CAMBODIA TALES 2000
Sambor Prei Kuk & Route 6 odyssey
It was just after 2pm when I reached Kompong Thom, the rain had temporarily ceased and I booked a double room at the Neak Meas hotel for $8. Se Eth, the hotel's friendly manager I'd met on my previous visit, had moved onto new pastures in Pailin and Sokhom, in my opinion the best moto-driver in town, was already out on a job. Taking things easy after a hectic last few days, I went for a stroll around the market, had a look at a room at the new SamboPreyKoh hotel just over the bridge and returned to the Neak Meas for a nap.
A knock at the door soon after put paid to that idea but the wide smile of an animated Sokhom, who greeted me like a long-lost brother, was more than compensation. We excitedly recalled our previous meeting and what had occurred in the intervening twelve months, I gave him a barbie doll for his young daughter (a present from my own step-daughter), a letter and two photos from a mutual friend and he eagerly confirmed his availability for the next two days. Little did I know that Sokhom had already offered his services to two female backpackers staying in the same hotel and sitting on the balcony watching as the rain swamped the main street below, I felt a bit sheepish as he explained that I was his 'English brother' and he'd get two other trustworthy motodubs to drive them the following day. They didn't look too pleased.
After Sokhom's departure, I managed a couple of hours rest before popping next door for dinner at the town's main eatery, the Arunras restaurant. The place was full as I grabbed the last empty table and ordered chicken and vegetables with rice. Most of the other customers were glued to the Thai kick-boxing on the television and that included the orange t-shirted staff. The two backpackers grudgingly nodded their acknowledgement as they left and I settled down with a book as it became clear that serving customers was a low priority. I didn't mind as apart from a handful of food and drink stalls by the darkened market, the town shuts down around 8pm. Outside the rain hammered down relentlessly. By 9pm I was back in my hotel room, watching tv and trying to block out the karaoke that was booming out somewhere in the hotel's seedier parts. My mind was made up, tomorrow I'd try the new hotel across the river.
The following morning I was up at 5am and spotting Sokhom in the street below, grabbed some baguettes and water before we left at 6.45am for our outing to the pre-Angkorean temple complex of Sambor Prei Kuk, some 35 kms northeast of Kompong Thom. We'd done the same trip together a year earlier, but I'd heard of some other temples in the vicinity and Sokhom was just as keen to seek them out. He showed me his newly-acquired laminated map of the area, proudly announced that no-one else had such a document and then confided that a relative worked at the tourism office in town. It's a prime example of his resourcefulness and a real desire to do the best job he can. The additional temples were marked on the map, although locating them would be a challenge.
There are two routes to Sambor Prei Kuk. There's the main red-dirt road that accommodates 4WD vehicles and then there's Sokhom's cross-country route. His is by far the most interesting and enjoyable as we weaved through countless villages, across fields and through flooded tracks, all the time acknowledging the 'hello! bye-byes!' of the local children and the smiles and waves of the adults. For the friendliness of the local populace, it's one of the best trips in Cambodia. Sokhom is well used to a tap on his shoulder as I quickly jump off the moto, he shouts 'photograph' or suchlike in Khmer and the children gather round smiling, pulling faces and often amused by the foreigner in clothes covered in red dust, dirt and grime. Re-joining the main route, work was being carried out to strengthen the road and small bridges in preparation for the increasing number of tourists expected to visit the temples in the years ahead. At the moment, its a mess and the recent rains had turned the track into a quagmire.
A little over two hours after leaving Kompong Thom, we finally reached Sambor district. Six kilometres north of the main complex, we stopped at a food stall, where Tia, the local policeman agreed to accompany us into the forest. After putting on his uniform and collecting his automatic gun, we negotiated a very narrow track into the bush, overgrown with fragrant flowers and bushes, until we entered a small clearing and ahead of us lay the first ruin of a series of temples known as Krol Robang Romeas. There were two small groups, each with at least five temples in varying stages of decay and ruin. Prasat Tamom, a laterite structure without a roof, was the main temple of the first group, where the other buildings were made of brick and devoid of any carving that I could detect. With limited sunlight streaming through the forest canopy, I was concerned that taking clear pictures was going to be difficult and so it turned out.
A short walk through the forest and we came upon the second group, where an old woman, bent with age, was collecting leaves and branches near the largest of the brick structures, known as Prasat Srey Krop Leak. A single lintel in the Sambor style, remained intact on one of the nearby smaller temples, but all were in disrepair. Sokhom believed that the whole group was constructed in the ninth century, around the same time as the Roluos group near Angkor. I wasn't going to argue and whilst they were no match for their more serious cousins a few kilometres to the south, their secluded location made it a worthwhile detour. As we dropped Tia off at his stall, he confirmed that no other tourists had ever stopped to look at 'his' temples, only conservation staff from Siem Reap. A little further on, we left the road again, to seek out a solitary temple known as Prasat Rousey Roleak, but all we found was a small wooded hillock with a few bricks and sandstone pieces as evidence that a temple had once existed on the spot, overlooking a tranquil pond.
Just before 10am we reached the hut that signals the entrance to Sambor Prei Kuk. I paid $2 to sign-in, although the entrance fee is discretionary and we headed for Prasat Tao, in the central group, one of three that make up the former 7th century Chenla capital city, built some 500 years before Angkor Wat. Its an impressively large brick structure, with two restored lions on guard outside the front entrance and straddled by an enormous fig tree, with delicately carved lintels and 'flying palaces' still in place. Sokhom suggested we make a detour from the usual route to visit two large solitary temples that lie outside the main complex. In the past twelve months, Sokhom had certainly done his homework and it was paying dividends for this visitor. The first was Prasat Trapeang Ropeak, a substantial brick edifice, uniquely open to the west and next was, Prasat Chongkot Sampau, another large brick temple with unusual sculpted brick panels and large, voracious red ants, determined to protect their territory.
Back on the normal circuit, the southern group and its main temple, Prasat Neak Poan ('cobra' temple) was our next stop. Half of the eight towers in the group were swathed in glorious sunlight as we encountered our first fellow tourists of the day. The two backpackers from the Neak Meas arrived with their stand-in motodubs and a well-heeled couple in a 4WD wagon also appeared with their French-speaking guide and police escort. Closeby, the ten temples of the northern cluster have relief carvings, some are covered in dense foliage but Prasat Sambo has now been completely cleared of vegetation, although its in disrepair after suffering bomb damage in the early 1970s. Crossing the access road, we re-visited the cella of Ashram Moha Reusey and nearby Prasat Bos Ream while Prasat Sandan, located 100 metres away in lush forest, is a half-ruin. Sokhom meanwhile, introduced me to more of the local wildlife after we'd seen a snake basking in the sun earlier on, when he carefully picked up a scorpion to show me at close quarters. Too close for my liking.
We left the Sambor complex and returned to sample some beef and vegetable broth washed down with hot tea and coconut milk at the stall of our police guide, Tia. I gave him a few thousand riel as a thank you and we set off on our return leg back to town. With the sun now overhead, the day was hotting up although the track was still underwater in places and fording these became a test of Sokhom's skill. Only once did I end up ankle-deep in muddy water when the sandy bottom of a large pool of water caused us to suddenly stop in our tracks. This caused a great deal of amusement to a watching group of children who'd decided this was to be their entertainment for the day. The journey back was just as delightful and rewarding as our earlier trek had been and encapsulates all that is enjoyable in travelling around the Cambodian countryside.
By 2.30pm we were back in town, I'd changed hotels and showered away the dirt and dust. My new room at the SamboPreyKoh hotel cost $10, was spotlessly clean and had a nice view overlooking the Stung Sen river. I'd planned to have a lazy afternoon but Sokhom dropped by to whisk me off to the tourism office to meet his uncle and to discuss our plan to locate a series of ancient temples, south along Route 6, the following day. The tourism office was a large wooden first floor room, accessed by a rickety ladder and partitioned off from other council departments, including planning and schools amongst others. For department, read a desk and chair. Our next stop was the town's arts and culture depot which housed a trio of stone lions removed from Sambor for safe keeping before Sokhom took his leave to prepare for the English class he gives every evening. I took the opportunity to sample a 'tikalok', a refreshing fruit drink that I was developing a real taste for, at a stall adjacent to the market. For my evening meal, I decided to try out the hotel's ground floor restaurant and ate early in the evening. The menu had a smattering of English, the clientele was all local and the meal was edible. I was tucked up in bed by 9.30pm and without the thud of the Neak Meas' karaoke, I fell into a deep sleep.
Day three in Kompong Thom necessitated a prompt departure at 7am with Sokhom's radiant smile oozing confidence that he knew the location of the half-dozen temples we'd planned to visit on our day's trek south along the highway. It turned out he didn't know where they all were but he is the best moto-driver in town and wasn't going to let a little thing like that spoil our day. When in doubt, he'll quiz the locals until he gets the answer he's looking for and so it proved. For the record, Sokhom was born in Phnom Penh 36 years ago. As a child, he managed to survive the Pol Pot years but fled the country for the refugee camps on the Thai border during the Vietnamese occupation in 1981 at the age of seventeen. By 1990, he'd returned to Cambodia and settled in Kompong Thom as it was easier to earn a living wage than in his home city. Although by day he's a motodub, by night he earns a few extra riel for his wife and young daughter by teaching English. His dream is to own his own plot of land and to give up his moto to become a farmer. My fingers are firmly crossed that he fulfils that dream - it couldn't happen to a nicer gentleman. He's a careful, considerate and resourceful driver and guide and a personal friend into the bargain.
At Sokhom's suggestion, we headed for the temple furthest away as our first port of call. He reckoned it was some 70 kms from Kompong Thom and it took us 2½ hours to get to Kohak Nokor, a large eleventh century laterite complex. Fortunately for us, the sun remained behind cloud for most of the trip and Route 6 is in reasonable condition for long stretches, although in others its a real bone-shaker. The temple, in the grounds of a modern pagoda, was a couple of kilometres from the main highway and is located in the village of Tradongpong. As we arrived, the temple's conservator, Ker Lok, proudly stepped forward to shake our hands and fill us in on its history. We walked around the temple, which he keeps in an immaculate condition and were joined by the local primary schoolteacher Lim. He appeared when most of his class spotted me and decided to all say 'hello! what is your name?' at once. The main sanctuary was very dark and full of bats, just one lintel remained in situ and Ker Lok had collected together a few bits of sculpture near the main gopura entrance. Before we left he insisted I sign his elaborate visitors book, which I was more than happy to do.
Retracing our steps along Route 6, 'winnowing' of rice and grain (separating the chaff by dropping the grain onto mats and allowing it to dry in the mid-day sun) was taking place everywhere. We stopped for petrol and refreshments at the dusty town of Kompong Thmar and then turned off along a World Food Program road for three kilometres before arriving at the hamlet of Thnot Chum. A couple of villagers appeared and one of them, with only a krama covering his modesty, was more than happy to show us the two temples located in fields at either end of his village. Prasat Thnot Chum was a brick tower with an upturned lintel lying on the floor and a doorway jealously guarded by a nest of bees. Walking amongst the traditional wooden houses on stilts and acknowledging the smiles of the villagers, we reached Prasat Kambot, surrounded by vegetation and partly ruined but with a sanskrit inscription on a doorway panel. I gave our guide a few hundred riel for his time, as he led us back to our moto and soon we were back on the road leading to the main highway.
It was 1pm by the time we reached the village of Prasat and pulled into the grounds of a relatively modern pagoda that had fallen into disrepair. Immediately behind it was a much older tall brick tower known as Prasat Phum Prasat. The Angkorean tower had fared better that its more modern neighbour and still bore carvings, covered in white stucco, a fine quality lintel still in place above the main doorway and the remains of a broken lion statue. We asked a monk nearby for the temple's history but were met with a blank stare and stony silence, so we didn't hang about and set off for our next stop. Twenty minutes later, we reached the small town of Tang Krasan and a kilometre along a muddy lane led to another new pagoda under construction, a regular sight in Cambodia. In the main courtyard stood Kuk Veang, a neat but small Angkorean brick tower with a defaced lintel above the entrance and a more recent tin roof, set inside a wooden fence and surrounded by colourful flowers. Returning to the main road, we seated ourselves at a roadside stall and quickly demolished two large bowls of rice, pork and cabbage. Halfway through my meal, the largest red ant I've ever seen emerged from the depths of my broth, obviously less hungry than before and much luckier than the baby pig, scrawny hens and painfully-thin dog that had positioned themselves around the bench looking for scraps.
An hour later, Sayow village signalled the location of the final leg of our tour. Three kilometres along another straight WFP road and just before Roka village, the temple of Kuk Roka (also known as Prasat Khnong Khum) stood in a clearing. Under the scrutiny of a bunch of small children and the local ice-lolly seller and her friends, Sokhom explained that the two lintels he was sat on had been stolen from Sambor Prei Kuk, recovered by police and placed here for safety. The main sandstone sanctuary, with a definite lean to one side, also retained a couple of lintels in situ, one of which was a particularly fine example and a sanskrit inscription at the main entrance to the shrine. Also very noticeable, when I approached the doorway was an army of ants on the move and in no mood to be disturbed. A couple of bites and I quickly retreated. Our return to Kompong Thom by 3pm, signalled the end of eight hours on the back of Sokhom's moto and I was relieved. My rear end was in agony.
We stopped at Sokhom's small wooden house, near the centre of town, but unfortunately his wife and daughter were at the market and school respectively, according to the neighbour who passed over the key. He quickly located a couple of blue plastic chairs, invited me to sit outside the front door, went inside and produced a few photographs and invited his neighbours to join us. One of the pictures was taken on my visit twelve months earlier and showed us both on top of Phnom Santuk. He said it was his favourite picture and with his usual wide grin, thrust it into my hand. Despite my protests, he refused to take it back. I felt very humble. I left Sokhom an hour later, agreeing to meet early the next morning before I caught the pick-up truck to Siem Reap, some 150 kms northwest along Route 6.
After a walk along the riverbank and a two hour rest in my hotel room, I stopped for a tikalok near the market on my way to dinner at the Arunras. It was almost empty and my chicken with fried pineapple, rice and chips arrived quickly and was pretty tasty. The brightness of the full moon reflected on the still surface of the Stung Sen river as I walked back to my hotel, capped a successful day's adventure. Awake early the following morning, Sokhom arrived on cue just before 7am to ferry me to the pick-up truck departure point and we said our goodbyes, with much back-slapping and handshakes, promising to keep in touch until my next visit. Two seats in the front of the pick-up gave me acres of room compared to the five people squashed into the seat behind and another five in the bed of the truck, balanced precariously on top of a huge pile of sacks.
Immediately we left Kompong Thom, Route 6 deteriorated badly. The mud from the recent rains had dried into large ruts and deep craters, many small bridges were close to collapse or had been repaired by locals who demanded payment before allowing us to cross. We stopped at a cafe in the town of Stoung (also known as Kompong Chen), where I was joined by Eng Veng, a Phnom Penh-based guide and his Chinese-speaking father for a stop-gap meal. As we left Stoung, we passed a killing fields memorial and a long and occasionally heated discussion in Khmer began. It was still going when we reached Kompong Kdei and I jumped out to take a few pictures of the incredibly well-preserved Angkorean bridge with large nagas at Spean Praptos. Veng then explained that Khum, our friendly driver, used to be a Khmer Rouge cadre and had taken part in a failed attempt to blow up the bridge before changing sides and was later integrated into the Cambodian army before being demobbed. It was a sobering reminder that anyone you meet in Cambodia could be ex-Khmer Rouge, they were after all, just ordinary Cambodians. After eight exhausting hours on the road, we reached Siem Reap market at 4pm and I headed off for a refreshing shower at the Bakong guesthouse on Sivutha Street.
To read about my previous trip to Kompong Thom twelve months earlier, click here.
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