Temples Further Flung
The day after I visited Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom I took a tour to a number of temples further out from Siem Reap. I had opted for a small group tour organized by the Villa Siem Reap, an Austrailian-run hotel and tour company that practices "responsible tourism." They limit their tours to eight people, and this day there were only four of us (all repeats, minus one, from the day before). For a single traveler this is a cost-effective option because you don't have to arrange your own transportation and guide, which would end up costing more. Plus you have the advantage of an air conditioned van and similarly oriented travelers to chat with. The Villa supplies lunch and water with their full-day tours, so I'd say that at $22 for Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and $30 per person for the "Outlying Adventure" I'm about to tell you about it's good value. Their guides and drivers are top notch, their booking process is efficient, and they will pick you up at whatever hotel you're staying at. You can book by email before you get to Siem Reap or contact The Villa when you're in town.
The first temples we visited that day were the Roluous Group, the earliest temples in the area, dating from the 9th century.
Preah Ko has some fabulous carvings and amazingly well-preserved Sanskrit inscriptions:
Bakong is more majestic:
Banteay Srei has some of the most intricate and extensive carvings of all the temples, many representative, and quite a lot purely ornamental, which is not really the norm at Cambodian temples. It has become a popular destination, and my little group had to strategically work our way around the massive South Korean tour groups, often 40 at a time.
Koreans are the largest national group of tourists to the Angkor region, but they almost always travel in big groups, stay at Korean hotels, eat at the many Korean restaurants now in Siem Reap, and bring their own guides, since none of the local Khmer guides speak Korean. When visiting a popular temple it's common to see a tour leader holding a Korean flag to keep his flock together.
I noticed a similar phenomenon with older Japanese tourists in India. They see the sights, but they don't get to know the country or its people. They miss some of the best the country has to offer, and they're shielded from the worst. And the worst is an integral part of the experience.
After Banteay Srei we went to Banteay Samre, mainly for the peacefulness of the place. It's not on the major tour itineraries, so we had it mostly to ourselves.
But my favorite part of the day was easily the climb, sometimes strenuous, sometimes treacherous, but not too, to the top of Kbal Spean, a hill site also known as "the valley of a thousand lingas," as the landscape is dotted with Shiva lingas, or stylized representations thereof (or maybe Shiva just couldn't get it up on the mountain). Among the natural forestation, one comes upon beautiful carvings here and there, as if someone had set up a treasure hunt. A guide is especially useful at this place.
I think my favorite single thing in the whole Kbal Spean area is the stylized linga representation set in a pool of water, shown at the top, that reminds me of a Zen rock garden.