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.
As is the case of most Angkor Temples (except from Angkor Wat), Ta Som also faces east, however the Grand Circuit road that goes by it passes it from the west affording an entrance through a better preserved western gopura (entrance gate). However it pays to exit the temple through its east gopura because from the outside, the eastern gopura has a huge strangler fig tree (I’m not a tree expert, not 100% sure this is a fig tree) growing on top of it, almost enclosing the entire gopura (this sight not shown in the photo gallery here). It is essential to exit Ta Som through the eastern gopura as looking at it from the inside doesn’t offer any spectacular views, however once you get across and turn around, you won’t regret the extra effort. The fig tree encompassing the entrance hole is impressive and very photogenic. Take lots of pictures and always make backups.
A stone inscription found on a stele recovered from a nearby Preah Khan temple refers to Ta Som as Gaurasrigajaratna, which is its original, ancient name meaning “Jewel of the Propitious White Elephant”. As the temples were abandoned, their original names fell out of knowledge and today they are known by whatever modern variations were assigned to them. Below is a gallery of pictures I took at Ta Som:
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.
In 968 A.D., when King Jayavarman V was mere 10 year old, he succeeded to his father, Rajendravarman and took up the throne to the Khmer Empire. By the time he was 17, he moved his residence to the east end of East Baray while the lake’s west bank was to become the seat of new Khmer capital. The works on new capital’s state temple – Ta Keo began in 975 A.D. Even though known as Ta Keo at present day, temple’s original name was Hemasringagiri, meaning “The Mountain with Golden Peaks” in reference to the sacred peak of Mount Meru from Indian mythology.
King Jayavarman V died in 1001 A.D. and Ta Keo was left unfinished even though artisans had only started carving its walls. While it is likely that king’s premature death was one of the main reasons the works on the temple barely continued after his death (some work was done during the reign of Jayaviravarman who succeeded Jayavarman V), according to the account by Suryavarman I’s high priest Yogisvarapandita who got the temple many years later, Ta Keo was struck by a lightning while still under constructions which was understood as bad omen and all additional works on the structure were abandoned.
Given its height of 21.5 meters above the ground, Ta Keo is the highest temple at Angkor. The five tier pyramid temple was originally surrounded by moat but this has completely vanished with time. Temple’s upper level houses five sanctuary towers and is accessible by super steep stair on each side of the temple.
For me, Ta Keo was one of the least interesting temples on the little circuit. Since work on it was abandoned shortly after the artists started decorating it, there isn’t much as to the bas reliefs and/or carvings to see. I snapped a few pictures of Ta Keo, wiped off the sweat and moved on to ride further afield under the scorching Cambodian sun.
Ta Prohm is the temple that originally got me interested in Angkor. If it weren’t for Ta Prohm, I wouldn’t have probably landed in Cambodia right at the beginning of my round the world journey. When I saw photos of strong interconnection between ancient stones and wild growing jungle, I was sold. The fact that Angelina Jolie starred Tomb Rider was filmed at Ta Prohm had little influence over my decision to visit the temple ruins as I haven’t even seen the movie (I have always considered Angelina Jolie to be the ugliest and the most talent lacking actress in Hollywood).
As is the case of Bayon, Banteay Kdei and other major Angkorian era temples, Ta Prohm was also built during the reign of the builder king Jayavarman VII. However, unlike with most other Angkor area temples, Ta Prohm has not been cleaned off of intertwined jungle and this fact alone has become one of its mightiest selling points that attracts lots of visitors. Monstrous silk trees growing out of the ruins became part of the structures to the point that one cannot be without another.
According to the inscription on the foundation stele, Ta Prohm was consecrated in 1186 AD. Originally named Rajavihara (Royal Temple), Ta Prohm was one of the first temples with which the god king Jayavarman VII embarked on its immense mission of temple building. The sanskrit inscription also provides colorful details about how impressive Ta Prohm must have been during its time. From it the archaeologists learned that the temple housed the following:
500kg of Golden Dishes
4,540 Precious Stones
867 Veils from China
512 Silk Beds
Whether these numbers truly reflected the content of the temple grounds or were vastly exaggerated to make king Jayavarman VII larger than life is left for speculations. As for the population in and around Ta Prohm, the inscription tells us that the temple was home to the following:
18 High Priests
615 Apsara Dancers
79,365 Total Maintenance Staff
Prajnaparamita (the perfection of wisdom) was the principal deity of Ta Prohm and Jayavarman VII had her carved in the likeness of his mother. The statue of Prajnaparamita was housed in the central sanctuary while 260 lesser divinities that surrounded her were housed in additional sanctuaries of the temple complex.
I visited Ta Prohm in September 2009 and while at that time the temple was said to have been in the same state as when it was taken over by the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient at the beginning of the 20th century, the presence of manmade structure supports and off-limit areas due to on-going restoration suggested that Ta Prohm is under ongoing maintenance efforts and may end up looking entirely different a year from when I paid the visit.
Unlike Angkor Wat or Bayon, Ta Prohm is not a temple mountain, meaning it doesn’t contain a multiple level pyramid but rather has all of its galleries at the ground level. Like most Buddhist temples, Ta Prohm was built to face the east with the temple proper set closer to the west wall. Each of the walls of the rectangular outer enclosure contains a gopura (entrance gate), but south and north gopuras were purposefully left overgrown with jungle so access can only be made via the east or the west gopura (where touts concentrate in large numbers).
Central sanctuary is surrounded by five enclosing walls of various state of collapse, but each containing impressive looking trees growing on top of them. The ruinous state of enclosing walls as well as the presence of randomly placed buildings (libraries and halls) many of which were added at a later date make navigating through the temple a bit confusing. Hills of piled up stones that once formed Ta Prohm can be seen scattered throughout the temple grounds standing witness to the ruinous state of what must have been an epic structure back in the day.
Ta Prohm Bas Reliefs
The reign of great builder Jayavarman VII was followed by the reign of his successor, the great destroyer Jayavarman VIII who made it his mission to destroy Buddhist relics created during the reign of his famous predecessor. Ta Prohm was not spared of this destructive onslaught so many of the carvings and bas reliefs were either removed or defaced. Still, some original carvings of Apsara dancers and bas reliefs of scenes from Buddhist mythology did survive and can still be found on temple walls. I personally was more interested in the jungle growing on top of the temple structure than the bas reliefs so I didn’t spend much time admiring what’s still left after the reign of Jayavarman VIII.
Ta Prohm Trees
That’s exactly why I was there. That’s actually exactly why I went to Cambodia in the first place. The sight of monstrous trees growing out of the centuries old ruins intertwined together to the point that you cannot remove one without destroying the other. Large Silk-Cotton Trees and Thitpoks dominate the overgrowth with smaller Strangler Figs and Golden Apple Trees coupling together for a perfect full picture. Endless roots of the trees engulf the stones in an impenetrable maze that on one hand broke the structures out of form, to keep it tightly together on another.
Ta Prohm was without doubt the highlight of my stay in Cambodia. The most impressive of all the ancient Angkor temples (in my eyes), Ta Prohm delivered the awe just the way I expected. This was the one place I really wanted to visit ever since I first saw the pictures of those trees growing over the walls and other structures built almost a millennium ago and completely abandoned a few centuries later. It’s only saddening that such impressive piece of ancient history is under control of such ungrateful country as Cambodia.
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.
Banteay Kdei was the first bigger temple I stopped at during my second day at Angkor but I was already heat-exhausted. Previous two stops at Prasat Kravan and Bat Chum were very brief and Banteay Kdei itself was much smaller than Angkor Wat or Bayon I visited the day prior so there was no real reason to feel tired but the intensity of Cambodian sun is not to be taken lightly. Sweat was oozing out of every pore on my skin turning the clothes I was wearing into a mush of grease.
If I were to continue riding bicycle and exploring more temples in this heat, I needed a break to recharge. I really needed a gush of cooling breeze but since that doesn’t exist at Angkor, I had to make do with the shade of a large tree. And once I got my breath back and stopped dripping like a broken faucet, I was gonna buy a coconut. Or two.
Like all other bigger temples of Angkor, Banteay Kdei is also overrun with aggressive, in-your-face touts and pestering children who won’t leave your side. As if dealing with scorching heat was not enough of a challenge already, you are also forced to battle off these relentless hustlers. There is no escaping them. You’ll waste a lot of energy shaking one off and just as you’re ready to breathe the fresh air having gotten yourself rid of it, a new half a dozen jump down your back and you’re back to ground zero.
The entire Angkor experience is greatly bastardized by touts who won’t leave you alone for one second. You can’t stop for a moment to take a picture cause it will give them time to encircle you so you have no way to escape their clutch. You can’t take a look to the left or to the right cause there will be a groups of them there who will instantly take advantage of an eye contact you have made and will treat it as an invitation to hustle you into buying worthless junk from them.
As I was exploring Banteay Kdei, I could not wait to get out of the temple grounds cause there were just too many touts inside and they were just too aggressive. I walked hastily towards the exit hoping to find salvation behind that giant gate with four smiling faces on top. But as soon as I made it through, I was jumped by a whole host of fresh touts who were awaiting just outside. Imagine the level of frustration this puts you through.
It was like: “You got to be kidding me! You are trying to sell me the same junk the touts inside had. If I had any intention to buy any of it, I would have bought it from the touts who harassed me inside. Hack, I could have bought it from the dozens of those at Prasat Kravan where I was earlier. Better yet, I could have bought it from the thousands of them super aggressive pests I had to deal with the day prior while I was at the most famous of all temples.”
Don’t these people get it? Everyone inside was bothering me with the same pirated books. What makes them think I would have gone through great lengths to not buy any from the touts inside only to change my mind now that I stepped outside? Regardless, they got right in my face and started with their mental torture, bashing at me from every angle I could turn to. It was absolutely horrible which only added to an overall feeling of being entirely heat-exhausted.
Abused or not, I could not go on. I needed a break, a coconut and a new bottle of water to take with me. I asked the girls if it was possible to hide in a shade of that large tree to the side of the entrance, where they all had plastic chairs full of extra pirated books just in case they’re having a good day and start running out.
Pausing right in the middle of the viper’s nest came with its repercussions – obviously. While it’s normally only about half a dozen of touts you have on your back at any given time, by pausing within their operation ground I had a whole host of them outscreaming one another in desperate attempts to trick me into buying something from them. It was beyond ridiculous but I needed a break regardless. I was too sweaty to go on.
The life didn’t stop with me being there, though. It was interesting to see how quickly their focus changes. While they all were on me because I was paused in their territory, when a new tuk tuk pulled in, their attention immediately shifted towards their new prey. And from the shade of the tree, I silently watched those other tourists desperately trying to shake them off, and just shook my head at how it was yielding zero results. I heard them all swearing in disbelief, trying to explain to the touts that they don’t need any of their worthless junk but it was all in vein. Visibly devastated by this ongoing abuse, the foreigners had to take it all in disgust.
Because Angkor touts seem to have territorial agreements between one another, entering a new territory means the end of abuse from one group, and the beginning of abuse from another. So when new tourists I saw coming escaped the grip of the touts operating in front of Banteai Kdei by entering the temple, they exposed themselves to the touts inside and the focus of the touts outside, which got temporarily shifted away from me was once again redirected back to me.
This pattern kept repeating with each new tourist (or a group of tourists) that made a stop at Banteay Kdei. Each time someone new came, they all went running to encircle them and when they walked inside the temple (aka outside their territory), they came back to me as even though I was just resting, I was still a foreigner and that translates to endless attempts to sell me something.
An interesting thing happened, though. After a good while and numerous attempts to make money at me, some of the girls eventually eased up on hustling and started to talk to me like friends. We talked about the country I came from as well as the country I was in, we talked about the way relationships work in Cambodia, about life in the village they were from, as well as a bunch of regular whinery Cambodians seem to be professionals at – how poor they are and how difficult it is for them to survive.
This was interesting because this whinery lands them with a lot of free stuff. The poorer they make themselves look in the eyes of dozens of foreigners they came in touch with every day, the more they get from them in donations and sponsorships. The girls I met had their English classes, their motorcycles, their expensive clothes – so many things paid for by people they abused during the course of their “duty”. They are used to getting handouts so an alternative is not an attractive option for them. The alternative, of course, is to invest time and effort into studying so as to acquire a skill that could land them a job and a career. But that requires hard work, dedication, sacrifice and in the end puts you in a position of having to go to work and deliver results as per your employer’s requirements. Then they would be able to buy their own motorcycle, their own clothes and pay for their own further education. But who can be bothered to do that. It’s much easier to just get in front of the temple and whine about how poor we are and be handed that out for free. So they do precisely that. And foolish foreigners, who have not been lucky enough to have someone pay for their education, go to work every day and dedicate the best days of their lives to earning money in the sweat of their own brow, end up falling for the trick and the handouts keep pouring in. Thus the culture of handouts gets enrooted deeply in the minds of the people who don’t even try to improve their own lives. But let’s get back to me making friends with the villagers.
I was definitely more heat-exhausted than I would have liked to admit so I spend good one and a half hour chatting away with those new found friends. Three of the girls in their early twenties were particularly nice to chat with as they were the only ones operating outside of the temples that were old enough to eventually get the fact that I’m simply just resting before the rest of my journey and am not buying anything other than coconuts and water.
Most of the touts harassing tourists are children deployed by their parents, though. It’s a perfect case of child slavery where parents are the masters. Instead of going to school, children are forced into spending their whole days at the temples to abuse foreigners because it’s easier for a child to pull off fake tears with lies to land some cash. These children are taught basic phrases that are proven to work the best. They often involve open lies, such as that they have no parents and need money for school, none of which is true. The “where are you from?” response to being told “No” is also a common phrase these children are taught.
Other than that, most of these children are too young to understand the foreign language well enough to get it when you’re trying to explain why you can’t buy anything from them. So they will just follow you around while continuously mumbling their memorized chants and you’ll have absolutely nothing to work with to get them off your side.
It was a little better with Saly, Sarein and Sokai (or Kai for short) who were past their twenties and spoke better English. After they’d failed to sell me their books the tenth time and after I’d repeatedly made myself clear about being unable to buy anything from them, they eventually stopped harassing me and only came over for a chat. They took off each time a new tourist showed up, but after the tourists entered other tout’s territory and there was nobody else to harass, they came to me to talk. It’s a long day they have at the temple (they start at dawn, which is often before 6am and “work” until dusk, which is at around 6pm) so killing time while they’re waiting for their next prey with someone new helped them get through the day faster.
This break I took eventually turned out being quite an interesting experience. I made new friends with those three girls and ended up spending almost every day of the rest of my stay in Cambodia with them. Saly and Sarein lived in the village on the south bank of Sras Srang, opposite Bantey Kdei temple, while Kai lived with her mother in the village along the road lining the northern bank. Child slaves never actually stopped bothering me, not even after months of coming there day in, day out, but this was definitely the most authentic Cambodian experience I could have asked for.
Banteay Kdei temple doesn’t get the buzz and attention it deserves. It was built by king Jayavarman VII, the same god-king who built Angkor Thom and Bayon (notorious for its face towers) and as such, Banteay Kdei contains architectonic elements resembling other structures built during the reign of Jayavarman VII. For me personally, Banteay Kdei and Sras Srang – which is just on the opposite side of the road – were the very locations where I spent most of my time during my stay in Cambodia. This makes Banteay Kdei my biased favorite.
Banteay Kdei, the Khmer name of which means “The Citadel of the Cells” was built in the late 12th, early 13th centuries. Its gopuras (gateways) are crowned with the same face towers that adorn Victory Gate (as well as other gates) of Angkor Thom. Unfortunately, the sandstone used for construction of Banteay Kdei was not of the finest quality and the workmanship of stone masons was nowhere near that of the masters who built Prasat Kravan so the temple fell into a dilapidated state in which it can be found today. Much of the galleries within outer and inner enclosures are in a great state of collapse.
Scholars say that Banteay Kdei was built to be a Mahayana Buddhist temple but even though it was used as a monastery by the monks who dwelt within for centuries, the inscription stone that would contain detailed information about which divinity the temple was originally dedicated to has gone missing.
Even though similar in layout to Ta Prohm and Preah Khan temples, Banteay Kdei is smaller and not as elaborate. There is only one level on which the structure stands and contains two concentric galleries enclosed within two successive walls. Banteay Kdei faces east with east wall of its outer enclosure containing the main gopura which serves as the main entrance (from where you will get in). Part of the eastern outer wall is collapsed – it’s to the right of the main entrance when facing it from the outside but even though I tried, I was not allowed to enter from there. I saw both wandering live stock and locals get in and out of there, though.
As mentioned above, the main gopura is surmounted by a tower containing four faces of smiling Lokeshvara with features closely resembling king Jayavarman VII. If you look closely, you will also notice three small sculptures of Buddha carved at the base of the tower, at the meeting point of each two faces. The gopura itself is flanked on both sides by garudas (mythical birds) which I always used to think were related to Hinduism but as I had learned, they also apprear in Buddhist mythology.
An intriguing thing can be seen to the right of east gopura – step in that direction and focus on the carvings of Apsaras. You may notice what appears to be the bullet holes. I asked locals about it but no one had an answer for me. They certainly look like bullet holes, unless someone tried to deliberately damage the structures by hitting these carvings with sharp, pointy hand tools. If they are bullet holes, I hope they are the remnants of Khmer Rouge activities, not contemporary violence of locals residing within Angkor. Check out the video that shows the holes and judge the cause for yourself:
Once inside, I found myself walking along the cruciform terrace that’s slightly elevated above the ground and is decorated on both sides by stone statues of lions and nagas forming balustrades. As I progressed along, I paused at the few, but piquant carvings. I noticed that the towers of the galleries inside resemble those of Angkor Wat giving an impressions of mixed styles (I’m not an expert, don’t quote me on that one). Banteay Kdei also has a few spots of massive trees growing on top of ancient stones, which is a sight to behold.
There is a rectangular courtyard to the east of the central temple which may have been used as venue for Apsara performances. The exterior of the courtyard is decorated with figures of dancers and its name translates into “The Hall of the Dancing Girls”.
At the entrance to Banteay Kdei there is a sign mentioning that the preservation works on the temple are conducted with an assistance from Sophia Mission, Tokyo. Still, despite funding from Japan and some woodwork enclosing parts of the temple, most of it is unrestored. It looks and feels very ancient inside and unlike Angkor Wat or Bayon, can be enjoyed without sharing with hundreds of other tourists at the same time.
Somehow, even though Banteay Kdei is truly spectacular, most companies that provide pre-packaged tours don’t include it in their itineraries. You will see buses full of tourists drive by it at high speeds disrespecting all other traffic participants, never making a stop there. Still, because the temple is on the small circuit, it does get a fair share of visitors. Temples on the grand circuit are far more deserted with myself being the only person when I was there. If you are headed to Angkor, don’t miss out on Banteay Kdei.
The mystery surrounding Banteay Kdei temple is intriguing. Because a marker stele that would contain information about who built the temple and why has never been found, all we can do is guess. What we do know is that Banteay Kdei was constructed over a site of a smaller temple and served as a monastery for the monks during the reign of Jayavarman VII. His successor, king Jayavarman VIII vandalized Buddha images installed within during Jayavarman VII in an attempt to promote Hinduism. The photo gallery below contains pictures of Banteay Kdei I took in September 2009.