A face. Eyes closed, chiseled on a rough stone, faded by time. A wall. Carved with unreadable inscriptions, strange reliefs running hundreds of feet on both ends. A fig tree. Sacred, towering several meters high, roots clinging like a spindly spider legs on a cracked ruin.
|A KID PLAYING ALONG THE BANTEAY SREI GROUNDS|
Siem Reap is like leaping into a real life Tomb Raider game, only we’re not sprinting ahead with Colt 45’s a blazin’, but with Canon and Nikons clickin’; dodging no tigers nor thugs, but tourists clad in bright, colorful garbs
Welcome to Siem Reap. It was a good day for a run, a temple run.
|TUKTUKING OUR WAY TO THE SIEM REAP GRAND TOUR|
We woke up early and from our lodging at the Angkor Tropical Resort, went to the nearby Leu Market for our daily breakfast fix of bai sach chrouk and iced coffee. There, we were met there by Nga, our tuk-tuk driver from Happy Guesthouse.
And with a bagful of French bread and bottled water, we’re off for a full day of nothing but temples.
|ONE OF TA SOM’S GOPURAS|
Our itinerary for the day; Pre Rup, Banteay Srei, Ta Som, Neak Pean and Preah Khan.
That’s two temples more than our previous run. And unlike the Roluos Temple Group, this one requires a full day of temple hopping. We even thought of visiting the Phnom Kulen Waterfalls, but we spent too much time on the temple sites and had no more time for a sidetrip.
|STRANGE CARVING AT PRE RUP|
I suggest doing this after the Roluos tour and right before going to the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom sites. The Angkor tours will definitely overwhelm you and you might find this current one less appealing and somewhat disappointing; the Siem Reap Big Circuit temple run is beautiful in its own right.
|THE TOWERING PRE RUP TEMPLE IN SIEM REAP|
► P R E R U P
The first temple we visited is the towering giant of Pre Rup. It is located just beside a highway, we passed this by during our Small Circuit temple tour, but you still need a pass to enter it.
|A SANCTUARY WITH FALSE DOOR IN PRE RUP|
Pre Rup, which means turn the body, is a state temple made by Rajendravarman, the Khmer King from 944 A.D. Turning the body is a Cambodian funeral ritual wherein the ashes of the deceased is rotated in different directions as the service progresses.
The temple, dedicated to Shiva, is made from bricks, sandstone and laterite, a material with a reddish tinge.
|TOURISTS FLOCKING THE PRE RUP TEMPLE|
We were quite shocked by the number of tourists visiting that day, having encountered just a few on our Roluos Group tour. It was a challenge to get a photo without them milling about. So what to do? Include them in your photos and show the scale of the temple.
|HUGE STEPS TO ASCEND PRE RUP|
The temple platform rises to a height of twelve meters. And we simply cannot pass off climbing our way to the top. The steps, as with most temples built during this era, were made for gods. Or giants, perhaps. They were enormous.
|TOP PLATFORM SANCTUARIES IN PRE RUP TEMPLE|
But that didn’t stop us, nor the scorching heat of the sun, from trying. We went all the way to the top, panting and grunting as we climbed, almost on our hands and knees.
|THE VIEW FROM THE TOP OF PRE RUP|
Finally at its apex, five towers arranged in a quincunx, greeted us along with a panoramic view of the countryside. We can’t see any temples jutting from the treetops, so our next destination was probably still some ways off.
Now, how to get back down…
|BANTEAY SREI TEMPLE IN SIEM REAP|
► B A N T E A Y S R E I
Are all the temples at Siem Reap dedicated to Shiva? The next one we visited is another dedicated to the God of Destruction. Banteay Srei is a small temple built in 967 A.D. by the priest-doctor Yajnavaraha. Well, at least that’s different; it wasn’t made by a king.
|DEVATAS CARVED ALONG THE WALLS OF BANTEAY SREI|
Its name means citadel of the women or citadel of beauty, due mainly to the many devatas or demi-goddesses carved along its walls. It’s interesting to note that the word devatas is quite similar to our diwata, which has almost the same meaning.
|BANTEAY SREI’S MONKEY GUARDS|
Banteay Srei’s scale is surprising, considering how large the temples are at Angkor; this is probably one of the smallest. But don’t let its size fool you into thinking of not visiting it. This is one of the most beautiful in all of Angkor when it comes to carvings and reliefs.
|TOURISTS AT BANTEAY SREI|
And to be sure, this is one of the most flocked temples we visited that day. There were tons and tons of tourists everywhere, testifying to its popularity.
|BEAUTIFULLY CARVED PEDIMENT AT BENTEAY SREI|
The temple is made from hard red sandstone which has a property similar to wood; it can easily be carved. And from the elaborate bas-relief we saw on its walls and pediments, it’s not hard to imagine why this place is popular even with its diminutive size; it’s not called the Jewel of Khmer Art for nothing.
|BENTEAY SREI SANCTUARIES|
While it has only been rediscovered in 1914, there has been a lot of looting going around the place. So much so that a few of its statues and parts have already been taken to museums for safekeeping. With that, some of those on site are now only replicas.
|MONKEY FIGURES AT BENTEAY SREI|
The thing I specially like about Banteay Srei were its monkey figures, it’s the first time I’ve seen such in the temples of Siem Reap. They looked as all monkeys do; peculiarly funny, lol.
|A POSTCARD SELLER IN BENTEAY SREI|
Before going, we bought a postcard from one of the kids following us. They’re quite sweet actually, if you just keep your cool. I mean, they’re still kids, and kids are always fun to be with. We actually talked to a few of them all the way to the boating area, which we were unable to try by the way, giving each of them a one-peso coin and lecturing them about Rizal, haha.
Banteay Srei isn’t really a part of the Big Circuit tour, but our host probably thought that with its beauty, we should include it on our tour.
|FIG TREE TAKING ROOT AT TA SOM’S GOPURA|
► T A S O M
The third temple for the day is a classic one; it’s one of those that you see on postcards where an ancient tree takes the temple by its roots, establishing it as his domain. Such is Ta Som.
|BEAUTIFUL RELIEF AT TA SOM|
It’s a temple made by King Jayavarman VII during the late 12th century and dedicated to Shi… Oh wait, his father, King Dharanindravarman II. Alright, finally, not Shiva!
|TA SOM’S GOPURA|
Ta Som has that giant Bayon-style carved faces on the top of its gopuras or entrances. They really look good on pictures, but they’re infinitely more awesome in real life.
|ARTWORKS BEING SOLD AT TA SOM, THEY’RE DONE ON THE SPOT TOO|
Along the temple grounds, we met a few artists doing sketches and paintings on art paper, selling them for a few dollars each. Most of the works are ho-hum, but a few are really quite nice. We held on to our money, thinking we’d probably get a better deal when we get to the more touristy areas of Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom.
|FINALLY, NO MORE TOURISTS|
Ta Som is a good drive away from Banteay Srei. We accessed it on one side and came out from another where our tuk-tuk waited for us. It’s still in the process of restoration, most of its parts still lying in pieces. And it’s probably the reason why there are not a lot of tourists in the place. Well, that, or they’re having lunch.
|NEAK PEAN, A TEMPLE ON AN ARTIFICIAL ISLAND|
► N E A K P E A N
Before proceeding to our next temple, we decided to join the other tourists for lunch. We asked Nga if there are cheap eateries along the way to the next temple, but the ones we stopped by in were quite expensive. Finally we found some on the parking lot next to Neak Pean, our next run.
|KHMER NOODLE SOUP (4.50 USD)|
|KHMER STIR-FRIED NOODLES WITH EGG AND FRENCH BREAD (4.50 USD)|
The food fare at this kind of places is usually quite expensive compared to the ones we have tried in Leu Market. To save a bit, we decided to haggle with the store owners. Fortunately, since we don’t look that rich and we’re fellow Asians, they gave us discounts!
|THE CAUSEWAY TO NEAK PEAN|
After having our fill, it was time to move to Neak Pean.
By this time, our head was ready to explode; we’re already experiencing a heavy does of temple overload. The path to our next destination proved to be just what we need; a long refreshing walk along a wooden causeway over what seemed to be a marsh.
|NEAK PEAN, ONE OF THE MOST UNIQUE TEMPLES IN SIEM REAP|
Neak Pean was also something new to our eyes. Instead of the usual temple, we were surprised to see that it’s some sort of pool. Well, it’s definitely not a temple, but more of a hospital.
But, a hospital on water?
This Buddhist temple is built by Jayavarman VII, the same king who built two of the other temples in the Big Circuit tour, to heal his people. It is believed that bathing at Neak Pean would balance the elements in ones body, curing any ailments he has. There are four connecting pools representing the elements; Earth, Wind, Fire and Water.
|AFTERNOON LIGHT HITTING PREAH KHAN IN SIEM REAP|
► P R E A H K H A N
Okay, we are officially templed out by the time we arrived at our last destination. The sun was on its slow descent as we alighted from our tuk-tuk and found a group of drivers playing something like our local sipa. The losers would wear a tree branch right at his ass, making him look somewhat like a monkey. It was a welcome distraction as we dragged our weary feet to the temple.
|A BUSY COW ALONG PREAH KHAN’S GRAND ENTRANCE|
Preah Khan, which means Royal Sword, has a long and wide entrada right before its gopura. There we saw a lone cattle lazing his way around, oblivious to the now thinning tourists visiting the grounds.
|INSIDE PREAH KHAN|
The temple itself, built in the 12th century for King Jayavarman VII, is extensive and quite fun to explore, especially now that most tourists are gone. It is said to have been a city, a temple and a university.
|ONE OF PREAH KHAN’S GOPURAS|
The carvings were quite detailed, and there were lots of courtyards to roam around in. Can you imagine that the exterior of this structure were once laden with bronze plates. Well, imagine it, as an estimate of 1,500 tonnes of bronze have covered it back in the day.
|A SACRED FIG TREE CLAIMING A PART OF PREAH KHAN|
It is largely unrestored, with giant trees hugging portions of the structure. The restorators prefer to keep it this way, saying it’s gonna take too much guesswork to go any further and they’re just not ready to falsify history.
|A CURIOUS TEMPLE WITH CIRCULAR COLUMNS, A RARE SIGHT IN SIEM REAP|
On one of its grounds, I saw a structure with rounded columns, something I really haven’t seen in all the temples we visited thus far. The purpose of this building remains unknown to this date though.
|HEADLESS SCULPTURES ALONG THE HALLWAYS|
Its hallways were almost empty as we went through them, giving me a bit of the heebie jeebies, especially with a few of the statues without heads. I assume this was from the anti-Buddhist reaction during the king’s reign.
|ANOTHER HEADLESS SCULTURE AT PREAH KHAN|
With nothing else to do, we simply laze on one of its satellite temples, goofing around and taking selfies as we watched the sun descend further down the horizon. The mesmerizing sounds of local musicians, victims of landmines, playing traditional Khmer music kept us company the whole time.
|NATURE TAKING BACK THE TEMPLE|
By five in the afternoon, the forlorn sound of a horn echoed through the grounds. The temple tour is now at its end. We wended through the scattered remains of the Preah Khan, leisurely making our way back towards our tuk-tuk.
|SUNSET AT ANGKOR THOM’S BRIDGE|
En route to the city center, we crossed a bridge along the gates of the massive Angkor Thom.
There, we witnessed the sun finally bade its farewell. We stopped for a moment. Framed by the massive stone sentinels of Angkor, silent statues who have witnessed this scene more than a million times through the thousand of years of its existence, we watched the sun rest and finally disappear below the canopy of the trees right by the river.
We’ve had a good run.
Siem Reap Grand Temple Tour
Address: Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Entrance Fee: None, but you have to purchase a temple pass beforehand
Pre Rup GPS Coordinates Map: 13°26'06.1"N 103°55'13.8"E
Banteay Srei GPS Coordinates Map: 13°35'56.1"N 103°57'47.8"E
Ta Som Coordinates Map: 13°27′52″N 103°54′46″E
Neak Pean Coordinates Map: 13°27'48.7"N 103°53'41.2"E
Preah Khan Coordinates Map: 13°27'43.0"N 103°52'17.7"E