I guess the title of this is a little misleading. I didn’t go to Angkor Wat on the second day. Just to keep things simple, however, I’m sticking with it.
Instead of renting a tuk tuk and having a driver for the day, I decided to rent a bicycle and peddle my way around what’s known as the Grand Tour. Since I am equal parts idiot and a glutton for punishment, I chose to bike the much longer route on the much hotter day. Go figure. Add a crappy bike that only had three workable gear settings to the heat and the distance and I had all the ingredients for a miserable, agony-filled day. Luckily, it was anything but. The distance was made easier by totally flat terrain, the heat negated by a barely-there but just-enough breeze, and the crappy bike overcome by sheer force of will. While the Mini Tour was amazing and stunning, I enjoyed the Grand Tour even more. Why? Well let me tell you…
I made my first destination the site known as Pre Rup. It is the first temple after leaving the Mini Tour and a popular place to catch the sunset. One thing became immediately apparent to me as I got off my bicycle and walked into the temple grounds. There were people around, sure, but significantly less. Few people seemed to have ventured beyond the main attractions of the Mini Tour to the more distant ones of the Grand Tour. Ah well. More for me!
A temple-mountain similar in style to Ta Keo (which I visited the day before) Pre Rup is another tiered pyramid. Scrambling up the narrow stairs at an incline that all but required the use of all four limbs, I was pleasantly greeted with a nice view of the area below.
There were several towers within the temple walls which provided welcome shade and a nice vantage point from which to view the temple itself.
I really liked the architectural style of Pre Rup and enjoyed relaxing my already fatigued muscles there. The temple-mountain style of this and other temples is, to me, more impressive than the flat style of other structures. It’s also more fun to scamper around on. Fun factor is an important determinant of how much I enjoy temples. Way to go, Pre Rup!
The next stop was East Mebon. This site is impressive mainly because of its location. It was built in the middle of a massive reservoir known as the East Baray. The reservoir dried up long ago, but you can still see the thick walls packed full of earth that elevate this artificial island above the former water level. Another unique feature of this temple is the presence of a number of man sized carvings of elephants mounting the corners of various levels. They are in remarkably good condition (not sure how much is restored and how much is original) and make for a fun picture.
At East Mebon, I also encountered an enterprising young park employee. Most of the sites in the Angkor area have a park employee at the entrance who will stop visitors and check their pass. This young lad, after checking my pass, tried to get me to go on a motor bike tour with him. Noooot sure that’s part of his official job description. But hey. Can’t blame the kid for trying to make an extra buck, you know?
After East Mebon, I peddled onward to Ta Som. For some reason, I kept blurting out fragments of Queen songs as I rode. Ah well.
Ta Som is another site, much like Ta Prohm (which I visited the first day) and Preah Khan (which I will talk about later), which hasn’t had as much restoration done and is still dominated by the advances of the ever voracious jungle. Upon entering the temple grounds, I immediately noticed how they were set back in the jungle instead of being cleared out.
The west gate
A big draw to this temple is the state of the east gate of the temple complex. A huge sacred fig tree sprawls over the gate, seemingly striving to swallow it whole. If you can shut out the insistent sales pitches of the touts, it’s a cool thing to admire for a while.
My next stop was pretty unremarkable, a small temple called Krol Ko. I was the only tourist there, so I got to clamber around the ruins in peace; so, for that, I appreciated it.
The only temple in the entire Angkor area that I would say was a disappointment was that of Neak Pean. The temple itself is pretty sweet. After walking out – into what’s basically a swamp – on wooden walkways, you see a symmetrically designed layout comprised of four pools with a central pool in the middle of the cross. A temple rises from the middle of the center pool. It is a very serene setting, made even more serene by the fence that keeps everyone away from it. A pity. I would’ve liked to walk around a little bit but, alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
The next temple more than made up for the disappointment of Neak Pean, however. I turned off on a small, bumpy dirt road and found the deserted Banteay Prei. It’s a decently sized complex, though tiny when you compare it to ones such as Angkor Wat or Preah Khan. An outer wall encircles the grounds with an inner moat further protecting the temple itself.
Once across the moat, I was reduced to a veritable fit of glee. There was no one around, and I was in the middle of a glorious, abandoned ruin complete with tiny, midget-sized passageways, crumbling walls, and faded carvings. The kid in me was running around cackling and climbing over rocks and squeezing into crevices. Actually, it wasn’t the kid in me. I guess I just lost it a little bit…
For me, this temple was one of my top three. Size-wise it’s nothing special. It more than makes up for that with its remoteness and (aww) it’s charm. I sat down on a grassy knoll and enjoyed some lunch as I absorbed as much as I could of the tranquil atmosphere… that is until ants started swarming me and I decided it’d be better to eat in a less stationary state.
… and carried on towards the highlight of the Grand Tour: the massive, sprawling, amazing, Preah Khan.
In addition to having a sweet sounding name (which means ‘holy sword’), Preah Khan is one of the larger temple complexes in the Angkor area. Like Angkor Wat, it is surrounded by a moat, which can be crossed by any number of bridges. I took the northern route in. The bridge is lined by devas holding a massive naga (serpent). Only partially intact, the statues still make for a heckuva railing!
After crossing the bridge, I went through the massive gate; which is guarded by hulking man-bird statues and is big enough to drive a small car through. If you can make it past the man-birds, that is.
Once inside, Preah Khan emerges from the depths of the jungle with an ancient, timeless grandeur. Partially reclaimed by the choking tendrils of the jungle, it sleeps like a behemoth waiting for an excuse to rise.
Preah Khan is home to a number of halls and libraries, all in various states of crumbling disrepair. Silk-cotton trees and strangler figs have taken root and spread their creeping roots over walls and rooftops, putting the few similar examples in Ta Prohm to shame.
One such tree endeavored to swallow yours truly via its enormous elephant trunk-like root. Luckily, I escaped, but it was a near thing…
I loved the abundance of detailed carvings throughout the complex, as well as the chaotic state of ruin the whole place was in. Above all the other places, Preah Khan truly felt like ruins which were lost to the jungle.
I amused myself climbing into little passageways and over massive blocks of sandstone strewn haphazardly around the grounds. Once I accidentally found myself in an off-limits area (oops!) and had to sneakily navigate back to a less criminal place to be. Another time I got swarmed by those pesky ants again and got several stinging bites on my back, arms, and neck. As much as I felt like Indiana Jones, I didn’t encounter any snakes (thankfully).
I even got a sneaky ninja picture of one of those bald incense ladies. The second after I stole the shot, she turned towards me, and I jerked back into the shadows and scampered off; her none the wiser.
After well over an hour of unrestrained excitement, I bid Preah Khan farewell and continued on my way. I planned on going right back to Siem Reap, but I stopped briefly at Baksei Chamkrong to climb yet another ridiculously steep pyramid and take in the resulting view.
After descending, I got back on my bike for the final time, hummed some Queen, and peddled ever so slowly back to my hotel. Seven hours, almost three liters of water, and unholy amounts of pictures later, I was done. The Grand Tour was, for me at least, the most enjoyable part of my Angkor experience. If you’ve got the time, it really is a must see.