Sun drifts on the breeze,
Butterflies, vines, weave around,
Ancient stone secrets.
After yesterday’s early start, waking up at 6:45 seemed positively lazy. We slothed about and got dressed, grabbed breakfast, then set off with our hired private tourguide and driver (!?).
I have to say, it seemed strange to have two people in our employ for the day. The total cost for both of them (for both of us) was $120, which included going anywhere we wanted to. It seemed strange, but our driver, Pea, and our guide, San, were both terrific. In between describing the finer points of King Javayarman II’s reign and the details of temples he built, we we learned about Cambodian customs (for example, women move in to men’s houses for 3 months, to work without pay, before they decide to finalize a marriage) and the country at large (there are 14 parties in the election coming up on July 28th, which is down from a historical high of 20; but no one expects the ruling party to lose, partially because they are quite open about the fact that they rig elections). San had a great knowledge of Buddhist and Hindu traditions and mythology, and told us lots of stories in detail we wouldn’t find anywhere in a guidebook. Basically, I’m super pleased with our decision to hire these guys, not least because a driver and guide is the only way to see the temples we wanted to see.
Our first stop was Koh Ker, one of the ancient capitals of the Khmer empire. There were apparently 5 capitals built at the time, by the aforementioned Javayarman II after he declared Cambodia independent of Java around 900AD. So these temples are seriously old. In Koh Ker, we stopped at five different spots, where we learned about the Holy Trinity (“Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu,” our guide insisted, “not those guys on the blue signs”, referring to the ubiquitous election posters with three candidates on them) and linga (penis) worship. We spent some time giggling about the idea of making holy beer by pouring it onto the lingas in these temples, which would technically be valid as they make holy coconut water and milk by doing this, and admired the extent of the vandalism at the sites. No statues were left, the lingas from the sites had been largely stolen, and any temple that was accessible had been turned into a temple for Buddha rather than Shiva.
The 40 or so temples in the area were built around a large reservoir (which was also built by Javayarman II’s slaves). Its water is still used to irrigate nearby fields, and it’s beautiful and covered in lotuses. The area is peppered with signs describing in what year the local minefields were cleared, who sponsored it, how many mines were removed, and how many pieces of UXO were found. Most of the dates we saw were fairly recent, since 2004.
Our next stop was lunch, where we had amok in coconuts. Delicious! We actually had four coconuts on our table, since we each had one to drink, as well. Did you know that coconut water can be used in a pinch in place of blood plasma for transfusions?
Then, Beng Mealea. This temple was the whole reason we wanted to get out of Siem Reap into the countryside. Unlike the temples of Angkor and most other places in the region, Beng Mealea has basically been left untouched (a few wooden staircases have been added), with its main tower collapsed in a tree-topped pile of rubble, most of its galleries laying in ruin, vines covering everything, and butterflies drifting on the breeze. In short, it’s an explorer’s paradise.
We climbed across roofs, scrambled between barely-supported stones, and snuck through ill-lit galleries. We managed to keep our footing on mossy rocks, noting carefully places our guide pointed out that had just recently collapsed. We put on our best explorer faces and tried to pretend that we were real trailblazers, rather than white people coated in DEET following a guide over a somewhat-trodden path through a government-sanctioned temple ruins. It worked. We felt awesome! If you want to peek through our photos, we have loads from the trip.
Finally, almost back to Siem Reap, we paused at the Roulos group, which contains the oldest temples in the region, built around 890. They are actually in terrific shape, and they show off many of the building techniques that are prevalent in temples from the area, like carved brick and plaster-covered brick (how that plaster has survived 1100 years, I will never know), as well as building out of volcanic rock. Our guide explained that Cambodia is basically a giant volcano, with the central lake and flat inland areas as its crater, ringed by a mountain range. It seems hard to believe (the volcano is now, obviously extinct), but it does certainly explain where all this pumice comes from.
On the way home, we listened to tales of immortal demon heads and seas of milk. Before tucking in for the nigh, we headed out once more for some classy drinks at the Foreign Correspondents Club, which we simply couldn’t pass up. Back at our hostel, we sleepily ate some dinner and settled in to watch movies until bedtime. Clambering around in 38 degree heat is tiring at best, and we’re tired.