Angkor moments

Photos to follow


The Khemera speedboat moored at the boat dock opposite the Riverside Hotel was packed solid with foreigners and Cambodians, the westerners perched precariously on top, the locals below eagerly watching music videos. The boat left on time at 7am, an hour after I'd woken up, showered, ate my ham and eggs breakfast and been ferried to the dock by one of the Dara Reang Sey staff. The trip went smoothly, albeit loudly with a variety of languages, high-pitched videos and the boat's noisy engine, until we reached the mouth of the Tonle Sap lake, when the low water level caused us to stop suddenly. A great deal of pushing and pulling followed and the boat was on the move, only to run aground again almost immediately and intermittently thereafter. We eventually arrived at the floating village of Chong Khneas nearly six hours after leaving Phnom Penh, though the water level meant a mad scramble to board a flotilla of smaller boats in order to reach dry land. The ride along the channel towards Phnom Krom took fifteen minutes and a call ahead on the mobile telephone lent to me by Reangsey confirmed that Rieng, my close friend and moto-driver was waiting to meet me. Amid the rugby scrum that accompanied our arrival, Rieng shook my hand, grabbed my bag and we were off along the dusty road to Siem Reap. He dropped me at the Cham Nan guesthouse ($6 for a pleasant enough twin room with fan and bathroom), giving me an hour or so to settle in and a short walk to the Ivy bar next to the indoor market at the southern end of town, for a pepsi and a bar-snack.

At 2.30pm Rieng returned and we took a leisurely drive to Wat Athvea, a laterite temple and modern pagoda we'd visited before and then crossed the Siem Reap river to look for two old temples, Prasat Kok Thlok and Kuk O Chrung. Stopping frequently to ask directions and quiz the locals for the whereabouts of these small structures, we located Kok Thlok in the middle of a field. Surrounded by a dry moat, this ruined brick temple with sandstone doorways had definitely seen better days. A few curious villagers and a gaggle of barking dogs accompanied our inspection of the scant remains, a few hundred metres from one of the back roads leading to the Roluos group of temples. We also found the remnants of Kuk O Chrung. This brick temple had fared even worse as the road itself had split the temple in two and apart from a broken sandstone pedestal and a few red bricks, covered in weeds, nothing else remained. Unfortunately, a cloudy sky indicated a trip to view the sunset from the top of Phnom Krom wouldn't be worthwhile, so I rounded off the day with dinner at the Continental Cafe, a drink at a new bar, Wat's Next, adjoining the Angkor What? pub and was tucked up in bed by 9.30pm.

For my first full day in Siem Reap, Rieng collected me in the dark at 5am and we headed for Angkor, stopping at the ticket-booth to hand over my $20 admission fee. Instead of joining the usual hordes at Angkor Wat, we headed for the bathing pool at Srah Srang to watch the sunrise in relative peace and quiet. About a dozen other tourists had the same idea, so the souvenir sellers, who now include coffee and croissants amongst their wares, kept their chatter and sales pitch at a constant level, as the sun rose behind the naga balustrades and terrace and reflected in the waters of the large pool. Rather than return to town, we began our temple touring at the isolated trio of towers of Bat Chum, with its doorjam inscriptions, lintels and broken lions. A cart-load of schoolchildren invited me to ride with them, with Rieng trailing behind, as we headed for Banteay Kdei, an underrated temple with face towers at its four entrances, where I had the temple completely to myself. Ta Prohm was our next stop. Initially we called in at Shanti's foodstall, at the western entrance, to say hello and enjoy a breakfast of noodles and coffee, before a walk around the complex.

To enjoy a temple seen by very few visitors to Angkor, I usually head for Ta Nei, my next port of call. A winding, sandy trail takes you through the forest to this 12th century structure, which is being used as a training temple for students learning how to restore Angkor's monuments. Surrounded by the forest and accompanied by the sounds of gecko's and cicadas, Ta Nei, with its lintels, pediments and wall carvings deserving of close inspection at a leisurely pace, is occasionally off-limits to tourists. A quick pause at the awesome Victory Gate leading into the city of Angkor Thom, then down a narrow leafy trail to the Eastern Prasat Top (also known as Mangalartha), spotlighted by the sun streaming through a hole in the forest canopy. This was a small shrine on a tall base with ferocious ants, an inscription on the door and a few pediments and lintels showing Vishnu in various guises, lying on the ground nearby. Its another small temple that rarely sees visitors. Our last two stops before leaving Angkor Thom were at Vihear Prampil Loveng, where an ancient temple terrace now houses a modern shrine, surrounded by lion and elephant statues and a laterite wall, and at the final resting place of Jean Commaille. He was a painter and the first curator of the Angkor Park in 1908 and lived in a straw hut beside the Angkor Wat causeway until he was murdered in 1916. His burial stupa is next to the Bayon and is topped off with a decorative lintel and colonettes.

Leaving Angkor Thom,we took the airport road on the hunt for a temple known as Prasat Trapeang Ropou, which we found in a field behind a wire fence, close to the airport grounds. Comprising three ruined brick towers and a library, the sandstone doorways, lintels and colonettes are still standing amongst the rubble littering the field. Back in Siem Reap, we encountered a real novelty, the town's first-ever traffic light before I showered and rested at the guesthose before reuniting with Rieng for a visit to Angkor Wat, primarily to spend some time with Noung and her family at their souvenir stall. I first met Noung five years earlier when I found her spirit and energy captivating for such a youngster and we've remained friends since. The good-natured stall-holders, located next to the pool in front of the majestic temple, were in high spirits as they made their playful pitch for customers amongst the trickle of tourists, whilst her ten year old niece, Mom, reminded me of Noung when I first met her. Nearby, the setting sun threw gorgeous yellow and gold light onto the front of Angkor Wat, as I returned to town for a shower before Noung, her brother Plon and cousin, Srey, arrived on moto's at 7pm for dinner at the refurbished Bayon restaurant. I was impressed with the improvements to the restaurant since my last visit, it now has two floors, the food remains of good quality and cheap and the shadow puppet show was a pleasant diversion as we chatted.

Following my Kulen exertions, I was in the mood for a less hectic day, my final one in Siem Reap. Rieng and I kicked it off with an 8am visit to the Angkor Conservation depot, a couple of kilometres north of the town. I'd visited the depot before and it contains much of the free-standing statuary and carvings that have been removed from the Angkor temples for safe-keeping. For that reason, its a treasure-trove of Angkorean sculpture and definitely worth a visit (at a cost of $5). The gates were open and no-one was around when we arrived, though five minutes later the head storeman, Kleng Reach, appeared and recognised me from my previous visits. We wandered around the exhibits in the main courtyard before Reach opened up the smaller of the main storerooms. This has a massive collection of stone heads from the entrances to Preah Khan and Angkor Thom, many finely carved lintels from around the country and large inscription stones and steles in abundance, including the main stele removed from Preah Khan in the last couple of years. He told us that the Conservation hierarchy hope to open up its own museum within two years in order to display the wealth of Angkorean art that the depot currently houses under lock and key.

Along the east bank of the river, I saw a sign for 'Angkor Wat in miniature' and quickly located the home and workshop of Dy Proeung, who has built not only a reduced version of Angkor Wat and Banteay Srei but is half way through a model of the Bayon and has plans to erect his tribute to Preah Vihear as well. Proeung, who spent forty years on the Angkor Conservation depot staff, looks older than his 65 years but is as bright as a button and is clearly proud of the painstakingly detailed work that sits in the courtyard of his home. He beamed a toothless grin as he showed me his certificates, trophies and a photo taken when King Sihanouk visited his exhibition. A charming man and a talented sculptor. Next stop was Wat Rajabo, also known more widely as Wat Bo, the oldest of the town's pagodas, dating from the 18th century and with the usual scenes from Buddha's life decorating the interior walls of the main vihara. We also visited the head monk's quarters to see a collection of ceramic pots and a display case with human skulls from the 6th century, as well as a selection of leather shadow puppets, for which the pagoda is famed.

Nearby is Wat Damnak, where the headquarters of the Center for Khmer Studies has sprung up over the last couple of years and where it houses its impressive and well-stocked library. The center, an independent institution for promoting, researching and teaching Khmer studies, has renovated a library (designed by Maurice Glaize, Angkor curator in the 1940's), conference hall and school buildings in the grounds of the pagoda. I met John Weeks, the assistant director, who explained why the center was formed and what it hopes to achieve as we visited the refurbished library, busy with Khmer students. (To read more about the center, visit their website at It was still early, so Rieng and I decided to head out north of the Angkor Park to seek out a couple of ancient temples he'd heard about but had never seen. As you can imagine, this was music to my ears, so off we went. We told the guards at the ticket booth that we were headed for Svay Chek which meant that the admission fee wasn't payable and just past Preah Khan we took the road heading north. Stopping to ask locals for the whereabouts of one of the temples, Prasat Char, they pointed haphazardly across fields in a faraway direction. Rieng decided to follow their directions and we bumped across a series of barren fields, dykes and through tiny hamlets for forty-five minutes before reaching Char village. The temple, which Rieng believed was tenth century, comprised three towers, two of them of a sandstone and brick mixed construction and a third, laterite. Surrounded by a large moat, the central tower had an inscription on its sandstone doorway.

Returning to Angkor, as we approached the village of Svay Chek, we stopped at Wat Neam Rup, where the main vihara is under construction and next to it is Prasat Neam Rup, a ruined 11th century sandstone structure with beheaded apsara carvings on its walls. A friendly monk and giggling female drinks vendors waved us off as we made our way back to Siem Reap for lunch at the Ivy bar, where I bumped into Gordon Sharpless, an email acquaintance and fellow internet chronicler. Our deliberately easy afternoon drive began at 3pm when Rieng took us out to the area north of the Western Baray to return to a couple of temples we'd been to before. Furthest away were the brick towers of the 8th century Prasat Kok Po, which contained one solitary lintel and broken colonettes amongst the undergrowth. My mobile rang and it was my brother who'd just arrived in Siem Reap so we arranged to meet at the Red Piano later that evening for dinner. The kids and villagers waved their hello's as we moto'd to Prasat Phnom Rung, where the vegetation had been cleared away, revealing a few bricks, three sandstone pedestals, a lintel and broken colonettes. Another phonecall and this time it was Noung to say goodbye, as she was on her way to the border with Thailand with her mother to buy some stock for her souvenir stall. Back in Siem Reap, Rieng and I parked ourselves at the Red Piano bar for supper, meeting my brother Tim and his girlfriend Andrea, fresh from two weeks in Vietnam. Nick Ray, the Lonely Planet author, popped in to say hello before we stopped for refreshing tikalok drinks outside Tim's hotel, the Angkor Temple, on my way back to my guesthouse for the last time. I would meet Tim and Andrea in Phnom Penh in a few day's time after my expedition to Kompong Thom and then Preah Vihear in the far north of the country.

Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales.

Cambodia Tales

Cambodia Tales 2

March 2002 marked my eighth 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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