On the road with Paul Hay


photos to follow

I grabbed the two front seats in a share-taxi that left Kompong Thom at 8am, with two Spanish travellers who were keen to share their tales with me. The road was in good condition and a series of ancient laterite bridges were being reconstructed along the route. We reached Siem Reap at 11am and as I walked to the Peace of Angkor guesthouse (POA), next to the Freedom hotel on the main highway, my pal Rieng appeared, as if by magic and we had a long chat with the guesthouse owners Dave and Colleen over a cup of tea. Rieng gave me a lift to the Continental Cafe for lunch and then to the E-Cafe to email my wife. I took a leisurely walk around the market and back to the guesthouse to rest before returning to 'pub street' for a meal and drinks at the Paper Tiger bar with friends including Paul Hay and his partner Sheila, Garrie Maguire, Nick Ray and two tv producers from National Geographic, who were in town with Nick filming a tv show called Worlds Apart, where a family are transported into a foreign environment. I was back at the POA by 11pm and enjoyed a really good sleep until my wife phoned me at 1.20am - and I still don't know why!

Paul Hay runs the Hidden Cambodia Dirt Bike adventure travel company and we'd planned a 3-day trip across the north-west corner of the country on his 250cc motorbike. He collected me at 7.30am and we passed through the Angkor Park on our way to a noodles and coffee breakfast at a foodstall next to the temple at Banteay Srei. At 10am we reached the village of Sre Noy and asked at the bike repair shop if there were any 'prasats' in the vicinity. Nods, smiles and waves suggested there were, so we took a rough track west and headed towards a village called Kouk Kandal. Alternating between deep sand and hard rock, the trail wound its way through a wooded area to the hamlet of Lovea, where children ran away and a woman told us that 'barangs' (foreigners) hadn't been seen in the village before. Her husband indicated the presence of three temples on a hill closeby but that it would take a few hours to visit them, so we had to decline. Instead we carried onto Wat Kouk Kandal, some 20kms west of Sre Noy and found an ancient pool, surrounded by a stepped laterite wall, next to the grounds of the half-built pagoda. We couln't find any monks to speak to but a passing villager pointed us into the wood, where we soon found two ruined laterite temples, fifty metres apart. The undergrowth and some vicious red ants made it difficult to photograph and explore the two sites, which revealed little by way of carving except some sandstone doorframes and baluster windows. Frustratingly, no-one we asked knew the names of the two temples. Forty-five minutes later we were back in Sre Noy, taking a food break of cakes and coconuts after our interesting detour. The village of Lovea certainly has potential for a return visit.

The road improved after Sre Noy but we had to stop an hour later when our back-tyre suffered a slow puncture from a nail. We stopped at the next motor-repairer's house, each village has one, and joined the family for a meal of curry and sweet potato, whilst dad fixed our inner-tube. After we played 'tot sey' (foot shuttlecock) with the family's children, we were back on the road and took another hour to reach our final destination, Anlong Veng, the former headquarters of the last remnants of the Khmer Rouge, at a little after 3pm. Next to the 'dead lake', in the middle of town, we had a spicy meal of deer meat, beef and chicken soup at the Choum No Tror Cheak restaurant, where Paul was well known from his previous trips. Next we visited one of the former Khmer Rouge sites that are beginning to attract visitors to the town, namely Ta Mok's villa, which cost a hefty $2 fee, with its amateurish wall paintings and where a group of deminers were searching for landmines at the front gate. The view of the lake from the second floor, with its blackened and leafless tree stumps, had an apocalyptic feel about it. Ta Mok, aka The Butcher, was the infamous one-legged military chief of the Khmer Rouge, who is now in jail awaiting trial for genocide. We took the road north towards the Dangrek mountain range, looming large a few kilometres from the town, pausing at Khieu Samphan's house on the way. Samphan was the Khmer Rouge's President. The road up the mountainside was very steep and tricky to negotiate and we passed a landmark statue where soldiers carrying rifles have had their heads chopped off. These images had been carved out of a giant boulder in the middle of the track. Landmine warning signs were everywhere as we reached the plateau at the top, leading up to the border post with Thailand, just beyond the small market. Paul had booked us the night at a collection of wooden chalets on a ridge with a superb view of the countryside surrounding Anlong Veng. The chalets are the brainchild of Run, a well-connected local and Ministry official with a colourful past, who entertains foreigners, military and well-heeled Khmers at his camp. We arrived a little after 5pm, in time for a cold shower from a bucket and to watch the sun setting below us as the sky darkened and grey rain clouds moved in from the south. As a few raindrops fell, Paul and I enjoyed a tasty chicken, fried fish and prawn meal with Run and a couple of his buddies, with our discussion topics ranging through monarchy, invading neighbours and of course, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, just a stone's throw from a cliff-edge overlooking northern Cambodia below us - a memorable location. Once the beer had been consumed, we called it a night, just after 9pm and I slept soundly in my chalet, complete with wooden bed, mattress, mozzie net and a softly buzzing generator nearby.

Next morning, we were up and out of the camp by 7am, stopping at Ta Mok's ramshackle mountainside retreat, next to Run's chalets and then spending time with a group of soldiers at a nearby guard-post. Paul knew the soldiers, all of whom were former Khmer Rouge, who'd swapped over to the government side a few years before. Shyly, they lined up for a group photo, and then asked for 5,000 riel to buy some breakfast - I didn't feel I was in a position to refuse! Next stop was Pol Pot's home and bunker, about a kilometre from the border, which had been robbed of any removable items and was now just a shell. These homes, on top of the Dangrek mountain, enabled the Khmer Rouge hierachy to skip quickly into Thailand if their positions were threatened by the government. All around Pol Pot's home were landmine warning signs. We then drove to the border to visit Pol Pot's burial site, a few hundred yards from the small market. Pol Pot had been tried, found guilty and put under house arrest in July 1997 by his Khmer Rouge colleagues in a show-trial aimed at appeasing calls for an international trial. After his death, allegedly from heart failure, on 15 April 1998, the small shack he was living in was dismantled and all that is visible today is a broken toilet bowl amongst the weeds, and his grave, covered with a tin roof, with some small offerings nearby. Pol Pot had been cremated on a pile of rubbish and car tyres - an unremarkable end for one of the world's worst mass killers. This was our final 'tourist' stop on the mountain plateau, as we returned down the hill to Anlong Veng, some fifteen kilometres away, for a fried beef and rice breakfast at the Thou Thear restauarant, served by a waitress Paul had last seen working in Stung Treng. At 10.30am we left Anlong Veng, heading west along a smooth new road.

This brand new road, searing through the remote northern reaches of Preah Vihear and Oddar Meanchey provinces, has been painstakingly demined by Halo Trust, who were still very much in evidence at the village of Bos, where we stopped to speak to a stall owner. He told us a ruined temple, Prasat Chouk Meas, was nearby but surrounded by landmines, and as we spoke a whistle sounded for the deminers all around us, to break for lunch. At mid-day we reached the cross-roads at Phaang, where the border with Thailand at O'Smach was 25 kms to the north, and Samrong, our destination, was 40 kms to the south. We stopped for a drink and a 'tot-sey' break as the shopkeeper told us of many temples in the vicinity, but again landmines were an ever-present threat. At Wat Sakrom, Et, a young boy we'd played tot-sey with, took us on a quick jaunt to look at where three temples had once stood, though holes in the ground and a few sandstone blocks were all that remained. At the village of Konkreil, my glasses broke in half when we stopped for petrol, which put an end to our temple-hunting for the day, so we made a bee-line for Samrong, which we reached at 1.30pm, and the market where my glasses were soldered together for 1,000 riel at the electrical stall. Next we booked a couple of fan rooms at the Stang Toek guesthouse and walked to the nearby Ryk Reay restaurant for chicken and fried rice. Paul had recommended both as the best in town, and he wasn't wrong. We chatted to Vanna, who ran the place, and were more than a little surprised when she told us she was a cousin of the sisters who run the Dara Reang Sey hotel in Phnom Penh - a small world indeed. After a game of chess at the cycle repair shop, we took a tour of the town, where four small children stopped us to ask me questions in English and pose for a photo. We rested in our rooms until 7pm, when we returned to the Ryk Reay for dinner, at less than $3 for both meals and drinks. We were joined by a couple of German NGO workers, with one of the guys bearing a remarkable resemblence to the actor Peter Sellers, though of course Paul had no idea who I was talking about. We went next door for a tikalok smoothie, served by the lovely, but very shy, Nai, at her busy shop before retiring to bed just after 9pm. Most of Samrong had gone to bed about an hour earlier.

After an omelette at the Ryk Reay and goodbyes to the two girls, Jan and Van, who ran our guesthouse, we were back on the road by 7.30am. In an hour we'd reached Chongkal, played tot-sey with a group of kids and were told that most temples nearby had been recently looted by the Thai road-building crews. Outside of town we left the main road to find Prasat Prohm Kel, in a field, a large laterite temple with a tower at one end and a ruined lintel, but an interesting diversion nonetheless. A few minutes later, I spotted part of a sandstone naga and told Paul to stop. It quickly became clear we were on top of an ancient bridge and after scrambling through some very thick undergrowth, we found ourselves at the foot of the bridge, Spean Toeup, with around 35 laterite arches and a small stream flowing underneath. With the heavy foliage it was difficult to get a good photo angle but it was a great find, which we'd nearly missed. At 10am we stopped at Srok, where an old Russian tank was the village's chief landmark, and where Paul continued his chess game against the local hairdresser. An hour later, we left the road to follow a track that ran alongside an old Khmer Rouge-built canal and came to the village of Rolum Svay, sat on top of a large dyke, where all the children ran away screaming as I got off the bike, returning minutes later to play tot-sey and to fool around, and where the whole village had assembled to meet their first-ever 'barang' visitor. We continued along the dyke and had to cross a picturesque river, much to the delight of a group of giggling children. It went well, utilising a small boat to carry the bike across, until it was my turn to board the boat, which quickly took on water and had disappeared under the surface before we reached the far riverbank. Fortunately, the river was only mid-thigh deep. The children thought it was hilarious, I smiled gamely. By 12.30pm we'd reached our target, Spean Sreng, but rather than the large and distinctive ancient laterite bridge we'd hoped to find, we were told that the Khmer Rouge had covered the whole structure in dirt and soil to make a dam, and only a broken naga gave any hint of its former glory. I hope one day the Cambodian authorities will uncover this potential gem.

The whole area is a network of canals and dams, broken bridges and happy, smiling faces. It was a great place to relax and enjoy the ride. Within half an hour, we reached Prasat Pram, originally with five towers, though only two are now intact. They were a mixture of sandstone and laterite, with an enclosure wall and a moat. Small pedestals and a few stones with carving remain amongst the jumble on the ground. A local farmer pointed us off into the distance and we soon located the pagoda at Wat Chaa Leu, where a solitary red-coloured sandstone tower stood, still housing the remains of an excellent carving of Brahma above the entrance door, but little else. We then agreed to call a halt to our 'stop and ask' expedition, and to head back to Siem Reap, and soon we reached Route 6, some 50 kms from town. As we'd done on numerous occasions, we stopped at a small shop by the roadside to buy some local produce, this time ice-lollies, whilst on previous stops we'd bought cold drinks, fruit, sweets and cakes, anything really to quench our thirst and hunger and to help the local economy. News of my arrival soon spread and a dozen children appeared from everywhere, all of them gazing longingly at my ice-lolly, of course I bought one for each of them, as well as the adults who'd stopped to watch. At 100 riel each, it didn't break the bank! Route 6 turned out to be the worst road of our whole trip, bone-shakingly bad, dusty, uneven and pot-holed, so I was more than relieved when we arrived back the the POA guesthouse at 4pm. It had been an excellent three days, visiting a host of new places in the far north and opening up a few possibilities for future trips. Paul is a consumate professional as a bike-rider and as a knowledgeable guide and we had some great fun on our adventures. I sincerely hope we remain friends for years to come. That evening, I ate at the guesthouse, chicken curry and chips, Rieng turned up to talk about my travels, whilst Dave and Colleen also joined us for a chat before I retired to bed at 9.30pm.

Rieng arrived at 9am the next day as arranged, after I suggested a relaxing day around the Angkor Park. To Rieng that meant his father-in-law's air-conditioned Camry and I didn't object. We kicked-off with a visit to Phnom Bakheng, where we inspected every nook and cranny, and there's many, as the temple is in its own right, an incredible feat of engineering, though most tourists only use it as a place to watch the sun set each day. It certainly deserves more attention than it normally receives. We took the elephant path down the hill rather than the steeper, more direct track, where I had once witnessed an Asian tourist fall head over heels in the dark. Next we headed north of Preah Khan to visit the often-neglected sister temples of Prasat Prei and the larger Banteay Prei, with its dry moat, gallery and central sanctuary, but the day was hotting up and I was glad of the car's air-con. However, my glasses broke for a second time and without a spare pair, we were forced to return to town for urgent running repairs. After lunch at the Red Piano and a shower at the POA, we returned to the Angkor Park at 2.30pm to visit a friend from previous visits to Ta Prohm, a former souvenir-seller, Shanti, who now has her own drinks shop near the front entrance. As always, a friendly welcome and chat is assured. Half an hour later we arrived at Angkor Wat at the same time as half of the Korean population, or so it seemed, and I headed for the souvenir stalls near the royal pool to see another old friend. However, Noung wasn't around so I chatted with her parents until she arrived soon after with a couple of friends from Phnom Penh, who she had taken to the Cultural Village in town. Sitting at her stall, in the shade, I also met Pumpkin from the POA and her sister Diamond who'd come to Angkor Wat to enjoy the late afternoon sun. After goodbyes to Noung, her friends and family, I returned to Siem Reap and later met with Sheila, Paul Hay's partner, and environmentalist Alex Diment at the Soup Dragon for a meal and drinks. Alex is an email contact, who will be working in Anlong Veng for the next eight months. I was back in the POA by 10pm.

Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales:

Cambodia Tales

Cambodia Tales 2

December 2003 marked my tenth 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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