CAMBODIA TALES 2001
Tbeng Meanchey, Route 12 and Kompong Thom
Photos to follow
An early morning breakfast on the terrace of the Hanuman Alaya guesthouse kicked-off the day in style and Rieng arrived on time at 6am, to take me to the truck stop near the new market for my lift to Kompong Thom. I was keen to cover the 145 kms along Highway 6 as quickly as possible. Amid the usual scramble that ensues on arrival, I selected the pick-up truck that looked ready to leave and which still had two front seats free - my minimum requirement when travelling the highways of Cambodia. Sadly my judgement was a little askew as we didn't leave for another hour, in which time our driver picked up a traffic violation and fine when he was caught cruising the main road for customers instead of remaining at the truck stop and taking his turn with the other drivers. I must admit that I was surprised that they had such rules in what seems like a cut-throat business, but any opportunity for the local police to supplement their income appears fair game.
Finally, we set off just before 7.30am and the thirteen kilometres of resurfaced road to Roluos passed in no time at all. Unfortunately, that was it as far as the comfortable ride was concerned. From then on, Highway 6 deteriorated into the usual pot-holed and dusty track with tree-trunks masquerading as bridges, although the driver rarely took his foot off the accelerator whatever the road condition. Just past the Angkorean bridge at Spean Praptos, we took a food and toilet break at a cafe in Kompong Kdei town - where I saw my first foreign traveller of the day - and when we reached Stoung, took a diversion off the highway as the main road bridge had collapsed. Four hours after we'd left Siem Reap, we rolled into the centre of Kompong Thom and waiting to greet me was my good friend and moto-guide, Sokhom, with his usual beaming smile. He was already speaking to a gentleman, who it later turned out was the editor of the Cambodia Daily newspaper and who seemed a little irked that Sokhom was already pre-booked. He grabbed my bags, loaded them onto his moto and we rode the few hundred metres to his spartan home, where his wife Sroy and adorable daughter, Kunthea gave me a warm welcome and a refreshing tikalok drink.
I'd been in touch with Sokhom by e-mail to tell him I was arriving that day and that I wanted us to attempt a trek north into Preah Vihear province with the ancient royal city of Koh Ker as our main target. Only two weeks earlier bad weather had forced Sokhom to abandon the same idea with a mutual friend of ours. I expected it to take us at least three days of hard travelling but hadn't anticipated leaving until the following morning. However, Sokhom had other ideas. He was already prepared with food, water, hammocks, mosquito nets, moto repair kit and he wanted us to leave immediately - who was I to argue. I quickly packed my smaller daysack leaving my larger bag with Sroy and it was time to leave, less than thirty minutes after my arrival. We stopped briefly at the Arunras restaurant for a plate of fried chicken and rice before leaving the city and joining Route 12, on our way to Tbeng Meanchey (or TM Chey as the sign showed), some 140 kms north. It was to take us six and a half hours to reach the capital of Preah Vihear province and the ride itself was a worthy adventure, although my rear end was crying out for mercy long before we finally reached our destination.
For the first couple of hours, Route 12 was in fairly reasonable condition, albeit extremely dusty. After we crossed the provincial border and passed by the Boeng Per wildlife reserve, it began to deteriorate, but at the same time became more interesting. One of the main reasons was the appearance for long stretches, on both sides of the road, of landmine warning signs - red background with white skull and cross-bones - and the personnel and equipment of the MAG and CMAC demining units. In particular, the bottle-green clothing of MAG was much in evidence, particularly at the village of Chiok, where land had been cleared and displaced families from the Thai border camps had settled, adjacent to land that was still dangerous. It was a sobering thought that if either Sokhom or myself stepped off the main highway, we would be standing in a potential minefield. Another interesting feature we encountered, was the huge rubber tree plantation we passed through where the natural latex resin was being collected in large holes in the ground. A group of youngsters were harvesting the rubber by wounding the bark, inducing the resin to flow into a small cup and then transferring it into large holes for later collection and processing. Rubber production is a major export earner for Cambodia even though production levels are only at a fraction of what they were in the 1960s.
Three hours into our trip, we stopped for a coffee at Phnom Dek. Renowned for its gold deposits in bygone days, it's now a centre for MAG deminers, who are busy reclaiming land south of the village. At this point, Route 12 was devoid of any traffic whatsoever and a little further on, a turn off to the left signalled the road to the Great Preah Khan temple, 56 kms away. Sokhom had made the trip to Preah Khan two weeks earlier but the road and weather conditions had been so difficult, it had taken him three days instead of one. Signs of human habitation also decreased as our journey continued, although we did spot an ancient temple, which Sokhom called the 'red temple,' just off the highway. However, time wasn't on our side, so we agreed to stop there on our return and pressed on towards Tbeng Meanchey (TBM). Dusk arrived as we passed Phnom Tbeng mountain to our left and the road conditions became a lot worse. With large sandstone rocks jutting out of the surface, I nicknamed it the 'dancing road,' much to Sokhom's amusement, and simply staying upright and on the moto was no mean feat. For the last twenty kilometres we drove in complete darkness as the moto's front beam decided to die on us, before we eventually limped into TBM at 7pm. We were exhausted and decided to grab the first guesthouse we could find. That turned out to be the 27 May guesthouse, which had woeful single fan rooms for 15,000 riel apiece and a bucket load of cockroaches and mosquitoes.
After a cold scoop wash, we drove around town for ten minutes but few places remained open, so we settled on a restaurant just across the road from our guesthouse for a bite to eat. It was called Mlup Dong ('coconut tree') and under its one strip light, we finished off chicken, beef and fried rice in double-quick time before retiring back to our rooms for an early night. I climbed under my mozzie net at 8.30pm and was out like a light, in preparation for an early start the next day and our visit to Koh Ker. Read about my two-day trip in another travel tale, Discovering Koh Ker, suffice to say it was another great adventure.
We arrived back in TBM just before 5pm on the second day, tired and extremely weary. Rather than return to 27 May, we located the Mlop Trosek guesthouse along the town's main drag and took a double room for 15,000 riel, complete with fan, bathroom with shower and comfortable beds. We took it in turns to have a cold shower and then moto'd around town, looking for another eatery to try out but instead returned to the Mlup Dong, where a couple of Australian motorcyclists were eating and watching karaoke on tv. By 7.30pm we were back in the room and after a couple of hours chatting and laughing about everything and anything, I went to sleep in the knowledge that another long day of travelling was on the cards for tomorrow.
I awoke at 6am to find Sokhom already working on the moto. His facial expression didn't augur well for an early start but within half an hour his repair kit had done the trick, we paid our bill and returned to the Mlup Dong for coffee and chicken broth. Before leaving TBM, we visited the market to buy a shirt and then called in at Wat Kuok Beng, where the remains of an ancient laterite temple were sat next to a modern wat under construction. Around thirty monks watched inquisitively as I inspected the ruins, which consisted of one nicely carved lintel on the ground, two meditating rishis on the base of some colonettes and a sandstone window frame. And then we were off, back onto Route 12 and the long journey back to Kompong Thom. We survived the 'dancing road' and two and a half hours into the drive, we arrived at the 'red temple,' also known as Prasat Kraham Chhouk (or Prasat Khna). Not on any map I'd seen, this was a reasonably large laterite temple with a tall surrounding wall and two pools. Dense vegetation made getting to the centre a bit tricky although its sanctuary tower, with sandstone windows and doorframes, appreared to lack any carving that I could fine. The temple was just a few metres from the highway but with no traffic, it was a haven of peace and devoid of life except a cloud of bright yellow butterflies that were feeding at one of the pools.
Just before midday, we stopped in Phnom Dek village for a bowl of soup and a coffee. We had considered having a go at getting to Preah Khan but we were both pretty tired and I decided to leave it until my next trip in March. We took another rest-stop at the rubber plantation, where one of the youngsters showed us how the resin was collected from the trees and then poured into the holes in the ground, where I noticed that it contained forest debris like bark, leaves and insects. At Chiok village, Sokhom asked the supervisor of the MAG demining team if I could take photographs of some of his people and their work but he reminded us that this was not a tourist attraction and we retreated, licking our wounds, metaphorically-speaking, and rightly so. These deminers risk their lives daily to free up valuable land for families to live in peace and without fear - they don't need me getting in their way, clicking my camera just to stick a photo in an album. MAG had also been busy clearing land in the Boeng Per wildlife sanctuary, as had CMAC. Our final stop was in the tiny hamlet of Sre, where an old toothless watermelon vendor repeatedly pinched by skin and jokingly asked Sokhom if I would take her as my wife. I said I was flattered but had to decline as I was already married. Much to the relief of our aching bones, we finally arrived back in Kompong Thom just before 4pm and caught our breath with a tikalok at Sokhom's home where Kunthea, his eleven year old daughter, was overjoyed to see her dad return. Her smiling face and infectious laughter, so much like her father, were a real joy after such a tiring few days.
Pleased to be back in the bosom of his family, Sokhom gave me a lift across the Stung Sen river bridge to a recently opened hotel, the Mittapheap, where my room with fan, bathroom and two beds cost $5. Without any clean clothes, I handed the receptionist a bagful of laundry and jumped into the hot shower - what a luxury. I walked over the bridge and with Sokhom's help, sent my wife an e-mail message via a mobile phone link-up at a shop near the market, which Sokhom boasted was the only e-mail point in the whole city. We parted - I would spend my last day with him tomorrow - and took a leisurely walk along the Stung Sen riverbank as the sun set in the east. I rounded off the day with a meal at the Arunras restaurant, where the service was so quick, I was back in my hotel room by 8pm and fell asleep immediately.
Starting early at 6.30am the next day, we headed south along Highway 6, past the brick kilns and the turnoff to Phnom Santuk until Sokhom took a left under an arch, some 18kms south of the city. We were visiting Phnom Pbeng, a couple of kilometres in the distance, and the ruined remains of Prasat Srokchoa. The trail to the foot of the hill was sandy and was among the most difficult stretch of track we'd had to negotiate in all our recent travels. We left the moto at a house at the bottom of the climb and began our ascent along a rocky path and around a series of giant sandstone boulders, encountering small Buddhist shrines en route. Half an hour later, we reached the summit where a community of monks smiled their hello and on a small rise, sat the remains of the seventh century Prasat Srokchoa. One of the monks sidled up and told us that the temple was built long before Angkor Wat and had three towers before the American bombs destroyed it in 1973 when it was in Khmer Rouge control. Amongst the ruined brick foundations lie a couple of early lintels, one of which was clearly in the style of Sambor Prei Kuk, located some 50 kms to the north. It was a peaceful spot although the trees enveloping the site obscur the view of the countryside below.
Retracing our steps and re-negotiating the sandy track, we headed back towards Kompong Thom, stopping to admire the handiwork of the stonemasons and their large Buddhist sculptures on the roadside, before taking a six kilometre detour. Along a new road funded by the German government, we re-visited the temple of Kuk Roka (also known as Prasat Khnong Khum) and its collection of lintels. The solitary tower has two excellent lintels in situ and another two lie of the ground at the entrance, alongwith pedestals and an inscription tablet. Two of the lintels are in the Sambor style, the others are of a later vintage and the detour from Route 6 is definitely worth the effort. However, I suggest you try and avoid those angry red ants that guard the temple and keep people like me from stopping in one spot for too long. A few metres away is a two-roomed schoolhouse, where we stopped to say hello and to watch the children, aged between six and eight, practice their Khmer alphabet, with the permission of the teacher of course.
Returning to Sokhom's house for an alfresco lunch of chicken soup and rice with a couple of neighbours, we were back on Route 6 at 12.30pm, this time heading north-west. With the aid of the Asian Development Bank, Route 6 is undergoing a major road-widening and resurfacing makeover between Kompong Thom and the small town of Sankor. The result is that eye-stinging dust clouds are kicked up by the pick-ups racing along the flat surface, including a couple of CMAC lorries, overflowing with deminers in their light blue uniforms. After bypassing Prey Pros lake on both sides of the highway, we stopped at Sankor for a drink and to play a game of volleyball with some of the kids on their way home from school, while the young girls played 'lot antak,' a game that involves jumping over rubber bands tied together. Ninety minutes into our journey, we turned left alongside a man-made canal and soon reached Prasat Andet, some 30 kms from Kompong Thom and the main object of our afternoon trip. In the middle of a large Buddhist temple compound and surrounded by a moat, a tall brick tower from the seventh century, stands in the shadow of a modern pagoda, perched atop a small hillock. The tower has just one lintel in place although a beautifully sculpted Harihara from this temple is now on display in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The modern wat next door also has some interesting and colourful wall paintings to see.
We stopped to chat to some villagers next to the canal and asked if any other 'prasats' were located nearby and they told us of Prasat Preak Theat, four kilometres north along the highway. On arrival, all that was left of the ancient temple was a pile of stones, four pedestals and carved colonettes next to a school, so we turned around and headed back to the city. To avoid the dusty main highway, Sokhom took us via the back roads which were in excellent condition thanks to the World Food Program. Only a year before, one of his motodub colleagues was robbed and murdered on the same road but that seemed a world away as we enjoyed the peaceful scenery, stopping for oranges at a stall outside the gates of a school. Word quickly spread of our presence and in no time at all we were surrounded by children of all ages. It's at times like this I wish I had some magic tricks up my sleeve but I don't so I did some ball juggling, which was going well until the football ended up in the nearby stream, much to everyone's amusement.
Back at Sokhom's home, we had tikaloks with his wife and the bubbly Kunthea as well as her tiny friends, Ten and Bunlong. It was 5pm when I returned to the Mittapheap for a shower and a lie down before Sokhom returned at 6.30pm, and accompanied by Sroy, Kunthea and his brother in law, we went for dinner at the Somrostbongcham as a thank you for their genuine friendship and hospitality. This was a small, nondescript restaurant, run by a neighbour and the meal of Cambodian soup, chicken and sizzling beef alongwith drinks for five people cost less than $10. The resident Angkor Beer girl, another family friend, joined us and two hours sped by in very enjoyable fashion before I returned to the Mittapheap for a goodnight's sleep. The following morning, I was up at 6am, showered and packed before breakfast at the Arunras with Sokhom. We returned to his home so I could say my goodbyes to Sroy, Kunthea and his neighbours. Getting to know his family and friends only served to increase my respect and appreciation for Sokhom, who again came up trumps as a driver, guide and friend. As we discussed my next visit in March, the share-taxi he'd ordered for me arrived at 8am for the three-hour drive to Phnom Penh and the next chapter of my trip.
Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales.
Cambodia Tales 2
November 2001 marked my 7th 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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