Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Siem Reap: Road Trip

Early the next morning, the four of us plus our trusty driver, Boh, went on an excursion into the Cambodian heartland to visit an ancient sacred site that's even more ancient that Angkor. We were very excited to see it... till Boh told us (halfway there) that it was about two hours away..... and up a steep hill..... Oh boy!

I have to say, the Cambodian countryside is quite varied and charming. One minute we're driving through a forest filled with giant trees....

and then a nice lakeside view the next....

and before we knew it, we were knee-deep in padi fields.

Female pillion riders here sit close-legged to one side of the motorbike. So I guess baldy here is a miss. Maybe she's a nun on her way to the nunnery.

Then suddenly, the tarmac ended and we found ourselves on a laterite road. It didn't help that it was the start of the rainy season as puddles of red mud made potholes of the 'road' all the way.

Along the way, we came across this broken down lorry carrying firewood. Apparently they still use firewood for domestic purposes like cooking and boiling water etc.

After about an hour and a half of sore bums and sprained necks, Boh suddenly took a sharp turn into this unmarked lane that seemed to go on forever......

Before we knew it, we had arrived at the foot of the hill, and Boh bundled us out and told us that to reach Kbal Spean, we had to hike 'only' forty five minutes up the mountain. And he wasn't coming along!

Shirley was pleasantly surprised it was going to be a nature hike. Couldn't say the same about her husband tho. And although there was a bit of rain, the dense leafy canopy above us provided much needed shelter.

This reminded me of the Taman Rekreasi (Recreational Park) in Melaka where the forest guards took it upon themselves to name every tree according to its common and taxonomic names. Still, I don't think this tree is going to put up much of a 'mean' defence should anyone decide to attack it.

I have to admit, the first half an hour of the hike was quite leisurely, with steps carved into the earth or rocks and the weather was pleasant too, not too wet and definitely not too hot.

Here is a gigantic millipede that crossed our path. It was about the size of a large Cuban cigar.

Up in the trees, we could hear the chirps of birds and various other animal callings. As I looked up, I thought I saw a howler monkey.... nah, I was probably imagining things.

The trees grew in all different directions and when the shrubbery around the tree trunks were cleared to make the footpath, their weird configurations became apparent, bending here and twisting there, and made for very interesting photographs.

Just when we thought we would never get to the site, we came across this little creek. And the loud roar of a waterfall signaled that our destination was at hand." Yippee!" said Tubby.

And so we climbed up to the top of the water fall and were greeted by this vista of a lovely brook that meanders around large boulders decorated with carvings of Hindu motifs. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Kbal Spean.

This is Stung Kbal Spean river or Bridge Head River in Khmer. The rocks that made up the river was replete with 'linga's or phallic symbols - large carved mounds that made the river bed look like a submerged reflexology footpath.

It is believed that it was set up by King Jayavarman II about two hundred years before the first stone was laid in Angkor Wat. This place is also known as River of Thousand Lingas, and as I was too lazy to start counting, I took it at their word.

According to the guide (eavesdropping again, hehehe) the king had dammed the river and got master craftsmen from India to carve those lingas on the riverbed. The river water flowing over these lingas was supposed to bring fertility to the region.

While we were busy snapping away, Shirley and Lau decided to take a breather from all that climbing and found a very nice place to sit and stretch their legs. Don't they make a handsome couple?

Here's a nice little picnic spot. I was trying to capture the 'flowing water' effect with my camera by fiddling with the ISO and shutter speed functions. Still have got a lot to learn.

This beautiful carving of Vishnu beside the upper was all the more impressive when I found out that a part of it was hacked off by robbers a few years ago. The conservationists then replaced the affected portion with a replica which has since blended in well with the original. Can you figure out which part is 'new'?

It took me about 50 tries to get this shot right, no thanks to the rain, the other tourists and Wymen who kept trying to muscle his way into my POV.

The rain started to get really serious, so we wrapped it up and made our way back down. It was of course a lot easier to descend the hill, and thanks to the forest canopy, we were still able to keep relatively dry, and even managed to catch a few more shots.

It seemed as if we had never walked through the place, even though we had just made our way up less than an hour ago. Everywhere we looked was a photo-op, with vines turning and twisting into out-of-this-world contortions and the greenery making a nice backdrop.

We also managed to catch a few of the forest's natural inhabitants, like this exotic grasshopper... or is it a cricket?

While we were squatting and bending over backwards to get that perfect close-up shot of this mushroom, our antics attracted the attention of a group of Korean tourists who were wondering what on earth we were trying to snap. When they found out what it was, they sniggered... but still took a few pics of their own, anyway.

I shall remember Kbal Spean, not only for the impressive lingas and charming stream at the top, but also for the lovely hike up through the enchanting forest which was calming and invigorating, a perfect foil to the previous few days of grey rocks and temple ruins.

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