CAMBODIA TALES 2000
December 2000 - Trip overview
Just before my sixth trip to Cambodia in as many years, my plans were severely jolted by the unexpected death of my good friend, Sok Thea, a few weeks before we were due to meet in Phnom Penh. Although my hoped-for adventures into the Cambodian countryside were now shelved, I did discover some new places, re-visited old haunts and more importantly, forged many new friendships in my three week visit.
Arriving at Pochentong Airport via Singapore, I booked into the Dara Reang Sey Hotel for one night and immediately hit the road with Ly, my motodub, to visit Phnom Baset, 30 kms northwest of Phnom Penh along Route 5. Two hills, modern pagodas, a large reclining Buddha, an ancient temple with a unique cave inside and a life-size replica of Angkor Wat made it an interesting afternoon. For my first evening meal in Cambodia, I ate at the River 4 open-air restaurant on Sisowath Quay with Peter Leth, a fellow adventurer and schoolteacher in Phnom Penh. Early next morning, five hours in a jam-packed speedboat with an excrutiatingly loud Khmer video in my ear, took me up the wide Mekong river to Kratie. I was hoping for a relaxing visit to this old colonial port and I was not disappointed. The only guest at the Santepheap Hotel, I ended my first day with a meal at the Mekong restaurant after a trip around town and beyond with Phanna, my teenage guide, and a half-decent sunset. Next day, I was collected early by Veang for the forty kilometre trip north to the temples of Sambor. A bumpy ride, we also called in at Kampi to catch a glimpse of the rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins at close quarters and the four pagodas of Phnom Sambok. After lunch, Phanna and I rode out into the countryside along the Prek Te river and rounded off the day with a dazzling sunset across the Mekong (pictured above) and tikaloks along the river bank.
The speedboat to Kompong Cham left at 7am the following day and took 2½ hours. The Mittapheap Hotel was my first stop before my motodub Vy took me 20 kms north of the city to Han Chey, his home village. Along a track hugging the Mekong, it was the roughest ride I've ever experienced in Cambodia but viewing the 7th century temples on the hill and meeting Vy's family and friends was more than adequate compensation. I ate at the Hoa An restaurant that night. Heavy overnight rain continued the following morning, so I decided to move onto Kompong Thom earlier than planned. My taxi stopped at the ancient temple sites of Wat Nokor, Phnom Thom and Tang Krasan on the way to delivering me to the Neak Meas Hotel by 2pm. I met up with my trusty moto-driver from a year earlier, Sokhom and had dinner at the Arunras. The extensive Sambor Prei Kuk temple complex was our target the next day and we called into a remote cluster of temples at Krol Robang Romeas on the way. The ride there and back was thoroughly enjoyable and we visited the town's tourism office and arts depot on our return. An eight hour, six temple tour south along Route 6 took up most of my sixth day in Cambodia; the Angkorean temples that Sokhom and I visited were Kohak Nokor, Thnot Chum (two temples), Prasat Phum Prasat, Kuk Veang and Kuk Roka, before an evening meal at the Arunras.
Route 6 north of Kompong Thom is in a shocking state. It took my pick-up truck, eight hours to complete the 150 kms to Siem Reap, with a few stops, including the ancient Angkorean bridge at Spean Praptos. In Siem Reap, I stayed at the Bakong guesthouse for a couple of nights and moved to the friendly Golden Angkor Hotel for the rest of the week. For my first day, Rieng, my moto-driver, took me to Angkor Wat, the Bayon and parts of Angkor Thom including the West and East Gates, Ta Nei and back to Angkor Wat to shelter from a storm and to view a cloudy sunset. Meeting up with my Khmer friend, Phalla, we visited the Angkor Conservation Depot the following morning to see much of the free-standing statuary removed from temples around Cambodia for safe-keeping. After a visit to Ta Prohm, we had lunch at the home of Noung and Sokchata, two souvenir sellers from Angkor Wat and then a group of us headed for the Western Baray for the afternoon to swim, play cards and eat snacks until dusk. In the evening, I met up with Lonely Planet author Nick Ray and was treated to dinner at the Banteay Srei restaurant by Tan Sotho, the MD of Hanuman Tourism. In what turned out to be over 13 hours on motos, Phalla and myself took off at 5am for an adventure across Phnom Kulen on the hunt for ancient temples. We visited Prasat O'Thma Dap, Prasat Chrei, Sam Phon Thlei, Aram Rong Chen, Prasat Neak Ta and Prasat O'Pong before rounding off an exhausting day with a whistle-stop hike to see the waterfall and superb rock carvings in the riverbed at Kbal Spean (right). Dinner at Liquid with some friends and a drink at the lively Angkor What? pub set me up for a well-deserved deep sleep.
For my fifth day in Siem Reap, sunrise at Angkor Wat was followed by a trip to the Roluos Group, 15 kms east of Angkor with Phalla and Lom, our reliable motodub. Included in our visit were the three rarely-visited temples of Prei Monti, Trapeang Phong and Totoeng O'Thngai. A trip into the countryside surrounding Siem Reap beckoned in the afternoon, as we headed for Wat Chedei and Wat Athvea before returning to Angkor Wat for sunset and then onto the Arun restaurant for dinner with some Khmer friends. Another 5am departure, for the sunrise at Srah Srang lake and breakfast at Pradak village, saw us head for Phnom Bok. A rewarding but exhausting climb to see the ancient temple at the summit was followed by stops at Banteay Samre, Prasat To, Leak Neang, Pre Rup and Tatry village, on the look-out for a friend, Pete Calanni, who we eventually located in his new house back in Siem Reap. After lunch, we visited Angkor Thom again, Krol Romeas, Preah Khan and sunset at Angkor Wat. I chose a return visit to Beng Mealea for my final full day in Siem Reap. Lom and I set off at 5am, stopped at Damdek village for breakfast, looked in at the nearby old temple of Prasat Banteay Srei before reaching Beng Mealea by 9am. The temple is still in a ruined and overgrown state and Kin, my guide, was able to show me a lot more in the two hours we had, than I'd seen a year earlier. We managed to return to Angkor Wat just in time to catch the sunset and ended the day with a meal at the Bayon restaurant with a group of Khmer friends.
Waved off by friends at 6am the next morning, the boat to Battambang was a tiny rowing dinghy with an engine, seating just nine people and spraying us all whenever we hit a wave. I was relieved when three hours later we reached Battambang and I booked into the Teo Hotel. My young driver, Chetra and myself, headed for Ek Phnom and then Phnom Banan before crossing the Sangke river and visiting the 'hello' village and tikaloks along the river. My flight to Phnom Penh left at 8.30am the following morning and I returned to the Dara Reang Sey Hotel, wandered around town and accepted an invite from a Khmer family in Tuol Kauk district for my evening meal. Early next day, I toured the prosthetic and wheelchair workshops and rehabilitation centre of Veterans International at Kien Khleang, before returning to stop off at the National Museum, which has lots of extra exhibits on show to the public these days. After lunch, I was accompanied by Sok Thea's family to pay my respects to his memory and his ashes in a formal ceremony at Wat Ounalom on Sisowath Quay. A visit to the Russian market and to see friends at the Walkabout hotel preceded an early evening moto-convoy back over the Japanese Bridge with eleven Khmer companions. After corn-on-the-cob in hammocks at Prek Leap, we enjoyed a scrumptious meal and cabaret show at the Ta Ta restaurant.
Kampot and the South coast was my destination the next day. The share-taxi from Dumkor market took three hours before depositing me at the Borey Bokor Hotel in Kampot. In the afternoon, Phalla hired a 250cc motorbike and we took off to see the ruined villas and deserted beach at Kep, and the caves of Phnom Sia on the return trip. Sunset across the Prek Thom river was nearly as good as the Kratie sunset and dinner with a Khmer family rounded off the day nicely. The following morning, Phalla, Bunly and I set off for Bokor mountain. After two hours, a very rough track and a long steep climb into the clouds, we reached the first set of ruined villas followed by the deserted casino and hotel (pictured left), church and other buildings. The cloud lifted and the sun shone to reveal gorgeous views across the sea to the nearby island of Phu Quoc. At noon, we had our lunch at Popokvil Falls before leaving Bokor and stopping at Tek Chhou rapids and picnic area on our way back to Kampot for a lovely sunset, a meal at the hotel and tikaloks on the street.
After two days in Kampot, I returned to Phnom Penh by taxi and back to the friendly Dara Reang Sey Hotel, had a massage at Seeing Hands before a final evening meal with my Khmer friends in Tuol Kauk. Goodbyes at the airport the following morning were a wrench as I boarded my flight for Singapore. With ten hours to kill, I met up with Lina (pictured right), a journalist with the Singapore Tatler magazine, who'd offered to show me the sights. However, it rained heavily as we left Changi Airport and we decided to spend our time in Chinatown, wandering amongst the shop-houses and tasting the local cuisine at a hawker centre and shopping mall. I thanked Lina for her excellent company and returned to Changi, where the facilities are first-class, before my midnight flight back to Heathrow. My latest visit to Cambodia was over and I had the Christmas holidays to recover from my exertions and revel in my experiences.
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