When someone invites you to join them on an epic journey to see a temple half-devoured by forest there is only one correct answer: When are we leaving?
I recently undertook such a trip with three fellow housemates and co-workers. I steeled myself for a long and arduous ride; I’m unaccustomed to biking 80 km at a stretch, and I had no idea what terrain was in store for me, or how well I would hold up under the increasingly warm Cambodian sun. All I knew was that it was supposed to be a 7-hour ride. Let the adventure begin.
We left early in the morning, to avoid the punishing heat of midday. As we cycled outside of the periphery of Siem Reap, highway gave way to side streets gave way to red dusty roads which wound through a maze of markets and villages. We were thankful to follow the lead of our Khmer friend, Chor (or Joe, if you like). As the kilometers sped by, he expounded on whatever facets of Cambodian culture came to mind, from the proper storage of rice, to the prevalence of bald old ladies, to the long white flags which indicate a funeral.
About an hour in to our ride, Joe made a sharp right turn, pulled up short and invited himself into a stranger’s yard. He beckoned to us – come see how rice noodles are made.
Our unexpected presence was warmly welcomed, and we witnessed an elegantly simple process, to which we were immediately initiated:
Step 1: Mash rice into a sticky paste.
Step 2: Fill sieve with paste, and use plunger to extrude long strings of the stuff into boiling water.
Step 3: Remove noodles when they begin to float. Season simply with chili and salt.
The ladies pushed fresh noodles upon us and wouldn’t take no for an answer. We happily sat in our new friend’s front yard, mouths full of happiness and hearts full of gratitude.
After this quick pit stop, we continued on through villages, weaving back and forth amongst the steady stream of traffic: trucks loaded up with improbably large pigs. Motos piled high with more mattresses than physics would seem to allow. Pickups packed with young women heading to and from work.
Monks were out in abundance, speeding by on motos, passing by on foot with containers for rice. We passed many a wat decorated for Magha Puja. Perhaps this holiday also explained the prevalence of households making rice noodles, a phenomenon we continued to see along our route with startling regularity. A few front yards even sported a see-saw type contraption, each one loaded up with 3 or 4 children eager to mix play with mashing rice.
At the cashew tree with a clutch of piglets underneath (the cutest I’ve ever seen), we hung a right onto an unforgiving road with little shade and a red washboard surface. The roadside houses had disappeared, replaced by parched shrubbery eagerly awaiting the rainy season. The journey at this point was between us, the road, and the sun. Infrequent stops for sugarcane juice (with a delicate hint of citrus and rust) provided just enough energy to propel us forward.
And then before I knew it: we had arrived. After only 4 hours, we had reached our destination, Beng Mealea. We celebrated our good fortune with more sugarcane juice (whyever not?) and sat for a spell to catch our breath. We proceeded to our homestay, a modest abode perched on long cement legs to accommodate the rainy season. Water buffalo munched single-mindedly in the front yard. Dogs surrendered to the heat of the afternoon, belly up in a sea of dust.
We retired to a small room with a wooden floor, an annex of the larger room where our hosts sleep. We were shown the shower: a full water basin upon which floats a small bowl in a cement room with a single hole in the corner for drainage. This met my needs. I began to scour the layers of red dirt from my knees and down my shins, and it was at that precise moment that the sky opened up to dump bucketfuls of water upon us all. This was the first rain of the season, which we chose to interpret as a good omen. While the rain would have been a welcome relief to a pack of hot and tired bikers, we were just as glad to have arrived before the downpour, and took comfort in hearing it crash and bang against the tin roof over our heads.
After a late lunch and sucking down the contents of a cold coconut, we retired to lazily wait out the heat of the afternoon. I made a passing attempt at sleep, but instead lay down, closed my eyes and took in the sounds of the neighborhood. A saw mill was running next door. Dogs punctuated the calm of the afternoon with a ruckus now and again. Chickens generated a farmy hum.
The rest of the evening passed without much consequence. Our hosts kindly fed us a savory porridge which served quite nicely for dinner. They told us about their children, who have mostly left home to start their own families. The father of the house is the only one left from his generation. He never had a chance to pursue education: the Khmer Rouge had required him to plant rice to the exclusion of all else. He now enthusiastically encourages his children to pursue what he could not. With this sober history in mind, we ascended to the balcony at dusk, candles in hand, set up mosquito nets, and passed the rest of the evening discussing Cambodia’s recent past while the nearby pagoda incongruously blared dance music late into the night.
I fell asleep on the wooden floor, only to be woken by chanting at 5am. This suited me just fine, as the plan was to be at Beng Mealea at the crack of dawn, before the tour buses started to swarm the place. We made it to the temple around 7am, the first ones on the scene. I soon found myself alone in the midst of strewn rocks and collapsed arches, listening to the jungle wake up and come to life. I enjoyed 30 minutes of this glorious solitude, where I could imagine that I was the first person to have stumbled upon this temple (Indiana Jane, as my Dad would say), until the tourists started trickling in.
Beng Mealea looks like some forgotten world out of a fairy tale. Unlike its close cousin Angkor Wat, you can climb all over the temple grounds. There are no risers for pictures. There are no guide ropes which dictate where you can and cannot go. Swallowed by forest, rediscovered only 10 years ago, it still retains a bit of wildness and mystery. The grounds are littered with broken naga, the 7-headed snake from Cambodian mythology. I tried not to imagine how many landmines may or may not be lingering just outside of the temple periphery, and sent a silent and heartfelt thank you to the CMAC for making it possible for me to clamber safely around the rocks.
After a morning of enraptured exploration, it was time to start thinking about the long ride home. We thanked our hosts, and began to retrace our steps: we said goodbye to the nearby wat and headed towards Siem Reap, fighting our way against the steady stream of tour buses. Asphalt gave way again to red dust and rocks.
Halfway through our afternoon, we stopped at a snackstall to refuel, where we rested, roadside. An executive decision was made, and we decided to pretty much try one of everything. On offer were crunchy sweet pastries which inexplicably also had chives. Veg slaw with peanuts and chili sauce. Shaved ice with sugar syrup, condensed milk, and what looked like black-eyed peas.
And just when we were getting ready to hit the road, almost as a nonchalant afterthought, it was mentioned that a temple existed nearby, only 2 kilometers away. Anyone with an inkling about my disposition knows that the word “temple” is like catnip to me; I am incapable of turning down a visit such a place, especially if it’s within a 5 km radius. The shopkeeper pointed us in the right direction, and we were off.
The detour immediately turned from dust to sand, which meant a strenuous ride. As we struggled to stay upright, we came across old ladies pushing several carts piled high with wood, who were having a difficult time navigating the terrain with their cumbersome baggage. We dismounted and gave each cart a bit of a push, sending the ladies on their way. A gaggle of boys watched the whole production, hanging out and wiling the afternoon away.
It was then that I saw one of the boys casually fling something through the air to his friend. The distinct silhouette caught my attention. Limbs splayed, arcing languidly through the air. Did he just throw a mouse?? I took a closer look, and yes, each boy had 3 or 4 mice clenched tightly in his hands. I inquired. The rodents were going to be dinner.
After a few more minutes of stubbornly pushing through the sand, I still saw nothing. It was hard to imagine finding anything out here in the middle of nowhere. Hot and tired, we started questioning our directional capabilities. I began to make mental calculations: how much more energy and time will it take to get home, and do I have enough of both in reserve?… when we came across a puddle bisecting our path. And by puddle, I mean small pond. We pulled up short. I was thinking leeches. I was thinking tetanus. I was thinking I don’t know how deep this sinkhole goes, and who else might be living in there. Which is when our fearless leader gamely plunged in tire first, not giving the matter a second thought.
The top of his pedals were nearly submerged before the resistance of the water unseated him. We watched him dismount his bike and escort it through, forging ahead knee-deep in murky swampishness. In seconds, he was across, no big deal. The rest of us threw caution to the wind and followed suit. If Joe can do it, I’ll be damned if I’m being left behind. Sometimes peer-pressure is the only way to conquer a mental roadblock.
We pushed on for a few minutes, when we found our destination. All this time I had been on the lookout for a Buddhist wat: Bright. Ostentatious. Ornamental. Imagine my surprise when we found another Angkor-style ruin, the muted stones barely visible through the trees. This monument was smaller than Beng Mealea, but this forgotten pile of stones certainly wasn’t in any guidebook. Incredulous at our good fortune, we peeked in and clambered about on the stones (again, I sent out a nervous and silent thanks to the CMAC). In our serendipitous surroundings, we frolicked. We climbed. We played.
It was tempting to while away the rest of the afternoon lost in daydreams of Kampuchea, but the sinking sun was a reminder to hit the road. We retraced our tired steps until we reached the outskirts of Siem Reap - happy to have gone, happy to be home, our bodies spent, our minds already racing with ideas for the Next Big Adventure.