Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Cambodia - Day 7: Siem Reap

After an early breakfast, our driver (we had hired a private taxi for the whole day) met us in front of the hotel. For our final full day in Siem Reap, we had two destinations in mind: Kulen Mountain, a holy site about one hour outside of Siem Reap where we were to find a reclining Buddha carved into the top of a giant boulder, 1,000 lingas (ancient square-shaped symbols that appeared to represent both our masculine and feminine aspects) carved into the bottom of a riverbed, and a sacred waterfall; and Beng Mealea, a ruined temple in the jungle about an hour away from Kulen Mountain. The way to the mountain followed a rugged and dusty road pocketed with potholes. It was still early and there didn't seem to be many people going the same direction as us. After parking, we walked through a wide dirt street lined with vendors in their wooden stalls and platforms—women cooking whole fish and chicken halves, men and women selling t-shirts and stone carvings and beads and incense and garlands of flowers, little pseudo-convenience stores selling cigarettes and cold beverages—and climbed the stone stairs up to the temple, old women and men and cripples begging us for money all the way up to the temple entrance. Chinese tourists cluttered around the little shoe-cubbies where we understood that we had to leave our shoes, a group of musicians played and orange-draped monks mulled about near what looked like some kind of altar. The air thick with incense, we removed our shoes and prepared for another climb, this one to the top of the boulder, to see the reclining Buddha.
Vito tries the healing
properties of the waterfall.

We returned to the car and drove to a nearby location in the same area to see the linga carvings and then on to the waterfall. Vito had worn his swimming suit and, after walking through a mountain village and climbing down a long staircase to the river, he took a dip in the large pool at the bottom of the waterfall. The water was a little cold for his parents, content with just dipping their feet in. Kulen Mountain is supposedly an important religious site for Cambodians. We played along the river’s edge for about an hour—there were a few other small groups of tourists doing the same—and then climbed back up the stairs to the village and departed. When we had arrived, there were only a handful of cars, but now there were dozens of cars and buses all crammed together in the parking area. We were pleased that we had decided to begin our day so early.

Here and there along the side of the road, people were selling red bananas that looked good and we stopped to buy some on our way down the mountain. We had another beautiful drive ahead of us. Everywhere in the countryside, the red dust and earth at the edges of the road, sliced potatoes laying on tarps in the sun to dry, the floppy splayed leaves of banana trees and the taller coconut trees. Everywhere tall, green and yellow grasses and butterflies from out of nowhere, wooden roadside stalls with plastic umbrellas and palm awnings, some with items for sale, some without, people sitting on mopeds, sleeping on mopeds, chopping wood next to plastic coolers, squatting and eating in the shade of a bush, parked mopeds leaning over and overhung with bags.

Windows into a forgotten world.
As we neared Beng Mealea, and eager to drink the milk of another refreshing coconut, we stopped for an otherwise unmemorable lunch at one of the typically anonymous roadside restaurants near the temple attractions such as we had seen the two days before. As it was off the beaten tourist path, Beng Mealea was pleasantly not very crowded. It was the least well-restored temple that we had seen, but, possibly, the most beautiful, marred with great piles of moss-carpeted stone slabs, invaded and overgrown with giant sprawling roots and tendrils, reclaimed by twisted trees and vines and spiders’ webs and flowers, crumbling back into the earth in the deep cool quiet shade of the jungle.

We returned to our hotel by about 4PM, tired from what was easily the longest day-trip that we'd taken since we'd arrived in Cambodia. After confirming some travel arrangements for the next two days, we went down to the pool for a cool beverage and a swim before heading out for dinner at a vegetarian restaurant called Chamkar. The food was so delicious that we decided to return for lunch the next day before traveling to Sihanoukville to begin a different segment of our holiday.

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