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.
If you do like I did and take the Grand Circuit of Angkor in the counter-clockwise direction, you’ll get to Prasat Ta Som after visiting Pre Rup and East Mebon temples respectively. And if you start roughly at the same time as I did and do a thorough exploration of each ruin you pay a visit to, by the time you get to Ta Som the noon hour will be upon you and you’ll be sweating out of every pore on your body, including those you didn’t think contained any sweat glands. I provided myself with self propelled transportation, so when I reached Ta Som, I was ready to throw the clothes I was wearing in a garbage bin. Even my underwear was drenched in sweat to a point of drip marking my every step.
Ta Som Temple was built at the end of the 12th century by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII (the great builder king who also built Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Bayon, among others), which makes it one of the younger temples on the Grand Circuit. Because of its location (it is the most distant temple on the Grand Circuit, meaning that it is furthest away from other temples than any other ancient temple in the main area of Angkor) and great state of ruin, it doesn’t attract very many visitors. Being a single tier temple, Ta Som doesn’t have any stairways to climb making for a less challenging exploration however because of almost completely collapsed rooftops, the temple offers no real places to hide so a visitor gets pretty heavy beating by the merciless Cambodian sun rays.
There are three sets of walls surrounding the central sanctuary which in itself doesn’t look like much due to lacking restoration funds, however there are some well preserved carvings to be seen. Ta Som was one of the last bigger temples in Angkor Archaeological Park to be added to the World Monuments Fund (WMF) restoration program but the work so far has mostly only consisted of securing the structures to remove an immediate threat of collapse while visitors are around.
As is the case with many other Angkorian temples, centuries of neglect resulted in jungle overgrowth with huge fig and silk trees growing on top of the collapsing stone walls. The presence of the trees as well as an architectonic style of the temple which is similar to that of her more famous sibling has earned the temple a name of Mini Ta Prohm. Entrance gopuras in the outer enclosure are crowned with four faces similar to those found in Bayon. The main entrance gate used by everyone who visits Ta Som looked much like the South Gate of Angkor Thom, only smaller and more crumbled up. The state of Ta Som’s collapse seems to get worse with each enclosure you step within. Since outer gate still stands in a pretty decent shape, it is patrolled by aggressive child touts who wait in its shade for a sun beat tourist to walk right into their arms like a fly into a jar of honey.
Stone causeway which once served as a bridge over a moat is located inside the outer enclosure, rather than outside of it which implies that the outer wall was a later date addition to the temple. The causeway is decorated on both sides with serpents and Garudas, however they are broken into pieces and miss large parts which is the price the temples paid after greedy locals discovered that they could loot the temples and sell their ancient art for personal profit. What’s truly amazing is that despite looting and decay through neglect and time, many carvings and reliefs throughout Ta Som are in a remarkably good shape and are remarkably well carved for a late 12th century temple. These fine carvings of Apsaras and Devatas more than make up for a disappointing sight offered by a largely collapsed central sanctuary.
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.