29 May 2012

Phnom Penh tour guide

Visiting Phnom Penh at the moment and on the look out for Khmer temples in the southern part of the Kingdom of Cambodia. 

Today we visited the Royal Palace and while sitting in the shade taking a break, we overheard a local tour guide who was with some Asian customers saying: 

"This is a replica of Angkor Wat..." One second later turning around and pointing to the vendor on the side and saying "This is where you can buy drinks...Angkor Beer...Coke...Sprite...hehehe"

It caused us a good laugh and I was happy to have a much better tour guide myself :-)

The tourists bought some drinks and then went back to the model of Angkor Wat but their guide stood motionless next to them, without saying or explaining anything!

Hence I always come back making my initial point "what's in a tour guide

21 May 2012

Mysterious Beng Mealea

Beng Mealea was the favourite temple site of my other tour guide and the first temple we visited together. He told me that he picked this trip to do the guiding himself (rather than giving the tour to other guides) because it was his favourite site and he liked to come back here.

And Beng Mealea is a spectacular site! 

Visiting it requires a day trip from Angkor Wat as it is about 70 km northeast of the main temples. We combined the trip here with another site - Koh Ker, to keep cost down. However, this was a huge mistake because both sites deserve to be visited separately. 

Beng Mealea dates back to the 11th or 12th century and is completely taken over by nature. It is the most natural and peaceful site I had been to in all my days in Angkor and around. To some visitors this might just be a pile of rubble though, but for me and my guide it was so mysterious that we even kept our voices down and for long stretches of walking through the ruins we did not talk at all. Even the click of the camera sounds like a loud noise here.

There are literally piles of stones everywhere and we walked on a wooden walkway and elevated platforms throughout the temple because it is quite difficult to keep one's balance when stepping over the huge rocks. 

My fear of snakes kept me on the lookout at all times as this was the one temple with long stretches without any tourists or any other sound. Even local children appeared without a sound through the cracks of the walls or suddenly appearing in one of the many windows and doors. They kept watching us as we walked through the temple and the whole scene was almost surreal. 

I agreed with my guide that this temple with all the roots holding a firm grip of the walls and towers has something meditative. I would not have been surprised at all if we had suddenly spotted a Yogi or a monk sitting quietly in meditation pose. And maybe they were there but out of sight for us. 

Beng Mealea is a photographers dream and though there were not many tourists around, people with their professional cameras kept crawling out of hidden spots. 

Needless to say that my guide was correct in saying this was his favourite temple. It is a very special place which deserves to be explored in detail and with a lot of time available. 

14 May 2012

A hike up to the River of a thousand Lingas

Rainforest at Kbal Spean site
Kbal Spean did not rank very high on my list of places to visit in Angkor, though I had read about it. The reason why it was more of a 2nd or 3rd tier to visit was merely because I had no real idea what was there to see. It was not a temple ruin like the ones I had visited over the past few days. I also had no idea if there was any water in the river or if the area was even attractive at all.

Monolithic rocks and roots
But since Kbal Spean was close to Banteay Srei I decided to add it to my list of places to visit. The area here is part of Phnom Kulen, which is considered the holiest mountain in Cambodia by most Khmer.

1000 lingas
I had read that this site required a climb up a mountain, so we brought water, sunscreen and a hat. My guide had picked a time which was again contrary to that used my most visitors and we were almost alone on the way up. We only met a few people who came back down from the mountain and I asked almost everyone how they liked what they saw up there. It was very hot and humid and I wanted to make sure it was really worth the sweaty climb. Two English girls said that it was an amazing site and so I continued the hike up the mountain on a steep and rocky path. 

The birth of Brahma
The area was breathtaking, with monolithic rocks, covered with roots from trees. Some of it looked unreal and the jungle was thick, despite the amount of tourists who undertake this climb. Luckily we did stop a few times to catch our breath...well, MY breath, since my guide just stormed up the hill and then just waited for me to follow. But there were actually nice and shaded areas where we got a great view over the valleys and the forests below. 

Once we reached the top we came to the river Ruisey and its spectacularly carved riverbed, which is covered with lingas and images of Hindu deities. A small sandstone bridge spans the riverbed and allows crossing the river as well as providing a great view onto the carvings. Unfortunately some of the carvings were hacked out and I got different explanations as to why faces of gods were missing. 

Lingas in form of a mandala
My guide showed me images and details in the water, which I would have missed. Some, I could not make out until he pointed it out as we walked along the river upwards from the sandstone bridge. The water from the spring flowing over the lingas and images and thus making it "holy water". That fact and the serene and natural setting it was in made the whole area a real fascinating site.

Lingas everywhere
Further down were more lingas in the water in the shape of a Mandala, carvings on the rocks and after climbing over roots and down the rocks we came to a small but very scenic waterfall. It was here, where the words from the English girls I had met before became true - hundreds of butterflies in a real natural and beautiful setting!

Waterfall in a serene setting
Surprisingly the way back down was as strenuous as the way up and I had trouble finding a stable path to walk on as we climbed over roots and rocks. Good shoes are a definite must here! 

Kbal Spean is definitely worthwhile to visit and a bit of reading about it's  background and history makes it a real experience away from the masses of tourists.

08 May 2012

A trip to the Citadel of the Women

Visiting villages along the way
Banteay Srei - the Citadel of the Women - is most likely every Angkor visitor's favourite site. It is an awesome place, 25 km outside of Siem Reap and neatly tucked in between moats and trees.

Farmers working in the rice fields
The other nice thing about Banteay Srei is that one gets to see the country side as well, since getting there brings one through the picturesque Cambodian farmland. We did stop a few times to visit people in their houses along the way and buy buy little things. People here are very poor farmers who do not profit at all from the masses of tourists visiting the temples. Most of them are farmers who work their fields with their bare hands - planting and harvesting the rice.

Professional visitor facilities
My first visit to Banteay Srei back in the year 2000 was very different though. A small dirt road, impassable during the rainy season, led directly to the ruins. The number of tourist could be counted by two hands and local children got excited when a departing bus with tourists from Japan threw money bills out the back window with all the children dropping everything they had in their hands, running after the flying money bills. A sight we did not really like back then!

Nowadays the paved road leads to a huge parking area and a very well managed visitor center. It was actually a bit of a shock for me, since I expected more tourists but not this many and not this professional-run tourist machine around it.

It quickly became clear that we cannot avoid other tourists on this visit, but again, thanks to my excellent guide, was I able to view and visit the temple in an almost secluded moment.

Banteay Srei temple site
Banteay Srei is the perfect temple site in a remarkable state of preservation and an amazing amount of detail. Every stone is carved and to me it is the perfection of Khmer art in stone.  Just walking around and enjoying all the sculptures, lintels, figures and other decorative items makes a photographers heart smile.

Library with scenes from Ramayana
There was still (or rather again) restoration work going on in the temple and the entire inner area was sealed off, meaning we could not walk into it, but we were able to see it. This was actually a good thing because I was able to take photos of the temple rather than people standing in front of the buildings and sculptures.

Most tourist groups are just pushed right through the inner area of the temple. It is like a fast moving machine. They come and go in no time and just take a few snapshots. The tour guides almost have no time to explain anything, so with a little patience we were able to enjoy the whole temple on our own.

Pediments at the east entry tower
On the way out we visited the museum, which has an excellent display of the various stages of the restoration, the lintels and all the gods which can be seen here or which were found here and are now in museums. I wished they would have made their display available in a guide book but there was nothing available. However photography was allowed, which was good enough for me.

Temple guardians
Banteay Srei is an awesome site, with so much to see. So it is a good idea to come here at your own schedule with your own guide. It would be a real waste to just speed through this remarkable temple.