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CAMBODIA TALES 1999

December 1999 - Trip overview

Playful kids at Wat Nokor in Kompong ChamThe rich heritage of Cambodia's glorious Angkorean past was the main focus of my latest visit to Cambodia although the popular Aussie-run Walkabout Hotel in Phnom Penh was my first port of call on arrival. I rounded off the day with a return visit to the refurbished Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and a leisurely wander through the busy aisles of the Russian market. Day two in the capital started early with a moto trip over the Japanese Bridge with Choy to one of my favourite spots, the peaceful Chrouy Changva Peninsula and onto Prek Leap and the VVAF Rehabilitation Center at Khien Khleang. After lunch, armed with Ray Zepp's indispensable 'A Field Guide to Cambodian Pagodas', I visited half a dozen of the capital's Buddhist wats that I'd not been to before, namely Srachak, Putgosachar, Piphoat Rangsey, Neak Kawann, Twai Donkum, Sampeou Meas, Preah Put and then stopped at Wat Than to see the disabled workshops at close quarters in the company of the Director, Hay Kim Tha. My third day in Phnom Penh included a 100 kilometre round-trip by moto to re-visit the well-kept temple ruins south of the capital at Tonle Bati, Prasat Neang Khmau and Phnom Chisor. A return to the National Museum and its superb collection of sandstone carvings and statues whetted my appetite for a scrumptious evening meal at the Special Rice Crust restaurant.

A tower in shade at Sambor Prei KukTwo hours in an air-conditioned bus along the best section of road in the country (Route 7) and I was now in Kompong Cham. In my two days in the city, I stayed in the Mittapheap and Ponleu Rasmei Hotels, both of which were clean and tidy. Soon after arriving, I hooked up with motodub Sam On and made the short trip to see the interesting Wat Nokor, an Angkorean temple incorporated into a modern shrine, and the nearby hills of Phnom Pros and Phnom Tet Srei, with their pagodas, monkeys and pleasant views. The following day was a memorable 100 kilometre moto trip over the Mekong river and along Route 7 to visit the 8th century Chenla capital of Banteay Prei Nokor, although the real highlight was a visit to Sam On's home village of Trach, a few kilometres from the ruins, to meet his family and the rest of the village. My meals in Kompong Cham were at the Hoa An and Kompong Cham (in Veal Vong village) restaurants. An early start the next day and a two-hour share-taxi ride along Route 6 brought me to my next destination, Kompong Thom. I booked into the Neak Meas Hotel, chatted to the friendly Manager, Se Eth, walked around the town and market and dined at the Arunras restaurant. The following morning, a 7am start by moto with Sokhom to visit the extensive 7th century temple complex of Sambor Prei Kuk was the beginning of another remarkable day. Getting to and from the temple site was half the fun and the three groups of temples in varying degrees of disrepair (above) made the uncomfortable journey really worthwhile.

Angkor Wat at sunrise - absolutely beautifulPhnom Santuk, 980 steps and an eclectic collection of shrines, carved Buddhas, great views and an active monastery was our early morning destination on the Sunday. I returned to visit a few modern wats around town, played volleyball and became the guest of honour at the hotel's 2nd anniversary party alongwith 250 invited guests representing the cream of the town's commercial hierarchy. Next day and a bumpy five-hour pick-up truck ride via Stoung and Kompong Kdei to Siem Reap was rounded off with a long, hot bath at the Freedom Hotel. A week in Siem Reap and at the Angkor temple complex began in earnest the following morning, with a sunrise visit to Angkor Wat (right). The rest of the day was spent at the Bayon with the Japanese government team for Safeguarding Angkor (JSA), Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Prasat Prei, Banteay Prei, Krol Ko, Neak Pean and sunset at Phnom Bakheng. The next day was similar with another Angkor Wat sunrise and then onto Prasat Kravan, Bat Chum, Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang, Ta Prohm, Ta Nei, Thommanon, Chau Say Tevoda, Preah Pithu and the North and South Khleangs. In the afternoon, my motodub, Saran and myself had great fun locating and discovering the temple of Banteay Thom before ending the day at Angkor Wat and Phnom Bakheng.

An overgrown Beng Mealea gallery An early morning trip out to Banteay Srei with some Khmer friends and then onto Banteay Samre, Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat, preceded an afternoon session in Angkor Thom at the Elephant and Leper King Terraces, Tep Pranam, Preah Palilay, the Royal Enclosure and pools, Phimeanakas, Baphuon and finally the Bayon again. After watching my third sunrise at Angkor Wat, I took a boat trip for a couple of hours out onto the Tonle Sap lake to visit the floating villages, returning via Wat Athvea to spend the afternoon at Angkor Wat. The weekend began with an early departure by pick-up truck, with Khmer friends and a large picnic, to the sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen with its giant reclining Buddha, riverbed carvings, temple ruins and waterfalls. Sunday was another particularly memorable day with a moto trip to the rarely-visited temple of Beng Mealea, in an overgrown and ruined state forty kilometres east of Angkor (left), accompanied by the temple conservator and a handful of soldiers, returning via Chau Srei Vibol, another off-beat temple ruin away from the main complex. My main companion for these two days was the irrepressible Sok Thea (pictured below), a knowledgeable and enthusiastic friend who helped my week fly by without a hitch.

Sok Thea with a couple of guards at Beng MealeaMy Siem Reap adventures complete, an intended three-hour speedboat trip to Cambodia's second city, Battambang, across the Tonle Sap lake and along the Sangke river actually took five hours when the driver lost his bearings. Ek Phnom, an 11th century ruin was my first port of call and I rounded off the day with visits to more modern temples at Peamek, Kdol, Slaket, Ruol Daun and Piphit. The following day, Philay, my motodub and myself took off early to visit the ruins of Wat Snoeung along Route 10 towards Pailin, before doubling back to explore Phnom Sampeou's caves, shrines and killing fields memorials and then onto Phnom Banan, an 11th century five-tower ruin on top of a hill with glorious views over the surrounding countryside. The city museum and main market caught my attention, as did Wat Bassaet's ruins the next day, set in the grounds of a peaceful modern pagoda and nunnery. Returning to the city, I visited the modern wats of Norea, Balat, Sophy, Po Khnong, Po Veal, Kandal and Sanker before retiring to my hotel, the comfortable Teo Hotel. An RAC flight back to Phnom Penh the following day (I couldn't face the nine hour pick-up truck journey) almost brought my fifth visit to Cambodia to a close, except for a return moto trip across to Chrouy Changva and a chance to wind down aided by a visit to the Seeing Hands massage centre at the National Centre for Disabled Persons HQ.

This is a very brief overview of my latest adventures in Cambodia. I know that the memories I have from this visit will live with me for a long time to come. The friendships I forged made my visit immeasurably better than I could've wished for and I have published more extracts from my latest travelogue to give you a better insight into my trip.

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