CAMBODIA TALES 2000
Kompong Cham at speed
The speedboat from Kratie took 2½ hours and we touched down at the dock in the shadow of the recently-completed bridge spanning the Mekong river at Kompong Cham, just before 10am. From the jetty, I walked into the centre of town, past the busy market area, noticing the the unusually high ratio of pharmacies to other shops, and around the corner to the Mittapheap hotel. Although the hotel lobby is a mite sterile, the $10 air-conditioned double room was comfortable and by coincidence, the same one I'd stayed in twelve months earlier. After a shower, I visited the Ponleu Rasmei guesthouse on the look out for my motodub from last year but Sam On had left just after my last visit and sadly his whereabouts were unknown. I headed for the market again to see what it had to offer, bought a few provisions (bottled water, biscuits, that sort of thing) and located ABC Computers, where I e-mailed my wife to update her on my progress so far. It cost $1 per e-mail but as the connections were so poor, it took about an hour to type and send it.
I was keen to get on the road to see the ancient 7th century temple site of Han Chey, some 20 kms north of the city, nestling alongside the Mekong river. However, I was having no luck finding a moto-driver who spoke English. My search took me to the riverfront opposite the towering Mekong hotel and a group of a dozen motodubs resting in the shade from the mid-day sun. They all jumped to life as I approached but to no avail until an English-speaking passerby joined the conversation, explained my need to the group and a short, stockily-built man stepped forward. It turned out that Han Chey was Vy's home village, we agreed a small fee and that we'd leave from my hotel at 1pm. Vy didn't speak English either except for the words 'bad road' and how prophetic that turned out to be. The friendly passerby informed me that tourists don't normally go to Han Chey and was I sure I didn't want to see Wat Nokor and the Man and Woman Hills? I politely told him that I'd seen those on a previous visit and that Han Chey was really where I wanted to go.
Vy was on time and almost immediately I understood the 'bad road' comment as we headed north. The road, actually a red-dirt track in a terrible state after the recent floods, hugged the Mekong riverbank all the way and turned out to be the roughest moto ride I'd ever experienced on my Cambodia travels. The ruts and bumps made it a bone-jarring, teeth-chattering ride and a test of my endurance and balance just to stay on the moto. At the same time, we passed through village after village of traditional wooden houses on stilts, the children waving and shouting 'hello' and the adults smiling or looking quizzical that a foreigner was passing through. After a tortuous hour, we reached Han Chey village and paused briefly at Vy's house, which doubled as a basic provisions store, before continuing onto a small tributary that flowed into the Mekong. The only way to cross this river was on a raft operated by two young boys, who charged 500 riels per crossing.
Once across, Vy and myself quickly arrived at the foot of Phnom Han Chey with a handful of Chinese graves dotted amongst the rich green rice fields. The hill was too steep to drive up, so we walked slowly up with the hot sun overhead. At the summit, a complex of buildings in quiet surroundings included two Buddhist pagodas, monk's living quarters, a few brightly-painted statues, two ancient towers and pleasant views of the surrounding countryside. Either side of the main vihara are the two very different ancient temples. A flat-topped, square, windowless sandstone 'cella', identical to one at Sambor Prei Kuk, is decked out as a shrine and has an ornately carved lintel still in place. Around the other side of the much larger wat, is a substantial brick tower in the Prei Kmeng style in good condition but devoid of any carving. Vy posed for a picture in the sandstone doorway before we looked into the modern wat but were politely told 'no photos' by a group of monks. In another part of the complex, a pile of rubble with a sandstone pedestal was all that remained of another older temple and the view across to the Mekong river below, revealed another shrine a stone's throw from the riverbank.
The steps to the laterite sanctuary tower (known as Kuk Preah Theat) at the bottom of the hill seemed to go on forever and the thorny undergrowth surrounding the structure would deter most visitors. The temple, shaded by trees, was dark and brooding and seemed out of place away from the other buildings. A couple of fishermen docked their tiny boat at the foot of the stairs and looked suprised to see this foreigner, the sweat saturating my shirt, as I began the long climb back to the top to rejoin Vy. After about an hour at Phnom Han Chey, we retraced our steps and re-crossed the river on the small wooden raft. As we reached Vy's house again, like most, a spacious two-roomed wooden home on stilts, he invited me in to take tea with his wife and children, his brother and his family and their grandmother. Without a common language, we exchanged photos, sweets and smiles, I took a few pictures and a group of neighbours soon appeared at the foot of the steps. As we left to return to Kompong Cham, the word had spread and it seemed that most of the village had turned out to see what all the fuss was about. A couple of kilometres down the road, the front tyre of our moto unsuprisingly suffered a puncture and we stopped to get it repaired. As we waited, I kept a crowd of children entertained by playing foot shuttlecock, handing out balloons and taking photos before we set off again, along the rough dirt track. A couple of noticeable features along the roadside were the piles of sandstone and laterite stone blocks in the garden of each house and every few hundred metres, groups of women were sat together on low, wooden platforms, discussing the issues of the day, a common sight throughout the Cambodian countryside.
It was just after 5pm when I arrived back at the Mittapheap, thanked Vy for his excellent driving on a very difficult road and jumped in the shower to wash away the dust and grime. At 7.30pm I walked to the Hoa An restaurant for a chicken curry meal and drinks for less than $4. As the only customer, the staff took turns to chat to me and it was 9pm when they closed up and I finally left, to walk back to the hotel via the darkened market area and hardly any sign of life. For much of that night it rained heavily, leaving the roads around the hotel under water, and continued the next morning. I decided to move onto Kompong Thom earlier than originally planned and in a moment of indulgence, decided to hire a taxi to take me the 140 kms along Routes 6 and 7. The taxi rank was next to the market and in between showers, I negotiated a car and driver for $20, calling in at a few ancient temples en route. Pheap, my driver, arrived in his Toyota Camry at 10am, I paid my hotel bill and collected my still-wet laundry before leaving.
Our first stop was at Wat Nokor, also known as Phnom Bachey, on the outskirts of town. It was still raining as Pheap drove into the 11th century temple complex that co-exists with a more modern pagoda and outbuildings. I'd been to the site twelve months earlier and my return visit confirmed what an interesting temple it was. The older parts have excellent lintels in situ, apsara carvings and statues amongst the sandstone and laterite sanctuaries, whilst the wall paintings and large Buddha statues of the newer wat make for a fascinating contrast of old meets new. We continued along Route 7 to the town of Skuon, famed for its local delicacy of fried spiders, but instead of taking Route 6 northwards, we carried on for a few kilometres before reaching Phnom Thom, along a slippery red-dirt side road. Climbing the taller of two hills alone, the 11th century temple of Prasat Premea Chong Prei awaited me at the summit. There were four laterite buildings and an annexe, bedecked with flags, still with a couple of lintels in place and three more on the ground. A young boy followed me throughout my visit and no doubt was as suprised as I when I dropped my camera and let out a few choice words in anger. The site was otherwise completely devoid of life although music from a loudspeaker emanated from a pagoda somewhere nearby. The drizzle became much heavier as we left and continued onto the town of Phaav, took a World Food Program road to the village of Tumnup and headed for Wat Tang Krasan. The track to the pagoda was treacherous and once I'd seen the four carved lintels in place around a small shrine at the rear of the temple, I decided against any further exploration. In the same vicinity are the temples of Prasat Khvet, Phnom Trop, Kuk Pring Chrom and Kuk Ampil Thvear amongst others and will require further investigation on another visit. However, the weather had cut short this particular excursion and I asked Pheap to head for Kompong Thom.
At Skuon, we stopped for some food. I decided to play safe and declined the plate of 'a-ping' or fried tarantulas that I was offered and instead chose some 'khao larn', sweet sticky rice in bamboo shoots. Route 6 from Skuon to Kompong Thom is in a reasonable condition apart from a few narrow bridges and Pheap really put his foot down, at times racing along at twice the speed limit. It continued to rain and the only hold-up was at a bridge where a truck had broken its axle and had to be pushed off the highway. We reached our destination just after 2pm and I left Pheap so he could try to find some customers to take back to Kompong Cham. My time there had been brief but the visit to Han Chey in particular had been a memorable one.
To read about my previous trip to Kompong Cham twelve months earlier, click here.
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