A decent breakfast in the hotel and a reasonably early start for the next round of Angkor temples to explore. Again, we headed into the monsoon forest by car, showing our passes and the first stop was the compact Banteay Srei, considered the highest achievement in the art and architecture of classic Angkor civilisation.

This temple is considered one of the most beautiful with its volcanic rock of different subtle shades of green, pink and yellow – and because of the intricate, deep carvings that are in exceptionally good condition. Bas-reliefs depicting myths and stories about Shiva, to whom the temple was dedicated, were deeply and delicately carved.

More temples and archeological sites; Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, Prea Khan and Phnomh Bateng.

Of all these I loved the last three. Neak Prean is not so much a temple as a hospital built by (here he is again) the philanthropic Jayavarman VII. A place of healing, Neak Pean is an island temple within an island located in the middle of the “Sea of Victory”, Jayatataka, a vast reservoir lake, or baray, measuring 3,500 by 900 metres. Dedicated to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, symbol of mercy, the central island rises up in the centre of four pools, each of which is fed by a different gargoyle – heads of a human, a horse, a lion and elephant. To one side, a sculpture of the mythical horse, Balan, who saves all those in need, is seen carrying desperate men to safety, toward the central island.

The lakes were empty of water – they are full only at the end of the monsoon season – and Paul and I clambered in and out of each one in an anti-clockwise direction from south to east as those coming to be healed used to do 900 years ago, finally ending up on the central island. It’s said that pilgrims took the waters at each pool, picking the herbs and plants that grew around each of them and taking them as healing medicine in order to get well. The power of suggestion is a great thing. I came bouncing out of there full of energy, racing up steps as if I were eighteen again.

Having been “healed” I tested my luck by trying out a dish that Vong told me was “poison soup”. At another airy, bamboo and rush-roofed eatery in the jungle we sat and ate lunch and I just couldn’t resist trying out this soup, called samlor ka kor, after hearing Vong’s story. During the reign of one of the ancient Angkor Kings, it was found that one of the royal retinue, usually eunuchs, had somehow escaped the snip and had conducted an illicit affair with one of the royal concubines. The court conspired to get rid of this pseudo-eunuch, but felt unable to kill him in too obvious a manner. They therefore concocted a soup using the most poisonous plants they knew of and cooked it up with fish and served it to him. Their intended victim wolfed it down and asked for more as it was so delicious.

Not only did he not die, the soup went on to become a delicacy and continues to appear on Cambodian menus today. “Not using poisonous leaves any more though” said Vong. I was quite glad about that. It was deliciously herby with a chilli zip, like a soupy green fish curry and I lived to tell the tale.

At Preah Khan we saw the first of the temples which have been left as they were when they were found after long centuries of abandonment. Enormous trees grew out of, on top of and through the temple which had become swallowed up by the nature around it. We would see an even more impressive example of this the next day – Ta Prohm – which was used for filming Tomb Raider, on which more on the next post.

We ended our day of temple visits with a climb up to Phnomh Bateng. “Phnomh” means “mountain” in Khmer, and this one was one of the very few around. Temples built on flat ground had several levels rising up to a peak in the centre, symbolically representing a holy mountain. This one, said Vong, was a temple on a real mountain.

He left us to climb up and explore – we began our ascent accompanied by traditional Cambodian music played by men who eked out a living this way since losing limbs stepping on hidden mines. There are still many in Cambodia.

Vong had brought us here to watch the sunset over Angkor. As we approached the summit the temple appeared, and we clawed our way up extremely steep sets of stairs to get to the top. Still full of beans from my visit to Neak Pean, I raced to the top. All around us the light was becoming golden as the sun began to set. The whole world was there at the temple at the top of the mountain and we could hear Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Swedish, Portuguese and of course, Khmer. Normally I’d balk at being surrounded by so many people but the atmosphere was that of a party. Everyone smiling and chatting and sharing in the experience, including a group of monks whose robes glowed bright in the light of the setting sun.

All around us stretched an extraordinary view – the dense jungle-forest; Angkor Wat, the whole of the massive East Baray reservoir, gleaming silver, many temples. Far on the horizon, storm clouds drifted, flashing occasional lightning. It was a spectacular and dramatic sight.

We, along with the world up there, watched the sun go down. It started to become dark and a few spots of rain announced that it was time to go; steep steps had to be negotiated safely while there was still light – there was no artificial lighting anywhere in the vicinity.

We arrived back in town and had a bite to eat at the stylish looking FCC Angkor hotel restaurant. We weren’t terribly impressed with the food and wished we’d eaten at the street-side restaurant near our hotel which was always full of Cambodians. We’d save that for tomorrow. Once back at the hotel, I slept better than I’d done for months.