CAMBODIA TALES 2003
Return to Phnom Penh
photos to follow
The minibus to Phnom Penh left Kompong Thom at 8.30am. I was up two hours earlier, packed and had breakfast before Sokhom collected me an hour later, so I could say my goodbyes to him and his family before Kunthea departed for school. It was wonderful to see them all again. Sharing the front seat of the minibus was an Italian teacher named George, who spoke excellent English, whilst another dozen or so people were crammed in behind us. The cost was just 10,000 riel and the journey passed quickly, arriving at the railway station in Phnom Penh just after mid-day. My usual welcome awaited me at the Dara Reang Sey hotel and I spent a relaxing afternoon, making telephone calls, checking my email at Pacific Internet just around the corner and talking to Michael, an American now living in Nong Khae in northern Thailand, and on his first trip to Cambodia. At 6.30pm, I took a moto-taxi to Peter and Veasna's home near Tuol Sleng and enjoyed a lovely meal with my hosts before returning to the Dara, a game of tot-sey with the staff and a good night's sleep, to prepare me for my trip over the Mekong with Sophal the next day.
Sophal was bang on time and we left at 7am, crossing the Japanese Bridge and headed out past Prek Leap to a ferry crossing some thirty kms from the city, at Prek Anchogn. For 500 riel the small local ferry carried the two of us and his 250cc motorbike across the Mekong river and we carried on northwards along a track hugging the riverside until we reached the village of Prek Pou, two hours into our trip. The locals were all smiles, shouts and waves as Sophal drove as slowly as he could though the road inland became bumpy and is unusable during the wet season. At a wooden bridge we paused for photos with a group of cheeky boys before we arrived at the village of Baray at 10am. We popped into Wat Baray but the real gem was a kilometre away at Prasat Preah Theat Baray. Surrounded by a dry moat, the square laterite tower was well-cared for and housed a few carved pieces and broken colonettes but it was the series of six lintels, arranged in a square in front of the tower that were particularly impressive. They featured the Churning of the Sea of Milk, fighting monkey gods, a reclining and a five-armed Vishnu. To find such excellent examples, literally in the middle of no-where was a very pleasing discovery. And we were not alone, as up to twenty children had gathered around us to look at us as we studied the lintels. The road to the site, and to the village of Baray, is inundated in the rainy season though getting to the site by boat does sound appealing. Half an hour later we stopped for a refreshing sugar cane drink at Preah Kandal and carried on through Prek Tamerk before we arrived at our next stop, Wat Chan Lung, at mid-day.
The road to Wat Chan Lung was under construction though the road-crew were taking a rest when we arrived. In the grounds of the pagoda, and surrounded by a moat, two laterite towers stood next to the main vihara, though there was evidence of a third brick tower. We talked to the young monks and a few children before we inspected the towers at close quarters. Both towers housed sandstone lintels, one showing the Churning of the Milk again and another had Vishnu astride a kala monster, with octagonal colonettes and small pedestals inside each structure. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Vihear Suor, where they rustled up fish, beef and rice with cold drinks. The family were very friendly, and it was nice to rest from the hot sun overhead and the dusty roads before we continued onto Wat Sithor, along another new road. It was 2pm when we reached the extensive grounds of the pagoda. A large brick stupa of indeterminate age stood next to the vihara, whilst another four even larger brick stupas with porches, almost small temples in size, were situated behind the pagoda and overgrown with vegetation. We were followed around by half a dozen adorable kids who smiled at me constantly but never uttered a single word, even when Sophal asked their names. They squealed with laughter when I chased them, but never spoke. Just before 3pm we caught the ferry back across the Mekong at Prek Tamerk and I was back in the Dara within half an hour. The krama on my head and face had done well to protect me from the dust but the sun had caught my nose, which was bright red. Perhaps that's what the children were really laughing at! The trip had been great fun, the people in Srei Santhor district had been extremely friendly and welcoming and I thanked, and paid, Sophal for a job well done, promising to keep in touch. That night I had a meal at the Rendezvous restaurant along the riverfront, returned to the Dara and chatted to Gavin and Donna from London before retiring to bed at 11.30pm.
For my final full day in Phnom Penh, I was up at 7am, breakfasted and made a few phone calls. Sopheap arrived at 9.30am to take me to the cabinet office at the Ministry of Education on Norodom Boulevard. This is where he works as an IT technician and runs their website, and where I met his colleagues, the Under-Secretary of State and had a long and involved discussion on teacher's salaries before he took me to Wat Moha Montrei to meet Vannak, the monk I'd met at Sambor Prei Kuk a few days earlier. I tracked Vannak down to his room in an old colonial-style building and he invited me in for tea. He explained that his home village is in Roka near Kompong Thom and the party of friends he was with were mostly family members. He was 22 years old and had been a monk in Phnom Penh for two years, where he was eager to improve his English. Sopheap then gave me a lift to the Rising Sun pub at noon for my favoured jacket potato lunch before I visited the DC-Cam documentation centre next to the Independence Monument, where I had a chat with the director Youk Chang. Thay, one of their translators, gave me a guided tour of the premises and introduced me to the staff including Meng, who authored the book, Victims or Perpetrators, one of a series of publications covering the Khmer Rouge period that DC-Cam are intending to release. After a massage by one of the Seeing Hands blind masseurs and a check of my emails at Pacific Internet, I took a moto to the Boddhi Tree guesthouse/restaurant, opposite the door to Tuol Sleng, where I met up with Debbie and Marc, who'd been guests at my first Magic of Cambodia event in August They run Carpe Diem travel, catering for small group tours in the country. My spicy stir-fry chicken went down a treat before I returned to the Dara at 9am and an early night. The next morning, Roti drove me the eleven kilometres to Pochentong airport at 8am, after I bade farewell to the Dara family and staff. Dara herself gave me a lovely gift for my wife, hoping it would persuade her to join me on my next trip. Fat chance! Pochentong is now a very slick operation by comparison to the decrepit shed I remember from 1994, on my first visit to Cambodia. Those days are now long gone. My flight was half an hour late taking off, Changi airport was as plush as ever and I took the free two-hour Sentosa Island trip to the city to kill some time. The sun-bleached man-made beach was a world away from my adventures of the previous three weeks. I know which I prefer. My flight home ended in a mini disaster when the young boy seated in front was sick over me and I had to change into a t-shirt for my 6am arrival at Heathrow, exposing me to the cold and harsh British winter, a considerable shock to my system after my hot and humid holiday in Cambodia.
Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales:
Cambodia Tales 2
January 2003 marked my ninth 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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