CAMBODIA TALES 2005 - JANUARY
Koh Ker uncovered
The GST Express bus ticket to Phnom Penh costs $3. Its one of a number of bus companies that ply the route and is favoured by locals. I was only travelling as far as Kompong Thom, which is less than half-way, but the price is still the same. We left the bus station, located at the far eastern end of Siem Reap town, a little after 8am, but not before I swapped seats with a young girl who looked horrified when she realised her seat was next to a monk. Culturally, women shouldn't touch monks so to alleviate the situation, I offered to exchange seats. The young monk spoke pretty good English and we chatted for a while during the two hour ride to Kompong Thom. I had called and spoken to Sokhom's wife the night before, so I knew that my pal was on his way back from a trip to Preah Khan with another traveller, so the rest of my day would be a relaxed one. As I stepped off the bus, a couple of the waiting moto-drivers recognised me and vice versa, from my frequent visits to their hometown. One of them, Sarom, confirmed that 'Mr Sokhom' wasn't back yet, so I paid a flying visit to Sokhom's home to see his wife and daughter before checking into the Mittapheap hotel ($10 air-con). Dumping my bags, I jumped on Sarom's moto for an hour's leisurely drive around town and along the Stung Sen riverbank before returning to the hotel for a siesta. Sokhom knocked on my door at 12.30pm and it was back to his home for a reunion lunch with his family. He was tired from his travels so we briefly discussed my plans to head for Koh Ker first thing the next morning and then onto Preah Vihear, before I left to use the internet at the nearby Buddhist Development Institute office, where I met the local female reporter for the Cambodia Thmey Daily newspaper. The cost of internet access at 3,500 riel for the hour was almost double the price of the Siem Reap equivalent. At 7pm, Sokhom collected me from the hotel and delivered me to the Bayon restaurant, tucked away behind the market area, where his wife Sroy and adorable daughter Kunthea, together with his young nephew, Sal were already waiting. This was my treat and a timely return to the Bayon, where we'd dined previously. Our table was on the pavement, the restaurant was full and the food was delicious, rounded off with tikaloks outside Sokhom's home before I retired to bed just before 10pm. Its always a genuine pleasure to spend time with my friend and his family and a meal on my first night back in Kompong Thom was a perfect motive.
We were on the road at 7.30am the next day, heading for the temple complex of Koh Ker, with Sokhom surprising me by taking Route 6 towards Siem Reap rather than going north to Tbeng Meanchey. He's a regular visitor to these northern temples so I trust his judgement implicitly and he felt that Route 6 and the new road to Koh Ker via Beng Mealea would be the quicker option. All along the main highway, we got a mixture of surprised looks and happy waves as most tourists whizz past at breakneck speeds inside cars or buses rather than sat on the back of a moto. After an hour we reached the town of Stoung and on the outskirts, off to the right and in the grounds of a small wat, Tuol Ta Phlorng, we visited a genocide memorial stupa containing the bones and skulls of victims uncovered in mass graves nearby. Its believed over 100,000 victims perished in the immediate area at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. We paused briefly at Spean Praptos after another hour before breaking our journey at Damdek at 10am, stopping at a roadside stall near the market for a chicken and rice breakfast. Whilst Route 6 is now in excellent condition, the road from Damdek to Beng Mealea was being widened and as a result, the red dust cloud kicked up by passing lorries was choking though fortunately for us the traffic was light. The checkpoint booth just before Beng Mealea - it should cost $10 to visit Koh Ker - was negotiated by Sokhom with a smile and a promise to pay the charge when we arrived at Koh Ker, and this satisfied the official in charge. As it turned out, we never saw another official and so our trip to Koh Ker was a freebie. We reached Svay Leu at mid-day and carried on along the brand new road, beautifully smooth in places with very few inhabitants living amongst the smouldering forest areas and two sprawling army camps. It took us an hour to reach Siyong village, some eight kilometres from Koh Ker, and a kilometre off the main road. We called into the village and the wooden KohKe guesthouse, standing on tall stilts at the end of the main street, for a welcome wash and brush-up after our five hours on the road.
Just after 2pm, feeling refreshed, we rejoined the new road to take us to the complex of temples known as Koh Ker, a royal city built by Jayavarman IV in the tenth century, and where new temples and secrets are uncovered every dry season when more of the surrounding area is demined. This was my third visit and was considerably easier than the gruelling trips I'd made previously. No longer is it necessary to wind your way through uninhabited forests and across rough terrain via a single oxcart track, or no trail at all, instead the new road brings you to the first of the temples, Prasat Pram, in less than twenty minutes from Siyong. Since my last visit in December 2003, Prasat Pram has been cleared of vegetation and tidied up. There are still landmine signs in the vicinity but less obvious than before and the temple, with three brick towers and two libraries engulfed by trees and surrounded by a laterite wall, is a pleasant introduction to the royal city. A noticeable addition was a sign in Khmer with the temple name on it, pointing west along a forest track towards the structure. Continuing along the new road, we came to Prasat Neang Khmau on our right-hand side and more landmine signs, which were located exactly where, on my previous visits, I'd walked through the the undergrowth to visit this temple! The single laterite tower which unusually opens out to the west and is enclosed by a wall, has a 'burnt' look on its walls and contrary to popular belief that its the result of setting fire to nearby weeds and brush, its actually a result of the iron-based laterite rock oxidizing (or rusting) and causing it to darken. I must also mention the lively lintel showing Brahma that is still in situ above the entrance. A little further on and a few metres from the road, Prasat Bak (bak = broken) is a tiny laterite temple that looks as if its been split in half by a thunderbolt, though a sign erroneously calls the temple Prasat Damrei, as the temple was originally dedicated to Ganesha. About 100 metres further into the forest stands the much more imposing Prasat Chen, a temple I tried to gain access to on my first ever visit in 2001, but failed because of the dense undergrowth at the time. Now mostly cleared, Prasat Chen has two enclosure walls of laterite and three massive laterite towers covered in foliage and flanked by two broken brick libraries. Much of this once-impressive temple is in ruin, including the brick gopura of the outer enclosure, damaged lintels, colonettes and part of an inscription stone (which glorifies Vishnu), in ancient Sanskrit script, lying near the entrance. The legacy of Koh Ker is that its sculptures and monuments are on a massive scale and this includes two fighting apes found at Prasat Chen and now on display at the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
It was quickly becoming clear that the rough terrain, inaccessibility and difficulties inherent in visiting Koh Ker was a thing of the past. With a smooth new road through the complex, some twenty temples cleared of vegetation and landmines so far and signed paths leading to the various sites - it was now fairly undemanding and sanitized by comparison to previous trips. Retracing our route along the main road, we branched off eastwards on what turned out to be a loop around the large water-filled baray, rejoining the new road near the entrance to Prasat Thom, the principal monument of the Koh Ker group. Our first stop on the branch road was at a single brick tower called Prasat Kraham. Just the track to the temple and a circle of twenty metres surrounding the structure had been cleared of landmines, with the red skull and bones signs clearly warning visitors to venture no further into the forest. The brick tower was in reasonable condition, with two carved colonettes and an unfinished lintel above the main entrance doorway. Two hundred metres further on we came upon an unusual looking structure, surrounded by large natural sandstone slabs. The temple, Prasat Khna, was built with the stone that was all around us but it was partly demolished with no obvious decoration. Half a kilometre away were two temples in close proximity to each other, the largest being Prasat Damrei, the smaller, Prasat Khlum. It was 3.30pm when we walked through a gap in the laterite wall around Prasat Damrei. The large brick tower is sat on a massive sandstone base, with two ruined brick libraries closeby. Still in situ are two damaged sandstone elephants, of the original four, one of which was almost completely intact, the other had lost its head, next to a couple of broken lion statues and an attractive lintel above the main doorway, minus its vandalized central figure. The smaller laterite tower nearby still housed two colonettes, an eroded lintel and the remains of a small lion statue. These and four of the next five temples were all new to me as I'd not encountered them previously. What I didn't know was that I'd walked past a Koh Ker gem - a collection of small lingas and figures, both gods and female dieties, carved on a rockface and known as Ang Khna - which I found out about once I'd returned home when a friend of mine sent me a photo of the carvings.
Continuing along the loop road, some small brush fires were burning off the undergrowth amongst the trees when we arrived at a large temple site, Prasat Chrap. The entrance to the temple was ablaze so I had to jump through a ring of fire and smoke to gain access through the two laterite enclosure walls. This large complex houses three tall laterite towers, similar in style to Prasat Chen, alongwith two libraries, one brick and one sandstone and laterite mix. The temple's lintels were conspicuous by their absence and the only decorative features I could find were some broken colonettes and a damaged lion statue amongst the scorched earth. 'Danger!! Mines!!' signs were posted onto tree trunks on the way to the next temple, Prasat Banteay Pir Chan. Once again, the temple layout included two laterite walls, the inner wall with a semi-intact entrance gopura with carved triangular pediments and lintels, leading to one large central laterite tower and five smaller brick towers (originally there were eight), with sandstone doorframes and one damaged lintel remaining in situ. A few hundred metres away, Prasat 'D' (we could find no-one to confirm the name of this structure) is a temple with a ramshackle entrance gopura leading onto two completely ruined sandstone towers, guarded by ferocious red ants determined to keep their temple a secret. Nearby was a temple I had visited before, Prasat Krachap (also known as Kong Yuan), with two enclosure walls and an entrance that reminded me of Banteay Srei at Angkor. Decorative lintels, gabled roofs and superbly carved triangular pediments, two doorway inscriptions (which date the temple to 928AD) and five brick sanctuaries make this one of the more interesting temples at the complex. The final temple that I'd not previously seen was 100 metres further north and was a small laterite enclosure with a wall and a library though lacking decoration. This was Prasat Andong Kuk. In the undergrowth, ten metres behind the temple was what I call the 'bomb' linga (Prasat Leung 4) lying on a pile of stones - an elongated linga made of dark sandstone with the graffiti visible on my last visit, now scrubbed off. In close proximity were the other three large and identical square towers, made of uneven sandstone blocks, each housing a gigantic linga on top of a finely carved pedestal, without doubt the largest linga's I've ever seen in Cambodia and a remarkable example of the Koh Ker legacy in Khmer history. Prasat Leung 3 has a large chunk at the base of the linga missing, Prasat Leung 2 has a totally intact linga, whilst Prasat Leung 1's linga is slightly damaged though its pedestal is the best preserved. None of the towers have their roofs intact.
The loop road rejoins the main road next to the entance gopura to Prasat Thom. This is the largest complex in the whole group and includes Prasat Kraham and the incredible seven-tiered pyramid temple of Prasat Thom itself. We stopped for a chat with the two girls who'd set up drink stalls under a large tree immediately in front of the gopura. Both had bubbly personalities, though Lim spoke better English and admitted she'd previously been a teacher in Siem Reap but earnt more selling drinks at Koh Ker. Though trade was slow at the moment, she fully expected it to pick up as more tourists become aware of the treasures on show at Koh Ker. We stopped for cold drinks and pineapple but decided against climbing to the top of Prasat Thom again, as we'd done on previous visits, as the sun had clouded over and a good quality sunset was unlikely. Instead we headed back to our guesthouse at Siyong, arriving just as dusk fell, and showered in the open air at the water pump. Walking into the market area just fifty metres from our guesthouse, the first restaurant had loud karaoke music blaring out from the tv but didn't have any food, so we went next door where we enjoyed three pork dishes and were served by the adorable Lee, who had an abundance of natural beauty and a radiant smile, and Srey and Chadi. Nineteen year old Lee was the niece of the restaurant owner and had recently arrived to help with cooking and waitress duties. She didn't speak any English but her beaming smile and graceful demeanour was enough to light up any conversation. By the time we'd finished our meal at a little before 8pm, most of the village had turned in for the night, so we returned to the guesthouse for a chat with the owners before turning in ourselves at 9pm. I enjoyed a pleasant sleep, courtesy of a comfortable wooden bed and mattress, pillows and a mozzie net provided by the owners, despite the best efforts of an amalgam of dogs fighting, cocks crowing and pigs snorting throughout the night. Up at 6.30am the next morning, we returned to the restaurant for some hot beef noodles and coffee and to say goodbye to the lovely Lee and her hospitable family before leaving Siyong at 7.30am for our long moto-ride to the far north and a return visit to the dramatic mountain-top temple of Prasat Preah Vihear.
Here's links to the rest of my 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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