CAMBODIA TALES 1999
Kompong Thom & Sambor Prei Kuk
The front seat of the share-taxi from Kompong Cham, through Skun and up to Kompong Thom cost just $2 and took less than two hours. Route 6 was in good condition apart from a few unstable bridges and Tuern, the driver, put his foot down most of the way. Unfortunately, we were going so quickly that one of the painfully-thin dogs that belong to every household along the route, didn't move fast enough and became one of Cambodia's increasing number of road fatalities. On arrival, I booked into the Neak Meas hotel ($12 for a well-appointed, air-con room), took a leisurely stroll around the town's main market area and enjoyed a long conversation with Se Eth, the hotel manager. I walked a few yards along Route 6 for my evening meal at the Arunras restaurant, where a barely edible beef dish cost a dollar.
After a good night's sleep, I was eagerly anticipating my trip to the 7th century temple complex at Sambor Prei Kuk, some thirty-five kilometres northeast of the town. Sokhom, my motodub, collected me just before 7am and we joined Route 6 for a few kilometres before veering off onto an unsealed road in a sorry state of repair. Recent rains and local traffic had created cavernous craters and ridges and it didn't get a lot better when we took a right fork under a temple-topped archway, although the remainder of the journey turned out to be a glorious glimpse into life in rural Cambodia. Constantly bombarded with beaming smiles, waving adults and countless children shouting "okay", we drove through tiny hamlets and markets, past small pagodas, across the tops of dikes, stopping to watch the locals harvesting the rice fields and buffaloes rolling around in the mud. At regular intervals, the trail ahead was submerged and we either drove straight through the pools of water or waded across the deeper, knee-high flooded parts on foot. This particular route will be impassable in the rainy season I'm sure.
Once through the villages of Atsu and Chey Sampeou, we reached the hut at the entrance to the Sambor Prei Kuk complex - it had taken us a little under two hours and had been a thoroughly enjoyable ride. A fee of 5,000 riel towards the upkeep of the temples seemed a small price to pay as I signed the visitors book (I was the first tourist for about a week) and we drove along a rutted track to start our tour at the distant southern group of temples. Sambor Prei Kuk ('hillock in the forest of Sambor') was chosen by King Isanavarman I as the capital city of the Chenla Kingdom in the seventh century and not surprisingly, was known as Isanapura. Over time, many of the structures at the site, over 170, have fallen into ruin or suffered from vandalism, whilst others remain remarkably intact. Standing in several acres of peaceful forest, the site was last properly cleared and studied by the French experts from EFEO in the 1960s. During that era, well-heeled tourists used to stop and visit the temples en route to Angkor. However, the site has been virtually off limits due to the presence of the Khmer Rouge and the continuing civil war since those times, until improved security in the area has now once again made the temples accessible.
There are three main groups of brick and sandstone temples and all face the rising sun. The best structures are found in the southern group and that's where we began our exploration. Entering the enclosure through a hole in the outer rampart wall, the eight octagonal sanctuary towers and other gate-lodges made an impressive sight with the sun highlighting the relief carving on the tower's outer walls. Known as 'flying palaces', these sculpted brick panels are about two metres high and despite the ravages of time, some are still in reasonable condition (above right). Accompanied by a background cacophony of birdcalls and crickets, the sun filtering through the trees in straight columns and red ants on the march wherever you stepped, we walked from tower to tower, some of which are crowned by vines and tree roots, to inspect the structures at close quarters. The main temple of the group is called Prasat Neak Poan and is a particularly imposing edifice, with a broken linga pedestal inside and a skylight open to the elements. The east gate housed a striking sandstone pedestal with a carved ceiling and jambs inscribed with ancient text, while a section of the inner enclosure wall was also inset with numerous relief medallions. The carvings are now merely sketched in broad outline as the surviving brick would have had an outer coating of stucco, but from what remains one can still imagine the splendour of the original group.
As we were leaving the area to move onto the central group a kilometre away, a couple of 4WD vehicles announced the arrival of Kompong Thom's new governor, who was visiting the complex for the first time. Sokhom detected a nervousness amongst the governor's body-guards so it was time to leave and soon we were at our next stop, Prasat Tao (the 'Lion Temple'). This spectacular tower is the only one still intact amongst the central group and has an enormous fig tree growing out of its flank. At its main entrance, two original stone lions have been restored while the feet of two others testify to the theft and disappearance of all the statuary from the site. What remains is now safely housed in the National Museum in Phnom Penh and in Paris, at the Musee Guimet. The capital displays some outstanding items including a Harihara statue, a depiction of the goddess Uma and a Durga from the northern group, whilst the Guimet Museum has an important lintel and a Vajimukha sculpture. We were joined at Prasat Tao by ten members of a Khmer family who arrived by 4WD and were accompanied by a relative returning home for the first time after fleeing to the USA in 1979 (right). The older women in the group gave offerings and prayers at the entrance to the temple before the whole group vanished as quickly as they'd arrived.
Back on the moto, we returned to the check-in hut where Sokhom and I chatted to the husband and wife responsible for the site. In fact, we manned the entrance for a short time whilst they sped off to check on the governor's entourage. Leaving Sokhom resting in a hammock, I made a beeline for the nearby northern group of nine temples and its main tower, Prasat Sambo. Some of the structures have relief carvings on their outer walls (right), others are topped by sprouting tree trunks and dense foliage and scattered amongst the undergrowth were carved sandstone columns, door frames and lintels. Prasat Sambo itself is in poor repair after US bombing in the area in the early 1970s scored a direct hit on the temple, whilst a nearby tower is home to a colony of bats that didn't appreciate my intrusion. Across the access road three more towers stand in isolation, including a small, square windowless building of sandstone slabs known as Ashram Moha Reusey, where excavations under the structure by thieves looking for buried valuables were evident.
After two hours at the site, we started back towards Kompong Thom, stopping at a new school in the village of Atsu, both of which were dedicated to the memory of Atsuhito Nakata, a Japanese UN election volunteer killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1993. Sitting outside the school playing cards was Rit Noa, kitted out in full army uniform with regulation rifle, who turned out to be Sokhom's brother-in-law. We shared our water and the cigarettes I carry around for such occasions before moving on through a host of small villages, fording flooded parts of the trail (left) and taking photos of the locals when they weren't running away, as a group of six giggling schoolgirls did after I pointed my camera at them (right). Sokhom explained after they finally posed, that they'd never met a foreigner or seen a camera before. Back at the Neak Meas by 1pm, after a quick visit to the market to buy some fruit, I took a nap and awoke to a mid-afternoon torrential downpour that quickly flooded the streets and lasted well into early evening. My meal at the Arunras next door preceded a lengthy chat in the hotel lobby with Eth, a former translator with three languages under his belt, English, German and Thai and in his second year as the hotel manager. With typical Khmer generosity, he invited me to the hotel's second birthday anniversary celebrations the next day, pronouncing that I would be the guest of honour alongwith the town's Chief of Police and 250 other guests!
The overnight rain had ceased by the time of our early morning departure at 7am, as we headed south along Route 6 towards a popular local attraction, Phnom Santuk, some fifteen kilometres away. The rain clouds were still hovering overhead and the summit of the hill was shrouded in mist as we approached and turned left off the highway. Arriving at the foot of the 980 steps leading to the top of the hill, vendors were beginning to lay out their stalls, whilst a few others began the hard slog of carrying their wares to the top. Sokhom decided to remain with his moto, so I began the climb alone although I was soon joined by a dozen boisterous children, eager to tag along with the foreigner. Before the mid-point, just four boys remained as my companions and after a few stops en route to pause for breath, we reached the summit and they began showing me the best vantage points. In my opinion, Phnom Santuk is a mess but interesting all the same. Its pretty kitsch in places, litter is strewn everywhere and the summit is a hotchpotch of stupas, shrines, temple buildings and massive boulders with carvings cut into the solid rock. I counted at least five substantial carvings of Buddha, either sitting or reclining, tucked away in various hideaways (above). The clouds had now dispersed and the panoramic view over the surrounding flat countryside was impressive to say the least. I seemed to be the sole visitor at this early hour - it was only 8am - and the only sound was emanating from the monks' prayers in the active monastery closeby.
Sokhom suddenly appeared at the summit and we wandered around the various attractions, which he explained would draw crowds of locals later that day as Sunday is an opportunity for families to visit the hill for picnics. Near a Chinese altar, Sokhom asked one of the local freelance photographers to take our picture which he agreed to collect later that day and keep as a souvenir. Two hours after arriving, we began our descent past a few newly-installed beggars lining the steps, just as two bus-loads of locals arrived and were immediately besieged en masse by food and drink vendors. The sun was now out in full force as we left Phnom Santuk to return to the city. En route, we stopped at a pagoda where an elderly monk proudly showed us some recently painted murals inside the vihara and then took us outside to look at the wooden long boat that had taken part in the 'Bon Om Touk' water festival races in Phnom Penh just a few weeks previously.
Back in Kompong Thom, Sokhom took me on a moto-tour of his hometown, spread out along bothbanks of the Stung Sen river, We stopped at a 200 year old pagoda with brightly-painted statues, stupas and temple buildings, called in at the market to buy sweets and drinks and checked the departure time and cost of a pick-up truck to Siem Reap, first thing the next day. I also gave Sokhom - who looked older than his 35 years and is a former teacher, hence his reasonable English - some gifts for his young daughter and agreed to meet for a final time at 6.30am the following morning for a lift to the pick-up point. It was midday when I returned to the hotel and after a quick change of clothes, Eth guided me into the hotel's noisy nightclub to join in the party he'd organised. A live band were playing and singing very loudly as Eth introduced me to what seemed like most of the 200 or so guests present, including many of the town's leading dignitaries. He plied me with as much food and pepsi as I could manage before persuading me to join in the 'ramvong' dancing. My feeble attempts at the graceful movements of hand and body that come naturally to the Khmers, appeared clumsy to me but Eth seemed genuinely overjoyed that I'd taken part. He couldn't however, persuade me to join him on stage to sing a few karaoke songs by which time most of the smartly-dressed revellers appeared particularly merry from the free-flowing alcohol.
My ears were ringing from the high decibel music as I left the party around 4pm and walked over the road to watch a good quality volleyball match in progress. Coaxed into taking part by the large crowd, my efforts were marginally better than my ramvong dancing but still way below the superior standard of my fellow players. But at least it gave the crowd something to smile about! I continued the sporting theme as I walked around the block and joined in a game of 'tot sey' (foot shuttlecock) with a father and his son before the rain started again and I retired to my hotel room for a well-earned rest. With a limited choice of restaurants in the town and the rain still heavy, I popped next door to the Arunras for supper, where I encountered the first westerners, two demining specialists working for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), since my arrival in town. Back in my room, a video of the anniversary party was playing on the hotel's tv channel and I cringed as I saw myself struggling to match the natural gracefulness of my hosts on the dancefloor. You can be sure that I won't be ordering a copy of that particular video!
Up early the following morning, Sokhum's smiling face was there to greet me as arranged at 6.30am. I hopped onto his moto for the short ride to the taxi-station and after saying our goodbyes and promises to meet up again, bargained with the pick-up driver for both front seats for the five-hour trip to Siem Reap. $6 bought me acres of room compared to my travelling companions; four of them were squeezed into the back seat and another twelve, including two monks and a soldier, were lodged on top of my rucksack, other bags and produce in the open rear of the truck. The road deteriorated immediately we left Kompong Thom and didn't improve until we reached Siem Reap, 145 kilometres later. Pothole hell doesn't really do it justice and the rain over the previous two days added a new dimension to the journey in places. For example, the townsfolk of Stoung lined the main street to gleefully watch lorries, pick-ups and cars slip, slide and career their way through deep clogging mud that had already claimed a few victims. We took a thirty minute break at Kompong Kdei, where a similar scene was played out. Whilst the other passengers enjoyed a drink and leg-stretch, I walked a few hundred metres to inspect the impressive Angkorean naga laterite bridge called Spean Praptos, eighty-seven metres in length and built in the early 13th century. Another feature of the journey, apart from the view of everyday rural life along the highway, was the entrepreneurial spirit shown by villagers along the route. They'd filled in some of the craters with soil, sticks and stones as a temporary road repair and held out their hands hoping for a few riel notes thrown by the driver's mate in the rear of the pick-up. Reaching the old market at Siem Reap by early afternoon, my first thought was for a nice long soak in a hot bath and I walked to the Freedom hotel, just along from the market on Route 6. I'd already e-mailed the manager, Chhay Hak, that I was due in town and he was on hand to welcome me at the start of a week-long stay in Siem Reap and a return to the wonderful temples of Angkor.
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