Many times, what that makes an overseas trip so memorable and different from the others often boils down to the interaction and conversation that we have with the people – be it locals or other visitors. So far, both MK and I have been extremely lucky as the locals had welcomed us with nothing but warm and sincere hospitality. Our first day in Cambodia ended with an inspiring chat with Mr Sary, the owner of Happy Ranch, who shared with us his passion for horses. A surprise encounter with Khwan, a child tout, was the highlight of our second day and I was bestowed with a free bamboo bracelet! What a delight!
It was no different for us on our third day as we were privileged enough to reserve Sun Same (highly recommended on Trip Advisor) as our personal driver to some of the outlying Angkorian temples. Highly knowledgeable about the history of Cambodia and the various Angkor temples, Sun Same even took the initiative to provide us with a summary/information of each place of interest. Many stories were exchanged as we discussed about our lives, hobbies, countries and the very different lifestyles in Cambodia and Singapore. A funny guy with a sense of humor, he also shared with us some jokes that cracked us up and had us entertained during the very long ride to the outlying temples. Otherwise, I cannot imagine how dreadful it must be to be stuck with a quiet and boring driver! In fact, we still do keep in touch via emails and I’d would highly recommend him to anyone who’s looking for a driver (not tuk tuk) in Siem Reap.
For those who might be keen in Sun Same’s services, do drop by his personal website. 🙂
MK’s views: The highlight of the day was our chartered driver! Sun Same! Corny as the name might sound to you, this dude was phenomenal. Providing us a lot of information and entertainment during our long and tiresome drive from Banteay Srei to Kpal Spean (to see the river with a thousand lingas) and finally to Beng Mealea (the blueprint of AngKor Wat).
Constructed: Late 10th Century C.E.
Reign: King Rajendravarman
Style: Banteay Srei
“Banteay Srei loosely translates to ‘citadel of the women’, but this is a modern appellation that probably refers to the delicate beauty of the carvings. Built at a time when the Khmer Empire was gaining significant power and teeritory, the temple was constructed by a Brahmin counselor under a powerful king, Rajendravarman and later under Jayavarman V. It displays some of the finest examples of classical Khmer art and the walls are densely covered with some of the most beautiful, deep and intricate carvings of any Angkorian temple. The temple’s relatively small size, pink sandstone construction and ornate design give it a fairyland ambiance.”*
Must visit factor: **** out of 5
* : all info from Siem Reap Angkor Visitors’ Guide
Often known as ‘the most beautiful temple in Angkor’, Banteay Srei certainly does not disappoint. It makes up for the lack of size ( it’s really tiny compared to many of the massive temples found within Angkor Park) with its extremely intricate and immaculate carvings. Pity that we did not have the privilege of a personal guide to explain to us the meanings behind these various depictions and carvings. 😦 Moreover, it proved to be a challenge for us to fully enjoy the tranquility of this impressively preserved temple as Banteay Srie was simply too congested with busloads of tourists. Note to all: In order to fully enjoy Banteay Srei in its full glory, do try to get there by 8 – 830am so that you can have the temple to yourself as the tour groups usually arrive by 9am plus.
Nonetheless, Banteay Srei tops our list of the most exquisite and beautiful Angkorian temple that we had ever visited. Gleaming in sandy pink under the sun, Banteay Srei offers a sharp contrast to all the other better-known temples that are grey or brown in colour. If time permits, I’d definitely recommend any visitor to Siem Reap to pay a visit to this well preserved temple as it is simply a sight not to be missed! Enjoy!
“To begin with, Kbal Spean is not a typical Angkorian temple; instead, it is an ancient site home to 1000 lingas. A sacred sanctuary hidden in a jungle, Kbal Spean features many lingas and mystical religious images that are carved along the river bed. These lingas on the river bed signify fertility and were thus meant to bless the water that flows from the top of Phnom Kulen to Angkor city. In other words, the holy water is essential to ensure success and prosperity of the Khmer Kingdoms.” *
Must visit factor: *** out of 5
* info: Wikipedia
The lure of viewing a myriad of remote carvings on a river bed was too tempting and so, we decided to drop by Kbal Spean which was only a 15 mins drive from Banteay Srei. 45 minutes of hiking up the hill later, we finally reached Kpal Spean where we were treated to a unique sight of elaborate carvings on a river bed. By the way, the hike was moderately manageable though it is still important to practice caution as some parts were slippery and rather steep. One wrong step and you risk fracturing your leg!
Taking our time to enjoy the elaborated carvings, we couldn’t help but ponder how challenging it must be for the ancient people to fight against nature (the rush of water along the riverbed) and still be able to carve out these fine details. It was, indeed, a very impressive display of carvings. Having read many reviews commenting on the remoteness of the place, I expected to see only a handful of tourists. Alas, Kbal Spean is not much different from any of the other tourist sites in Cambodia and the peace and serenity of this sacred place was disturbed by the many visitors in presence. Visit Kbal Spean only if you have the extra time to spare.
Constructed: Early 11th Century C.E.
Reign: King Suryavarman II
Style: Angkor Wat
“Sprawling jungle temple covering over 1 square kilometer. The temple is largely overrun by vegetation and very lightly touristed, giving it an adventurous ‘lost temple’ feel. Constructed in a distinctly Angkor Wat style under the same king that built Angkor Wat, Beng Mealea preceded and may have served as a blueprint for the magnificent Angkor Wat. Though there are some lintel and doorway carvings, there are no bas reliefs and the carvings are comparatively sparse.” *
Must visit factor: ***** out of 5
*: info from Siem Reap Angkor Visitor Guide
Well, what can I say? Of all the temples that we had visited, Beng Mealea remains as our favourite temple! Located far from the heart of Siem Reap city, it takes about 2 hours to drive to Beng Mealea. Hence, the remote location of the temple deters many tourists, especially tour groups (Thank God! I have nothing against tours as I have been on many tours before too but seeing them everyday at every single attraction was getting onto our nerves.), from venturing to this extremely spectacular jungle temple.
We were strolling around the grounds of the temple for barely 5 minutes when a local lady (dressed in the Aspara Authority uniform) self-appointed herself as our personal guide. Having read up on Beng Mealea prior to our departure, I kind of expected this and we were, for a moment, caught in a dilemma. Understandably, we should not partake and encourage such ‘scam’ activities (Tipping the guides at the end) but Beng Mealea is a sprawling complex of collapsed rocks and ruins and having a guide to show us around would certainly help. With that thought in mind, we followed our guide, who could barely speak a word of English, as she brought us to remote places inside the unrestored temple that we would have never visited, had we stuck to the main wooden pathway.
For the 2 whole hours, we felt as if our fantasies of becoming an adventurous explorer (come on, let’s admit … Isn’t there an Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider within us?) come alive as we climbed over jumbled piles of collapsed walls, heaps of rubble and rotten trees! As this temple was overrun with enormous trees, one cannot help but wonder what’s in store for us at the next turn or corner. In addition, there were many times when we had the whole temple to ourselves thus enhancing our ‘exploration’ visit in Beng Mealea. Our experience exploring this mysterious crumbling temple felt simply so surreal & awe-striking, much thanks to our helpful guide who made Beng Mealea come alive for us.
Off the beaten ‘tourist’ track : Dark corridors within the temple complex.
Many have compared the more famous jungle temple Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider temple) to Beng Mealea but in all honesty, there is simply no comparison. Ta Prohm is magical and special in its own way but it is crawling with tourists and have undergone through many restoration works to maintain its intentionally jungle look. As such, Ta Prohm looks more manicured. On the other hand, the jungle-clad ruins of Beng Mealea have been left relatively untouched for centuries and is almost completely consumed by thick vegetation. Now, don’t you just want to be like Indiana Jones for a day? A must visit for everyone!
Ended the unforgettable day at the highly acclaimed Touich Restaurant. In fact, despite being only a year old, the restaurant is the Number 1 rated restaurant in the whole of Siem Reap! A family-run restaurant, Touich was started by Sobey and his wife, Touich, whom the restaurant was named after. Located in the rustic yet cozy backyard of the family house, Touich Restaurant is located off the usual tourist track but not to fret as Sobey offers free (!) transportation for all diners in his vintage 1964 French Jeep! What a joy ride as we attracted many stares from other tourists during the 10 mins drive.
Take a look at the many raves on this site. Touich offers ‘Khmer fine dining’ on a shoe-string but unlike the small portions offered at many fine dining places, the food portions are huge and most importantly, they do not compromise on the quality. We even overheard a couple of Americans sitting beside us, commenting that it was their best meal ever and never had they been so satisfied! Delectable and mouth-watering cuisine aside, our dining experience was made even more memorable by the warm and welcoming hospitality rendered by Sobey and his family. Service – something that our service personnel in Sg needs to work on.
All that they want is for Touich’s younger siblings to get a proper education and learn to be self-independent. Taking some time out of their busy schedules (full house all nights!), Sobey shared with us his past and visions for the future. Due to the invasion of the Khmer Rouge, Sobey was left an orphan as both his parents were brutally murdered by the heartless and inhumane Khmer Rouge. As such, he was taught to be self-reliant to earn a living for himself since he was a kid and thus wants to instill such values in Touich’s siblings.
The plan? In order to encourage the siblings to be independent, the entrepreneur couple encourages them to work hard-time at the restaurant after school as this will give them the opportunity to practice their English, as well as equip them with more tangible skills ( customer service, cooking, bartending).
In return, they will be given a small sum of allowance and be taught to spend this money wisely instead of spending it frivolously on unwanted stuff. Instead of giving them an allowance for free, the couple wants the siblings to work to earn their keeps as this will teach them the importance of money and independence. In fact, one of Touich’s younger brother is now studying to be a lawyer in a law school! It was inspiring to hear such a motivating story from a guy who has certainly been through many hard and tough times.