The temple of Bayon is often outshone by the mighty Angkor Wat and alluring Ta Phrom, but it was the one that drew me in. Bayon’s towers are studded by faces on each side, and I remember standing agape, trying to study each expression, each smile. It might not be not as celebrated as the other bigger temples, but this was the definitely the one that the Khmer engineers had fun building.
On my return to Siem Reap, I realized the city had a lot of faces too. Of course, there’s the rock star, Angkor, a place that welcomes no less than a million of tourists coming each year. Especially if you’re in one of the Big 3 (namely, Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Phrom), you’ll often find yourself shoulder-to-shoulder with other visitors as you try to soak in all the intricate bas reliefs on the walls and posts. Surprisingly though, there are still spots in the complex where you can catch some time alone to get lost and to ponder on the genius of the talented Khmer civilization.
The more you get away from down town, the more you get to discover Siem Reap’s quieter side. The temples may be lesser known, but no less precious for the curious.
After a day of exploring the Angkor circuit, we trooped off the next day to Kulen Mountain, eager to see what’s tucked away. In my mind, I was daydreaming of grander ruins and ancient spires dancing entangled with the jungle. When we got there, that wasn’t exactly what we found. Phnom Kulen turned out to be the get-away spot for the local families, where one can escape the usual throng of tourists in the city. A lot of families brought their own picnic baskets, to feast on in small huts beside the gushing river. The water stopped by the edge at a waterfall, where kids and teenagers enjoyed a cool shower.
At one spot in the mountain, we followed directions to go see the river of the 1000 Lingas, sacred carvings on rocks, overran by water that the locals consider holy. As most of the carvings are underwater, we spent the first few minutes wondering what exactly we were looking at, until a lady with a kind smile pointed out the more visible lingas. The infant she was cradling stole a shy peek at us. Her other baby wasn’t so shy; she ran up to us and waved. The small family led us deeper into the forest, up to a bubbling spring with radically clear water, something we would never find otherwise by ourselves. What we came across that day may not have been the exotic temple of my dreams, but happily, it did turn out to be a far more memorable treasure.