CAMBODIA TALES 2000
Beng Mealea re-visited
For my last full day in Siem Reap, I was hoping to recapture some of the magic I'd experienced twelve months earlier when I visited the ruined temple of Beng Mealea. That particular trip was memorable for many reasons especially as it was in the company of my Khmer pal Thea, who sadly died just a few weeks before my latest visit to Cambodia. Beng Mealea is some forty kilometres east of the main Angkor Park and that meant an early 5am start with my moto-driver Pov Lom, well before sunrise and out along a very bumpy and dusty Route 6. Lom had been my driver a year ago as well as in recent days and whilst his English is non-existent, he is absolutely trustworthy and drives a moto by day and is a security guard at night for a Japanese government agency. We reached the track leading off to the Preah Ko and Bakong temples at Roluos and carried on avoiding the pot-holes as best we could and through small roadside communities coming to life with stalls being set up and children walking to school, at the start of the day. 1½ hours after leaving Siem Reap, we stopped opposite the lively market at Damdek village for some coffee and croissants. Around the corner, in the grounds of a modern pagoda, a solitary Angkorean tower called Prasat Banteay Srei, with its three damaged lintels still in situ, was surrounded by a large quantity of sandstone blocks from its ruined walls and outbuildings.
The red-dirt road to Beng Mealea from Damdek is in excellent condition for half of the journey. We passed through what seemed like one continuous roadside village, attracting lots of waves and shouts as we sped by, making good time. At about 5 kms, the houses began to thin out, rice fields took their place and the road became more of a rough track. At times it was rutted and pot-holed and at others, it was flooded and required balancing across log bridges to avoid getting our feet wet. Four hours after leaving Siem Reap, we arrived at the village of Beng Mealea and Lom stopped at the police station to let them know we'd arrived and to say hello to a friend. A large naga head signalled the start of the long southern causeway to the 11th century temple and a handful of other naga heads in good condition lined the path as we hooked up with Kin, who offered to show me around the temple ruins. Kin spoke little English but had been trained by the old curator Chhum to guide an increasing number of tourists through the ruined maze that is Beng Mealea. Chhun had been my guide a year earlier but was now in semi-retirement and only made an appearance these days to escort important visitors. We entered the temple proper through a hole in the eastern wall and began an exhausting two hour circuit of the temple site, spending much of our time clambering over fallen masonry, perching on top of broken galleries and squeezing through gaps in the ruins to gain better vantage points. Kin certainly knew his way around and I saw a lot more of the temple on this tour than I had previously. Little had changed in terms of the haphazard jumble of fallen debris and the stranglehold imposed by trees and vines, but he led me into new areas including the collapsed central sanctuary, which was covered in vegetation.
The tall, airless galleries resembled those at Angkor Wat but without the wall carvings. Beng Mealea is very much a sister temple to the jewel of the Angkor empire, both were built by Suryavarman II but its on a less grand scale and at ground floor level. There are stone carvings to see if you look hard enough. A few apsaras can be located, lots of flower-shapes and lotus bud carvings and a few lintels in place above doorways or lying amongst the rubble on the floor of the temple. We visited two stand-alone buildings which I took to be libraries but all the while, the humidity was oppressive and sweat kept running into my eyes. A few parts of the site are still inaccessible, mostly for safety reasons but also because the vegetation has been allowed to run riot, whilst landmines no longer cause the visitor any worries, having been removed a while ago. Kin, who's adopted one of the most popular phrases in Cambodia, namely 'same same Angkor Wat', finally led me out of the eastern gopura exit and we made our way past a broken staircase and sandstone naga heads to one of the royal pools, full of water lillies, called Srah Keo. The tour now ended, Kin and I rejoined Lom, who'd remained with his moto, for a well-earned rest and I gave my guide a few dollars for his trouble and shared our bread and water under the shade of a nearby tree.
My second visit to Beng Mealea had been a definite success. The temple had retained its natural state of ruin and decay despite increased visitor traffic and that was a bonus. Undoubtedly, that will soon change as more and more of Cambodia's best-kept secrets become known to the outside world (perhaps I shouldn't post my travels on this website!!). Leaving the temple complex with a heavy heart, we arrived back in Damdek market at a little past 1pm and settled down at a noisy cafe for a refreshing cold drink and a bowl of noodle broth. On television, a live Thai kick-boxing match was in progress and the cafe was bursting at the seams with customers shouting and betting large sums of riel on the outcome of the contest. Lom and myself remained seated and disinterested in the tv, far more preoccupied in giving our weary limbs a good rest before starting out along Route 6 back to town.
The return trip proved uneventful but uncomfortable on the stony highway and we reached Siem Reap and the Golden Angkor hotel by 3.30pm. After a quick shower to wash off some of the day's grime, Lom drove me out to the steps of the long causeway leading to the pearl of the Angkor complex, Angkor Wat. Whilst Lom remained with his moto buddies, I joined the afternoon crowds milling around the western entrance gopura and in the inner enclosure, heading for the temple itself. A Japanese team (JSA) were putting their expertise to good use in repairing a section of the outer causeway and the northern library, as I made a bee-line for the group of drink and souvenir stalls to the left of the water-filled pond. Near the end of the line of twenty or so stalls is the one belonging to the family of my friends, Noung and Sokchata. Both girls were there and we agreed to meet up a few hours later to go for a meal as it was my last evening in Siem Reap. I left my friends to view a final sunset from the top of Angkor Wat's main sanctuary but first had a good look at the bas-reliefs depicting various battles along the west gallery, which were bathed in glorious yellowing light from the setting sun.
It was 7pm when Phalla arrived at my hotel, closely followed by four girls from Rahal village, Noung and Sokchata, Heang and Srey. Dinner in a Siem Reap restaurant is not a commonplace occurrence for the girls and they had dressed smartly for the occasion and were plainly a little nervous. However, once we'd put two tables together in the back courtyard of the popular Bayon restaurant, they overcame their initial shyness and a good time was had by all, judging by the volume of noise from our table. A couple of hours later, with the laughter level still high, we left the Bayon and walked along the riverbank and through the manicured gardens in front of the Grand d'Angkor. I returned to my hotel a little after 10pm and thanked my friends for a wonderful evening. Typically, Phalla, Noung and Sokchata promised to see me off at 5am the next morning for my trip to Battambang, which would mean a 4am start for the girls, who also promised to bring their parents as well. In my eyes, just another example of the friendship and generosity of spirit I've found in abundance on my travels in this remarkable country.
The first half of my penultimate day in Siem Reap had been a little less exciting. Another 5am start in the dark, this time to watch the sunrise over the royal lake at Srah Srang with Phalla and Lom. Three on a moto isn't ideal but we reached the landing stage at the lake in about thirty minutes and the place was deserted. Almost immediately, a chorus of cockerells started somewhere in the distance, although Phalla remarked they were a little late as they usually sounded off at 3am and 5am as regular as clockwork. The sunrise wasn't as good as I'd hoped, a few clouds putting paid to that, but it was a peaceful and pleasant way to start the day. After an hour, we headed for the food stall in Pradak village that we'd stopped at on our way to Phnom Kulen two days before, for coffee and croissants. By this time, village activity was well underway, the food stalls were doing brisk business and a foreigner in their village seemed quite a novelty to most of the locals nearby. Phnom Bok was our next destination. The road from Pradak village is pretty rough going but a great opportunity to see life in the countryside. We reached Phnom Bok, with its military training camp nearby and artillery guns in evidence along the roadside, and turned off onto a track created by a quarrying operation on the southeast face. It came to a halt at a small pagoda at the bottom of the hill, where we left our moto in the care of a friendly monk and began an exhausting climb up a steep path. Phnom Bok is over 230 metres high and is the tallest of the three hills where Yasovarman I erected his sandstone temples in the late 9th and early 10th centuries. Its a sister temple and almost identical to Phnom Krom but has suffered less damage from the elements. However, it is a ruin and has been occupied at various times by both government and Khmer Rouge forces, which has taken its toll.
Following a winding track up the hill, the three of us arrived at the top in need of a rest. Fortunately, the view was as breathtaking as the climb and a nearby artillery gun emplacement only served to emphasise the importance of the hill as a key strategic location. At the summit, a modern pagoda shares the space with its ancient neighbour. There are three sandstone sanctuary towers, equal in size, but badly ruined. A few lintels are scattered around the site, mural decoration and carved colonnettes are to be found and two other sandstone outbuildings are still standing although overgrown with vegetation. Excavation has uncovered some fine pieces of art including the heads of the Phnom Bok triad (Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu) that were removed from the site by Louis Delaporte in 1873 and now reside in the Guimet museum in Paris. About 150 metres to the west and past a tall radio antenna, a high laterite platform carries an enormous ten-tonne natural sandstone linga, which has toppled over and is broken. The site is an interesting one, worth the effort for the views alone and augmented by the Angkorean temple in its ruined state. Our descent was a lot swifter than our climb up the hill and we retraced our steps back towards Pradak village but turned off to the left to visit the isolated and oft-overlooked temple of Banteay Samre.
Most visitors that bother to venture to this temple combine it with a trip to Banteay Srei, some 20 kms to the north. In itself, Banteay Samre is a fine example of the style used by Suryavarman II in the twelfth century, who was also responsible for Angkor Wat, Thommanon, Chau Say Tevoda and Beng Mealea. It has been thoroughly restored by the French and is straightforward in its design. A central tower is connected to a 'mandapa' (pavilion), is flanked by two libraries with galleries and gopuras surrounding the central structures. The inner enclosure is very compact and there's an abundance of carved lintels and pediments, although thieves have removed or damaged the best examples. I'd recommend a visit to Banteay Samre to anyone who has the time available, as it makes an interesting comparison to its big sister, Angkor Wat. Back on the road, we ventured a few kilometres north in the hope of seeing a small temple known as Prasat To, but it was completely surrounded by dense vegetation and a moat filled with water, with just the top half of the tower visible from a distance. Nearby, we took a detour to view the grave of a Japanese gentleman called Taizo, who'd been killed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s according to a hand-written sign.
Heading back towards Siem Reap, I wanted we say hello to an e-mail friend, Pete Calanni, who raises funds for the residents of his wife's village of Tatry, located amongst the trees opposite the temple of Pre Rup. On reaching the tiny village, Phalla asked a group of elders to point out Pete's home but he'd moved to a new house in town awaiting the birth of his first child, only weeks before. A stone's throw from the village is a single brick tower from the tenth century, Prasat Neak Leang, which has an exquisite lintel of Indra on his three-headed elephant, above its only doorway. Just across the main road are the imposing brick towers of the funerary temple mountain, Pre Rup, where we stopped briefly before returning to Siem Reap, still on the lookout for my e-pal. We tracked him down to an area near the Angkor Conservation depot and during a brief stop, where I joined in a game of volleyball with some youths, Pete rode by on his bicycle and we finally met face-to-face for the first time. He invited Phalla and myself into his nearby home for tea and to meet his wife, Sarom Heng and to tell us a bit more about his very worthwhile One Cambodian Village project. It was now a little after mid-day and after thanking Pete for his hospitality, I returned to the Golden Angkor hotel for a rest, some lunch at the Greenhouse Kitchen next door and to ponder my afternoon's exploration.
Footnote: Pete and Sarom became the proud parents of a baby boy, Peter Tenzin Angkat Calanni in February and I wish all three of them a happy and healthy future together. Pete has written about his life in Tatry at Cambodianskies.
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