Angkor Wat at dawnThe five distinctive lotus bud shaped towers of the temple are the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of ancient gods
Angkor Wat is a name that has summoned up adventure, excitement and mystery for me ever since I first thumbed through my childhood atlas. The largest temple complex on earth, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, nothing can prepare you for its sheer scale and majesty. This recreation of heaven on earth reduces you to mere superlatives. Built over 800 years ago to express divinity - the setting down in stone of the divine power of the kings of Angkor - these enormous temples were surrounded by thriving cities built of wood and thatch. Here was the capital of a kingdom that ruled for over 500 years, home to over a million people, its engineering, urban planning and water management systems equalling, if not surpassing, cities elsewhere in Asia and in Europe.
We have been in Siem Reap, Cambodia, for three days exploring the numerous temples which make up this World Heritage Site. We have watched the sunset from Phnom Bakheng turning the stonework of Angkor Wat pink and gold. We stood spellbound awaiting the sunrise behind its five distinctive lotus bud shaped towers which are the earthly representation of Mount Meru, the Mount Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of ancient gods. The charcoal grey temple was silhouetted against a kaleidoscopic sky of moving cloud tinted myriad shades of grey, purple, lilac, ruby red and apricot, all of which was reflected in the water of the large moat surrounding it. It was a spine tingling scene. In the daylight we wandered amid its ornately carved labyrinthine galleries depicting the battles from the great Indian epics: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Gods and demons, men and beasts are all exquisitely executed in sandstone. The apsaras and devatas (dancers and deities) are so perfectly carved and lifelike that they might just take form and walk out of the very walls.
Beautifully carved temple statuesThe apsaras and devatas, dancers and deities, are so perfectly carved and lifelike that they might just take form and walk out of the very walls
From a tuk tuk we gazed in wonderment at the great city of Angkor Thom, its entrance bridges lined with impressive avenues of carved heads depicting gods and asuras in the form of a stylised balustrade with ornate nagas (multi-headed serpents). These lead to a tower, a panoply of intricate carving featuring elephants topped by four enormous sandstone heads facing each cardinal direction. The narrow gateways below propel you to another world, a microcosm of the universe, at the heart of which lies the Bayon.
Angkor ThomThe impressive entrance way to the temple complex Angkor ThomThe entrance bridge to the temple complex is lined with carved heads depicting gods and asuras in the form of a stylised balustrade
We wandered in awe through this mysterious monument, its giant carved faces staring benignly into the surrounding jungle canopy, timeless and still, with knowing eyes and smiling mouths. We admired the history and culture of the Khmer which is carved on the walls in exquisite detail. There are great friezes of war depicting battles with the Cham and the Chinese which feature warrior elephants, soldiers in boats and chariots and nobles in exotic palanquins. And there is the prosaic, for the people who created this temple projected their everyday lives onto stone. It is a timeless portrayal of rural life still seen in the Khmer villages of today.
In the sweltering heat we explored the dark recesses of the pyramid-like Ta Keo and the temple mountain of Bakong with its fabulously carved elephant statues surrounded by a moat studded with cerise pink and white lilies. We watched as a huge gunmetal-grey cloud swirled menacingly above the pool of Srah Srang just before a monsoon deluge engulfed it, and sat becalmed at the peaceful scene of a man fishing on the lake surrounding the island temple of Neak Pean as the heat of the day ebbed away and the sun slid low in the western sky.
We wandered speechless amid the photogenic ruins of Ta Phrom, marvelling at the stonework smothered by gigantic silk cotton trees and strangler figs as if in a desperate and deadly struggle with the jungle for survival. Merged with the jungle, but not yet a part of it, this was the location for the film, Tomb Raider. We marvelled at Banteay Srei, a small, bijou temple with ornately carved red sandstone bas reliefs nestled at the foot of the Kulen Mountains. Here the air positively crackled with the ions of an impending storm, sending frenzied flocks of Red-breasted parakeets shrieking to and from their roosts in the tall trees nearby.
Strangler fig trees, Ta PhromMerged with the jungle, but not yet a part of it, this temple was the location for the film Tomb Raider
It’s now day four, we have used up our three day pass to the antiquities, and besides feeling a little more adventurous we’re keen to escape the thousands of mainly Chinese tourists here. So we have booked an off-the-beaten-track journey which will take us on a 125 km round trip to visit a stunning heavily overgrown temple complex hidden deep in the jungle. And we are going to do this by Moto…
In Cambodia, two wheels definitely rule and the major means of transportation is the Moto. These motorbikes, usually of around 125cc, are veritable work horses, zipping along the narrowest dusty tracks deep in the Khmer countryside, or powering their way up muddy mountainsides where no four wheeled vehicle dare go. We have just been deposited by the side of a quiet road on the outskirts of Siem Reap and a helmet has been thrust into my hand. I haven’t ridden a moped for over 30 years, let alone a motorbike with gears, and to say I’m apprehensive is an understatement! Moreover, Martin has never been near a motorbike and is looking on with considerable bemusement as we are shown how to start the engine and operate the gears. No driving license is required and no questions asked about any previous experience. Sensing our trepidation, our young guide seeks to reassure us and we are given the opportunity of getting used to riding our 125cc Honda Dreams along this quiet back road before we set off.
Hello Moto!After not riding a moped for over 30 years I was apprehensive about riding a Moto!
I quickly get the knack of it and am soon whizzing up and down the road, waving as I pass Martin who looks as far removed from ‘Easy Rider’ as it’s possible to be! Within 15 minutes we’re deemed proficient enough to handle them and, following our guide, enter the hectic flow of traffic out of Siem Reap. After a short, but nerve-wracking distance, we turn off the busy main highway onto a narrow dirt track and the fun really begins. Weaving at speed around pools of muddy water is much more difficult than it looks! I'm gripping the handlebars of my Moto so tight, my knuckles turn white as I try to maintain my balance. After several minutes I begin to relax and enjoy the scenery.
We pass through densely vegetated jungle to emerge into open countryside comprised of tall palm trees and watery flatlands vivid green with young rice plants and dotted with cerise pink water lilies. A herd of water buffalo is slowly moving amid the verdure and a man with a net, submerged to his knees, is fishing. We pause to take photographs of this idyllic scene unaware that these paddy fields were once strewn with landmines which have been cleared by a Dutch aid agency. When told, we find it hard to believe that prime agricultural land such as this was mined and shudder at the evil of Cambodia’s notorious killing fields.
Alongside the road, half hidden and shaded by trees, are numerous wood and rattan houses built on stilts. Pigs and cows wander freely, chickens scatter in all directions as we pass and half naked children spill out onto the roadside to wave at us. The Cambodians are undoubtedly the friendliest people I have met anywhere in the world and its hard to reconcile the images of their beaming, beautiful faces with the brutality and horror of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
We emerge back onto a tarmac road as the sky overhead begins to turn an ominous shade of grey. Before long, large leaden raindrops begin to fall and we are forced to take shelter at a roadside dwelling. We are instantly welcomed into a farmstead and are seated on a wooden platform under a rush roof as the rain comes down like stair-rods. Behind us a man is lethargically swinging in a hammock, oblivious to the deluge. Across from us a family of four is sheltering on a similar platform. One of the children laughs loudly as a line of squawking chickens dart underneath it for cover.
Cambodian house on stiltsTypical scene in the Khmer countryside
The rain soon stops and back on the bikes we head towards a line of low hills in the distance. A steady stream of Motos pass us and I am absolutely amazed by what is conveyed on them: a family of four crammed together like sardines in a can; a man with a huge wicker basket from which bulging sacks are suspended; a woman almost hidden by an enormous load of freshly cut animal fodder; a young man with two pig carcasses slung across the back… It’s a wonder they manage to keep the bikes upright!!
Travelling by MotoThe workhorses of Cambodia, the humble Moto is used to transport people and goods all over the country
Once again we leave the main road, turning down a rough track through cultivated fields. The underlying bedrock of laterite gives the earth here its distinctive rust red colour which contrasts sharply with the bright green foliage of acres of yams. Every so often we pass bagfuls of the tubers stacked up by the roadside and as we speed by we are hailed loudly by the workers harvesting them and loading the bags onto huge trucks. By now the heat is great and would have been intolerable but for the breeze set up by our passage. After traversing a maze of roads and muddy tracks for around 68 km, we arrive at our destination.
Having taken lunch in a small roadside shack, we set off under a ferocious midday sun to explore the temple of Beng Mealea which means ‘lotus pond’. Dating from the early 12th century and built on the ancient royal highway to Preah Khan Kompong Svay to the same floor plan as Angkor Wat, this site has only been accessible in recent decades. This is due to the civil war and the presence of landmines in the area. It has not been restored and is largely in the condition in which it was found by French archaeologists. The bus loads of tourists that afflict the main sites at Angkor are pretty much absent here and intervention in the form of a wooden walkway round the site, originally constructed for the filming of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Two Brothers (2004), is not really intrusive. In fact, most tourists tend to stick to this walkway, but only metres away you can clamber inside the ruins and have the place virtually to yourself. With its authentic jungle atmosphere, the scene is set for a real Lara Croft adventure!
Beng MealeaThis temple has only been accessible in recent decades due to the civil war and the presence of landmines in the area, and it has not been excavated We walk up the southern approach causeway to the temple past crumbling sandstone balustrades sporting huge intricately carved nagas. The air is absolutely still, the heat tremendous, and the sweat literally oozes out of me. At the top of the causeway we come to a jumble of fallen moss-covered stones surrounding a collapsed entranceway with enormous trees arching overhead which offer some welcome shade. Continuing east along the outside of a large wall, we head towards the SE corner pavilion, arriving at the wooden walkway. From here we climb down into a narrow open enclosure and clamber carefully through a partially barred entrance over a tumbled mass of fallen masonry into one of the cruciform cloisters. The sun is mostly obscured by the jungle canopy and everything is bathed in a strange green light. The stones, still moist from the earlier rain and slick with moss and algae, present formidable obstacles and great care must be taken to traverse the chaotic jumble safely. With a local villager leading us, we scramble in and out of the various enclosures peering through intricately carved stone window balusters into small courtyards flooded with the all pervading green luminescence. The balusters lend an air of mystery and secrecy as it’s almost impossible to see what lies behind them.
The villager takes us on a tortuous route through dark interconnecting galleries, along narrow ledges and over roof tops. We often have to crouch down to squeeze through small spaces to continue our exploration, passing huge webs with terrifying-looking spiders lurking in the centre. My skins crawls and I imagine thousands of miniscule, beady eyes peering out at us from the stonework and foliage! Lichen encrusted pediments and collapsed friezes depict legends of Vishnu, Shiva, and the Buddha and finely carved apsaras, the very epitome of serenity, stare seductively from the walls. Even though the inner sanctuary has collapsed, the former grandeur of the site can be glimpsed in its ambitious vaulting.
Beng Mealea TempleOne of the more intact parts of the temple
But this is a temple engaged in a desperate struggle with the jungle which seems to be slowly strangling and choking the life out of it. Lianas the thickness of a man’s arm hang down from enormous silk-wood trees and the roots of the aptly named strangler fig have colonised the blue sandstone walls and roofs of all the buildings. It resembles a skeletal mesh that is stealthily encasing the entire site. I find the sight mildly disturbing and quite eerie as it reminds me of the visual effects created by Giger for the Alien films. Clouds of bright red dragonflies fill the air, and, apart from our laboured breathing and the constant drone of thousands of insects, the silence is profound and slightly unnerving. At this moment, I really feel as if I am in an India Jones movie!
Beng Mealea TempleThe ruins are being slowly engulfed by the jungle
Scrambling over the tumbled mass of stone is absolutely exhausting in the relentless humidity. I had no idea it was even possible to sweat this much. My cotton shirt is totally drenched and rivulets of sweat are cascading down my spine and running down from my temples to drip off my chin. We complete our visit by taking a walk around the perimeter of the site, admiring the sheer scale of it and the mastery of its creators.
Beng Mealea TempleApproaching the ruins of the temple
It’s then time to begin the journey back to Siem Reap on the Motos. After the stifling heat of the temple, I am relieved to feel the cooling effects of the breeze as we speed through the countryside. We pass children playing in flooded paddy fields, people returning from working the land and women cooking out in the open on rustic clay ovens. We take a slightly different route this time. This turns out to be more difficult and exhilarating and involves some very narrow muddy farm tracks and rickety wooden bridges where waves of panic sweep over me when I see how close I am wavering to the water’s edge! There is even a river crossing which is deeper than it looks. I take this in third gear and my feet and legs get drenched. Local people stop to wave, amused no doubt by the sight of two foreigners struggling to stay upright on the slippery roads! Dodging slow moving ox carts and speeding Motos, we make our way along the bright orange farm tracks without mishap, arriving back at Siem Reap some eight hours later.
Easy Rider!Martin looking cool on his Moto!
I’m not sure our travel insurers would have been too happy with our escapades, but I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to escape into the countryside to see the real Cambodia and to explore a temple tucked away in the jungle far from the tourist hordes. And, of course, fancying myself as Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft for a few hours... Well, a girl’s allowed to dream after all!