A Morning Ride to Beng Melea
After an early breakfast you drive deep into the countryside through rice paddies and rustic villages, beyond Phnom Kulen and Kbal Spean mountains to the first remarkable stop foorthe day. Beng Melea ("lotus pond" in Khmer) is 40km east of Angkor Wat and predates Angkor Wat. Even though it was constructed in the 12th century, large portions are almost intact, though portions have toppled into heaps of massive stone blocks. You can navigate through the entire complex on a system of elevated walkways that traverse massive collapsed walls. These ramps were originally constructed by a French film crew that shot scenes for a motion picture here a decade ago. Additional stairways and ramps have been added since then to make it easier to see parts of the complex that would be difficult to get to otherwise.
Who built Beng Melea remains a mystery. There are no statues, inscriptions or bas reliefs celebrating its creator. Yet, a city-temple complex of this scale had to have been financed and designed by someone of great stature.
To 19th century French archaeologists, Beng Melea stood out among many other major examples of Khmer architecture. Today, it is a favorite place of pilgrimage for some Japanese visitors since the site was depicted in scenes from a popular comic book series.
You will have lunch nearby. Or you can arrange for a picnic lunch in advance with your guide. This area is fairly emote so do not expect restaurants with table linens nearby.
Did Aliens Build It?
Another hour away is Koh Ker, the only temple in the Khmer Empire that was built in the shape of a pyramid--probably by the same space aliens who created strikingly-similar temples in Mesoamerica, India and Indonesia.
One thing you will notice immediately when you enter the area is that the main pyramid complex is surrounded by dozens of smaller temples of different sizes and designs. Some of these are still undergoing the painstaking search and removal of landmines left by the Khmer Rouge. Most of the landmines were originally found and removed by local cows. All of these smaller temples have been picked over by local people over the last century as it was thought that gold and jewels and jewels were buried in their sanctuaries. Many of the statuary was pilfered long ago except for one linga that is so massive that it cannot be moved.
The second thing you will notice is that there will probably be few other visitors, if any. Mere tourists who spend just two days at Angkor Wat never make time to see this magnificent site. There was no modern road to get here until about a decade ago. Before that, a helicopter was the only option.
About 100 km from Angkor Wat, Koh Ker was briefly the capital of the Khmer Empire in the 10th century and built by King Jayavarman IV. So far 96 temples have been identified here. As many as 200 more temple sites are still inaccessible. Jayavarman IV was an obscure figure in Khmer history and it not certain whether he was a userper to the throne or ascended by inheritance. Angkor Wat was already the capital of the empire when construction began here in 928. French explorers discovered the site in the late 1880s. Very little restoration has been done here.
If you are trafeling on a day tour from Siem Reap you return late in the afternoon. If you are joining us on an overnight trip you continue to the foot of the mountain on which the Preah Vihear temple complex is built to spend the night at a lovely boutique hotel with a contemporary decor and conveniences, a swimming pool, bar and restaurant.
After breakfast at your hotel you will switch to a four wheel drive vehicle driven by an experienced local driver to navigate the winding road to the top . You may see soldiers as you approach the summit. Preah Vihear sits almost on the border of Thailand and territorial disputes over the temple complex have erupted into shooting wars on and off as recently as 2008. However, the United Nations has several times decided that Preah Vihear is indeed in Cambodia.
Preah Vihear sits on the rocky edge of a steep cliff that seems to preside over the vast Cambodian plain below. Work began in the 9th century on the first of the temples dedicated to Shiva. It took three hundred years for all of the structures to be completed. Many generations of Khmer god-kings made their contribution to what was intended to be the empire's ultimate Hindu place of worship. Consequently practically every style of Khmer architectural is represented there.
The temple complex is not only a cultural treasure but a Unesco World Heritage Site. Very large parts of the "ruins" remain intact. You can walk through the only vaulted colonnade that has ever been found in a Khmer structure, and explore temples that are still considered sanctuaries today. You will probably see no more than a dozen other foreign visitors. Buses cannot make the trip the mountain, and it is so far away that visitors have to go to considerable effort to see what many have described as the most impressive of all of the temples they have seen in Angkor Wat.
Return to Siem Reap on the afternoon. If you are up to it you can make an additional stop to see something unusual on the way, and maybe even reward yourself with a cold Angkor Beer to enjoy on the drive.