Had a spectacular day. The trip to Kbal Spean and Beng Mealea was everything we hoped it would be.
We had a good driver for our SUV, a well maintained Toyota Land Runner from 1993 (more about the car and the driver later). I quickly found out that when Dave told us that the road to Kbal Spean beyond Banteay Srei was dirt track, he was being precise: the moment we drove past Banteay Srei, the asphalt disappeared with a bump, and we were on dirt track, potholed and puddled all the way. We counted 2 overturned vehicles on route, both farm vehicles, which gives you some idea of the road conditions following the heavy rains we've been having. (Notwithstanding, we still saw one tuk-tuk carrying 3 tourists out from Kbal Spean - you'd have to have seen the conditions of the road to realise what an incredibly daft idea going out there in a tuk-tuk is!)
But the good thing about the rain is that the River of the Thousand Lingas (what the Kbal Spean site is called) was flowing with water, making for good photography. Dave told us that on a previous visit in the dry season, it had been minus the River. The lingas are mostly stylised carvings (circles, disks, some slight domes) in the bedrock of the river (a disappointment I'm sure for those who expected something more Linga like = ) along with some carvings of Buddhist images.
The second place we went to was Beng Mealea. It's like Ta Prohm, only more so. For a quick frame of reference, Ta Prohm is the one temple in the Angkor area that the French archaelogists left in an unrestored state, to let visitors have an idea of the state of disrepair the temples were in when first discovered. For those of you who remember, its also the background in the scene in Tomb Raider where Lara Croft follows a little girl who shows her the secret entrance to the temple.
But it pales in comparison to Beng Mealea, which is still tightly in the grip of the jungle. To get through Beng Mealea, we had to climb over rubble, squeeze through gaps in the walls, climb on top of the walls at times ... you really feel like Indiana Jones doing this!
They've built wooden ramps and ladders in some places to make things a bit easier, but it was still really tough going at times. The atmosphere of discovery and adventure was also somewhat spoiled by the 3 unsolicited 'guides' who attached themselves to us and proceeded to treat us like absolute babies, pointing out every place to put a foot or grab a handhold on a rock, getting in the way of every photograph, and unhelpfully pointing out some very obvious parts of the temple ("Wall" ... "Gallery" ... etc), which a 3 year old could have spotted. In the end, Dave gave them all a tip of a dollar, because they had helped us to get over the really rough bits, althought we certainly would've done it without their un-asked-for help.
Fantastic day. On the way back, a little insight into the workings of Cambodian life. We were stopped at a toll booth, and our driver refused to pay. He pointed out that the vehicle we were in had military plates, which exmepted it from all road tolls. Turns out that the car we were in had been borrowed from a 5-star general, commander of the local military base. (yes, we're all wondering 'Who the heck is this driver?!?') The conversation between the toll booth and our driver (related and translated later to us by the driver) went something like this:
Toll Booth: You have to pay the toll
Driver: Tell you what, I'll just wait right here, while you call the General and ask him for the money.
Needless to say, we drove on through. So there you have it - patronage, politics, and power. And a grand day out.