Beyond Angkor

 One of the five towers at beautiful Prasat Bram.

My love affair with Cambodia continues. I had one week holiday between two jobs and I didn't want to stay in Sydney. Cambodia was an easy choice. This was not a photography trip but of course, I had a camera with me. The plan was to chill, visit places I have never seen before, enjoy the Khmer culture and hospitality and take photo or two along the way. I wanted to go beyond Angkor.

Koh Ker and Beng Mealea

It's July, the middle of the rainy season in Cambodia. A perfect time to visit the country. Siem Reap is noticeably less crowded and so are the main temples. This time around, I didn't come to visit Angkor Wat. I didn't even buy an entry pass to Angro park as I didn't plan to visit it at all. I did all that previously on two occasions already. Although I didn't avoid the temples, I planned to visit ones that are a little further away from Siem Reap.

The first one I visited was Prasat Tho in Koh Ker area. It is about 120 kilometersaway from Siem Reap and the ancient site of Angkor. It is a very jungle filled region that is sparsely populated. More than 180 sanctuaries were found in a protected area of 81 square kilometers. Only about two dozen monuments can be visited by tourists because most of the sanctuaries are hidden in the forest and the whole area is not fully demined.

The most notable temple in the area is Prasa Tom, that unlike any other temples of Khmer Empire, was build in 7 tier pyramid shape. For a moment I thought I am in Latin America looking at ancient Mayan pyramid. This place is not visited by tourist very often due to the distance from Siem Reap. I mostly met only locals there. The setting was beautiful, the ancient pyramid in midst of a dense lush green jungle.

There are a few more temples that can be visited and they are not far from each other. The most notable is Prasat Pram. The monument consists of five towers. Two of the towers are pictorially covered by roots which give them a beautiful ancient ruin look. I had the whole temple just for myself. Wat a good day for a visit.

On the way back to Siem Reap I stopped at another beautiful temple. The Beng Mealea or "lotus pond". This is a huge and largely unrestored temple in the jungle setting, with trees and thick brush thriving amidst its towers and courtyards and many of its stones lying in great heaps. Being much closer to Siem Reap (about 40km) this temple is gaining in popularity. It is definitely worth to visit. 

 Prasat Thom, the 7-tier pyramid shaped temple in Koh Ker area.

Prasat Thom, the 7-tier pyramid shaped temple in Koh Ker area.

 Another of the few accessible temples in Koh Ker area. Most of these temples are set in jungle areas which make them visually very attractice and photogenic.

Another of the few accessible temples in Koh Ker area. Most of these temples are set in jungle areas which make them visually very attractice and photogenic.

 Prasat Bram, one of the two towers covered by tree roots.

Prasat Bram, one of the two towers covered by tree roots.

 Prasat Bram, I feel like early explorer that just found this temple. I was the only person there at the time.

Prasat Bram, I feel like early explorer that just found this temple. I was the only person there at the time.

 Beng Mealea, also known as "Lotus Pond", or jungle temple.

Beng Mealea, also known as "Lotus Pond", or jungle temple.

 Beng Mealea is largely unrestored with thick vegetation growing all over the walls and in courtyards.

Beng Mealea is largely unrestored with thick vegetation growing all over the walls and in courtyards.

Phnom Kulen

Next location I wanted to visit was Phnom Kulen "Mountain of Lychees".  It is a mountain range in Siem Reap Province and it has a special place in the history of Khmer people. There is a sacred hilltop site on top of the range and Phnom Kulen is considered a holy mountain in Cambodia. It also has a major symbolic importance for Cambodians as the birthplace of the ancient Khmer Empire at hands of King Jayavarman II in 804 CE. 

The Phnom Kulen was actually quite busy. The place was full of locals that visited the holy place of Preah Ang Thom for worship and get blessings from monks.

Phnom Kulen has two quite nice waterfalls where locals gather for picnics. The smaller waterfall is suitable for children to play while the bigger one creates a magnificent scenery and setting for a nice swim.

 The bigger of the two waterfalls of Phnom Kulen are suitable for a swim.

The bigger of the two waterfalls of Phnom Kulen are suitable for a swim.

Cambodian countryside

I had two full days still available and I was determined to make most of it. Initially, I planned to hire a bicycle and then just bike somewhere out of the city. But then I got an idea. I was always curious about the Khmer way of life in the countryside and I wanted to learn a little bit more about it. There is so much I can see and experience in 2 days but I thought if I could find a way to do a 1-night homestay, that would be definitely a good start. I found a tour company in Siem Reap called Butterfly Tours. They offered a bicycle tour and overnight stay at the local family in the countryside. They agreed to take me on even as a solo traveler which was so nice of them.

This was definitely one of the best experiences I had in Cambodia. Leaving the busy city and tourist areas behind we ventured into the countryside. Cycling amongst palm trees, rice paddies, cattle and water buffaloes was a great visual and emotional experience. Towards the end of the day, we topped in a small and very clean village. We (my guide and myself) met the host family. With 2 hours to spare before sunset, we walked around the area, talked to other villagers, attracted lots of curious kids that probably never seen tourists before, or at least not very often.  We stayed out in the field and enjoyed a beautiful sunset before returning back for a simple but delicious traditional Khmer dinner. 

 Sunset at Cambodian countryside.

Sunset at Cambodian countryside.

 Beautiful sunset is a good time for a deep thought and selfreflection.

Beautiful sunset is a good time for a deep thought and selfreflection.

And then we talked a lot under clear Cambodian sky full of stars. A light breeze cooled the air as we sat outside with our host, dressed only in traditional Cambodian "krama". The sleep was great. The fresh air and village sounds woke me up into a beautiful day, I enjoyed the vivid colors of sunrise and after the breakfast, we said our goodbyes to our hosts and we were on our way. I wish I could stay longer. There is something about a simple village life I as a person living in the city, appreciate a lot. However, I know this life, especially in Cambodia is not easy and most of the families are struggling daily to get by. It was a nice experience and I definitely recommend doing this trip when you are in Siem Reap.

 At traditional Cambodian house in countryside wearing a "krama"

At traditional Cambodian house in countryside wearing a "krama"

 My friend Chhai Bunsorng is enjoying the early morning sun.

My friend Chhai Bunsorng is enjoying the early morning sun.

Big yellow balloon

There is a big stationary balloon not far from Angkor Wat that can take you up about 100-120m and allow you to view the temple from a birds-eye perspective. It is my last day but since my flight is in afternoon I decided to try this thing out. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't playing along and out of those million sunny days I experienced in Cambodia, this one was overcast. While the view was nice, the light, even during sunrise was sub-par. Also, the whole flight experience lasts only 10min so I cannot really recommend it. 

So that's it. Five days went by too fast. But even in this short time Cambodia delivered. It always does, I said it many times before, this country is like another home for me. That is why I keep coming back. And with every visit, I experience something new. I am wondering how much more can this country still give. I feel that a list of surprises and experiences is endless. So long Cambodia, until I see you again. Sooner rather than later.

 Less than ideal lighting conditions during sunrise above Angkor Wat

Less than ideal lighting conditions during sunrise above Angkor Wat