Highway One : Svay Rieng & Neak Loeang

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 places throughout Cambodia. Zepp, now living and working in Micronesia, also published his fascinating A Field Guide to Cambodian Pagodas in June 1997 but the story below is taken from his unpublished southern supplement to his Less Traveled edition. My thanks to Ray for permission to re-print this insight into his experiences in southern Cambodia:

Travelers going to Vietnam by road travel through Svay Rieng and most of them never even realize it. On my first trip to Vietnam I saw this shady, colonial backwater and vowed to return one day. So in the cool of December 1996, I went back to Svay Rieng and was not disappointed. It is not uncommon in Cambodia to find a town rather uninteresting, while the countryside harbours treasures such as ruined temples and beautiful forests. If anything, Svay Rieng is the reverse. I found the town itself a charming, peaceful place, while the countryside has few archeological or natural wonders.

Taxis leave from across the Chbam Pao (Monivong) bridge. If you can find a taxi going all the way to Svay Rieng, the cost is 7000 riel, but many taxi drivers go only as far as the ferry at Neak Loeang, in order to avoid the $1 ferry fare. That first portion of the journey, only 61 km of good tar road, costs just 3000 riel and takes about an hour. There are taxis waiting on the other side of the ferry to continue the journey to Svay Rieng. That portion, at 65 km, takes as long as two hours. So if you add a half hour for crossing the Mekong on the ferry, you can count on a 3 hour trip to Svay Rieng from Phnom Penh. If you noticed that the first leg of the journey only takes an hour and the second part two hours, you will get the picture of the state of National Highway One. The 65 kilometres are full of potholes, so the car frequently slows to almost a halt to dodge some pretty rough spots. In addition, some of the bridges often wash out during the floods of the rainy season.

If you go by taxi, you arrive in Svay Rieng at a large field next to the market. It looks as though the main part of town is over by the market, but in fact, the town center, restaurants, guesthouses, etc are all found in the opposite direction, but still only a ten minute walk, so you can avoid the hassle of a moto ride.

Svay Rieng Town

I found Svay Rieng to be the quintessential sleepy Cambodian backwater, in fact, almost literally so, because it is built along a small, slow stream which feeds a tributary of the Mekong, the Tonle Vay Ko. There are food stalls and drinks tables within one metre of the stream (really!), so that you can sit under the big, twisted albizza trees and watch the water in the evening. But it's not a very active area because it is located a block away from the main street and there are no cars or shops here. I had a good fried rice dish at the Sereipheap restaurant, where I sat out on the deck over the water and watched the river at sunset. Many towns in Cambodia ( Battambang, Prey Veng, Kompong Thom) have riverside drinks and food stalls, but this is perhaps the most pleasant of all.

The other things I enjoyed about Svay Rieng was the shady atmosphere of the colonial sector. There are some romantic old buildings in the government sector, and a couple of restaurants on the banks of the Tonle Vay Ko, but these restaurants, the Wai Ko and another beautiful old house with only the sign 'Disco, Karaoke, Video, Movie', have been turned into disco dancing places, where the blaring music drowns out the peace of the river. Near these two disco places is a small, shady park with rides for kids. I never actually saw any kids using the rides. There is also a curious construction which houses, or so claims a sign, a tiger captured near Kratie. I never saw a tiger there, but it is just barely possible that the alleged tiger was sleeping inside.

There are at least five places to stay in town. At the low end are the three budget guesthouses, the Santepheap (='peace'), the Samaki (='solidarity') and a new one, all located on street corners at the same intersection on main street. The first time I went to Svay Rieng, there was no electricity during the day, but on return visits in late 1997, there was power all day. The electricity is important if you need to keep cool on a hot afternoon. More upmarket hotels are the more modern Vimean Monorom (named for the monument on the square) and across the street, the Wai Ko (named after the river running through town).

Just as the streets of Prey Veng are lined with pharmacies, the streets of Svay Rieng are lined with drinks shops. Not only are there distributors for all brands of beer, including Eagle Stout and Miller High Life, there are also a proliferation of brands of rotgut wine with muscle men pictuired on the front. In addition to the 'Red Wine' and 'Hercules' sold all over Cambodia, there are also copycat brands; 'Weightlifter', 'Great Strength', 'King Kong' and 'Samlung'. The bridge on the main highway out of town towards Vietnam was bombed, according to the Tourism Director, by airplane during the 70s, but I was unable to find out just who did the bombing. It's worth the short walk out to the bridge to see the result.

Around Svay Rieng

The Director of Tourism was extremely helpful to me. This has been the case in most of the Cambodian provincial tourism offices I have contacted, probably because they are so amazed that any tourist would actually consult them. In this case, the Director pointed out two possible things to see in Svay Rieng Province. The first was a ruined temple called Prasat Koki, north of Romeas Hek, some 50 km away. He said that this was in a forested area, and I immediately conjured up pictures of Angkor-type temples in the jungle, and decided I simply must go there. The other possibility was another ruined temple called Prasat Prasat, only a few kilometres south of the town itself. He warned me that this was in pretty bad shape, but if one had some money, it would be a good restoration project as a tourist site.

So the next morning I set off by moto in search of Prasat Koki. The moto driver first insisted that he take me outside of town to a 'killing fields' monument. This turned out to be quite a worthwhile detour. The monument is located out in a lonely field, and the chilly wind of an early December morning gave the skulls an eerie aura of desolation. To reach the monument, go out the Vietnam road a couple of kilometres to a Wat on the left with a garish orange and blue painting on its entrance arch. Just on the right is another nondescript archway. Take this country path for about a kilometre and you will see the gray marble memorial off to your right. The path leading back to the monument is actually past the structure.

We stopped at the Wat to see a very well-done life-of-Buddha paintings and were welcomed by dozens of young monks who showed us around. Then we went back to the Romeas Hek road, located just at the two big white pillars which used to be the 'Welcome to Svay Rieng' archway. The dirt road was quite good and we made good time before stopping for coffee at the district seat of Srok Rumdul. This was a peaceful town, where we enjoyed a breakfast near the market. We then continued on towards Romeas Hek, stopping only at a Wat Samkei, where we spotted what appeared to be a very old stupa. All along the road we met people on bicycles carrying enormous loads of goods from Vietnam. There are all sorts of tracks and paths leading off towards the Vietnam border, making it almost impossible to police the smuggling activity. This is the new Ho Chi Minh Trail, but instead of smuggling arms and soldiers into Vietnam, this network of trails is used to smuggle goods out of Cambodia's near neighbour. There are a few goods which go the opposite way, namely Hero Cigarettes.

The road deteriorated badly after Khum Samrong, and by the time we had covered the 40 km to Romeas Hek, marked as Kompong Trach on older maps, I was getting quite sore from bouncing around on the back of the motorbike. Romeas Hek was a rather dirty town, with not a lot going for it, so we immediately asked for Phum Koki and carried on north of town. We asked for directions along the way, and each time the people knew exactly where to direct us, and each time they used the word 'prey' or 'forest'. This made me happy, as I would have a chance to walk in the forest, but it definitely did not make the moto driver happy, because he feared bandits in the uninhabited areas. I assured him that the Tourism Director had said there were no mines and no Khmer Rouge around, so we pushed on. About 8 kilometres out of town, we turned right along a very straight track through the woods. Only in a few spots would I call it a forest - bush is a more appropriate term. We kept asking for Phum Koki, and always the people knew it was straight ahead, that is until we asked someone who said, "You just went through it!" From there to the prasat the way became difficult. There were lots of small paths, and a lot of muddy ditches to cross. Each time we asked directions we were told it was only a kilometre or so up ahead, but we never seemed to reach our destination. Finally we came to a hut out in the bush, filled with policemen, who asked for my papers. I showed them all my papers, but they could not read the English, and finally settled for the flip side of my business card, written in Khmer. But they declared that in order to visit the prasat, I would have to return to Phum Koki to obtain permission of the head man there. I thought this was pretty good, they were taking great precautions to preserve the prasat, which really must be something to see! Or so I thought.

So we bounced through the mud and the ruts to get the required permission, complete with official stamp, and when we returned to the police hut, two of them, armed with AK47s, accompanied us for a two-kilometre hike through the bush. As we neared the prasat along a small stream, they pointed out that just across the stream was Vietnam. So that was the reason for the security precautions - they wanted to make sure we were not sneaking into Vietnam or trying to smuggle anything across. This was the edge of the enclave called 'Parrot's Beak' during the Vietnam War. It was here that the Americans invaded Cambodia to root out Viet Cong who were allegedly using the region as sanctuary for launching raids into Vietnam. Later, at the end of the Pol Pot era, this enclave was the base for a group of die-hard Khmer Rouge who resisted the Vietnamese long after most of the rest of the province had fallen. And it was in this far Eastern zone that some of the worst Khmer Rouge factional fighting and party purges took place.

As we circled the dense clump of trees, our guide pointed and said 'prasat', but I didn't see anything. It was not until we had actually penetrated the trees that I saw the object of our quest - a run-down portion of a brick wall covered with vines. There were no carvings or achitectural wonders. The red brick wall could have been built yesterday, hardly worth the tiring three-hour moto ride, but still a nice forest setting with Vietnam only ten metres away. Well, at least I got my walk in the forest, which was quite enjoyable, and we did learn that there was in fact a prasat of sorts to be seen. So we headed back, but not before the police offered us lunch; freshly caught fish and rice. So unlike the popular conception of corrupt police trying to stick us for a bribe, these guys were very helpful, they gave us a free lunch, and they didn't ask for a cent in bribes. Unfortunately, I do not smoke, so I didn't have cigarettes to offer them by way of a thank you.

We stopped rather frequently on the way back to Svay Rieng, because I was getting so sore from the bumpy moto ride that I needed to rest my backside. So I had a coconut back in Romeas Hek, where we decided to take the alternate route back to Svay Rieng. If you look at the map, the two routes are about the same length. It looked as though I had made the right decision this time, as the road was nice and smooth leaving Romeas Hek. Alas, this good fortune was not to last! The road got worse and worse, until the last few kilometres before Svay Rieng, where we often had to get off and walk through mud and water to get through (but this was a relief for my aching rear end). A car would have had real difficulty making this journey - a moto is definitely the way to go.

You can actually see Prasat Prasat from Svay Rieng. As you sit under the trees along the water near the centre of town, look out across the river to the land in the distance. You will see a clump of trees sticking out, as though there is a small hill, but in reality it is only a copse of larger-than-usual trees. The prasat ruins are in the midst of those trees.

Because there is a prasat (temple) there, the village is called Prasat, and so the prasat is actually called Prasat Prasat. In the dry season, there is a road which winds along the river after crossing the small bridge in Svay Rieng town. But in the rainy season, the only way over there is by boat. My enquiries were met with various replies as to where I might catch the boat. First they told me to go up to the Vietnam boat dock, but that was not the place; then they said to wait by the small bridge, but there were no boats there either. Finally, there seemed to be some agreement that the real boat dock was out in the countryside past the 'killing fields' monument. So by 6.30am I had hired a moto to take me out there. It was easy to find - just continue straight past the monument for another kilometre until you reach the water.

In the steely grey of the early December morning, we arrived at water's edge to find - nothing! Not even a dock, just mud and water. I managed to hail a small canoe dug out of a palm tree, whose owner was trying to get a bicycle across to Prasat, and we set off. After only a few metres, it was clear that we would not get both me and the bicycle across without tipping the whole mess into the water. So we abandoned the operation. Fortunately, a larger vessel soon came by and took me across for only 500 riel.

The village of Prasat is beautiful, situated on the banks of the river and surrounded by trees. In fact, the actual prasat is located in a forest left untouched. A nice old man showed me the path through the forest to the ruin, which was in even worse condition than Prasat Koki I had visited the day before. But people still considered it a holy place, as evidenced by a small altar with incense burning next to the section of stone wall. And indeed, it was a holy place, situated in the middle of the forest so dark that I could not even take a photograph. I then walked out of the forest and across the rice paddies to a small rural Wat, where the monks gave us some tea. Although the prasat turned out to be less spectacular that I had hoped, the walk was a wonderful early morning outing, which I recommend to other tourists. Coming back was easy, as there was a boat taking villagers across to sell their fish in the town market. Still, there was a two kilometre walk back to the main road, where I caught a moto into town.

Neak Loeang

The ferry at Neak Loeang is about halfway between Phnom Penh and Svay Rieng. You might want to stop there for a look around town or even spend the night there. Neak Loeang is of some historical interest, but not too much else. This was the town bombarded heavily by the USA in 1975, as depicted in the film 'The Killing Fields'. An aid worker at Neak Loeang pointed out to me that in the movie (filmed in Thailand) the Mekong is shown with mountains in the background, although there are none to be seen around the real Neak Loeang. The town is a road town - noisy and dirty. If you are just stopping for an hour or two, the principal attraction is the variety of food being sold near the ferry terminal. There are crickets, water beetles, turtles, frogs, snakes and all sorts of Mekong river fish. Be careful of the hygiene at these restaurants, since all the dust from the ferry traffic settles on the food.

I decided to spend the night in Neak Loeang in order to see the sunset over the Mekong river - perhaps a nice restaurant overlooking the water. Alas! The riverfront is pretty ugly and strewn with rubbish, and for the most part you cannot get near the riverbank. There is a small and well maintained garden inside the police headquarters just to the north of the ferry dock. You can go for a stroll, but there is no food or drink available there. Accommodation is equally miserable. There is a nice-looking hotel called Hangs Meas just a block or so to the north (on the Prey Veng road) of the horrible Vietnamese statue in the town center. The other hotel, the Samapheap, is the monstrosity one block south of the monument, but its mostly just a brothel. The best place to stay is the PRASAC guesthouse a kilometre or so up the Prey Veng road, used primarily by EU aid workers, although in early 1998 there was word that PRASAC funding was being cut and the guesthouse would be phased out.

If you want to take a walk around Neak Loeang for an hour or so, I recommend the street heading north from the market. There are a lot of wooden shops which reminded me of the old city in Kunming, China. There is little or no traffic, dust or noise on this street. It leads to a pretty Wat with a large mural of Angkor Wat on the front. The mural on the back is of the five prior animal incarnations of Buddha; as a chicken, dragon, turtle, ox and lion-dog.

Another reason for my visit to Neak Loeang was that the Prey Veng tourist office showed me a photograph of some Angkor-era ruins not too far out on the road to Svay Rieng, at a place called Chheu Kach. I decided to go looking for these ruins. The photo looks like a large gateway only, so I didn't expect anything very spectacular. There is a series of hills off to the north of Highway One, some 8-10 km east of Neak Loeang, and I figured the ruins must be somewhere around those hills. So I set off by moto to see what I could find. The highway crosses a nice bridge over Stoeung Slot and a few kilometres further on reaches Kompong Sloeung, identifiable by a large new Wat on the left. The road to the hills turns left at the market. It is a very good road indeed. Near the base of the hills the good road turns abruptly to the right and skirts the hills for a long distance.

There were no villages or good stopping places along the road. Finally we stopped at a rural Wat called Pou Andaot to ask directions. The monks were friendly, and seemed to know of the prasat (the word for old temples), which they said was only 3 km away. So we continued on to the very sleepy district of Baa Phnom, where a lady showed us the road to the left leading towards the hills, and said the prasat was on top of the hill. In fact, from Baa Phnom we could see a stairway leading up the hillside; surely I was onto something.

The stairway could not be used because of a huge gully washed out between the road and the stairway. But a local farmer told us to turn right towards another Wat (Wat Vihear Kach), where a path led up the hill. Hordes of children from the temple school showed me the path up the hill, and I set out alone. Only a hundred metres or so from the school was a cave with some buddhas, so I figured I was on the right track. But at the top of the hill, the only prasat was a small shrine to the teacher of men ('white magic') and the teacher of giants ('black magic'). Still, the path continued on down the other side and up the next hill, so I followed it, undaunted. The second hill had a few small shrines and a well-littered pavilion indicative of a popular picnic site, but still no temple or ruins. I gave up and walked dejectedly and confusedly back down the hills, where my moto driver informed me there was no temple up the hill. Now he tells me!

Just as I got on the motorbike to leave the schoool, I looked across the road and saw the ruins. We had driven right past them, within less than ten metres, but had been looking up the hill to the left instead of to the right of the road down on the plains. The ruins were perhaps even less exciting than the photograph had indicated. For one thing, they were smaller than I thought. The laterite construction was evidence of a very old building of some sort, although there were no carvings or any other indications that it was a temple. Perhaps it has not been a religious structure at all. Even small stones from ruined temples in Cambodia are usually venerated in some fashion by the local inhabitants, for example by burning incense or by erecting small shrines. But here there were no signs of veneration. Cows ambled in and out of the building. No-one seemed to care whether these ruins were there or not. But that gave them a rather romantic atmosphere - I enjoyed standing alone out in the peaceful field with the cows and the thousand-year-old ruins, without any tourist hype or historical markers.

If you are travelling to Vietnam by road, why not stop for a day or so in Svay Rieng? Visit Prasat Prasat in the morning before continuing your journey onto Vietnam in the afternoon. Or with another day, take a trip up towards Rumdul District, stopping off at the 'killing fields' memorial or a couple of interesting Wats. Above all, don't miss out on the atmosphere of the town by sitting out under the trees along the river in the evening. Or just walk around the old colonial district, look at the old buildings and have a drink or a meal at one of the riverside restaurants. To me, this is what the Cambodia Less Traveled is all about.

Above article courtesy of Ray Zepp.

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