The following morning we headed out again at 7am to Kbal Spean, an hour’s drive away from Siem Reap, the town nearest to Angkor. The main reason I wanted to take my parents to Kbal Spean wasn’t so much to see the ancient monuments there, but more for the drive through the Cambodian countryside.
[Angkor Wat Guide Part 1 : Part 2] Siem Reap is undergoing rapid development with the increasing popularity of the temples amongst Westerners and Asians alike – since there has been relative political stability in Cambodia since 1998, there has been a huge amount of investment in this previously sleepy backwater town.The result is row upon row of characterless glass and brick 5 star hotels which make you feel like you could be anywhere.
By contrast, passing through the small villages and seeing the hand-built houses and shacks along the mud road with people going about their day is simply fascinating – we must have looked pretty silly gawping out of the minivan window. But outside of Siem Reap, you can see a little of the rural side of Cambodia, people living off the land and living very ingeniously because they have to make do with whatever they have to hand. Water buffalo wallow in mudpools and motorbikes piled high with sacks of produce putter by, all the while surrounded by the dark green tropical foliage.
Kbal Spean is a series of carvings worked into the very stone of a river. It’s considered one of the more minor sights but is quite unique. It requires about an hour’s walk up through the forest to reach the river, with some steep bits to step up with the aid of helpfully placed stairs. The first carving you see is the same face that appears on the Bayon – Jayavaraman VII smiling out at you from the riverbank itself. It’s a bit of a hunt after that to see the others, and there is a guide stationed up here to help visitors find the frog statue, the crocodile carving, the apsaras (dancers), the Bramha and Vishnu figures and also the thousand lingi – phallic symbols carved into the riverbed for the water to pass over. There is also a large square spout motif, or quincunx, that can be seen under the water too that echoes the 3D versions of the same design to be found in some of Angkor’s temples – it represents the “female principle” according to my guide book. The setting of Kbal Spean is quite beautiful, with a small, picturesque waterfall sending the water from the lingi down over the quincunx. If you can hack the walk it makes an excellent contrast to the temples. It’s also important to get here as early as you can, because other groups of tourists begin arriving from 9am onwards – and there’s not really much room for everyone to see the carvings properly if there’s more than 10 of you up there at any one time.
Coming back from Kbal Spean, we stopped off at the last temple on our itinerary, Banteay Srei, which is widely regarded as the most unabashedly pretty temple in all of Angkor. It’s built of a rose colour stone rather than the dark grey granite that characterises most of the other temples and it’s incredibly well preserved – there are literally thousands of exquisitely carved figures covering almost every inch of the temple’s quite modest proportions. There were six of us in our group and I think by this point everyone was a bit “templed out” – it’s a lot to take in over a day and a half. After a wander round the edge of Banteay Srei, we retired to the minivan and headed for the hotel as the sun began to heat up again.
On my first visit to Angkor Wat, I visited several other of the smaller temples, which benefit from having few if any other visitors. It depends on your capacity for looking at ancient ruins – there is such an embarrassment of riches here that it’s easy to become blase very quickly. I think some people suffer guilt about not seeing enough when they go to places like this, as if there’s a definitive checklist that they have to get through. I’d say to simply take it easy, get to the big temples early to beat the crowds, and spend some time reading your guidebook to get an idea of the other temples that you might want to visit if you get captivated by Angkor.