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RAY ZEPP'S TRAVELS

Ancient Temples in Northern Preah Vihear Province

An Archaeological Travelogue

Introduction

 

The ancient temples of Cambodia have not been adequately studied in recent years. Apart from Angkor Wat and a handful of secondary temples such as Banteay Chhmar and Beng Melea, the thousands of ruins around the country remain essentially unknown.  And yet, many of these temples were thoroughly researched over a century ago by explorers from France and other Western nations.

 

In particular, as early as 1901, the Frenchman Etienne Aymonier wrote a definitive treatise on the temples of northern Cambodia He even provided maps and details for finding these archeological sites.  Unfortunately, his work remains largely forgotten.  Now that his book, Khmer Heritage in the Old Siamese Provinces of Cambodia, has been translated into English and published by White Lotus Press, Aymonier’s descriptions are now available to the general public.  It is now possible for tourists and archaeologists alike to visit these long forgotten temple sites.

 

The present document is written for both tourists and archaeologists as an introduction to the smaller temples in northern Preah Vihear Province, hence the subtitle: an archaeological travelogue.  The objective of the visits to old temple sites was to identify which of the sites mentioned by Aymonier still exist, and the condition of the artifacts.

 

In many cases, little or nothing remains of the temples. Most sites show evidence of digging, chiseling, and other methods of looting, so that only a few worthless rocks can be seen.  But in a few places, carved lintels, erect doorframes, and even intact towers still exist.  These sites should be noted in order to protect them from future looting and destruction.

 

Furthermore, if tourists can be persuaded to spend a few extra days in Cambodia visiting remote temples in remote jungle settings, the local villagers may conclude that it is worth their while to preserve the temples and even to improve access to them, instead of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs by destroying the temples, as is often the case.

 

The present document, written for two disparate audiences: tourists and archaeologists, poses several problems.  It must be readable for the tourists, and it must present temple-hunting as a romantic, adventurous pursuit. Such a tone deviates from the standard dry, academic style of writing expected by the archaeologists.  On the other hand,  precise data must be presented to the academics at the risk of boring the travel readers.  I have attempted in this document to walk a fine line between the two extremes in order to please both types of readers, but I fear that readers on both extremes may not find my middle-of-the-road style to their liking.

 

1. Choam Khsant & The Far North

 

Choam Khsant is the gateway to Preah Vihear temple. Or at least it used to be.  In past years, if you wanted to reach the temple from the Cambodian side, you had to travel first to Tbeng Meanchey, capital of Preah Vihear Province, and then take a pickup over a terrible road by which you could only cross the Stung Sen in the very driest of times. That would take you to Choam Khsant, where there was one seedy guesthouse.  From there it still would take a full day since the road to the base of the Preah Vihear Mountain was not good and you had a two-hour strenuous hike up the mountain. Doing it that way, you would have to spend at least one and probably two nights in Choam Khsant.

 

Nowadays, Choam Khsant has four guesthouses, but runs the risk of being marginalized by the new roads. Not only do most tourists to Preah Vihear travel by the improved road from the Anlong Veng side, they can now ride up the mountain on the new, but very steep, road. Finally, the new road from Tbeng Meanchey to Preah Vihear temple, with a solid bridge over the Stung Sen, has been completed and now bypasses Choam Khsant completely. So nowadays, Choam Khsant is not ‘on the way’ to anywhere. The only people who go there are those who actually want to go there as a destination. But the region is opening up to tourists anyway, due to at least three facts: 1) there is good accommodation; 2) it is easier to reach the place via the new road; and 3) there are tourist attractions for the adventurous or for those who just want to get away from it all.

 

I traveled from Phnom Penh to Tbeng Meanchey via Kampong Thom in a day, and then caught the first taxi out to Choam Khsant the next morning, so by noon I was comfortably installed in the Serypheap Guest House. My fellow traveler and I, having taken the three-hour pick-up ride on empty stomachs, made straight for the new market to find something to eat.  On the way we passed three other guesthouses:  the Sokvann, the Sen Chey, and the Heng Heng. There was only one restaurant at the market, so we had a bowl of noodles and noticed some activity across the street, which turned out to be the New Year’s cock fights.

 

My first impression of Choam Khsant was very favorable indeed.  It is well laid-out like a new town.  The streets are wide and well-graded. The houses are not those of poor people. The whole place has an airy, wide-open feel.  One reason for this feeling of newness became apparent when we saw the new monument with ‘Gift of Hun Sen’ written on it. Like Anlong Veng, this district was targeted by the CPP after the fall of the Khmer Rouge as a recipient of CPP beneficence in order to gain their support (a.k.a. their votes) in the electoral process. When we passed the newly constructed school, my colleague asked, 'Want to bet whether that’s a Hun Sen school or not?' Of course he was right.

 

And yet, in the middle of the newness is the old District Headquarters, set back a street lined with huge old koki trees, planted, the townfolk said, in the 1920’s. That, along with the primitive conditions in surrounding villages, gives an impression of a very old community.  The inhabitants that I met had been born there.  There is really no reason for any Cambodian from elsewhere to migrate to this out-of-the-way place. Well, on second thought, yes there is: land. Now that the forests are being cut down as rapidly as possible, large tracts of land are opening up for farming. Once you get away from the Dangrek Mountains, there are almost no landmines. I was told that only in one place (not disclosed to me), there was a sort of dividing line between Khmer Rouge forces and those of the Vietnamese, and mines were planted along that line. But since the line remained stationery, neither side wanted to plant mines on its own more-or-less permanent territory. So with few landmines, sufficient rainfall, and the clearing of the forests, this area should open up to farming on a large scale.

 

And of course there is logging. There are vast areas of forest up here along the Thai/Lao border. The last time I came up to Tbeng Meanchey, I witnessed hundreds of big trucks carrying logs out of the forest. They were cutting down the forest as though there were no tomorrow. This time, however, I didn’t see a single logging truck. Either a lot of the illegal logging has stopped in this area, or else they have cut down all the big trees here. I didn’t see big trucks sitting around empty either. The most I saw was several patches in the deep forest that had been cleared for farming.  It was sad to see thousands of large felled trees just burning. If you’re going to destroy a tree, you might as well use it for something, like furniture, but not this useless destruction by burning.

 

To return to the discussion of Choam Khsant town, the taxis stop at what they call the old market, even though there is no market there any more. It is the major crossroads in the middle of town, where I spent many an hour at the little restaurant on the corner. It was virtually the only place in town that served food and drinks all through the Khmer New Year holiday. And it proved to be a very useful place, too, as I shall relate below. The Serypeap Guesthouse was a good place to stay. The family in charge were very friendly, and the shady space under the raised wooden house had a pleasant atmosphere for just hanging out.  Rooms (without bath or toilet) go for only $2, a price that gives you a fan and mosquito net on a comfortable bed. The problem with anyplace in town is the fact that they only have electricity from 6 to 10 pm every evening. During the hot season, this can prove unbearable.  After the fan goes off at 10, you can get pretty hot if the low temperature for the night is 28 degrees (or 83 Fahrenheit).  And don’t even think about taking an afternoon nap. The coolest place to fight the afternoon heat is in a hammock downstairs under the house.

 

2. Temples in Melou Prey District

 

As usual, one of my main objectives for the trip was to look for old temples in the forest, using Aymonier’s 1901 book and maps.  The book showed several temples in the area, and the descriptions sounded as though some of them might be in pretty good nick. Oddly, it seemed at first, Aymonier does not describe Preah Vihear temple, or any others over that way. But I soon figured out that his descriptions of Khmer Heritage in the Old Siamese Provinces of Cambodia did not refer to that area, because Preah Vihear was not in the old Siamese provinces.

 

Aymonier’s map of Melou Prey shows the Sting Chok, which runs just to the west of Choam Khsant, as the western boundary of Melou Prey. That is, Choam Khsant lies just inside Melou Prey, while Prey Vihear does not, as it lies in the former Cambodian province of Prum Tep  Here is what Aymonier says about Melou Prey:

It was in 1814 that Dechou Ming, a traitor to his king and his country let Melou Prei : Malu Brai, ‘forest betel’-- pass to Siamese domination.The Sting Sen and its tributary of the left, the Sting Chok [Stung Chhuk or ‘Lotus River’] separate it in the west from Kampong Soay, a province of the present day kingdom of Cambodia.  The poor and backward population has almost no monks left.  It is situated, however, in a region that must formerly have been prosperous.  The old Cambodians left behind many important monuments.

I have read somewhere that Melou Prey is the third of the three Siamese provinces that were turned back to Cambodia in 1907, through the efforts of the French. Indeed, this event is depicted in the statue at Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh that shows the three maidens offering gifts to the king.  The maidens, I was told, represent the three provinces of Siem Reap, Battambang, and Melou Prey. So I went to take a photograph of the monument after my return to Phnom Penh, and discovered that the statue cites the provinces of Siem Reap, Battambang, and Sisophon, with no mention of Melou Prey. But it is also clear that Sisophon used to be a part of Battambang Province, and so in 1907 the three provinces would have been Siem Reap, Battambang (including Sisophon) and Melou Prey. I have been unable to find the truth in this matter. Delving into David Chandler’s History of Cambodia was even more confusing, because he states that the ‘retrocession’ consisted of only two provinces:  Siem Reap and Battambang.

 

Nevertheless, Choam Khsant lies just inside Melou Prey, and so old temples east of there are described in Aymonier’s book. I was also armed in my temple search with a new tool: another old map, this one by the French explorer Lajonquiere from three missions, dating between 1899 and 1909.  A copy of this map was given to me as a gift by Merrily Hansen, a devoted Cambodian traveler. The trouble was, the names of temples on the Lajonquiere map had almost nothing in common with Aymonier’s map. It was almost as though the two explorers had explored different territories! A further aid that turned out to be the most useful of all was the 1:50000 map of the area done by the Vietnamese in 1971, and available at Psar Thmey in Phnom Penh. It shows several sites marked as ‘ruins’, and since it shows most of the roads (unlike Aymonier or Lajonquiere), you can locate some temples very easily.

 

On the other hand, a difficulty arises from Aymonier’s relative directions, which seem in many cases to be erroneous. For one thing, he almost never mentions Choam Khsant village, but rather considers Rolum Thmar to be the principal landmark in the region, so he gives all directions from Rolum Thmar.  Now Rolum Thmar exists, all right, but on Aymonier’s map it appear almost due west of Choam Khsant, while both Lajonquiere and the 1:50000 place it due south of Choam Khsant.  It is difficult to use such an elusive starting point as the basis for giving directions.One name common to both old maps is Prasat Thnal Sway, a temple situated to the northwest of Choam Khsant, and therefore just outside Melou Prey. The 1:50000 map shows ‘ruins’ at that site as well. The people at my guesthouse said they knew where it was, and so that first evening we went out with the son of the guesthouse owner to look for that and other temples west of Choam Khsant.  We went out the main highway 69 past Stoeng village towards Preah Vihear and turned right after crossing the Stung Chhuk, heading north towards Chilong Village. Although the 1:50000 map showed the ruins as just off the main highway, we carried on for several kilometers along muddy tracks until we reached the site of what people called Prasat Sway.  There was nothing there. No bricks or stones, no diggings, in fact, nothing that would suggest that a temple had ever been there.  This was disappointing news, because Aymonier described Prasat Thnal Soay as a major temple, and he produced floor plans and translations of inscriptions to back up his claims. Were we in the wrong place?

 

Dejectedly, we slogged back to Highway 69.  This time, I consulted the 1:50000 map and asked some kids whether there was a temple just off the road.  Yes, they said, and directed us about 200 meters up the road to a field on the left of a large, dead tree.  There was no temple to be seen, but finally the kids showed us, back in the bushes, one small section of a limonite wall, indicative of a relatively recent temple.  In spite of the paucity of stones, there was one good carving of a god with perhaps a goddess in his hand at the right.   But was this Prasat Thnal Soay?  Aymonier’s description does not mention this carving, but does mention a ‘great brick tower’ and other brick structures.  We could find no bricks in the area.  Was this, then, the ‘Grand Thnal Sway’? The children called it Kuk Prasat. Our confusion was not reduced by the fact that Aymonier’s describes Thnal Sway as being located ‘a mile west of Phum Kap Khmum which is north of Rolom Thmar.  No one we talked to had ever heard of a village called Kap Khmum, even though Aymonier’s map shows Kap Khmum as the largest village in the area.

 

The lads told us that there was another temple about 10 km out Highway 69, and sure enough, the trusty 1:50000 shows a path leading to ‘ruins’ about a kilometer south of Highway 69 in the deep forest.  So we headed off through Veal Thom village and pulled over at a soldier’s camp.  The soldier, after giggling a few non sequiturs, revealed himself as hopelessly but happily drunk and of little use to us.  He pointed us into the forest and away we went, but before too long the small path disintegrated. We realized that the path was probably not the path shown on the 1:50000, but luckily we pressed on until we found one of the two temple basins or trapeang shown on the map. But which one? Should we go right or left? We were on the point of giving up when I caught sight of a figure moving through the forest.  We shouted but the figure did not respond.  I tried to follow but quickly lost the mysterious and elusive creature.  It was at this point that I was reminded of scenes from that movie, The Blair Witch Project, in which three people got lost in a haunted woods.  This feeling was intensified later, when the soldier’s two children stated that they were afraid to go back into the forest for fear of ghosts.

 

Anyway, a few minutes later we saw the figure moving in the opposite direction, and this time we were able to catch him. It turned out to be the drunken soldier, coming to see, I suppose, whether we had reached the temple.  Prattling as unintelligibly as always, he proceeded to guide us to the spot, which we would never have found on our own, as it was situated in dense thickets. But there it was, by dumb luck. The temple was in pretty bad shape, but there was enough to see the general layout and structure. Called Prasat Sa’a, it has a laterite base, some limonite structures, but a brick top. There are almost no statues or carved lintels left.  Aymonier does not mention any temple at all in this area, but after, we had left Melou Prey in traveling west from Choam Khsant. Lajonquiere’s map shows a ‘Prasat Thnom Peang’ in the general vicinity, but no one we talked to had ever heard of that name.

 

It was getting dark, and we didn’t want to be lost in Blair Witch jungle at night, so we hightailed in back to the Highway, where the soldier and his family offered us great buckets of palm wine, which we politely refused, and regaled us with his jokes, at which he guffawed heartily but in which none of our moto drivers could see any point whatsoever. We headed back to town in the cool of the evening, feeling rather chuffed at finding two temples, although we had somehow missed Prasat Thnal Sway, but as they say, two out of three ain’t bad.

 

3. The hunt for Neak Buos

 

The largest temple in the area, shown and named on all the maps, is Prasat Preah Neak Buos, which Aymonier translates as the ‘Towers of the Anchorite God.’ From his descriptions, Neak Buos was the center of activity a thousand years ago, rivaling the great temples of Beng Melea, Bah Khan, and Koh Ker.  So I had some hopes that we might ‘rediscover’ a great temple on the order of Beng Melea lost in the jungle. The people we talked to in Choam Khsant knew about it, but had never been there and said that it was very difficult, if not impossible to reach. It was clear from our 1:50000 map that no roads went out in that entire area along the foot of the Dangrek Mountains to the northeast of Choam Khsant.

We discussed the matter with several guides and moto drivers, who wanted to take us to some other temple and we had actually decided against trying to reach Neak Buos when one guide finally said he would try if we paid him a rather high hourly rate. At first, we thought we had been had, since the road was very good indeed to the south and then to the east of town for over ten km.  The good road ended at a crossroads near Chaeah Village, where, instead of turning north towards the mountains and Neak Buos, we headed south, since the guides said they wanted to show us another temple first. Sure enough, only about 2 km south of the crossroads, we came to a very ruined temple just off to the left of the road.  This road, by the way, was the old highway 691 coming up from Tbeng Meanchey, and it seemed not too bad.

 

The temple, which the locals call Prasat Trapeang, is probably one of the three temples all named Prasat Chuuk by Aymonier.  It may be the one he describes as:

a mile east of the village [of Rolum Thmar], built on a small plateau; a surrounding wall of thirty-three metres by thirty, built in limonite, as well as its monumental door in the middle of the eastern side, surrounds, it is said, a single, limonite tower still sixteen metres high although half ruined in which one cannot see any sculptures at all.

The measurements of the surrounding wall seem about right, and the central structure, now totally fallen, could have been a limonite tower. And we certainly didn’t see any sculptures.

 

Having seen this preliminary temple, we retraced our steps and went up the old road to the north of the crossroads. Nowadays there is no traffic on the road. This road apparently used to be of some importance, since it is well covered in laterite most of the way. It was used by the military to reach a border outpost in the mountains, possibly at the An Sť Pass across the Dangrek Mountains. For hundreds of meters at a stretch you can zip along smoothly.  But between those smooth stretches are nightmares, especially at stream crossings. All bridges or fords had been completely washed away, obliging us to ease the motos down steep banks through vines and thorns, and then push them up the other side again.  In other spots trees had fallen across the road, obliging us either to go around or lift the bikes over the trees. It was indeed slow going.

 

Even more frustrating was the fact that the ‘road’ ran parallel to the mountains that we wanted to reach. The temple, according to Aymonier, was located just over to our right: 'One finds it at the foot of the steep and remarkable spur which the Dangrek Mountains make towards the south.' So we figured that the road we were on was passing the actual temple site in order to join another road or track right along the base of the mountain range, and that road would double back to reach the temple. But we passed some soldiers who said that there we had already passed a path through the forest which led to the temple.  So we doubled back and tried several small paths, all of which either petered out into the forest or else led back to some rice paddies and stopped there.

 

At the end of the third or fourth such false trail, we decided to hoof it through the open forest, trail or no trail, since the mountain was only a kilometer or so away. But the forest became thicker and thicker, so that we were forced to stop.  It was noon, the sun was blazing at nearly 40 degrees, we were hot, sweaty, and discouraged, so in the end we gave up.

 

We still had to battle our way back across the stream beds and fallen trees, and so we decided to rest at Chhaeh Village. The people there had refreshing coconuts to offer. Looking at my map again, I tried to locate the first temple we had visited, south of the intersection.  It had been just to the left of the highway, but now I noticed that the map placed the ‘ruins’ on the right side. Could there be another temple there?  We asked the villagers. Yes, they replied, the temple we had visited was called Trapeang Prasat, while the other was called Prasat Trapeang Chhuk.  We took a small child with us as a guide to this other temple.  About a kilometer past Trapeang Prasat, we turned off the right and traveled nearly another kilometer into the forest.  Sure enough, we first came upon a trapeang, and just behind that were the ruins.

 

These ruins were in relatively good condition.  There were some nicely carved lintels in sandstone, although the structures of the still-intact towers were made of brick, evidence of a quite early Pre-Angkorian date.  I checked Aymonier to see whether this temple matched any of his descriptions, and indeed it did, perfectly.  This was clearly what he called Prasat Thnal Chhuk.  He even provided a sketch of the temple’s layout, which matched the plan we were viewing with its three main towers, two buildings just to the west, and two galleries to the east.  The trapeang in front even had lotus blossoms to support the temple’s name (chhuk means ‘lotus’).

 

We looked for the inscriptions described by Aymonier, but unfortunately did not find any.  According to Aymonier, the inscriptions are the usual lists of gifts of cows and slaves, followed by mention of the god or a king, which in this case may have been King Rajandravarman, which would date the temple around the year 950, a good century before Angkor Wat. And as is customary, the inscription ends with a curse on anyone would deface the temple, promising 'various royal punishments in this life and, after his death, the various tortures of the thirty-two hells, until the end of a kalpa [an ancient Hindu unit of time equivalent to 4,320,000,000 years].'

 

The word ‘thnal’ used in Aymonier’s titles is of interest. Recall that what he called Prasat Thnal Sway is now just Prasat Sway, and here, his Prasat Thnal Chhuk is now just Prasat Chhuk or Prasat Trapeang Chhuk.  The discarded ‘thnal’ means ‘highway’.  Aymonier asserts that there are vestiges of an ancient east-west road running a kilometer or so south of Choam Khsant.  Highway 69 goes south from Choam Khsant for about a kilometer before turning abruptly east, and so it is highly possible that along this east-west stretch, it follows the roadbed of the ancient Angkorian road.  Thus the older names of the temples would contain the name ‘thnal’ to reflect the fact that they were situated along the ancient road.

 

We saw no signs of the ancient road along highway 69, but along the north-south road north of the Chhaeh intersection we did observe many laterite stones that could have been part of an ancient road leading to Prasat Neak Buos.

 

Checking the 1:5000 map once more, I noticed that the ‘ruins’ shown on the map are located right next to the road, while we had traveled at least a kilometer to the west of the road.  Had we once again missed the ruins shown on the map?  Our guide said that there was a trapeang there (which we could indeed see), but that there were no ruins.  We took his word for it and proceeded, but future explorers might want to check that basin for some signs of yet another temple in the area.  Indeed, Aymonier states that there are 'three different ruins having the same name: Prasat Chhuk' in the immediate vicinity east of Rolum Thmar, past the Aban River. If the present-day Trapeang Prasat described earlier constitutes one of the three, and the main temple just described is a second, then perhaps this small site corresponds to the third temple described by Aymonier.

 

It should be noted that Aymonier described many of the temples from hearsay; he never actually visited them. Thus there is plenty of room for error. Anyone who has ever relied on information or directions from Cambodian villagers will appreciate just how unreliable it can be.  Of the three temples just described, Aymonier only visited one: the main temple furthest to the south. As stated earlier, this was undoubtedly the main one we visited, located one kilometer to the west of the road south from Phum Chhaeh.  Aymonier never visited the other two sites.

 

Lajonquiere’s map is quite different. He shows a string of temples in an almost straight north-south line, probably along the road south from the Chheah intersection.  He lists, from north to south, Pr. Taros, Pr. Trapeang Thnal. Pr. Kantop, Pr. Trapeang Thnal Chhuk, Pr. Thnal Svay South, and Pr. Kang Het.  No one we talked to had heard of Prasats Taros, Kantop, Thnal Svay South, or Kang Het.  Pr. Trapeang Thnal is presumably present-day Trapeang Prasat, and Trapeang Thnal Chhuk is surely Prasat Trapeang Chhuk, while Pr. Kantop may be a temple formerly found at the small trapeang just to the west of Route 69 south.

 

4. Another try at Neak Buos

 

Back in town, we dined at our usual crossroads eatery by the taxi stand. The owner was interested in our trip, and so we recounted our failure to reach Neak Buos. He said he was sure he could take me there the next day.  We made a deal, whereby I would go out with him the next morning, and I would pay him $15 if we made it to Neak Buos, but only $5 if we failed again.  So at sunrise the next morning, we set out in continued quest for Prasat Neak Buos. To my surprise, we did not leave town by the main road south of town, but instead left directly towards the east,   the road was nothing but a sandy oxcart path.  We slithered and churned and inched our way through the sand and crossed some very isolated and uninhabited forest.  It was extremely beautiful in the cool of the early morning.  After only about 30 minutes we reached the old ‘road’ where our previous expedition had come unglued.  But this time we were on a stretch of the road that was further north of where we had stopped the day before.  So in fact we had not gone far enough on our previous attempt.  In fact, we even headed south for a few hundred meters along the laterite road before turning off on another sandy oxcart path into the forest towards the mountains.  All this conformed to Aymonier’s descriptions, although he mentions the village of Bos, which obviously does not exist today.

 

The going was difficult, very similar to what we had experienced the day before, as the track first crossed rice paddies, then headed into sparse woods followed by deeper and deeper forest.  But this time I knew we were on the right track when we came to a large trapeang, which Aymonier had described using the alternative word ‘loboek’, which must mean a basin much larger than a trapaeng.  And, just as he described, there was a temple at the far northeast corner of the loboek.  But this was only a minor edifice on the way to the larger Neak Buos temple, consisting of only a walled gallery with no central tower or main structure.

 

The last two hundred meters to the main temple were slightly uphill over rough terrain, so we walked the rest of the way.  Finally we arrived at the large temple complex which was certainly the center of activities in this entire region. Not only was the complex spread out over a large area, it also contained structures of various styles and construction materials – brick, laterite, and stone.  This was clear evidence that the site had been occupied over a period several centuries. I was even able to find some of the inscriptions on the sides of the entrances as cited by Aymonier.

 

Aymonier devotes much discussion to the dating of the earliest inscriptions, and he concludes that they were written in either 622 s’aka or 722 s’aka, i.e. either 700 or 800 A.D. but not much later that that, since another inscription mentions the ninth century King Yas’ovarman.  And just after the millennium, King Suryavarman I made donations to the temple and probably extended it.

 

Few outsiders have visited Neak Buos.  It is covered in bushes and scrub which make it difficult to penetrate.  There are two brick towers, one of which is perhaps the largest brick temple in Cambodia.  These early brick temples were Hindu, and in particular this one was dedicated to Siva.  Its original name, S’iva padapurda, means “Southern temple of the foot of Siva.’ The place has a very mysterious atmosphere in the early morning, as though these lost, silent edifices slumbering in the forest were hiding their secret history from the world.  There were many birdsongs coming from the trees, including the cry of a crested serpent eagle that circled low over the trapaeng, and ever-present cry of the often-heard but seldom-seen Chinese francolin.

 

Much like the well-known Ta Prohm temple in Siem Reap, Neak Buos’ walls are being reclaimed by the roots of large trees, notably the shiny white-barked sralao tree, just like those at Ta Prohm.  There are few carvings.  I didn’t see many signs of looting or of friezes chiseled off the lintels; rather, there do not seem to have been many carved lintels to begin with.

 

The temple complex was as large as I had expected, but I confess that it did not measure up to the other great temples like Beng Melea in grandeur.  Brick towers are just not as romantic as moss-covered, intricately carved limestone temples.  The romance of Neak Buos lies, I suppose, in its remoteness and its antiquity.  Not only does it predate the other major temples by at least a century, but it gives the visitor a real sense of being one of the few outsiders ever to lay eyes on this inaccessible but historically important site, lost in the forests of northern Cambodia.

 

The return journey was uneventful. We stopped briefly to visit one of Choam Khsant’s picnic sites along the shady O Aban stream, where there are some quiet pools suitable for swimming.  The local people were pounding some sort of plant, which they described as fish poison.  They feed the gound-up plant to the fish in the pools, the fish die, and the people collect them and eat them.

 

Aban village appears on Aymonier’s map, and Lajonquiere even shows a temple there.  But no one we asked had ever heard of a temple near Aban. We reached Choam Khsant by mid-morning after what seemed a full day’s activities.  Setting out early adds immeasurable to temple-hunting.  Not only is it still, but the scenery and the sounds of the forest in the early morning are pleasantly friendly, whereas if you go out in the midday sun, it is more of a battle against the heat and the dust.

 

5. Prasat Sneng Krabei

 

After resting in the hammock through the hear of the afternoon, I was again ready for adventure by 4pm. A guide from the guesthouse said he knew of another temple in the forest, which corresponded both to my 1:50000 map and to Aymonier’s map.  So off we wetn again, this time to the southwest of Choam Khsant along the road to Rom Dosrei Village, cited on the 1:50000 map as Sre Village.  Heading west over very muddy roads, we left the village behind.  One turnoff towards the north led, according to my guide, to a military camp called Sema. This name had been mentioned on Lajonquiere’s map as the site of a temple, but my guide assured me that there was no temple there. But perhaps future explorers should check it out.

 

The road, sometimes smooth laterite, sometimes soft and deep sand, sometimes impassable mud, wound its way into the forest.  Several tracks turned off the either side.  A guide is necessary, especially when you leave the village behind and there is no one to ask in the forest.  After crossing the dry creek called O Chok Rung, we knew we were near the place marked on the 1:50000 map as Prasat Sneng Krabei (Buffalo Horn Temple), mentioned also by Lajonquiere.  Aymonier, on the other hand, describes a “Prasat Kabal Krebei’ (Buffalo head temple), which may be the same thing.

 

We encountered an old man in the forest and asked directions.  He said that there were in fact two temples, one in stone, off to the right, and one in brick further on to the left.  We decided to find the one to the left first, and then hit the nearer one on the way back.  This proved to be an unwise decision, as we wasted a lot of time without ever finding the one on the left.  The frustration was that we found the tell-tale trapaeng, but there was no temple there.  The man had said that the temple was less than a kilometer beyond the trapaeang, but our explorations of several small paths never led to the temple.

 

In retrospect, it would appear that there is no temple near the trapaeang, which is marked on the 1:50000 map as Trapaeng Sneng Krabei.  Perhaps four kilometers further on, the map shows a ‘Prasat Krabei’, which may be the brick temple referred to by the old man. But we never reached that place due to the falling darkness.  On our way back, some villagers confirmed that there was indeed a temple further on down that track, so it appears we just didn’t go far enough.

 

So we turned tail in the failing light and went to look for the stone temple. We couldn’t find the old man, but there was one path leading off to the right.  We decided to go up that path for 200 meters, and if there was no temple there, we would abandon our search and get out of the forest before nightfall.  Luckily, we spotted the temple just at the end of our 200 meters.

 

There were three small towers in a row, with a smaller fourth structure in front. They were near little jewels stuck out there in the cleared land surrounded by forest. The two towers on the sides leaned outwards in symmetric fashion.  Vines and tress cover all three towers.  The setting was quite beautiful in the fading evening light. It was clear that this was the Prasat Kabal Krebei described by Aymonier:

…three sandstone towers which have been built on a common terrace one metre high, twenty metres N-S and ten metres wide.  The southern tower, the only one decorated with sculptures, has them on its four doors the pediments of which depict S’iva holding Lakshmi in his left arm and sitting astride the cow Nandi, other Brahmin divinities with ten and four arms, worshippers, men and women, monkeys and cows.

Most of the sculptures are still on the southern tower, including the cow Nandi and the divinities with ten arms.  S’iva has been chiseled off the friezed by looters, and it is difficult to tell whether Lakshmi is there or not.  The four worshippers are in different poses and may actually be other gods, as the one on the right looks rather like the elephant-god Ganesh.

 

Article courtesy of Ray Zepp 2004. More Ray Zepp articles can be found here.


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