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Banteay Srei, Siem Reap, Cambodia (January 10, 2011)

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My earlier entry on the Siem Reap temples focused mostly on our morning and evening excursions to Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm (the "Tomb Raider" temple). Those are probably the most famous of the sites around Angkor Wat, but we managed to make it to a few more temples over our three days. My favorite was Banteay Srei.

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Carving over archway at Banteay Srei

I should probably warn you that this is a long post.

Mr. Lim

Before describing the temple, however, I'd be remiss if I didn't thank Mr. Lim, our tuk-tuk driver/temple guide for two of our three days. Angkor's temple complexes sit a few miles outside of the city of Siem Reap, and tourists normally get there by tuk-tuk or bicycle. Over our three days we tried both, and found that the tuk-tuk made for the better experience. Despite the exercise advantages of bicycling, poor-quality, poorly-maintained rental equipment isn't pleasant or safe.

Choosing a tuk-tuk and guide is a hit or miss proposition. Every driver in Siem Reap will end your ride with an offer to take you to the temples later. This makes sense: during the low season there seem to be far more drivers than tourists, so I imagine that a day's guaranteed wages easily beats competing for $2 street fares. I've heard tales of poor drivers, but Mr. Lim was easily the best value-for-money guide that we've had on our journey.  He was flexible and willing to accomodate our "to-do" list of preferred temples, but also suggested additional stops at sites that we'd not considered. If you're in Siem Reap, his number is 017 79 23 80. He's a good guy.

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Mr. Lim picks us up for our pre-sunrise ride to Angkor Wat

The Road to Banteay Srei

Far smaller than the Angkor Wat or Ta Prohm temples, and much further out of the way, Banteay Srei's well-preserved and complex carvings quickly made it my favorite temple. Getting there, however, is a reward in itself.

The tuk-tuk drive takes about an hour, and Mr. Lim's tour led us through a number of local villages. Several of these had signs in English or Japanese noting that a local well providing clean drinking water had been donated by a foreign patron. It was in these villages that I most longed for a local guide who could explain some of the more curious aspects of Khmer culture. For instance, villages possessed enormous variations in the size and quality of housing. Some homes would be little more than shacks held up on stilts, with roof and siding of flimsy corrugated steel, and with nothing more for windows than small squares sheared out of the walls. Right next door would be a much larger dwelling, also on stilts, but with painted wood sides, a tiled roof, and paned glass in the windows. Some homes had obviously grown organically, adding a room or a floor over time. On the other hand, some of the larger buildings had no obvious connection to the local power lines, while the humbler buildings were occasionally hooked up to power. I would love to know what was behind the variations in local wealth.

Likewise, Pallavi spotted several homes sporting what looked to be scarecrows at the side of the road. The frames of these scarecrows were usually hung with an old jacket and a what looked like a carved coconut for a head. Not being in fields, they're obviously not managing to keep birds away from crops, but we still don't know what purpose they served.

As with any path popular with tourists, several of the villages have small markets filled with pretty similar textiles, knick-nacks and crafts. On our return journey, Mr. Lim stopped to have us try some of the local candy, produced by women sitting before huge kettles slowly boiling down sugar cane. I wish we'd gotten some pictures of the women and their candy. Wrapped in green leaves, the sweets are mostly sugar with a slightly butterscotch flavor. The taste brought back memories of being six years old, when my parents would buy me traditional American sweets at Greenfield Village summer fairs. (Don't leave the candy out in your hotel room, however. The ants found these candies just as tasty as we did.)

Banteay Srei

Despite the temple itself being relatively small, Banteay Srei's grounds cover enormous acreage. After Mr. Lim dropped us off in the parking lot, we had to wander past a small market filled with tourist kitsch, and then down about two hundred meters of dirt path leading to a lake covered with greenery. The temple lies another hundred yards to the left, but the right hand path leads to a "viewing platform" for taking pictures of the temple from across the lake (and a coffee shop).

Banteay Srei's claim to fame is the ornate and remarkably well-preserved carvings in the temple complex. Though the main compound is only about one hundred meters square, the red sandstone figures are a photographer's dream.

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Banteay Srei

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A naga on the corner of an archway

I probably took two hundred photographs in this temple. The web album below has some of the better ones, but makes me wish that I had studied photography a little bit more before I started on this trip. Some of the better photos are below.

Banteay Srei

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I love the Banteay Srei carvings. I think it's not so much the detail work that does it for me as the way the entire place is decorated. I particularly like this photo of the courtyard. Do you know the significance of those statues?

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