Banteay Srei is a bit out of the way, but well worth the effort to get there. One of my worst regrets was not having Mr. Tha stop so we could take some photos on our way out to the temple. As fantastic as the temple itself was, it was the ride through small villages to get there that was the unexpected highlight. We did stop to get some bananas from a young local girl, who was very shy and obviously enamored by a couple of foreigners’ attention to her. Banteay Srei is reported to be only thirty-seven kilometers from Siem Reap but when you are in the back of a tuk-tuk, it can take a good amount of time! It was a good hour but we enjoyed every minute of it. The temple itself is a lot smaller than you might expect and seems a miniature on first sighting. This lack of stature adds to the overall fairy tale atmosphere that emanates from the pink-hued material from which its built, especially in the early morning sun. But it is not the overall grandeur that draws visitors to the Hindu temple, but the intricate carvings that adorn many of the structures. We got there at sunrise and had it to ourselves the whole time we were there. That’s another good reason to make the thirty-seven kilometer trek.
The lazy divas started late in the morning and took a leisurely drive from Siem Reap in a comfy Toyata Camry . It took them an hour before they reached their destination but upon reaching, they were told to do an additional trek to the site of Kbal Spean. They got excited since they loved the great outdoors but the trek proved to be a challenging, uphill climb*. The divas pressed on the well-marked trail though, and stopped only to chat with other determined adventurers. Along the way, they observed lots of wildlife in the atmospheric Cambodian jungle. Gorgeous butterflies in shades of blue and luscious looking lime-green snakes in trees. It was enough to spur them on to the river of a thousand lingas.
*The 30min trek is not definitely not recommended if you've gone through knee reconstruction surgery! I talked to an elderly French couple on the way up and felt really sorry for them as thet told me that the pain was killing their knees..
Heard of Kbal Spean or a the River of a 1000 Lingas? I wouldn't blame you if you didn't. This ancient Hindu pilgrimage site is situated deep in the jungle, in the north eastern part of Angkor*. Join the 3 divas from Singapore as they went on an amazing journey to a river where hundreds of phalluses are carved on a riverbed...
*You'll take about an hour or so to reach there by car. Make it two hours if you're going by the torturous tuk tuk.
Spurred by the finds, the divas pressed on only to discover more phallus-shaped lingas underwater. Now, the divas had earlier read that the lingas represented the Hindu god Shiva, and they were placed in the river to bless the waters. Sometimes, Shiva would be represented together with his wife, Pavarti, so the linga would be placed within a womb- shaped receptacle known as the yoni, just like what you see in the picture.
Well, in all honesty, the divas found it quite funny that a god should be represented by a male sexual organ but their demeanour remained serious as they were in awe of the ancient pilgrimage site. Why, a thousand and two hundred years before, Hindu pilgrims would come to this ancient site to bathe in the blessed waters and quite possibly drink vast quantities of it too. This was a mini river ganges of sorts for the cambodian Hindus
You’re not likely to ever have all of Angkor Wat to yourself as you might manage at less famous counterparts, but by getting there very early, you will avoid some of the crowds and by heading up high, you’ll be surprised at just how empty the World Heritage Site can feel. Many seem to start their exploration of the temple in the lower portion and the vast bas-reliefs, but we saved that for the less crowded lunchtime as it is completely in the shade anyway. Instead, we headed up the steep steps and got nice early morning views and some nice quiet spots to enjoy the serenity of the mist coming up off the surrounding jungle. Oh, and there are some nice carvings up there too.
After finding the wizard of Kbal Spean, the divas were rather satisfied but they kept walking on . And lo and behold, another surprise found them. Right in front of them were two more wizards in addition to the one they found earlier downstream! Despite the fact that some parts of the sculpture looked hacked off , the divas were able to detect double images of Vishnu, or so they thought..
This time, the images of Vishnu were reversed with rows of shiva lingas in front of them. Yes, the 3 divas could see two reclining Vishnus on his thousand-headed serpent (Ananta) and his consort (Lakshmi) at his feet . Also tickling one Vishnu's feet was a little waterfall, which no doubt would be more forceful during the wet season. Other than these, the divas detected the faint image of a lotus and Brahma springing out from one of the Vishnu's navel . Try and see if you can spot the characters yourself, if not, read on and I'll point them out to you. Also, I'll explain the who's who..
Can you guess who the four-faced god is ? Well, he's Brahma, the Hindu creator of the universe, the god with many faces and hands. Well, he appeared again, further upstream this time, in Kbal Spean.
Now, the divas noticed that Brahma appeared on a large-than-life, horizontal bas relief . During the wet season, the sculpture would undoubtedly appear as though it were floating on the brown water! Now in the wet season, its whole form was exposed, mutiple faces and all. Hmm, it would no doubt do well in John Woo's action movie, face/off. Why, it could replace its face 3x if any one of them was stolen by a villian...
After discovering the cow, the divas heard shouts of excitement. Unfortunately, it was in quick Japanese so they couldn't decipher what the fuss was about. It was only when they got closer that they saw carvings of kneeling figures on a ledge near the waterfall...
As the divas followed the linga-paved river upstream, they were hoping to see the Wizard at the end of the road. And they did. When they reached to one end of the river, they discovered their wizard ! It was a huge bas-relief on a rock. From far, it looked like a human figure lying langarously on a couch but as the divas came closer, the couch turned out to be a serpent. One of the divas mentioned that this was the god Vishnu reclining on his serpent on the Ocean of Milk and the womanly figure at Vishnu's feet was Lakshmi, his consort .
Ta Som is a small temple on the grand circuit but many seem to pass this little gem by due to the state of disrepair of the central grounds. The eastern gopura (gate) is, however, a favorite of professional photographers and is best shot in early morning light. It is being destroyed by a huge tree, much in the same vein as more famous Ta Phrom, but makes for a great photo opportunity. We got there early and again, had the whole place to ourselves.
Like many others we became fascinated with the gaporas or gates into the temple grounds. The most famous are obviously those leading into Angkor Thom, but there are hundreds to check out and it’s nice to find some where there are not hordes of tourists cramming in for that one great shot. Though Banteay Kadei is right on the main circuit, not many head there early in the morning and we found it totally empty, with its Bayon-style gapora begging to be photographed by us alone. This particular one was on the south side of the complex.
Unlike Angkor Wat, the female figures at Banteay Srei are not apsaras ( celestial nymphs) but dieties.Most of them are simply dressed in a loose sarong, with garlands of pearls around the waist and bangles around the feet and feet. Some of them also wear heavy earrings on their elongated ear lobes. They are more life-like compared to the female figures found in Angkor as their feet point in a natural direction instead of sideways like an Egyptian figure.
Now, other than Sanskrit Writing, the divas noticed something different about the female form in Banteay Srei. Most of them found here were goddesses rather than dancers. How did they tell the difference? Well, take a look at this picture for instance. The female figure that you see in this picture is a devi (female deity) as she is placed in a shrine and depicted as an auspicious figure of fertility and blessing. Note a lamp suspended over her head and the geese below her feet.
Extra note of interest.
This devi with the alluring smile was nearly stolen by Andre Marlaux, the French novelist . So in love was he with the Mona Lisa of the Jungle that he later went to jail for her. Tsk, tsk, crime doesn't pay but does it? Marlaux got out of jail and went on to be a Minister in France. Sheesh..
About 30 minutes over a washboard road is the Roluos Group of three temples scattered somewhat apart from each other: Bakong, Prah Ko and Lolei. These were built earlier than those at Angkor Thom or Angkor Wat, and for that reason are totally worth the effort to see them. Along the way, one can observe the Khmer country living lifestyle. When king Jayavarman II came from Java to take power at the beginning of the 9th century, he settled twice at Hariharalaya - already an existing city, - first before his investiture on Phnom Kulen (Mahendraparvata) where the cult of the "Devaraja" was inaugurated, and then again afterwards, dying there in 850 after a reign of 48 years. His successors remained until Yasovarman founded the first Angkor, centred on Phnom Bakheng. I spent the most time at Bakong, which has a strange relief where only one block is NOT eroded away. I also liked the jungle shrouded setting of Prah Ko.
Other than Kbal Spean, the divas also made a pit stop for Banteay Srei, the most beautiful and intricately carved temple in Angkor. The draw here, for the divas, was the legendary carvings that was reputed to be rose-coloured! This temple, lesser known to the tourists, is some 35km from town, so the divas combined a visit to this place with Kbal Spean.
How to go there
A trip by taxi will cost you about $35 and the journey to Bantaey Srei from town is about 40min long.
The three temples of Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei are located near the village of Roluous, and extend over a rougly 3km area. These date back to the 9th Century, and is the earliest accessible group of Angkor architecture. The style of these temples - architecture characteristics, decoration, material and construction methods - are said to represent the beginning of the classic period of Khmer art. They are brick structures with sandstone deities in niches and lintels.
One of the best reasons for visiting this area is the remarkably good condition of the artwork here.
Roluos is roughly 12 klms from Siem Reap, taking the road to the Central Market out of town. The temples are signposted. There were very few tourists here when we visited - but still plenty of kids to surround your car with postcards and scarves!
Roluous is the site of the Hariharalaya civilisation - where Jayavarman II relocated the capital from Mount Kulen in 802AD. Successors stayed here until the capital was moved to Bakheng in 905AD.
The temples are constructed of square shaped brick towers, with stucco facing. The columns, lintels and sculptures are carved in sandstone. The artwork and decoration of this group are kala (monster head), Vishnu, garuda, female figures, guardians and apsaras. There were some really beautiful, well preserved carvings and sculptures to see here.