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Cambodia and Laos, Angkor and Luang Prabang - Part 5
I have been to Angkor three times now. The first time was in 1993 just before the UN sponsored elections and the second in 2006, sadly all my photographs of those trips are just prints but back in 1993 there was hardly a tourist to be seen in the entire Angkor complex, I have panoramic picture of Angkor Wat with not a single person in it! Anyway the point of telling you this is because Banteay Srei or the ‘Pink Temple’ was off limits in 1993 despite being lauded in guide books of the time as a ‘must see’, the reason being the danger of unexploded ordnance, i.e. land mines. Interestingly whilst I had been in Phnom Penh en route to Siem Reap I had stayed in a hostel with some of the UN volunteers, basically students, who were to help run the election. On the night before I was due to fly to Siem Reap we were sitting on the terrace of the hostel having a beer and they told me about a lecture they had been to that day which was advice on what NOT to do when they were out in the countryside. Basically the advice was keep to well trodden paths, don’t kick cowpats or any seemingly innocent object laying around and don’t pull creepers etc hanging down from trees as any or all of them could trigger explosives. It scared me rigid I can tell you and it was with a deal of nervousness that I went to Angkor that first time but then once there the beautiful peace and tranquillity of the site pushed all those fears aside and it was only when I asked my guide if we could go to the pink temple she told me about the unexploded mines and it brought it all back to me. By 2006 the area had been cleared and we had been able to visit and I could see what all the fuss had been about in the guide book but I was unprepared for what was in store for my son and I in 2010.
Banteay Srei is about a 25km drive from the Angkor Thom area and I was expecting to stop somewhere along the road for lunch as there are plenty of small eating places and little shops along the route as I remembered from my previous visit. However we drove all the way to a brand new commercial complex, right by the temple. The complex consisted of about half a dozen reasonable size open-sided restaurants, a permanent area for market stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs, a conference hall, yes!, and a massive rest rooms facility. To cater for the expected influx of tourists that this represented there was a huge car/coach park and a Visitor Center. This certainly wasn’t here last time and I couldn’t help feeling that this may not be the right direction for the area but one had to admit its convenience. So, we sat down for lunch ordering water, morning glory broth, fried rice and the ubiquitous chicken curry. Driver and guide sat separate from us despite our asking them to join us. Lunch taken both my son and I were back in the land of the living after the previous night’s excess but he confided in me that the Terrace of the Elephants and of the Leper King had been a challenge in the heat. Still all’s well that ends well and we were ready to visit the temple but not before visiting the ‘facilities’.
From the Tourist Complex there is a short dirt track that takes you down to the temple. There were hoards of people here and I mean hoards. As well as those who came from the cars and coaches parked at the complex there were now more coaches and tuk tuks parked right outside. But it seems that our guide has actually been a bit canny as many people are actually leaving. We hang about a bit whilst they take their last pictures and then there is a bit of breathing space. But beware, for all of the overall size of the Angkor site, the number of tourists is increasing dramatically, as access becomes easier (and, it has to be said, as Thailand becomes more and more unwelcoming), and the more ‘famous’ sites can become a bit push and shove! At first I have a bit of a double take, is this the same pink temple as I saw before? It looks so different and then it dawns on me, previously the temple was much more of a ‘ruin’ than what we are looking at now. In the intervening years there has obviously been some painstaking work rebuilding large parts of the walls and doors. Now Banteay Srei really has the look and feel of a temple and it is awesome with the pink sandstone only enhancing the overall effect.
Banteay Srei is a Hindu temple from the second half of the 10th century and is dedicated to Shiva. It is also known today as the ‘citadel of the women’ possibly because of the number of devatas , minor female deites as opposed to apsaras or dancing girls, depicted in the sandstone carvings. It was built by a Brahman, the grandson of Harshavarman II and was originally called Tribhuvanamahesvara — great lord of the threefold world — a reference to Shiva. It is said to be the most ‘Indian’ temple in the whole Angkor complex. For its size (not so big) the quality of the decorative work is superb. When you do go, look closely and you will see scenes from the great Indian tales, especially the Ramayana. In particular the decorative work on the various lintels caught my eye as you can see in my pictures.
A beautiful place and one can understand why so many people make the trek to see it, even those sturdy travellers who explore the whole complex by bicycle!! So anyway, now it was time to leave being almost 3.00 p.m. ‘So where next?’ says I. ‘Finish for the day’, says the guide .’Wow, so early. On the way back can we go back via the Angkor Balloon and if it is not busy maybe we can go on it, OK?’ ‘Sure, no trouble.’ And so that is what we did, little did we know what was to unfold.
Views from the Ballon and Bakheng
Novels about Cambodia
Angkor Balloon and Bakheng
The Balloon is located about 1km west of Angkor and costs $15 per person and is a recent tourist attraction. When we arrived we were told that the next ‘flight’ was in 30 minutes time and at this point we were the only ones there. We boarded just before 4.00 p.m. and were just about to leave when four more people bowled up and joined us. It is not exactly a ride as the balloon is horizontally stationary and just rises straight up about 180m. Angkor is actually quite a long way away and so to the naked eye doesn’t really seem to loom large at all but as a way to see the environs from a height it was worth the effort and the best part was that we saw another temple on a hill nearby, which we later found out was Bakheng. I decided that we had to go visit it as I had never been there on previous trips. Our fellow ballooners seemed somewhat distracted and not paying any attention to the 360 degree views on offer and then we saw that one of them was actually lying on the platform shaking with fear. She apparently suffered from vertigo but had been persuaded to get on the balloon anyway. Wow, how dumb was that! The balloon driver, if you can call him that, stopped at 150m as her husband tried to calm her down and then asked if we had any objection to returning to the ground 10 minutes early (it is about a 20 minute ride in all). The sights are good but the canvas is shall we say limited as you can see from the photographs, so we agreed. He kindly offered to pay for another flight for my son and I but we declined politely as, although we couldn’t understand why she had got on in the first place, we still felt sorry for her; she was scared out of her wits. So back down on the ground we aksed the guide what the temple on the hill was (Bakheng) and could we go and see it now. ‘Yes, if you like, we have time.’
So we drove to Bakheng, just five minutes away by car. At this point the guide announced that we would be on our own since it was not on our paid itinerary and anyway he didn’t fancy the tek uphill in the heat. Unperturbed we set off up the hill and 15 minutes or so reached the top and the temple we had seen from the balloon. The temple itself is not in a good state of repir although there were some restoration works going on. We could see that it was dedicated to Shiva again because of the four statues of Nandi, the cow that transports Shiva, on each side of the base. Now all the steps of the temples are steep as I mentioned at Angkor but these ones seemed even steeper plus the fact that we drawing to the end of the day and they had been baked in sun all day...they were scorching hot, literally you could only touch them for a few seconds. Anyway we climbed up and took a look around. As temples go it is pretty average but what makes it a must in my book are the panoramic views from the top, in particular to the South of Angkor Wat itself. The guide book tells us it was built in the late 9th to early 10th century by King Yasovarman I, obviously predating Angkor itself and was the primary religious site at the time, The Hill of the Gods. We walk back down the hill feeling pleased with ourselves that we have made the effort, once at the bottom we see that from 5.00 p.m. they now have elephant rides to the top which is fine because in reality it wasn’t that arduous. I ask the guide why it is not on the itinerary, he shrugs and says it is not popular. I say ‘Of course not, it’s not on the itinerary, it should be. I reckon people will like it.’
And so back to Kazna to freshen up. We are feeling fine now. Where shall we eat tonight?