More than two million people will come to Cambodia before this year is out, and it’s a number that’s projected to keep rising as the years roll on. The government is preparing for six million visitors in 2015 and, since most of them will presumably still be coming primarily to visit the temples, it’s going to start getting seriously (even more) crowded around there indeed, especially at the “big three” (Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm). But the Angkor Archaeological Park is littered with dozens (actually hundreds) of temples that are not on the hordes’ itineraries, where you can take time, and space, to wander, appreciate and enjoy the handiwork of the Khmer Empire.
Three of them are Preah Palilay, Ta Nei and Banteay Samre, each unique in their own way and each worthy of a visit. Banteay Samre is the furthest away, past the gorgeous, jungle villages that line the road running east from East Mebon. The small temple has been beautifully restored, though its remote location means that it has unfortunately suffered from extensive looting.
The path to Banteay Samre from the road comes from the north but you’re better to avoid the steps in front of you and turn east (left) in order to approach it from its proper direction. On the eastern side, you’ll find a long causeway and a cruciform terrace that is guarded by stone lions. It’s a lovely, tranquil spot and worth spending a moment before heading in through the gopura, or gateway. Inside you’ll find yourself within a small temple made of two laterite enclosure walls that surround the inner sanctuary. Unusually, the area between the outer and inner enclosure walls was once an internal moat.
Banteay Samre has a lovely atmosphere, created as much from the warmth of the laterite walls and from the sense of space even within a small temple. The stone work on the inner sandstone gopuras is gorgeous as well. Banteay Samre’s carvings depict scenes from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, and are noted for being particularly fine as well as showing scenes not often found in other temples.
Most people suggest Ta Prohm as the place to go if you want to imagine how the temples may have looked when the early French explorers rediscovered them. However, much of Ta Prohm’s charm is being lost to ongoing restoration works, and the crowds. Far better to seek out the nearby but relatively remote temple of Ta Nei. It is the archetypal “jungle temple”, lost in the forests to the north of Ta Prohm. Ta Nei is small and difficult to access thanks to the tumult of fallen stones (you should preferably visit wearing sensible shoes, and exercise caution as you go), but it is beautifully entwined with its environment notwithstanding that the area around it has been cleared. It is a very romantic spot whose tone is set by birdsong and chanting from the nearby pagoda rather than the ‘clink, clink’ of hammers on stone.
Just to the north of the Royal Palace and Elephant Terrace is a small path that leads you from the main road past a working pagoda (Wat Tep Pranam) towards Preah Palilay, a small temple whose construction date remains unknown. It is a very peaceful setting, and there is something about it that provokes a contemplative mood. Not a great deal remains: a small, but attractive cruciform terrace (with a recently added statue of the Buddha), which links to the eastern gopura, or gateway. This is inaccessible, but you can climb over the wall to the left. In front of you is a tall tower which forms the central sanctuary, which was actually much higher than today.
The gopura features some lovely carvings from Buddhist mythology which are definitely worth a look, while the central sanctuary features both Buddhist and Hindu imagery. As with Ta Nei, there is a distinct possibility that the soundtrack to your visit may be the sound of monks chanting from the nearby pagoda, adding a depth of experience that is hard to achieve at the bigger, more well-known sites.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 25th February, 2015.