A CAMBODIAN ADVENTURE WITH LISA & THEA
Lisa's Cambodian Travelogue
Thursday April 6 - After working so many hours in the days before leaving, all I wanted to do was sleep. So, that's all I did . . . on the plane on the way, as well as when I arrived in Siem Reap at the Guesthouse that was to be (intermittantly) home for the next 10 days. Finally dragged myself into the world of the living in the late afternoon, and had a quick wander around the market, before meeting Sok Thea for dinner at the Kulen Restaurant (the Kulen beef - cooked rare then sliced and served with tamarind sauce - was fantastic) with it's dance performance.
Friday April 7 - Off to Phnom Kulen and Kbal Spean for the day. Pretty good roads (relatively) for most of the way. The roads were the least of my concern at the time, though, as the 4WD we were in had battery problems and required clutch-starting every time we stopped. The wat and reclining buddha were at Phnom Kulen were nothing spectacular, but the falls were quite nice, and it was fun to be part of the local crowd enjoying the day there and swimming (fully clothed, of course) under the falls - the water from which had already passed over 1,000 lingas (stone, of course, not real, so the water was clean). By the time we got to Kbal Spean after lunch, the heat was picking up. I'd been assured that because we'd be walking through jungle that it would be cooler. Yeah, right ! Under the trees, the heat and humidity had no way to escape, leaving the air thick and stifling. The 45minute walk took only 30minutes, with a couple of stops along the way, but was worth it to see (besides more stone lingas) some great carvings of Vishnu et al. On the way back, we stopped at Banteay Srei - I'd missed this on my last trip to Angkor 3 years previously - no amount of money could get us there at the time, given security issues. Lovely little temple, although somewhat crowded with a group of monks - no, I didn't want photos of the monks, just the temple, but they wouldn't get out of the way. We gave a lot of the vendors a lift back to town from Banteay Srei. They all had a great laugh as they watched me attempt to eat some strange fruit - orange, thick mango-like flesh, with so many seeds - no idea what it was, but tasted good for a while. A not-good sunset at Bakheng (ah, wrong season anyway) on the way back finished off the day.
Saturday April 8 - This was originally supposed to be just a day-trip to Beng Mealea, but actually turned into Day 1 of the 4-day trip into the jungle, in search of Koh Ker and other temples. The crew from Angkor Conservation picked me up in their 4-wheel drive (same truck as yesterday, but with 'fixed' battery), with a driver, a 'head-guy' and 2 soldiers. First stop, though, was the central market. We may be staying in some fairly remote villages, where there'd be little spare food, so we'd need to stock up on enough basic provisions to feed ourselves along the way. A pot, a kettle, some bowls, spoons and chopsticks, a case of Mama noodles, dried fish, cans of sardines, a bottle of chilli sauce (if I was going to eat that stuff, I'd need to kill the taste!), tea, crackers and lots of bottles of water. Finally on the road, the adventure started early. Many of the bridges were not strong enough to handle going over, so we had to go around. At each bridge we had to stop, inspect it, jump up and down on it a few times, look for other routes, and then somehow get to the other side. First bridge of the day . . . had to go around, but got stuck in the sand and stalled . . . damn hard to clutch-start trying to push through sand, but finally succeeded. Second bridge of the day . . . also around, this time through a small channel of water . . . didn't see the deep hole, but my head felt it on the dashboard. Thea and I went down the road to Chao Srei Vibol on a local moto, while the rest of the guys tried to work out how to get the truck out (which they finally did about an hour later - see picture above).
Chao Srei Vibol was a local temple/monastery located beside a ruined temple. Throughout the ruin, we were followed by three local kids, who picked delicious mangoes for us from the trees. The ruined temple itself was lovely and peaceful, located on the top of a hill, with a few towers, galleries and walls still standing, in between piles of rubble. The locals and the monks at the monastery then fed us coconuts and lychees until our truck turned up to get us. Our packed lunch was eaten at the soldier's canteen, with the soldiers claiming what was left for themselves. A couple of them then came with us to tour the ruined temple of Beng Mealea, named after the local flowering tree that used to be in the area. The ruin was unbelievable. They say that Ta Prohm is overgrown and atmospheric (and I used to think that too), but it had nothing on Beng Mealea. Clambering over those ruins made me really feel like I was discovering some new unknown temple, climbing through windows and galleries, around trees and roots, and over fallen bricks - especially so given then number of thorns that spiked me as I went. Another 3 or so hours of driving brought us to the town of Svayle - we would not make it to Siyong tonight. Following protocol, the first port of call was to see the governor of the town (thus breaking up a game of cards), getting his 'blessing' to pass through the district, and sorting out the paperwork. As there were no guesthouses in town, we were offered a choice of the local hospital or a local person's house for the night - we chose the latter. What was left of the afternoon was spent meeting some of the locals, taking family portraits of my host family, looking around the local temple, and taking a walk to the local 'waterfall' which was no more than a spring but which was cool and refreshing to sit with my feet in and splash myself a little. I really admire the family whose house we stayed in - the father/husband had lost a leg and some sight in one eye thanks to a land-mine. But, instead of being like so many others I see begging for money, this guy changed careers, resulting in a very busy general store and cycle repair shop - taking the family portrait for them meant customers were waiting (see picture right). He was also much more agile that me - he'd be up the stairs to his house faster than I could manage with both my legs ! That night, there was a local festival about a km down the road - food and drink stalls, merry-go-round type rides, and a (very) amateur performance of the story of buddha (in true SEAsian style, with poor quality sound system making the singers sound off tune and screechy).
Sunday April 9 - I've learned now, that when Khmers say we're leaving at 7am, that it really means be ready by 6.15 or 6.30, otherwise you won't get to eat breakfast. So, it was possibly a good thing that the roosters are crowing and the market was coming to life at about 6am: my alarm clock. It was also a good thing that we hadn't attempted to get to Siyong the night before. It took a good 4hours to get there along ox-cart tracks, many of which were barely visible for the new growth after light rains, and through river beds. We went no more than about 25kmh. Siyong itself was not much more than a main street, although the town was apparently relatively rich, thanks to the red, fertile soil, good for growing beans that they 'export' to other towns. It is quite a new town, only becoming safe in the past few years - such a new town, that no temple exists yet, and monks from neighbouring towns need to make regular visits. It took a while to sort through the paperwork with the town governor. While waiting, we joined the locals in front of one of the houses, talking to the people, and drinking coconut juice. One man asked whether I was a 'barang' assuming I was French. He was told that I was Australian - that dumbfounded him - he'd never heard of that place. The town governor was quite excited to have us there, and insisted on joining us for the 7km trip to Koh Ker, with another of his men. He was so proud showing us around the site. The main temple site was deceiving. On arrival, we could see the wall, but no sign of the rest of the temples. We walked through the wall, then down a path, then suddenly on our right was the main tower of Koh Ker, Prasat Thom, standing tall, somewhat overgrown, with 7 levels of undecorated terraces. We climbed up to the top, where there were only a few remains of garudas and dragons - but the views were amazing. Before fully descending, we did a lap of one of the wide terraces. Back through the wall, there was another path leading to the remains of a gate, before we reached a series of small brick towers, followed by a 'path' made of bricks from fallen down towers, leading to the remains of a hall of some sort and another gate/hall. The pillars were only along one side of the path, the left side as you walked towards the impressive redbrick tower - Prasat Kraham (or Red Prasat). The tower still had beautiful carved sandstone columns by the door, and one lintel still in pretty good shape - the other lintel had been damaged by thieves. Through a couple of small fallen down towers and we reached another gallery/hall area. Each time you turned around, another structure emerged in front of you. We'd easily filled a couple of hours wandering around the site.
Back at the truck, the soldiers were busy playing cards, but in the meantime they'd cooked up a great lunch: rice, barbequed chicken, chicken and lemon soup (delicious !), and noodles - how was I supposed to eat it all? The local kids from the nearby village quickly polished off the leftovers, together with a packet of biscuits. One of the smaller temples on the way back to Siyong was impressive. Surrounded by a laterite wall, the single laterite tower still had it's lintel and columns intact, although it required a small log to keep it all from falling down (thanks to a previous trip by Angkor Conservation). We were told that the road we were intending to take, directly to Phum Mrich Pdak (I think) near Preak Khan, was unsafe, since it hadn't been de-mined. That meant we had to go the 90km to Preah Vihear town. On this stretch of road we even managed to over a few bridges (instead of around), and a couple of times nearly hit 40kmh! Even still, it took 5 hours to get to town. At the restaurant, we could have anything we wanted, as long as it was rice, vegetables and those 'yummy' not-quite-hatched eggs where you can recognise the chicken - they'd run out of everything else. I felt that I'd deserved those couple of beers (with rice and vegetables, no eggs) to celebrate visiting this 'long lost' temple site.
Monday April 10 - The local minister for culture met us for breakfast, before we hit the road again at 7am. The road quickly deteriorated to worse than we'd been on the day before - instead of overgrown tracks, we could actually see the road ahead of us and it was real rough. Three hours got us about 50km to the turn-off, and then it was another 3 or so hours to go the 56km to the temple site - with an essential stop for more paperwork, a gallon of honey-flavoured rice whiskey on the way, and a stop by a drunk 'official' who couldn't extort any money out of us because we had all the right paperwork (but our driver appeared pissed off at his cigarettes being taken as a 'present'). The first minor temple on the way, a few km before the main complex, was beside a huge baray, still filled with water at this time of year. Local legend has it that a fisherman went toward the other end of the baray, to an island there. He killed a crocodile, and when he got back to shore, both his children were dead. The people are now superstitious, and won't go anywhere near that island. The temple was not much more than a laterite base with 2 elephant statues, a wall with apsara-decorated gates and the remains of a causeway with nagas. The carved pieces were still pretty much intact, with the locals fiercely protecting them. The second minor temple, my favourite, was a further 2km down the road. Sandstone galleries (largely filled with rubble) surrounding a sandstone tower with 4 'Bayon' faces, thus named Prasat Mouk Boun. Local boys stared at me while we ate lunch - very few blonde farangs get down this way I guess. We'd had a packed lunch made at the restaurant in the morning - rice with chicken and pork with a delicious sweet chilli sauce - and more mama noodles. The soldiers had caught a turtle, and cooked it up somehow - I missed tasting that one. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the dehydration even after drinking as much water as I could. Maybe it was being thrown about in the truck due to rough roads. But, while Preah Khan of Kampong Svai was impressive and all, it really didn't catch my attention in the same way that Bang Mealea or Koh Ker did.
The entrance to the main temple area was reminicent of the entrance to Angkor Thom, although on a considerably smaller scale. A beautifully decorated sandstone 'gaol' and another stucture of laterite were just near where we ate lunch. As we entered the main area, there were 3 laterite towers on our right (which we couldn't get to for the scrub), doorways and remains of structures on our left, and a few sandstone towers ahead. Looters had really gone to town on some of the towers, with big chunks of carvings hacked out of the corners. It was difficult to see what else was there, without wandering through the scrub and finding it. The sandstone galleries, gates and walls around the outside were difficult to distinguish from the trees until you were were virtually on top of them. Back on the road about 3pm, we left the complex by a different route from which we came, heading towards Steng (located on National Highway 6), driving along a track that (at times) we appeared to be making up as we went. We must have been going the right way, though, since we did end up on something that appeared to be a road - so good was this road at times that we managed to go over more bridges than we went around, and even got up to 50kph at least once - but, then, so bad was the road at times that we 'crashed' into a hole in the road that we didn't see (had that seatbelt on, so no lump on the forehead this time, but the jolt really took the wind out of me, and well contributed to the sore back I had by the end of the trip). It was getting dark, we'd taken a few wrong turns and had to back track, the road was rough going (and even a couple of healthy swigs of honey whiskey didn't make the road any better), and by 9pm we'd gotten to Steng. It was to be another 4hours (at least) to Siem Reap, and with rain starting to fall, we decided to stop for the night. We were all exhausted, and almost everyone had a couple of beers and some honey whiskey with dinner while the rain fell outside.
Tuesday April 11 - Awake by 5am with the noises of the roosters and town going to market, and on the road before 6am. This was supposed to be a holiday, and I was getting up this early! Breakfast (usual filter coffee with sweet milk, and a bowl of noodles) in Kampong Kdei. The naga bridge was pretty impressive, made from laterite with sandstone railings and nagas at each end. Finally made it back to Siem Reap by 11am - nearly 5hours on rough roads, although these were the best roads of the trip. E-mails home to say I was alive and well, a relaxing lunch, and a snooze to recover from the road trip. Travelling with the Angkor Conservation guys has it's advantages - we got to view the pieces being stored in their warehouse - lintels, nagas, and various statues, all waiting to (maybe, in theory) go back to where they came from. Sunset at Angkor Wat was relaxing - most people had left for the afternoon, maybe because of the rain earlier in the afternoon, leaving the place quiet, empty, enjoyable and pretty much all to me.
Wednesday April 12 - Got to sleep in a little, leaving at 7am for Sisophon (or Svay as known locally) in a local pick-up/taxi. I was a farang, had 2 seats bought for me, so got the front seat to share with a little kid. Thought is was going to be awful in the front cab, usually hot squashed and stuffy - but not too bad with the air con on (which saved us from getting covered in mud spashing up from the road). The roads on the way to Sisophon were up there with some of the roads I'd been on during the past few days - so no respite from that 'thrown about' feeling. In some places, the paddy fields were better than the road - although that was also because the bridges were impassable. We did hit a sticky spot, though . . . trying to get back up onto the road from a paddy, we slipped and were unable back up onto the road . . . bit a problem getting back down to try again . . . very steep embankment that we were not far of overturning down - at least we just slid the rest of the way. 4hours later, after unloading all the fresh Tonle Sap fish from the back of the truck, we reached Sisophon. At the bus station, all the taxi drivers assumed we were going on the Thailand, so it took a while to shake them and find a moto driver. Dropped off at a local restaurant to get some lunch, he went to find a friend to take Thea and I to Banteay Chhmar. It was only 70km, and out moto driver assured us that the road was good and it would take an hour. I had my doubts on this for two reasons: (1) the only road I know of in Cambodia on which anyone could manage 70kph on is the new highway from Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham, and I seriously doubted similar quality of road given what I'd just come off, and (2) I didn't think that Honda Dreams could go that fast. Needless to say, the roads were so bad that I nearly bounced off the seat a dozen times, and it took a good 2 hours to get there. The driver could understand a little English and a little Thai, but neither seemed to be of use asking him (sorry, yelling at him) to stop so I could drink some water. Of course, once I did manage to stop, he just asked: 'why didn't you just ask me to stop'. Aaarrggghh! We had Banteay Chhmar all to ourselves, excepting the soldier assigned to guide us. Despite it's general state of disrepair, the site was very impressive, and you could imagine how large and beautiful the site would have been all those years ago. As we wandered from the entrance to the back of the temple, there were a number of doorways with lintels still in good condition, carvings of apsaras, and a series of 4-faced towers. From the back, we headed to our left and followed the wall around, admiring the amazing reliefs - so many of them (most of the south wall was intact) and still in quite good condition. We only saw the reliefs on one side of the complex - they continued around the other side, but with more of the wall having fallen over.
It was 4pm. There was another couple of temples nearby that were known about. Our moto guys weren't quite sure how to get to them, so we went to ask the local moto guys under the tree at the local market near the corner of the temple. Mebon (or Neak Bon as the locals referred to it) was interesting to get to. Go across the local school (right near the market), down a local track, take the first right (don't go straight), through a village (this is where we picked up another guy who had a better idea of where to go), follow the remains of the laterite wall, go across the first creek bed, but don't cross the second creek bed (quite deep), follow it, turning to the left until you get to a baray filled with rice paddies, start to walk across the rice paddies, half-way across take off your shoes and roll up your pants because the murky water in the rice paddies reaches your thighs, then hack your way through thorns and scrub until you find the fallen-down remains of a small sandstone temple. OK, finding it was more of the adventure than seeing it. Banteay Top was much easier to find (OK, so picking up another local on the road helped), and much more impressive. Back towards Sisophon for 10km, then turning right and following that road for about 8km. You can't miss that one, and in dry season was easy to cross the rice paddies to reach it. Five towers, in good condition not so long ago until vandals, trying to steal some large pieces, caused one of the towers to collapse on top of them. That'll teach 'em. Pity that the light was fading, so didn't get to explore as much as I would have liked, and we only just made it to the main road before it was completely dark. It then took another 3hours of that road again to get back to town. Body was aching just trying to get up the stairs to go to sleep.
Thursday April 13 - Body was still aching the next day, and it was getting difficult to get motivated to move about, let alone get into a taxi for (what was supposed to be) another 4hour drive. Thea had arranged for a taxi to pick us up when they were full, and by about 8am we were on our way back. It had rained overnight, making the roads muddier and more slippery than before. To make it worse, those paddy fields we drove through the day before, to avoid the fragile bridges and craters in the road, were filled with water and impassable. The first delay was bridge-related: a pick-up, trying to cross a bridge, fell through it and was stuck with no wheels on solid ground, with dozens of cars lined up working out how to get to the other side, and at least 20 people trying to pick up the truck and somehow push it across the bridge. The second and much longer delay was mechnical. Our taxi had 'broken' and needed to be 'fixed', and it took about 90 minutes to get whatever fell off securely tied to something else. Whatever was done, it somehow worked, as the taxi didn't break down again for the remainder of the trip. Pity they didn't fix the hole at the front near my feet - the floor of the passenger side filled with muddy water (first covering my feet) as we went through the deep, water-filled potholes. Finally, at about 3pm, we got back to Siem Reap. Still aching, my plan for the afternoon was to do nothing ! The people at Bakong Guesthouse were really good to me, bringing lunch up to me after I'd showered and changed - room service in a guesthouse ! Best I managed was to watch a couple of cable tv movies, attempt to send e-mails to confirm I was still alive, and get the required souvenir shopping out of the way.
Friday April 14 - Definitely not the best day of the trip. Started the day feeling pretty average, but decided to go with mind-over-matter - I was going to be fine! Revisiting Angkor complex for the first time in nearly 3 years, I chose to start at the quiter, outer temples first - after the past few crowd-free days, the last thing I wanted was to be in a temple heaving with people. Preah Khan was just as I remembered it, although discovering different nooks and crannies as I went. By Neak Pean, however, I was feeling lethargic, as I wandered around the different styled water-spouts. Krol Ko was a peaceful little temple, warm and inviting. There was only one other person there - another Thailand-residing expat, and we talked for a while, comparing notes of where we'd travelled before, the people in those countries, and the differences between city-life in Bangkok and laid-back lifestyle of Phuket, before agreeing to meet the next morning to share a boat on Tonle Sap. By the next temple, Ta Som, however my health was further deteriorating and I was really struggling to even get back to the guesthouse, let along see the temple proper - my back was in pain, and I was feeling extremely nauseous, and no amount of positive-thinking was going to make me feel otherwise. Rest, attempts at sleep, and plenty of water and rehydration salts was all I could manage for the rest of the day. This rest was broken, however, by a panic note from the girl I'd met earlier - she'd come off the motorbike and badly hurt her ankle, the local hospital had nothing, and she needed any kind of medicine I had. I always carry a medical kit, so made it to her hotel where we tried to betadine the missing skin, and find anything to relieve the pain (of which paracetamol was all we could manage). It took me a good 15minutes to walk the 50metres back to my guesthouse - at that point, I was ready to pack and get plane out of there (problem was that I didn't feel I was even capable of doing that). Some dencorub discovered in the medical kit helped ease the pain a little, giving me a night's sleep.
Saturday April 15 - Feeling somewhat better (and smelling of more dencorub) I decided to give Angkor complex another try, going real slow and taking my time. Short walks around Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang, Preah Rup, East Mebon and Presat Kravan filled my morning. While Prasat Kravan is the smallest of all these temples, it was definitely my favourite - clean, relaxing and crowd-free. I don't think I can recommend my guesthouse more! Again, still not feeling 100%, they insisted on bringing my lunch as room service. I think they were happy that I was starting to feel better and was eating again. In the afternoon, I headed over to Banteay Samre. I don't recall having gone to this one on the last trip - another of those temples designated as unsafe at the time. I think I'd have to rate Banteay Samre as one of my favourites in the Angkor Complex. Nicely restored, well kept and clean, the small crowds keeping fairly quiet as you'd expect in a temple. Pale-coloured laterite walls and galleries with sandstone windows were beautiful. The temple kids, while still trying to sell you more whistles (despite having already bought two, at 500riel each - I didn't even bother to bargain), seemed more interested in just following you around, looking at what you're looking at, rather than desperately hassling you to buy everything. Stopped at Ta Prohm on my way back. That 'amazing, overgrown temple' I'd seen and remembered from years ago, seemed so 'clinical' after trapsing aroung Beng Mealea and Koh Ker. Light was fading, so only a very short visit, before heading back to town.
Sunday April 16 - Again refusing to get up too early (this was supposed to be a holiday), it was going on 7.30 am when we headed off to Tonle Sap. The road there was relatively flat, and the houses along the street were decorated for the new year: tables near the front door with offerings of fruit and drinks (always Mirinda orange drink - why?), and bamboo stars covered with multicoloured cellophane. Arriving at Tonle Sap by 8am, most of the tourists hadn't yet arrived, giving a peacful morning on the lake. Views of daily life on the water proved interesting, with houseboats ranging from simple 'junk'-looking boats, to fancy floating houses with rooftop gardens. I wish the standard part of the tour did not include visiting the fish-farm, with it's sick, near-featherless birds tied to logs in the water for the tourists - what tourist would want to see that? Heading back to shore, there was a steady stream of tourist traffic heading out. We stopped at Phnom Krom on the way back, getting a dose of exercise climbing the hill. The towers there were nothing spectacular, although the stone used were really interesting - I'd never seen sandstone erode like that before. From the top of the hill, you could see the dark clouds rolling in, and the heavy rain falling in the distance. We only just got back to town without getting too wet. With no intentions of walking around temples in the rain, I settled in for a couple of hours at my favourite Cafe Kampuccino with my book, a pot of peppermint tea, and classical music playing in the background. The rain eased up at about 1pm, meaning that I could head back for one last visit to Angkor site - this time to the Bayon. Last trip, not long after we arrived at Bayon a bus-ful of Japanese tourists arrived, taking over the temple, thus prompting us to just get out of there. This time, it remained fairly peaceful for a couple of hours, allowing me to admire the reliefs and amaze at the faces, before finally heading home . . . . . . Lisa Cox (Bangkok)
Thea's Cambodian Travelogue
The mango harvest in Cambodia is drawing to a close this May 2000, and a new season has taken its turn. It is the rainy season, bringing water to the land, which has been parched in the past few months. With the water bringing the rebirth of green tropical fauna and flora, friendly Cambodian kids in their ragged shirts are commonly seen in various paddy fields. They are working hard as always, searching for crabs, frogs and fish for the daily food for their entire family. Although peace and safety are now better assured, the local economy gives these kids, the Khmer younger generation, virtually nothing in terms of education and medical care, and they are living from hand to mouth.
Of important note, these kids have survived, partly due to the support of tourists, who have visited the country despite uncertain security, and have admired the wonders of the Angkor monuments, passed on to the younger generation of Cambodia. As you are aware, our Khmer ancestors built not only the Angkor complex, but also other beautiful temples and cities, hidden in the jungle. These are becoming accessible given improving security. Traveling off the beaten track allows us not only to explore the ancient capitals, but also further to witness the real lifestyle of the friendly Khmers, and understand their need for help.
To this end, we would like to share with you our new discovery of the hidden ancient Khmer capitals and amazing temples. Join us now in the travelogue below:-
CHAO SREI VIBOL BENG MEALEA PRASAT BOT
It was on April 8, 2000, just 5 days before the beginning of Chul Chhnam (Khmer New Year, April 13-15), that a 4WD car collected us at dawn from Bakong Guesthouse, Siem Reap town. We and our armed companions began our adventurous journey, after filling the back of our car with pots, pans, safe drinks and food stocks. On National Road 6 we drove, then through numerous villages where we were greatly impressed by the way of life of the locals, their fruit gardens, and other sights uniquely different from those we had encountered in the cities. As New Year was drawing closer, the villages were more active and colorful. Decoration was seen on local wooden stilt huts, for welcoming the turn of a New Khmer God (The Year of the Snake God). Both children and adults dressed up colorfully, and they were cheerful. The village roads are not easy. No concrete, just soil and sand, broken with huge holes. Despite these difficulties, our powerful 4WD car went through successfully and we arrived at Chao Srei Vibol at 10am. Lisa Cox, from Australia, an amazingly adventurous traveler, and sponsor of our trip, offered alms to the head of the Buddhist monks residing at the monastery in the compound of Chao Srei Vibol. This act helped reinforce Buddhism, whose Lord Buddha was given alms by a generous lady amidst the forest, when he had just started to eat after a long period of fasting, which taught him an answer to life and to gaining enlightenment. Just as Buddha blessed the lady, the monk then blessed all of us in his prayer, in Pali language beyond our comprehension.
After that, we climbed the northern hill toward the main towers of Chao Srei Vibol, built in the 11th century in Baphuon art style, and dedicated to Hinduism. Atop the hill, a few sandstone towers stand in their amazing art style, and reliefs, while other towers are totally collapsed. Walking around, we were thirsty and hungry. Suddenly, we were given a surprise by a kid who was shaking a mango tree. I was wondering what was in the tree. Was it a chipron (a kind of tree dwelling rodent) or monkey ? No, it was the kid, and he climbed down with mango fruits. He gave the fruits to us, we ate them and they were so sweet. I found myself no longer thirsty and hungry! Walking down the pyramid steps on the eastern side of the hill, we climbed down to photograph an impressively ruined gopura, and while climbing down we came across a beautiful free standing relief of lions, nagas and more. Next we walked on the base to the cruciform building, then to the pool which we would not have discovered without the guidance of the local kids, and finally to our car. As we were thirsty again, the monks gave us coconut fruits, and lychee fruits. It was at noon, when the weather is so hot, that we bade farewell to the kids and the monks, and set off, on the advice of the monks, on an ancient road , which is easier than the previous one, to Beng Mealea.
We were not concerned about the state of the road, as it is common off the beaten track. Villages along the ancient road close to the Eastern base of Phnom Kulen (Kulen Mountains) are very remote and in a poor state of development. This is made evident by the sight of local huts and schools, simply made of leaves. After an hour and a half, our car drew into Beng Mealea village. Before proceeding to the temple, we were greeted by a military engineering unit that was stationed at the gateway to the temple, to look after the temple, and to check on travelers. As the arrangement of our trip was assisted by the Cambodian government officials who accompanied us, we were given a warm welcome, and courteously offered a place as canteen for our lunch in their military unit.
After lunch, we proceeded to the temple of Beng Mealea built in late 11th century by King Suryavarman II, and dedicated to Hinduism, in Angkor Wat art style. By size, history, art and architecture, and nature, Beng Mealea has been considered to be among the top three temples, after Angkor Wat and Bayon. A team of armed soldiers guided us through all the attractive buildings, and reliefs, and the three ponds. We were highly impressed, with its style, huge size, the long causeway, natural settings of tree trunks covering the buildings, Apsara reliefs, and several artistically styled nagas. Once infrastructure is improved, Beng Mealea is one of the must-see sites.
That same afternoon we headed to Svay Le District. On the way, we stopped to visit an ancient sandstone quarry where Angkoreans are said to have mined the stone for building the Angkor monuments. This is where the Japanese Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor (JSA) extracted sandstone for their conservation projects at Bayon, Prasat Suor Prat and a library at Angkor Wat. Then we arrived into Svay Leu district, where we stayed overnight after we were received courteously by the governor Sin Ron, who briefed us on security updates before we continued to Koh Ker the next morning. We stayed in a local wooden house, owned by a family whose father was a victim of a landmine accident, but who has survived, and is wealthy by the standards of this remote town. We were guided to visit another temple Prasat Bot in the compound of a Buddist temple. Then, kids and other villagers took us to a bathing area at the base of Phnom Kulen, when the sun was about to set. Lisa and I walked with the kids and the village men all the way (3kms) until we arrived at the bathing area, with creeks and cool water. There, other villagers together with local personnel of the Halo Trust, the British founded de-mining team, were having their bath, while others were carrying water from this clean source to their houses. It is a great evening meeting spot! Lisa joined the locals for a bath and a chat. At night, to end our day, we walked by torch light to a cultural show (dance and drama) in an open field, that attracted the locals from all the nearby villages.
Next morning, April 9th, we set off for Koh Ker. The governor gave us two more armed companions, led by the police commissioner Min Chantha. So we had more confidence about safety from bandits for our onward trip. After just fifteen minutes drive, we reached the dense tropical jungle, where we were in the middle of nowhere; no established road, no villages, no person in sight. We were on an ox cart path covered all along by leaves fallen from evergreen trees of this vast tropical jungle. This jungle is inhabited by different kinds of wildlife, such as deer, tortoise, cock, chipron, and other birds. Before we left Svay Leu town, we saw local men carrying deer carcasses, no doubt hunted from this jungle. On and on the car moved and our eyes feasted on the beauty of the jungle, with evergreen trees and attractive birds of different colors, that are not seen in the cities. The commissioner also took his turn to explain to us about the paddy fields we came across, even in the heart of the jungle. These paddy fields have been abandoned since 1970, when Cambodia started to suffer civil war. He also pointed out to us a hideout of bandits, that no longer exist now that his troops have wiped them out. Once in a while, we stopped the vehicle to rest, and on the way we saw no passers-by.
It takes 4 hours to drive the 50 km from the town Svay Leu to the village Siyong, gateway to Koh Ker. We had done 30 kms already. We were wondering if other teams had also conquered this jungle like us. We were not the only ones. After our cars moved up and down the dried stream bed, and over the hills, we approached a team of ox carts, on which yellow robes and other clothes were hanging. I asked myself who they were, and what they were doing in the heart of jungle. We saw that Buddhist monks ,and other laymen were resting, and they told us that they were making their way to Siyong. It would take them a full day by ox cart. Then one of the laymen jumped on the back of our car, and he made his way with us to the village. Several times were left in the middle of nowhere, not able to recognize the path. We would not have been able to make our way to Siyong had the commissioner and his men not guided us to the paths, one by one. On the way, we talked about the absence of communities in the jungle. We understood that it is not because of the jungle that the locals dont settle to make a community. It is because it is a drought area, there is no source of water, neither can wells produce water. It is a matter of lack of water, rather than safety and jungle. In the dry season, it is impossible to spot the existence of water in any form of puddle or stream in this jungle at the base of Phnom Kulen. In the rainy season, the streams store water for only one or two hours, then rush off toward the vast plain area below. While we were talking, our car reached the border of the village, where we could see huts, fruit gardens and some signs of cultivation of beans. Next we stopped at the office of the Siyong commissioner who we met briefly. Also, we took time to visit the locals in their huts. The locals looked at us as strangers that they saw for the first time. Hey! Come and look at Barang, one girl shouted. She referred to Lisa, a western tourist with sharp pointed nose and white skin similar to the former colonial French. The word Barang means French. Ah! Barang Srei (French Woman)!, a boy shouted to his friends.
We heard music from speakers nearby. One local explained to us about a Buddhist temple that is to be established soon for the village of Siyong. The locals have just moved there to settle in their village of rich land after the civil war has died out, and they want to have their Buddhist pagoda as the core of their community. So monks from nearby districts, particularly Svay Leu are invited to settle down at their newly established temple. We then understood why we met the ox cart team of Buddhist monks on our way. The major economy of Siyong is the cultivation of beans and rice, and hunting. Rice and hunting are just good enough to support the needs of their community, but beans are produced for export. So the strength of Siyong is beans. Twenty one years ago, Siyong was a fierce battle zone where the Khmer Rouge forces clashed with the governments in an attempt to attack the towns of Preah Vihear Province. This is the reason why the locals had to abandon their villages until recent days.
After talking with the villagers, we proceeded to Koh Ker, and the local commissioner joined us, to guide our team. It took half an hour to drive the 7km through the jungle. We then crossed the Baray, the man-made lake of Koh Ker. We saw the locals carrying water from the Baray. I understand why Koh Ker was chosen as a former ancient capital ,and why the locals now chose Siyong as their village. It is because of water, source of life, and the heart of the community. It is a testimony to the wisdom of the Angkorean kings, that they are famous for building their moated cities, with Barays, ponds and canals, without which the existence of crowded communities is not possible.
We then arrived at the main complex of Koh Ker, one of the Khmer ancient capitals, built in 928 (10th century) by King Jayavarman 1V, after turmoil took place at the main complex of Angkor, and dedicated to Hinduism. Lisa and I went inside with the local commissioners Him and Eun to the main compound, while our armed companions and driver stayed behind with the car, to do the cooking in the area shaded by the laterite enclosure wall. We walked by the inner moat, then into the main compound, with overgrown, pyramidal seven tiered foundation towers. We climbed, one by one, the sandstone staircases, largely broken due to theft and natural erosion. Reaching the top of the main, tiered temple Prasat Thom, we stood looking around. We were amazed by the birds eye view of the landscape. Koh Ker is bordered by vast evergreen tropical jungles, and the mountains Phnom Kulen and Phnom Dangrek. It is easy to understand why Koh Ker remains isolated and totally undiscovered. This was also the reason why King Jayavarman IV chose Koh Ker as his hideout during the turmoil at Angkor. We were also amazed by the carvings of large garudas, and at the same time sorry to see evidence of theft and illegal excavation. After climbing down, we were taken to visit the temples nearby such as Prasat Andong (Well temple), Prasat Khmao (Black temple), Prasat Kraham (Red temple), and Prasat Kohak whose carvings of deities, animals and flowers, on colonettes, lintels and frontons amazed us beyond description. We felt deeply saddened by the illegal excavation and destruction of sculptures, and theft of ancient Khmer treasures from all temples.
After that we went back to our car, where our escort team was ready to serve several courses, of Thai noodles, grilled chicken and rice. Before having our lunch, Lisa distributed crackers to the local kids and other villagers who come to carry water from the moat of the temple. On our way back, we visited another impressive temple, Prasat Neang Mao, made of laterite, where we were greatly impressed with the beautiful detailed carving on its lintel, reflecting the unique artistic style of Koh Ker. At 3 pm, we headed for the provincial town of Preah Vihear province, again through a vast jungle. There are about 130 temples in Koh Ker, requiring a 2 week stay if we want to explore all the temples, said the local commissioner. After a two hour drive, we passed through the jungles, into villages. The villages here, however, looked rather temporary. Some families were moving, others were not yet established . We were wondering why. The commissioner explained to us the trend of moving back to Siyong after the war, and we then understood. It is because the source of water there is so scarce, that it is impossible to establish a permanent community. We realized we were now on the very northwest of Cambodia, on the high latitude and were close to the Thai border. After another four hour drive, we arrived at Bakan guesthouse in the Provincial town of Preah Vihear at 9pm, for an overnight stay.
PREAH KHAN, KAMPONG SVAY
Next morning, April 10th, we left the town of Preah Vihear for Prasat Preah Khan, now known as Prasat Bakan on the main road. But like other roads, it was in a poor state of repair, and our journey was so rough and bumpy. On the way, we were impressed by slash and burn cultivation. The locals burnt down the trees of excellent logs for gardens of bananas, jack fruits, pineapples and other kinds of fruits. After two hours drive, we turned right at the corner, with a banner Welcome to Prasat Preah Khan-Bakan 57 Kms", into the base of the mountains in the jungle again. After going through the jungle, we approached the district Srok Sangkuk Thmei, where we met with the deputy governor Chum Puy and his commissoner Ou Buntheoun, who issued us with a permit. We then left them and at one village we were stopped by a drunken policeman. But after showing the permit, he let us continue. On the way, we paused, and one of our companions climbed a mango tree to pick green mangoes, as a vinegar source for lunch in the next few hours. At another village, our companions also requested the driver to stop, for they wanted to purchase Sra Sor (white alcohol made of rice, or Khmer Whisky). Our car then moved on and on, until at 12pm we arrived at Prasat Preah Damrei (The Elephant temple). In front of the temple is a huge Baray with crystal clear, deep water. The size of this Baray is as huge as that of the Western Baray at Angkor. The guards there told us it was inhabited by crocodiles - no doubt why the Angkoreans chose the area as one of their hideout capitals. Most of the temples at Preah Khan were built in the 12th century in Bayon art style, and the areas were the hideout of the Angkorean King Jayavarman VII, when the neighbouring Champas looted and burnt down Angkor. After residing at Preah Khan, and regaining full strength, the emperor moved to reclaim the throne at Angkor. The story of his victory is carved vigorously on the galleries of Bayon and Banteay Chhmar.
Prasat Preah Damrei was built in pyramidal style, but the chief attractions are the free standing statue of the elephant being worshiped by the locals, Apsara reliefs, and the attractive nagas with garudas, symbols of unification of Hinduism and Buddhism. This simple concept was successfully employed by the Angkorean Kings to settle social issues concerning religious conflict. After that we visited Prasat Mouk Boun (the four faced temple), so called because of the tower carved with four smiling faces, similar to those found at the Bayon. The soldier guard at Preah Khan guided us to most corners of Prasat Mouk Boun even though he was weak, due to suffering from malaria. He asked us if we had any medicine for malaria, but we had brought none. Then we drove through the eastern entry tower of the main complex of Preah Khan. We were amazed by the entry tower, which is similar to that of Angkor Thom, although it is smaller in size. We rested at a wooden platform in a field, where the past millennium celebrations were held. Our armed partners cooked Thai noodles and rice for us again, while they themselves had a special menu of tortoise, the Khmer Whisky, and other Khmer foods. After lunch, we visited two temples nearby: Prasat Kuk, and Prasat Sela Chareok, and then walked into the main tower of Preah Khan, which was very overgrown. We came across many impressive artistic reliefs, and again we were saddened by the destruction of sculptures and reliefs. Many heads of Buddha statues and Apsaras have been chopped off. The moat at the wing of Preah Khan has been totally overgrown. It was not until 3pm that we left Preah Khan, through the jungles, and villages, to overnight at a guesthouse at Stung District, Kampong Thom province, before journeying back to Siem Reap next morning.
BANTEAY CHHMAR, MEBON AND BANTEAY TOP
On April 12, we took a taxi at 8am from Siem Reap to Sisophon, in Banteay Meanchey province, on National Route 6, which is a very rough road. At 11am, we arrived in Sisophon, and checked in to the best hotel available, the Prum Mean Chei. At noon, we took motordops (motor taxis) to Pouk district, where the famous temple Banteay Chhmar is located. The journey took two hours in the severe heat, and we felt exhausted and dehydrated. Arriving in Banteay Chhmar, we were taken to greet the police unit that is stationed there to look after the temple, after recent major thefts. After paying for the pass, one of the police guided us into the temple, which is amazing both architecturally and artistically. The chief attractions are the four faced towers, and the beautiful carvings. The carvings are dedicated to Alokesvara, the founder of Mahayana Buddhism, and, on the galleries, to battle scenes of the victory against the Chams. Banteay Chhmar was built in the late 12th century in Bayon art style by the king Jayavarman VII, dedicated to his son Shridrakumara, and to four of his companions-in-arms, who saved his life during a fierce battle. Banteay Chhmar is situated on a vast plain, surrounded by a large moat filled with water. It also has its own inner pool. Next, our motor taxi took us through the school and behind the school is another temple similar to Mebon with a surrounding Baray. We walked through the water of the Baray, knee deep, to the temple on the island. There is nothing to admire, however. This temple made of sandstone is totally collapsed and overgrown with plants and thorn bushes. Mebon is known by the locals as Neak Bon. After Mebon, we visited Banteay Top, in the same district of Pouk. Banteay Top is located just 10Km from the main road, and we had to drive through a rough soil road, still under construction. When we arrived in Banteay Top village, our attention was caught by the setting sun, giving wonderful sunset views over the huge Baray. Next to the Baray is Banteay Top, with its impressive towers of sandstone. Sunset is an excellent time to visit Banteay Top. It was almost dusk when we walked into Banteay Top, to its high towers and other buildings. It was not until 6pm that we left the village for the main road. On the way through the jungle, it was dark but it was safe and we enjoyed our visit very much.
by Sok Thea (Siem Reap)
Acknowledgements: * Lisa Cox, for sponsoring the trip that we made together, and without whom our successful discoveries would not have been possible. * Local authorities at district level, and government cultural officials, particularly Angkor Conservation, for their support in terms of facilitation, guidance and sharing documents for our understanding of ancient Khmer knowledge. * The Japanese Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor (JSA) as my employer, for granting me days off, which allowed me to lead this successful trip, for their passion for the Cambodian people, and for their encouragement throughout of my coverage of Angkor. * All those international researchers, scholars, and tour operators who have motivated me throughout.
This website is dedicated to the memory of... Sok Thea, a personal friend and managing director of a Siem Reap-based tour company, Angkor Adventures, who died in 2000 at the age of 29. I will miss but always remember Thea's boundless enthusiasm, sense of adventure and his friendship.
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