Its the second day of the new year festivities so we allow ourselves a sleep-in – departing for the far flung temples at the advanced hour of 7am. All the guide books talk about staying extra days, getting outside the “inner circle” of temples and escaping the crowds, and that is exactly what we are planning for today. With hindsight, we should’ve taken the guide books with a grain of salt, but it doesn’t matter because we end up with a nice twist on the crowds. I should know by now that when popular guidebooks say “go here, get off the beaten track” then lots of other people will be doing the same thing. And the crowds are definitely here, car loads and bus loads at every temple today, but for once we are completely outnumbered by the locals on holiday and its a great feeling. Because its the three day national New Year holiday, Cambodian families have gathered from across the country and are visiting their own history and temples in great numbers, often spreading blankets to have huge extended family picnics under the trees. And we, the hot sweaty fly-in tourists, are in the minority for a change, which makes the temples feel much less like open air museums than usual .
We make six temple stops today, which is a bit ambitious with our late start for the day, so we are a wee bit exhausted (heat stroke anyone?) by the last couple. Here’s my highlights of the day.
Kbal Spean – The River of a Thousand Lingas.
This site is an interesting change from the usual temples. It a 1.5km walk up through the valley to the riverbed at the top – its a gentle incline but made harder for unco-ordinated people like me by being a bit of a scramble over a rocky mountain goat track in parts. I am a bit disappointed when I first see the carvings at the top, as they mainly look like a cobblestoned path. Duh! I eventually realise that these are the remaining bases of the thousand lingas (phallic symbols), and by the size of the bases they must’ve been impressively sized lingas. Now I guess its a case of a thousand eunuchs. We beat the crowds to the top and as we head back down, there are many families on the way up , easily carrying vast picnic supplies, politely laughing at the sweat running down our faces. We realise our driver may be a bit worn out from his New Years festivities when it takes us fifteen minutes to track him down fast asleep in a hammock.
A truly beautiful small temple, Banteay Srei has the most intricate carvings, the stone a dusky rose red. Its also incredibly popular and incredibly busy, its a continuous snake of people around the paths. However the layout makes it easy to get up close to all the beautiful carvings and get an uninterrupted view, negating any impact of the crowds. The lack of shade is more of a problem, it’s still early morning and we are cooking! We finally find shade behind the temple, next to a local band playing under a tree. They are a poignant reminder of the recent past, as the band is a group of land mine victims and this is how they support themselves and other victims (and since the music is rather refreshing on a hot day, its not that hard for them to sell their CDs either.)
The Temple of Ta Som.
Back closer to the Angkor Thom complex we stop for a wander around Ta Som, a temple mainly known for its general state of dis-repair, and its classic strangler fig tree wrapped around an ancient ornate stone gate. All sensible people have retreated out of the midday sun by now, leaving a much emptier temple site to explore. I think I am on about my fourth litre of water by this stage. What I love about Ta Som is that it looks so decrepit, the stones toppling off each other and arches looking like they barely hold together. Its not an overgrown, ‘Indiana Jones slash your way through the undergrowth’ kind of environment – most of the vegetation has been cleared out, except for some bigger trees providing a nice level of shade, and the famous strangler fig of course, although it’s had some judicious pruning as well. But that does show off the fragility of the stonework quite well, so its a good compromise. And this temple has kids playing around today, which adds a nice sense of movement and colour.
We don’t last much longer after Ta Som, very happy with what we’ve seen, too worn out by heat and humidity to give the remaining temples their due, it’s definitely time to head back to a cool pool.