CAMBODIA TALES 2003 - DEC
Investigating Svay Leu
photos to follow
Hunting temples around Svay Leu was our destination for the day, as Rieng collected me on his moto just before 8am and we headed north-east through the Angkor Park and along the road towards Beng Mealea, some 60kms from Siem Reap. Two hours later, and already covered in a red film of dust from passing trucks, we skirted the turn-off to Beng Mealea and continued north, briefly stopping at O'Thma Dap, to see one of the spots where slabs of sandstone rock were cut to supply the temple builders during the Angkorean period. We arrived at Svay Leu at 10am and in the grounds of the pagoda, next to an attractive pond full of water-lillies, sat Prasat Svay Kabul Tuuk. Surrounded by two enclosure walls, the sandstone temple with an intact eastern entrance gate is home to a couple of stone lions and colonettes but little else. Monks were already hard at work erecting a new pagoda twenty yards away. Continuing our 'stop and ask' technique at a handful of dwellings a kilometre north of the pagoda, Nuon and Hiet offered to take us to see Prasat Ta Dung, a fifteen minute walk across rice-fields to the foot of the Kulen mountain range that loomed large in the backdrop to Svay Leu. I managed to avoid a large snake inches from my foot as we entered a bamboo thicket to find an imposing, large brick tower, open to the east and with two lintels above false doors on the north and south sides. A ruined brick gateway stood in front of the tower. Next door was a sandstone library with no roof and a pedestal lying inside. Back at their home, I gave Noun's children some toys I had in my daysack and we returned to Svay Leu for lunch. Around the corner from the market and opposite the school, we had to wait an hour for a roadside stall to rustle up fish in ginger with rice, after a group of loud French dirt-bikers on their way to Koh Ker, along the new road, arrived after us but were served first - I was not amused.
Following the track towards the village of Ta Siem, we crossed two dried-out riverbeds and their accompanying bamboo thickets, passed by the Halo-demined school at Trapeang Tim and reached the hamlet of Rohal a little after 1pm. We stopped at the home of Doh, who'd never seen a tourist before, and he, alongwith his dog, took us across a series of rice fields, dykes and through long grass, on a twenty minute walk, pretty tiring under the hot sun and clear blue skies overhead, to another wooded copse and the temple of Prasat Kon Ko. Encountering a massive laterite gopura, with sandstone doors and windows, a broken lintel and a lion, we also found a moat though the whole area was overgrown. Pushing deeper into the forest, Doh guided us to the remains of three brick towers though access was tricky as spiky bamboo bushes acted as an effective temple guardian. The towers, with sandstone for the windows and doors, were sat on a laterite base with the remnants of a long mandapa and a broken lion and colonettes amongst the heap of bricks lying all over the floor. Doh took us on for another fifteen minutes through long grass, until we reached a single brick tower, surrounded by thick brush. The tower, in the Baphuon style Rieng assured me, and called Prasat Dangkao according to Doh, still had a lintel with Indra astride a Gala monster intact, facing east and with a large yellow and red-bodied spider protecting it. Three young boys had joined us after we had watched them literally fishing for frogs in holes in the dried mud and alongwith Doh, our mini 'hunting party' made its way towards our final discovery of the afternoon. In the middle of a clump of bushes, we located a large sandstone border marker with the carved figure of an eight-armed Ganesha, though the elephant trunk had been broken off. Laterite blocks of stone surrounded the large carved stone indicating the original temple had suffered a worse fate than the carving. Doh called it Ta Chek Thom though my map gave it a different name, Ta Tracie Veng. By 3.15pm we were back at Doh's home and I gave his two small children some furry toys from my daysack and thanked him for his efforts with 10,000 riel, which clearly pleased him. With the heat and humidity taking its toll on both of us, I asked Rieng to return to Siem Reap and by 5pm we were back at Damdek. At a stop for petrol and cold drinks, a group of young girls on their way home from school, stopped to ask me lots of questions, and Lina, the most forward of the girls, surprised me with her command of English. It was almost as good as Rieng's. As the sun set on the ride back to town, we stopped at one of the small laterite bridges enroute and arrived back in Sien Reap at 6.15pm, in the dark. I joined Dave and Colleen at the Red Piano for steak and chips at 7.30pm and finished the evening at a drinks stall on the main highway, with a couple of tikaloks in the company of sisters, Mony and Mia and their mum.
My final day in Siem Reap was a relaxed one, with a late breakfast at the Easy Speaking bar in 'pub street', email activity at the internet cafe and a walk back to the POA guesthouse. Rieng arrived at mid-day and we returned to his home for a lavish feast with his wife Sovann, baby Nara, his father and in laws. It was a big spread with a large chicken taking pride of place as they knew it was my favourite food. Great company and a great send off. After a walk along the river with Rieng, I returned to the POA for a late afternoon nap. I'd arranged to meet up with Noung for my final evening meal at the Freedom Hotel, next door to the POA, but she failed to show up so I ate alone and returned to Mony and Mia's stall for tikaloks. As I was finishing my fruit smoothie, a friend of Noung's appeared, Lem Phath, and took me to a nearby clinic where she and her family had been for the last few hours after her father had suffered head, neck and chest injuries in a moto accident. With no doctor to be found until the morning, a male nurse had set up a drip and patched up some of his injuries but led on a metal trolley in the corridor, with blood seeping through the bandage on his head, I felt it was going to be touch and go whether he'd make it through the night. Understandably, Noung, her mother and the rest of the family were distraught, though pleased I was there, judging by the hugs I received. I comforted them as best I could and stuffed some money into Noung's pocket to help with the medical bills that would surely follow, but in reality I felt completely useless. I left them at 11pm as they prepared for their overnight vigil and returned to the POA, to pack ready for my morning departure. (Author's note: Happily, Noung's dad did make it through that first night and is on the road to recovery, though when I saw him in 2005 he was clearly not yet back to full health.)
I said my goodbyes to Dave and Colleen after my enjoyable stay at the Peace of Angkor, a guesthouse I'd recommend to anyone, and caught a share-taxi at 8am to Kompong Thom. I'd forgotten to telephone ahead to my pal Sokhom and on arrival, one of his moto-driver colleagues, Ra, told me he'd gone to Preah Khan for two days. After lunch at the Arunras, I left my large rucksack at the Mittapheap hotel and Ra and myself spent a couple of hours at the Sambor Prei Kuk temple site, doing our best to avoid an overabundance of French tourists. Back in town, I briefly saw Sokhom's wife before my evening meal at the Arunras and a tikalok at the night market. Football on tv in my room brought the evening to a close. The next morning I had to wait until 9am until my share-taxi was full enough for the driver to leave for Kompong Cham, my next stop-over. We reached the market at Kompong Cham at 11.30am and after lunch at a street stall, I left my bags at the Mittapheap hotel and got a moto to visit Wat Nokor. It was very quiet and relaxed, though I was used as a guinea-pig by one young lad keen on practicing his English for half an hour. I returned to the riverfront area, overlooking the Mekong River, for some food and tikaloks before walking back to my hotel at 8.30pm. Next day I had to wait again until a taxi to Phnom Penh filled up and I finally returned to my 'home from home' in the capital, the Dara Reang Sey hotel, just after mid-day. Amongst the messages waiting for me, some friends had invited me to a children's party in Kien Svay and soon after I was whisked off along Route 1 to join the celebrations with a group of a dozen youngsters. We played football, volleyball, tag and other games, ate lots of party food and in particular, Vansy, or 'little frog' as I called her, was an absolute darling, as was her little sister Matey, 'skinny frog'. All the kids were great fun and a good time was had by everyone at the party, children and adults alike. I returned to the Dara in the early evening, where I bumped into Gordon Sharpless and Marco Brand, a dirt-bike tour leader (www.motortrails.nl) who's group had ridden all the way to Preah Vihear but had all fallen off their bikes before reaching the summit. For my evening meal I took a moto to the Rising Sun, where I was surprised to meet Dave and Colleen from the POA, who taken the new, two-decked boat, the Mekong Express, from Siem Reap to the capital and were raving about it.
In the morning, I spent a couple of hours wandering through the aisles of the Russian Market before lunch at the Rising Sun with my pal Phalla. At 2.30pm I paid my usual visit to the National Museum and then visited the Central Market before a nap back at the hotel. At 6.30pm I returned to the Rising Sun, firmly establishing itself as my preferred eatery, and had a chat with Samnang, her of the winning smile and self-taught English, behind the bar. I was in bed by 9.30pm after a long chat with the Dara family. For my final morning in Phnom Penh, I was up at 8.30am for fried eggs and bacon and then out on a moto to various sites around town including the Post Office, Wat Phnom, the train station and a few others. At the riverfront a Khmer family now living in California stopped for a chat, and when I returned to the hotel, a couple recognised me as they'd attended my Magic of Cambodia day in England. A final jacket potato at the Rising Sun and a final goodbye to Samnang preceeded my departure from the Dara at 2pm, with Phalla stopping by to wish me good luck. On the flight to Kuala Lumpur, I sat next to a very plesant couple, Jihaine and Sebastien, who I'd previously met at the the Malop Dong in Tbeng Meanchey on their way to Preah Vihear. They told me that they never did make it as Jihaine got very sick in Tbeng Meanchey, hopefully not as a result of eating at the restaurant, one of my fave spots. At a bookshop at the airport, I saw my website got top-billing in a new guidebook, SouthEast Asia - The Graphic Guide by Mark Elliott. The flight back to Heathrow was on time and uneventful. My final few days in Phnom Penh had been the perfect way to wind down as I came to the end of another wonderful three week visit to Cambodia.
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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