Even though Banteai Srei was very busy when I visited it, based on what I was told, it didn’t used to be that way. Had I visited Cambodia a few years earlier, trying to reach the temple would take a lot of effort because there was no paved road leading to this part of the country and if I did make it here, I would likely be the only person inside. This took a whole different turn after the paved road was laid. Buses were now able to comfortably drive their single day pass holders to the temple and back in a manner of hours, affording them an experience unlike any other within Angkor proper (where all main temples are located).
Trips to Banteay Srei can also be combined with trips to Beng Melea – which is what I did, but explorers who want to see even more can also include Kbal Spean and/or Banteay Samrei to their itinerary, as they are both in the same neck of the woods. Below is a small gallery of photos I took during my stop at Banteay Srei. I was accompanied by Ha and her daughter since we were able to fool the ticket inspector that they were Cambodians.
After my first meeting with Ha’s daughter, I knew it wasn’t going to be our last. This sort of caught me off guard as all my recent encounters with kids were negative – either trained clowns able to fake-cry on command, going out of their way to get money off of you and telling you to F%$k off if you don’t give it to them, or screaming the entire flight turning an already exhausting experience into a nightmare from hell – so if you even remotely brought up anything to do with kids, I would have told you to keep them as far away from me as possible so nobody gets hurt. But bubbly personality Ha’s daughter was radiating got the best of me.
After I embarked on my third day of Angkor exploring, I took on the Grand Circuit in a counter-clockwise direction with a mandatory stop at my new-found friends’ from the Sras Srang village. The temple of Banteay Kdei was about 12 km away from where I stayed in Siem Reap, and just a corner turn away from the Grand Circuit which made it a perfect, strategic stop to recharge on energy with coconut water and cool off the sweat the ride so far has resulted in. But I also had an extra plan for the stop at Banteai Kdei.
When I first went with Ha to see her daughter, I made a quick stop at a convenience store to buy candy. I thought it would make a kid happy and pre-occupied enough to leave me the hell alone. It did make her happy – beyond happy – but it didn’t keep her off of me, though by that time I didn’t mind. Obviously, buying the kid a simple thing which her mother could not afford to buy meant a world to the little girl. Anticipating my next meeting with her, I thought I was gonna buy something more sustainable and less damaging to her already spoilt teeth. I had to take two things into an account:
Ha was always by my side, except from times when I was at Angkor
I wanted to make it a surprise so buying anything in Siem Reap would defeat this idea. And since any business in Siem Reap would try to rip me off as much as any tout at Angkor Archaeological Park would, there was no benefit to buying in town over buying at Angkor. On top of it all – my relationship with the Sras Srang villagers was nicely developing so I thought I’ll get the best of both world and buy something for Ha’s daughter from them.
As much as I enjoyed the company of the villagers, they were still Cambodians and I was still a foreigner. For them it’s always an “Us Against Them” game so as I kept spending more and more time with them, but buying nothing except a whole pile of coconuts every day, they continued bugging me and requesting that I fall for their sales pitch and spend more money. Under normal circumstances, I would not give in to the pressure of pestering touts (except that one time when the little girl tout who broke into tears after a would-be customer bought from somebody else), but since I wanted to buy Ha’s daughter something anyway, so why not from my new friends? Whom better to support financially than people with whom I was gonna spend several month with (though at the time I didn’t quite know it yet)? So I did just that. It didn’t ease the pressure one bit, but gave me an extra argument to counter theirs with when they tried to force me into buying some more.
Granted, everything they sell at Angkor is a piece of junk. There are basically two types of items you can buy: bootlegs of all sorts and miserable quality t-shirts. I didn’t have many options so I went for a low quality t-shirt. I’m not very good at buying presents so I had to make it easy on myself. The biggest challenge I was faced with was trying to guess the right size for Ha’s daughter. They had children sized tops with elephants on them in both small and medium. I asked my friends to get some four year old girl touts to come over so I can test the size on them. Since Ha’s daughter was the same age and racial differences are minimal between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians, I thought this was gonna help me choose the right size. I ended up going with medium sized top as small seemed as though it was meant for infants. I also thought buying the top that’s a bit too big would be better in a long run than getting one that’s a bit too small. The four year olds grow big quickly, so if the garment is a tad large right now, it’ll fit just fine later. Whereas if it’s already tight, it’s gonna be completely unusable very soon.
My suspicion was correct – the medium sized top was still a bit too big for her, but that mattered not. Both Ha and her daughter were beaming with delight when I pulled the top out of my camera bag and handed it to the little girl. I haven’t seen this much happiness in a very long time. The girl was so excited she instantly wanted to pose for pictures with her new top on. She loved having her pictures taken and as a photographer, I loved taking them. Four year old, but so photogenic and just shining with glamour. Little did they know at the time that this was naught but the beginning. The main surprise of the day was yet to come.
Gallery of pictures I took of Ha’s daughter wearing the top I bought her from the villagers at Banteay Kdei temple is below:
A trip to the Preah Khan Temple is one of those I will never forget. This is where I had fake orphanage kids attempt to steal my bicycle and had it not been for an intervention by the divine providence, they would have succeeded. Not only would I end up without something that was rightfully mine, I would also end up stuck without transportation at the part of the Grand Circuit that just happens to be the furthest from Siem Reap. And that is not a very positive outlook in a country like Cambodia. I would have to rent services of a tuk tuk driver who, seeing that I was just a subject to crime, would take advantage of the situation for his own personal enrichment. For Cambodians, a person in need is not a person to whom to assist. For Cambodians, a person in need is a person easier to exploit because they are out of the options and cannot be choosers.
Luckily for me, in the nick of time I got that funny feeling that I should repark my bike somewhere where it would be more difficult to steal so I interrupted my visit to Preah Khan only to catch the fake orphanage kids to whom I previously donated money thinking that they would gratefully watch over my bike in return, dashing off carrying my bicycle with them. My untimely show-up with a follow up yell from hell made them drop the bike on the spot and run for their lives. It was hot and I was tired from whole day exposure to that devastating Cambodian sun, but when the feeling of uneasiness about the insecurely parked bike came upon me, I interrupted my visit to the temple thinking that I would return to finish the exploration after I had my bike reparked and locked against something unmovable.
Needless to say, the distress the discovery of the theft attempt caused made the return to Preah Khan a no option. I counted my blessings and feeling happy I still had my bicycle, I rode off, away from this God-forbidden place where some of the most horrible inhabitants of the Earth operate as the lowest form of scum imaginable. However, because I was only partially done exploring Preah Khan when I left to repark my bicycle, I don’t have pictures of all of it. The gallery below contains the images I did take, however I left some for after the repark, which I ultimately ended up not having a chance to capture. Those include a picture of that unique two storey stand alone building with circular columns – something very unique for Angkor Archaeological Park as nothing of sorts can be seen anywhere else within the area. And it also includes the missing picture of the central sanctuary itself.
Now to the gallery of photos of the Preah Khan temple:
The entrance causeway is lined on both sides with the same row of Asuras carrying a body of a huge naga serpent that can be found at the South Gate to Angkor Thom, however all Asuras at the Preah Khan Temple are headless. Locals stole the heads during their looting raids and sold them to rich foreigners who yearned to have a historically significant rock in their possession. Some speculate that presence of these Asuras at the entrance to the temple makes Preah Khan more significant than Banteai Kdei or Ta Prohm, both of which receive incomparably more visitor traffic (mostly because they are on the Small Tour).
As for the pictures with those giant trees growing over the structures – because the passages immediately below the trees are crumbling and no way has been found to secure them yet, the access to these parts is restricted by the warning signs (as you can see from one of the photo in the gallery). However there is no one enforcing the no access requirement so a visitor to Angkor with a death wish can freely proceed and stand right below the crumbling rocks on top of which a monster tree is growing ever so tall. I had to be one of the crazy ones. I just could not pass up on this opportunity to stand right below those enormous trees knowing that the piles of huge rocks that support them could come crushing down at any given time. Utmost stupidity and I was fully aware of it at the time, yet still I wanted to stick my head where the danger was. It was my time at Angkor, afterall. For me it was a one in a lifetime opportunity to stand below those famous silk trees that brace the stones of Angkor in substitute for pillars in a frisk of nature that is as astounding as it is precarious. It was this close knit of nature with ancient architecture that drove me to Angkor in the first place.
Anyway, without further ado, below is the gallery of photos of the Preah Khan temple I took before the attempt to steal my bicycle by the fake orphanage kids took place. The few spots I left for after the bicycle repark I never eventually got a chance to photograph as I could not comfortably walk inside the temple outside of which an organized group of large caliber crooks operated without backbone of any form:
As is the case of most Angkor Temples (except from Angkor Wat), Ta Som also faces east, however the Grand Circuit road that goes by it passes it from the west affording an entrance through a better preserved western gopura (entrance gate). However it pays to exit the temple through its east gopura because from the outside, the eastern gopura has a huge strangler fig tree (I’m not a tree expert, not 100% sure this is a fig tree) growing on top of it, almost enclosing the entire gopura (this sight not shown in the photo gallery here). It is essential to exit Ta Som through the eastern gopura as looking at it from the inside doesn’t offer any spectacular views, however once you get across and turn around, you won’t regret the extra effort. The fig tree encompassing the entrance hole is impressive and very photogenic. Take lots of pictures and always make backups.
A stone inscription found on a stele recovered from a nearby Preah Khan temple refers to Ta Som as Gaurasrigajaratna, which is its original, ancient name meaning “Jewel of the Propitious White Elephant”. As the temples were abandoned, their original names fell out of knowledge and today they are known by whatever modern variations were assigned to them. Below is a gallery of pictures I took at Ta Som:
Ta Prohm Temple is an eye candy for a photographer. To King Jayavarman VII, Ta Prohm was a centerpiece of his masterplan to restore Khmer empire to a never before seen splendour after it was reclaimed from Cham invaders; to me, Ta Prohm was a centerpiece of my photography adventures at Angkor Archaeological Park. Even though Ta Prohm was my favourite Angkorian era temple, I have only visited it once and all I could capture in rather tricky lighting conditions I had available during my visit is in this photo gallery.
Just as any other day in Cambodia, it was extremely hot and humid on the day I got to Ta Prohm so excessive sweating and subsequent heat exhaustion were inevitable. I was looking forward to taking pictures of Ta Prohm but much of the time spent at the temple was spent hiding in a shade of large trees in an effort to escape the frying power of the intense Cambodian sun. There is no such thing as catching a cooling breeze anywhere at Angkor so all you are left with is inescapable heat. High on natural energy from uplifting coconut water I got from the girls at the Banteay Kdei temple, but unceasingly dripping sweat out of every single pore on my skin, I crisscrossed the temple grounds back and forth to not miss a single opportunity for a perfect picture.
It was early afternoon when I got to Ta Prohm so the sun was right above our heads not causing any backlight no matter which way I turned to take a picture (unlike when I first got to Angkor Wat), however because the sun was super intense and because there’s a pretty elaborate maze of tree branches above Ta Prohm, many cool spots of the temple were subjected to severe contrasts caused by parts being in the sun, while other parts were in the shade. It was rather difficult trying to balance it out so neither highlights are too bright nor shadows too dark but I tried my best.
While I was taking a break and chatting away with girls at Banteay Kdei temple, someone pointed out a stick insect that was sitting there idly on the side of the garbage bin and started taking pictures of it. I didn’t even see it it was so well camouflaged. Since I haven’t seen one before with my own eyes, I also didn’t realize they were this big.
This stick insect was just sitting there, minding his own business and didn’t get disturbed not even after we’ve taken notice of him and caused commotion trying to take picture of it. Just as it was with Praying Mantis, I didn’t have good lens to take a decent picture of it, but since stick insects are not particularly known for being vicious predators, I was not as apprehensive trying to get closer to it.
Its overall size also made it easier to compose the picture. It was yet another first for me in one day. The sun was killing me, the touts were driving me insane, but the wildlife made up for it. Stick insects for the win.
Below is a small photo gallery of stick insect pictures:
The mystery surrounding Banteay Kdei temple is intriguing. Because a marker stele that would contain information about who built the temple and why has never been found, all we can do is guess. What we do know is that Banteay Kdei was constructed over a site of a smaller temple and served as a monastery for the monks during the reign of Jayavarman VII. His successor, king Jayavarman VIII vandalized Buddha images installed within during Jayavarman VII in an attempt to promote Hinduism. The photo gallery below contains pictures of Banteay Kdei I took in September 2009.
Unaware of the issues with lighting, I made the same mistake most of the people visiting Angkor Archaeological Park make and started my small circuit tour with Angkor Wat. Because Angkor Wat faces west (very unusual for a temple), the face of it is shaded in the morning light with the sun acting as strong backlight making for pictures that are not very visually flattering. That’s why it’s best to change the itinerary and start the small circuit tour with Banteay Kdei so by the time you get to Angkor Wat, it will be late afternoon with sun illuminating the face of the temple, allowing for all the details to stand out and gain three dimensional depth. Unlike my morning photo gallery of Angkor Wat which features the temple in bad lighting, this late afternoon gallery features it in good lighting and lets its magnificence take flight.
Because outdoor lighting has little effect on areas inside the temple, I only focused on taking pictures of the temple’s exterior which gets affected by bad lighting the most (as far as the photography is involved). The basin on the north side of the central causeway, right by the shops full of touts and pestering kids is the best spot to take pictures of Angkor Wat. By standing by the basin you will get a slightly angled view of the central temple so all of its five towers can be seen while basin will reflect that view for a stunning mirror image with the sky getting an extra vivid hue densed by the water.
I backtracked directly to Angkor Wat after cutting my small circuit tour short. Upon reaching the Chau Say Tevoda Temple I decided to be done exploring any new temples due to unbearable heat and relentless and hostile con artists. The Angkor experience is greatly bastardized by pushy locals and fighting them off is an extremely tiring struggle which you are bound to lose. You can’t truly appreciate something you are not allowed to enjoy. By the time an afternoon comes, you can read the same message from the face of every foreigner – enough already, please! It takes a great deal of effort to shake off any one of those Angkor touts yet there is never any end to them. As if struggling with intense heat was not bad enough, you will constantly have someone breathing down your neck, pressuring you from every side to trick you into buying worthless junk from them. No matter how impressive the temples of Angkor may in fact be, if you can’t even take a picture without someone bothering you, the entire experience gets bastardized.
After the silhouette of Angkor Wat, the Face Towers of Bayon temple are the most iconic and enigmatic images of Angkor. There are currently 37 towers adorning Bayon with gargantuan faces of Avalokiteshvara, remarkably resembling features of king Jayavarman VII who had them built. While looking at the face towers of Bayon from the ground level delivers little thrill, walking up to the top level of the temple and standing face to face with these giant heads – almost looking them in the eyes, more than makes up for it. Because Bayon Face Towers are an icon on their own, I have decided to create a photo gallery dedicated especially to them, separately from main Bayon temple photo gallery.
Bayon was built by king Jayavarman VII as his state temple at the end of 12th century, after he drove out the Chams who sacked the place. Today, Bayon is best known for its iconic towers crowned with four giant faces, each looking out to a respective cardinal point. Bayon is the center of Angkor Thom and symbolizes Mount Meru, sacred mountain in the center of the universe (inspired from Hindu cosmology). This photo gallery is a collection of photographs I took of Bayon temple when I was exploring it.
Bayon has a multitude of symbolic functions. Outer walls of Angkor Thom constitute its outermost enclosure within which Bayon stands as the pivotal mountain in the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Protected at each entrance by Hindu serpent Vasuki, the gods and demons who rotate it exert the “Elixir of Immortality” from the depths of the water that surrounds it.
Bayon was built to be a Mahayana Buddhist temple. Statue of Buddha seated on and sheltered by a multi-headed serpent Mucilinda was originally housed in the central prasat but was later smashed and thrown into the foundation well after death of Jayavarman VII, indicating change in religion (revival of Brahmanism). The statue went out of knowledge until it was re-discovered by archaeologists in 1933.
Bayon’s exterior galleries have walls covered in bas reliefs but aside from a few passages, lack roofs. Many bas relief characters are Chinese, who are seen as both soldiers and businessmen, often with Khmer women, sometimes with friends drinking and dancing. Random scenes from daily life of people occupying the Angkor Thom city compound are portrayed in bas reliefs of exterior galleries. I’ll let the pictures introduce you to the beauty of the Bayon temple: