Chill out in Kompong Thom

My volleyball pals at Toul Thbal school, Knoul village, near Kompong Thom.. Namy is the one holding the ball.

More photos to follow

It's difficult to choose, though one of my favourite locations in Cambodia has to be Kompong Thom, primarily due to the friendliness of the people in and around the provincial capital. Top of the list is my great pal Sokhom and his family, whom I visit each time I return to Cambodia. Reuniting with friends means a great deal to me and is one of the main reasons why I return so regularly. I can't speak highly enough of Sokhom, he's a true friend who I trust implicitly and enjoy his company. His tenacity and resourcefulness has enhanced each of my trips into the Cambodian countryside and I hope many more in the future. On previous visits, I've toured far and wide with Sokhom, travelling north to the major temple sites of Preah Vihear, Koh Ker, Preah Khan and Neak Buos, we've visited the Sambor Prei Kuk group of temples a few times and travelled up and down Route 6 seeking out Angkorean temple sites. My website is littered with travel tales involving my trusty travelling partner.

Following our successful trip to Koh Ker and Preah Vihear, I spent the next couple of days relaxing and winding down in and around Kompong Thom. Up at 7am on day one, I had eggs and coffee for breakfast at the Sen Monorom restaurant next door to my hotel and walked across the bridge over the Stung Sen river to buy water and some snacks at the bustling central market. Back in my air-con room, I was getting into my Jeffery Deaver novel when Sokhom collected me at 10am and we called into the Buddhist Development Institute to use their internet and email access, which Sokhom assured me was the cheapest in town. I answered a few incoming emails and he checked his yahoo account, before we left to pay a flying visit to Wat Kompong Thom, the main pagoda in town, where fresh paintings on the inside walls of the main vihara contain images of the recently-abdicated King, Norodom Sihanouk. Sokhom then suggested we visit Wat Sleng, some six kilometres west of the town centre. He'd been there before but wouldn't tell me why he was so insistent we visit the pagoda, which intrigued me, so off we went. We quickly left the hubbub of the town behind and were out into the countryside travelling along a good quality road raised above the fields, with lots of waves and hello's from smiling locals. At 11.30am we reached Wat Sleng, where an old pagoda was sitting next to a newer version under construction. The old vihara was padlocked-up and standing in front under a man-made shelter were three lintels, two of them in good nick with the third badly eroded, a primitive sandstone pedestal and the wat's small bell-shaped seima stones propped up against the wall. I was pleased we'd made the trip but it soon got even better.

Half a dozen inquisitive monks appeared around the corner to find out why I was there, one of them spoke perfect English and we talked about my visits to Cambodia, they posed for photos, taking ages to adjust their orange robes correctly, before a bell rang and they immediately said goodbye and walked away as quickly as they'd arrived. Just as they left, the keyholder of the old vihara arrived. His name was Taim and he proudly told us he was 82 years old and had lived in the area all his life. He said that an old temple, Prasat Konlang, had existed on this site but had disappeared many many years before and that the lintels outside and those inside were all that remained of the prasat. As I removed my shoes and entered the main sanctuary, he slowly opened up the shuttered windows to reveal a series of five lintels, in excellent condition, cemented into the lower part of the central altar, where a large Buddha statue sat. It looked to me that the lintels came from differing Angkorean periods and styles, though Taim wasn't aware of their age, only that the Khmer Rouge didn't destroy them or the pagoda, as they did many religious structures, because they thought the lintels had special healing powers. Both Taim and the monks re-affirmed the friendly welcome I get from everyone I meet in and around Kompong Thom. After an hour, we returned to town and parked ourselves at a brand new Chinese-run restaurant behind the market called Lay Kim Seng, where we enjoyed a pork and fried rice lunch. We also met a Dutch traveller, who we'd seen on our recent visit to Preah Vihear, who'd coincidentally spent time at a college in my hometown in England. Its a small world.

Just after 1pm we were back on the road, heading south along Route 6 for a few kilometres before we turned left off the highway. Our intention was to enjoy a simple, unhurried moto-ride into the countryside surrounding the town, stop off at a few pagodas enroute as well as meet some of the locals by making regular drink-stops at roadside stalls. The first wat we called into was called Wat Kdei Saen where the main vihara was locked but we did locate a sandstone pedestal and a badly-eroded lintel lying next to a flagpole in the grounds of the pagoda. Some workmen were in one corner of the courtyard and as we watched, one of them used a slingshot to kill a bird, which he rapturously showed to his colleagues. Not exactly what I was expecting to see at a pagoda. We left and rode alongside the Stung Sen river for fifteen minutes, a very pleasant ride with the sun reflecting off the slowly-moving water, before we reached a second pagoda, called Wat Bean Dei. Again the vihara was shut, but next to the large pond where two monks were filling buckets with water, sat no less than eight sandstone pedestals in varying degrees of disrepair. Five small children thought my presence to be particulary funny as they carried a bucket of water on a long pole between them, and were more than happy to pose for a picture when I asked them. Soon after we stopped for sugary drinks at a roadside bench and engaged two shy teenage girls and their mother in conversation, with the trio telling us they were returning home on their bicycles after selling vegetables at the market in town. As usual, our arrival prompted numerous children to appear from nowhere as word spread and the more daring kids took turns in playing tag with me before I bought a handful of sweets and handed them out as a parting gift.

With Sokhom driving slowly through the small villages we came across, as well as two more pagoda stops without anything interesting to report, I asked him to pull into the grounds of a school at Toul Thbal, where I saw a large group of teenagers playing volleyball. Whenever I get the chance, I love to join in when I find groups playing this game, whether it be moto-drivers, farmers or schoolkids, so this was too good an opportunity to miss. A dozen youngsters, around the age of fifteen, were in a circle, which I joined, keeping the ball in the air. Another dozen were standing nearby and watching, clapping every time I kept the ball up with my hands, feet and head. For the next twenty minutes, we played this game, with lots of laughter and funny incidents before I registered my retirement by flopping onto the school steps nearby. I was exhausted. All of the kids were happy to pose for a group photograph, shake my hand and then race away on their bikes, shouting their goodbyes as they disappeared in a cloud of dust. A great bunch of kids and a place I'll return to next time I'm in the area. My exertions demanded cold drinks, so we stopped at the next roadside stall we came to and very quickly, we were surrounded by a group of curious children of between two and ten years old, so again my gift was to buy most of the sweets the stall-owner had for sale and to hand them out to the youngsters. I also had in my bag a couple of soft toys which I gave to the two youngest toddlers, being held by their mothers.

Returning to Kompong Thom, we reached the Mittapheap hotel a little after 4pm. After a shower, I strolled along the riverside as the sun set before walking to the Arunras restaurant, just along from the market, for my evening meal of sweet and sour chicken and rice. The Arunras has been my favoured eatery in town for the last few years and whilst the waitresses change each year, the manager has remained a constant. I keep forgetting to ask his name but he speaks reasonable English and is always there at whatever time of day you turn up. The Arunras must be doing good business as they've refurbished the old Neak Meas hotel next door, stuck in the town's only elevator and opened up the Arunras hotel and night club. I walked to Sokhom's home, just past the petrol station, for my evening tikalok fruit-shake and to chat to my friend, his family and his daughter's English teacher, Keo Sambo. With his help, Kunthea's English is improving fast and I was only too happy to accept an invitation to visit Sambo's evening class the next day, to talk to them and to let them hear a native speaker rather than the accented speech of their teacher. Using Sokhom's mobile phone, I made some calls to friends including author Loung Ung, who was visiting family near Phnom Penh, to see if our paths would cross on this trip, but she was leaving for America the next day, so we briefly discussed her new book, due out in April and her new website before the phone ran out of credit and the conversation ended abruptly. My apologies Loung. By 9pm I was back in my hotel room watching football on television.

Next morning, after breakfast at the Sen Monorom, Sokhom and I were again on the back roads east of Kompong Thom just after 9am, and half an hour later pulled into Wat Samrong Meanchey, which still had its old vihara and internal darkened wall paintings detailing the life of Buddha. Next stop was the village of Kompong Svay, which lends its name to the much larger district, but is in reality a large village hugging the banks of the Stung Sen river. We asked the women working in a vegetable garden on the riverbank if they knew of any ancient prasats or old pagodas and they mentioned Wat Eng Khna, where a lintel now housed in the National Museum, was found. That sparked our interest immediately. On the way to our new goal, we Namy (right), with her sister (middle) and mother at their stall in the village of Knoul.spied an old pagoda on an island in the middle of rice fields and bounced along the tops of dykes to reach it. Vihear Khpork didn't have anything of particular interest to see as it was merely an open-sided vihara with some colourful flags and a small Buddha statue, but Sokhom was told it attracts lots of holidaymakers at Khmer New Year, though the monkey on a lead under a large banyan tree looked less than enthusiastic at the prospect. As we passed through the village of Knoul, I realised we were a stone's throw away from Toul Thbal school where I'd played volleyball the day before. Deciding to stop for a drink, by sheer coincidence, the roadside stand belonged to the mother of fifteen year old Namy, who was head and shoulders better than any of the other girls during yesterday's game, and who was helping her mother on the stall. We chatted to both of them for half an hour, trying various fruits and snacks that the mother conjured up from nowhere. Her mother was divorced and had two daughters. Namy was the oldest and not surprisingly, her favourite subjects at school were sport and English. It was a Sunday so neither sister had lessons that day and as we said our goodbyes, the girls rode off on their bikes to join their friends for another game of volleyball. Our destination was Wat Eng Khna, another five minutes further along the road and just twelve kilometres from town. Disappointingly, I could find no trace of the ancient prasat that produced the lintel, just an old-style open-sided vihara made of wood and cement. Oh well, not every temple-hunt ends in success.

We were back in town by 1pm, returning to the Lay Kim Seng restaurant for our lunch. On the way we stopped to offer help to two female German tourists, who asked us if we knew a 'Mr Sokhom,' as he was strongly recommended in the guidebook they had. I could see a massive grin spreading over Sokhom's face as I held him back and smilingly said Mr Sokhom wouldn't be available until tomorrow! By this time he was fit to burst so I let him tell them who he was and they agreed to meet him the following morning. It was great to see how proud he was that his name was in the guidebook, and so was I. Sokhom delivered me back to my hotel, where I rested and finished reading my Jeffery Deaver novel, Garden of Beasts. At 4.30pm, Sokhom returned and we drove to his home, and an hour later I crossed the street to join in the private English class being taught by Sambo in a small wooden shack. Seven boys and girls, aged between 13-16 including Kunthea, were there and I spoke to them all, as a group and individually, asking them questions and vice versa for the next hour. A nice experience for me and I hope for them too. Afterwards, I took my friend, his wife and daughter to the Arunras restaurant for dinner (excellent value at $8 for main courses and drinks) before returning and enjoying tikaloks for all and a long chat til 10pm with Sokhom's family, their next-door neighbour Un and her three mischievous children, Da, Tun and Tao and the teacher, Sambo. As I was leaving for Phnom Penh in the morning, I gave Sokhom my hardback Deaver novel to aid his thirst for the English language and to make good use of the English dictionary I'd given him previously, and said my goodbyes at the end of two days of relaxing, chill-out time in Kompong Thom with my friends.

Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales

Cambodia Tales

Cambodia Tales 2

January 2005 marked my eleventh 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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