Phnom Bakheng – the Mountain Temple on the Mountain

The loose dirt and leaves crunched underfoot, small stones skittering by. I placed my foot further up and stepped forward, and suddenly the mountain dissolved beneath me. I Scooby Doo in place as the hillside transforms into a treadmill, a miniature avalanche below me threatening to send me toppling down, undoing all the progress I’ve made so far and maybe even injuring me.

I flailed my limbs, my arms whirling like the blades of a windmill, and somehow I managed to keep my balance long enough to get onto a more solid footing. I watched the remains of the miniature avalanche tumble down the hillside and come to a stop, its momentum quickly robbed by the jungle without my heavy mass pushing it out of the way.IMG_20151219_130843

I had been bicycling at random through the jungle, and had gotten lost surprisingly quickly. Well, “lost” isn’t quite right, as my GPS was working surprisingly well. More that I had no idea what I would find around the next curve, or what, if anything, I would find at the end of my journey. I biked through a huge open field that reminded me of the scene in Jurassic Park where they first see the apatosaurs, through kilometer after kilometer of hot, sweaty jungle, leaves and branches and spider-webs assaulting my face at irregular intervals, past two small villages, and now I’d found myself at the base of a small mountain. Of course, in the jungle it’s impossible to see more than a few feet in front of you, so I hadn’t realized this was a mountain until the ground became too steep and rugged to bike up, and the path had all but disappeared.

IMG_20151217_134118Standing along, a solitary lion statue stood guard at the base of the mountain. Entrusting my bicycle to it, and trusting it as a sign that there would be something interesting further up the mountain, I started to climb.

Having survived the miniature avalanche, I continued trekking upwards, until I came upon a bridge. I approached the bridge at the opposite angle one usually approaches a bridge. Apparently what I had thought was a path I was following was in fact a rivulet carved by rainwater that this bridge passed over, and now I found myself underneath it, perpendicular to the real path.

I hoisted myself up onto the bridge, glad I had left my bike behind, and then started taking the main path. Though a simple dirt road, it was much quicker going than the jungle riverbed had been, and I quickly found myself at the top of the peak.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I found. It was another pyramidal temple, like Baksei Chamkrong below, but much larger, and in much worse repair. I had stumbled upon the ruins of Phnom Bakheng. IMG_4290

A work crew lounged about, taking a break from the mid-day sun, and one of them saw me and gestured for me to come over. He started trying to explain what parts of the temple were off limits and what weren’t, and then almost immediately gave up and gestured for me to follow him. Walking past signs reading “workers only”, “do not enter”, and “forbidden”, he took me to a set of wooden stairs leading up the side all the way to the top of this mountain-atop-a-mountain.

The view from the terrace was magnificent. I could see everywhere in Angkor. Siem Reap was off in the distance in one direction, the enormous reservoir of the West Baray in another, and in a third, the only other piece of Angkor’s architecture that fully rose above the surrounding trees: Angkor Wat. IMG_20151217_135922

I’d been looking for solitude, and I’d found it. Despite being totally exposed, I felt completely private, as no one could see me with the jungle in the way. I stayed up there quite a while, resting in the shade, enjoying the cool breeze, and spying on the jungle below, until my stomach informed me that it was time to find some food.

Photos are by me. To get to Phnom Bakhen, go north on the main road past Angkor Wat. There will be a series of fairly well hidden dirt paths leading into the jungle on your left; take any of them and wander long enough, going uphill whenever you have the opportunity to do so.

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