Sunday, April 15, 2012

Angkor Day 2: Kbal Spean & Banteay Srei

This is part of a series on our recent trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia. You can see our previous post here.

Day 2 started in spectacular fashion: watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat on the spring equinox, which Nana wrote about in an earlier post.

After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we then hit the road for the Kulen Hills, site of the carved riverbed of Kbal Spean and the ornate Khmer temple of Bantey Srei.

Kbal Spean

Kbal Spean is unique among Angkor holy sites: constructed around an old bridge for pilgrims heading into the hills, Kbal Spean is a tributary of the Siem Reap which the Khmer turned into a giant font of Hindu holy water by carving countless linga directly into the riverbed.
The site is reached by way of a 1.5 km forest trail - well-marked and scenic, but occasionally steep.

A fine day for exploring!

These weird rocks rolled down from the top of the hill and were worn away by flash floods in the rainy season.

This tree is pretty serious about stopping erosion.
The hike was both secluded and thankfully shady. Rest assured, though, that there were plenty of German retirees burning past us up the hill.

Our visit fell during the dry season, so much of the riverbed was exposed. Nice for viewing, but I wonder if that made the water any less holy . . .
Water rushing over a dozing Vishnu.

Another dozing Vishnu, with Brahma sprouting from his belly button.

That's Shiva with his wife, Lakshmi, on Nandi, the sacred bull.

A third dozing Vishnu. Popular guy.

An arrangement of five linga in a yoni. This same pattern was commonly used in the design of Khmer temples; Angkor Wat, for instance, has a similar arrangement of five central towers.

This little guy was super friendly! He may in fact have been the highlight of Nana's day.

Looking across the stream, above the bridge.
The bridge itself has collapsed, but it's still stable.
There were so many waterstriders it looked like it was raining.


The largest arrangement of lingas is below the bridge, just above a small waterfall.

We elected not to drink the curative waters. Naturally, we both fell ill with a stomach bug later that day.
A worn stone turtle downstream from the falls.
Banteay Srei

A short drive downhill from Kbal Spean, Banteay Srei is also unique among the monuments of Angkor: it's the only major Khmer temple built out of red sandstone, and the only surviving temple not built by a monarch. The modest temple, dedicated to Shiva in the late 10th century, is mind-bogglingly ornate, covered almost entirely with intricate bas-relief carvings.

One heck of a front door.

A serpent vomiting a naga.

Every square inch of the place is like this.

Vishnu in the form of a lion (Narasimha) ripping open the chest of Hiranyakasipu, king of the asuras (a group of ambitious minor deities). Hiranyakasipu received a blessing from Brahma to protect him from Vishnu: Hiranyakasipu couldn't die inside or outside; during the day or the night; on the ground or in the sky. Furthermore, he couldn't be killed by any being mortal or immortal; or by any weapon; or by any human being or animal. So Vishnu, in the form of a man-lion, kills Hiranyakasipu on the threshold of his house, at sunset, using only his hands and his teeth . . . and so on.

This time, the serpent is vomiting a lion. Lots of vomiting going on.

Even parts of the floor are carved at Banteay Srei: this is a lingam on the threshold of one of the gates.

The gables of one of the gate houses. Khmer temples had a series of concentric walls enclosing the inner precinct; today, visitors still enter through the eastern gate houses, or "gopuras."

The inner precinct of Banteay Srei. Far to ornate to process in a day or a week, let alone a quarter of an hour. This was a typical experience at Angkor: the sense that the place was so much bigger than any one person or any one lifetime.

The inner precinct.
The inner precinct again, with a dash of Chinese tourist in pink.

The carvings have made it one of the most popular tourist sites in the province, especially with package tours - which is a shame, as it gets very overcrowded later on in the morning. Still, many solo visitors miss Banteay Srei because it's quite a ways out of town. Also a shame.

Stay tuned for more dispatches from our Cambodian adventures. Next up (I think): a boat ride to a floating village on the largest lake in Southeast Asia - Lake Tonle Sap!

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