I had achieved much of what I wanted on day one. I walked somewhere in the region of 15 miles and my legs were not happy when I woke for day 2.
I had arranged with my tuktuk driver to begin at 8.30am on my second and last day, and I immediately threw him a curveball by asking to go to Beng Mealea.
Beng Mealea is a temple we visited in 2012, straight from the plane pretty much. It is 2 hours from Siem Reap and the main temples, but six years ago it had been my favourite temple of all. I hoped it hadn’t changed.
My driver was not completely happy with the plan. A typical day for a tuktuk driver involves making small journeys between temples and sleeping and chatting to other drivers whilst their tourists explore the temples. They often sling hammocks up between trees or within the tuktuk. So driving a 4 hour return journey was not ideal for him, but he set off anyway. Siem Reap was nothing but a village in the early 1990s when the country reopened to tourists. As the temples have become more and more popular Siem Reap has grown. It took us about 30 minutes to clear the city, and the huge trucks and vans, combined with the poor standard of driving made a tuktuk a rather nerve-wracking place to be. My driver’s reluctance now made more sense.
I have no recollection of the journey being like this 6 years ago. Siem Reap also seemed much bigger this time with immense hotels everywhere. Its growth is driven by Chinese tourists and business mainly. I got the impression that this is not really welcome.
But soon enough the roads became quiet and as we passed through villages children ran out to wave and shout hello. Just how it was in 2012. Claire would have loved it. Especially when we passed 2 young boys bathing in a pond with their water buffalo. These scenes could have been lifted from hundreds of years ago. It was magical.
Beng Mealea is a temple I constantly recommend to people . It is such a contrast to the others, but I was worried it may have changed for the worse. When we visited in 2012 the temple was virtuality deserted and two young local girls gave us the grand tour, even helping Claire on the steep steps.
As we pulled up I could see crowds of Chinese tourists. The Chinese travel in large and loud groups and their guides struggle to make themselves heard. So much so that the guides have taken to wearing headsets and using speakers to increase their volume. The temples are holy places for the Khmer and all the noise and raucousness seems so inappropriate.
Beng Mealea is in such a ruinous state that for the most part visitors are restricted to a raised wooden walkway. This was built to enable the filming of the Guy Pearce film Two Brothers. If you like baby animals or wish to see this temple in all its glory I suggest you watch this film.
In 2012 the walkway was very much optional and we had an amazing time going where we pleased. Now, the walkway was had been extended for the whole walk though the temple with no real option to deviate. The route seemed to miss out some of the best spots too.
It is impressive but not what I was hoping for. Climbing on the temples is not something I am proud of as it contributes to the damage, but it is fun so I do it very carefully now and again.
As I walked back to the entrance, flanked by nearly 100 Chinese, I noticed a slightly worn passage up and over a collapsed wall. Once nobody was around I carefully climbed over the partially collapsed wall and then descended into an area of the temple not seen from the walkway. It was huge, approximately 20% of the total temple and it was deserted, with only the faint sound of Chinese guides in the distance. This part of the temple was covered in moss, with vines clinging to the stonework. This was the quintessential Angkor experience. I was in heaven.
I explored as carefully and respectfully as I could and loved every minute of it. After a while I needed to pee so climbed out to use the toilets (a tree). When I returned back towards my personal paradise an Italian family were bemoaning the Chinese. We got chatting and I explained how it had been so different 6 years previous. They looked disappointed. So I glanced around, saw that nobody was watching and invited them to follow me. As the scene unfolded before them they were blown away, snapping photos and posing against the indtricate doors like kids at Chrismas.
After that I felt like I needed to find another temple that was quiet. I did some research and my guide book handily listed some lesser visited temples. I asked my tuktuk driver to take me to Chaw Srei Vibol. His face dropped. At first he pretended to not know it, but faced with my guide book and Google Maps he gave in. He mumbled “Bumpy Road” and then set off.
This was a journey completed mostly on the orange dirt tracks that are normal for this part of Cambodia, and you only encounter them if you head off the tarmaced tourist routes. These tracks were indeed bumpy as they had not yet been repaired. The rainy season had only just ended. If you ever find yourself on a bumpy road in Cambodia in a tuktuk I suggest you do the following. Push your feet against the base of the seat in front and use the handles to pull yourself up an inch off the seat. Suspend yourself like this for every bump. Only like this will your spine survive.
Amusingly my driver got lost a number of times. I had Google Maps running but he bluntly refused to listen to me, instead waking local people to ask. It was a fun journey though, passing through ancient rice fields. Certainly not a side of Cambodia that most visitors get to see.
Chaw Srei Vibol was indeed completely empty of people when I arrived. It was almost entirely collapsed, which is how I like my temples. In their ruined state the temples are at their most atmospheric.
It was only a small hilltop temple but worth a visit, if only to be able to explore in complete peace (but see warning below).
I received some retrospective advice about this temple. It seems the thoroughness of the demining could be questioned. Cambodia is sadly riddled with land mines so heading off into the unknown can be risky. I don’t know how true this is of Chaw Srei Vibol but if you visit this temple please do your research so you don’t stumble around the place with reckless abandon like I did.
After this my tuktuk driver desperately tried to persuade me to return to the popular temples. I agreed.
So I had a quick stroll through Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider temple) which had sadly been rebuilt in places
For years this temple had been intentionally left with trees growing amongst it. The idea was to retain the mysterious environment like when the French “found” the temples. Sadly though the trees were tearing the temple apart. I preferred it at it was, but I am happy that it is being saved.
Then, it was time for my sunrise redemption. I decided to go on a hike, as I figured that a few hundred people would not do the same. I knew that at each corner of Angkor Thom a small temple was constructed. The south west corner would be perfect for sunrise and it was also close to another geeky feature I wanted to see.
The walk took around an hour and when I arrived one other tourist and his guide were there already. Later two monks arrived on a motorbike to take photos on their smartphones. The walk, along the imposing city wall, turned out to be a short cut for local people on their motorbikes. Totally avoiding the tourists.
Before it was time for sunset I wanted to find a large reservoir, Beng Thom. This is the lowest corner of the city and in what was a very wet city of canals and ponds, all water flowed here and collected in this reservoir. When the reservoir was full the overflow allowed water to pass into the city moat.
It took a little time, but following what looked like a water buffalo path I found it. I concluded that any land mines that weren’t set of by water buffalo were unlikely to trouble me.
This is the overflow and then the the reservoir. Still working after at least 900 years.
I sometimes think I should have been born in the Victorian era. I love exploring and discovering.
Sunset was fantastic. A traditional Khmer boat even passed by.
But the best view was when I got back to the South Gate, from the walkway over the moat. A fitting end to my 3rd visit to Angkor.
If you are reading this and fancy a visit to the temples of Angkor, my advice to you is to just get it booked. You won’t regret it. You only need 3 or 4 nights in Siem Reap so a visit works best combined with a longer 2 to 3 week holiday with time in Vietnam or/and Thailand. Or for a shorter 1 week to, with city stopovers in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or the Middle East.