The temple of Phnom Krom, 12km south of Siem Reap on a hill over- looking the Tonle Sap lake, dates from the reign of Yasovarman I in the late 9th or early 10th century. The name means “Lower Hill” and is a reference to its geographic location in relation to its sister temples of Phnom Bakheng and Phnom Bok. The three towers, dedicated (from north to south) to Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, are in a ruined state, but this remains one of the more tranquil spots from which to view sunset, complete with an active wat. The fast boats from Phnom Penh dock near here, but it is not possible to see the temple from beneath the hill. If coming here by moto or car, try and get the driver to take you to the summit, as it is a long, hot climb otherwise.
Making up the triplicate of temple-mountains built by Yasovannan I in the late 9th or early 10th century, this peaceful but remote location sees few visitors. The small temple is in reasonable shape and includes two frangipani trees growing out of a pair of ruinous towers – they look like some sort of extravagant haircut when in full flower. However, it is the views of Phnom Kulen to the north and the plains of Angkor to the south from this 212m hill that make it worth the trip. The remains of a 5m linga are also visible at the opposite end of the hill and it’s believed there were similar linga at Phnom Bakheng and Phnom Krom. Unfortunately, it is not a sensible place for sunrise or sunset, as it would require a long journey in the dark to get here or get back.
Phnom Bok is about 25km from Siem Reap and is clearly visible from the road to Banteay Srei. It is accessible by continuing east on the road to Banteay Samrt for another 6km. It is possible to loop back to Siem Reap via the temples of Roluos by heading south instead of west on the return journey, offering some pleasant glimpses of rural life. There is a long, winding trail (not suitable for bikes) snaking up the hill, which takes about 20 minutes to climb, plus a new faster cement staircase, but the latter is fairly exposed. Avoid the heat of the middle of the day and carry plenty of water, which can be purchased near the base of the mountain.
CHAU SREI VIBOL
This petite hilltop temple sees few visitors, as it is only easily accessible by motorcycle. The central sanctuary is in a ruined state, but is nicely complemented by the construction of a modern wat nearby. Surrounding the base of the hill are laterite walls, each with a small entrance hall in reasonable condition. To get here turn east off the reasonable dirt road between Phnom Bok and Roluos at a point about 8km north of NH6, or 5km south of Phnom Bok. From this point, the trail deteriorates and crosses several small, rickety bridges, helping to explain why tour buses don’t make it here. The path also crosses a small Angkorian bridge, built at the end of the 12th century, complete with naga balustrades. The route is easy to lose, so keep asking locals for directions at junctions and eventually you will find yourself in a monastic compound at the base of the small hill.
Banteay Srei is considered by many to be the jewel in the crown of Angkorian art. A Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, it is cut from stone of a pinkish hue and includes some of the finest stone carving seen anywhere on the planet. It is one of the smallest sites at Angkor, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in stature. It is wonderfully well preserved and many of its carvings are three-dimensional. Banteay Sriei means “Citadel of the Women” and it is said that it must have been built by a woman, as the elaborate carvings are too fine for the hand of a man.
Construction on Banteay Srei began in 967 and it is one of the few temples around Angkor not to be commissioned by a king, but by Brahman who may have been a tutor to Jayavarman V. The temple is square and has entrances at the east and west, the east approached by a causeway. Of interest are the lavishly decorated libraries and the three central towers, which are decorated with male and female divinities and beautiful filigree relief work.
Classic carvings at Banteay Srei include delicate women with lotus flowers in hand and traditional skirts clearly visible, as well as breathtaking recreations of scenes from the epic Ramayana adorning the library pediments (carved inlays above a lintel). However, the sum of the parts is no greater than the whole – almost every inch of these interior buildings is covered in decoration. Standing watch over such perfect creations are the mythical guardians, all of which are copies of originals stored in the National Museum.
Banteay Srei is 21km northeast of Bayon or about 32km from Siem Reap. It is well signposted and the road is surfaced all the way – a trip from Siem Reap should take just 45 minutes. Moto and remorque will want a bit of extra cash to come out here, so agree on a sum first. It is possible to combine a visit to Banteay Srei with a trip to the River of a Thousand Lingas at Kbal Spean and Beng Mealea, or to Banteay Samri and Phnom Bok. It can be very busy in the morning; lunchtime is quiet, but very hot; late afternoon is probably best, although not so late that the sun has dropped beneath the tree line.
Kbal Speto is a spectacularly carved riverbed, set deep in the jungle to the northeast of Angkor. More commonly referred to in English as the “River of a Thousand Lingas”, the name actually means “bridgehead”, a reference to the natural rock bridge at the site. Linga have been elaborately carved into the riverbed, and images of Hindu deities are dotted about the area. Kbal Spean was “discovered” in 1969, when EFEO ethnologist lean Boulbet was shown the area by an essai; the area was soon off-limits due to the civil war, only becoming safe again in 1998.
Following the river down, there are several more impressive carvings of Vishnu, and Shiva with his consort Uma, and further downstream hundreds of linga appear on the riverbed. At the top of the waterfall, there are many animal images, including a cow and a frog, and a path winds around the boulders to a wooden staircase leading down to the base of the falls. Visitors between February and June will be disappointed to see very little water tiere. The best time to visit is between September and December.
Phnom Kulen is considered by Khmers to be the most sacred mountain in Cambodia and is a popular place of pilgrimage during weekends and festivals. It played a significant role in the history of the Khmer empire, as it was from here in 802 that Jayavarman II proclaimed independence from Java, giving birth to modern-day Cambodia. There is a small wat at the summit of the mountain, which houses a large Buddha carved into the sandstone boulder upon which it is built. Nearby is a large waterfall and above it are smaller bathing areas and a number of carvings in the riverbed, including numerous linga. The bad news is that a private businessman bulldozed a road up here in 1999 and now charges a US$20 toll per foreign visitor, an outrageous fee compared with what you get for your money at Angkor. None of the toll goes towards preserving the site. You can buy a cheaper ticket for US$12 from the City Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap, surprise, surprise, owned by the same businessman!
Beng Mealea is a spectacular sight to behold. It’s one of the most mysterious temples at Angkor, as nature has well and truly run riot here. Built to the same floorplan as Angkor Wat, exploring this titanic of temples is Angkor’s ultimate Indiana Jones experience. Built in the 12th century under Suryavarman II (r 1112-52), Beng Mealea is enclosed by a massive moat measuring 1.2km by 900m, much of which has dried up today.
The temple has been utterly subsumed by jungle, and standing just a few metres away from the trees it is hard to tell what lies beneath. Entering from the south, visitors wend their way over piles of masonry, through long dark chambers and between hanging vines to arrive at the central tower, which has completely collapsed. Hidden away among the rubble and foliage are several impressive carvings, as well as a well-preserved library in the northeastern quadrant. The temple is a special place and it is worth taking the time to explore thoroughly. There is also now a large wooden walkway to the centre, constructed during the filming here of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Two Brothers (2004).