CAMBODIA TALES 2001
Overview - November 2001
Photos to follow
For my seventh visit to Cambodia, I arrived in Siem Reap after a tiring twelve hour flight from Heathrow via Singapore. Amid the throng of moto-drivers touting for business outside the airport, Kim Rieng's beaming smile stood out a mile and we moto'd into town where I dropped my rucksack at the Hanuman Alaya guesthouse and we spent the afternoon visiting some of the smaller temple sites west of Siem Reap town and surrounding the Western Baray, namely Prasat Patri, Kok Chrok, Ak Yom, Prasat Phnom Rung and Prasat Kok Po. A flying visit to watch the sunset at Phnom Bakheng gave me the chance to meet up with Noung, a long-standing souvenir seller friend and then back into town for some dinner at the Red Piano with a couple of friends, Nick Ray and Kulikar Sotho, who'd just finished accommodating a tv crew from the UK. Nick is the Lonely Planet editor for Cambodia and both of them played a big part in the filming of Tomb Raider in Angkor a year before.
First thing next morning, I took a pick-up truck for the 3 hour ride to Sisophon, my base for a visit to the secluded Banteay Chhmar the following day. After lunch, Heang and I drove out to see the Golden Buddha at Phnom Banteay Neang and a tour of Sisophon town and environs, including the railway yard, the covered bridge over the Preah Ponlia river and the killing fields stupa at Wat Sopark Mongkol. After joining in a game of soccer with some teenagers, we climbed Phnom Svay to watch a gorgeous sunset from the look-out tower at the top and great views over Sisophon and the surrounding countryside. I ended the day sharing my meal with the local insect population at the otherwise pleasant Pkay Proek restaurant and sleeping at the Phnom Svay hotel.
Departing at 6.30am, it took 1.5 hours to reach Banteay Chhmar by moto. The road to Thma Puok was dusty but in good condition, but deteriorated afterwards. For the next 2.5 hours I had the temple all to myself. Its a massive site, much of it is a jumble of fallen stone but around each corner is a real gem, whether it be a superbly carved lintel, a section of bas-relief, one of the two remaining multi-armed Lokitesvaras or one of the four towers still standing with giant faces, identical to those at the Bayon. Banteay Chhmar has also been a rich feeding ground for unscrupulous thieves in recent years and fresh marks on an apsara head indicated the thefts were still taking place. Heang and I then took a detour to visit the three towers at Banteay Torp before a puncture-repair stop in Thma Puok and a visit to Prasat Kaa Sen and its moat in the centre of town. On my return to Sisophon, I had an hour to shower off the layer of dust before getting my return pick-up to Siem Reap. Four hours later, a change of truck en route and I arrived back in town and booked into the Angkor Temple hotel, walking along the riverbank for supper at the Continental Cafe.
Next morning Rieng and I headed out some 25 kms north of the Angkor complex, aiming for the village of Svay Chek, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold, to attempt to locate some temples in the forest. Accompanied by the local police chief and his side-kick, we cut our way through the bush and vegetation to find Prasat Sampou, Prasat Kpok and Prasat Phnom Dei in varying stages of ruin after wading through waterlogged meadows, negotiating deep streams and walking up to seven kilometres in the mid-day sun. After a palm wine refresher at the police chief's home, we returned to Angkor and Ta Prohm to see some friends and then headed back to Siem Reap to book into the Auberge Mont Royal hotel. I ate at the Red Piano that evening with Rieng and Christine Dimmock, an e-mail pal from Australia who was in town.
Early next morning I returned to the Hanuman Alaya, with its exquisite rooms and helpful staff, and after a quick visit to the two towers of Preah Einkosei near the Angkor Conservation compound, I purchased a day ticket and headed for the little-visited south west corner of Angkor Thom. A very pleasant drive along the top of the embankment took us to Run Tadev, Beng Thom and the SW Prasat Chrung and onto the West Gate and Western Prasat Top before I spent an hour at the Bayon, followed by the Baphuon, Eastern Prasat Top, Chau Say Tevoda, Ta Prohm and out to see the lintels at East Mebon. I returned to town for some lunch at the Ivy bar and then spent the afternoon at Angkor Wat with Noung at her family's souvenir and drinks stall, watched the sunset and had supper at the Continental after a visit from Kazuo Iwase, a Japanese friend from Bangkok. Next day the pick-up to Kompong Thom took 4 hours and within an hour of my arrival, Sokhom and I were on the road, heading north out of the city on Route 12 towards Tbeng Meanchey. Six and a half hours later we reached the dusty provincial capital of Preah Vihear province in darkness and after a meal at the Mlup Dong restaurant, crashed out in my spartan room at the 27 May guesthouse.
With no time to settle in, we set off first thing the next morning to cover the 70 kms to the ancient temple complex of Koh Ker along a rutted and sandy ox-cart trail masquerading as a road. Eight hours later and after a food stop in Koulen village, we reached the southernmost temple in the complex, Neang Khmau, housed amidst a wood. We moved onto visit Prasat Kraham and the impressive pyramid temple of Prasat Thom, where I nervously climbed the rickety ladder to the top to enjoy the sunset, whilst Sokhom took a bath in the moat. In the gloom we put up our hammocks at the home of the village chief Yuon, ate a chicken supper with his family and turned in early, tired and weary from our travels. The village came alive at 5am the next morning and we returned to investigate the temple site, which is fighting a losing battle with the dense vegetation, locating another ruined temple, Prasat Bak, before being dissuaded from further exploration by landmine warning signs. The return trip was just as gruelling and I was relieved to arrive back in Tbeng Meanchey, where we booked into the Mlob Trosek guesthouse for a well-earned shower. Before leaving the town the following morning, we called into see the curious monks and remains of a laterite temple at Wat Kuok Beng and then began the arduous 170 kms return trip to Kompong Thom. On the way we stopped to visit another ancient laterite temple at Prasat Kraham Chhouk, saw the work of the de-mining teams along both sides of the highway and the rubber plantations near Phnom Dek.
That night I slept soundly at the brand new Mittapheap hotel, overlooking the Stung Sen river and ate at the Arunras restaurant, an old favourite of mine. Early next day, Sokhom collected me for another day of less strenuous sightseeing. Our first destination was Phnom Pbeng and the temple of Prasat Srokcho, blown to smithereens by US bombs in 1973, followed by a return visit to Kuk Roka and a school next door, before returning to Sokhom's home for lunch. Just after mid-day we took Route 6 northwest of town, past Prey Pros lake and the road improvement scheme on our way to the brick temple of Prasat Andet, perched on a small hill next to a modern wat. That evening Sokhom and his family joined me for dinner at the Somrostbongcham restaurant as a thank you for their genuine friendship and hospitality. Our goodbyes the next morning were interrupted by the arrival of my share taxi and a three hour drive at break-neck speed to Phnom Penh.
My welcome at the Dara Reang Sey hotel was as warm and as friendly as ever and after some lunch, I walked to the National Museum and the FCCC. At 5pm I was collected by my pal Phalla but not before I'd met George Moore, Gordon Sharpless and Phanna, my motodub from my visit to Kratie a year before. In fact, a great deal of my time in Phnom Penh was spent meeting up with friends and acquaintances and that's where I headed with Phalla, for dinner at the home of friends in Tuol Kauk. Next morning the largest motodub I've ever met, Mr Thom, broke the landspeed record as we travelled south along Highway 2 to visit Phnom Chisor, Neang Khmau and Tonle Bati as well as Phnom Tamau. That evening I ate particularly well at the home of Pete Leth and his fiancee Veasna in preparation for my trip by bus to Kompong Chhnang early the next morning. A broken bridge meant the trip took 3.5 hours and I checked into the Sokha guesthouse on arrival. The town is spread out, so I hired a moto to tour the riverfront and elsewhere, stopping at a couple of wats to inspect the wall-paintings and for a meal at the Mekong restaurant. At 7am the next morning, accompanied by Chhoun, a local policeman I'd met, we took a small boat across the Tonle Sap river to Kompong Leang on the opposite bank to begin our hunt for old temples. His two brothers acted as our moto-drivers as we spent the morning searching for, and finding, Prasat Srei, Prasat Koh Kralor and Prasat Leaq Pdey and then had lunch at his parents house before returning to Kompong Chhnang to catch the bus back to Phnom Penh, just in time to join a birthday party at the Wang Dome restaurant for Kulikar Sotho with her family and friends.
I spent a few hours at the Sunrise Children's Village orphanage the next morning, courtesy of Rosanna White, watching the adorable children practice for their forthcoming visit to Australia for a dance festival and after a roast lunch at the Garden Centre Cafe, I moto'd out to Prek Leap with friends to eat corn-cobs and rest in hammocks next to the Tonle Sap river. That same evening more eating was on the agenda as I was invited to a karaoke party at the Tuol Kauk home of friends, before late night tikaloks on Monivong Boulevard. I spent the next day at the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and Tuol Sleng, where I watched a fascinating film called Bophana by Rithy Panh, before a final supper with my Tuol Kauk friends. Goodbyes from the Dara Reang Sey family, and my friends at the airport were upbeat and I returned home to the UK after a free sightseeing trip in Singapore whilst I waited for my connecting flight. That completed trip number seven with the usual bundle of great memories and preparations already in hand for my next visit.
Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales.
Cambodia Tales 2
November 2001 marked my seventh trip to Cambodia since my first-ever visit in 1994. It's a country that has a special magic all of its own and which draws me back every year to venture out into the Cambodian countryside in search of new adventures, ancient temples and to catch up with the friends I've made from previous visits. Each trip is full of laughter, smiles and a host of fresh experiences and my latest expedition was no exception.
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