Beyond Angkor Wat
As the Angkor complex has more to see then the 4 temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, and Ta Prohm, so too is there more to see around Siem Reap then just the Angkor complex itself. Having a few days to spend in Siem Reap allowed us to get out and see some of the additional sites. It took some looking at various different travel agencies and some haggling, but we were finally able negotiate what we deemed a reasonable rate for a car and driver to take us about 2 hours outside of town to see Koh Ker and then the closer temple of Beng Mealea. The going rate is about $90 USD for a driver and then $10 for entry into Koh Ker and $5 for Beng Mealea.
Koh Ker is shown on all the extra tour photos at the various travel agencies around Siem Reap as the giant stepped pyramid, but when we arrived to the area there we were surprised to find out that there are a lot of different temples sites that we were able to stop and visit. Our driver did his best in broken English to explain the different sites and it sounds like there are still more temples still hidden in he jungle that haven't really been cleared out for visiting.
That we know will change, they are building a large ticket office and entry structure just a few clicks outside of the site, so they are expecting that within a few years these remote areas will also become must see stops on any holiday trip to Cambodia. I think they are betting correctly, we wanted to see these 10 years ago and are glad that we scheduled our time to allow us to visit them now.
Let's run through them as we visited them -
Prasat Thom, this is the massive pyramid. The front steps up it look like they would have been a steep nightmare to climb. They are mostly collapsed and sitting in a pile of rubble at the base, however they have built steps up the back side of the pyramid that, although still a somewhat exhausting climb in the heat, make getting to the top for the views not that bad.
Prasat Kra Chab - The outside walls still mainly intact, the inside of the site is almost all ruins.
Prasat Chrap - Three large structures in various states of collapse, it's had to say but I'd be surprised if the left temple was still standing in another 5 years.
Damrei Kandoeng - The Elephant temple.
Prasat Neang Khmau - The Black Lady. Our driver told us, at least what we understood him to have told us, is that this temple is named for the queen who had very dark skin compared to everyone else. An internet search has a story about the king disowning his daughter for loving a farmer and then building the temple for her, with the black being synonymous with bad.
Prasat Pram - 5 distinct temples, all being overtaken by trees to varying amounts.
It was impressive, we drove by at least 3 places without stopping, but like we said about Angkor, at a certain point you can only look at so many overgrown sites of stone and brick temples before it all starts to run together. As noted in the one photo, we tried to snap a picture of the site name for each site so that we would know what are looking at in the future, we have some photos of a structure that looks like it might have been built around a well, but without a name we only know that we stopped there between Prasat Thom and Kra Chab. I can't find it on a map or other photos online to get any information on it - that's the downside of going on the cheap and not having a separate English speaking guide in addition to the driver.
We spent a little over 2-1/2 hours in the Koh Ker area, then it was on to the next site - Beng Mealea. Beng Mealea is only an hour outside of Siem Reap, so it gets a lot more tourists. When we drove by heading up to Koh Ker our driver said that it is full of tourists in the morning, and that it should be better when we returned in the afternoon. We pulled in around 1:30 in the afternoon, at that we decided to skip lunch from the many little restaurants near the entrance and just see the site. We figured that we could eat a late lunch / early dinner once we got back to Siem Reap. That decision turned out to be the correct one, as just about the time we were finished touring and walking back, the sky clouded over and sounds of thunder rumbled across the sky. We hadn't been back in the car for more then 2 minutes before the skies opened up, dumb luck and perfect timing.
Beng Mealea was obviously once an impressive site, today it is almost all in ruins. Walking through the site is overwhelming, you can see how fairly recently they have started to restrict access - I'd presume mainly due to safety reasons. There is a walkway that you can follow through the ruins, it is crowded with tourists, not Angkor crowded but still full, especially after coming from Koh Ker where if there was 1 or 2 other sets of tourists you would kind of grumble about how nice it was to have the site to yourself...
After avoiding the rains, we pulled back into Siem Reap shortly after 3pm, we had left that morning at 8, not a bad day of touring. You could easily spend a full day, we could have seen more up in the Koh Ker area, had lunch, wandered around the Beng Mealea site for longer, and on the flip side you could probably also shorten the day by about an hour if you were trying to do it in less time. We did stop and take the time to just admire the construction of these sites, trying to fathom them being built around 1,000 years ago and in a lot of ways standing up quite well to the passage of time and the destructive force of Mother Nature.