CAMBODIA TALES 2003 - DEC
Sunset at Koh Ker
Story & photos to follow
Next on my schedule was a trip into the northern province of Preah Vihear and more specifically, a return to the tenth century Angkorean capital city of Koh Ker, a site I'd previously visited in November 2001. I had to wait until the share-taxi filled up before my departure form the central market in Phnom Penh at 8.30am. The sisters at the Dara Reang Sey hotel had fed me with fried eggs for breakfast and gave me the hotel's mobile phone to use on my travels, which I did when the taxi stopped just outside the spider-town of Skun and I called ahead to warn Sokhom of my impending arrival. At 11.30am, I walked up to Sokhom's home on the main highway to my usual warm welcome from my good friend and his wife Sroy. An hour later, I'd packed my small rucksack, had eaten lunch at the Arunras restaurant and we were on our way north on his moto. Accompanied by the constant shrill of cicadas, we reached Phnom Dek in a little under three hours and carried on along the bumpy and dusty road, encountering young boys herding their cattle home from the fields, women in every village washing themselves and their clothes at village wells and as the light faded, we rolled into Tbeng Meanchey (TBM), arriving at the Mlob Trosek guesthouse at 6.30pm. The Malop Dong restaurant for beef and chicken was our first priority, served by the friendly sisters, Da and Srey Tok. The ride back to our guesthouse was unusual as a dry season dust-cloud had descended on TBM and the light from our moto could barely pierce the gloom. I was showered and in bed by 9am, though trying to get Sokhom to stop talking took a while longer. An early rise and after coffee and noodles for breakfast at the Malop Dong, we were on the road by 6.45am. A left turn at Thbal Bek took us onto the new raised road to Koulen, after which the track deteriorated badly into a sandy quagmire, through a forested area devoid of people but not lacking in wildlife, as I counted a dozen lizards and half a dozen squirrel-like creatures scampering past our front tyre. We reached Siyong village at 10am and rolled into the Koh Ker complex half an hour later, a little under four hours after setting off. In November 2001 it had taken us eight gruelling hours to do the same journey.
Off to the left, I noticed a recently demined path to a newly-discovered temple which we agreed to visit once we'd checked its safety and instead stopped at Prasat Neang Khmau, with its lintel and large pedestal in good condition and the undergrowth cleared away. We carried onto the entrance to Prasat Thom and wandered around Prasat Kraham and checked out the new ladder and stopped at the various levels of the pyramid temple before resting in our hammocks at the wooden platform next to the moat, to eat our lunch. Joining us was sixty year old Prim Chin, one of the four-strong conservation team at the site. Originally born in the village, he was moved away during the Khmer Rouge time but is now back in Koh Ker, where 200 people live and where the arrival of a new well has made life a little easier. He told us that CMAC were currently demining temples as fast as they could during the dry season but that landmines are still a problem for the villagers and the area behind Prasat Thom for example was extremely dangerous. Though lots of the smaller temples that are being made accessible for the first time by the demining teams are pretty ruined, Prim would take us to half a dozen of them that had just been flagged as safe. At 1.30pm we were joined by Peart and leaving Thon, Prim's young son in charge of our gear, we began a kilometre walk through the brush to our first site, Prasat Leung. This was a large square tower consisting of massive sandstone slabs but inside was the surprise, a giant sandstone linga on top of an equally large pedestal with garuda carvings and a water spout on the outside wall. It was without doubt the largest linga I'd ever seen. One hundred metres away was Prasat Leung 2 (Prim didn't know their correct names so the first four temples we saw were all called Prasat Leung!), an almost identical structure with another massive linga, though half covered by mud and vegetation. Prasat Leung 4 was another large linga but this time, the tower had disappeared and the linga, in the shape of a 2nd World War bomb, complete with graffiti on its flanks, was sat on some broken slabs in the forest. Nearby was Prasat Leung 3, identical to 1 and 2 with another bulkier linga on a pedestal though the linga was damaged. To find such substantial lingas was totally unexpected and very exciting.
Walking through the undergrowth was a little unnerving, though Prim assured us it was safe as long as we followed him, we came to a sandstone wall surrounding the remains of two sandstone towers and a library which Prim called Prasat Srolong (or Sralau). Our next discovery was Prasat Krachap, where the main sanctuary was in ruins but the entrance gopura was in a much better state. With two sandstone enclosure walls, the entrance had retained two nicely-carved lintels, pediments and colonettes, as well as a collection of inscriptions on the doorjamb and an inscription block, which Prim dated early in the tenth century. Inside the compound, three towers of brick and sandstone were ruined and covered in tangled undergrowth, whilst a side entrance had a nice parting gift, a carved pediment in superb condition, showing Shiva standing in the back of Nandin the bull. Prasat Krachap was our final temple as Prim led us back to Thon and our gear via a circuitous route that took us through a wooded area to the water-filled Rahal baray. It was 3.30pm and I was glad of a rest in my hammock whilst Sokhom talked non-stop to Prim and Peart until an hour later, we all climbed up the secure ladder to the top of the Prasat Thom pyramid, admiring the view and the fine sunset over the treetops. I couldn't have hoped for a better way to end the day, however, I'm not great with heights, so my descent on the steep ladder was slow and measured, especially as the sun had set and the half-light was disappearing fast. Prim accompanied us to the home of the village chief, Yuon, who remembered us from our previous visit and was genuinely pleased to see Sokhom and myself. In the gloom, I took a shower at the village well, with a crowd of onlookers enjoying my discomfort, especially as I kept dropping the soap and my krama, which doubled as my towel and wrap-around. At 7pm, Yuon, Prim and another village elder joined Sokhom and myself for a freshly-killed chicken and rice meal on the verandah of Yuon's home on stilts, with a lighted torch closeby and mozzies buzzing in my ear. Everyone except me had copious amounts of rice wine, I stuck to water which Yuon's wife boiled for me. The funniest topic of conversation was coca-cola, which Yuon had never heard of, but everyone else had, including his wife. Soft drinks and bottled water had yet to find their way to Koh Ker. I slept under a net but on a mattress that my pal Nick Ray had left with Yuon - it was part of camping equipment that he was keeping safe for Nick, though I awoke at one point as a cockroach was crawling on my neck. Sleeping in a village such as Koh Ker is a great experience - the smells and unusual noises assault your senses which are heightened by the lack of light and unfamiliar surroundings. I'm surprised I managed to get any sleep at all.
Another early start and I was eating chicken and rice for breakfast at 5.30am, with the rest of the village up and about between 4.30 and five. I gave Yuon and his family 20,000 riel for the food and lodgings and we left our Koh Ker 'guesthouse' at 6.30am with handshakes and smiles all round. Leaving the temple complex, we took the cleared path that led to Prasat Pram, which Prim had said was safe to visit. We gingerly stepped over the end of the marked path and through the laterite wall surrounding the temple, which consisted of three large brick towers facing the morning sun and two smaller towers, one laterite, the other brick, facing the other way. Two of the towers were in the clutches of strangler fig trees and broken colonettes and fractured lintels littered the ground beneath my feet. It was still early so the light wasn't great but it was a fitting finale to my second visit to Jayavarman IV's tenth centry capital city of Koh Ker, which still has much to reveal. I vowed to return again soon. We stopped for a red bull drink at Siyong and with the sun behind cloud it made our trip a little more bearable as we whizzed past Koulen, reaching TBM in 3½ hours, a new record. We returned to our fave eatery at the Malop Dong for a coffee and fried beef with rice and then back on the road, reaching Kompong Thom a little before 6pm, around ten hours on the back of Sokhom's moto apart from brief stops at Phnom Dek for sugar-cane juice and a couple of other pauses for ice-lollies, coconuts and duck eggs. I ached all over, I was sunburnt and covered in dust, however after a quick shower at the Mittapheap hotel, I walked to the Arunras restaurant for a large meal, washed down with two tikaloks in the company of sisters Jenti and Jentoo, at a stall in front of the busy night market. Back at the hotel, I watched the Leeds v Chelsea football match beamed into my fan room by India's Star Sports tv channel.
The next morning, Sokhom and I had breakfast, banana fritters, at the Arunras with a couple of his pals and planned a relaxing day trip. Just before 9am we left, driving past Sambor Prei Kuk and an hour later crossed a long wooden bridge over the Sen river which we had to pay 500 riels to cross. In the distance we saw our target, Phnom Barieng, but before we reached it, a large group of locals in the fields surrounding it, gave us a noisy welcome with shouts, waves and hello's. We parked the moto and climbed the hill along a rarely-used wooded track, reaching a modern shrine at the top, with the remnants of three brick towers nearby. In amongst the scattered bricks and sandstone blocks sat a lintel and the feet of a statue, at the top of an old stairway. A monk wandered over to us to chat and showed us where another brick tower had stood. In its place was a large inscription stone, more loose bricks and a large golden buddha. Apart from the monk, two young boys and a monkey on a lead were the only other occupants of this shady and tranquil location. We left at 12.30, returning to Sambor Prei Kuk, past the new high school being constructed at Kompong Chheuteal and stopped to try our hand at rice-stalk cutting with a couple of girls in the middle of nowhere. After chunky chicken soup at a food stall at Sambor, we took the back roads to town, stopping at a couple of drink stalls to mingle with more locals. After a siesta back at the Mittapheap, I joined Sokhom and his family at the Bayon restaurant, close to the market and run by a neighbour. A meal for five, we were joined by their teenage nephew Visary, cost less than $8 and we enjoyed a veritable feast. Tikaloks from a stall in front of their home and a chat with Sokhom, Sroy, Kunthea and some of their neighbours, rounded off the evening at 9.30pm. Next day, after breakfast at the Sen Monorom restaurant and sad goodbyes to Sokhom and co, I caught a share-taxi to Siem Reap at 8am alongwith two Spanish travellers, who spoke excellent English.
Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales:
Cambodia Tales 2
December 2003 marked my tenth trip to Cambodia since my first-ever visit in 1994. It's a country that has a special magic all of its own and which draws me back every year to venture out into the Cambodian countryside in search of new adventures, ancient temples and to catch up with the friends I've made from previous visits. Each trip is full of laughter, smiles and a host of fresh experiences and my latest expedition was no exception.
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