Day 4 – Angkor Temples & Tonle Sap Lake

We managed to get up even earlier today but still had to wait until 4:45am to leave as the ticket office didn’t open until 5am. If not first we were second to receive our tickets and we then set off 13kms west of Siem Reap heading towards the Roluos temple area, specifically the Bakong temple.

The journey took about half an hour, completed in the dark it was an easy, relaxing drive. Turning off the main road we headed down a dirt road and eventually stopped in a wide, dusty area. The driver pointed off into the dark so we took his suggestion, picked up our bags and walked. It was difficult to visualise what complex we were entering so we took the guidebooks advice and made for what we thought was the North East corner. A suitable mound was climbed and we set up the photography equipment around the arches and then sat down to have something to eat while we awaited sunrise.

The Bakong Temple.
The Bakong Temple

In the distance we could here chanting and there were occasional voices coming from the darkness of the temple site. There was also an often repeated noise, kind of like a swishing in the air akin to a towel being snapped in the wind; abrupt with an edge. We never saw what caused this noise, it always came from around or above and we assume it was bats swooping in and around the ruins. The voices turned out to be a number of young monks who sat on the stairs of a nearby ruined tower to watch for the rising sun; the chanting a temple off in the distance.

Sunrise was again disappointing with no appearance of colour, just a gradual lightning of the atmosphere and an increase in definition to the surrounding monuments. The temple was revealed as a large pyramid structure, four levels accessing by large steps on each compass point face. The corner of each level was home to an elephant statue and there were lions and naga (a multi-headed serpent statue) at other places.

Keryn found herself in conversation with a young monk who explained the tenants of Buddhism while I wandered around taking photos, camera on the tripod. We had the complex mostly too ourselves, for the most part the only other people present once the monk was gone were a group of children playing hide and seek in and around one ruined tower. The occasional other tourist arrived while we climbed and explored but there would have been no more than ten people present at any one time.

The children leave towards the adjacent monastery buildings.
The children leave towards the adjacent monastery buildings

Once done with photos it was back down the now-revealed path over the complex moat to our waiting driver. Rather than look at any of the other temples nearby we decided to head to our next chosen temple, Preah Khan away back in the Angkor area. Our driver had other ideas and first took us to the small but lovely temple of Lolei.

Lolei was deserted other than monks at the monastery behind the ruins and three young children collecting money for a children’s charity. They were sweet and polite so we gave them a small amount of money before entering the ruins. There were only three towers still standing at Lolei and we would have spent only a few minutes walking through if not for two things. Firstly the sun finally appeared from behind the clouds giving the nice golden light a chance to bath the warm reddish walls of the towers and secondly another small group of tourists arrived. We found out that these temples have some of the earliest examples of Sanskrit writing and spent some time looking at the precisely carved text on the inside of a doorway.

A doorway at Lolei.
A doorway at Lolei

Back to the Tuk Tuk we headed back on our intended path to the Preah Khan temple. This journey would have taken about 45 minutes but for two incidents. Firstly, as we approached the east gate of Angkor Thom we got a flat tire. Luckily this was discovered only a few hundred meters down the road from a motorbike repair shack so we pulled in and got the tire replaced quickly – we had enough time to finish the food we had bought with us. The second incident took place just as we had passed through the east gate; we ran out of petrol. After repeated attempts to start the engine the driver walked down the road to the gate and borrowed a bike from some kids who had come in to so something in the gate area.

Passing traffic coming through the east gate of Angkor Thom.
Passing traffic coming through the east gate of Angkor Thom

While the driver was away Keryn had a rest and I walked back to the gate to take some photographs. It turned out that the drivers motorbike had been used by friends the night before and they had used more petrol than expected. All in all the delays probably added an hour to our journey so it was probably just as well we weren’t in a huge hurry that morning.

The western concourse at Preah Khan.
The western concourse at Preah Khan

Preah Khan it a large temple complex that, while only having one level, sprawls as a building through small chamber after small chamber meaning there are a large number of rooms to investigate. We spent over an hour from walking west down the causeway to exiting the east side of the temple complex. There were vaulted ceilings, a small but impressive stupa (memorial statue, normally a structure that narrows from a wide base to a point at the top), a building with round columns that looked more Roman or Greek than Khmer, various rooms that have collapsed into piles of rubble and nice carvings all over the place. The east entrance also had a large tree growing over the temple, much like Ta Phrom. There was one point where a bee hive could be seen attached to a remnant of a ceiling overhead, a swarming mass of insects.

Inside Preah Khan.
Inside Preah Khan

Posing at Preah Khan.
Posing at Preah Khan

Reaching the east side we then turned around and did our best to take a different route back west. We found our driver waiting for us and with that our Angkor experience was nearly over, we needed to get back to the Hotel for some lunch before the group headed out for an afternoon journey. We had one last stop at the south gate of Angkor Thom, a few photographs were taken and then we were on our way.

The return journey was without even and we arrived at the hotel with just enough time to get in a simple lunch with the already eating Christine, Julia, Nick and Wayne. Other people arrived and soon enough a mini-bus arrived along with Pete. The afternoon trip first involved visiting a local Artisan complex where Cambodian’s are taught the required skills to make artistic products such as the painting of carved items and silk-screen, or the creation of wooden and stone carvings. We saw separate rooms where our guide explained how the various products were created; seeing deaf and dumb young woman painting on silk with a superbly steady hand; people carving stone and wood statues and a woman painting large stone relief carvings. Naturally there was an opportunity to buy the products at the Artisan shop but no-one did; out of our price and transport range.

Next up we visited an orphanage and were treated to a series of dances by the local children and young adults. The dances and dancers were good, Cambodian dance has a lot of subtlety, especially in the dancing of the woman. After the dancing we had an opportunity to play with some of the younger children. I ended up playing a kind of hacky-sac with a couple of young boys and Mark. The hacky-sac was a plastic contraption something like a shuttlecock which meant it fell in a controlled manor making it easier to make firm contact than I was used too. It was fun but I ended up covered in sweat.

Dancing at the Orphange.
Dancing at the Orphange

When everyone was done it was into the mini-van and onwards to the next destination a way out of town; Tonle Sap lake. The lake is the largest lake in South-East Asia and we were visiting a floating village. Being the dry season we had a drive of a few kilometres from the town to Phnom Krom to the point where we could board a boat, in the wet season the large expands massively in size and we would have been travelling by boat from the town.

The road from Phnom Krom was dusty, narrow and undulating. It took a long time to squeeze past the other buses and vehicles before we found our dedicated boat. As we all boarded a young local guy took our photos, which seemed a little strange at the time, was it for insurance purposes? We found out on our return that these photos were printed onto small plates and we were given the chance to buy the rather tacky product – no one did. The river at this point was little more than a large muddy ditch with ramshackle houses and buildings lining the shore, it did not look or smell pleasant. As we headed down the river we watched other boats leaving and arriving in a spray of dirt coloured water – it was the water equivalent of the road from the Cambodian border to Siem Reap.

Pushing off for the boat trip.
Pushing off for the boat trip

An international greeting.
An international greeting

Moving through the village.
Moving through the village.

Eventually the river widened and became the lake and the houses started looking a little less dirty, if still simply built and added to in a disorganised fashion over the years. We were later than planned but this meant the sun was getting quite low in the sky, the light was strong but good and the photography conditions were great. We moved about the growing number of floating buildings, looking as people went about their lives; children washing, a family having dinner, dogs barking as boats approached their dwelling, a small cage of pigs floating next to a house, pool tables in pubs adrift. We motored out from the village and had some time out on the lake, the horizon a flat blue line under puffy summer day clouds. While drifting a small dug-out canoe neared and then a small object jumped out and started slowly coming our way. It turned out to be a young girl in a large steel bowl pushing towards us using a poorly formed wooden paddle.

Travel by bowl and paddle.
Travel by bowl and paddle

Pete had told us earlier that our boat might be boarded during our journey and enterprising children would try to sell us items and possibly even steal things if they could. The girl came up next to the boat and proceeded to beg for food and money. She was persistent but left empty handed once we had convinced her that nothing would be coming her way. She swished the paddle back and forth and once she was a distance from our boat she was picked up by the canoe, chugging back a drink as she was whisked away.

The engine growled back to life and we headed back into the floating village and a floating restaurant come tourist bizarre. Onboard were captive crocodiles and catfish, food and drinks, curios, and children looking for money to have a photograph with the placid snakes they carried over their shoulders. Before we could sample these things we had to deal with a small emergency first.

Wayne before his accident.
Wayne before his accident

As we came in to dock Pete went to show something to Wayne off the port side. Wayne got up to look and walked straight into the edge of a speaker strapped to the roof. At first it just looked like a hard bump but then Wayne put a hand to his head and it same away red with blood and he was soon sat down, blood streaming down his face and dripping to the floor. We docked and soon had a number of locals offering various plasters, cleaning liquids and other things they though could help. The wound was quite quick to stop bleeding and the cleanup process, both of head and boat, seemed to take longer than the initial first-aid. Wayne was adamant he was fine so a poultice was applied and held in place under his hat and we disembarked.

One of the snake kids.
One of the snake kids

Adjacent to where we docked was a raised platform and it was from here we could look down to see the crocodiles below. There were two viewing ports in the floor of the platform, each with a fence preventing anyone from falling in. Below the crocodiles, the biggest probably 1 ½ meters long, either sat still on the boards or swam in the lake water. Down a level was the catfish enclosure and there was an attendant girl who would periodically thrown what looked like dung into the water, causing a brief frenzy of fish as the food was consumed.

Crocodile.
Crocodile

We probably had nearly an hour on the boat which was probably 30 minutes too much. There were constant arrivals and departures of tourist boats, each new one greeted by the hawkers and beggars in their canoes. A couple of children were walking around with obviously sedated Pythons looking for money for photographs and they were joined later on by another child with a small and similarly sedated crocodile in his hands. I walked around ignoring the various offers and taking photos of the onboard activities and the ever lower sun sinking towards the waterline.

Sunset on Tonle Sap.
Sunset on Tonle Sap

Once everyone was at the point of complaining we were rounded up and back onto the boat for the return journey. I sat at the back photographing boats and people in the sunset, the sun gone and a red glow rising as we came back into the mud-dock. The drive back to our hotel was without event and we ended up having dinner at the Red Piano. We were looking forward to a sleep in, our departure from Siem Reap taking place near 8am the next morning.

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