Koh Ker and Beng Mealea
The remote temple sites of Cambodia
Although having lived, and worked, in the S.E. Asian region for almost twenty years I’d, surprisingly, never got around to visiting Cambodia. Even though it’s a relatively short distance from Bangkok I’d always opted for somewhere else; promising myself that I’d get around to “Cambo” on the next trip. With a work contract recently completed, and a few days to spare, it was time to stop the procrastination and finally get myself over to Cambodia. A plan was hatched whereby I’d hit Siem Reap for a few days first and then make my way down to Phnom Penh, for another couple of days, before flying back to Bangkok. I booked a one way flight to Siem Reap with Bangkok Air and two days later I was touching down in Siem Reap airport. For most travelling to Cambodia the primary thing, on the “to do” list, is a visit to the Angkor Archaeological Park. With this in mind I chose a hotel in close proximity to park entrance. The Pavillon Indochine Hotel – http://www.pavillon-indochine.com/ – is, in fact, the second closest hotel to the Angkor Archaeological park (the closest hotel is right next door to it) and provides free Tuk Tuk transportation, between the hours of sunrise and ten PM, to most of the major park sites; Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. The free Tuk Tuk service is also available, during the same hours, for the relatively short run (10 – 15 minutes) into Siem Reap Township.
To be sure, excursions to the above mentioned renowned sites were definitely on the agenda but, in keeping with the general theme of this blog, my primary focus was on some of the more remote temple sites to the North East of Siem Reap. Prior to my departure from Bangkok I’d done a small amount of research on the net regarding these remote temple sites. Wikipedia is invaluable, in this regard, and information was gathered on a number of outlying sites. In the end I settled on two – doable in a one day excursion – which seemed the most accessible; Koh Ker – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koh_Ker – and Beng Mealea – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beng_Meala After a couple of days spent visiting the best sites of Angkor Archaeological Park I booked a four wheel drive vehicle, with driver, through the hotel. The cost was USD 70 for the full day (8 hours) and would include visitations to both sites. The driver was at the hotel on time for our seven am departure and, without further ado, we were on our way for the 130 Kilometer (approx 2 hours) run to the most distant site; Koh Ker.
According to Wikipedia King Jayavarman IV initiated the construction of the Koh ker complex around the early part of the tenth Century. The central feature of the site is the impressive seven tiered pyramid (prang) which stands at 36 meters high, at the apex, and is sixty two meters square at the base. As we drove towards the site my driver, Phan (a great guide who speaks very good English), passed the time with some interesting anecdotal information about his past experiences with the remote sites I was about to visit.
“The first time I came up here was in 1998. I had one customer, and American, who wanted to climb up the pyramid and watch the sunrise. We came up the day before on motor cross bikes because there was no road then, only a dirt track, and there were still a lot of land mines in the area. It took a lot longer to get there and we arrived in the evening. There was a small restaurant, which is still there, and we slept in hammocks under the shelter of the restaurants roof. The site is surrounded by jungle (and still is) and there were a lot of animals around the area. At dawn the American guy climbed up the pyramid to watch the sunrise.”
I asked Phan if it was still possible to climb up the pyramid. He told me ascents to the top had been stopped but, if things were quiet and there were few visitors about, he would talk with the staff at the site. I was a bit concerned that I wouldn’t be able to climb to the top but there was not much I could do about it if the park staff said “no.” There is an entrance fee for these remote site visitations and a government office is just off the road a few kilometers before Beng Mealea. The fees are as follows: Beng Mealea – USD 5 per day; Koh Ker – USD 10 per day. After a quick stop we were on our way again and at a bit after nine am we were pulling into the parking lot at Koh Ker. There were no other tourists in sight so I was hopeful that the staff would agree to my request to climb the pyramid. I grabbed my camera gear and followed Phan into the park grounds. Beyond the main entrance, but set back from the pyramid enclosure, there’s a small restaurant area. Phan told me to wait there while he went to talk with the park staff. A few minutes later he was back and smiling.
“Because there’s no one here yet they’ve agreed to your request to climb the pyramid. However, they want a small donation.”
“How much?” I said smiling at the ease at which rules can be changed in this part of the world with the proffering of a small amount of cash.
“Five dollars,” replied Phan.
“No problems. Let’s go,” I said eager to get on with things
Phan led me on through the main entry gate to the pyramid site. Like most of the Khmer temple sites this one had an outer perimeter wall; inside of which was a moat surrounding an inner perimeter wall. The tree growth was thick but, as we worked our way along the path to the inner perimeter wall, I was catching glimpses of the pyramid. Fifty meters later we were clear of the tree growth and stepping through the inner perimeter wall. The impressive pyramid was at the center of the wide, grass covered expanse beyond. There was a group of staff/guides sitting in the shade just inside the gate. Introductions were made and Phan informed me that one of the guides, who spoke reasonable English, would go with me to the base of the pyramid stairway and explain the safest way of climbing up. After passing over the “donation” we were on our way to the stairway. As we got closer I could see a wooden stairway was actually covering the steep stone steps of the pyramid and realised, even though the photos don’t show it clearly, the climb to the top would be quite precarious. After a few seconds to get myself sorted the guide explained the route I should take. The wooden stairway, in one section, was unsafe and I would need to climb up the stone work, for a few meters, and then rejoin the wooden stairway for the final stretch to the top. With the perspiration already dripping off me, in the high humidity, I set off in earnest. The first obstacle to negotiate, just off ground level, was a barricade created by a picket fence with spikes. A few seconds later I was over that and on my way up the wooden stairway. The going was steep but not too difficult. At the top of the first tier the guide shouted up to me to get off the wooden stairway, due to the fact there were steps missing, and climb up the stonework to the top of the second tier. The traverse here was a good deal more difficult so I took my time and negotiated the climb slowly.
A couple of minutes later I was at the top of the second tier and the guide shouted out that I should go up the shorter wooden stairway to the right of the main one then do the final stretch up the stone steps. The wooden stairway up the top four tiers had no horizontal slats – just the handrails to hold on to – as I worked my way up the precipitous stone work. Once again I took my time; one false move, or slip, and I’d be rolling all the way to the bottom. As I climbed up the last few steps I could only admire whoever it was that had built the structure; for sure they must’ve been agile fellows. With the perspiration running off me I pulled myself up onto the top of the seventh tier and looked back down the stairway; it was a long way to the bottom. After getting a couple of shots of the view back down the stairway I started to survey the surrounding landscape. Needless to say the view was spectacular with nothing except green canopy, and fields, all the way to the horizon at the four points. A sunrise, or sunset, viewed from the top would be nothing short of remarkable. At the center of the top level was a one meter high, three sided, boxed wall. I looked over into a cavity dropping away into the bowels of the pyramid. The locals had made an effort to board it off but there were still big enough gaps where an enthusiastic team could work their way in; perhaps another time. To get even higher I climbed up onto the wall to get more shots and appreciate the uninterrupted views to the horizon. Once again I took the time to appreciate the serenity of the moment and, apart from the odd twittering bird, it was completely silent.
After a few more minutes spent enjoying the spectacular vistas it was time to head back down. With the perspiration beginning to cool I made my way towards the stairway again. As the sun began moving overhead the heat was becoming more intense and I figured it was time to head for a bit of shade, and a cool drink, before pushing on with the rest of the days outing. Before I began my descent I took a final couple of shots of the Garuda that was carved into the stone work. Before climbing up, the guide had told me to look out for it. The shape of it, although not clearly recognizable in the photo, bears an uncanny resemblance to similar bird like effigy’s that can be seen on the Mayan and Egyptian historical sites.
The climb down was largely uneventful and, in the interests of personal safety, I took my time making the descent. A few minutes later I was back on flat ground and heading towards the inner wall perimeter gate to join Phan and the staff. After thanking them, and grabbing a couple of group shots, we were on our way back down the road to the next ruined temple site; Beng Mealea. We’d passed the site on the way up and, at the time, it had been pouring with rain. We had an hour’s drive to get back there and, as we got closer, I could see the rain had cleared away to be replaced by blazing sunshine. We arrived there just after midday and the heat was nothing short of scorching as we made for a roadside restaurant for lunch. Phan suggested that, even though the afternoon would be stifling, the site would be less crowded due to the fact that most of the group tours usually get there sightseeing and photo stops done in the morning. Shortly after one pm I was working my way along the approach road to the Eastern outer perimeter gate of the Beng Mealea site.
This was my third day doing the temple sites in and around Siem Reap and I’d eventually picked up on the layout of the sites; all of them were situated to astronomical alignment. The main entry point for all was the eastern gate of the outer perimeter wall. This was always aligned to the Northern hemisphere equinox (21st March & 21st September) when the length of daylight hours equaled the length of darkness. On that day the sun, no doubt, would rise directly in line to the doorway of the gate. All other gates, and perimeter walls, were set from that astronomical alignment with the other three gates set at the cardinal points of the compass; North, South and West. The gates were centered on the perimeter walls with roads, or footpaths, bridging internal, and external, surrounding moats. Water was a big deal to the khmers and fully encompassing moats, such as the one at Angkor Wat, surrounded the entire temple sites. There were also inner moats, inside the Outer perimeter wall, which fully encompassed an inner perimeter wall. The whole design being completely Hindu and, apparently, is a celebration of heaven and earth.
I arrived at the eastern gate and could see that access would be difficult. There were a group of guides sitting in the shade fifty meters to the right so I approached them and enquired about the guiding fee. USD 3 for an hour was a bargain so, without further ado, I let the guide take the lead. Note: the local guides are invaluable for small details and information which, if you wanted to do it alone, you would miss out on completely. Also, the guides at all of the sites I visited spoke reasonable English as well. Even though some the site looks look a bomb has gone off – jumbled masses of stone work everywhere – the park staffs have made negotiating the site easier by putting a boarded walkway in place. My guide, being aware that I was keen on getting some good photo’s, made a point of doing detours off the walkway to look at stuff that was less accessible.
The route was quite circuitous and covered a just about every accessible point of the ruins. Luckily there was lush tree growth throughout providing well appreciated shade from the searing sun above. The guide led me into the inner sanctum area and pointed out where the libraries had stood (perhaps knowledge was the highest attainable aspect of life for those times?) and we eventually worked outwards to the moat between the inner and outer perimeter wall. As we were about to round a corner the guide indicated he had something important for me to see. We stopped beneath a doorway – cluttered with more jumbled stone work – and he pointed up to a stone carving on the arch above.
“Up there you can see a hole?” said the guide enthusiastically.
“Ah, yes,” I said looking up and noting a smooth depression at the center of the artwork.
“Before, there was a head there. The Khmer Rouge take off and sell to Thailand for big money.”
At other doorways it was the same story; the head had been chipped off. It seemed a bit of shame and I wasn’t quite sure what point the guide was trying to make. The Khmer Rouge’s blatant, profit oriented disregard for their own culture or the Thais for buying the artifacts. Maybe he wasn’t trying to make any kind of point; perhaps it was just another example of the ongoing decay and degradation of the site and nothing more? In this regard, the locals are doing a great job with restoration works at some of the sites. Some, however, like Beng Mealea will probably be left as they are for quite some time. And that, dare I say, might be enough to keep the hordes of mainstream tourists away for a while longer yet. The remote temple sites of Koh Ker and Beng Mealea are a great day out if you want to get away from the maddening crowds of Siem Reap.
Staging/starting point: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Distance from Siem Reap to Koh Ker: Approximately 116 kilometers
Distance from Siem Reap to Beng Mealea: Approximately 60 kilometers
Time to do both sites: 8 hours comfortably
Transportation: tuk-tuk to Beng Mealea only. A private taxi, or arranged tour, is required for Koh Ker Note: a motor bike is also a good option as the road is sealed, and in good condition, all the way to Koh Ker
Approximate cost for private taxi: USD 70 – 80 per day
Entrance fee for Koh Ker: USD 10