13 Feb 2008

The first thing we see at Beng Melea temple, two hours out of Siem Reap, is a sign announcing the successful clearing of the surrounding minefield.

There's a "completed" date. But, rather chillingly, there's also a "found at" date. The sign doesn't say, and I don't ask, how they found it.

The humanitarian standard for minesweeping is 99.6% removal, or one remaining mine per 250 originals. Okay, no problem, but I'm not going to walk on the ground.

This turns out to be an incredibly liberating decision at the most spectacular site we've visited in the region - and I'm including Angkor Wat. Beng Melea is a large complex, and it's largely still standing, apart from the roof. This leaves huge piles of boulders - the fallen roof - in the middle of each room, along with exposed, accessible roof supports, which I run along.

I pause at each corner to examine the stonework and the carvings. Many of the Buddhas' faces have been chiselled off by religious vandals. But the damage done by nature is fascinating. Huge trees grip the walls with wooden tentacles. Some have burst through the stonework; others have germinated on top of the buildings. Creepers hang down over the mounds of enormous square blocks where structures have collapsed, and I have to resist the temptation to swing.

A couple of other stonewalkers come into view. They're not local - perhaps Korean? - but they're moving silently, and at speed. I don't mind. They show me where the accessible ledges are.

But most of the time, I'm on my own. Occasionally I catch sight of earthbound tourists, but I quickly alter my route. As a response to the previous day's constant intrusion at the more popular temples, I'm carrying my earphones. Kaki King provides the perfect accompaniment to my explorations, and drowns out the tour-group chatter that normally carries so well in the still air. I kick the music over to London By Night and up the pace, bounding from rock to rock and racing down the galleries.

Carvings are off-limits. So is anything that's braced, or anything that looks even remotely unstable. But this leaves a lot of rock. Two hours later I've been along the outer wall, I've contemplated the line of arches while sitting on the roof, and I've spent quite a long time on a ledge that turned out to be easier to climb up than down.

The afternoon sun is becoming savage, and I'm slowing down. It's time to amble back to the tuktuk for the long ride back to town. But this, this is my jungle gym.