CAMBODIA TALES 2001
Kompong Chhnang uncovered
Photos to follow
Kompong Chhnang isn't a provincial town that has obvious attractions for the tourist hordes visiting Cambodia these days. For most, they catch a glimpse of it as they whizz by on the speedboat between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap or for a handful, its a brief stop on Highway 5 as they take the bumpy route between the capital and Battambang. For me, it was an opportunity to while away some time in a sleepy riverside town and to seek out some ancient temples I'd heard about in the area.
It was standing room only for late arrivals as the Ho Wah Genting air-con bus left the southwest side of the central market on the dot at 8am. Earlier,I'd eaten breakfast at the Dara Reang Sey hotel and got a moto to the bus stop, paid 4,500 riel for my ticket and luckily grabbed the last empty seat. Highway 5, running alongside the Tonle Sap river, was badly rutted and in poor condition and it took ninety minutes to reach the Prek Kdam ferry where a long line of trucks waited their turn to cross. Once we'd passed the border marker into Kompong Chhnang province the flooded lowlands disappeared and were replaced by bright green rice fields. An hour away from our destination and we came to a grinding halt. The Khmer woman next to me, on holiday from her home in New York, translated the driver's instruction for everyone to get off the bus as the bridge ahead was broken. A short walk through the throng milling around the scene and across the rickety bridge and we were soon on our way aboard the replacement bus, reaching the centre of Kompong Chhnang, half an hour before mid-day.
I'd been warned that accommodation in town was fairly limited, so I established my bearings and headed for the Victory Monument where I knew that Sokha's guesthouse was closeby. Located in a quiet, leafy lane, Sokha was on hand to welcome me, his first tourist for a week and in broken English recalled that he'd heard of some old 'prasats' over the river. My second floor room was a comfortable double with fan, tv and bathroom for $8. I headed back out for a look around and was immediately swamped by children from two nearby schools, who enthusiastically shouted their hello's, a feature which became comonplace throughout my short stay in town. The heat was already unbearable and dust clouds had left a thick coat of bownish-red on everything in sight. Near the central market I collared a group of card-playing moto drivers but none spoke English, although undeterred, I hired the friendliest to drive me around town. Very quickly I realised Kompong Chhnang was well spread out from one end to the other. A two kilometre causeway joins the larger part of town which straddles the Highway with the bustling waterfront area. In between is shanty stilt housing, a distinctive water-tower and a colourful wat, while the boat dock area was a mess, smelly and busy with food traders and rows upon rows of those clay pots that you see everywhere in town. A few run-down French colonial buildings, including a tired-looking hotel, face out onto the Tonle Sap river.
Exploring both halves of town, we stopped at a couple of wats, one by the river and another, Wat Talmiat, both of which had the usual indoor paintings lining the walls, although a couple of friendly monks at the latter pagoda were determined not to let me go until I'd answered every conceivable question they could make up. I saw the gates of the dormant runway, the largest in the country, which has been earmarked for development but the heat was overwhelming so I took a drinks break at the Mekong restaurant, with its English menu, and watched a kick-boxing match on tv with a small posse of policeman. They told me that a bar run by an expat called the Halfway Pub had closed a few months earlier, but only after I returned to the cafe after a fruitless search! As I walked back to Sokha's through the tree-lined side streets and past numerous colonial buildings in the administrative quarter of town, I got into a conversation with an off-duty policeman outside the local prison. Chhoun Chom-Roune spoke a smattering of English and jumped at the chance to help me find the Angkorean-era temples over the river the next day, as they were located in his home district and it would enable him to visit his family at the same time. After my initial concerns that finding the temples may prove tricky, a plan was forming and we agreed to meet at 6am the following morning.
After a shower and a snooze, I walked into the pitch-black streets to find a place to eat but the lively Samaki restaurant was housing a private party and everywhere else appeared closed. Traffic was light, shadowy figures passed closeby and I struck up a conversation with a male student after he opened up with the popular ice-breaker, 'hello, what is your name'. He explained that nothing much happened on Friday night's or any night for that matter and I resigned myself to returning to the Mekong restaurant for supper. The tv was switched on as I arrived and the service was lightning quick for their only customer. Unfortunately, the fried chicken and fries were awful. I searched for a tikalok stand but without success, although a full moon brightened up the walk back to Sokha's and I was back in my room by 8.30pm. In the morning, Chhoun was half an hour late but it didn't matter as we took a moto to the dock and negotiated with the young boatwomen for one of their craft to ferry us across to the other side of the wide river. At $4 it was an expensive ride but turned out to be a pleasant and enjoyable twenty-five minute voyage across a placid and windless Tonle Sap river and past a handful of floating houses and the regular passenger ferry. Waiting for us at the small dock at Kompong Leaeng was one of Chhoun's brothers, Ne, and before we began our exploration, we stopped for a beef and noodle breakfast at a market stall. Around the corner we paused at Chhoun's family home to meet his parents and get another moto, with Nat, another brother, as driver.
Ne, my driver and the youngest of seven brothers, held up three fingers when I asked him how many ancient temples he knew of in the vicinity. His moto was well-padded with good suspension and despite the sandy track, waterlogged in places, was the most comfortable moto I'd ever ridden. We stopped at the hamlet of Phnom Dar where most of the villagers gathered round to see the foreigner playing football with the youngsters and ninety minutes after arriving on the far bank, we saw our first temple, an eighth century structure. Prasat Srei is a substantial single brick tower with flying palaces (or representations of the temple in miniature) on the sides, three false doors and damaged lintels. It was located in the grounds of a small school and we shared tea with two young monks and two older laymen before moving on. An hour later, we left our moto in Chunok village and walked along the tops of a series of dykes and open fields, past bemused workers, to another brick temple, in the shade of a large tree. This was Prasat Koh Kralor and whilst less imposing than the first temple, it too had flying palaces, denoting the same period of construction, a broken linga inside and part of a lintel on the ground. The walk back to the village took about ten minutes, so we rested in the shade of one of the houses where girls were pounding and cooking the poorly graded rice. It tasted pretty foul as did their rice wine but they seemed to find my attempt at pounding the rice amusing enough. A few kilometres along the track, Chhoun acknowledged a shout from a police hut at the entrance to a small village and we pulled over to say hello to one of his police colleagues. Word quickly spread and more of his chums arrived, so we took seats inside the hut and enjoyed a half-hour break from the sun, while Chhoun, his brothers and friends enjoyed more rice wine and a plate of dried fish. If this is an example of the life of a village policeman then where do I apply!
An hour later we searched for our final temple after turning back towards our starting point. We were still fifteen kilometres away from Chhoun's family home when we were directed to a temple a little way across the dry fields. It turned out to be a ten minute walk, along a single sandy path, where we saw some local women and children washing in a muddy pool. They showed us how they dug a hole and waited for it to fill with clear water despite the ground being bone dry on the surface. The two brick towers themselves were in a ruined state and devoid of decoration, with the bricks of a middle third tower scattered at our feet. Two young girls who'd followed us across the fields called the temple Prasat Leaq Pdey. Back on the road, we disected a wedding party which was taking place under an awning stretched across the sandy track before reaching Chhoun's family home just before 1pm. Our temple-hunting adventures had lasted more than five hours so I was more than happy to accept Chhoun's invitation to eat lunch with his family and to rest before returning across the river. Their large home on stilts had a wide open verandah where all of us sat in shade, Chhoun and myself, his father Sarun and his mother, seven brothers, two sisters and their children, as well as two friends of his father who were a little disappointed that I spoke no French. A tasty meal of chicken and fish, washed down with rice wine and bottled water and followed by a siesta was just what I needed after the morning's exertions. I was keen to return to Phnom Penh for a birthday party later that evening, so at 3pm Chhoun and I said our goodbyes, I paid his two brothers for their services and we chartered a larger boat to return us to the opposite boat dock, across the river which was as still as a millpond.
As we passed the bus stop near the Victory Monument, I asked the bus driver to wait for five minutes while I collected my bag from Sokha's, which he did. I thanked Chhoun for his help and friendship and gave him a small gift before ending my brief stay in Kompong Chhnang. With the bridge still down, we changed buses again and finally rolled into Phnom Penh's central market at 7pm. The ride was terribly bumpy and that induced one youngster near me to suffer acute travel sickness for the whole trip. After a quick shower at my hotel, I joined the party at the Wang Dome restaurant in 240 Street celebrating the birthday of a friend, Kulikar Sotho, the partner of Nick Ray, Lonely Planet's Cambodia author. The buffet was delicious and far removed from my meal at the Mekong restaurant in Kompong Chhnang the night before and amongst the guests I met a VSO worker from my hometown - a small world indeed. Srun and Reangsey picked me up and delivered me back to my hotel a little before midnight to round off a contrasting but thoroughly enjoyable two days.
Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales.
Cambodia Tales 2
November 2001 marked my 7th 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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