CAMBODIA TALES 1999
The charm of Kompong Cham
My seat on the new air-conditioned bus to Kompong Cham cost just 6,000 riel and we left on time at 6.45am from Phnom Penh's Central Market. I sat next to a Canadian vet working for Voluntary Services Overseas, who was returning to his rural practice after a long weekend-break in Bangkok. Crossing the Japanese Friendship bridge, the road all the way to Kompong Cham is perhaps the best in the country, recently upgraded by the Japanese government at a cost of $38 million. Two hours later, I stepped off the bus into the busy market area of Cambodia's fourth largest city, nestled alongside the mighty Mekong river. Asking directions to the Mittapheap Hotel, I was directed around the corner and confronted by a clean and smart building, where an equally tidy air-con room with en-suite bathroom cost me $10 per night.
Keen to explore my new surroundings but also interested in checking out a recommended hotel called the Ponleu Rasmei, I walked a couple of blocks and asked to see their rooms, also $10 per night but more homely. Suy Sam On, the receptionist, was eager to engage me in conversation and after a short while he offered to be my guide for the next couple of days, as long as the hotel manager gave his permission. Agreement was quickly obtained, On re-appeared with his uncle's battered moto and off we drove, heading out of the city to visit Wat Nokor and the nearby man and woman hills, known as Phnom Pros and Phnom Tet Srei.
A former policeman, On could talk for Cambodia, he was that chatty. Now 25 years old, single and one of nine children, he left the police force to join the hotel staff where he earns more than his old $10 a month police salary. He also explained that he sends money to his ageing mother and that means he can't afford the $300 needed to provide a dowry to marry his sweetheart, a teenage schoolteacher from his home village. On the way to Wat Nokor, we discussed plans to visit the 8th century Chenla capital at Banteay Prei Nokor across the Mekong river the next day, which is located just a few kilometres from his home village of Trach. At the large roundabout outside Kompong Cham, we drove under an archway and entered the temple complex. First built in the 8th century, Wat Nokor, also known locally as Wat Angkor, is a real gem of a ruin. It is a suprisingly large construction, with three outer walls with gopuras at each compass point, lots of carved apsaras decorating the walls and a number of sandstone and laterite buildings and libraries. I was joined at the entrance by a group of cute kids who played hide and seek throughout my visit and were rewarded with a handful of balloons and small toys from my daysack (above left).
An interesting feature of Wat Nokor is that the Angkorean structures have been incorporated amongst modern temple buildings, which have colourful paintings lining the walls and ceiling. Modern Buddha images sit in ancient alcoves, sandstone pedestals and statues are on view and the libraries have excellent quality frontons and lintels to inspect at close quarters (right). Outside the inner enclosure wall, sit four modern buildings which house one reclining and three large seated Buddha statues. My only disappointment was the position of the sun which impacted on my photographs, as did the compactness of the temple which made it difficult to capture the whole scene as I would've wished. After an hour, I managed to lure On from the main vihara where he was having his fortune told by a temple layman and with some regret, as I'd enjoyed my stay so much, we left the complex and headed out along Route 7 towards the two nearby hills.
The subject of a popular Khmer legend about how women outsmart their menfolk, the hills lie just a few kilometres outside the city. A new road was under construction up to the top of Phnom Pros, where the temple sits on top of older foundations. Concrete grey in colour, the modern wat has two main shrines, each with brightly-painted wall murals and a troop of monkeys scurrying around the refreshment stand closeby. Across a short divide, lies the 200 metre-high Phnom Tet Srei and we rode to the foot of the 386 steps, where we parked the moto and began our ascent (left). Without a cloud in the sky, the sun took its toll as we reached the summit and took a rest in the shade. The pagoda on this hill was small and unspectacular, but the views of the flat countryside spread out below made the exhausting walk worthwhile. Sat under the faded wall paintings of the small vihara, On had another reading of his fortune from one of the three old caretakers present before we returned to the moto and were back at the hotel by 4pm.
I used the rest of the early evening period to inspect the market and the busy riverfront area before heading back towards the Ponleu Rasmei and more importantly, the nearby Hoa An restaurant for dinner. As I entered, I was besieged by most of the thirty staff, twenty of whom were 'beer girls.' It soon became apparent that I was their only customer and the disappointment on their faces was evident when I ordered my usual soft-drink. The menu arrived and I pointed at a picture that resembled curried chicken. Fortunately, I was right and I was well pleased with the outcome for $3. As I was leaving, a large group of businessmen arrived and the beer girls were at last in their element. I meanwhile, returned to my sterile room at the Mittapheap to update my travel log and to get a good night's sleep.
First thing the following morning, I left the Mittapheap and carted my rucksack over to the Ponleu Rasmei. On was already out and about and equipped with a better-quality moto, we set off at 8.30am for our outing to his home village and the nearby historic site of Banteay Prei Nokor. Our first obstacle was the wide, brown-coloured expanse of the Mekong river. A car and passenger ferry making the crossing every fifteen minutes cost us 800 riel. The open-sided ferry was loaded with pedestrians carrying goods and produce for sale in Tonle Bet, the village on the far side of the river, as well as cars, pick-ups and motos (left). In the distance, the concrete foundations for the new bridge across the river, costing $56 million and another major project sponsored by the Japanese, rose out of the choppy waters. Back on dry land, once through the village, the highway (Route 7) deteriorated rapidly as we passed by the regimental lines of rubber tress at the Chup plantations and through the bustling but dusty town of Suong. The road improved as it turned into the red clay variety but the downside was the blinding dust storm caused by any passing truck or car.
At Knar village, we took a right fork and joined a recently-laid road courtesy of the UN's 'Food for Work' Program, that seven kilometres later brought us to On's home village of Trach. It was quite touching to see the greeting he received from everyone in the vicinity. It was much like the return of the prodigal son as we pulled into his family home to be greeted by his 79 year old mother, Sam Son, his younger sister Yen and other relatives. Word of On's homecoming, accompanied by a foreigner, quickly spread and very soon it seemed that each of the village's seventy-five families had sent a representative to survey the scene. The small courtyard in front of the family home was full of people, as Sam Son invited me into her home, a two-roomed bamboo shack on stilts. However, our initial stay was only a brief one as we headed out towards the late eighth century Chenla capital of King Jayavarman II, then known as Indrapura, just a couple of kilometres away.
The main temple site of Banteay Prei Nokor is enclosed by a 2.5 square kilometre earth bank and moat, over which we passed and soon turned into the grounds of a modern wat, where we immediately spied a couple of monks whom On knew very well. At the rear of the modern temple stood two red brick sanctuary towers, crumbling and lacking any serious decoration. The doorway to one tower, still in reasonable condition, was of sandstone and inside, sticks of incense at a small altar were alight (right). Alongside it, the second tower was badly cracked with a tree sprouting through the main entrance. Our arrival had alerted a small group of children who came to inspect us, as we went next door to examine the wall paintings inside the modern temple (below left). Across some barren ricefields, no more than 200 metres away, stood another ruined tower, where much of the brick base had been removed by locals for their own building purposes (below right). In the nearby scrub, On indicated the scattered remains of another eight towers of the once-mighty capital city. Returning to the temple grounds, we stopped to share coconuts and cigarettes with the friendly monks before returning to On's village for more refreshments.
As we returned, so did the onlookers. After tea with On's immediate family, the elders changed into their best clothes to pose for some formal photographs before On drove off to fetch the Doctor for his mother, who had a chest infection. In his absence, I entertained the crowd by taking part in a few activities. One of my favourite games, keeping a shuttlecock up in the air with only your bare feet, had most of the audience in stitches, while my attempt at threshing rice with cross-sticks, also elicited howls of laughter. To complete my feigned misery, I challenged the local champion to a game of pool under the house of the village mechanic next door and was soundly beaten in a matter of minutes. The fun at my expense subsided when On returned and we walked the length of the village, so he could introduce me to nearly every family. He said that for many of the villagers, I was the first foreigner they'd ever met face to face. Before we left the village, I handed out lots of small toy gifts, balloons and sweets to the youngest children, of which there were many, much like every other village anywhere in Cambodia.
We headed back towards Route 7 indirectly, as we detoured to visit On's old school, a single brick building in a clearing a couple of kilometres away and then stopped for more hot tea at his elder sister's house in Angkev village. Back on the highway, we rested at a roadside cafe in Knar village to sample the local lizard and beansprout broth, before braving the blinding dust clouds once more and taking in a brief tour of one of the rubber plantations near the village of Chup. On the return ferry, I saw the first two foreigners of my time in Kompong Cham, two French motorcyclists, before returning to the hotel by 4pm for a hot shower to remove the dust that covered me from head to toe. For my evening meal, On took us to the Kampong Cham restaurant in Veal Vong village, where we both ate well for a total bill of $5 and he talked long into the night about his hopes and plans to make a better life for himself and his immediate family. At 6.30am the following morning, he took me to the old market to catch a share-taxi to Kompong Thom for the next leg of my journey. My time in Kompong Cham had been fairly short but certainly eventful and thoroughly enjoyable, and I have On to thank for that.
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