Into Cambodia Part II: Banteay Srei and Beyond

Put the Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia on your bucket list if you like history (and pretty architecture). It is remarkable in so many ways for so many reasons. (If you missed part one, you can find the post here.) When I first saw the option to purchase a 3-day park pass, I thought that the administrators may be crazy. Now I realize that there is an excellent reason why it exists. Enter Part II.

Angkor this, Angkor that – it can really be confusing to know what is what around Siem Reap. If you can believe it, there is even a beer called Angkor and another beer called Anchor. I’m sure that’s not aggravating for bartenders at all.

That being said, there is a secret to sprawling world of the Angkor Archaeological Park (AAP). That secret lies about 30km north of Angkor Wat and led to my favorite experience in Cambodia. We went with fellow long-term traveler Nicole (whom we met in Thailand a week earlier) to check out two more remote sites that are included in the AAP ticket: Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean.

Have you seen this equation before? The Journey ≥ The Destination

An hour long Tuk Tuk ride from Siem Reap was a thousand times more entrancing than it sounds. As a result, it was my most memorable experience. Just look at the beautiful surroundings.

Cambodia fields and house

Cambodia fields and house

Throughout our ride we got a small taste of Cambodian agrarian life. We passed rice fields, oxen pulling carts, small villages and abundant wildlife. It’s quite different than the tourist-track near Siem Reap. Our destination seemed like an added bonus after the ride there.

The distance makes Banteay Srei a little quieter. It is smaller, intricately carved and, most amazingly, predates Angkor Wat by two centuries. It was only rediscovered about a hundred years ago.

The temple and carvings are made of a reddish sandstone which makes it unique. Banteay Srei translates to ‘The Citadel of Women.’ The carvings found there are supremely detailed. You can get up close and spend hours analyzing the subtle patterns if the sun doesn’t dry you out first. Banteay Srei is also a great jumping off point to another unique location even further north.

Kbal Spean is not a temple like Banteay Srei. It is an archaeological site that houses a collection of amazing carvings which happen to be underwater. In a tributary of the Siem Reap river lay artifacts and engravings from the 11th and 12th centuries.

The carvings are everywhere. Many are beneath the water and some are on dry land nearby. You must walk for about 20 minutes from the nearest road through the jungle to glimpse the remains. While enduring constant erosion from the stream, you can plainly see the patterns and carvings that lay beneath. In fact, the carvings can be seen for wide stretches as you walk up and down the river.

I tried to wrap my mind around how (or why) such carvings would be placed underwater. It was a thrill to see something that takes so much skill to complete in a location where it will inevitably be reclaimed by nature. After the better part of a millennium, most of the carvings are still going strong. We only had time to see a one area in the riverbed but there were other paths and areas to explore.

I really began to appreciate our day as we rode back to Siem Reap. Not everyone goes to Cambodia. Fewer still make the journey further beyond to see the beautiful countryside and the truly unique ruins found there. Sometimes when you go exploring you find new and amazing things at your destination. The beauty of exploring is the unexpected. A bumpy Tuk Tuk ride on the other side of the world just may be something you remember forever.

Into Cambodia – Angkor

The last 50 years have not been kind to Cambodia. The spillover from the Vietnam war led to decades of struggle. At the hands of the Khmer Rouge it is estimated that a quarter of the population was killed or died of starvation. The instability was still very apparent into the 1990’s and trials for genocide are still not fully resolved as of 2013. With all of these events it is easy to overlook the thousands of years of history before Vietnam.

Cambodia is a beautiful country and has legacy of ancient history to match.

Cambodian Jungle

Cambodian Jungle

No trip to Cambodia is complete without a visit to Angkor. The Angkor Archaeological Complex is home to ruins from many structures that sprawl for kilometers including notable temples. The most famous of these temples is Angkor Wat. We got up before dawn for a tuk tuk ride to catch the sunrise over this storied structure. You may recognize the iconic silhouette in the picture below.

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Angkor Wat is enormous. You can’t properly appreciate the scale until you spend 10 minutes just walking toward the main structure. What you find inside is magical. Steep stairwells, long hallways and empty pools where medical treatments once took place. In addition to the massive size, there are many areas of extraordinary detail. Carvings of spectacular scenes with immaculate human and animal designs.

It is incredible to think that Angkor Wat was constructed over 800 years ago. You could spend all day appreciating the site. However, Angkor Wat is just one of many temples located in the complex. Our second stop was Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm is literally being eaten alive. The surrounding forest has been encroaching on the site ever since it was abandoned and has incorporated itself into the design. The result is an incredible blending of nature and man-made structure.

Ta Prohm was my favorite of the temples at Ankor. It twists your imagination to wonder what it must have been like hundreds of years ago and what it may become hundreds of years from now.

The last of our three-temple-tour was the equally impressive Angkor Thom (Bayon). Angkor Thom is best known for the faces that decorate the entire site.

Angkor Thom Face

Angkor Thom Face

After spending six hours in the blazing sun looking at ancient artifacts, I’m not sure my mind was in the best state to absorb all there was to see at Angkor Thom. Thankfully, we have cameras and I can go back and appreciate the details.

To say Ankor is massive is a severe understatement. We spent a full day at the complex and could have spent many more. Once a thriving population lived and worked on the same site as these ruins. Now, we can only look at these rocks and imagine what a thriving Ankor may have looked like.

The next day, we had the opportunity to venture even further back into Cambodia’s ancient history. Stay tuned for part two of our Cambodia temple adventure!