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Clambering around Cambodia’s hidden temples

20th February 2014

The Angkorian ‘jungle temple’ of Ta Prohm never fails to excite. Arriving at daybreak is one of those special Cambodian moments; parakeets lead the dawn chorus as gentle sunlight flickers through the jungle striking the violent tangle of tree roots and thousand year old stones. However the tarmac road is not far away - and nor are the crowds - by 8 am tranquility has surrendered to a cacophony of languages and the footsteps of the flag waving tour guides leading their groups in to the temple.

This new Cambodia Explorer trip really gives you the opportunity to experience the sense of discovery that the first travellers experienced – before the ice cream and snack vans arrived. The dusty, bumpy van rides beyond the ‘circuit’ have enabled us to clamber over piles of rocks, explore nooks and crannies within temples and perch ourselves on a mountain staring out over vast flat plains sweeping hundreds of metres below us.

You are likely to be offered green mango with chili salt or a can of M-15 energy drink at the mountain temple of Preah Vihear. Snacks here are geared to Khmer tastes; aside from a steady flow of military wives and families, only a handful of westerners venture this far north to the Thai border. Our efforts reward us with the sight of mountains - at last a contrast to the endless flat Cambodian heartlands. The controversy surrounding the temple – it brought the Thais & Cambodians close to war a few years ago – only adds to its mystique and appeal. Preah Vihear sits on three levels built into the side of a mountain. Despite smoke from burning fields spoiling what would have been a stunning view, for half an hour we sat in silence, alone in the most peaceful spot.

We spent the night less comfortably in the Anlong Veng, the nearest town to Preah Vihear. This dusty strip was the last outpost of the Khmer Rouge. Here, years after 200,000 Vietnamese troops left and 3 billion dollars of UN money was spent, Pol Pot and his henchmen continued to profit from selling gems and timber to Thai businessmen until 1998. It’s an unnerving experience walking the same streets as some of history’s most genocidal murderers.

More temple adventures awaited us en route when we stopped at Banteay Chhmar, en route to the Battambang. After a brief introduction from our local guide we were off -clambering over ancient stones to access the main complex. Inside we were welcomed with a maze of tumble down corridors and towers adorned with images of (supposedly) Jayavarman VII, the master temple builder. It’s the same enigmatic faces that decorate the fifty four towers of his most famous work - the Bayon at Angkor Thom – but devoid of tourists.

Maybe the ultimate jungle temple adventure lies a couple of hours down a dusty back road from Siem Reap. Here King Suryavarman II built Beng Melea, a sister temple to his most famous commission - Angkor Wat. However here we found no lengthy corridors, neatly trimmed edges or reconstructed reliefs and towers – just a titan of a temple of crumbling in the jungle.

For all the majesty in the symmetry and power of Angkor Wat, it always leaves me just a little cold; its perfection is so clinical it’s almost soulless. For me it’s the hidden temples like Banteay Chhmar and Beng Melea that charm with their personality and character; their relationship with the jungle that physically supports them is almost one of devoted lovers – one cant exist without the other…

Mark Steadman

Before he was five Mark's adventurous parents swapped the crowded streets of South London for the sandy beaches of South Australia. By the time he was…

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