I wrote about our visit to Tuol Sleng over at my professional blog, Thinking About Exhibits. Check it out.
Here are some more pictures.
What's all this, then?
For our final day in Siem Reap, we spent the morning touring Phnom Bakeng with representatives of the World Monuments Fund, who have been working to both restore the temple there and train Cambodian architects, archaeologists, and restorers in modern techniques so they can continue the work without the need for foreign experts.
Phnom Bakeng is a mountain temple built on a mountain, overlooking the Angkor Wat area. In fact, from the top platform of the temple you could see the towers of Angkor Wat peeking out of the haze. Very lovely.
WMF is working to solve drainage issues that have caused the temple to slolwy slump and peel away from the bedrock it’s built on. To do this, they’ve dragged an impressive amount of equipment up to the top of the mountain, including a crane to move blocks around. They are in the process of partly dismantling, repairing and restoring and then reassembling the temple walls, no easy task.
After lazing around and getting a fish massage, we trundled back to the airport for our flight to PP. Quite an adventure.
Fish massages tickle like anything. Just ask Allan…
Allan and I both agreed that we could’ve stayed a week and not felt like Siem Reap had been adequately explored.
Once we’d left Beng Mealea behind, it turned into completely rural, sparsely populated country. No more motos and tuk tuks. Instead, it was all ox carts and these awesome two-wheeled motorized plows people would hitch trailers to and drive.
Koh Ker is very remote – about two hours from Siem Reap on a variety of roads, some paved, some not. It is noted for it’s large pyramid which according to the guide books had a vertigo inducing ladder one could climb to the top.Carol had a guide book for the site, which we conveniently left at the hotel. It is so far out, it doesn’t even get mentioned in the usual Angkor guide books. We weren’t even sure we’d gotten there once we’d gotten there, but we finally deciphered the sign enough to figure it out.
It was good we were there, because we’d run over something on the way in, and Chun Heanh had a wicked flat tire. We decided to take our time in the ruins, feeling more than a little guilty.
It was very definitely not on the main tourist path. The whole time we were there we were the only tourists there. Quiet, birds and monkeys squawking in the trees, wind in the branches. And the signs everywhere telling you who had cleared the mines in this area and that area, and the signs further in the woods telling you that nobody had cleared that area. Welcome to Cambodia. At least the site itself had been demined, and we made sure to stay on trails, just because.
Koh Ker feels very different than other Khmer sites. It almost looks Central American.
When you get through the complex to the temple gate, it really looks Mesoamerican. Look! A stepped pyramid with a central staircase!
The biggest lingam in Cambodia is supposedly at Koh Ker. Allan photographed it.
Chun Heanh was anxious to back in SIem Reap before nightfall, because there are no road lights in the sticks, so off we went round 4:30. The first interesting thing we encountered was this male peacock, standing in the road. He refused to budge for the longest and insisted on walking away from us, going faster and faster as we picked up speed until he finally flew off into the trees. Awesome sauce!
Allan had read about a ruin called Beng Mealea which is about an hour out of Siem Reap, off the beaten track and relatively new to tourists. It was also on the way to Koh Ker, a really remote site to the north in Preah Vihear province. Carol hadn’t yet been to either place, and the mothers were going to be gone all day birdwatching, so we decided to make a day of it. We piled into her Embassy SUV with Chun Heanh behind the wheel, and set off.
Beng Mealea was opened very recently. A kung fu movie was filmed there in 2004, and the film crew had to build walkways for the the cameras to dolly.
It’s almost completely unrestored and a huge mess, but now it’s got these walkways that go to interesting places. I think they should consider hiring cinematographers to plan more scenic walkways, because at Beng Mealea, they go up and down and all around and lead to a lot of great camera positions!
The place was largely empty. There were the ubiquitous Korean tour groups, but not many and no other Westerners aside from two guys from the World Monuments Fund who Carol was planning to meet the next day to see how they’d been spending their grant at Phnom Bakeng. More on that later… 🙂
We adventured to our hearts’ content and then adjourned to the little cafe across the road from the ruins for a curry and some beers. As we passed this tree, it turned out to be full of little girls who chanted, “Cannnnnndy” except for one budding entrepreneur who said “one dollllllllahhhhhh”.
Next up, Koh Ker
The guide’s van dropped Carol, Allan and I off at Preah Khan and took the mothers back into Siem Reap. Preah Khan is a monastery temple complex, and it was a welcome change from Ta Prohm and Banteay Srey, which were really full of people.
Even in the off-season they draw crowds. Preah Khan was much quieter, and I think we were glad to be without our guide and free to wander silently over the ruins with the few late afternoon visitors who were there.
It has a massive Garuda built into the enclosing wall that is pretty awesome.
And this small shrine is literally held together by the tree that grew out of it.
Carol, of course, had to check in with the office, and then look surprised when we mocked her for it.
We explored and roamed and had pretty free run of the joint.
After seeing our fill of the ruins, Carol called her driver to come fetch us. He was a little surprised and none too pleased that she was not where he had left her (Drivers get that way) and rushed out to gather us up. On the way back to the hotel, Carol suggested we stop by Raffles Hotel and have a drink in the Elephant Bar. We obviously thought this a great idea and off we went. It was kinda swanky.
Back at the hotel, we had another great meal and planned the next day’s adventures. Mum and Elizabeth were going bird watching on the Tonle Sap, and we were going to go to the remote ruins of Beng Mealea and Koh Ker.
Ta Prohm is the other temple you’ve seen pictures of if you’ve seen pictures of Cambodia. It was used as a background in one of the Tomb Raider movies, and it’s tree-covered temples are pretty archetypal “abandoned ruin” material.
The French, God bless them, decided to leave Ta Prohm in a partially-overgrown state so the world could see what all the Khmer sites looked like when they first started documenting and restoring them.
The trees are enormous and fast-growing. Their roots will travel enormous distances to find soil and water. They look like anything but trees. Sometimes, they’re tentacles, or hands, or trunks of elephants.
It’s one of the more touristy spots, complete with photo platforms to have your picture taken at the most photogenic root, which we did.
So, after touring, the mothers decided to call it a day, and the Ambassador, Allan and I continued on to Preah Khan.
As a counterpoint to the Landmine Museum and to get some nature into our day, we stopped at the ABC on the way back to Siem Reap. A little place right off the road that looked just like the surrounding woods aside from the net stretched over it, ABC trains local farmers to raise butterflies as a way to supplement their incomes. The butterflies are brought to ABC and sold all over the world.
Then, back in the van, back to town, and off to rest, and a dinner and massage. Mmm…
Next up, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan.