CAMBODIA TALES 2002
Preah Vihear - a great adventure
More photos to follow
As the road from Siem Reap to Kompong Thom had improved according to reports, I chose the more comfortable Camry share-taxi option rather than the usual pick-up truck and after successfully concluding negotiations for the two front seats, left a little before 7am. An hour later, I jumped out at Spean Praptos for a few photos of the ancient Angkorean bridge as we waited for a passenger before the rain began to fall, which when added to a few overnight showers, turned the road into a quagmire in places. At one spot the traffic was reduced to a crawl as trucks and taxis slid and careened their way through axle-deep mud. With the main bridge at Stoung under repair, a diversion took us through someone's garden and we finally arrived in Kompong Thom city centre after a four-hour trip.
As arranged by e-mail, my trusted friend, fellow adventurer and moto-driver, Sokhom, was waiting to greet me. After a plate of noodles at the Arunras restaurant, we stopped at his home to pack my daysack, collect our hammocks and mozzie nets and a brief reunion with his wife Sroy and daughter Kunthea, before our mid-day departure. Sokhom's moto is an old one with suspect suspension and an uncomfortable seat but its never let us down on all our previous trips, though this one, a round-trip of some 500 kms north to the ancient temple of Preah Vihear and back, would be its greatest test. The rain had left large puddles in the red-clay road and a succession of massive logging lorries either splashed the water over us or forced us to cover our faces to avoid the dust clouds, once the sun re-emerged from behind the clouds. After a couple of hours we reached the rubber tree plantation where we'd stopped on the same route four months before. Pausing for a cold drink at Phnom Dek, forty minutes later, the minefields nearby had been cleared and obvious signs of demining activity removed, though the large tyre tracks, dried out by the sun, made the final thirty kilometres into Tbeng Meanchey town (TBM), a painful one on Sokhom's elderly moto. En route, we passed the Prasat Kraham Chhouk temple where a religious ceremony was taking place with what looked like hundreds of monks and nuns in attendance but pressed for time we didn't stop for long.
Five hours after saying our goodbyes to Sokhom's family and friends, we booked into a double room with fan at the Mlop Trosek guesthouse and wolfed down a chicken supper at the Malop Dong restaurant, both favoured haunts of ours. At a petrol stop in TBM's main street, we played 'tot sey' (foot shuttlecock) with a handful of bemused locals before settling down for fruit and tikaloks at a popular roadside stall run by Kove, a pretty 19 year old and her three sisters. An early start the following day meant an ice-cold shower, a 'good morning' to the frog perched on the bathroom mirror, noodles and coffee breakfast at the Malop Dong and a few running repairs to the moto before our 7.30am departure. We took the same road we'd taken a few months earlier to Koh Ker though we veered right instead of left at the village of Thbal Bek and soon afterwards came across a large group of army engineers constructing a gigantic steel bridge across the Stung Sen river at Takeng. Surprisingly, considering the bridge-building project, the road north to Preah Vihear was little more than a dusty one-lane track and as we drove through an uninhabited forested area for the next two and a half hours, we saw no sign of life except lizards scampering across our path, heard the constant shrill of cicadas and were reminded that the area was heavily mined by the HALO Trust warning signs posted every half kilometre.
An alternative route from TBM, used by trucks and taxis, would've meant a detour to the town of Choam Khsant which we'd avoided. However, we did join the road that carried traffic from Choam Khsant to Preah Vihear, which meant we were about forty kilometres from our intended destination. The sun was overhead, the road was the consistency of a sandpit and I spent as much time trudging through the sand on foot as I did sat on the moto. We saw our first humans in three hours when we came across a group of soldiers stripping a clapped-out army tank for spare parts and other roadside wreckage reminded us that this part of Cambodia was a battle-zone until a couple of years ago. At the village of Sro Am we stopped for petrol and a drink near the junction of the new road being built to bring supplies and future tourists from the direction of Anlong Veng and Siem Reap. This was Sokhom's second visit to Preah Vihear and because of that we took a short-cut, wide enough only for a moto, through a heavily wooded area. We saw only one Danger!! Mines!! sign but he made sure we kept to the track which was a bit painful as the route was rarely used and the vegetation whipped against our legs and arms. In a clearing, we caught our first glimpse of the mountain on which Preah Vihear sat, but it was still some way off and we had to negotiate four steep but dry riverbeds before we arrived at the village of Kor Mouy on the stroke of 2pm, more than six hours after leaving TBM. Many of the houses were very new and belonged to the soldiers who guard the temple and the nearby border with Thailand. A recent squabble between the two countries had seen the border remain firmly closed in the preceding months with only access from the Cambodian side a possibility and talk of a road being constructed to take tourists to the very top of the mountain was rife in the Khmer press.
The temple of Preah Vihear (or Khao Phra Viharn in Thai), mainly built in the 11th century by King Suryavarman I, commands the most spectacular location of any Khmer monument. To reach it, the climb up the mountainside would take us two hours at least, so Sokhom and I rested in hammocks at a shop-house belonging to Kouch and her two children for half an hour. As we walked to the foot of the mountain, part of the Dongrek Mountain chain that determines the border with Thailand, we met an Italian NGO worker and his four helpers who'd spent the night at the temple, which was our intention too, and I didn't need reminding that the spent shell casings and mine-signs we encountered recalled the days when the temple stronghold was a prize possession of the Khmer Rouge. The climb quickly became a real burden. I longed for an escalator (one of the off-the-wall suggestions by the Khmer press) as the canopy of trees made it extremely humid, the trail weaved around giant sandstone boulders and tree stumps but was pretty steep and frequent pauses to catch my breath were necessary. An hour into the ascent, we reached the midway point on arrival at the Bram Makara (15 January) village, much to my relief. The village as such consisted of just three houses and we rested at the first, where the family who lived there sold us some sugary drinks to boost our energy levels. We were joined for the second half of the climb by Chhoun Ny, an immigration policeman, who was due to begin his two day shift that evening. He'd been a policeman for fifteen years, mostly in Kompong Spue before transferring to Preah Vihear two years ago. According to Ny, I was the tenth tourist to visit the temple that week. The latter half of the trek was less arduous and in the open, though frequent rest and drink-stops were still a necessity. As we arrived at the small settlement at the summit, a large pig and her piglets squealed their welcome and a few families belonging to the HALO Trust deminers stationed at the site waved their hello.
I was exhausted as I rested in the immigration hut next to a tiny pagoda. The two-hour climb had been a real challenge and when one of the monks suggested I wash in their natural bathing pool nearby, I gratefully accepted his offer. I stripped, retaining a krama around my waist for modesty, and ladled cold water from the large rock pool over my head and body, alongside three other monks and Sokhom. A westerner using their washing facilities was very uncommon they told us but they were pleased to share and I was happy to accept. Refreshed, we walked through the village and on through a narrow 200 metre channel marked by small white stones and red markers. Danger!! Mines!! signs were everywhere, though the deminers had retired to their homes for the evening. As we reached the crest of the mountain plateau, the wreckage of a military helicopter lay off to the left and directly in front of us the Cambodian flag fluttered above the first gopura of Preah Vihear temple. The gopura or entrance pavilion stands at the top of a steep stairway of 162 steps flanked by giant nagas that leads down to a small Khmer community who live just inside the border with Thailand. The recent feud between the two countries had cut off their livelihoods as they were servicing the needs of the 1,000 Thai visitors that came to visit the temple each day, only a few weeks before.
As I looked out towards a smooth tarmaced Thai motorway in the distance, Chhoun Ny appeared and asked me to fill in an immigration form and to hand over 5,000 riel. A raindrop fell and smudged my signature as I handed Ny the form but he didn't seem to mind. The gopura, actually known as gopura V, with sweeping gables reminiscent of Banteay Srei, leads onto a long causeway lined with stone boundary posts. Rather than continue our exploration in the drizzle, we temporarily hung our hammocks in an open-sided pavilion next to a large man-made pool full of water and ate our rice and chicken provisions we'd brought with us from TBM. We were joined by brother and sister, Sam 11 and Leap 8, who sold me a pack of postcards and looked after our bags as Sokhom and I quickly made our way through a series of gopuras, stairways and causeways to the very top level and sat on the cliff edge as darkness fell obscuring the hazy Cambodian plains some 550 metres below. It was still raining although not heavily and the draught rising from the plains below was a chilly one. The walk back was possible as the full moon allowed us a degree of light when it wasn't shielded by cloud and returning to the pavilion, we thanked our young friends who lived next to the HALO building closeby. Sokhom discussed accommodation with the temple's resident tourism official, Pomy Chheangly, who offered us his office verandah rather than the HALO office with its noisy generator. In fact, he laid out a mat and cushion on the floor of his storeroom but I elected to use the hammock, though with the cool air on the mountain top, the mozzie net I'd brought was redundant. As Sokhom and I chatted in the darkness, a scratching noise from the storeroom attracted my torchlight and a large rat scampered across the floor, confirming my choice of hammock was a good one!
At 4am I was woken from my slumber by a cockerel that positioned itself a couple of metres away from my hammock and tested my eardrums to their full capacity with five loud crows. A carefully aimed training shoe temporarily halted the early morning alarm call, although a little over an hour later, he began again and on this occasion didn't stop. By that time, the heavens had opened and a thunderous downpour for forty minutes gave us a cool start to the day and filled up the water tanks and cooking pots with fresh water. It also brought with it a blanket of mist as we retraced our steps to the cliff top just after 6am. The low cloud completely concealed the view over northern Cambodia and shrouded the temple in a misty haze. I sat on a large boulder, with my head in my hands, praying that the sun would appear and burn off the cloud but fearing the worst. An hour later, the mist disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, although the sun was nowhere to be seen, at least I could now take pictures of the temple's outstanding lintels, pediments (especially the Churning Sea of Milk and Shiva and Uma on Nandin) and breathtaking location. Nearly two hours later, Sokhom and I re-emerged at gopura V to rest our weary bones. The temple is a haven of rich carvings, libraries, hallways, courtyards littered with fallen sandstone blocks, sweeping gabled roofs, false doorways and cloistered galleries with the easten side of the main sanctuary literally centimetres from the cliff edge. The stone is old and worn with traces of red paint and white lichen blotches. And the location is as dramatic and spectacular as you could ever wish for, especially if you have the temple to yourself as I did. One note of disappointment is that the complex is so large, over 800 metres from end to end and on four separate levels, that no one single picture can ever do it justice.
At the gopura, we said our goodbyes to Chheangly, who'd been for his breakfast at the village on the Thai border. Nearby, a small team of HALO deminers were carefully prodding the ground and removing grass and twigs as they painstakingly searched for landmines. The red markers and lines of small white stones across the plateau signalled the safe areas but it was clear there was a lot more to be done. Understandably, they weren't prepared to pose for photos and as the mist began to roll back across the plateau, Sokhom and I began our descent at the demining village. As you can imagine, going down was a lot quicker and considerably easier than the day before and despite a ten minute break at the half-way point, it took us little more than an hour before we were back at Kouch's shop-house enjoying noodles and dried fish for breakfast, accompanied by around twenty curious villagers and children. After a game of foot shuttlecock and a lie down, we said our goodbyes to Kouch and her friends as we left the village of Kor Mouy at 11am, with the tree-covered Preah Vihear topped mountain as a dramatic backdrop. A few minutes later we both ended up in the mud when the moto lost its grip as we traversed a dry riverbed but my supply of plasters covered the cuts and bruises we sustained. The deminers were out in force at Sro Am and the road-building project through the village had turned into a sandy quagmire. After two and a half hours, we turned off the Choam Khsant road and returned to the isolated and quiet single track through the forest, accompanied only by the scorching sun overhead, the wreckage of several vehicles and the occasional sign reminding us of the dangers of landmines if we stepped off the trail. At 4pm we reached Takeng bridge and the friendly villagers who shouted 'hello, goodbye' from every house as we sped by, eventually reaching the outskirts of TBM just before six o'clock.
Before returning to our guesthouse, we headed for the Stung Sen river crossing, a kilometre north of the town centre, where children were splashing around in the shallow waters on large rubber tyres as the sun set in the background. I waded in to cool off, take a few pictures and watch the vehicles ford the river as they made their way north. After a refreshing shower with warmish water, we returned to Malop Dong where a minor disaster was averted - they had no chicken! - with a free pork dish as compensation. Kove's English was getting better with practice as we stopped by her stall for some delicious tikaloks and then back at the guesthouse, I met a couple of teachers from Phnom Penh, Srey Mom and Minit, who were instructing local schools in environmental studies, before retiring to bed a little after 9pm, at the end of a long and tiring day. I awoke at 6am after the best night's sleep of my whole trip and after noodles for breakfast with the teachers at Malop Dong - where the film Apocalypse Now was captivating the other diners - Sokhom and I were on our way. The slash and burn forestry technique was much in evidence for the first half of our return trip to Kompong Thom, with smouldering fields aplenty, despite the overnight rain, which had left puddles of dirty water everywhere. The Nissan pick-ups plying the route and the continuous stream of lorries carrying logs had done great damage to the road surface. We took a break at Prasat Kraham Chhouk, where the ceremonial bunting was the only reminder of the religious gathering two days earlier. The old laterite temple had been cleared of all vegetation and had lost some of its charm as a result, but it did make access to the structure a lot easier than on my previous visit in November. We stopped at Phnom Dek for a cold drink and I counted no less than five logging lorries parked up and three more sailed through whilst we took a breather and then at Chey, the turn-off for Sambor Prei Kuk, the cloud kicked up from the passing lorries as we sat sipping our coconuts covered everyone in a fine layer of red dust.
On the outskirts of Kompong Thom, children were clambering all over a couple of parked logging lorries, stripping the bark from the massive logs to use as firewood. It was 1.30pm as we entered the city centre - some six hours after leaving TBM - but our discoveries were not quite over. The infamous Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot was born just four kilometres outside of the city centre, along the western bank of the Stung Sen river at a village called Prey Svai. As we arrived, a bunch of friendly children made a fuss of us, as Pol Pot's sister-in-law told us that his brother, who still lives in the house which overlooks the river, was having a siesta but she'd wake him if we wished to meet him. I declined, took a few photos of the house and the children and we returned to collect my bag from Sokhom's house and to book into my luxury $10 air-con room at the Mittapheap Hotel, next to the river. I had two showers to remove the red dust from every nook and cranny and then slept soundly until Sokhom collected me at 6am. We visited his daughter's school, where she receives extra English lessons every evening and I was asked to take a class of 14-19 year olds by the female teacher. As it was an English class I invited them to ask me any questions they could think of, and although they were initially shy and reserved, a couple of the bolder students stood up and fired off a volley of questions ranging from 'what is your name?', to 'are you married?' and 'was I handsome?' I had to agree with the last question which sent the students into raptures of laughter. It was a bit of fun and maybe their endless repetition of my answers will in some small way improve their English pronounciation. Immediately after, I took Sokhom, Sroy and Kunthea, as well as Sroy's brother, Rit Noa to the Somrostbongcham restaurant for a slap-up meal that cost $10 in total, including four courses and endless drinks. It was back to Sokhom's home for tikaloks at a nearby stall and then back to my hotel for another 9pm turn-in. The following morning, I was up at 5.30am, showered, had breakfast at the Arunras and spent my last hour with Sokhom and his family before my share-taxi arrived at 8am to whisk me off to Phnom Penh. My trip to Preah Vihear had been another incredibly successful adventure with Sokhom, one of my dearest friends and his adorable family who make my visits to Kompong Thom one of the highlights of my trips to Cambodia.
Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales.
Cambodia Tales 2
March 2002 marked my eighth 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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