Banteay Srei Temple
Continued from here
The plan was to see some of the farther-out temples today, and to reserve the Big One, Angkor Wat, for tomorrow. So, early in the morning, after equipping ourselves with a generous supply of 10 baguettes (yesterday's 2 baguettes were pitifully inadequate), we departed for Banteay Srei, a temple about 20 km north of Siem Reap. It was a lovely drive through very scenic, although poor, Cambodian countryside. On either side of the road were cashew, mango and banana trees, many of them laden with early-season fruit. Most of the village homes were made of wood, and were atop stilts, with bicycles, farm equipment, and cattle kept in the area underneath. In spite of the very evident poverty (there were no power lines in sight, and apparently many of these villages lack electricity) everything was very clean.
We arrived at Banteay Srei at around 6.30 am, just in time to see the early-morning light bathe the pink sandstone of this temple in a lovely, glowing color.
Aside: a few basic facts about Banteay Srei
This temple was built earlier than most of the others, and had fallen largely to ruin, ravaged both by the passage of time and during the Pol Pot regime. During the French time here, some of their leading archaeologists spent a lot of time and effort restoring it. Andre Malraux earned some notoriety by helping himself to several of the apsara statues, which he tried to sell to "fund" his research. He was caught almost immediately, but he seems to have successfully salvaged his reputation as a serious scholar. I had never heard of this misdeed of his, so perhaps the French have managed by and large to keep this sorry episode under wraps. Sarng, however, was quite pleased to talk about it. It might be my imagination, but it seemed to me that there was a touch of reluctance, or a lack of enthusiasm, whenever Sarng mentioned the renovation efforts by the French.
Sarng told us that "Banteay" means citadel, and that "Srei" means woman (somewhat similar to our Sanskrit Sree), so Banteay Srei means Citadel of (or for) Women. This is one temple which was not built on the orders of a king, but, rather, by one of his counselers. The city surrounding Banteay Srei was called (as painstakingly enunciated by Sarng) Eesh-vaarra-poorra. Ishvarapura.
This was a lovely little temple, with really exquisite carvings, sharply etched and with incredible details. Many tales from Hindu mythology were depicted, including those of Narasimha and Hiranyakasipu, the killing of Vali, Krishna's slaying of Kamsa, and Ravana's abduction of Seetha. And this was where our two competing Mythology Experts came into their own.
But first, a small digression about Sarng. In spite of patiently and repeatedly telling us how his name was pronounced (it sounds like Sang) he had been variously by us addressed as: Sang, Song, Chang, Chong, Shank, Swank, Shan (and probably a few more that I am forgetting now). We eventually settled on Sang, and convinced ourselves that we had got it right. The poor man bore it with stoic good humor. He certainly did not bargain on a group like ours, arguing vociferously about everything that we saw and heard.
This temple, with its plethora of mythological carvings, proved to be a particularly fertile ground for our Experts. Their competitive instincts quite undimmed by age and grandmother-hood, each tried to outdo the other, fiercely battling out the finer (and largely irrelevant) points of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Poor Sarng. He sometimes got thoroughly rattled by the barrage of information hurled his way, and, in his confusion, committed some minor faux-pas which was immediately pounced upon by the two grandmas, whereupon a fresh round of arguments would ensue...The rest of us waited resignedly by, dreaming of our next elaneer stop.
Banteay Srei: So many carvings, so many possible interpretations
Everybody loved this temple. Its charm was delicate and subtle, and did not shout out at you with its size and scale. Those of us with cameras had a field day. And right in the middle of snapping away, my camera battery died! I could not believe my stupidity in not charging the battery before setting out on this trip.
This temple had some columns with ancient Cambodian writing on it. Take a look:
We also enjoyed walking around this temple because we had arrived early, and succeeded in beating the crowds to it. As we were getting ready to leave, quite a few visitors were starting to trickle in, including some who told us that they thought this temple was quite a disappointment because it was so small! For sure, it takes all sorts to make this world!
We had a somewhat hazy idea about our next destination. This was probably for the best, for if we knew exactly what we were in for, we might not have attempted it at all (which might not have been such a bad thing). Chewing on our baguettes, consuming unjustifiably large quantities of dried fruits and nuts, we bounced and rattled our way down (up?) a dusty, bumpy country road towards Kbal Spean, a hilltop site known for its carvings and Siva lingams on the Siem Reap river bed. These were believed to date from the 11th and 12th centuries, from the reign of Udayadityavarman II of Bapuon fame.
It was already uncomfortably warm now, and a bit sore after being jostled about, we arrived at a place, barren except for a few food and drinks stalls, hazy in the heat and dust. It was then that we learned that Kbal Spean involved a 2 km uphill climb. Not your easy, Sunday-stroll-in-the-park climb, but with steep, boulder-strewn stretches, challenging to most people. Certainly not something to be undertaken lightly by our four grandparents! But, ever cheery, and ever game, they were raring to give it a shot, so up we went, panting and sweating within a few minutes. It was rough going and Sarng, with infinite patience and care, made sure that everyone was safe and coping well.
We puffed and panted on our way up, pouring sweat, and gulping water every few minutes. There were some extremely strenuous parts when we were practically our on hands and knees, but these were mercifully interspersed with gentler stretches. Silently, steadily, valiantly, determinedly, we made our way up, and we FINALLY reached the top, far exceeding the 45 minutes Sarng told us it would take us.
At the top, we paused for a few minutes to catch our breath, and to look at the waterfall, not much more than a trickle at this time of the year.
We walked around, in a better state to appreciate our lush green surroundings since we had recovered our breath. There were (probably) hundreds of black stone Siva lingams all over the river bed, stubby and flat on the top. Sarng also showed us carvings on the rocks on the side of the river bed, of Siva, Brahma and a reclining Vishnu, all splashed by the water which flowed over or around them. After the fine details of the carvings at Banteay Srei, these seemed a bit crude and not sharply etched, not at all surprising considering their almost constant immersion in the water.
Lingams and Yoni, Kbal Spean. Photo courtesy Raja Ramakrishnan
Riverbed carvings and lingams, Kbal Spean. Photo courtesy Raja Ramakrishnan
We wandered around a bit more, and Sarng showed us some carvings where one of the figures had been stolen quite recently (1993?) and had been replaced by a new, beige-colored carving, which stood out in stark contrast to the black stone around it. Sarng assured us that this stone too would blacken with age. We ran into a large French tourist group, complete with tour-guide bellowing into his microphone. It jarred the effect somewhat.
The new and the old, Kbal Spean. Photo courtesy Raja Ramakrishnan
Ever mindful of our rumbling stomachs, we started our descent. This was brutal on the knees and feet, and we took it really slowly, as any mishap here would have been disastrous. We met several climbers and descenders, all very patient and understanding, as the "path" was very narrow, and there was no hurrying things along. Our supply of water was running a bit low, but we made it in one piece to a shelter hut which was about two-thirds of the way down. The view was spectacular, with lush greenery all around. We gorged on sticky sweet Cambodian banana chips, more dried fruits and nuts, more baguettes (assuring ourselves that we needed the calories after our efforts), and gingerly and painfully made our way down the final stretch.
Spectacular mountain-side views, Kbal Spean. Photo courtesy Raja Ramakrishnan
Was Kbal Spean worth it? Considering how hard the effort was for the older people, and that the sculptures and carvings were not really that extraordinary, I would say, not really. But we did do it, and I'm glad.
Down below, the elaneer vendors could not supply us fast enough. The two young and modern ones in our group had modern thirst-quenchers - Sprite and Pepsi!
After we had cooled off somewhat, we tottered off to the van/car, hungry in spite of our nearly constant snacking. There was a restaurant right around the corner, which looked quite inviting with a lovely, flower-laden garden, and we decided to give it a try. Not a good move. It was clearly a tourist trap kind of a place for those exhausted by the climb up to Kbal Spean. I took it upon myself to order the food for our whole table (our waiter already looked nervous and confused) and I approached the task with an earnest zeal to ensure that all would be properly nourished and refueled for the grueling days ahead. Cries of dismay met the food when it finally arrived. The two plates generously heaped with "morning glory" (spirited debate about what this might be, with the eventual consensus that it was keerai thandu, an apparently much-loathed vegetable) were greeted with derision and turned-up noses. Humph! The other dishes (the ubiquitous veggie fried rice, stir-fried veggies) met with a better reception.
Stuffed, we staggered back to the car and van, all in varying stages of collapse. But nobody wanted the day to end just yet. I must say, ours was one unflagging and high-energy group. The fiery heat, high humidity, stiff bones, aching knees, assorted ailments, none of these stopped us. Sarng (who was probably longing for a nice afternoon nap, like normal people) suggested that we stop at Banteay Samre temple on the way back to Siem Reap. This was agreed to enthusiastically by all of us.
So, under the torrid afternoon sun we bumped along more dusty roads. Once again we noticed the lack of power cables. We passed by many villages, where the people seemed to live as they have for hundreds of years. All was very clean. Some of us napped, some of us chatted. And then, too soon for the nappers, we turned off onto a treeless road which was shimmering in the heat and came to a stop. Passing through the usual line of vendors (who were too sapped by the heat to make anything more than some half-hearted attempts to sell us stuff), we arrived at Banteay Samre.
Aside: A few basic facts about Banteay Samre
Sarng led us to one side of the temple first, to give us a little talk about what to expect in Banteay Samre. It was quite funny, how he suddenly became all stiff and formal at the beginning of these talks. Clearly, he was rattling off a prepared speech. After snapping to attention and clearing his throat a couple of times, he would bow gently (maybe I'm exaggerating here, but only slightly) and start: "Ladies and gentlemen, Banteay Samre". That was usually as far as he carried it, and then he reverted to his normal self, and the questions and arguments would begin, and all was back in familiar territory.
For its isolated setting and relative lack of fame, Banteay Samre was surprisingly well-preserved. Its tower looked like the central one of Angkor Wat that we had seen yesterday. Many of the walls were made of laterite. The carvings on the lintels and pediments were quite intricate and beautiful, depicting stories like Govardhana Giridhara, scenes from the Ramayana, the churning of the milk ocean, and many others. The two grandmas were too enervated by the heat to demonstrate their expertise, and so Sarng was able to take us around with relative speed. We took a peek into the area where prisoners were kept during the Pol Pot years. It was dark, airless and gloomy, and quite depressing.
Banteay Samre: Carving detail. Photo courtesy Raja Ramakrishnan
Pick your use: temple, or prison? Photo courtesy Raja Ramakrishnan
Our day was nowhere near done. All of us had expressed an interest in buying some traditional Cambodian handicrafts, and Sarng proposed a visit to a different kind of handicrafts shop, one where everything is made by people with handicaps (mainly deaf-mutes) and where most of the profits go directly to the artisans themselves. This sounded good, and we agreed enthusiastically. A while later, we arrived at Artisans of Angkor, which was very pleasantly situated in a nice garden. We were first given a tour of the factory, where we watched the artisans at work on various types of crafts: painting, lacquer work, sandstone carving, and then we entered the blissfully cool emporium, which was beautifully and tastefully set up with lovely things: clothes, paintings, carvings, dinner sets, handbags and many others. It was a pleasure just walking around and feasting our eyes on all the things, but we got a shock when we saw the prices: aimed at those with dollar-stuffed wallets!
We spent some time wandering around and admiring the wares. Before long, everybody was fading quite rapidly, so we returned straight to the hotel, where, hot, tired and dusty, we treated ourselves to long, long showers.
What a difference a long, long shower can make! We felt (almost) as good as new again, and I stepped out to see if something could be done about my camera battery. I walked along the side of our street, dodging the many tuk-tuks, bicycles and pedestrians crowding the way. There was a photo shop around the corner, where, after a very brief bargaining session (perhaps I should have tried harder, or perhaps they cave in more easily here) we agreed upon a price of $30 for a new battery charger. Back at the hotel, I happily watched the blinking red light on the charger as my battery slowly came back to life. Simple pleasures!
Our day was still not over! A bit fed up of our little restaurant and of watching the BBC Angkor documentary, we decided to try out one of the restaurants on Siem Reap's Restaurant Row. We walked the short distance to Amok Restaurant, which had been given a favorable review by Lonely Planet. It was nice to be walking without the sun beating down on us, and we enjoyed looking at the street-side vendors and all the bustle and activity during our stroll.
Amok Restaurant is one of many restaurants cheek-by-jowl with other restaurants on a narrow alleyway. Only pedestrian and bicycle traffic can go through this street (not sure if the latter is actually allowed), and we arrived to a bustling scene, of a street filled with shops and tourists and restaurants serving many varieties of food. This is the one we ate in, seated at an outdoor table.
And some we did not eat in:
It was a relaxed dinner. All of us picked Amok (said to be a traditional Khmer dish), which in this restaurant was offered with either red (not spicy) or green (slightly spicy) sauce, and with seafood, chicken, beef or vegetables. Some of us went with seafood, some of us with vegetables, and everybody enjoyed the food. Amok consists of a lot of vegetables (plus seafood/chicken/beef if that's what you ordered) in a very tasty coconut gravy, and is served with plain rice. We topped it all off with some yummy desserts, all banana based. Strolled back to the hotel, and fell immediately into a deep, deep sleep, with many dreams of climbing up and down things.