Ray Zepp & Highway Six - January 2002

Ray Zepp, a teacher who has travelled to the far corners of the globe, published the first edition of his Cambodia Less Traveled guidebook in 1996. The book gives the reader an insight into the 'other' Cambodia, not usually found in the glossy guidebooks and is a treasure trove of anecdotes and experiences in many off the beaten track locations throughout Cambodia. Zepp, now back in Cambodia after a spell living in Micronesia, has also published the fascinating A Field Guide to Cambodian Pagodas, A Field Guide to the Pagodas of Siem Reap and in the latter part of 2001, a new book, Around Battambang, only on sale in Cambodia's second city.

Ray uses his holidays and weekends to travel around Cambodia and one of his latest trips is detailed below. Most travellers speed past towns like Kralanh and its environs as they make the long and bumpy road trip from the Poipet border crossing with Thailand and onto Siem Reap. Few stop at Sisophon, the gateway to the northwest region and even less at towns like Kralanh. Ray is currently living in Battambang and that gives him the opportunity to seek out those treasures in the Cambodian countryside that most of us overlook completely. My thanks to Ray for permission to post this story:-

Lost temples east of Sisophon

The road from Siem Reap to Sisophon has recently been upgraded. What used to be a trip of four hours has now been reduced to a comfortable two hours or less. Many tourist now pass this way on their way between Bangkok and Angkor Wat, but few people ever stop to see anything in between. Indeed, not much has been written about what, if anything, is of interest to tourists in this area.


Most tourists traveling from Siem Reap to Bangkok have never heard of Kralanh, although most of them stop there. Those who take the morning bus or taxi have probably had a quick cup or two of coffee before setting out, and about the time they reach Kralanh, an hour or so later, they are ready to relieve themselves of that liquid. Taxis make a quick stop at the Guesthouse, where clean toilets are waiting at the small charge of 5 baht per person. Business is brisk. Imagine the surprise of the Guesthouse owners when I got out of the taxi and stayed in the dusty crossroads town of Kralanh. The situation is a bit confusing, because there is a clearly posted sign in English indicating a guesthouse up the street (the road north to Samraong). There is, in fact, a squalid looking place about 100 meters up that way just before you reach the other filling station, but that is not the one advertised by the sign. The real guesthouse, called the Chatomuk, is right on the main drag to the right of the main filling station. Chatomuk, recalling the four-river confluence in Phnom Penh, refers in this case to the crossroads of four main roads that meet in Kralanh. Rates are $4 for a room without bathroom, and $6 with private bathroom. I chose the $6 room, but had to wait a minute for a tourist to use the bathroom and pay his 5 baht. The rooms have fans and 24-hour electricity, and screens but no mosquito nets. For food, go up the street north to the end of the market, where there a couple of restaurants away from the dusty, noisy highway. Otherwise, I found nothing of interest in this small road town.

Hunting for Ruins

My search was based on Aymonier's 1901 book, Khmer Heritage in the Old Siamese Provinces of Cambodia. Aymonier described in great detail the ruins of Northwestern Cambodia, and included maps that showed where to find the ruins. So I had a rough idea where to look. All I needed was a moto driver who knew the area well, perhaps one who could speak English or French. In this, luck was on my side. There is a very fine moto driver named Sophal who was educated and learned English in the Site II border refugee camp, but who now resides with his wife's family down the river from Kralanh. If you go to Kralanh, be sure to ask for Sophal.

Sophal said he knew about the temples out in Toek Chou commune (cited by Aymonier), so away we went. To reach Toek Chou went west and crossed the Stung Sreng, the border between Siem Reap Province and Banteay Meanchey Province. Then we turned north parallel to the river, but not along the riverbank. The road is good because it has been repaired with United Nations money, but it has bridges built only wide enough for motorcycles and winds around a lot. You therefore need a motorcycle and a guide to make the trip. We stopped at the pagoda in Toek Chou, where a nice monk showed us the large collection of new paintings. There were several Buddha stories that I had never seen before, including the only depiction I have ever seen of the 'Rabbit in the Moon' story. I will recount this story here, in hopes that it may be of interest to Cambodiophiles:

In a time of famine, the animals were very hungry. A god wanted to test the animals, so he pretended he was a fisherman and asked an otter for food, but the otter said he was busy finding food for himself. The fisherman then asked a fox who tried to find food for the fisherman, but could not. Finally, the god asked a rabbit, who was a reincarnation of the Buddha. The rabbit volunteered to let himself be roasted as food for the fisherman. For this self-sacrifice, the god rewarded the rabbit by placing his picture in the moon to remind all people of the rabbit's generosity. To this day, you can see the rabbit in the moon. (In fact, from these latitudes, the moon is tilted so that the 'man in the moon' is not so obvious, while the clear picture is that of the rabbit.)

A couple of kilometers northwest of Toek Chou we came upon the ruins of Prasat Bram (= 'five temples'). Prasat Bram is shown on Aymonier's map, but there is no mention of it in the text of the book. This appears to be an oversight by Aymonier, but it may also be due to the fact that there are no inscriptions on Prasat Bram, and Aymonier was obsessed with inscriptions. Of the five original towers of Prasat Bram, only the front two, those of the libraries, are still standing. They are constructed of neatly cut sandstone blocks, an indication of a late date. Indeed, there are several carved lotuses lying around, a clear symbol of Buddhism, and thus a date later than the famous Angkor Thom, which was constructed by Jayavarnan VII, the first convert to Buddhism around 1100. The temple has a laterite base, which may indicate an older edifice on the site, although some temples of the time were intentionally built using a laterite base with a dolomite or sandstone superstructure.

As expected, there were no carvings, which had all been looted, but the temples had been reconstructed and were in pretty good condition. There were a lot of villagers sitting around waiting for some kind of ceremony. They invited me to stay and have lunch, but it was still early and I had a lot to see, so I promised to come back later. When I did return, a cartload of monks had arrived for the ceremony. They explained that on New Year's Day (which it was), they come out from Wat Chaa Leu to absorb the power of the temples and to pray for peace for their village.

So I was fortunate to arrive on the very day of their ceremony, with monks chanting and pinpeat orchestra playing traditional instruments. I took pictures of the monks and of the 73-year old guardian of the temples, who explained that before the wars, then Prince Sihanouk had a temple-preserving campaign that restored all five towers of Prasat Bram, but then the Khmer Rouge fighting had destroyed most of the structures. He pointed out the digging inside the right-hand library, where a Buddha head carving had been found, but it had been sold to Thailand. The guardian recalled that all five towers were about five meters tall, and had many carved apsaras and giant yiek guardians, but these had all been looted and sold to Thailand. The looting, according to the guardian, was not done during the Khmer Rouge years, but as late as 1989, when fighting between the Khmer Rouge and Government troops in the area left the area outside the control of any one group. In the ensuing chaos, the villagers were powerless to defend their temples against any armed group, be they Khmer Rouge or Government soldiers.

To add to my good fortune, the monks brought with them six stone carvings that they had managed to rescue from the ruins. These were friezes of elephants and other gods that the monks keep hidden in or near Wat Chaa Leu. They believe in the magic power of these stones, which form a central part of the ceremony. Prasat Bram stands out in the wide-open rice paddies, and is therefore not of much scenic value. The main thrill for me was simply to find two well-preserved structures which, the villagers said, had not been visited by any tourist before. To witness the peace ceremony was also a big plus. But even on an ordinary, a visit to these lost temples is worthwhile for the tourist, who can stand alone in the fields with the wind blowing through the old temples and the feeling that there was a high civilization here over 800 years ago.

An Old Bridge - Spien Sreng

From Prasat Bram we continued on north and joined the river called Stung Sreng. There is a beautiful shady village high along the riverbank. There are also some precarious wooden bridges crossing the small tributaries leading into the river. Aymonier shows a picture of a beautiful old bridge crossing the river at this point, but some NGO came looking for it a few years ago and couldn't find it. The bridge was an important one in the old Angkor days, because it was a major crossing point on the main road from Angkor Wat to Banteay Chhmar. According to Aymonier, it had 33 arches, and measured 120 meters in length, 15 meters in width, and 12 meters in height, wide and strong enough to permit the passage of elephant convoys to and from the centers of the Angkorian empire. The bridge is still there, in a way. The Khmer Rouge covered it with earth to form one of those insane, grandiose KR dam and waterworks projects. Many people lost their lives in this construction. You can also see the wide canal leading to the west, also the work of the Khmer Rouge. You can still see a section of the bridge peeping out on the right side. The setting is beautiful, high overlooking the river with ducks and geese swimming in the quiet of the day.

Back along the canal are about twenty laterite stones that were part of the bridge, along with one of the naga heads from the entrance to the bridge. There are still some villagers who remember the bridge, and they say that it could be uncovered and restored to its former glory. That would be a good project for UNESCO or some other donor agency. There's a photograph in Aymonier's book but its not dated. If in the original book, it would have been taken prior to 1901, but the editor may have added the photograph to the 1999 English edition. In any event, the bridge is totally buried today. Another good project would be to run hiking tours along this main road from Angkor to Banteay Chhmar. The walking is flat and easy, and the tourists could see vestiges of the old road as well as some temples situated along the way, such as Prasat Bram described above. Just think of pretending you are on the old track that Khmer warriors with their elephants trod over a millennium ago. You could stop for a swim in the waters of the Stung Sreng and have lunch on the shady banks in the picturesque village high overlooking the river.

Prasat Kouk Treap

Prasat Kouk Treap is the name given in Aymonier to a small temple a kilometer or so east of Prasat Bram, although the locals know it as Prasat Chaa Leu. It is unmistakably the same one described by Aymonier as having doors 'decorated with two square pillars replacing the usual small columns.' He goes on the describe the still existing carving on the lintel:...'Its lintel shows a standing god, the right hand holding a cane, the left lifted upwards as if it held the garland of flowers which is sculpted below it.' The bottom half of the carving has fallen away, but the top half of the god is quite visible and in good condition. Other than these features, the style is identical to that of Prasat Bram, so one may infer that the group of sandstone temples were constructed at about the same time in the thirteenth century, perhaps a century after Angkor Thom.

Prasat Sangkhah

To reach what little remains of Prasat Sangkhah, go west along Highway 6 past the hill called Phnom Leap. Turn right on a good Seila road to three model villages. The third village is about five km north and is called Kouk Toroab. You pass the ruins on the right just before you reach the village, but you probably need a guide to show you not only where they are located, but also how to find the path leading to the ruins. This is because the temple had, and still has, a moat on all sides, with only a small passageway leading across the moat to the temple. Even if you find the place, you still have to battle thorn bushes and dense vegetation to penetrate to the temple itself. Once you get inside the moat, you may still have difficulty finding pieces of the temple, but once you poke around in the bushes you will see dozens of scattered stones and evidence of digging. But that is all you will find. The temple has been thoroughly destroyed and looted.

The local villager who guided us explained that the destruction and looting occurred as late as 1989 during fighting between various factions. Soldiers equipped with sophisticated demining tools uprooted everything in search of statues and carvings. They took away some 50 Buddha statues, as well as a magnificent carved lion. Our guide pointed out exactly where the lion and some of the more outstanding Buddhas had lain before 1989. He was clearly saddened by the fact that during the 30 year period of war the villagers were powerless to prevent the soldiers from looting the temples. Aymonier lists Prasat Sangkhah as having been constructed in the reign of Suyavarman I to honor the god Siva, according to an inscription he found there. It had nine towers inside the moat. There was, and still is, a large basin to the east, measuring 400 m by 200 m, although now it is mostly dry during the dry season. We then crossed the road to see another ruin site out in the fields. The scattered stones were more visible in the open field, but none were of much interest. Around an isolated tree were the ruins of a brick structure, evidence of an early Pre-Angkor date. Aymonier makes no mention of this earlier temple, probably because he could find no inscriptions on it.

South and West of Kralanh

My guide Sophal took me to his home in Samraong Village a few kilometers south of Kralanh. We went down the west bank of the Stung Sreng, crossed at a delightful ferry crossing, and returned up the east bank past the new pagoda and into town. This made for a pleasant late afternoon outing. The river is sunk far below the banks, at least in the dry season. Because of the narrow gorge and steep banks, the river rises dramatically in the rainy season. There are shady, picturesque villages on both sides, but the western bank (Banteay Meanchey Province) is much, much poorer than the eastern bank (Siem Reap Province). There is not a lot to see, except peaceful village life along the river. There is a small ruin site in Samraong Village, although there is nothing to see, as it has been completely looted. Villagers say there are still stones buried in the small mound called Toul Prasat (temple mound). This site is not mentioned by Aymonier. There is a 150-year-old wat in Anlongvil village that has one carved stone from Toul Prasat kept in a small shrine outside the far right-hand corner of the wat. The building itself is not very interesting, except for the ornately carved wooden gables. This is one of the oldest standing wats in the area because the Khmer Rouge used it as a prison instead of destroying it. The Stung Sreng is quite navigable. An outing by boat, including a swim, would be an ideal way to spend a late afternoon. You could take a moto down to Samroang or Anlongvil in the afternoon, go for a swim, and then rent a boat to bring you back to Kralanh at sunset. The distance is short enough that a short ride in non-motorized boat would enable you to take in the beauty and the quiet of the shady riverbank without the roar of a motor. All this could be easily arranged through Sophal, who lives in the area and knows all the boat owners.

The Road to Sisophon

Highway 6 to Sisophon has been greatly improved. Although it is easy traveling, there is not much to see. That is literally true, because the dust from the big trucks can be quite blinding. There are a few sites along the way worthy of note. The stretch between Kralanh and the first mountain, called Phnom Leap, used to be a prime passage point for the Khmer Rouge between their bases along the northern border and the northern edge of the Tonle Sap lake. They would cross the highway at night, because in the daytime government troops could spot them from atop Phnom Leap, where there were large gun emplacements. Further on, the town of Rumdol crosses a clear, green river where one might take a swim. Otherwise there is nothing to offer here. The town of Rohal has a nice old wat on the left (south). Past Rohal, a major road turns off to the right at a statue of a silk weaver. This is because the road leads to Phnom Srok, one of Cambodia's main silk producing areas, both in silkworms and in woven cloth. Phnom Srok is also known for a lake surrounded by a bird reserve. This reserve was set up to protect the endangered Sarus crane, a magnificent gray bird with a red head, of which only an estimated 300 remain in Cambodia.

The town of Preah Net Preah is just another dusty crossroads town, almost identical to Kralanh. I saw no guesthouse there, but there may be one behind the market area. The town has a long history of stone carvers, and there is a statue of a carver chiseling a lion-dog in the center of town. The stone-carving area is actually located a few kilometers to the west of town, up a small hill along highway 6 called Phnom Chunchieng, or Wall Hill. There are dozens of carving shops on both sides of the road, located here because of the sandstone quarries dotted around the hill. The statues are of really fine quality. These carvers are proud to claim their heritage as master craftsmen. You can buy all sorts of Buddhist icons, Jayavarman heads, and old Hindu gods. I saw one especially large Brahma statue selling for $12,000, according to the carver. From the town of Preah Net Preah, it is a short, smooth, but dusty drive of about 20 km to Sisophon.

Preah Net Preah

To the south of town lies the clearly identifiable mountain of Preah Net Preah, which means 'the sacred eye of God'. I could not find out the origin of the name, which is rather strange considering that the main attraction of the place is not a god's eye, but a footprint. To reach the mountain, take the road south of town and turn right near the mountain. The main road goes behind the mountain and is a short cut (in the dry season) to Mongkol Borei. The road over to the mountain goes steeply up the mountain to about the halfway point, so you don't have to climb the entire distance on foot. The steps are rather gradual and not difficult to climb. On top you will find a pagoda and some very fine carvings. The three-headed elephant and the other large elephant are very well executed. I thought I had really found an ancient treasure, but alas, all these carvings were done in the past 20 years, according to a young monk and an old woman, the only persons we could find. The woman said that only three years ago there were ruins of a fine pre-Angkor temple there, but this had been looted and destroyed. The only remaining sign on top of the mountain was an old Siva linga, evidence of a Hindu presence and hence a very old pre-Angkor date. There are several pedestals, where statues must have stood before being looted. The real center of Hindu activity is located about 50 meters down the steps, where you can see an ancient square basin. To the left of the basin, you can see some steps carved in the stone, along with what appears to be a naga or serpent along the sides. But in the thousand years since it was carved, the cliff has split off from the rest of the mountain, and now you cannot go up on top. Aymonier somehow managed to get up there a hundred years ago, and he describes a second basin surrounded by a crocodile. You can still see part of the crocodile from below. You cannot see, however, a third oblong basin, called Preah Bat or 'Sacred Footprint'. This was apparently the main object of worship in the olden days.

Aymonier goes on to describe the inscriptions found at Preah Net Preah. These date the ruins at 938 A.D. in the reign of Jayavarman IV, and dedicated to the Hindu god Siva. Indeed, the name of the place was then Sivapada, or 'Foot of Siva'. Nowadays, the temple is devoted to forest meditation. There is a venerable old monk who meditates in the surrounding forest all day, so you are not likely to find him. The two new carvings near the elephant carvings, are of the seated forest spirit Taa Ay Sey, and facing him, three standing forest monks. These carvings were only completed in 1998. Along with those of the elephants, they are of very good quality, in the tradition of the sandstone carvers of Preah Net Preah.

There are also some rather sillier objects on top of the mountain, including a bizarre blue-and-red lighthouse, and a statue of an apparently smiling tiger. Perhaps he is happy as seeing the carved animals in front of him and the prospect of a good meal. A steep stairway leads down to a small cave where there were perhaps ancient carvings, but now there is nothing down there worth seeing. On the back side of the complex is a new statue of a mermaid and a crocodile. The story of the mermaid, or 'machaa', comes from the Reamker, or Khmer Ramayana. She was captured by the monkey god, imprisoned, and then rescued by Ream (Rama) in a historic battle with Hanuman the monkey king. But this statue is the first I have seen her with a crocodile rather than a monkey. Perhaps there is some confusion with Cambodia's other beloved woman-crocodile story, that of Rumsay Sok. Oddly, if you mention Preah Net Preah to most Cambodians, they will recognize the name not for its mountain or its temples, but for the fact that its inhabitants have a peculiar dialect of Khmer. Around most of Cambodia the spoken Khmer is almost uniform, but this small enclave is noted for its strange pronunciation, almost unintelligible to most Khmer speakers. Even I could tell that their way of speaking had a different sound to it. But I could find no reason for this linguistic oddity, nor where the inhabitants had originally come from.

South of Sisophon

Highway 5 south of Sisophon towards Battambang takes you past Mongkol Borei and a couple of sacred mountains. Mongkol Borei, located only about 15 minutes southeast of Sisophon, is almost the same size as Sisophon (some say even larger), but you don't actually see most of it from the highway, which bypasses the center of town. As a result, Mongkol Borei is much less noisy and dusty than Sisophon. Although there is nothing spectacular of a tourist nature, it is a nice spot to walk around or have lunch on your way. There is a nice covered bridge/walkway next to the market, and a couple of interesting pagodas. Just south of Mongkol Borei is the sacred mountain of Banteay Neang. A very large Buddha has been constructed in the past three years, but that is not really the religious center or attraction. Behind the Buddha are some sacred caves that once held carvings and inscriptions, which as usual have been looted in recent years. There is very little of interest on Banteay Neang mountain, except perhaps for some odd painted carvings of devils or underground spirits called 'Bett' in Khmer. These are really strange creatures. One popular rendition is of the devil who is hungry to eat humans, but whose mouth and nose are elongated so that he cannot fit food into his mouth. This bett is shown at the mouth of the first cave you come to, holding a human skull that apparently he is unable to fit in his tubular mouth. To the rear of the mountain are a couple other carvings of bizarre flying creatures that I have not seen elsewhere in Cambodia.

A few kilometers further south, and to the left (east) of Highway 5, lies another small mountain called, ironically, Phnom Thom or 'Big Mountain'. It is a favorite stop for travelers for lunch at a famous beef soup restaurant. The small hill is the home of a troop of monkeys. There was a famous fortune-telling monk who lived on the hill for many years, but he died a couple of years ago and was replaced by another fortune-teller (not a monk) who is acquiring an equally outstanding reputation. Finally, you may see a strange old man over seventy years old, either sprinting up the mountain, or running around the village on high bamboo stilts. He says he does it just to keep fit. For a man in his seventies, he is obviously very fit indeed.

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