I invited my roommates to share a day trip with me. Tim brought us in his car to Phnom Kulen National Park where the movie “Laura Croft: Tomb Raider” was shot.
The best thing about living in a hostel is that you meet new people. One can always share their rides with their hostel mates to save some money. That was exactly what I did — I invited my hostel mates to share my day trip to Beng Mealea, Phnom Kulen National Park, and supposedly, Banteay Srei.
Due to the fun times, we had the night before in Pub Street, we did not wake up early enough to be able to complete the whole day trip to include Banteay Srei. Bad choice, but still fun. Tim picked us up at about 10-ish in the morning at our hostel and we hastily jumped into his car.
As usual, Tim was smiling. “Had fun at Pub Street?”, asked Tim.
“Ay? Yeah, we did. Hahaha… I guess you are used to guests delaying their trips due to hangovers,” I answered.
Tim offered each of us a bottle of water and explained that it is was rather common especially among young travellers like myself. I chuckled, feeling a little embarrassed with my bad discipline.
Phnom Kulen National Park
We all fell asleep on the way to Phnom Kulen National Park as Tim advised it takes about one hour 40 minutes to reach the park and another 15 minutes to reach the temple up in the mountain. I like asking questions about what is the meaning of the name of the place. So, Tim answered that Phnom Kulen means “Mountains of Lychees” and during the Angkorian era, Phnom Kulen was known as Mahendraparvata (The Mountain of Great Indra).
This National Park is still quite off the beaten track (compared to Angkor Wat) for travellers as it is far from town. Additionally, the entrance fee was fairly high at 20 USD. All of us seems to be awake when the car stopped at the entrance of Phnom Kulen National Park.
The first 10 to 15 minutes of the car ride up the mountain, the surroundings looked dried out. Looks like draught to me. I wondered how the waterfall will be like later.
“Alright, we are here. Let’s visit the temple grounds now, then 1,000 lingas, and the last part we can all relax at the Tomb Raider Waterfall”, said Tim. We all went down to be welcomed by a flight of stairs, and I thought to myself that this would be a really difficult walk. I looked at my hostel mates and we all had the same face — the face of disbelief.
“It’s going to be worth it! Let’s go!” said Hye Rin, my hostel mate who is now a friend of mine.
As we dragged our feet up the stairs, we were tempted to donate some Cambodian Riel to the local children that seem to have so little. Tim advised us to not donate to anyone because it would only invite more of them to come after us. We understood that Tim was right about that and learned to ignore them.
We joked and enjoyed the surroundings. Soon enough, we reached the temple bottom of Preah Ang Thom, and became highly-intrigued by the stories that Tim told us.
“The first capital of Khmer empire was built by King Jayavaman 2, the founder of the Khmer empire, after his return from Java to Cambodia in the year 790. He then declared the independence from Java, which at that time was under the reign of Sailendras,”King of Mountains”. King Jayaman 2 built temples in Phnom Kulen in the year 802, in the 9th century to celebrate the independence. He built 37 temples on Phnom Kulen, but some temples were ruined because of the wars. So, we still see few temple over here,” Tim explained.
Yes, another piece of information that I have missed out in my years of studying South East Asian history. Standing at the bottom of another flight of stairs, at least this time, I am highly motivated. Tim ushered us up the stairs to see a large sleeping Buddha that was built in the 16th century. From the top, we could also see the rest of Phnom Kulen’s beauty and vast area.
Just about 15 minutes away from the Phnom Kulen National Park, lies a less visited ancient ruin from the Angkorian era. Beng Mealea was built as a Hindu temple but if you look closely at its motifs, you will find traces of Buddhism as well.
The history of the temple remains a mystery till today. Archaeologists assume that the temple was built in the 12th century as its architectural style are similar to Angkor Wat. I have yet to visit Angkor Wat on this trip but solely based on the intricacy of the carvings in Beng Mealea, I knew I would be entirely smitten when I visit Angkor Wat tomorrow.
There were no signs to go to Beng Mealea or how the temple grounds should be explored. If Tim did not guide us, we would have to spend all day just to look for an entrance to enter the ruin buildings. We climbed on the ruins led by Tim and quickly found ourselves to be in the middle of the ruined temple walls.
We spent about an hour discussing and imagining how grandiose this temple could have been back in the 12th century. This ancient ruin had no other visitors other than us as it was getting late. Thus, I reckon the best time to visit this temple is after 4 pm if you would like to have some peace and tranquillity. One of the best places in Siem Reap to simply let your imagination flow.
As we were walking back to the car, I wanted to wander off to near where the trees were for a photo, but Tim stopped me. The always smiling Tim became serious. He said that we should not wander off the beaten track in Beng Mealea as there could still be landmines hidden underground. Countries like Germany and Japan have sent their assistance to remove most of the landmines in Cambodia but they are also expecting another five million landmines left to be found. I guess not all off the beaten tracks are amazing. One wrong step and I could have blown myself and my friends up.
It was such a pity that we had to miss visiting Banteay Srei as it was late and the journey there would have taken at least an hour. I was rather upset about not going to Banteay Srei as Tim had told me several times that he thinks Banteay Srei is the most beautiful temple in Siem Reap. Yes, he did mean that it was way nicer than Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.
According to Tim, Banteay Srei refers to the Citadel of Women, built in 967 AD. It may be small in size, but it is the most decorated and well-preserved temples in Siem Reap. There are also plenty of other reviews by visitors that states the place is just as amazing as Tim has advised.
Other than visiting this Citadel of Women, Tim mentioned that visitors should visit the Landmine Museum located nearby. The Landmine Museum educates visitors about the importance of removing landmines and the impacts that it has caused Cambodia. They work together with other NGOs to provide education to about 24 at-risk Khmer children.
“Isn’t it great? Now, I have a great reason to return to Siem Reap to revisit these missed out sites,” I sheepishly said to Tim after the explanation.
“Correct. If anyone tells you that there is nothing much to do in Siem Reap, they are not wrong, but they just don’t know much about the Kingdom of Wonders,” said Tim with a smile, my kind-hearted, honest, and self-studied tuk-tuk driver cum guide.
As written on Tourism Cambodia’s website:
Banteay Srey closes at 5:00PM and Kbal Spean at 3:00PM. Always carry your ticket. It will be checked upon each park entry and at major temples. There is a significant fine for not possessing a valid ticket inside the park. A regular admission ticket is not required to visit Phnom Kulen, Koh Ker or Beng Melea, but there is a separate entrance fee of $20, $10 and $5, respectively.
Click here to skip to Part 4 of the story where it is all about the majestic Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. (Coming soon)