A Visit to Banteay Srei Temple

Isvarapura, or Banteay Srei as it is known today, is an ancient Khmer temple located about 25 km north of Angkor Wat. Its “out of the way” location and insignificant size make Banteay Srei seemingly unimportant, however through inclusion in most tour packages, it sees a fair amount of visitors. Frequently referred to as “Citadel of the Women”, allegedly because it was the women who decorated it, its name kept popping up in most conversations I had with locals before and during my trips to Angkor. If the temple was completely off my radar before, soon after I started touring the temples of Angkor, the impression that Banteay Srei was a “must not miss” became apparent. From students whom I taught English at the Preah Prom Rath Pagoda, through my coconut friends at Angkor Wat all the way to the villagers from Sras Srang with whom I ended up spending most of my time in Cambodia, everybody kept asking me if I already paid Banteay Srei a visit. When I told them that I’d never even heard of that temple, everybody gasped for the air and insisted that I definitely include it in my plan. I had so much of the “citadel of the women” name enter my ears, I was afraid to look at the toilet paper after I wiped my butt off for fear that I’d see the name of the temple etched on it.

Photo: Gate in the Second Enclosing Wall to Banteay Srei
Photo: Gate in the Second Enclosing Wall to Banteay Srei

Road Trip to Banteay Srei

While all of the temples you would have heard of and wanted to visit prior to coming to Cambodia are located reasonably close to one another and can be visited in one go, a visit to Banteay Srei requires a detour that’ll eat a good chunk of the day on its own. Since everybody kept shoving that Banteay Srei hype down my throat, I decided to dedicate whole day to it and combine it with a road trip present for Ha and her daughter. I picked up Ha from the Temple Club after returning from a nighttime stay at Angkor Wat, made sure she gets good sleep and takes shower in warm water before leaving my air conditioned room the following day to see her daughter. As part of my surprise package, I started the day by giving Ha’s daughter a present, took a bunch of picture of the four year old girl wearing her new top and as soon as we were done, a we heard a tuk tuk pull over just outside of the room where Ha and her daughter lived. It was my student from the English class with whom I made prior arrangements.

I knew Ha didn’t have anything to do during the day, because she couldn’t score a job in Cambodia so there was zero risk of either her or her daughter being unable to go. So when the tuk tuk showed up and everybody kept wondering why it would come to that remote part of Siem Reap where no foreigners ever go, I simply told them to get dressed, because we’re taking a road trip to Banteay Srei. I had to explain to Ha that I didn’t know whether they’d be able to go inside the temple as all non Cambodians need an expensive entrance ticket, however should we fail sneaking them in as Cambodians, I’d just leave them in a nearby restaurant for a meal while I take off on my own to take a few pictures of the temple. The excitement was instantaneous. We picked up a few sandwiches from a store next to their hut and set off for an hour long ride to Banteay Srei on a tuk tuk.

It was a very, very hot day so a ride in a tuk tuk felt very refreshing. The movement of air kept washing sweat off our faces as we rode through Angkor and on to Banteay Srei. The excitement in voice and actions of Ha’s little girl was extraordinary. This was the first time in over a week that she got a chance to do something other than staying inside the shed her mother rented from her Cambodian uncle. It felt like family going on a family trip.

Banteay Srei Temple

In spite of its popularity, Banteay Srei is not as overrun with touts as temples in the main Angkor area. While area around Banteay Srei is as flat as elsewhere in central Cambodia, the immediate surroundings of the temple were rich in plant life growing out of well kept pools of water. Small exhibition hall with brief introduction on the temple can be found on the way to Banteay Srei from the parking lot.

Photo: Admiring Water Flowers at the Banteay Srei Exhibition Hall and Museum
Photo: Admiring Water Flowers at the Banteay Srei Exhibition Hall and Museum

Banteay Srei is the only main temple of Angkor that was not founded by a king. Its founder – Yajnavaraha – the grandson of king Harshavarman served as an ayurvedic medic and a priest during the reign of kings Rajendravarman and Jayavarman V. According to the stele inscription, Yajnavaraha had the temple completed by 967 AD and dedicated it to the Hindu god Tribhuvanamaheshvara (Shiva). The dedication to Shivanism is evident through intricate carvings covering the walls of the temple. Carvings in red sandstone are well preserved and seemingly the temple’s strongest tourist attractant. Many speculate that the fine art that these carvings represent could only be done by the hands of women, hence the temple’s title of the “Citadel of the Women”. Others however maintain that the name relates to the many reliefs of Apsaras (female dancers) found throughout the temple.

Banteay Srei Carvings

The most famous carvings on the walls and lintels of Banteay Srei portray the scenes from the life of Shiva, though parts of the temple were clearly also dedicated to Vishnu. In one of the triangular pediments above doorways, the demon Ravana is seen shaking Mount Kailasa above which Shiva is enthroned. In the same scene, Kama is seen arriving to disturb Shiva’s meditation. Other carvings portray “The Rain of Indra” or “The Killing of Kamsa” both of which are important stories from Indian mythology. Some of the carvings were moved to the Khmer museum in Phnom Penh and some are in Paris, France after being recovered from the hands of collectors who bought them from Cambodian looters. Apsaras stolen by French adventurer/thief André Malraux were also recovered and contributed to the popularity of the temple worldwide.

Thanks to vast funding from the Swiss government, Banteay Srei went through extensive restoration works so temple appears well preserved and carvings are in good shape. The Swiss government also financed the installation of a drainage system around the temple which prevented further damage to the structure by water. Despite vast investments from the Swiss, nothing could prevent the destruction of Banteay Srei by the locals who looted and vandalized the living bejeezus out of it. After the original statues were replaced with replicas, the locals vandalized the replicas. But their greed didn’t stop there. A typical Cambodian mindframe dictates that “if I can’t have it, at least I’ll destroy it”! As a result, after the statues of Vishnu and Uma were removed from Banteay Srei, they were assaulted by vandals while placed at the National Museum in Phnom Penh for safekeeping.

Photo: Banteay Srei Pediment Carvings Bear Creatures from Indian Hindu Mythology
Photo: Banteay Srei Pediment Carvings Bear Creatures from Indian Hindu Mythology

Banteay Srei – Conclusion

Banteai Srei is about an hour drive from Siem Reap town. It’s distance from Angkor proper (where most temples are located) makes a visit to Banteay Srei slightly inconvenient. It’s also a small sized temple so one would think that an extra long trip for this little would make no sense. Yet Banteay Srei receives more visitors than many larger temples on the Petit Circuit, including Banteay Kdei where my villager friends operate as touts. What makes Banteay Srei this popular are intricate carvings covering nearly every square inch of the temple. If elaborate, fine carvings are your thing, then made sure you don’t give Banteay Srei a miss.

The temple is also surrounded by nice water gardens which make the access to it more picturesque. I don’t know what they look like in dry season, but rainy season keeps them lush and rich, which offers great opportunities for photography. I am personally glad I went to visit Banteay Srei, but that was because I had 7 days to explore Angkor. If I only had a daily pass, I’d probably give this temple a pass. I’d likely pass on it with a 3 day pass also. However since vast majority of foreigners who visit Angkor do so on a single day pass and buy a tour package from their hotel, they do get to see Banteay Srei because tour companies have this temple included (and temples like Banteay Kdei excluded) in their packages. This is likely part of their marketing strategy. Through its red sandstone walls covered with exquisite carvings, a trip to Banteay Srei offers the visitors something different from majority of temples at Angkor proper. If I had wealthy clients, I’d take them to Banteay Srei too. Taking them to temples like Banteay Kdei, which are in more state of ruin and nigh identical to many other temples would be like showing them the same thing they had already seen.

Photo: Access to Banteay Srei Central Sanctuary is Prohibited
Photo: Access to Banteay Srei Central Sanctuary is Prohibited

BTW – both Ha and her daughter did get inside Banteay Srei even though only I had the pass. Being Vietnamese, Ha looks just as any Cambodian girl would and since she could speak a bit of Cambodian, we were able to fool the guard. It’s not like they would gain anything if they kicked them out and barred from from entering…

More photos of Banteay Srei can be found in the Banteay Srei Photo Gallery

Banteay Srei Photo Gallery

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.

Road Trip to Banteay Srei

This whole road trip idea was planned out to be a surprise for Ha and her daughter. I knew Ha couldn’t score a normal job in Cambodia – being both Vietnamese (keep in mind that Cambodians are extremely racist – just ask any Vietnamese person who’s ever visited Cambodia) and illegal to seek employment in Cambodia, so the only option she was left with was prostitution in Siem Reap‘s night clubs. However, the more time she spent with me, the wearier she kept getting of this whole idea of selling her body for money. Since she couldn’t have an actual job, Ha would the daytime with her daughter, as there was simply nothing other she could do. If I didn’t go to Angkor, she’d spend the day with me, but I needed to take advantage of good weather after waiting the rain out so I spent three consecutive days exploring the ancient temples, leaving the girls alone in Siem Reap.

Photo: Ha and Her Daughter on the Way to Banteay Srei Temple During Our Road Trip
Photo: Ha and Her Daughter on the Way to Banteay Srei Temple During Our Road Trip

I bought a 7 day pass to have enough time for even the more remote temples, but things went pretty smoothly so after three days, I had all of the temples on the Petit Circuit and the Grand Circuit covered, leaving me with 4 extra days to do the remote ones. The Petit and Grand Circuits are within main Angkor area where all of the famous and popular temples can be found, so by covering them all, I virtually had Angkor explored and everything on top of that would be an added bonus. One exception to this rule was the temple of Banteay Srei.

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei temple is located about 25km from the main Angkor area (the area with where all famous and all biggest temple can be found – aka the area where most tourists go), however even though small in size, its intricate and elaborate carvings on red sandstone make Banteay Srei visually appealing so many organized tours include it in their itinerary. As a result, Banteai Srei, even though much smaller and significantly further away from Siem Reap, sees more visitors that Banteay Kdei – the temple on the Small Tour (Petit Circuit) where I made friends with villagers. While this is mostly a marketing pull on behalf of tour organizing companies, Banteai Srei did also gain notoriety among budget travelers which landed the temple a title of the “Jewel of Khmer Art”. As such, Banteai Srei is very overhyped and attracts tourists like honey attracts flies.

Needless to say – after being to all of the main Angkor temples, Banteai Srei was next on my radar. I knew Banteay Srei was 25 kilometers north of the main Angkor area, which all in all, would add up to being well over 30 km from Siem Reap, but since this part of Cambodia is completely flat, covering such distance on a bicycle wouldn’t be a problem. Sun and heat would be the biggest challenge, with potential of hostility from locals being close second. Afterall, being so far away from Siem Reap, all tourists who make it to Banteay Srei get there either in a bus as part of an organized tour, or by Tuk Tuk they hired in town. Omnipresent Tuk Tuks and motorcycles are fast moving and don’t draw much attention to themselves. Significantly slower moving bicycle with a foreigner on it, in an area of Cambodia far away from police patrolled streets of Siem Reap or Angkor… that sounded like a straight up death wish.

Photo: To Ensure Only APSARA Authority and Sokimex Can Rip Tourists Off at Angkor, Tuk Tuk Drivers Must Wear Specialty Vests with ID Number
Photo: To Ensure Only APSARA Authority and Sokimex Can Rip Tourists Off at Angkor, Tuk Tuk Drivers Must Wear Specialty Vests with ID Number

Road Trip

So instead of going all by me onesy on a bicycle, I decided to make my trip to Banteai Srei a Road Trip with guests and kill several birds with one stone. I could definitely do it on a bicycle, but after I took all other factors into consideration, the idea of a road trip prevailed. The undisputed advantages were:

1 – Tuk Tuk Ride

The idea of covering a long distance on a bicycle didn’t scare me. I was fit enough and enjoyed bike riding to the dot, but there were things in Cambodia a wise traveler never lets to slip his mind. But there was one even bigger reason why I had to consider a road trip on a Tuk Tuk and it goes back all the way to me teaching English at Wat Preah Prom Rath:

I have only been in Cambodia for less than 24 hours and I already taught a lecture in one of the classrooms at Preah Prom Rath. I enjoyed this experience profusely and was more than happy to volunteer my time to that cause as the students who attended the classes at the temple were ones who did not have a sponsor who would pay for a semester at a posh school. With me being part of their classes, they got more out of their lectures than students from incredibly overpriced schools such as the ACE – Australian Centre for Education. ACE – despite its high cost, is one incredibly useless school. If I were a parent of any of the kids who paid an incredible amount of money to attend that school, I’d demand a refund and get my kid the hell out of there. Most girls from the Sras Srang village where I ended up spending several months of my stay in Cambodia did attend ACE after sponsors paid for them, but day after day were forced to ask me to explain the lesson to them because they had no idea what it was about after attending a TESOL certified teacher lead class. After I explained it to them, then they understood, but there wasn’t one time in 5 months when any of the girls would return from the class and understand the topic of that day’s lecture.

Back to my English classes at Wat Preah Prom Rath – unfortunately for me, I came to Cambodia with an open mind and a will to dedicate myself to good causes. At the time, all one could find on the internet about Cambodia were utter lies. It took me all together 5 minutes to realize that Cambodians were hostile and that knowledge stayed from the moment I stepped foot on Cambodian soil, to the moment I left it. However even after being in the country for hours and already having experienced much of their hostility, I still lied to myself that there must be some good in Cambodia and if I keep my mind open, I would find it. It was a foolish thing to think.

Unfortunately, this type of mindset set me up for traps from which I could not get out of in the future. The students from my class instantly took advantage of the fact that I offered myself up to them with all openness and used each lecture to pressure me with business solicitations. As days went by and I realized that Cambodians are NOT those nice and friendly people travelers who fear reality make them to be, then I started to build a protective barrier between myself and the locals and didn’t allow anyone to take any more advantage of me, but this wasn’t until a few days after my arrival. During this first lecture of mine, as well as a few subsequent ones, I opened myself up and my students, instead of being grateful that I donated my time and knowledge to them for free, they took advantage of me and swarmed me with business hypes disguised as friendly chats. I reciprocated what I believed was merely an intention to have a friendly conversation with an English speaker, only to be forced into listening to pushy sales pitches from Tuk Tuk drivers and as they kept pressuring me and getting more and more in my face, the only way for me to escape was to eventually say OK to something.

They tried to force me into buying their services, but I told them I wanted to go for a walk that night so I couldn’t use them. Their response was that they would take me to see a sunset over a lake tomorrow then. And then that they would take me to the temples of Angkor. And then something again and again and again and again. From every angle, voices pressuring me more and more and cornering me and getting in my face until I had no choice but to say – “OK, I’ll let you know if I need a tuk tuk, G%$amn it!”

It was truly foolish of me to think that Cambodians would merely care to have a chat with someone from abroad. It’s not the case. It’s never been the case and not even after 5 months in Cambodia it ever happened to be one. But I wasn’t prepared for this to be a fact when I just came there and once a Cambodian forces you into even remotely implying something, then they’re gonna remind you of it day in and day out. And so they did remind me of that time when I said “OK”. Surprise!!!

Tuk Tuk drivers are an incredibly awful lot. They made every minute of my stay in Cambodia outside of my room a nightmare. If I had Ha with me, I could not finish a single damn sentence without one getting in my face and rudely interrupting. As a result, I would not give any of them any business just on principle. If I needed to go somewhere, I’d rather walk in that heat than give a Tuk Tuk driver a penny. Needless to say, they would still bother the living crap out of me, but at least I wouldn’t pay them anything. So it was not easy to actually get one on my own terms and offer him a gig of taking me to Banteay Srei for a road trip. But since this would shake off one of the traps Cambodians caught me in when I was too trusty, I said – why not?

Photo: Ha and Her Daughter at the Entrance Gate to Banteay Srei
Photo: Ha and Her Daughter at the Entrance Gate to Banteay Srei

2 – Fun Day for Ha and Her Daughter

Hellz yeah – to Ha and her daughter, every day was a struggle to survive (as it was for me, but for completely different reasons) with basically no chance to do anything fun. To Ha, every morning started with thoughts of worry about how she was going to buy food for her little girl. When simple day to day survival becomes your #1 priority, you don’t have the resources to buy basic necessities beyond food, let alone take your kid on a road trip. And knowing darn well how much hardship Ha and her daughter already went through, I instantly realized that affording them a simple day of simple joy would mean the world to them.

And this was the main reason why I opted for a road trip on a tuk tuk, rather than a self ride on a bicycle to Banteai Srei. A tuk tuk can seat up to 4 people easily, so taking Ha and her daughter along wouldn’t cost me any more than going on my own. And even though had I not met Ha, I would still have gone by bicycle, despite pressure from my students, knowing that by taking Ha and her daughter out for a day of fun, I could visit an extra temple without risking a ride through potentially hostile territory, and I would shake off the obligation my students forcibly placed upon me, I saw nothing but pure WIN for everyone in this arrangement.

Photo: Admiring Water Flowers at the Banteay Srei Exhibition Hall and Museum
Photo: Admiring Water Flowers at the Banteay Srei Exhibition Hall and Museum

The only trouble was that the night prior to intended road trip I did not make it to the class, because I stayed at Angkor Wat for night photography. I already had my present for Ha’s daughter with me, but I really wanted to make the day when I give it to her even more special. I wanted to take them away from the worries they experience every day and set their mind on something positive – while they are together, and myself with them. So despite being exhausted and wet (it rained like all hell during my nighttime stay at Angkor and I rode back home in that rain), instead of heading home to take shower and relax a bit, I headed straight for Pub Street and started looking for a tuk tuk driver from my class. Since Pub Street is where majority of foreigners who stay in Siem Reap go after dark, that is where majority of Siem Reap’s tuk tuk drivers aggregate after dark. I knew I stood a decent chance of finding him there as ratio of tuk tuk drivers to foreigners in Siem Reap is rather unfavorable (more tuk tuk drivers than tourists).

Luckily for me – he was there, hiding from the rain under the roof of his tuk tuk. I made arrangements with him, told him when and where to come the following day and told him where and how many of us are going. All set and done, I was ready to go to my room, make myself human again and head over to the Temple Club to meet with Ha so I could take her home with me for a warm shower and comfy sleep. I told her not that I had a gift for her daughter and that after the gift, I was taking them for a road trip to Banteay Srei. I kept it a surprise until the last moment and it paid off big time. Not only did the girls have their first worry free, fun day in a long time, it was also the first time for the little girl in years to feel like she had a father. I may not have made her, but she was in daddy’s arms the whole time. I do not have the words to describe how much it meant to them and to me, but what I got back in child’s laughter and mother’s tears has made an impact you can’t replicate.

Present for Ha’s Daughter

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:

  • No matter where in Siem Reap I go, I’d get ripped off
  • 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:

Angkor Wat at Night

My day exploring the Angkor temples on the Grand Circuit was long and tiring, but very eventful and overall satisfying. I was done with every temple I wanted to visit and still had my bike with me, despite an attempt to steal it. It only further affirmed the notion I gained after my first day at AngkorCambodians are not nice people and one needs to always watch out while in the country. Nevertheless, I survived another day and since the sun was getting low, it was time to start making my way to Angkor Wat for one more coconut before heading home.

Finding Prasat Tonle Sngout Temple

I made an attempt to find the ruins of Prasat Tonle Sngout – a temple that’s off the main road, but according to the map, just by the side road that branches off the Grand Circuit at the bend north of Angkor Thom North Gate, across the road from Krol Romeas. I took that road and followed it for a few kilometers but found nothing. Locals in the areas – there were beyond plenty of them – were not only not helpful, but showed undeniable signs of hostility as this road clearly lead to a highly populated area but no foreigners ever go that way so I was seen as an invader of space beyond my limits. I tried never the less, but gave up after a while, returning to the relative safety of the paved road on the Grand Circle. Without wasting any more time getting off the road, I headed straight down south to meet with my coconut friends again.

Photo: Rain Cloud Rolling Over Angkor Wat at Dawn
Photo: Rain Cloud Rolling Over Angkor Wat at Dawn

By that time, both weather and daylight started to change rapidly. Dark clouds rolled in out of nowhere and covered the sky, giving me just enough time to make it to the concession area in front of main temple of Angkor Wat before the first drops of rain started to fall. Since 6pm – the official closing time at Angkor Archaeological Park – was only minutes away, not only were there hardly any tourists still in the temple when I arrived, the looming rainfall also rushed the touts and concession stalls owners to quickly start packing and prepare to leave. I was pretty darn tired after a whole day of riding in the sun and wanted to take a breather before the last leg of my journey so the imminence of rain was of no concern to me. I just wanted say “Hi” to the girls and have my coconut before leaving the area entirely.

Photo: Heavy Rain at Angkor Wat Just Before the Night
Photo: Heavy Rain at Angkor Wat Just Before the Night

Angkor Wat at Night

Being already a loyal and regular customer, the girls still served me my coconut but said their good byes soon after. By the time I was finished with this delicious fruit, not only were they gone, but so was virtually everyone else. Only myself, who couldn’t be distraught by the rain and wanted his minute of rest while recharging with a coconut and other two people stayed to hang around. The other two – a mother and her daughter – took advantage of the fact that rain scared everyone away and dusk fell on Angkor Wat and used it to collect Lotus flowers from the pond in the temple – the one which makes for the most photogenic pictures of Angkor Wat. It is otherwise illegal to pick up the Lotus flowers from the pond, as it is an essential tourist attraction in Angkor Wat, but the APSARA people who have the authority to enforce the rule were not around and I clearly showed that I didn’t care, so the mother went into the pool (it was raining so much, she would be drenched wet anyway) to pluck up the stems of the edible plant, while her daughter crouched at the edge to take what her mother collected. APSARA rips locals off enough as it is – I found it only fair that the locals take some of what is theirs for themselves too. This family needed food to eat and this was their opportunity.

Photo: Cambodian Woman Stealing Lotus Petals from the Pool Before Angkor Wat
Photo: Cambodian Woman Stealing Lotus Petals from the Pool Before Angkor Wat

Being so close to the equator, the day changes into the night very quickly in Cambodia. In a manner of minutes, everything went from hot day and bright daylight, into overcast sky and pitch darkness. Still hot as all hell, but now also extra moist due to heavy rainfall. My camera bag is rainproof so the camera was safe. I was feeling content having had a fairly successful day so I didn’t let the rain get the best of me. On the contrary, I thought this was a great opportunity for me to experience what most people who visit Angkor don’t get to experience – see and photograph Angkor Wat at Night. Everybody was gone. The two ladies who were still there were on a mission of their own. I didn’t mess with their business, so they didn’t mess with mine. So as the rain kept pouring down and night engulfed the temple, I had an opportunity to become the king of Angkor Wat. I explored it all over again, enjoying the environment without hassle of touts and obstruction of thousands of tourists. Without planning it, or even considering it in any way, I happen upon an experience which I haven’t even thought of taking on.

Photo: Trio of Palm Trees at Angkor Wat Photographed Against the Night Sky
Photo: Trio of Palm Trees at Angkor Wat Photographed Against the Night Sky

There isn’t much to Angkor Wat at night, though the fact that you can stand in the middle of the causeway and take a picture with not a single person on it was remarkable. This is nigh impossible these days as thousands visit Angkor Wat every day. What I found interesting was that none of the vendors locked any of their merchandise up. It would be highly impractical to take all the merchandise with them every evening, only to haul it back every morning so they leave it all there. The stalls are sheltered by thatched roofs and before leaving, the vendors cover them up with large sheets of fabric but somehow the understanding that this stuff is not to be touched when the owner is not around remains deeply embedded in people’s minds and they don’t take it lightly. It could be because unlike with most other temples, these stalls were within the walls of Angkor Wat and Cambodians seem to become different people when they walk on a holy ground (except from the rapists, who use it to their advantage and there are more than too many of them in Cambodia). I noticed that when I first visited the Preah Prom Rath Pagoda in Siem Reap. Tuk Tuk drivers would be harassing me relentlessly no matter where in Siem Reap I was, but as soon as I walked within the pagoda, even though Tuk Tuk drivers were there, they all left me alone. Hypocrisy of the highest caliber as they’re nothing like what they are in a temple, when they are outside, but there was nothing I could do about it.

Photo: Causeway Before Angkor Wat Can Only Be Seen This Free From Tourists At Night
Photo: Causeway Before Angkor Wat Can Only Be Seen This Free From Tourists At Night

Photos of Angkor Wat Illuminated at Night

Even though I did stay at Angkor Wat at night, I didn’t get a chance to take any photos of the temple illuminated with external lights. I’ve seen such pictures on the internet, but I don’t understand how and when they were taken. Angkor Wat was not illuminated when I stayed there at night but most of all – I have not seen any light fixture anywhere around it and this area has (purposefully) no electricity. I simply don’t have an answer as to how these pictures could have been taken. Perhaps portable lights and power generators are used on some occasions (New Year?) to illuminate the temple, but at the time of my visit, it didn’t seem like any form of illumination existed. Besides – all visitors are expected to be the hell out of Angkor by 6pm anyway, which is when it starts getting dark – so installation of light fixture would make no sense as there would be no tourists to see the temples illuminated against the nightly skies. And since I never enquired with anyone who might know how and when the pictures of Angkor Wat illuminated at night were taken, I still don’t have an answer to that.

Photo: Not Illuminated, But Nicely Showing Silhouette of Angkor Wat Reflecting in the Pool at Night
Photo: Not Illuminated, But Nicely Showing Silhouette of Angkor Wat Reflecting in the Pool at Night

After getting properly drenched with rain (it actually felt better than being drenched with sweat, which was the case of most of the day prior to coming to Angkor Wat) and snapping a few pictures of Angkor Wat at Night, I walked out of the temple, mounted my bike and rode through the rain to Siem Reap. I could not wait to meet with Ha again and tell her all about some kids trying to steal my bike earlier. Needless to say, my decision to stay at Angkor Wat for the night meant that I missed the English language lecture at Preah Prom Rath temple, but that was OK for a day. And what a day it was.

Angkor Thom North Gate

Out of 5 gates that afford access to the royal Khmer city of Angkor Thom, only two are heavily trafficked. Being on the Petit Circuit through Angkor Archaeological Park, both South Gate (the busiest one, because it’s also part of the Grand Circuit) and Victory Gate have people passing through them often. Since Angkor Thom North Gate is on the Grand Circuit and off the itinerary vast majority of visitors to Angkor restrict themselves to, it is a much quieter gate than the other two.

Photo: Angkor Thom North Gate - Not Much Left of Devatas on the Left Side of the Causeway
Photo: Angkor Thom North Gate - Not Much Left of Devatas on the Left Side of the Causeway

Angkor Thom’s square shaped exterior wall has one entrance gate on cardinal point, except from the east wall, which has two – East Gate and Victory Gate. East Gate, even though it’s in the middle of the wall and in line with Bayon, sees very little in terms of traffic because everybody who passes through Angkor Thom simply takes the paved road which was laid to pass through Victory Gate. Yet there still is a gate traffic through which is even scarcer. West Gate is almost totally abandoned and hardly gets any visitors through. Only the most determined explorers who also decide to visit West Mebon (huge water reservoir west of Angkor Thom) take this detour which requires whole day (unless you have motorized transportation) and has very little else to offer.

Needless to say, South and Victory Gates, being the busiest of five have seen more restoration work than the other three gates. North Gate did get restored a bit, but it was one of the gates that was pretty well preserved to begin with. When looting became a profitable past time activity for average Cambodians, many stone giants (Devas on the left and Asuras on the right) adorning the sides of the causeways spanning the dried up moats in front of each gate were vandalized and their severed heads sold to collectors from abroad. Many of the North Gate giants didn’t escape this fate either, leaving this part of the North Gate desperately devastated, but the gate itself remains in pretty good shape.

Nothing otherwise makes the North Gate of Angkor Thom special in any way. It is quieter than South Gate, so if you seek less disturbance from the Cambodian touts of doom, you can find it here. However since all Angkor Thom gates were built to be identical, your best bet for pictures is to stick with the South Gate due to well restored Naga bearing Apsaras and Asuras on either side of the causeway. South Gate also gets many elephants through it which also makes for rather interesting, albeit sad pictures. Like all other gates as well as the towers of Bayon, the North Gate is crowned with the faces of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara bearing the likeness of king Jayavarman VII who had them build.

Photo: Raw of Asuras Before the North Gate of Angkor Thom
Photo: Raw of Asuras Before the North Gate of Angkor Thom

I didn’t spend much time at the North Gate, just passed through it, making only a minute long stop to snap a couple of pictures. By entering Angkor Thom through the North Gate, I returned to the area I had previously explored, so North Gate concluded my adventure on the grand circuit of Angkor. I did a lot that day. It was incredibly hot and I even managed to foil an attempt to have my bicycle stolen. I was ready to start riding back towards Siem Reap where my cozy bed at the Prom Roth Guest House and Ha were waiting for me. I only had one more stop to take – back at Angkor Wat to say “Hi” to the girls and have one more coconut for the energy to ride back after a long and tiring day.

Krol Romeas

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.

Photo: Krol Romeas - Circular Structure Unique for Angkor Archaeological Park
Photo: Krol Romeas - Circular Structure Unique for Angkor Archaeological Park

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?

Photo: Ancient Stone Wall That Goes Around Krol Romeas
Photo: Ancient Stone Wall That Goes Around Krol Romeas

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.

Photo: One of Huge Trees Growing on Top of Krol Romeas at Angkor, Cambodia
Photo: One of Huge Trees Growing on Top of Krol Romeas at Angkor, Cambodia

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 Temple

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.

Banteay Prei Temple, Angkor, Cambodia
Banteay Prei Temple, Angkor, Cambodia

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 Temple

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.

Photo: Prasat Prei Temple Ruins, Angkor, Cambodia
Photo: Prasat Prei Temple Ruins, Angkor, Cambodia

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.

Exploring Preah Khan, Angkor, Cambodia

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.

Photo: Garudas Along Outer Wall Were Crowned with Buddha Images But These Were Vandalized During Jayavarman VIII
Photo: Garudas Along Outer Wall Were Crowned with Buddha Images But These Were Vandalized During Jayavarman VIII

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).

Photo: Headless Asuras Carrying a Body of a Naga Serpent Stand Defaced by Looting Cambodians
Photo: Headless Asuras Carrying a Body of a Naga Serpent Stand Defaced by Looting Cambodians

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!

Photo: Huge Silk Tree Growing Over the Enclosing Wall of Preah Khan, Angkor
Photo: Huge Silk Tree Growing Over the Enclosing Wall of Preah Khan, Angkor

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.

Photo: Part of This Tree Had to Be Removed to Prevent Further Damage to the Structure, Roots Left to Support It
Photo: Part of This Tree Had to Be Removed to Prevent Further Damage to the Structure, Roots Left to Support It

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.

More Photos of the Preah Khan Temple at Preah Khan Photo Gallery.