Since today was going to be a busy day with a lot of riding around to reach far flung temples, the wake up call had to be early per usual in Siem Reap. My driver (nicknamed Nak, pronounced ‘na’, probably for my sake alone) arrived at 7 a.m. to the minute surprisingly me with his promptness. Nak is a big guy so he couldn’t exactly leave me with much of the seat to spare so I was more or less literally on the edge of my seat. Out at Banteay Srei, I was able to see the ‘lady temple’ without the influx of crowds as it was still early morning when we arrived, at a time most people spent at Angkor Wat or in Angkor Thom to begin the day. With the soft morning sunshine, I could see the faintest etchings of the pink sandstone carved rock. With my own personal driver I could take my time as I chose spending the necessary time (all with the rare peace of mind and relative silence for a temple of this renown) to marvel at how brilliant these people were to come up with these designs let alone execute them with the most deft of hand. Gods with human bodies but monkey and bird-like heads and features stood guard around the temple on their individual pedestals. I could have told you this temple was built in the 16th or 17th century and you wouldn’t have blinked an eye, the carvings looked so perfect, so new, and barely harmed by nature’s continuous wrath. This temple was one of the first built from the Angkor empire, well before Angkor Wat came to mind. Just as I was about to leave a wave of Chinese tourist buses arrived to kill the mind with their mindless chatter and ridiculous photo ops. Chinese travelers simply do not travel independently; everything has to be organized and planned out for them before they even set foot into a plane. On the way to Kbal Spean, my booty turned increasingly numb to the point that I looked forward most to feeling my ass once more. I do not use this term lightly when I say that Kbal Spean is unlike any other artifact left over from the empire of Angkor. Kbal Spean was built into a riverbed high up into the forested hills close to 60 km from Angkor Wat. It must have been considered a very sacred place otherwise I challenge anyone to divine a reason for something like this to be carved into a random riverbed far away from any farmland that would have cause some people to wander off and decide to carve such a piece of art. While my driver waited at the entrance, I took the incline up on 1500 m of rocky, steep, and tree ridden path to Kbal Spean. A wild assortment of trees with roots and tree limbs acting of their own accord stood in my way but I used each when necessary to surmount the slope like a good old Indiana Jones remake. The path had very little foot traffic thanks to it being midday at the peak of the swelling heat plus it meant a serious day trip for those mostly dedicated to the core of Angkor for three days. Each 100 meters gave me an update on how close or rather how far I was from the long awaited art form. Once at the top I didn’t necessarily know what to look for. Kbal Spean is known in English as ‘The River of a Thousand Lingas’. For those unaware (and I was amongst you only days ago until my Eastern European friend pointed them out in the many temples we saw and explained its purpose), lingas are officially called ShivaLingas and are basically the god Shiva’s penis revealing his power to the worshippers in the form of a stone column rounded out in a dome from a square platform. Weird I know, but I am only trying to explain what a bizarre sight this was. The riverbed had been etched with carvings not as prominent or artistic as Banteay Srei or the bas reliefs of the many other temples but more unique than all the rest since they were carved into freaking riverbed. With it being the dry season, the carvings are much more noticeable. However, in the monsoon season and the remaining swells of water flowing on it for much of the year, how were they able to create such a thing. Most likely much of the work was spent during the dry season right before the rain came forth so the artists were working under a limited time frame that must have taken years to perfect. With the water always flowing over it (with the exception of a few carvings resting on the edge of the river), I am amazed the fine craftsmanship has not been lost to time from the yearly weathering. Sure enough, halfway down the riverbed (past the etchings of gods, horses, and other creatures) I witnessed the many lingas that could very well count up to a thousand. For those using age as an excuse for living out your dreams, I met and chatted with a 60 year old Englishman who is flying out of Cambodia in the next couple days to got to Nepal so that he could live out a long time goal of his to trek the Everest Base Camp. Considering I plan on doing such a trek, I have got to like my chances of survival. After exiting the path, I was called over by my driver to join him and his friends for a couple beers. Most of them spoke a decent bit of English (with the exception of the policeman of all people, who joined us; apparently like much of Cambodia there are ‘fees’ to the police for selling at the temples) and greatly welcomed my arrival. We bullshitted about random stuff like any guys do while cheering in the Khmer language as they had taught (Chul moi, similar to a more slanderous phrase that they taught me as well). The 17 year old guy was especially talkative thinking of himself as a reincarnation of Casanova with all of his stories about himself and Cambodian girls. After yet another expensive lunch and another beer, we left for the longest ride of all to Beng Mealea. After reacquainting my behind with the rest of my body after such a numbing experience, I walked over to Beng Mealea with my driver Nak attempting to play the part of tour guide. The temple deserved a spot in a scene from an ‘Indiana Jones’ with the forest and temple joining as one. The place also reminded me of the movie ‘Jumanji’ in which the jungle took over the family home tearing through every crack and crevasse. The roots of the many trees that dotted the grounds and tops of the temples found homes in any gap of the stone or simply created one for themselves. Lichen, a thin layer of green moss, also gave the feeling that the temple had been forgotten for some time. Beng Mealea is no small place being the palace of an ancient king. However time and Beng Mealea have not gotten along as many of the large boulder like stones have tumbled and fell in together into great heaps of piled ruins. Just as in many of the temples of Angkor I could see small holes in the stone that once contained wooden rods for some purpose. For the most part, the only things built in stone were the temples because they were made for the gods, or the kings who thought of themselves as gods. Everything else was built by wood or of other decomposable material that clearly did not stand the test of time. Besides being overrun by the trees and roots fighting for every crack on display, the temple today was overrun by kids on holiday ready to begin the New Year’s celebration. When picking up a much needed bottle of water and pineapple, I saw one of the many kid genius hawkers who have learned how to speak Chinese and Thai along with English to sell their items in the tourists’ native language. After the last bloody uncomfortable ride back to Siem Reap past the clogged highway filled with many Cambodians in the midst of the year’s great migration trying to work their way to Siem Reap and eventually Angkor, I was finally back at home base at Sweet Dreams (should be called ‘Sweat Dreams’ after all those balmy nights).
‘Wats’ in Cambodia Day 122: A Day in the Life of Indiana Jones