the "Lara Croft Temple". The climactic scene of one of the Tomb Raider movies was filmed at a complex called Ta Prohm. A defining feature of this complex is that huge strangler fig and silk cotton trees have grown over and through the stones, creating an eerie scene that looks as if the jungle is going to claim the temples. This has caused a great deal of deterioration in the structure, and there are numerous areas where walls have been fortified with new supports to keep them from collapsing. It had a much more claustrophic atmosphere, as if the jungle were growing inwards on it.
Our last stop involved a 20 minute hike up a hill to Phnom Bakeng (phnom means hill in Khmer). This is a popular spot for sunset, and it gives a bird's eye view of Angkor Wat. Once you reach the top of the hill via the "elephant path" (the steep stairs that go straight up the hillside are now closed for safety reasons), you still have to climb another 100 feet up to the summit of the structure, which is in pretty poor shape. It is the views that are important here, though, and as you can see from the picture, the vista of Angkor Wat is pretty nice. We didn't wait for sunset, as it was getting too crowded, and Sam (our guide) warned us against it. After coming down the very steep steps in the daylight, and then hiking down the elephant path against the crush of people ascending for the sunset, I am glad we didn't do that.
Wow, what a day!