On arriving at the tour office I was pleased to see our tour group consisted of us and another couple, who were Swedish but lived in Singapore, he was wearing lycra and they were both keen cyclists. This couple were lovely and well prepared for a 75km ride, unlike our group of the day before. Having the right tour group can make a huge difference in your level of enjoyment of a tour. The guide also had very good English, probably the best I’d encountered and so we were able to get into really detailed discussions about Cambodian life, politics, history and archaeology. Many of the other guides, well, their English was okay provided they stuck to the script.
Again, the roads were a mix of paved and unpaved. The unpaved were usually nicer to ride along, despite being rough and sandy as they were more shady than the paved roads and it was really hot. We rode through villages, further from Siem Reap and into areas with less contact with tourists. Cambodian children would come running out yelling hello hello as we rode past and waving.
We had nice mountain bikes - these bikes were more common however.
We stopped to view some farm houses, a betel nut tree and got a lecture about the significance of the betel nut, this tied into a discussion about Cambodian wedding customs, as we also passed a number of weddings. We stopped at one house to be shown how Cambodian rice noodles were made. Firstly they take the rice and mill it into flour, then you grind the flour, boil the flour to make a kind of dough, strain the dough to make long noodles and then cook the noodles again. All this is done by hand.
Noodle making kitchen, note grind stone and cooking pot.
It was some kind of Buddhist festival day, the guide explained something about how the monestaries can ask for money only at certain times. This meant there were lots of locals on the road. Utes and trucks filled with people jammed in the back.
We arrived at Beng Melea to literally find a falling down temple in the jungle. At first it seemed like we were the only people there. It was amazing, a temple emerging out of the jungle. A real Indiana Jones moment, were you move the vine and find a ‘forgotten’ temple. No guides, no ticket collectors, no people trying to sell post cards, guide books, scarves, tours. Just you, the jungle and a giant pile of stones. This temple was beautiful I could post hundreds of photos here - each more awesome than the last.
Indiana Jones, eat your heart out.
First view of Beng Melea
As we moved further into the complex, we found more tourists, but the tourists were mainly Cambodian, not Chinese, Japanese and westerners like in the other temples. The guide was surprised by the amount of Cambodian tourists and then told us about the Buddhist festival and said that explains why so many locals were present. Many little children clambering over the temple towers.
All the temples are ‘working temples’ despite most of them originally being dedicated to Hindu gods, they have all be rededicated to Buddha and are utilised for Buddhist ceremonies. There are rules for the tourists, be respectful, cover your knees and shoulders (dress modestly), remove your hat and shoes if you go into a room with a Buddha statue.
Beng Melea was my favourite temple of all. As this temple is not protected by the UNESCO world heritage status, it doesn’t show the signs of conservation and restoration and partnerships with various foreign organisations that all the others do.
This tour showed us the real Cambodia.