CAMBODIA TALES 2003
Prasat Preah Neak Buos
- the thrill of discovery
The central brick tower of Prasat Preah Neak Buos
Originally constructed at the beginning of the 8th century by King Jayavarman I, Prasat Preah Neak Buos nestles at the foot of a promontory of the Dangrek Mountain range that forms a natural border between Thailand and northern Cambodia. Due to its remote location, inaccessibility and the ever-present danger posed by landmines, its one of the last remaining ancient Khmer temple sites to escape close scrutiny by archaeologists and tourists alike. The possibility of re-discovering an important temple that few have seen in years was the reason for my trip to the far north of Preah Vihear Province, an area that usually attracts adventurous travellers to its other major Angkorean temple sites at Preah Khan, Koh Ker and Prasat Preah Vihear.
Prasat Preah Neak Buos is an unusual monument. Its location demands that it faces south, and with various structures added during the reign of different Kings, it houses an eclectic cluster of temples rather than one large imposing structure. Early inscriptions call the location at the foot of the mountain, Canandagiri and the plain rectangular edifice of laterite and brick first erected at the spot was known as Sivapadapurva. In later years during the 10th and 11th centuries, particularly under the guidance of Kings Jayavarman V and Suryavarman I, additional monuments were built at the same locale, including two brick temples with inscriptions facing east, whereas the original temple faced westwards. In the eleventh century, a new group of buildings were erected, with a large brick sanctuary holding centre stage and other smaller edifices and galleries amidst the rocky outcrops and boulders.
Located just a few kilometres east of the small town of Choam Khsan, Prasat Preah Neak Buos was the only temple site that the local inhabitants believed was still possible to visit. A plethora of other temples in the vicinity were no longer standing in their view, and with landmines making temple-hunting a risky business in this part of Cambodia, I didn't have enough time to put their theories to the test. Instead, Neak Buos would be our target and we enlisted the help of Soveat, our guesthouse owner's son-in-law and his fifteen year old nephew, Chamroeun. Both had visited the temple and just one month before my arrival, they had escorted a Japanese tourist to the site for the first time. Soveat assured my moto-driver Sokhom and I, that whilst hostilities between government and Khmer Rouge forces had stopped only five years previously, landmines had been laid by both sides but outside the temple walls and not inside the compound.
We breakfasted at a market stall opposite our guesthouse, collected provisions for our trip and left at 7.30am on two motos. Neak Buos is a mere nine kilometres from Choam Khsan but for much of the time, the trail consisted of deep sand and was impossible to negotiate without walking. We criss-crossed three deep and dry riverbeds, meandered along a cool and shady forest section and got stuck in ox-cart tracks before we arrived at a police checkpoint, a kilometre or so from the foot of the mountain range, ninety minutes after setting off. The police had practically no experience of foreigners before and expressed surprise that we wanted to visit Neak Buos. They confirmed that there were no landmines inside the temple but that we must stick to the trails for our own safety and waved us on our way. Soon after we spied a laterite wall topped with sandstone blocks which Soveat suggested we visit later in the morning and within a minute or two, the main trail disappeared and we left the motos to continue on foot. Walking through a forested area where mines are a real threat is not my idea of fun but fifteen minutes later we came upon another much larger laterite wall, which Soveat confirmed was the southern entrance to Neak Buos. We had arrived. Nearby, a broken lion statue and a finely carved colonette lying in the grass made my eyes light up at the possibilities of what lay in store just around the corner.
The southern entrance is a mishmash of building styles. On one side is a well-defined stepped laterite wall, whilst the opposite side is a natural ridge with sandstone boulders. The main entrance staircase is overgrown, whilst brick and laterite structures lie in ruin on top of the terrace behind. At one of the outer brick buildings, a damaged lintel at the base of a sandstone doorframe was ferociously guarded by red ants, a common theme throughout my exploration. Walking through the undergrowth along a path of sorts, we encountered another large entrance gopura, this time constructed of brick with a distinctive sandstone double doorframe, before a laterite gopura signalled the beginning of the inner enclosure, where the largest collection of buildings were to be found. Negotiating our way through the vegetation, which was at least two metres high, we stumbled across a sandstone lintel showing Indra and the three-headed elephant, Airavata, poking out of the earth and likely to have come from one of the five brick towers to our left, in the southwest corner of the enclosure. Thorn bushes made up much of the foliage we encountered and I silently cursed myself for not insisting that we brought with us some scythes or axes to cut our way through. In the excitement of the morning, I'd forgotten something so fundamental. As the sharp thorns penetrated my shirt and trousers, I vowed not to make the same mistake again.
By-passing a small laterite building, we headed for the largest of the towers in the center of the inner enclosure. Like so many of the more dramatic of Cambodia's ancient temples, this was partly engulfed in the clutches of a strangler fig tree whose trunk sprouted skywards from the top of the tower. As we got closer we could hear the bats inside the tower signal our presence and the smell of their droppings was overpowering when I peered into the gloom of the sanctuary. The tower is of brick construction and has a stepped-pyramid or tapered appearance, opening out to the south. It was built later than most of the other structures and has survived in a much better condition. The main doorway, the three other doorways are false, boasted half a decorative lintel with an elephant and hermits in meditation, and a broken colonette. Lying closeby was the other half of the lintel where apsara dancers flying above the remaining two elephants had their heads chipped away. I could find no other decoration on the tower as we inched our way through the brush to a large laterite gallery, with crude sandstone pillared windows, on the east side of the courtyard. Climbing to the top to gain a better view of our surroundings, we could just make out the pinnacle of at least eight towers but it emphasised exactly how wildly overgrown with vegetation the site was. We rested for a while, listening to the quietness of the surrounding forest as our exertions had been tiring and perspiration was running down my face and neck in rivulets. The overhead sun was not yet at its zenith but it was certainly hot and humid enough for me.
As Sokhom and Soveat retraced our steps, Chamroeun, looking far younger than his fifteen years, took me on a more difficult route around the rear of the central brick tower, stepping gingerly through the thorn bushes and on top of discarded bricks and boulders. There was no path, we made it up as we went. A sandstone lotus flower, fallen from the summit of a tower and another half lintel protruding from the ground led us onto another two brick towers, in various stages of ruin. Both opened out to the east and both had inscriptions on their sandstone doorjambs. Sokhom had joined us and read a few words from the first one as it was written in Pali, an old Khmer script whilst the second was in the more ancient language of Sanskrit, which he couldn't read. I couldn't find any other decoration on these two towers. Closeby was the original temple, known as Sivapadapurva, built in the eighth century and with its main doorway opening to the west. The base of the tower was laterite, whilst the top half was made of brick and housed another Sanskrit inscription, with some modern graffiti superimposed, as well as a perfectly rounded colonette and an intricate piece of carving. A few bats had also made their home in the upper reaches of its sealed tower. Another brick tower, opening out in a southern direction, stood a few metres away.
From atop the gallery we had spied another set of structures, lying in the southeast section of the enclosure and that's where we headed next. We were two hours into our exploration of Prasat Preah Neak Buos and whilst we hadn't exactly uncovered a real jewel in comparison with other Khmer temples sites I'd visited, the thrill of exploring a virgin site was no less palpable. Reaching the southeast corner, next to the surrounding laterite wall were two very ruined brick buildings. In front of the first was a large lintel with Indra, Airavata and eight dancing figures in the lower section and a row of hermits in the upper register. Scrambling around in the undergrowth nearby, we found a portion of carved stone with two ascetics meditating and some broken octagonal colonettes. At this point the vegetation was extremely thick and I just managed to reach one of two small sandstone towers, where two lintels with the demon face of Kala were still in situ and another lay on the ground. Balancing precariously on fallen blocks of stone, taking photographs proved frustratingly difficult without hacking away the undergrowth, which wasn't an option open to us. We'd reached as many of the structures as we could within the main enclosure and now headed for the large brick gopura with the double sandstone doorframe. A row of rectangular sandstone posts preceded the doorframe where I noticed a date carved on the stone, 8.2.1904, most likely from one of the French archaeologists that documented Cambodia's temples in the early part of the twentieth century.
After a final inspection of the outer southern entrance, we ended our visit to Neak Buos. The thick undergrowth, the vicious ants and the incredibly hot and muggy conditions had made it a hard slog for nearly three hours but the buzz and excitement of personally discovering a major temple that few, if any, had visited for many years, made it all worthwhile. We returned to our motos and stopped at the laterite wall we'd seen earlier. Through the foliage I could see a sandstone structure on the west side but we could only enter the compound on the east side, where we found a sandstone library with baluster windows and a portion of a lintel. However, the vegetation was even thicker than at Neak Buos and further exploration was simply impossible. I'm unsure of the temple's name, maybe its Prasat Neak Kuoi, though Soveat knew it only as "prasat kuk". We stopped at the nearby police station for over an hour to eat our beef and rice lunch and to mend two punctures on Soveat's moto. Sokhom is an expert when it comes to moto maintenance, so I took the opportunity to grab a nap in the wooden police hut whilst the half-dozen policemen either watched Sokhom at work or collected catfish from a large lake closeby for their own lunch. They re-iterated their surprise to see a foreigner visiting the temple and I explained that more may follow in the near future. I'm not sure how that news was received though they'd treated me with genuine hospitality and warm smiles before we completed the difficult journey back to town. We arrived at a small foodstall at 3pm, in time for Soveat to watch Thai boxing on television and for Sokhom and I to relax with fresh coconut juice and a cold Sprite, at the end of a very satisfying day of adventure. If you are seeking to explore a temple that doesn't conform to the more sanitized versions you find at Angkor and you aren't afraid of a bit of discomfort then Prasat Preah Neak Buos may be just what you're looking for. If you do pay a visit, make sure you heed seriously the warnings about landmines and are accompanied by a knowledgable local.
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New For an in-depth look at Prasat Preah Neak Buos - click here
Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales:
Cambodia Tales 2
January 2003 marked my ninth 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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