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XXX: Banteay Birthday!

Not a bad way to celebrate...

sunny 40 °C
View RTW 2013 on WorldWideWill's travel map.

It was a restless sleep, largely because I hadn't decided before bed if I would wake up to see the arrival of my birthday at midnight local time or UK time and ended up seeing both and feeling no better for it! At 8 I was up and on my private balcony opening a stack of birthday cards - the precious cargo that I had been transporting for a month in my daysack. There was a mini moment of loneliness as I read each one without the sender present, but I was left smiling and feeling good about day two of temple running. I'd done well with breakfast too: fruit muesli, OJ and fruit loaf kept me going most of the day (which was handy seeing as we would miss lunch). I got the birthday traditions out of the way, made my wish and went down to join the guys for our 10am start.

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We had a slightly customised route to follow today which would take us several miles away from Angkor to see the outlying temples and was due to end with sunset back in the main temple complex. Even on paper it was far more appealing than my original birthday plans to chill out and read at the hotel all day. Felix handed me my only birthday present of the day as he got on board, a large pack of American style pecan and choc chip cookies! I was touched, and even further impressed when he produced two packs of sweets to be used to keep the temple children at bay. Up until this point I had been curious about the roadside stalls selling reused bottles filled with a strange yellow/green liquid that I had decided was either olive oil or bodily fluid (hey, it's Cambodia - anything's possible). I watched intently when Supiret stopped and bought two bottles, but when he was handed a small funnel I turned away, convinced that my second assumption about the liquid was accurate. The smell caught me by surprise and I felt a little foolish as I realised we had just stopped for petrol...

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Our first stop was the ancient crematorium of Pre Rup, built from volcanic rock and boasting several very tall chimney towers. It was deserted for good reason: the mercury had crept over the 40C mark and with the sun directly overhead the only shade was inside one of the towers where incense burning women lay in wait for a quick buck. A friendly police officer let me behind the rope and up onto the top level, usually closed to the public. In exchange for a few words on the temple's origins he requested a small fee, but I countered with the "it's my birthday" argument and gave him (and an American tourist who announced that he was also celebrating his birthday) a piece of chewing gum instead. I was still musing over the concept of a policeman trying to make some extra money as we walked back to the tuk tuk, when another cop approached us and offered to sell us his badge!

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The drive up to Banteay Srei took about 30 minutes and followed a quiet country road through stilted wooden hut villages and parched rice fields. There were cows everywhere, at least one per home roaming through the trees to find shade or being given a bath from giant clay rainwater tanks. The temple is small but elegant, reknowned for its intricate carvings on every exposed pink-stone surface (much like Angkor Wat but in finer, more impressive detail) and it is surrounded by a lily pad moat. Again the heat, and the travel distance, meant we had the place to ourselves so we sought shade under the trees and had a birthday snack of cookies and dried banana chips. It was hard to get up close with the barriers protecting the stonework so we ducked into a cafe for a coconut shake to escape the sun and jumped back in the tuk tuk for a cool breezy ride back to Angkor.

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I heard the clatter of my glasses hitting the tarmac too late, and watched in despair as my only source of long-distance vision was run over by a tuk tuk and then a car. Miraculously they stayed in one piece, albeit a mangled, bent and obscenely scratched piece but impressive nonetheless! Lucky I brought a copy of my prescription with me.

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At this point I realised that I hadn't booked an extra night at the hotel, and more worryingly I hadn't yet given them any money. My panic was short lived though, as Supiret waved off my concerns and told me that I could stay as many nights as I wanted and they would only make the room available and take payment from me once I checked out. What a great attitude.

The string of temples that followed was the highlight of the day. Supiret had devised an excellent itinerary to cover the top of the 'big circuit' before sunset, and the timing was so perfect that every place was empty of tourists. A dusty shortcut took us well off the beaten track and we were the centre of attention as our tuk tuk tried to navigate giant holes and bumps in the sand road. Ta Som was the first stop, an awesome semi-collapsed temple hidden in the jungle. Huge wooden struts hold up the walls and its big attraction is the giant tree which grows directly out of the far East entrance with Lord of the Rings style appeal. With few visitors the children here were extra active, and Felix & I quickly distributed a round of sweets in an attempt to escape. F was lured by the challenge from a 7-year-old to a game of noughts and crosses, which he promptly lost and a $1 fine was demanded.

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Dark clouds gathered as we arrived at Preah Neak Poan and the wind whipped through the trees, forcing us to dodge a hail of branches, leaves and insects falling from the sky. This peaceful water temple is reached by a long boardwalk which passes over scenic marshland and a lake before entering a tree-framed tunnel leading to the pools. The wind had even cleared the traders and beggars so we were quite literally the only people at the temple. A long wooden barrier blocks entry to the temple itself but with no one to police the area we slipped between the fence panels and had an independent tour, snapping a few quick pictures before the park attendant returned. A fallen tree trunk was too tempting not to strike a surf pose on the way out.

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Preah Khan is the jewel in the Angkor crown (in my opinion), a vast sprawling temple oozing with rugged character that makes you feel as though you are the first to discover it hidden away in the jungle. I was in awe from my first glimpse of the stones and overgrown tree roots that rival Ta Prohm, and for the gamer within me it felt like I had walked straight into the Forest Temple from Zelda. There were no warning signs here so we took the opportunity to climb up the collapsed stone walls and take in the view from one of the ancient rooftops, before walking back to our chauffeur over the huge stone moat bridge.

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We arrived at Phnom Bakeng in plenty of time to climb the hill paths and steps before the 1730 deadline when no further guests are allowed up to the top. The upper terrace commands breathtaking views over the West Baray lake and across the tree-covered temple complex, and the towers of Angkor Wat can be seen behind the elephant parking on the hill! Several monks had gathered on the terrace, and it was perhaps for this reason that a strict dress code had been enforced at the entrance - anyone wearing shorts above the knee (mainly girls) was practically forced to buy a scarf or hippy pants from the smug traders to gain entry. The storm clouds had fortunately bypassed Angkor and hit Siem Reap, however it was enough to ruin the final sunset moments as the sun was enveloped by the blackness on the horizon. We were ushered down the hill and into the waiting tuk tuks as darkness fell, and soon realised that our ride had neither lights nor horn!

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I had a reverse fake tan when I got back to my room, standing in the shower watching as a head-to-toe layer of dark dust washed off and left me looking decidedly Caucasian. I felt embarrassed to wear my shorts again without a good scrub, so I put them on and walked back under the water jet for a travellers' wash & rinse cycle. Felix joined me on my balcony for a birthday beer and a game of cards before we headed out in search of a suitably decent celebratory meal. We were the only customers when we arrived at Avatar Palate for our second consecutive night and we were greeted with open arms. Our compliments and tip from last night had gone down extremely well, and we were waited on by an eager team of 7 staff (2 waiters, 2 barmen, 2 chefs and the maitre d'). The menus were unnecessary, we ordered exactly the same and it was phenomenal. We left to a series of bows and birthday wishes, and I finished the day with a birthday Skype session. It'll be hard to beat this on my 28th next year!

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Posted by WorldWideWill 16:40 Archived in Cambodia

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