A Ride Out to Roluos and last day blues

A male guardian at LoleiAfter a shower and a quick nap following my morning trip to the Tonle Sap lake and Phnom Krom, I felt sufficiently refreshed for the next stage of my Angkor experience, a ride out to the Roluos group, some twenty kilometres east of Siem Reap town along Route 6. Having experienced three days on the back of Soydy's moto scooting around the main Angkor sites under the hot Cambodian sun, my earlier visit to the Great Lake and now my trip to Roluos would be in the air conditioned haven of a car, driven by Panna and accompanied by Soydy, my guide.

A garuda with garlands and foliage on a lintel at Preah Ko.Leaving the hotel at 2pm, we took a right across the Siem Reap river and out along the bustling main road, busy with cars and lorries, and past the old covered market on the right hand side. It wasn't long before the dwellings ended and the rice fields began although the road surface quickly deteriorated from bad to worse and we were forced to swerve from side to side to avoid the potholes and a collapsed bridge en-route. Thirty minutes later, Panna veered left off the main road and onto a sandy track, flanked on both sides by brown, hard-baked fields and a smattering of stilt houses as we headed for Lolei, the smallest of the three main temples that make up the Roluos group. Identified by its fine sandstone sculpture and intricately carved lintels, King Indravarman I made Roluos, then known as Hariharalaya, his capital in 872 AD and although the main Angkor site took over as the focal point of the Khmer empire some thirty years later, much of the temple structure at Roluos has remained in remarkably good condition.

Sopheap's younger sister, now in charge of souvenir selling duties.Lolei itself, is a four brick tower temple on top of a high platform and located in the centre of a now-dry baray. Built in the late ninth century by King Yasovarman I, it's surrounded by the buildings of a modern Buddhist pagoda and is renowned for its exquisite sandstone carvings of male guardians (above), lintels showing angry kala monsters and Sanskrit inscriptions around the doorways. It wasn't my first visit to Lolei and I produced a photograph from my previous visit to show the young souvenir seller who'd dogged my tracks since our arrival. Her eyes lit up as she pointed excitedly at the picture and raced away. In no time at all, she had returned holding the hand of an attractive teenage girl whom I recognised as the focus of my camera lens twelve months earlier. Sopheap accepted the picture as a gift with a shy smile and through my translator, Soydy, explained that she was now at school and her younger sister (right) had taken over her souvenir-selling duties.

We returned briefly to Route 6 and then along another side track towards the other two main temples, Preah Ko and Bakong. As we stopped in front of Preah Ko, three young boys quickly appeared and remained with us throughout our visit. They proved to be a source of great amusement with their playful antics and were more than happy to receive a few trinkets including a handful of balloons and a biro each. Preah Ko, dedicated to the 'sacred ox', displayed near identical decoration to Lolei, with stucco and grey sandstone carvings on its six brick towers, arranged in two rows on a low platform. Also in evidence were the remains of three crouching nandi bulls and stone lions flanking the steps to this funerary temple constructed by Indravarman I.

A bunch of friendly kids near the Bakong temple at Roluos.Walking the 600 metres to the largest temple in the group, Bakong, Soydy and I stopped at a large stilt house where I'd encountered a friendly and boisterous group of small children twelve months before. The adults immediately recognised the children's faces in my photograph and wheeled out two of the girls, who squealed with laughter at the picture and beamed with smiles when presented with a necklace each. A right fork at the end of the sandy track took us to the rear of Bakong, also built by Indravarman I. The heat was almost unbearable as we slowly climbed to the top of the five-tiered artificial pyramid, which allowed us some memorable views as we rested at the summit. Bakong was Novice monks waiting for a haircut.the earliest temple of its kind to be built at Angkor and also has a treasure trove of other features including a wide moat with causeways, naga balustrades, libraries, crouching lions, stone elephants and exceptional lintel carvings.

In a corner of the site is a modern wat, where I spied a monk shaving and washing a novice's head, whilst the other novices sat quietly in the shade awaiting their turn (left). At the refreshment stall alongside the main east gate, we paused briefly for a much-needed cold drink before walking back to Preah Ko and our car, for the half hour drive back to town. Panna deposited me at the popular Bayon restaurant in time for their 7pm opening, where I enjoyed my chicken curry in baby coconut amongst the fairy lights and gaudy red plastic furniture that is as much the Bayon's trademark as the excellent food.

An equisite lintel showing a kala spewing garlands and miniature horsemen emerging on the northeast sanctuary of Preah Ko.An almost identical lintel from the southeast sanctuary showing a very similar scene to the on on the northeast tower of Preah Ko.

My last day in Siem Reap, a Sunday and coincidentally International Women's Day, was a rest day for Soydy and I decided against watching the festivities, including a march with banners and high spirits organised by a couple of women's NGOs that would wind its way to Angkor Wat. Instead, I loaned a bicycle from Sopheak, the hotel receptionist for a couple of dollars. Despite the heat, I cycled aimlessly along most of Siem Reap's badly rutted sidestreets and main thoroughfares, calling in at a couple of wats (Wat Sway and Wat Kung Moech) along the edge of the slow-moving Siem Reap river. The pagodas were oases of calm and quiet, the schools were closed and the monks and novices in the main absent, although their orange robes, left to dry in the morning sun, were much in evidence. At one temple (Wat Damnak), I heard a commotion, rounded a corner and walked into the middle of a game of volleyball. After watching the athletic participants for a while, I politely declined an offer to take part, citing the hot sun as my reason for refusal.

Apsaras like these were visible inside Wat Athvea.Pedalling out along the main road towards the Tonle Sap lake, I passed two noisy wedding parties at restaurant-cum-karaoke outlets and jumped off to join in a game of 'tot sey' (foot shuttlecock) with a group of youngsters, much to the amusement of the revellers at the loudest of the two receptions. A couple of kilometres out of town, I took a right turn under a white archway and along a dusty trail, shielded from the sun by overhanging palm trees, at the end of which stood Wat Athvea. Set in its own extensive grounds, the temple doors were closed and the annexe nearby was devoid of any signs of monastic life. Unexpectedly, behind the pagoda I came across a ruined wall and four towers, enclosing a re-constructed 11th century sanctuary. Similar apsara carvings, albeit well worn, to those found at many of the Angkor temples were in evidence inside the main vihara, together with some barely visible lintels. In a darkened recess I encountered my first sign of life, a shaven-headed widow lighting incense sticks in front of a small altar.

Hungry and hot, I persuaded myself not to set off to look for the crocodile-temple, Wat Chedei, a few kilometres to the west and instead made my way back to town and the Continental Cafe for lunch. However, Wat Chedei, the nearby frog farms and a host of villages, each with their own unique personality, are on the agenda for my next visit. My body re-fueled and rested, I chatted to Sopheak at the hotel about his plans for the afternoon to visit Kuk Taleh, a small temple midway between Siem Reap and the Roluos group but declined his offer to accompany him and his friends. Instead, I chose to wander on foot around the streets and wats near the indoor marketActivity in the Siem Reap river. before heading out towards the villages on the far side of the river.

Fielding a constant barrage of waves, smiles and hello's, the river was a veritable hive of activity with hordes of children playing games, splashing one another and swimming (right) , mothers' washing clothes, pots and pans and fathers' teaching sons' how to fish with home-made rods or using traps to catch food for the whole family. Simple and undemanding, it really was a few hours to savour on my last day in Siem Reap, after spending the past few days cramming in as many temple visits as possible. I finished the day wandering the market stalls looking for bargains, a meal at the One & Only cafe-bar and watched an English football match on Thai tv before an early night in preparation for my 6.30am start for Phnom Penh next day.

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