Beyond Angkor Wat: Off-The-Track Kbal Spean and Beng Mealea of Siem Reap, Cambodia

"At Ongcor, there are ...ruins of such grandeur... that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?" Henri Mouhot, French explorer, circa 1860

By Michael Switow

The many faces of Bayon.

Siem Reap, 15 September 2009. The massive stone faces of Angkor Wat, eyes gazing along each point of the compass, are as inspirational as they are iconic.  Carved 800 to 1000 years ago, they recall a Khmer empire that stretched beyond Siem Reap, across the Mekong River delta, as far away as modern-day Malaysia and which fused the largest Asian religions of the day, Buddhism and Hinduism.  

Wander through the Ta Prohm temple, overgrown with trees, branches reaching to the heavens, roots encasing carvings, doors and temple walls.  It's a spot for the inner adventurer and daydreamer, the Indiana Jones and Laura Crawford in us all. 

But enjoying a quiet moment in the temple complex can be a challenge.

When I first visited Siem Reap in 2002, there were a handful of hotels.  Seven years later, there are 138 hotels and another 185 guesthouses.  Many of these lodgings are operating at low capacity due to the recession.  But there is still a big difference in the crowds.  I can only imagine what Angkor would feel like in peak season during a “good” year.

Yet there is hope.  Here are three ways to find a quiet spot to reflect amidst the temple's beauty:

Time Travel

There is a set routine for most visitors to the temple complex, particularly those on a package tour or who have a guide.  Wakeup call at 4.30am to view the sunrise over Angkor Wat, hike up Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset.  Sounds beautiful.  But it's a circus, particularly the sunset.  

Soft golden moments during sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Be a contrarian traveler instead and visit temples in their off-hours to avoid the crowds.  For example, Ta Prohm is a popular late-morning or mid-day refuge as the trees provide shade.  But it's even cooler late in the day after the crowds are gone.  Climb the steps of the Bayon meanwhile in the late afternoon as the site's carvings glimmer amidst the last rays of the day.  Then, in a dark chamber near the top of the complex, find a small active Buddhist temple and take a moment to sit in the glow of the candles.

Space Travel

Angkor Wat is bigger than you think.  Off-the-track sites like Kbal Spean and Beng Mealea are unique, gorgeous and relatively unvisited.  On my latest trip, I hiked forty minutes up a well-shaded sandy riverbed to a natural sandstone bridge -- Kbal Spean, the “river of a thousand linga”.  Water streams over stone carvings of Vishnu, images that could have inspired spas worldwide.

Ancient carvings on Kbal Spean.

(Before you toggle to a dictionary site, let me define “linga”.  It's a polite, if somewhat archaic, Kamasutra term for penis; a vagina is a “yani”. )

On the way up the hill, the mid-morning air felt cool, even refreshing during the first part of the walk.  Of course, I was sweating by the time I reached the river carvings, but that just made the river water feel even nicer against my skin. Take a swimsuit with you and bathe under the same waterfall where Khmer kings of yore enjoyed ritual baths.

As I stroll along the streambed, looking at large groupings of linga – and in one spot, a yani with several linga inside – I wonder who came up with the idea of carving these images.  I picture a group of Khmer men a millennia ago, sitting around a fire at night, laughing over too much palm wine.  “Bro, know what would be awesome?”  “What, man?” his friends reply.  “Let's carve a thousand penises in the river up that hill!”  Unlikely? Perhaps.  A more historically acceptable explanation is that a priest recommended carving sculptures of male genitalia into the river rocks to display the king's prowess and fertilise the waters that irrigate the fields below.

Go Inside

The newest attraction in Siem Reap – and one, which hasn't made it on to the tour group programme yet – is the National Angkor Museum, a joint enterprise between a Thai company and the Cambodian government.  

Sacred and silent inside the Bayon.

Skip their five-minute corporate video and head straight for the room of One Thousand Buddhas.  

A small altar sits outside the room for saying a prayer, lighting incense or paying your respects if you'd like. Inside, Buddhas of all types – gold, silver, stone, big and small – adorn the walls and tables.   The room itself is calm -- a wonderful environment to appreciate the role Buddhism has played in Asian culture over the centuries, take a moment for personal reflection or be zen and just be.  

And perhaps mull over this ancient Khmer proverb:  “Riding a buffalo across mud is easier than swimming.”

Eco Note

Trapped pig-nosed turtle, ironically, at a UNESCO site.

A popular side trip on the Siem Reap circuit is Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.  During the rainy season it stretches across the country to Phnom Penh.  Tonle Sap was designated a UNESCO biosphere in 1997.  At one floating restaurant, though, we found a turtle on display inside an aquarium with barely any room to move, much less swim.

Travel Note

Travelers from outside Southeast Asia need to purchase a Cambodian visa.  Do NOT try to buy it online. This site, which looks official, does not work properly and is actually a scam.  Not to worry – it's easy to purchase your visa upon arrival in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh.

Photography by Michael Switow.

Gaia Discovery’s trip to Cambodia was kindly sponsored by SilkAir, which has adopted Friends International as its official charity. Special mention goes to Angkor Palace Resort and Spa for its wonderful hospitality shown to the writer during his stay there.

Read our exclusive interview with Sebastien Marot, founder of Friends International, one of the most successful social enterprises in Asia.