We decided to go off the usual tourist circuit and explored other temple ruins which were less popular but just as impressive as Angkor Wat.
We visited Banteay Srei which was constructed in the late tenth century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Unlike Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat which were made of mainly laterite stone, Banteay Srei is made of red sandstone which can be carved almost like wood. As a result, it features one of the finest carvings in the world with unbelievable detail and texture. It is also the only temple to have been built, not by authority of a king but under the authority of a Brahmin advisor to the king.
About twelve kilometres from Banteay Srei is the riverbed of Kbal Spean also known as the “River of Thousand Lingas” noted for 1,000 carvings of lingas in this rocky riverbed. The linga or lingam came to be seen as the divine phallus of Shiva in Hinduism and in Cambodia, lingas are found everywhere particularly in Angkor temple sanctuaries where worshippers have been pouring water over them for centuries. In the riverbed of Kbal Spean, the water rushes across the carved lingas and then feeds the rice fields below, thus symbolizing fertility.
To get to the riverbed, we climbed about forty minutes uphill through the jungle. There are quite a number of carvings of gods on the riverbed as defined in Hindu mythology, such as, Vishnu with Lakshmi reclining on a serpent with the lotus flower emerging from Vishnu’s navel which bears Brahma, the creator, and a four-faced Brahma sitting on a lotus.
Outside of the usual tourist route of Bayon and Angkor Wat, Beng Melea and Preah Khan are the most stunning temples I have ever visited. Both temples are located off the beaten track, mostly unrestored, overgrown by jungle, and the temple compounds and galleries are reduced to piles of rubbles, stones, broken doors and corridors, due to abandonment and neglect over centuries.
Ta Prohm is too commercialized now because of the movie Tomb Raider but being in the dilapidated Beng Melea truly made me feel as if I was exploring my own Lost City. As for Preah Khan, we were fortunate to visit this site in the late afternoon when there were hardly any tourists there. The atmosphere was very quiet as if we were the lucky “Indiana Jones-es” to discover these ruins. The experience was truly incredible.