Highway Two -

Beyond Takeo to Phnom Bayang

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 October 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 his fascinating A Field Guide to Cambodian Pagodas in June 1997 and early in 2000, A Field Guide to the Pagodas of Siem Reap. The story below is taken from his unpublished southern supplement to his original Less Traveled edition. My thanks to Ray for permission to re-print this insight into his travels into Southern Cambodia. Ray has also supplied me with a recent story of his travels by rail south of Takeo.

Highway Two south of Phnom Penh is well-known for its ruined temples; Tonle Bati, Phnom Chisor and Angkor Borei. But I had never heard of Phnom Bayang until I saw a small icon of a temple on an old tourist map of Cambodia. It was apparently located south of Takeo, on what I had been told was a terrible road. I asked around, and no one seemed to know anything about it, until one of my Khmer colleagues said that he was born south of Takeo and that he had been to Phnom Bayang. Moreover, he stated, Highway Two south of Takeo has been greatly improved and is even scheduled for hard surfacing under an ADB project.

So, my colleague and I, along with his wife and another teacher originally from Takeo, set off for Takeo on a Saturday afternoon. I tried to interest some expatriates in going along, but it seems that 13th century ruins are much less exciting than getting drunk on a Saturday night in Phnom Penh. In any event, we hired a taxi for 30, 000 riel (about $11 [at the time]) and by 4.30pm we were relaxing at my colleagues' house in Takeo.

On the way to Takeo, I asked to stop at Prasat Neang Khmau (the Black Lady Temple), located around kilometer 50, not far from the turnoff to Phnom Chisor. The two small Angkor-era brick temples are just to the left of the highway, but they are hard to spot from the road, so I wanted to stop and have a short look. The 'Black Lady' is a statue or frieze which has been removed to the Architecture Faculty in Phnom Penh for safety. Other than a well-preserved Reahu monster, there is really not much worth seeing. Other carvings have clearly been hacked off by looters. Still, it is refreshing to break the journey and see a couple of temples which are out in the countryside, off the usual tourist itinerary.

We continued on to Takeo, some 76 kms from Phnom Penh and after a short rest, took a short walk around the old part of the town, which revealed one striking change from my visit of several months ago - there was no water! In the rainy season, most of the region around Takeo becomes a huge inland sea, with water stretching as far as the eye can see. But in May, there is only a small, dirty canal by which the boat can reach Angkor Borei. The miles of rice paddies make the view from Takeo unrecognizable from what it was in August. The sleepy 'port' of Takeo, however, had not changed much. True, there is a new guesthouse called the Phnom Sonlong (named after a hill just south of Takeo known as one of the larger killing fields of the Pol Pot era), right next to the original Angkor Borei Guesthouse on the corner near the market. And a new building, the Department of Tourism, is nearing completion. This was indeed a surprise, as there are few signs that anything is being done to promote tourism in Takeo Province.

After dark we returned to have a drink and a snack on the porch of the Stung Takeo Restaruant, overlooking what had been the water in August. Munching on garlic shrimp and drinking beer in this peaceful backwater is a very relaxing activity after a hard week's work in Phnom Penh. In the daytime, the view from the restaurant includes, in the distance, Wat Trasawt Pa'aem, the Pagoda of the Sweet Cucumber. My colleague explained that there is a Khmer legend behind the name, in which the king was able to grow sweet cucumbers and hired a guard to cast a magic spell on the plants at night to protect them from burglars. But one night the king himself was hungry for one of his prized cucumbers and went out into the cucumber patch. The magic spell was in effect and the king was killed. There is a small street named Trasawt Pa'aem near the bus stop just south of the main Central market in Phnom Penh.

On to Phnom Bayang

We had arranged for a car to pick us up at 7am the next morning, and amazingly, the car appeared right on time. As predicted, Highway Two south of Takeo is excellent, even though the tarmac ends after only a few kilometers. My colleague proved to be an excellent guide, since he was not only born and raised in the district, he spent the Pol Pot era chopping trees on top of a mountain in the district. He was able to point out the killing fields of Boeung Cheng Chat (Sparrow Lake) three kilometers off to the right, as well as those of Phnom Sonlong, where the main Khmer Rouge prison for the region was located. He knew the name of every village and hill in the area.

Only a few kilometers after leaving Takeo (in Daun Keo District) the road enters Treang District and becomes a dirt road just before Prey Sandaek (= sesame forest). A few more kilometers lead you to Wat Phnom Klaeng (= eagle mountain pagoda), where we stopped on the return journey. This Wat is the most famous in Takeo Province, known for its magic powers of granting wishes. People come from miles around to ask favors of the Buddha. Perched atop a small wooded hill, the setting is quite pleasant. The pagoda is well-maintained, as it was built with a large donation from Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose picture appears painted on the inside wall.

After less than an hour's drive we reached Kirivong District, which, according to a 1973 map commonly seen in Cambodia today, used to be a Province. The town of Tonloap is a large, bustling market center, since it is located only a few kilometers from the Vietnam border. We walked around one of the largest markets I have seen in rural Cambodia, but didn't see all that many Vietnamese products. From the town we could see the mountain (Phnom Bayang) which we would have to climb to reach the temple, and we knew that on this 40 degree day in May we would need a lot of water and fruit. We backtracked from the market to a small road which turns off to the west between the Wat and a filling station. The place to begin climbing the mountain is a few kilometers up this bad road; you can see one of the temples on a hill to the left, but you must pass this hill until you cannot even see the temple. Don't be confused - that's not the temple you are shooting for anyway. You will have to ask local villagers where to park to begin your ascent. In fact, even though it is relatively straightforward to follow the main trail, there are a couple of tricky places. It is therefore advisable to take a guide.

We took the path around the right side of the lower hill. On the way up we met a group of older women, which we thought odd, as this was quite a strenuous climb. After leaving them behind we finally arrived at some Buddhist flags which indicated some kind of shrine. It turned out to be quite an extraordinary place and an extraordinary experience. The site was a cave inhabited by a monk who remains back in the small tunnel of the cave for five days of the week, emerging only on weekends to bless visitors at the mouth of the cave. He signalled to my friends that he wanted to talk to me, so I went over for a chat. He explained in poor but understandable English that the temple we were going to visit was built in the 13th century during wars with the Cham people of Central Vietnam (Champa). Then he said he was going to perform a 'ceremony' for me - I should concentrate on what I wanted in my life and then come back further into the cave with him. He chanted in some language which was neither Khmer no Pali nor Sanskrit (my friend claimed he could understand those three languages) and then, since I had discarded my shirt in the heat of the climb, proceeded to write Pali verses all over me, first on my forehead, then the top of my head, then my chest, and finally all over my back. When he had finished, he told me to come back in half an hour for another ceremony in which he would give me 'fire power'.

The exhausted ladies had by this time made it to the cave. It was clear that a visit to this mystic monk was the object of their pilgrimage. In fact, the path further on to the temple was so seldom used and so steep, that we guessed that few people actually go up there. The monk in the cave is the main reason for visiting Phnom Bayang. He gave some blessings to the ladies and then we all prepared for the fire power ceremony. He explained that the fire of the gods would enter our bodies so that we could communicate with the gods, but that we might experience some pain or sickness in the process. He started with a sermon in which he told us to 'do yoga' and meditate on two points: truth and non-violence. He then began to chant in Pali, a chant which lasted interminably - perhaps 20-30 minutes. All the while he had one hand raised in blessing, the other spraying holy water on us. My mind began to wander, but when a pair of birds began echoing each other from the two trees flanking the cave, the ambiance became very serene and romantically beautiful, and my mind entered the peace of the situation. So the visit to this lovely setting in the mouth of the cave, surrounded by big trees, singing birds, and view looking out perhaps 100 kilometers into Vietnam, proved to be an exceptional experience not to be missed.

From the cave we continued up the very small, rough path, around to the right of the cave. We had to descend the far side of the first hill to begin the ascent of the second, the summit of which was a lot higher than we had at first imagined. Near the top, the path becomes a stairway of laterite blocks which has probably existed for over 600 years. And very suddenly, you catch sight of the temple at the end of a short path flanked by laterite blocks from the ruins. It is a strange atmosphere here at the top of the world. From all around the temple you can see for miles in any direction, even though the top of the mountain is quite flat and shaded. If you didn't have the view around you, you would not think you were on top of a mountain.

The old temple is itself not much to write home about, but the atmosphere of the surroundings is magic, especially the small courtyard in front of the entrance. It is also very photogenic. Photographers will love to compose shots of the temple with bright red hibiscus in the foreground and distant Vietnamese mountains in the background. Off to one side is the remaining wall of another ruined temple, split down the middle with one side gradually sliding off at an angle. More photo-opportunities are available of distant mountains peeping between the two halves of crumbling wall covered with twisting vines and trees. Assuming there are no hordes of tourists (a reasonable assumption), you can sit in the courtyard by the hibiscus and listen to the birds and the breeze in the peace of the afternoon.

After our picnic on top of the mountain, we hiked back down via another path to the right. Contrary to expectations, none of the paths lead down to the other hillside temples. So from our base we had to drive back towards town to another small road leading out near the temples. Two members of our party were too exhausted from the mountain climb to walk up yet another hill, but a colleague and I decided that since we were here we had better see everything on offer. So we walked up a small path through a cool wood of large old mango trees and made our way up some rocks to the two temples. It was hardly worth the effort, as there were no carvings and nothing inside the temples. In fact, one of the ruins consisted only of a ruined section of a corner. Still, there were good photos to be taken of the ruins standing in the open with the deep green of rice paddies far below. Somehow we managed to get lost in the woods on the way back, even though the entire walk to the temples had taken only about ten or fifteen minutes. But this misguided way back passed the home of a well-known bearded woman - and I mean a long, black beard, not just some peach fuzz. My colleague knew her and wanted me to stop and look at her beard, but I was embarrassed, took a quick look as we passed, and went on. But when we reached the car, our friend, who had shown no energy for climbing up to the temples, suddenly found the energy to walk off to see the bearded lady.

Back in the car at last, we set off for Takeo. We were still able to go the kilometer off the road to Wat Phnom Klaeng, where a group of retirees had congregated to ask the Buddha to grant them their wishes. We arrived back in Takeo exhausted from the heat and arduous climb up the mountain. The trip from Phnom Penh could be done in a day if you set out early. But I would recommend against it, as the trip is tiring enough as it is, and besides, Takeo has comfortable guesthouses and hotels for staying overnight. A peaceful evening down by the port and a meal or drink at the Stung Takeo will certainly put you in a rested mood for starting out for Phnom Bayang in the cool of the following morning. The later you reach Phnom Bayang, either the hotter it will become during the dry season, or the greater the probability of rain during the wet season.

Travel by Rail Lorry : South of Takeo

Bored in Phnom Penh? Want to get away for a weekend doing something really new and exciting? Let me recommend a jaunt by rail 'lorry' into the Cambodia Less Traveled down past Takeo towards the Vietnam border. Riding the 'lorry' is a new and cool way to travel. And it makes accessible, some off-the-beaten-track tourist attractions that few foreigners have ever visited.

The lorry is an ingeniously simple contraption, consisting of three parts: a set of railway wheels (bogeys), a flat piece of wood, and a motorcycle. The flat piece of wood is placed on the bogeys to form a flatcar. The wood has a hole cut out on one side, into which the motorcycle fits in such a way that its rear wheel sits on the realway track. Then all you have to do is drive the motorcycle down the track, and you have a smooth and relatively fast ride. The lorries carry up to a dozen people at incredibly cheap prices, but you may wish to rent the entire lorry for your small party so you can stop from time to time. You are going to stop from time to time anyway, because the one drawback of the system is that there are other lorries coming in the other direction. Someone has to give way. Usually, the most heavily loaded lorry stops, unloads, and the entire apparatus is disassembled while the other vehicle passes. Then the lorry is reassembled and the journey continues.

Lorries run on almost any stretch of track in Cambodia, but they usually do not come into Phnom Penh. The jumping off place for many of them is in Takeo. So you should go towards Takeo by bus (leaving from the Central Market of Psaa Thmey) or taxi (leaving from Domkor market across from the Intercontinental) or even by motorcycle (Yes, you can load your motorcycle on the lorry!). Going down Highway 2, get off or stop just a couple of kilometers before you get to Takeo town, at the major intersection where the connecting road goes over from Highway 2 to Highway 3. A short walk from the intersection brings you to the railway, where there should be several lorries waiting. A little negotiation and off you go! Don't worry too much about timing. Lorries go at all hours, except when there is a real train coming in the other direction. The drivers avoid those situations which bring to mind Wile E. Coyote going in one direction and a train coming in the other. On days when the train goes south, it will have long passed by the time you arrive at the Takeo station. On days when it goes north, it will be much later in the afternoon when it passes. So now that you are on the lorry, when do you get off?

About 30 kilometers down the line (an hour or two, depending on local lorry traffic), you come to a major road crossing three kilometers north of Tani. If you are using the latest Department of Tourism map of Cambodia, Tani is erroneously marked as Angkor Chey, the name of the District, not the town. The Tani junction is also a good place to find lorries on the way back to Takeo. Perhaps an even better idea is to continue on down the line to Tuk Meas (also erroneously marked as Banteay Meas - the District - on the Tourism map). There is a guesthouse in Tuk Meas, but none in Tani, so if you are going to overnight, you'll have to go on to Tuk Meas anyway. Tuk Meas is an agreeable backwater to spend the evening. It lies in the shadow of a couple of big karsts or limestone mountains, and there are good photographs in the morning when the sun hits the karsts. There is also an old French bridge in town, and a road leading out to an old phosphate factory. In fact, it was the Koreans who built the factory who also built the guesthouse, but they have long since departed. The guesthouse is not marked, so you will have to ask for it, and the owner will have to be called to bring the keys. We were told that no foreigners had stayed there in nearly a year. It was clear from the stares that Tuk Meas is not on the regular backpacker itinerary.

So let us say that the next morning you want to head back from Tuk Meas towards Phnom Penh. We could not find a lorry and ended up going by moto to Tani. This proved a good decision, because the road is quite interesting. It was the main highway back in colonial days, and stretches of partially paved roadway still exist. There is a French fortress or watchtower along the way, just at a rail crossing where you can take good pictures of the karsts, water lilies, and country scenery. Just imagine the highway in the old French days, an occasional Citroen cruising down the well-paved road, and then come back to the reality of today, the road surface destroyed, no cars, and the silence of times before the arrival of the West. We arrived in Tani from Tuk Meas at around 10 in the morning, time for a drink and a snack. We were about to head out to the rail crossing ('lorry station') when I took a peek in the local wat, and received an amazing surprise - an old laterite pre-Angkor temple, with a tree growing up the middle of it. But for me, even more surprising was the decrepit old wat just behind the temple. The wat was no longer used and no longer sacred, as even the monks kept their shoes on inside. But the beautiful wall paintings were of a style not seen since early in the 20th century, many in good nick. UNESCO should be informed of this treasure before someone decides to paint over the murals with modern-day scenes. For me, these paintings alone were worth the entire weekend excursion.

The temple and wat having been explored and photographed, we proceeded on to the rail crossing by a little past 11am, only to find that the train from Phnom Penh had not passed yet. In waiting, I went back to a delightful and peaceful country wat, complete with lotus ponds and friendly monks. I returned to the railway just as the barrier gates were going down, signalling the arrival of the train. Sure enough, it passed and pulled into the station a kilometer down the line. Most of the passengers wating to board were ducks. There were already several hundred ducks and geese sitting on top of the train. We waved to a human tourist riding the train, and then returned to our lorry for the return trip to Takeo. We arrived back in Takeo around 1pm, in time for a snack and a sugar cane drink at one of the many shops surrounding the lorry station. From there, I hopped a moto into Takeo, drank a coconut at the taxi stand, and got on the Ho Wah Genting bus at 2.30pm. This proved a mistake, as it stopped every several hundred meters to pick up picnickers from Phnom Tamau, Tonle Bati, and Phnom Chisor, and ended up taking three hours to return to Phnom Penh. I would recommend a regular shared taxi or even moto-doup if you want to arrive earlier in Phnom Penh.

So you see, the whole thing can be done in a weekend, with plenty of time to look around, sit in small cafes, drink beer, take in the local culture, all in places rarely visited by Westerners. I find a Saturday night in a small, quiet town like Tuk Meas very relaxing and a refreshing change from the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh. Or if you have more time to spend, continue on down the line to see the caves near Kampong Trach (where there is a hotel), or the hilltop wat on the border overlooking Ha Tien in Vietnam. You can travel on to the beaches in Kep, Kampot, and Sihanoukville. But whatever you end up doing in this area, you will agree that there is plenty of the Cambodia Less Traveled to explore. (dateline: 9 Jan 2001). Above articles courtesy of Ray Zepp.

In April 2001, Ray Zepp travelled through parts of Cambodia that very few tourists manage to see.

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