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.
A visit to the Neak Pean Temple was a refreshing change. This temple is nothing like anything else you’d find at Angkor Archaeological Park and that makes a visit to Neak Pean very uplifting. Even if you’re totally enthusiastic about the largest religious complex in the world and appreciate ancient architecture, the temples eventually all start looking the same because it’s only small differences that set one apart from another. However a visit to Neak Pean breaks this cycle of sameness apart and makes a weary visitor spry again. Though ultra intense sun and relentless touts can take even the most indestructible spark of enthusiasm and throw it right down to the depths of hell. So what makes Neak Pean so special?
Because I wanted to cover the Grand Circuit of Angkor in one day, and have the rest of my 7 day entrance pass to use for more remote temples, the Neak Pean Temple marked the second half of my itinerary. It felt good knowing that by the time I got to Neak Pean, I was half way through my today’s challenge. The bad news was that when I got to Neak Pean, the day was at its hottest.
It is without doubt humanly possible to cover whole Grand Circuit on a bicycle in one day and have enough time to thoroughly explore each visited temple, however being in Cambodia, one needs to take into an account the mighty element that has the power to juice every last bit of energy an individual, regardless how strong and fit, has in them. Sheer exposure to the intense heat and merciless rays of the Cambodian sun can leave a person breathless, but if you try to engage in any kind of physical activity while the sun inexorably debilitates you, you’re in for the world of pain.
Yet it only gets worse. As if the struggle to keep going while the sun is incapacitating your every single cell was not enough, you also get constantly pressured by the relentless Cambodian touts who specialize in wearing tourists out until they end up giving in and buying whatever junk the touts have for sale. The good news is that the Grand Circuit is not as tout heavy as the Petit Circuit, the bad news is that those who do operate on the Grand Circuit are 10 times more aggressive (something you wouldn’t even believe was possible as any of the million and one touts who jump you on the Petit Circuit will have been the worst pests you have ever had to deal with in your life) because they don’t see the same number of tourists the Petit Circuit touts do each day.
Up to this point, the tout infestation situation has not been that bad, which left me with enough energy to battle off the heat but the visit to the Neak Pean Temple marked the beginning of some of the worst pestering nightmares a person can go through – including an attempted bicycle theft at the largest temple on the Grand Circuit. Still, despite immeasurable heat and a half day of temple exploring on a bicycle behind me, I was very enthusiastic when I approached Neak Pean.
Neak Pean, The Temple
The first thing you notice when you come to the Neak Pean Temple is that it doesn’t make you look up, it makes you look down. Normally, every temple you visit would have the most attention grabbing bits built above the ground. Neak Pean has them below and that gives the temple its unusual feel which made me truly appreciate it.
Granted, had East Baray not gone dry, Neak Pean would shy away before the body of water surrounding East Mebon. However, without the water there, East Mebon look just as another temple build in the middle of a large field. East Baray covered too large of an area to have its banks identified by a naked eye without the surface of the water guiding it. Even though built for a completely different purpose, Neak Pean is kind of like a mini East Mebon as it is also a temple built on an artificial island which was erected in the middle of an artificial pond and was back in the day surrounded by water.
Constructed by the great Khmer King Jayavarman VII, Neak Pean was designed to serve the medical purpose and was built to symbolize Anavatapta – the sacred lake in the Himalayas with healing powers – or at least so the scholar speculate. Many houses of healing (hospitals) were built during the reign of Jayavarman VII, but this one stands out. The pond (an inscription suggests it was named Jayatataka) serves as a central water source which distributes water to the four connecting ponds – similar to lake Anavatapta sourcing four great rivers. The rivers were said to issue water through the mouth of a Lion, an Elephant, a Horse and an Ox and so were the connecting ponds believed to represent Water, Earth, Fire and Wind.
What’s even more impressive is that the entire Neak Pean area was originally an island of its own. Like East Baray, the water reservoir of Preah Khan once covered a large area of its own with an artificial island in the middle. The 300 meter square artificial island, housed the 70 meter square main pond, with four 25 meter square adjacent ponds at each of the main pond’s cardinal points. And in the centre of the main pond, King Jayavarman VII had a circular island of 14 meters in diameter built and used it as a base on which to erect what we know today as Neak Pean. The Neak Pean Temple is in other words a temple built on an artificial island which was built on an artificial island.
The pond in the middle of which the Neak Pean Temple is located is now dry, however it sometimes does fill with a bit of water after a heavy rain. My visit to Angkor was during rainy season and I ended up putting the visit off for over a week because it rained every day, however after three days without rain, there was not a drop of water to be seen anywhere in the main or surrounding four ponds. If you can time your visit to Neak Pean to be after the rain, you will get a chance to take pictures which look much better than mine. Not only does the ancient stone gain richer hues after rain, the little pool that builds up at the base of the pond will reflect the tower of the central temple offering superior photo opportunities.
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.
That Pre Rup gets no attention from visitors to Angkor Archaeological Park was evident right away from the fact that there were no actively operating touts. I found it strangely intriguing since Pre Rup is much larger and offers much more to see than many other temple ruins along the Grand Circuit, yet many of those other temples had stalls with souvenirs sold by the locals set up at their entrance gates – signifying that there must be traffic worthy of the effort going through this gate – but not at Pre Rup – again, signifying that the hassle of setting up the stalls and spending whole day there would not pay for itself as the temple simply did not attract any visitors. Worked for me – the less “competition” I have in form of other tourists getting in the view of my camera and the more peace I get in lack of pestering kids who aggressively follow you around and talk till your head explodes, the happier I am. Handling the breezeless heat of the sun at Angkor is difficult enough on its own so any chance to battle it without extra difficulties is an uplifting bonus…
The Only Pre Rup Tout
Still, when I reached Pre Rup, I was not alone. Little boy looking after his family’s water buffalo feeding off of a grassy plane surrounding Pre Rup became my company and even though all he could speak in English were two words, he instantly put them to use as soon as I made myself reachable: “One Dolla!” said the boy as his beaming big eyes twinkled with joy staring once at his stretched out palm and once at me. Since I took pictures of his water buffalo, he made me feel obliged to give him that dollar and kept following me around with his hand beg-stretched until I shelled out. That wasn’t necessarily a good idea as he felt encouraged and kept insisting on more. Giving a Cambodian a finger is a sure fire way to entice them into going after whole hand.
It was early morning yet and I had just started the day with Pre Rup as my first temple ahead of a whole slew of them scheduled to visit that day, but as was shown to me again – there is no supply of energy that can stand up to the power of the sun in Cambodia. I was dripping with sweat, whatever layer of sun block I had applied had long been washed away, my fabric hat looked like a rug pulled out of a sewage drain yet the day has just begun. Midday heat was still hours away so when I realized that the insanity I’m experiencing right now is in fact a mild morning, I instantly knew I was gonna have to grab at every opportunity to buy a coconut and a fresh bottle of water I would come across, if I were to make it. Plus of course there was this realization that I’m heat beat already and I didn’t even have to waste energy on battles with the touts. I did not look forward to what it was going to be like when the heat of the day reaches its peak and hoards of them vultures descend upon me to suck out every bit of life juice I may still have within. And with that, my money – of course.
Why Is Pre Rup So Rarely Visited?
While I was walking among the walls of Pre Rup, absorbing the heat these giant piles of stone radiate, I noticed several foreigners passing by in tuk tuks. Perhaps the demise of Pre Rup lays in the fact that the Grand Circuit road goes right by it and you only spot it in the last moment – especially if you’re in a tuk tuk or a taxi. Riding a bicycle comes with a major disadvantage of not being able to catch any breeze between the temples to have the sweat washed away, but since you move around slowly and don’t have to ask anyone to stop when you see something – not knowing yet whether it’s worth a stop or not – you get to see things people in tuk tuks don’t get to see. Pre Rup temple is one of them.
I can imagine the vast majority of tourists who passed by Pre Rup on a tuk tuk didn’t even notice it was there. They were too worn out from previous temples and were glad they were moving at a decent speed to catch some breeze to pay attention to some random pile of rocks alongside the road. And those who did notice the ruins were just too exhausted from the heat to even ask the tuk tuk driver what the heck it was they just passed by so they simply assumed it was nothing worthwhile and continued on until the tuk tuk driver stopped again. Don’t forget that Cambodia runs vastly on a commission based trade system. Tuk tuk drivers will not take you anywhere out of their own initiative unless there is a kick back in it for them. Regardless of how they present themselves to you, Cambodians never act helpful to help YOU – they are only interested in helping themselves. If what it takes is for them to paint with honey over your face, they will do it. If you can’t read between the lines (most people can’t), you will think Cambodians are the nicest, the most helpful people in the whole wild universe, even though behind your back, without you realizing, they are screwing you right in the arse with no lube.
Pre Rup Temple Mountain
Pre Rup is believed to be the last temple-mountain constructed by the Angkorian civilization. Nearby East Mebon was constructed following the same temple-mountain style but was built a few years prior. The construction works on Pre Rup temple commenced during the rule of Khmer king Rajendravarman II in 961 – after the capital city returned back to Angkor following its temporary move to Koh Ker between 921 and 944.
Scientists are still trying to figure out why Cambodians refer to Pre Rup as being a funerary temple given that none of the historical records suggest it being the case. The temple is known by its current name because that’s what modern day Cambodians call it as in their language it means “to turn the body”, which was a rite used during cremation.
Pre Rup is in a great state of ruin. Gopuras (entrance gates) can be found on each side of the outer enclosure, but it’s the best to take the one which has a dirt road leading to it from the main road. There isn’t much left of the gopura, however a guardian lion similar to those found at Bayon still stands at the crumbling stairway.
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.
Ta Prohm Temple is an eye candy for a photographer. To King Jayavarman VII, Ta Prohm was a centerpiece of his masterplan to restore Khmer empire to a never before seen splendour after it was reclaimed from Cham invaders; to me, Ta Prohm was a centerpiece of my photography adventures at Angkor Archaeological Park. Even though Ta Prohm was my favourite Angkorian era temple, I have only visited it once and all I could capture in rather tricky lighting conditions I had available during my visit is in this photo gallery.
Just as any other day in Cambodia, it was extremely hot and humid on the day I got to Ta Prohm so excessive sweating and subsequent heat exhaustion were inevitable. I was looking forward to taking pictures of Ta Prohm but much of the time spent at the temple was spent hiding in a shade of large trees in an effort to escape the frying power of the intense Cambodian sun. There is no such thing as catching a cooling breeze anywhere at Angkor so all you are left with is inescapable heat. High on natural energy from uplifting coconut water I got from the girls at the Banteay Kdei temple, but unceasingly dripping sweat out of every single pore on my skin, I crisscrossed the temple grounds back and forth to not miss a single opportunity for a perfect picture.
It was early afternoon when I got to Ta Prohm so the sun was right above our heads not causing any backlight no matter which way I turned to take a picture (unlike when I first got to Angkor Wat), however because the sun was super intense and because there’s a pretty elaborate maze of tree branches above Ta Prohm, many cool spots of the temple were subjected to severe contrasts caused by parts being in the sun, while other parts were in the shade. It was rather difficult trying to balance it out so neither highlights are too bright nor shadows too dark but I tried my best.
My first day at Angkor by bicycle taught me some valuable lessons and showed me what real Angkor is really like. It is not in my nature to sugar coat anything so I’ll say it how it really is. First of all, if you are into ancient architecture and find fascination with ancient Khmer civilization that was on top of the game in its time but then mysteriously vanished, then Angkor will blow your mind. However if you are not, every temple you visit after the first one will look the same.
I’m am used to riding long distances every day in all types of weather, facing the harshest of elements, but Cambodian heat is far more intense than heat of any other country I have previously visited. I spent 6 months on various islands of the Caribbean using bicycle as my sole means of transportation yet even though I was in the tropical climates with intense heat, it was nothing compared to Cambodia.
I met a guy from Vancouver, Canada who came to Cambodia from Indonesia and even though Indonesia is directly on the equator while Cambodia is much further north, he said Indonesia was just as hot, but Cambodian sun was way more intense.
An English fellow I met purchased a three day pass to Angkor and rented an air conditioned car to drive him from one temple to another so he got regular breaks from the sun and the heat yet he said he couldn’t do any more of it after one day. The heat was just way too intense to handle after he got out of the air-conned car space.
Cambodian sun will suck all energy right out of you within minutes, but there are far bigger dangers in and around Angkor that are far more difficult to deal with. Cambodian touts rely heavily on the sun which as I had mentioned sucks life right out of people leaving them completely burnt out after just a few minutes of exposure to it. The touts know that anyone who’s this exhausted can’t be 100% alert 100% of the time so they keep attacking all tourists with relentless intensity. All tourists are subjected to constant pressure from the locals so it’s only a question of time before one of them succeeds in taking advantage. If you’re lucky, it will only be money you will lose.
Combination of an extremely intense sun with inescapable heat wears everyone down way too much but constant pressure from the touts will force you to waste that little bit of energy you still have left on keeping them away. There is an endless supply of them. Once you shook one of them off, another three dozen will jump down your neck and won’t leave you alone no matter what you do. After they have pushed you to a point at which you believe it couldn’t get any worse, you will get a fresh score of them who will be twice as aggressive as the ones before. There is absolutely no escaping them and to constantly fight them off is extremely exhausting.
On top of touts and scam artists whose life purpose is to rip people off, Angkor is also full of extremely dangerous, violent criminals. Thousands of them possess weapons and explosive they’ve owned since the days of Khmer Rouge. The owners are for the most part former Khmer Rouge killing machines recruited as young teenagers to kill people on daily basis. They are used to drawing blood and seeing people die by their hand. They’ve been doing that since they were 14 and always got away with it. Little has changed since Khmer Rouge was suppressed. New, more dangerous form of it rules Cambodia today but for you as a foreigner, the most disconcerting part are the killing recruits who are nowadays in their forties and fifties and are as blood thirsty as they were when they were enlisted to kill.
The dangers of roaming through Angkor don’t end with former Khmer Rouge killing machines. Every Cambodian knows darn well that no crime against foreigners is ever investigated so all it would take it to butcher one with a machete and let them rot in the middle of the jungle where they will never ever be found. After one of those Cambodians got you, that will be the last time anyone has ever heard of you. Stray dogs will appreciate your maggoty flesh as they get treated like shit and are never fed by their masters so a little feast of this sort will surely do them good. BTW, Mahatma Gandhi once said that “you can judge a society by the way it treats its animals”. If that is true, than Cambodians are some of the most horrible people in the world. If you ever come to Cambodia, just take notice of how locals treat their animals and you still can breathe after it, remember the quote and draw your own conclusions.
Despite obvious dangers, most visitors to Angkor will not experience problems as Angkor sees thousands of foreign visitors every day making violent crime in most areas difficult. That being said, wandering off populated areas or exploring temples solo is a very risky business. Yet it gets far worse if you are a girl. Cambodia is a rape capital of the world. Many, many and then some girls were raped in less frequented temples and none of it was investigated. Rape itself is the worst experience a girl could ask for during her travels, but getting raped in Cambodia also comes with additional, complimentary present – HIV!
None of the local girls dare to wander around after dark. They all lock up in their homes and always make sure a male they can trust, such as their brother is nearby because rape hungry Cambodians won’t stop at closed doors. Just about every Cambodian girl you ever get a chance to talk to has either already been raped or came this close to it. Shockingly, true Cambodian won’t shy away from any girl, regardless how young. Sexual abuse of children by Cambodian males is an every day thing and that also involves children who can’t even speak or talk yet.
When you are in Cambodia, it’s not about whether you will be a victim of crime, it’s about when. If you are lucky, you will come and leave before someone pulls it on you. That by no means that you only met nice people. That simply means that you didn’t give them a chance to attack you. If you keep your eyes open, you will see how just about every Cambodian will check you out closely, carefully estimating what the content of your pocket could be and how difficult it would be to gain control of it. They are extremely skilled in thievery and anyone whose observant enough will notice how they always check you thoroughly out for what could be stolen, even if it will not always lead to an attempt to steal. Intentions are undeniable, though.
Because Angkor is so overrun with tourists, you will be a difficult target for most fishy Cambodians even though they will relentlessly wait for their moment. This is the reason why most tourists get out of Cambodia unharmed. Many of them lack the ability to read people or are simply too dumbed down to see the obvious but to their credit, they will come back from Cambodia with naught but happy memories. Ignorance truly is a bliss. Perhaps the key to enjoying your stay in otherwise truly dangerous Cambodia is to party it out completely oblivious to dangers as unless you try to be an explorer, the likelihood of something bad happening to you is reasonably low.
However – and that’s a BIG however… even though you may avoid being a victim of violent crime Cambodia is so riddled with, there is one thing you will not avoid not matter what – getting killed in a traffic accident.
Cambodians are the worst drivers in the world with virtually no traffic rules in place (or enforced) whatsoever. Their desire to compensate for their hurting egos takes flight when they sit behind the wheel of a motorcycle or a car. It makes them feel empowered so they honk horns all the time to let everyone know that their macho ego is coming through and force themselves in with no respect for bicyclists or pedestrians. Yes, Cambodia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, yet despite of all that, their drivers are so awful you are in even greater danger from being killed by a vehicle each time you step outside the room than by a blood thirsty Khmer Rouge killing machine. Just imagine how horrible the road situation must be if it’s more dangerous than their uncontrolled guns and explosives possessed by the killing machines who have been killing since their early teens. This is what real Angkor is really like. Being a photographer and a journalist makes me to walk around with my eyes open. Sometimes I wish I was different so I could live with blissful ignorance, completely oblivious to all the dangers a countries like Cambodia represents. I’d come and leave and would just write about warm locals who were extremely nice to me, because I didn’t see that they were faking it to get money off of me. I’d write about helpful locals who showed me hidden treasures because I didn’t see they were setting me up but their plan was busted last minute by a group of Japanese guided tourists who showed up at what could have been the crime scene had they not been there.
Phimeanakas was the state temple of king Suryavarman I. It was built in late 10th to early 11th centuries which means it was at its location long before the royal city of Angkor Thom was built around it. When king Jayavarman VII had the plan for Angkor Thom laid out, he made Phimeanakas part of his Royal Palace area. Because none of the carvings on Phimeanakas survived, this temple is artistically characterless, however it’s easily scalable and provides interesting views from the top. Perhaps when Baphuon is restored and made accessible by public, the views from up there will be even better, but for now the top of Phimeanakas is the highest you can get at Angkor Thom.
Yes I did climb on top of Phimeanakas and yes it was not particularly easy. The climb itself is not too bad, the western side of the temple (the back of it) has a wooden stairway built alongside the original stone stairway to make for an easier ascend but as is the case of everywhere in Cambodia, it’s not the climb that’ll destroy you, it’s the heat. A few minutes climb up the steep staircase directly exposed to the dilapidating sun will wear you down like a marathon run. The sun will suck out the last drop of energy you had in your body by the time you made it through the initial few steps. Each time you take a breather, it will only get worse. And as if the extreme heat from the sun was not enough, the temple blocks radiate it back at you from below giving you absolutely no way to escape the destructive heat.
Reaching the summit doesn’t make it any better. There is nowhere to escape the heat, only the rays of the sun within the blocks of stone where it seems to be hotter than in direct sunshine. The feeling of reaching the top is satisfying even though you will be entirely out of juice. The sanctuary on top is currently empty but was likely used to house a divinity while the temple was in use. According to the Khmer legend, Phimeanakas was crowned with the golden tower within which dwelt a nine-headed naga serpent which transformed into a woman every night. The king was obliged to make love with the serpent every night or else the kingdom would fall into ruin. I guess one of the kings failed in the task as once powerful Angkorian kingdom did eventually fall into ruin.
As I was exploring Angkor Wat, I exited through the eastern gate where there is hardly any traffic because this is the rear end of the temple complex and contains nothing but an entrance that was used by the servants of the king. I went there because I mistakenly went to Angkor Wat in the morning so the face of the temple was shaded and not very photogenic. Rear end, even though it’s the backside, looks just like the front but because nobody ever goes there, I had no people getting in the view so I could take pictures freely. And since the sun was illuminating this side of the structure, the pictures looked nice. Little did I know at the time that I was about to discover a well hidden Angkor Wat Secret Spot.
I was really hot so I walked down the dirt road still used by the locals to deliver supplies to the shops selling junk at Angkor Wat and as I got a bit further from the central temple I stumbled across a stand alone library that no guide book ever mentions. Angkor Wat is really busy in the morning hours because that’s where most organized tours start from so in my attempt to run away from excessive human traffic and heat, I found a secret spot that no foreigners get to see. I walked inside the library to enjoy the shelter from the sun and even though it was extremely hot in there, nobody was around so I could just walk it off with nobody minding my business.
Unfortunately, I know very little about this library. I have found no mention of it in any of the guide books I checked out, it is not shown on any floor plan or map of Angkor Wat, it is not mentioned in any on line guides – it is as if it didn’t exist yet it’s there and it’s larger than any of four libraries within the main complex of Angkor Wat. Make no mistake, though. This is not some other temple. This library is within the walls of Angkor Wat. It is part of Angkor Wat as encircled by the moat but it’s at the east end of the complex and hardly any tourists get that far when exploring Angkor Wat.
I asked my Cambodian friends about it yet most had no idea what I was talking about. The few who did, had no idea what exactly it was and why it was there. Since most stand alone structures have their own names, I thought there would be one for this library but none of the Cambodians I spoke with knew it. What a mysterious pile of rocks, this library!