December 20, 2011
On the way to Koh Ker, our driver Raksmey suddenly asked us, “Why do you want to go to Koh Ker?”
We had been on the road for more than two hours, passing by small villages and rice paddies for the initial hour and a half until the paved road turned into a dirt track – nothing but trees since. Raksmey’s voice broke a long silence in the car and put into words the same question we all had in our minds.
“We wanted to visit some place off the beaten path,” I tried to speak for the group.
It was my idea to put Koh Ker, a capital of the Khmer capital from 928 AD to 944 AD, on our itinerary. I was not sure if it was wise because there are still many temples near Siem Reap that we had yet to explore, a remote site like Koh Ker might provide some diversity to what we had seen thus far.
“This is only my second time to Koh Ker. The first time was seven years ago with my mother.” Raksmey’s voice revealed a slight hint of excitement, “None of my clients have ever asked to travel there.”
Koh Ker’s ticketing booth was a little unusual – a family of three was watching TV in a wooden shack next to a gate. A man in plain clothes came over to our car and asked for $10 USD each for admission. He had no official proof although he did possess the tickets, so we handed over $40. Another twenty minutes of driving later we arrived at Prasat Thom, the largest temple complex at Koh Ker.
There were no other visitors; besides the few kids at the parking, the only people we saw were a few middle-aged and elderly women praying at one of the few standing temples. Through Raksmey, we understood that one of the elder lady’s son had gone missing.
Far from the sleep deprived state he was in over the past few days, Koh Ker brought a change to Raksmey’s regular routine. There was a little more hop in his step as he led us along the surprisingly well-tended path to the seven-story sandstone pyramid that showed up on all my google searches on Koh Ker.
The Prasat Thom pyramid has a strong resemblance to Chichen Itza’s El Castillo. With none of its Mexican counterpart’s fame, I personally find the neglected and deserted Prasat Thom to be more mesmerizing. Just as I begin taking photos of the pyramid, Raksmey took me by surprise with his request – he too wanted to have a photo taken.
Since 2007, the authority had cleared up the vegetation across the site and climbing up the pyramid was banned. We understood the necessity to protect both the structure and the visitors, but not able to climb the pyramid was nonetheless disappointing.
The only eatery around was opened by a policeman. The amok pork and stir-fried deer were nothing to shout home about, but to have a cop brought the dishes was a first for me.
Without any concise objective, we set out to see as much of Koh Ker as possible within two hours. The short-lived capital’s 42 temples are quite densely packed – each is no more than a drive of a minute or two from the last one. While most of them has been reduced to a pile of rubble, the possibility of climbing atop desolate ruins allowed us to become more than spectators for once. We had to thead carefully though; the area was heavy mined and Cambodian Mine Action Centre’s (CMAC) demining effort is still continuing at the moment.
Of the half a dozen or so temples we had time for, Prasat Bram was by far the most remarkable. It was like Ta Prohm on steroid – the tree roots were more untamed and the temples more neglected. Best of all, nobody else was in sight and there were no fences that restricted us from walking to wherever we liked.
For long day trip time is always in short supply. In order to visit Beng Mealea we had to get moving at 15:40, leaving behind many other temples in Koh Ker unexplored.
Our prospect of seeing Beng Mealea was getting dimmer by the minute. Arrived at 16:45, the forest in front of us looked all the more forsaken under the grayish sky.
Without a word, Raksmey led us on a mad dash to the ruins. Unlike any we had seen before, Beng Mealea was truly in a state of disrepair – a dilapidated pile of sandstone within minimal reconstruction or maintenance. There was no trail – we climbed atop the fallen columns and other chunks of sandstone and then walked along the top surface of the walls.
“Be careful – every year a few people misstep and fall to their deaths here,” Raksmey said with a slight chuckle while we were talking a breather. Not exactly comforting words, especially for our birthday girl Becky, who was wearing a pair of sandals and had some trouble keeping up.
“So how do people who are less fit visit Beng Mealea? Are they discouraged to come?” I asked, to which his reply was, ”Nooo… there is a regular trail. But we saved the admission fee by going this way. And it is much more interesting, don’t you think?”
Well it certainly was. Becky grudgingly agreed even though her flimsy sandals were as discomforting as ever and there was nowhere to go but down.
Our five day breakdown:
- Dec 16 – Took train to Guangzhou after work; slept at hotel near airport. Special thanks to Becky’s uncle who picked us up at the train station.
- Dec 17 – Woke up at 5 am. Becky’s uncle drove us to the airport. Flew with China Southern and arrived in Siem Reap at 10 am, where we met up with our hired driver Raksmey. Spent the afternoon in Kampong Phluk, a floating village on the Tonlé Sap.
- Dec 18 – Woke up at 4:30 am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Followed the Small Circuit route. Watched sunset at Phnom Bakheng.
- Dec 19 – Woke up at 4:30 am again – this time to Srah Srang. Rest of the morning we covered a few temples on the Grand Circuit. Revisited Angkor Wat in the afternoon.
- Dec 20 – Day trip to Koh Ker and Beng Mealea.
- Dec 21 – Boarded 9 am plane back to Hong Kong via Bangkok.
Some random notes:
- Air fare was $4,740 HKD per, which was more expensive than we initially planned for.
- Hired driver cost $80 USD plus tip per person.
- 5 nights of hotel cost $940 HKD per.
- Cambodia Entry Visa – $25 USD
- $1 USD = 4,000 Cambodian riels. Everyone accepts USD and the Cambodian riels are treated as cents and quarters.
- My favorite temples: Prasat Bayon, Preah Khan, Prasat Bram (Koh Ker), Prasat Thom (Koh Ker) and Beng Mealea