So what do you do after one whole day of seeing temples in Siem Reap? See more temples on another day! One writer described temples in Seam Reap as something like a Chinese lauriat…they don’t stop coming even after you’ve had enough.
This time we took the “big circuit” tour, after we took the short one a couple of days prior. This took us through the outer ring of temples in Angkor. The big circuit would normally start at Angkor Wat and the Bayon, but since we had been there before, we bypassed them and went to the first temple north of the walls of Angkor Thom, the Preah Kahn (photos above and below). Another single level temple, the Preah Khan looks in a way quite similar to Ta Prohm which we visited before, save for the tree roots crawling on temple walls. But I’m no temple connoisseur, so I’m sure there’s plenty of unique things here for a trained archeological eye. And the good thing is unlike Ta Prohm, this one doesn’t get as crowded.
Next up is Neak Pean, the temple in the middle of a man-made lake. Unique among the temples of Angkor, the Neak Pean does not show so much vertical structures, and instead features pools surrounding a single central tower. It is said that it was made so that people with illness can get cured by bathing on its pools. Though not as structurally prominent as the other temples in Angkor, it makes up for it with the beauty of its surroundings, including the long, scenic walk across the lake to the island.
Going further along, we reach Ta Som. Similar in construction to Ta Prohm and Preah Kahn, but smaller, this temple is even more isolated and draws much less visitors. Looking at it from the map, this is the farthest point from central Siem Reap in the Big Circuit. Diminutive compared to its neighbors but nevertheless rich in bas relief, the Ta Som’s highlight is a tree whose roots have embraced the eastern gate.
Heading back down to the south, the route passes by the East Baray, the dried up eastern reservoir of ancient Angkor. In the middle of the East Baray is the East Mebon. By now the Baray is completely covered by vegetation and a road even runs across its bed, but back when it still had water, the East Mebon was a man-made temple-island, similar to Neak Pean but larger in scale.
Further south of East Mebon is Pre Rup. Almost similar in construction to the East Mebon, the Pre Rup appears red, as both it and the East Mebon were constructed of Laterite, unlike the rest of Angkor’s temples like the Angkor Wat, which were made of Sandstone. Both the Pre Rup and the East Mebon were constructed at an earlier period in the Khmer Empire, and predated both the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. You could also see it in the way these two “twin” temples were constructed, as they had much less detail than the younger temples. Laterite is also a softer rock, and was used by Khmer builders before they gained enough proficieny to work on the harder Sandstone.
The last stop is Beantey Kdei, the next door neighbor of Ta Prohm. Almost a look-a-like of the latter, the Beantey Kdie was also deliberately left in a state of “semi-ruin”, although there’s no significant vegetation growing on it. What it does have however are towers held together by rope. And another thing to note is that while tourists generally consider the temples around Siem Reap as “attractions”, to Cambodian Buddhists they are active, functioning houses of prayer, as shown on a photo below.
Though not officially part of the Big Circuit, we added Pnohm Bakheng to our itinerary that day. Sitting on the top of a hill, the highest point in the surroundings of Siem Reap, this temple is a popular destination during the sunset hours. Though not as visually grand as the other temples of Angkor, it nevertheless holds a unique title – it is said to be the very first temple there, and predated all the other temples in the area. The walk to the top of the hill is a good exercise, but it’s also possible to ride an elephant to the top for a bit more thrill. The place though gets a very heavy influx of visitors, and due to its more compact size, you could feel more constricted there than even in Angkor Wat
Photos taken March 2016.