Post 10 of the South East Asian Adventure series. View the rest of the series here.
With Angkor Wat and Pub Street done and dusted, our second full day in Siem Reap was our chance to venture outside the standard tourist circuit and see what lay beyond the city limits. We weren’t disappointed. Despite spending hours on end in the back of a tuk-tuk – or perhaps more accurately, because of it – today was one of the most enchanting and eye-opening days of our trip.
Like the day before, we hired a tuk-tuk driver for the entire day but for $10 more to account for the extra mileage. But our driver gave us so much more than just getting us from A to B. On the way to the first out-of-town temple I’d requested to visit – Banteay Srei – he stopped at one of a row of roadside stalls where women were making nuggets of palm sugar. He explained that these women make a number of products from the surrounding palm trees, including not just palm sugar products but also baskets weaved from the leaves. Rather than being pressured into buying something, we were given a nugget of palm sugar to try – it tasted just like Scottish tablet!
Banteay Srei is a good distance out of Siem Reap, but I’d argue that it’s worth the journey. It’s small and made up of ruins, but special in a number of ways. First, whereas the Angkor temples are built from brown, cream and grey stone, Banteay Srei is built from pink-orange stone. This alone is a good reason to go and see it.
Second, the carvings are in a different style to those of the more prominent temples and generally much more intricate. I was amazed at how minutely detailed and well-preserved the patterns and figures were, and the human-animal hybrid statues were deeply intriguing.
Third, the temple has a wonderful visitor centre with a café and a free museum that explains the history behind all of Cambodia’s ancient temples and the stylistic differences between them. We found it fascinating and were only too happy to write that in the guest book when asked.
Fourth, the temple’s natural setting is an attraction in itself. Gone are the large, dull stretches of patchy parkland present at the Angkor temple complex. Instead, a walk past the visitor centre and around the temple ruins takes you through lush forest and past large, water-logged fields. The water was low when we were there, but we saw that boat trips are available when the water is high enough. The only downside of walking this route was having to say no to the local children that followed us asking for candy.
The journey from Banteay Srei to Beng Melea was long – about two hours. But not for one moment was I bored. The scenes of rural Cambodia constantly unfolding around us were endlessly captivating, whether it was lush green valleys or thatched houses on stilts. Some young children cycled past us in school uniforms, while others waved and shouted excitedly from the roadside. Some people worked in the fields, scything crops by hand, while others scrubbed clothes in wash tubs. Bony white cows roamed freely. It felt like we were seeing how many Cambodians genuinely live their lives, free from the influence of tourism.
These fascinating and at times delightful sights, paired with the breezy pleasure of riding in a tuk-tuk (the absolute best remedy to Cambodia’s stifling humidity), meant we were happy to continue travelling down those dirt roads for hours. Unfortunately, I was enjoying the ride so much that I neglected to notice that my forearm – hanging just outside of the tuk-tuk’s shade – was getting seriously sunburnt!
Our driver dropped us off at a humble roadside restaurant for lunch, where we ate traditional curries, before driving us the few extra miles to the entrance of Beng Melea. This is the temple where they filmed scenes from the first Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie, and you can see why. Grand, crumbling, and almost overwhelmed by roots, branches and vines, it’s like a much larger and more overgrown Ta Prohm.
Being more out of the way than the Angkor temples, it appears that less work has been done here to preserve and repair Beng Melea – and it’s better for it. Exploring the ruins feels like a real adventure, especially if you manage to find your way off the wooden walkways and inside the temple walls. We managed this only because one of the female stewards persuaded us to follow her inside (prior to requesting a tip). It’s pretty much impossible to put how epic this place is into words.
Rain and sticky rice
On the long journey back to Siem Reap, an intense rainstorm began. Our driver considerately stopped to fasten a cover onto our tuk-tuk compartment, only to remove it again when the rain stopped, and put it on again when the rain restarted! This stopping and starting lengthened the journey considerably, but watching how the local people dealt with the rain provided new insights. While the women rushed to bring their chores inside, and stall holders to cover their wares with plastic, many of the children ran around and screamed in delight, waving and calling to us with just as much vigour as before.
The rain stopped long enough for us to make one last roadside stop, this time at one of the many stalls selling sticky rice cooked in bamboo. Again, our driver explained how it was made and offered us some to try. When we decided not to buy any, he bought us some anyway.
The final supper
It was dark when we finally got back into town. After eating several Khmer curries we were hankering after Western comfort food, so found a place recommended on TripAdvisor for its pizzas called Belmiro’s Pizzas and Subs. We went and had a great time, drinking cheap beer and eating a giant pizza plus a plate of chips, cheese and gravy that they called poutine (it wasn’t)!
Unfortunately, that’s when things started to go downhill.
Back at the hotel, I was struggling to find a position in bed where my sunburnt forearm wasn’t in severe pain. Then, the nausea set in. I was up all night being sick. Thankfully, Steve stepped up to the plate and proved himself a hero boyfriend: cancelling the trip we’d booked to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, going out to buy medicine and after-sun, and asking the front desk if we could stay in our room all morning, despite being only a little less ill than I was. The greatest dilemma then was whether to risk taking our pre-booked flight to Singapore today, or to postpone it until tomorrow.
We decided to risk it, and at 1pm we left the safety of our room to travel to the airport. And let me tell you, tuk-tuk rides are not nearly as fun when you feel like you could puke at any second. But to my great relief I managed to weakly stagger through bag check-in and security before finally throwing up in Duty Free – into a plastic bag that Steve miraculously whipped out just in time. Absolutely dreadful at the time, quite funny in retrospect! The plane journey that passed, thankfully, without incident.
So our time in Cambodia didn’t end as it should have, and it’s annoying that I can’t say for certain what made me sick. But if I needed to go through that to experience the good things, then it was 100% worth it.
Siem Reap and its surrounds are spectacular, and I’ll never forget the day we travelled through rural Cambodia in a tuk-tuk for hours on end. If you go, I implore you to do the same.
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2016. All rights reserved.