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:
To me, a visit to Krol Romeas evoked similar feelings to those I felt when I first entered the Neak Pean Temple – a positive change from the “same old”. After a while, whether it’s due to immense heat of the Cambodian sun, harassment by relentless touts or whatever other reason, all Angkor temples start to look the same. Many are built in the same way – both architecturally and artistically – bearing the same styles and motifs, but even if you get above all that, they all start to look like crumbling piles of jungle overrun ancient rocks after a while. But then you come to Neak Pean and you see something entirely different and it just feels very uplifting. And if Neak Pean felt positively different, then Krol Romeas does twice as much.
What’s most intriguing about Krol Romeas is that it wasn’t even built as a temple. Neak Pean looks unlike anything else at Angkor, but it’s still a temple. Back in the years of the Angkorian glory only temples – being dwellings of the gods – were built out of stone and as such, they are the only thing that still remain. Dwellings of people, including royalties were built from wood and other perishable materials and have long been claimed by nature – including palaces. Everything that was once a powerful and busy area is now gone, except from the temples which still stand. Yet there is one exception to it – Krol Romeas. As it turns out, Krol Romeas is not a temple.
Because not even Khmer kings had their palaces made from stone, the discovery of Krol Romeas lead many to speculations that it must have been a water reservoir. All that remains of Krol Romeas today is a large circular hole in the ground with thick walls of stone along its circumference. But when the signs of an inner wall were discovered, and the fact that the outer wall is just unreasonably thick for a pond of this size, the notion that Krol Romeas was built to be a Baray (water reservoir) was quickly abandoned. But if it’s not a water reservoir, than what is it?
A different look at this unique monument would have it that Krol Romeas was an elephant corral. Its location just outside of the north gate to Angkor Thom would make it suitable for royalty to mount their mahouts for long journeys through the jungle, yet by being behind the gate, the roaring and smell associated with large keep of wild beast would not bother anyone in the palace. Elephants would be bathed and fed inside of the keep and its level being slightly below the ground would make it easy for the nobles to board the animal.
Needless to say, scientists are not firm as to the real function of Krol Romeas but one thing is for sure – it stands out. Unlike Neak Pean, Krol Romeas has not been restored at all. It is as difficult to find as Prasat Prei and Banteay Prei so virtually nobody ever goes there and since it’s completely overrun with trees, it’s also impossible to step back to take any reasonably looking photo of it which would fit all of the structure within.
The dirt road which leads to Krol Romeas has a slight upward slope and is far less trod down that that leading to Prasat Prei and Banteay Prei making its identification tricky. Since the structure doesn’t stick above ground and trees grow uniformly throughout it in the same density as they do outside of it, any form of guesswork which could imply that there is something up that road is not gonna work. Luckily, being not far from the north gate of Angkor Thom, you don’t have a long section of the road to scout through so if you find a dirt road which diverts from the paved road forming the Grand Circuit of Angkor towards the east, regardless of how little used it may seem and how into the middle of the woods it seems to point, it’s probably the one leading to Krol Romeas. Take it.
Banteay Prei is a small, quiet temple that’s in even more ruin than its nearest neighbor – Prasat Prei. Located a couple hundred meters up the dirt road from Prasat Prei, a visit to Banteay Prei is incidental to finding the dirt road which leads to them both. If you do find it, you will be rewarded with relatively quiet spot that will afford you some peace from hellish Angkor touts and a view of the temple that’s built with strangely small doors.
The structure is in a pretty ruinous state with stones collapsing around the doors, but it’s easy to make out what size the door once was and after a visit to a few Angkor temples before, its size will leave you puzzled. Like its neighbor, Banteay Prei was also built in the 12th century and also by great builder King Jayavarman VII. It features architectural/artistic style and scale similar to Ta Som. The temple has some Buddhist carvings on the lintels and some Apsaras on the corners but overall it’s a small, uncomplicated temple ruin that shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes to explore.
To get to Banteay Prei, you just have to try your luck with one of the dirt roads diverting from the Grand Circuit road towards the north. The dirt road is not too far from access road to Preah Khan, only a little bit towards the nearby Neak Pean. Being a Buddhist temple, Banteay Prei was built to face East so if you can visit it before noon, you will have a chance to get nicely illuminated pictures, not crappy once with strong backlight from the sun like I have, cause I got there in the afternoon and the sun was baking.
Prasat Prei is an easy temple to visit. It’s just north of the Preah Khan Temple, slightly towards Neak Pean – on the opposite side of the Grand Circuit road. The trick is that being completely surrounded with trees and having only a shoddy dirt road leading to it, it’s a bit tricky to find. Prasat Prei is a small, insignificant ruin which doesn’t attract anybody. Not even the more determined explorers who do embark on a more thorough exploration of the Grand Circuit venture off to pay Prasat Prei a visit. This could be attributed to both its insignificance as well as difficulty to find. As a matter of fact, it took me several goes before I found the right dirt road which lead to the temple as there is neither a sign nor any other indication telling you that there are some hidden ruins if you go down this path.
The dirt road that leads to Prasat Prei (as well as Banteay Prei, which is just a few hundred meters further north down the same dirt road) is not heavily trodden. It’s probably nothing more than a shortcut to some remote field of rice somewhere beyond the horizon these days, which makes thinking that there could be something worthwhile if one was to swing down there improbable. And truth be told, there really isn’t a big payout to paying Prasat Prei a visit either. However, because it is not a big detour at all, you could easily add two extra lines to the list of visited Angkor temples if you did go for it and tried a dirt road to the north of Preah Khan.
Prasat Prei is a big time ruin. Central tower was restored a bit, but then the restorations were abandoned because the ruin just wasn’t attracting any tourists. The rest of the temple now stands there as a pile of unorganized rocks. Furthermore, built as a Buddhist temple, Prasat Prei is oriented to face the east, so if you reach it in the afternoon (like I did), you’re gonna end up having the sun creating strong backlight making a chance of a decent photograph an impossibility. Still, aside from the need to look for the right dirt road to take (which will likely result in a few there and backs because you took the wrong one which lead to nowhere), visiting Prasat Prei is easy and requires very little energy. No traffic also means no touts so you can use this temple to take a much needed break from this hellish nuisance.
Prasat Prei, whose present day name allegedly means “the temple of the forest” was built in Bayon style by Khmer king Jayavarman VII. Restored central tower features lintels with some carvings and corners adorned with Apsara dancers. Because there isn’t all that much that still stands to explore at Prasat Prei, one only needs a few minutes for this temple and can move further north to reach its even less visually appetizing neighbor – Banteay Prei.
Preah Khan is a large temple. After visiting Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som and Neak Pean temple ruins, I was a bit spoiled because each of them was relatively small (not that small, but compared to most temples along the Petit Circuit, these were smaller) and didn’t take all that much time to explore. Coming to a temple that counted as one of the largest I have visited anywhere in Angkor yet, I had to mobilize much of my strength to still pull it off after 4 stops full of thorough explorations in this heat. It was already mid afternoon so the temperature were soaring, but the realization that I’m doing pretty good keeping up with schedule, and this is the last big task of the day, I was very eager to get right down to it.
Preah Khan was built during reign of Khmer king Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist monastery which also housed a centre of Buddhist studies. Finalized in 1191, Jayavarman VII dedicated the temple which was built on the site of his victory over the invading Chams to his father Dharanindra. Temple’s central sanctuary originally housed the statue of Lokesvara, the savior god of Mahayana Buddhism which was carved in the image of the king’s father. Unfortunately, this image, as well as all other images representing Buddhism were vandalized during the reign of king destroyer Jayavarman VIII who initiated the reform of Angkor’s religion in favor of Hinduism.
Being similar in layout and style to Ta Prohm (which Jayavarman VII dedicated to his mother), Preah Khan bears further similarities to the former in the many trees which grow among and over the ruins. I found Preah Khan to be the second most jungle overgrown in a huge-trees-intertwined-with-ancient-rock way temple – after Ta Prohm. That just about made it the second most photogenic temple as spots with those monster roots running down the crumbling walls like spilled honey were the most visually appealing feature of Angkor Archaeological Park that drew me to Cambodia in the first place.
Preah Khan, whose name means ‘sacred sword’ (derived from its original name of Nagara Jayasri – meaning holy city of victory) was built on an area covering 56 hectares (138 acres). Including the moat (now dry) which surrounds the outer enclosure, Preah Khan measures 800 x 700 meters. The Jayatataka Baray (huge artificial, rectangular shaped pond) which had the unusually round Neak Pean temple in its middle, was right to the east of Preah Khan. The temple is oriented to the east (as are all Buddhist temples) with eastern wall bearing the main gopura (entrance gate). Each of the exterior walls (each cardinal point) has its own gopura and each has its own causeway over the moat lined on both sides with (now headless) asuras and devatas carrying a body of a naga serpent – similar to what can be found at each entrance to Angkor Thom (best seen at the South Gate).
Preah Khan’s central sanctuary (now housing a Buddhist Stupa) is surrounded with four rectangular enclosures. Coming from the east (that’s where you will most likely come from), when you reach the second wall (third enclosure), you will have come to its, rather large gopura which has two huge silk trees growing over its southern side. One of the trees was leaning too much and threatened to take the entire structure down and had to be cut down. Its roots, which hold the coridor together, were however left in place (along with the other tree) and offer a fantastic opportunity for photography. Except that if you come in the afternoon, like I did, you will have the sun creating strong backlight, pretty much ruining what could have been an otherwise awesome picture. You can also take a picture from the opposite side of the wall and have a sun nicely illuminate it, but it doesn’t look nowhere as impressive from there.
Needless to say, the corridor over which the two giant trees grow is crumbled up and very unstable, presenting a very realistic danger of crushing down hence there are signs warning the visitors not to enter that spot. I had to be the one with the death wish and climbed over rubble to get in there for a picture from within the roots and even though nothing happened to me, I must strongly discourage anyone considering doing the same. If you decide to copy my reckless behavior and the weight of the trees delivers the wall its final blow, there will be no saving you. I could think of better ways to die than by being crushed by giant stones. Don’t do it!
Further into the temple you would find another photogenic spot with what was once a huge tree growing over an ancient wall however the wall below that tree already did crumble down and only parts of it still stand supported by the roots and a wooden frame made by the restorers. The tree was too big and threatened further damage to the structure which sealed its demise. Only a stump is left of this once monster, however the stump is atop a big set of roots still encompassing much of the former wall in a composition that is sure to leave the viewer in awe.
Unfortunately, I only got a chance to go across the temple all the way to its western gopura (via the south which is flanked on both sides with cool stone guardians) and back before I started feeling uneasy about leaving my bike out of my sight while only locked against itself and went to repark it only to catch a group of greedy Cambodians attempting to steal it. This unpleasant experience had me abandon further exploration of Preah Khan and even though rather shaken, I moved on to the last few ruins on the Grand Circle.
There is an exceptionally unique two storey high, stand alone building just north of the Hall of Dancers which is on the west side of the third gopura (second wall from the east to cross, aka the one with two trees growing over it). This unique building features round columns – something that’s not found anywhere else in Angkor. Because of the bicycle stealing episode, I did not go back to Preah Khan and as such, didn’t get a chance to take a picture of this unique building (and a bunch of others).
Overall, I did enjoy my time exploring Preah Khan – too bad a bunch of self righteous locals had to totally ruin the experience for me. Its location on the Grand Circuit makes Preah Khan a less attractive target which results in incomparably fewer visitors crossing its gates. If you’re an enthusiast, I’d say the temple is definitely worth the time and would reward the you with great photo opportunities. If you can time your visit for the morning, you’d also get good light for more captivating shots which would make the whole experience so much better.
By the time I got to explore Angkor temples on the Grand Circuit, I have been in Cambodia for one and a half weeks. I adopted to the local way of thinking quickly and took all the precautions to minimize chances of being a subject of crime. The local way of thinking – as it exists in Cambodia – revolves around personal enrichment that involves anything other than working for money. Theft, robberies, assaults and various forms of violent crime (including murder and rape) are a daily happening.
As an observant person, I kept my eyes wide open while I was making my way around the country I have temporarily become a part of. The number of people I securely observed checking my pockets and bags to estimate whether they bore content worth a move was frightening. Frustration I observed in their eyes as I let them know that I am aware of what they are thinking and will be keeping a keen eye on their every move so they can’t make me a victim was noteworthy. I did stand my ground firmly and faced the dangers even though it continuously jeopardize my personal safety.
I did good though. By the time I reached Preah Khan temple, almost two weeks into my stay in Cambodia, I still have not had anything stolen from me. Few people who visited Cambodia can say that. With majority of the local population being constantly, round the clock on the lookout for a foreigner who would drop their guard for a second, it’s always a mere question of time before one succeeds with their pull. And after years of doing nothing but perfecting their art of crime, they’ve become masters of theft capable of getting almost anything from anyone. It’s unfortunate, but no matter how careful and vigilant you are, you cannot be 100% alert 100% of the time. There is bound to be a moment during your visit to Cambodia when you have had a long day and as you blink your eye to sooth your mind, your possessions will be gone. There will always be a local in your vicinity checking out whether an opportune moment to rob you has come. And when it comes – which is something that comes upon each and every one of us – you can bet your Scooby Doo Panties that Cambodians will be there to take advantage of you.
Cambodians are well aware of the above mentioned fact and rely on it for their daily thieving missions to be successful. They are ridiculously skilled in thievery and often work in teams to keep you distracted while the one with the most skilled fingers makes the pull. They are so skilled as thieves, many foreigners who were deprived of their possessions would actually believe that they must have forgotten their wallet, camera, laptop, or whatever the thieves attempted to steal in the restaurant where they dined earlier.
It only gets better in the fact that the restaurant staff, the police and virtually everyone else you encounter as a tourist in Cambodia would also never pass on an opportunity to steal from a foreigner so even if they don’t happen to be around skilled thieves themselves, locals you are around will be well connected with groups who are skilled thieves and will tip them off. You visit a restaurant and the server notices that you are a potentially easy target because you left your camera on the table while you were reading the menu, thus neither holding the camera securely in your hand nor keeping your eyes firmly locked on it, or they would notice that you keep your wallet loosely in your pocket and don’t have it on a chain fastened against yourself, or would simply notice that you carry on yourself something that seems of good value (laptop, jewelry, SLR camera, etc.) and you are a marked man. Cambodia is both a breeding ground for thieves as well as a well connected network of commission seekers. Nobody does anything in Cambodia unless there is a kick back in it for them. And since they are also inherently lazy and always looking for personal enrichment that doesn’t require working for money, vast majority of your day to day encounters will be with locals who will either try to steal from you themselves or will set somebody who is better at it than themselves on you.
Taking all that into an account, there are hardly few people who visited Cambodia and lasted for a week and a half without having something stolen off them by the locals. Being a rare one of the few, I knew that my “luck” if you can call it so was not because thieves never stumbled across me – that is impossible in Cambodia where there are more thieves per cubic meter than there are mosquitoes. It was only and solely because I always made sure that stealing from me would be impossible. I always made everyone visually checking my pockets know that I am aware that they are checking my pockets. I always made it clear that my camera or bag never leaves my grip and are always zipped up and across my shoulders. When I sat in a restaurant to do some work on the laptop, I got the laptop chained against an unmovable bar and laptop bag locked against the chain. When someone came within an arm’s reach of me, I increased my mental alertness to 100% and watched every move of the person closely while at the same time periodically checking my surroundings to make sure nobody else is getting close enough from behind to take advantage of me while the other fellow/lady is keeping me preoccupied.
The reason why virtually everybody who comes to Cambodia ends up having had something of their stolen, is that they do not do it the way I did. It has absolutely nothing to do with being paranoid and everything to do with reading people who surround you well and not fooling yourself they are nice when they are not. Being extra cautious when your environment warrants it is smart, not paranoid. But that’s why I lasted for a whole week and a half without having anything stolen, unlike vast majority of other people who visit Cambodia.
It was only thanks to that utmost vigilance that those suspicious individuals who kept checking my pockets and trying to take a peek inside my bag, started to back off instead of crawling nearer and took their stare away instead of systematically continuing to assess the contents of my pockets. And after whole week and a half, I still had everything that was rightfully mine under my control. And then I came to Preah Khan.
At the Preah Khan Temple
When I was at Angkor, I only carried my camera with me and always made sure I could physically feel it. The only other possessions I had with me while exploring Angkor temples were the cell phone in my pocket and my mountain bike. Cheap and beat up as it was, the bike was still mine and I wanted to keep it for future use as my transportation means to avoid having to deal with the aggressive tuk tuk drivers. However in order to ensure that Angkor touts can successfully bother foreigners out of their money, it is not possible for the visitors to Angkor to take bicycles inside the temples. You will see the locals entering temples with both bicycles and motorcycles, but if they allowed for tourists to do that, it would be much more difficult to for touts to pester them, hence ban.
As a result, if you come to a temple on a bicycle, you have to leave it outside of the entrance gate. This is usually not much of an issue on the Petit Circuit, as there is always a busy flow of tourists coming in and out at all times and some have small structural fences around parking areas you can use as unmovable bike racks. However it’s a whole different story in temples that are less popular. Cambodians are always on the lookout for something to steal from tourists. They won’t hesitate stealing if they have to pull it out of your pocket so when you make it easy on them and leave your possession in a stealable form don’t keep a keen eye on it, you will have created an opportunity for which they would hate themselves if they passed up on. It’s a way of personal enrichment without work, which fits their profile to the dot.
Fake Orphanage Kids
When I came to Preah Khan, I did just that. It was incredibly hot and all I could see in the vicinity were trees too big to wrap my chain around. So I merely leaned my bike against one of them and locked the wheel against the frame. This would make it impossible to ride the bike, but if someone were to come with a truck, they could easily load the bike up and ride off. Then once safely in their home, they would deploy whatever tools they had (or borrowed) to remove the chain and voila – they would have just become the new owners of a mountain bike.
I sort of suspected that something like this could happen, but fooled myself for a second that since Preah Khan is on the Grand Circuit and it doesn’t see that many visitors, local traffic in and out of it is not as heavy either so perhaps no truck would come while I’m inside. To further secure my position and have the locals who saw me leave the bike there be on my side and watch it for me, I responded to a swarm of kids who jumped me as soon as I was done locking my bike and insisted that I donate to their orphanage cause they are oh so poor orphans and will starve to death unless I give them money.
Cambodians, in their divine greediness will not hesitate to pull off lies that will stop your brain just to get money off of gullible tourists. They play with visitor’s feelings and try various things until a certain something proves to work. In less visited temples, such as those along the Grand Circuit, they really have to get creative in order to succeed because these temple simply don’t receive traffic comparable to the traffic popular temples along the Small Tour get. So they set up booths, print out a sign and pose as people from an orphanage to make their efforts more fruitful. Knowing darn well that they are fake orphans only using the sob story because it works better in getting money off tourists, I was reluctant to contribute. However since there was nowhere to securely lock my bicycle, I thought that if I gave them money, they would feel grateful and would in return ensure that if someone did try to steal my bike, they would prevent them from doing it. What foolish thinking on my behalf!
Exploring Preah Khan While Bicycle Easily Movable
Feeling slightly better about leaving my bike out of my sight while not properly secured, I walked into the Preah Khan temple and started exploring. The temple looked pretty good – overgrown with jungle intertwined with collapsing walls kind of like Ta Prohm, it offered many great opportunities for photography. It was early afternoon, though, so face of the temple and all of its important elements which were built to face the east had sun behind them, creating a mighty strong backlight which spoilt most of the pictures, but the impressive size of the trees growing over the structure left me in awe never the less.
Still, while I was exploring Preah Khan and taking pictures, I started feeling uneasy about my bike being out of sight and not fastened to anything unmovable. It was extremely hot so any extra steps to take would lead to extra wastage of energy of which you never have enough in this sun, but I decided to backtrack anyway, take my bike down to the paved road and look for a thin enough tree there to lock the bike against. Granted, a dedicated thief could saw the tree down to gain possession of the bike, but the likelihood of one armed with a saw walking around just after I locked my bike there seemed minimal. Plus the effort needed to mow the tree down would take some time which could serve as a deterrent because if it takes an extra time, then chances of the bike’s owner returning to get it increase dramatically. Plus it takes quite a bit of work to take a tree down and Cambodians don’t like to work hard. Locking the bike against a tree simply seemed like the only way to get a more realistic peace of mind, even if it meant extra walking in this unbearable heat. So I interrupted the exploration of Preah Khan to move my bike somewhere where I could lock it against a tree.
Thieving Fake Orphanage Kids
As I come out of the temple unexpectedly early, I see the group of kids and their supervising adults to whom I previously donated money all packed up, leaving with their table used for donations and my bicycle lifted up on their shoulders because they couldn’t roll it due to a locked up wheel and dashing off. The group, after I donated money to them even though they were no orphans, saw the bike was stealable and as I got out of sight, they quickly started packing to be gone the hell out of there along with my stealable bicycle by the time I was done exploring the temple. Somehow early on, I had my guardian angel watching over me and the feeling of uneasiness because I left my bike out of my sight while improperly secured continued to grow until it reached the level of being unbearable so despite the heat, I invested extra energy to return and have my bike reparked somewhere where I could lock it up securely.
I just spotted the thieving kids in the last moment, let out the deadliest shout I could summon and charged full speed towards the group. Scared by my yell of doom, the thieves dropped my biked and took off for their lives. Happy to know that in this, furthest from home point on the Grand Circuit I am still left with my transportation so I’m not at the mercy of greedy tuk tuk drivers who would only see it as an opportunity in itself and would take advantage of me for being out of options, I did not return back to Preah Khan and abandoned this temple never to return. Quite shaken and distressed, I rode on to my next destination. Not only was I shocked to have just nearly had my bike stolen, I was also disgusted by the fact that it was done by the kids to whom I previously donated money. Greed of Cambodians knows no limits whatsoever. You can simply never trust one as giving them a finger merely translates into an opportunity to snatch an entire hand.
The First Mistake
I guess all you can do is give them the finger the right way – by giving them the right one and nicely upright. For one and a half weeks I was able to keep relentless Cambodian thieves at bay only to make my first mistake by fooling myself into believing that by giving Cambodians money, they would respect me and in turn watch out for my property while I am exploring the temple. It was a ridiculously foolish thing of me to think and a valuable lesson to learn. Cambodians are not only greedy beyond words, they are also a bunch of backstabbers without a back bone of their own. There is no low to which a Cambodian would not stoop. And to no surprise of mine, I had it later confirmed by my friends from the Sras Srang village that none of these kids were orphans, none of the adults who were with them were orphanage owners and there was no such orphanage under any such name anywhere in the Angkor Archeological Park.
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:
The East Mebon Temple was built on an artificial island in the middle of a large water reservoir called Yasodharatataka, or as it is known by its present day name – East Baray. While most maps of Angkor Archaeological Park still display East Baray as a water reservoir, you won’t find any water there these days. The reservoir has been dry for a long time and little remains to give visitors hints on an immense area this body of water once covered.
East Mebon was built by King Rajendravarman II – the same king who built Pre Rup. Both were constructed in the same style of a temple mountain with two enclosing walls and three tiers. The water reservoir the temple was originally built in the middle of was 2 kilometers wide and 7 kilometers long. It was fed by the water of the Siem Reap River and used as a regulator of its flow and irrigator of surrounding planes in the dry season. Its south bank was just 500 meters north of Pre Rup. It must have been quite a lake back in its day, even though judging by the size of the island on which East Mebon still stands, it would have been only about 3 meters deep.
The inscriptions found on of near East Mebon suggest that the temple was finalized in 952, predating Pre Rup by mere 9 years. It originally housed several Hindu deities, including several gods – notably Shiva and Parvati whose statues were carved in the likeness of the father and the mother of King Rajendravarman. Some sanctuaries housed statues of Vishnu and Brahma.
From a distance, East Mebon appears to be in greater state of ruin than Pre Rup, however there were few elements that made this temple more interesting than her younger brother. I particularly liked the lone elephant carved out of a single block of rock guarding the temple from the ground level (there is one on each corner and more on the upper level – I took the picture of the one I liked the most). Carvings of Apsara dancers on both sides of the entrance to the main tower of the central sanctuary, as well as other carvings found on the lintels were also worthy of attention as they were much better than anything found on Pre Rup. What would have been the most impressive part of visiting East Mebon – the large body of water that once surrounded it – is unfortunately no longer there making the visit to it otherwise vastly unspectacular.
There was one other random person at East Mebon when I paid it a visit, which was really odd cause other than him, I would be the only one at most other temple ruins along the Grand Circuit I visited that day. The sun was already roasting everyone in the area like she liked her roaches very well done, so knowing that it’s only gonna get worse as midday gets closer, I didn’t waste any more time and moved on to my next destination.
It took me two days to thoroughly complete the exploration of temples on the Petit Circuit of Angkor Archaeological Park. I bought a 7 day pass to have enough time to take on every single ruin within the park and even though I had originally wished I would have only spent one day on the Petit Circuit, it proved to be an impossible to task to carry out on the bicycle. The riding itself wasn’t an issue. Riding and exploring in this extreme heat was. And on top of this, a visitor to Angkor spends all of their energy fighting off ever so pushy touts.
Ways to Explore Angkor
There are no air-conditioned spaces at Angkor Archeological Park. But what’s worse – there is never any breeze there. Whether you’re out in the open, hiding under a tree or within the walls of an ancient ruins, there is no escaping the heat. It’s extreme, squeezes every bit of sweat out of you and you won’t get a break from it for a second. It’s like being in a sauna, except that you are also crisped by the sun and need to move. Granted, visitors have an option to hire the services of a driver with an air conditioned car, or join an organized tour that drives around in an air conditioned bus, but these are for people who have deep pockets and no sense of adventure.
A good middle ground is to go in a tuk tuk. Compared to taxis and organized tours, tuk tuks are cheaper and more typical of Cambodia affording a visitor an experience unique to this part of the world. Tuk tuks are not air conditioned, as a matter of fact they are not even enclosed, but they are roofed offering blockage from the intense sun and when on the move, they provide the feeling of breeze to wash away the sweat and cool down the skin. One of the biggest advantages of taking on Angkor temples in a tuk tuk or a taxi is the possibility to have the driver drop you off at one entrance of a temple and pick you up at the one on the opposite side.
Some Angkor temples are fairly large and take quite a bit to fully explore. You would normally enter using one of the main entrances and as you get across, you turn up at the exit on the opposite side of the exterior enclosure. If you hired a tuk tuk or a taxi, the driver would know that and would drive to the exit on the opposite side to wait for you there after dropping you off at the entrance. However if you go exploring Angkor on a bicycle – like me – once you have covered whole temple and turn up at the exit on the opposite side of it, then you have several hundred meters to go back through the maze of scorching hot fallen rocks and extremely aggressive child touts.
The latter makes an already exhausting task an unbearable one. And they know it. They count on the fact that you will be so exhausted by the exposure to the sun, you will not have any power left to fight their endless pressure off. They will be in your face start to finish and there seems to be an eternal supply of them throughout Angkor. Even if you go through unseemly hustle of explaining that you cannot buy their postcard, their bracelet, their t-shirt or whatever it is they want you to buy, and put your whole self into making it your final word, as soon as you’ve exhausted yourself physically and mentally dealing with this one tout, you’ll have a whole new gang of them running towards you and jumping down your throat cause now you’re at the end with your life-juices and for them it’s the opportunity to force you into buying their junk simply because you can no longer fight them off.
As a bicyclist, I got the worst of it. I got no escape from the heat because unlike people riding a tuk tuk, I was unable to go as fast as they do to catch any real breeze that would help wash away the sweat, plus in order to move at all I had to spend my own energy all the while being fully exposed to the sun. Furthermore, exploring each temple meant locking the bicycle at the entrance, battling the touts operating outside of the temple, then touts operating inside, having them bother me on each and every step while slowly progressing towards the far end which once reached, I had to turn around and do the same distance all the way back, all the while battling the same touts again, only in reverse order because if they were unable to trick me into getting my money the first time, now they have a second chance and be more aggressive than the first time since now I’d be increasingly more tired than I was before.
Touts of Angkor
It is common for Angkor touts to use verbal traps as their last resort. Usually, if despite your exhaustion you manage to beat them off and they have no option but to leave you alone (because you’re entering other tout’s territory), they do it by saying something like: “OK, on the way back then. ” Then when they see you going back, they will take their verbal trap and use it against you by stating that “you promised” to buy from them later. It matters not that you didn’t promise a damn thing. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t say a word to begin with. They will make you feel obliged and if that fails, they will resort to their favorite part – calling you names. Even if their total English vocabulary consists of mere 5 words, “stingy” is guaranteed to be one of them. And once they’ve exhausted all English words they know will offend you, then they will proceed with mockery in Cambodian, ensuring you can hear that they are talking about you as they laugh and point fingers knowing you can’t respond. It definitely is exhausting to spend a day in an environment as hostile as this.
Grand Circle Touts
But it wasn’t until I started off my third day at Angkor and set out to cover the Grand Circuit when I realized that it does in fact get worse. See, vast majority of foreigners who visit Angkor Archaeological Park will only get a daily pass. Whatever they get covered within a day will be enough for them. It truly is way too hot even if you get to escape into an air-conditioned bus between the temples. As a result, 80% or more visitors to Angkor never make it to any temple outside of the Petit Circuit, with the exception of Banteay Srei which is a popular citadel some 25 kilometers north of the main temple complex.
Dealing with touts along the Petit Circuit was brutal, yet they get a pile of foreigners served to them every day. Unlike them, touts operating at temples on the Grand Circuit only get a sporadic foreigner every here and there. Virtually every temple on the Grand Circuit I visited on my third day at Angkor was without any other foreigners at the time of my visit. I was the first and only foreigner of the day so you can bet on it that when I showed up, they weren’t gonna let me go easily. The Petit Circuit touts were beyond unbearable, but compared to the ones on the Grand Circuit, they were a bunch of relaxed, easy going peeps.
It was also on the Grand Circuit where I had fake orphanage kids attempt to steal my bicycle. While riding around the Petit Circuit, I only used the lock I had to lock the wheel against the bicycle’s frame, because there was always so much traffic at any given minute, it would be difficult to steal a bicycle without someone noticing. Plus there are no racks or poles or anything of sorts you could possibly lock your bike against anyway so I did all I could.
But on the Grand Circuit it was different. These temples were quiet, only touts who operate at each of these every day were around and they work together as a gang so when a foreigner comes, they will support each other to make their purpose of separating foreigners from their valuables successful. Luckily for me, my guardian angel was around that day so after locking my bike against itself at one of the temples and walking inside, I got this strange feeling in the gut and instead of continuing with the temple, I returned back to look for a tree even if it required me to walk an extra distance back to the temple, but to have the bike locked against something stationary rather than leaving it loose just like that. And I just got back in a nick of time to catch the kids who gave me a real hard time demanding money for their “orphanage” running away carrying my bike. Their theft attempt was successfully foiled thanks to the hint from the guardian angel.
Temples on the Grand Circuit of Angkor
The reason why so few people take on Grand Circuit is that all of the most famous and most interesting temples are on the Petit Circle. Each other temple is less impressive and usually in greater state of despair so for most, once you have seen the temples on the Petit Circuit, you have seen them all. From that point on it’s just another pile of old rocks that looks the same way a pile of rocked they had seen before did. It worked for me because roads were quiet so I didn’t have to ride in ditches to avoid being run over by speeding buses and it was possible to take pictures without swarms of weirdly dressed foreigners getting in my view. The following is the list of temples from the Grand Circuit I had on my radar for the day:
Prasat Neak Leang
Angkor Thom North Gate
I started my Grand Circle tour properly – in a counter-clockwise direction after learning it the hard way with the Petit Circuit. I also made an emergency stop at Banteay Kdei to meet with my new friends and have a coconut for energy before a long and tiring day. If all was to go well, I would also get a chance to make an emergency stop at Angkor Wat for one more coconut – the last one of the day – with my also new friends who operate there on my way back home. And here I was, taking on the Grand Circuit of Angkor.
In 968 A.D., when King Jayavarman V was mere 10 year old, he succeeded to his father, Rajendravarman and took up the throne to the Khmer Empire. By the time he was 17, he moved his residence to the east end of East Baray while the lake’s west bank was to become the seat of new Khmer capital. The works on new capital’s state temple – Ta Keo began in 975 A.D. Even though known as Ta Keo at present day, temple’s original name was Hemasringagiri, meaning “The Mountain with Golden Peaks” in reference to the sacred peak of Mount Meru from Indian mythology.
King Jayavarman V died in 1001 A.D. and Ta Keo was left unfinished even though artisans had only started carving its walls. While it is likely that king’s premature death was one of the main reasons the works on the temple barely continued after his death (some work was done during the reign of Jayaviravarman who succeeded Jayavarman V), according to the account by Suryavarman I’s high priest Yogisvarapandita who got the temple many years later, Ta Keo was struck by a lightning while still under constructions which was understood as bad omen and all additional works on the structure were abandoned.
Given its height of 21.5 meters above the ground, Ta Keo is the highest temple at Angkor. The five tier pyramid temple was originally surrounded by moat but this has completely vanished with time. Temple’s upper level houses five sanctuary towers and is accessible by super steep stair on each side of the temple.
For me, Ta Keo was one of the least interesting temples on the little circuit. Since work on it was abandoned shortly after the artists started decorating it, there isn’t much as to the bas reliefs and/or carvings to see. I snapped a few pictures of Ta Keo, wiped off the sweat and moved on to ride further afield under the scorching Cambodian sun.