Today I visit the temple of Banteay Srei, which lies about 30 kilometres outside Siem Reap. With the traffic and the narrow roads, it takes about 45 minutes to reach the temple grounds. Banteay Srei predates Angkor Wat, it is a temple dedicated to the Hindu gods. The layout of the temple is similar to that of Angkor Wat, with a moat leading around the temple proper and a causeway cutting across to the main entrance. Unlike Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, Banteay Srei was never used by the king and only served as a place of worship for the monks. The entire constructions is on one level only.
Today, the temple is best known for the detail and delicacy of its sculptures, which are mostly still in amazingly good condition. The place is worth a visit, but try to be there just after seven in the morning, it gets rather busy during the day.
It is still dark outside as we approach the temple. Save for the thin light of my guide’s torch we are enshrouded in darkness and the sound of the forest. It is five in the morning and I can already feel the sweat trickling down my back. The gravel crunches under my feet and around us I can hear the sound of the crickets rubbing their legs together to cool themselves. I point this out to my excellent guide and in reply he gives me a quick run down of the best way to eat crickets, which apparently is quite normal in Cambodia.
And then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the temple of Angkor Wat rises before me. I can barely make out its silhouette in the darkness. We ascend the steep steps to the top level of the temple, from where you have a breath taking view of the sun rising in the east. At this time of morning it is just us up here – us and a small lizard clinging to the outer wall, eyeing us suspiciously. Gradually the light increases to reveal the imposing magnitude of Angkor Wat and I become aware of just how privileged I am to have the chance to visit this magnificent place.
At 6h30 in the morning I meet my guide and we set off in what is the Cambodian version of a Tuktuk for the south gate of Angkor Thom.
Our first stop is the celestial palace of Bophoun, which used to be the state temple of King Udayadityavarman. The structure is built on three levels, which symbolise hell, earth and heaven. The walls of the celestial palace are covered with relief images of Angkor’s history. In fact, there does not seem to be any flat surface on the walls of the temple.
There are towers at the corners of the temple on each of the three levels. Every tower has four faces carved out of stone, which face the four cardinal points of the compass. To save weight, the towers are hollow inside. It is not know, if the faces were carved to resemble the king who commissioned the temple or the Buddah to which the temple is dedicated. The temple took 21 years to complete, although it is not known how many people worked on the temple. Upon completion, only the king and two of his monks were allowed to enter the sanctuary of the temple, where they allegedly received the divine inspiration for the king to share with his people.
The royal palace is just slightly further down the road. Unfortunately, it is not as well preserved at the temple. That is because the entire structure of the temple is built of stone, whereas the edifices with the king’s private chambers were built out of mahogany wood. When the Siamese invaded the kingdom of the Khmer, they raised the capital to the ground and set fire to the palace. The centre piece of the roaly palace is a temple that predates the one of Bayan, it is a Hindu temple.
If you are visiting the area, I would really recommend making an early start. By the time we leave the temple area at around 08h50, the roads are already starting to get clogged up with tourist busses, Tuktuks and elephants.