Gordon Sharpless - a budding Henri Mouhot

You, too, can be Henri Mouhot, trekking through the Cambodian jungle hoping to be the first foreigner ever to lay eyes on a lost temple, long since given over to vines, climbing figs, and kapok trees; home only to monkeys, birds, snakes, and red ants.

There are an estimated 1,200 ancient temples scattered across the Cambodian countryside and while there probably isn’t anything like Angkor Wat hiding out there, there may be a few more Beng Mealeas. For the uninformed, Beng Mealea is a large 11th century temple about a two to three-hour motorbike ride northeast of Siem Reap that was brought back to the world’s attention about two years ago. Forget about Ta Prohm, Beng Mealea is really what a temple in the jungle looks like. However, it’s already been found and about two dozen hardy visitors make the trip to see it each month. But there are hundreds of minor temples out there, many of which have never been seen by foreign eyes. I know, I “discovered” three in March 2000.

I was in Siem Reap to write a few articles for various publications, including a story on Beng Mealea, when I inquired at the Tour Guide Association office about access to and practical information about various large temples recently opened in the hinterlands of northern Cambodia. One of the guides, Soeun Cham Nan, asked me if I knew about Prasat Phnom Bei, Prasat Sampou, or Prasat Kpok? Of course not, nobody had heard of them. He told me that just one month ago he and four other guides ventured to the village of Svay Chek, about 30 kilometers northwest of the Angkor temple complex upon hearing about some temples there from the local village chief, Man Peoun. “Had any other foreigners been there?” I asked. “No,” he told me, “you’ll be the first.”

The well-hidden Prasat Kpok - picture courtesy of Gordon SharplessSo we arranged a trip the following day, heading out on motorbike at seven a.m. past Angkor Wat, through the ancient city of Angkor Thom and off into what was not long ago, unsecured territory. Arriving at the village of Svay Chek, on what promised to be a near 40-degree day, we turned down an old ox-cart path that soon disintegrated into a pair of uneven ruts. After about five kilometers and one hour of crashing over ruts and crashing into thick brush, not to mention losing the way once or twice, we arrived at a particularly dense area of trees. “Prasat Kpok,” my guide told me.

Excited, but still ever so careful not to stray a foot off the barely distinguishable path that the villagers had made to the temple, I arrived at a single ruinous tower, about eight meters in height (pictured right). So well hidden, I didn’t even notice the tower until I was standing right in front of it. I was disappointed to see that any carvings that had once existed had been stripped away.

The next stop was Prasat Phnom Bei, about two kilometers away. We had to walk. The ride over the ox-cart paths had already broken off the rear brake pedal and we had sprung a leak in the fuel line - something that Soeun didn’t seem too concerned about. To save the gasoline we simply downed a bottle of water and stuck the empty bottle under the bike to collect the leaking petrol.

Easing my fears about landmines, a minute or two later we encountered a group of women clearing a large area of brush. Friendly, but ever so surprised at the sight of a foreigner, they found my request to take photographs a most agreeable and entertaining proposition.

Brushing off a few dozen red ants (fast little buggers aren’t they?), we walked alternatively through field and dense brush, passing by a jittery cow that probably had never smelled a foreigner before. Again entering a dense stand of trees we bushwhacked through until we found the Prasat Phnom Bei temple. It’s a little more impressive than Prasat Kpok but not by much. There are several small towers in relatively poor condition hidden in the thick brush, a few lintels on the ground, stripped of their best carvings, and an occasional piece of wall awaiting to trip you up. A pool once sat on one side but only a depression in the ground remains. Again, the temple is somewhat of a disappointment.

We returned to the motorbike, but not before seeing the same women now having made tremendous progress in their jungle-clearing endeavor. We refilled the tank with the leaked gasoline and spent fifteen minutes trying to get the bike started. Finally on the move, we bounced our way only a short distance when a fiftyish man with an AK-47 strapped over his shoulder and a very angry look on his face stopped us and made a few stern statements at my guide. “Don’t worry,” Soeun told me, “he’s the village chief, wants to lead us back to the village.”

Soeun didn’t say much more about it, but I decided to believe him. As it turned out, Man Peoun, the village chief, was quite concerned - and angry - that a foreigner had been taken into this area without an armed escort. According to Peoun, there were quite a few bandits lurking in the woods. As no cash payment was demanded of me I thought that just maybe he was telling me the truth.

We returned to the village, were invited to Peoun’s house and given lunch. Having safely escorted me out of the jungle his demeanor improved dramatically. He, too, insisted that I was the first foreigner to ever see these temples. He added that there were ten temples in the area that he knew of and that he was sure no foreigner had ever seen any of them. “I’m the village chief, I would know,” he said, speaking through Soeun, who had ably assumed his new role as my interpreter. From Peoun’s descriptions, one of the temples seemed rather large. He described it as being fronted by a 50-metre wall and having a tower 15 metres in height. The other temples were all small.

I then planted the appealing idea into Peoun’s head that more foreigners may soon follow and if you are truly concerned for their safety you could provide them with an armed escort in exchange for a few dollars. With that, I had made a new friend.

After lunch we walked several kilometers through the brush to see Prasat Sampou, which means big boat and describes the temple shape, though I’d say it looks more like a giraffe without legs. It was probably the most interesting of the three temples, but it, too, isn’t likely to spawn a procession of tour groups. We finished the day by stopping near the ruins of an ancient bridge that was part of the ancient Khmer Highway that ran northwest from the Angkor complex to Phimai, Thailand.

Dirty, sweaty, and exhausted, it was time to return to the comforts of my modern hotel and forget this Henri Mouhot reenactment. What I saw that day was barely worth the effort it took to reach. Still, I can derive some personal satisfaction to say I was the first foreigner ever to see three temples, though I’m not holding my breath waiting for some kind of letter of recognition to arrive.

There are hundreds of these temples out there, and yes, you can be the first to see one. Get some kind of guide/interpreter who really knows where they’re going, go to a village and start asking questions. The villagers will know what temples they have; they’ve just never had any reason to tell anybody about them before. You might also want to grab a security escort somewhere, too (one or two guys with an AK-47 or reasonable substitute and good knowledge of the area should be sufficient). If you can reach the temple without getting robbed or blown-up, chances are you’ll probably find a disappointing pile of rubble. But there are probably a few Beng Mealeas out there, too, and that in itself, I think is enough to set-off all of us would-be Henri Mouhots. But you probably don’t want to be too much like Henri Mouhot - a year after reaching Angkor Wat he contracted a fever and died.

Above article courtesy of Gordon Sharpless. Gordon has a popular website called Tales of Asia, which I recommend you pay a visit to read his stories of life on the streets of Cambodia and a lot more besides.

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