A temple all to ourselves
Tired of the crowds of Angkor Wat, Francisca Kellett follows in the footsteps if Indiana Jones to explore the little-known ruins of Cambodia – and finds them well worth a bone-crunching drive or two.
In a country famous for its appalling roads, the one to Preah Vihear must be its worst. Barely wide enough for our 4x4, it cut into the 500m high cliff face at a vertiginous 45 degree angle. Shoulder-high grass pushed against the windows and rusty skull-and-crossbones signs loomed out (“Danger! Mines!”). This, I thought, clinging white-knuckled to the door handle, had better be worth it.
Our goal was one of Cambodia’s most isolated and dramatic temples, carved into a sandstone plateau in the far north-west of the country. We had spent two days on tortuous roads to get here – two days that proved to be an effective way to leave other tourists behind.
In Cambodia, you quickly adapt to your fellow visitors. You don’t have a choice. More than a million of them flood into Siem Reap each year to see the country’s famous site, Angkor Wat. There, my boyfriend and I had queued to join the swarm over Angkor’s lofty towers, been pushed aside by a crocodile-line of tour groups below Bayon’s stone heads, and raced through Ta Prohm’s chambers, fleeing the screeching megaphones of Korean tour guides.
We escaped Siem Reap on what they call a temple safari, a promise of a three-day adventure into the wild north-west. Here, we would take in some of the least-visited ruins in the country and camp-out, alone, in their shadows.
We set off in a dusty 4x4 with a guide, Servert, a cook and a driver. Trussed to the roof were three plastic water tanks; the boot bulged with boxes of food, ropes, tarpaulins and tools. It was like being rescued by the A-team – although this squad included a live chicken, clucking quietly in a box in the boot.
As we raced through Siem Reap’s outskirts, gleaming five-star hotels gave way to wooden huts on stilts, and tour buses were replaced by mopeds, swaying under the weight of entire families and baskets of live piglets. The Tarmac roads narrowed and crumbled into red dust, edged by emerald pools where water buffaloes wallowed amid lotus flowers. Mopeds gave way to bicycles, and bicycles to buffalo carts.
After two hours we arrived at Beng Mealea, our first stop. I braced myself for a queue of tour buses, but as we slowed to a halt the road stretched ahead, empty and shimmering hot. A small boy in ragged shorts wobbled past on an adult bicycle. A stray dog dozed outside a roadside café. Finally, no other tourists. We left the car and walked into the forest.
Hidden at the end of a dusty track stood the silent 12th century ruins, their collapsed, mottle grey stones smothered by foliage. Strangler figs snaked over stones and straddled walls, dropping their roots to the ground like thick plaits of hair. Vines wrapped around lintels and traced intricate patterns over carvings of demons and dancers.
Whilst we scrabbled around the ruins, the chaos of the forest pressed together over our heads, blocking out sunlight and dampening sound. We saw just two other people: a pair of guards slumped on some steps sharing a cigarette. It felt like an expensive, deserted, Hollywood set: Indiana Jones or Lara Croft might suddenly leap from a doorway, clutching a relic.
We drove on through the forest, a brief shower patting the dust back on the raised red scar of rod. Houses became smaller and villages farther apart. Children gleamed in the afternoon sun as they fished in the waist-high ponds and stared open-mouthed as we passed.
We saw only one other vehicle; a rusty blue van from the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, bumping over the potholes that seemed to increase with every mile. The signs warning of mines began to multiply, too: skulls and crossbones scattered ominously between the trees. Cambodia has one of the highest incidences of landmines in the world, a legacy of years of civil war, but Servert assured us that 98 per cent of the devices had been removed.
That night, we camped outside the walls of Koh Ker. Three centuries older than Beng Mealea and once capital of the Angkor empire. A hundred temples are hidden in the silver-grey forest, from dark stone structures sheltering giant stone phalluses to large red-brick temples smothered by strangler figs.
Despite first impressions, nowhere was quite deserted. At each site a handful of workers would emerge from the trees and temples, armed with brooms and earnest smiles. The youngest would follow us around, pointing at an engraved column here, a hidden garuda statue there. Servert said we were the first visitors in a week.
The true scale of the site was revealed beyond the leaning structures at our last stop. Behind the rusty-red temples, the forest abruptly opened up to disclose a seven-tiered pyramid, towering above the trees in a field the size of two football pitches. As our tem went to set up camp, we clambered alone up the steep, worn steps and sat looking out over the forest, the light sliding into a dusty pink and a cloud of egrets passing soundlessly overhead.
Dinner was a noisier affair. Arriving at the camp – a fireplace, a couple of tents and a bucket shower just outside the temple walls – we found that our cook had created a feast of ginger chicken, fried fish and spicy soup. The hen that had been boxed up in the boot was nowhere to be seen. We ate under the trees, listening to the background thump of the generator and the blare of Cambodian pop from the cook’s radio.
At 9.30pm sharp our team dispersed into tents, the radio and generator were silenced and a hush fell over the camp. Eerie forest crackles drifted through the thin canvas of our tent, and in the distance a baby cried into the night.
Next day, we spent five bone-crunching hours juddering across rice-paddy plains and through forest villages, before our final cold-sweat climb up to Preah Vihear. And here, after two isolated adventurous days, we saw our first tourists. We hadn’t seen or passed any on the way up. Where had they come from? I was utterly unprepared, and glared resentfully at their Bermuda shorts and baseball caps. My grumblings were halted an hour later, though, when they headed towards the gate and vanished. At 4pm we had the ruins to ourselves.
The temple climbed up over a series of avenues, stone steps and gopuras (entrance pavilions), which followed to the very top where we sat, cross-legged, on the edge of the plateau. With the hot stones of the temple behind us and the countryside rolling out below, we watched the sun set in a milky, tropical haze. It felt as though we could see the curve of the planet.
That night, after another feast below the ruins, we climbed, giggling, back up with a torch. It felt brave and audacious and when we reached the first temple I dared my boyfriend to turn off his light. As we stood beneath the dark, silent stones – still radiating warmth from the day’s sun – it felt suddenly menacing. Pinpricks of starlight shone between the looming ruins and the centuries-old stones seemed to weigh down around us. We clambered back down to the reassuring light of the camp.
Next morning, the quiet was broken as a small trickle of tourists arrived and, by the time we had broken camp, two dozen or so were straggling up to the top. Where on earth had they come from now? Nonplussed, we walked past them to the main entrance and, from this new, low vantage point, saw what was bringing them in. On the far side of the plateau was a gleaming, beautifully laid three-lane highway. This, Servert explained, was the road on the Thai side of the border. Half a dozen air-conditioned buses arrived every day, dropping off their charges and whisked them back to the comfortable hotels on the Thai side before sundown.
As we clambered back into our dusty 4x4, I braced myself for the wrecked roads, landmine warnings and empty plains on the Cambodian side. I preferred it our way.
If you are looking to experience this unique adventure for yourself, click here for more info.