Western Baray and West Mebon

Sixteen Thousand Olympic-Size Swimming Pools in Half a Day

The Chinese are quick to brag that their Great Wall is the only man-made monument that can be seen from space. That may be true today, but at the height of Khmer splendor two gargantuan man-made lakes–the West and East Barays–stood on either side of Angkor's heart, perfectly rectangular and perfectly aligned to the compass. If ancient astronauts were looking, they surely marveled at Angkor Asia's Divine Puzzle as much as we do today–still a mind-boggling vista despite the fact that over three quarters of its majestic expanse is now hidden in overgrowth.

This is a half-day trip so you can begin in the morning or afternoon, or begin/end at the airport, depending on your schedule. Take a short drive to the far corner of the West Baray, one of two astounding lakes engineered by Angkor's master builders. This body of water is equivalent in volume to sixteen thousand Olympic-sized swimming pools. Popularly thought to be reservoirs for a gigantic irrigation system (as even your guide will tell you), no evidence of such a system has been found despite extensive archeological surveys. Pre-Angkor temples, abandoned early on by the Khmer and now engulfed by the gigantic walls of the West Baray, suggest that their design was meant to keep out floods from the nearby Tonle Sap. Some scholars believe that the twin Barays were probably sacred models of the celestial Sea of Milk from which life itself was churned by the union of gods and demons, a scene famously depicted in Angkor Wat's stone galleries.

Start the afternoon with a simple, Khmer-style picnic on the banks of the only portion of the Baray that remains filled with water. Munch on fresh-roasted chicken and sticky rice as you marvel at the calm water, a giant reflecting pool for the dome of sky. Nearby, Cambodian families relax under umbrellas, their children playing at the water's edge. Even monks come to take a dip and cool down from the mid-day heat. Grab an inner-tube and join them!

After lunch, drive along the top of the Baray's wall and stop briefly at the ruins of Amarintapura, swallowed by the towering embankment (this is the only temple at Angkor where you will start at the top and work your way down). The ruins are in sad disrepair and much of the temple is buried, but a gigantic "stone yoni" hints at the size of the phallic linga that once stood atop the temple's upper chapel.

Another few kilometers will bring you to the center of the Baray's south wall where an American engineering effort created a water gate to provide irrigation to the countryside. Board a boat and chug off for a 20 minute ride to the very center of the ancient lake, to a sacred island shrine at the very center of the cosmos. The West Mebon is a haunting, windswept place that would have been a holy pilgrimage for kings and viewed from afar by commoners. A stupendous fragment of a colossal, multi-armed reclining Vishnu statue was unearthed from the lotus ponds here. Now in the National Museum in Phnom Penh, it must have originally been the singular golden vision in all of bejeweled Angkor. Who destroyed it and whether any additional portions remain to be unearthed is one of the Baray's puzzles. And if such an artistic and sacred achievement resided in the West Mebon, what vision of paradise once existed at its sister temple in the East Baray? Perhaps you will pose these and other cosmic questions to the hermit fortune teller who dwells here amidst the ruins.

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Includes: personal guide, private car and driver, picnic lunch, boat cruise

Where We Shine: Purple Dragon highlights unique and offbeat insights to Cambodian life that most tourists overlook. We use only LGBT- friendly hotels, so couples never suffer embarrassing moments. Your tour is private, which gives you maximum flexibility and the undivided attention of our local guides. Our guests often tell us that the highlight of their holiday was the charming company of our trained guides and their superlative insights into Cambodian culture.