CAMBODIA TALES 2003
Temples & friends
photos to follow
For the road trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, I hooked up with my long-time email pal Merrily Hansen and her comfortable 4WD. We left the Dara at 10am, with Merrily's son and two friends and Hour behind the wheel. The condition of Highway 6 alternated between good and bad, before we pulled into Kompong Thom at 2pm for lunch at the Arunras restaurant. We paid a flying visit to see my pal Sokhom but his wife told us he was at Sambor Prei Kuk with a tourist, so before we left we tried our luck at the Culture & Arts depot opposite the restaurant. I knew this building contained some artifacts as I'd previously seen some carved sones in the murky interior through the slatted windows and after lots of smiles and with the help of Hour, our driver, we found and woke the keyholder from his siesta, who grudingly let us in. I was very pleased we'd persevered as the small museum held a treasure trove of ancient artifacts. I counted sixteen lintels, at least a dozen of which were of the pre-Angkorean period (7th-8th century), sat along the far wall, covered in cobwebs and dust, together with five inscription stones and their Sanskrit text, a series of sandstone buddhas, in varying stages of disrepair, broken heads, pieces of colonette and a collection of traditional musical instruments. A veritable Aladdin's Cave and well worth the $1 we gave to the keyholder. As a student of ancient lintels, Merrily was clearly excited by our discovery as well. We left Kompong Thom at 3.30pm, crossed the bridge at Spean Praptos where workmen were repairing some of the broken laterite blocks and reached Siem Reap just after 7pm, in the dark. Merrily dropped me off at the Red Lodge guesthouse, where I'd already phoned ahead for a room ($6 for fan/shower) and I walked to the Continental Cafe for my usual chicken and bluecheese evening meal. Rieng soon appreared and excitedly told me all about the birth of his baby son, Nara, just two days before. I was so pleased for him and his wife Sovann and we agreed to meet at 8am the next morning for a day of exploration north of the Angkor complex. I walked around the old market area, called into the Lazy Mango bookshop to meet Don Gilliland in person for the first time after a flurry of e-mail contact had preceded my trip, and stopped for a drink at the Red Piano bar. I then heard the voice of Aussie photographer Garrie Maguire before I saw him and joined him and his two pals, Martin and Tom. They were in raptures over their visit to Sambor Prei Kuk and were seriously contemplating hiring a helicopter to visit some of the out of the way temple sites like Koh Ker. Back in my room by 11pm, I slept soundly despite the efforts of a noisy gecko with a large lung capacity.
Rieng and his trusty moto arrived promptly as usual at 8am and we stopped at the EFEO office to see if Christophe Pottier was available. EFEO are the French conservation organisation helping to locate and restore Cambodia's ancient monuments, and Christophe is a leading authority, but no-one was available to advise me on our intended route for the day, so we passed by the ticket booth on our way through the Angkor complex and headed north towards the village of Svay Chek, on the hunt for unexplored temples. We'd previously visited Svay Chek, so I suggested we head further north and try the 'stop and ask' technique whenever we encountered a village. At our first stop, in the village of Preahko, a few kilometres past Svay Chek, the village chief Neang took us on a fifteen minute walk across a series of rice-fields to a clump of trees on a small rise, west of the village. Surrounded by a moat, partially filled with water, he explained that Prasat Kbal Khla used to have three laterite and brick towers but villagers had taken the bricks away to build their own homes and all that remained was two large sandstone pedestals and a scattering of broken brick and laterite fragments. We returned to the village and Neang passed us onto Muoy and Iet, and his small son, who guided us to a second temple site, in an easterly direction and just five minutes walk away through more fields. Surrounded by a dry moat, Prasat Tamoch had three brick towers in its heyday but only three large holes remain today, with bricks scattered amongst the trees, though we did find half a colonette with a dancing figure on the base and broken pieces of a sandstone lion, including its head and feet. Not much to show for our hour's exploration aside from meeting friendly villagers, who were bemused that anyone would want to see holes in the ground! Twenty minutes later we almost missed a laterite bridge, Spean Thma, as we rode along a sandy track towards the village of Svay Top. Negotiating the sand was proving tricky and I noticed the laterite blocks when I got off the moto to walk. The bridge had seven arches and was in very good condition though the dense vegetation made it difficult to photograph or figure out the direction of the stream over which it stood.
For the next half hour we didn't see another person and thought about turning back until we arrived at the grounds of a large pagoda, which we were told contained a temple called Prasat Somran. Instead we found the laterite base of some old brick towers next to a newly-constructed pagoda. Nearby were four sandstone pedestals and a piece of carved lintel though the vihara itself contained a substantial lintel built into the base of the main altar. No-one could tell us about the history of the site so we carried onto Svay Top. We reached our destination at mid-day, almost wilting under the scorching sun overhead. Entering the village, we asked an elderly man if he knew of any temples nearby and he agreed to take us to one, though there were others he confirmed. Hum Tang was sixty years old, quite frail but determined to help us. With three on the moto, we took a track northwest of the village and soon came across a first-aid post and truck belonging to a Halo Trust demining unit. Along both sides of the track the area was awash with red markers denoting the cleared land and danger signs marking the uncleared areas, and the captain of the deminers informed us they'd arrived two weeks before and were clearing the way for a new road. They'd found just one mine so far but were convinced there were others. I asked if it was safe to carry on past the end of the cleared path ahead and he told me to follow the advice of Tang if we had to leave the track. With some trepidation we left the safe area and soon parked our moto to walk across a series of rice-fields. Under a large tree, we stopped to eat our rice and chicken lunch, which we shared with Tang and Yeah Loch, a farmer who joined us and proudly showed us his recently-acquired prosthetic leg. After another kilometre's walk, Loch guided us into a forested area and we came across our target, Prasat Seman Ting, a substantial and elongated laterite temple, very similar in style to Prasat Sampou at Svay Chek. Trying my best to avoid the spiky bamboo and sweating profusely under the canopy of trees overhead, the temple was partly-ruined and lacked any decorative features until I found a piece of sandstone with some female dancing figures, amongst the leaves. A large, water-filled baray was closeby. Loch and Tang told us that another temple, Prasat Seman Yung, was another kilometre away but was very ruined in comparison to its sister temple, so we decided to head back to Tang's home, five kms away, and an opportunity to rest and cool down.
It was 2.15pm when we arrived at Tang's home on stilts in the village of Svay Top. Our exploration in the full glare of the mid-day sun had drained me of all energy and when Tang told me of another five temples in the vicinity, I told him to expect me to return in the future, as I was too tired to carry on that same day. When Rieng translated, Tang beamed a toothless smile and his family and neighbours, who'd joined us, found it equally amusing. Tang told us he'd never seen a white foreigner in the village before, especially one who wanted to look for old stones in the forest - he thought I was a little mad. After our long walk through a potentially-mined area, I had to agree with him! As we sat in the shade of his home, drinking fresh coconuts and other fruit, more villagers arrived, a young boy was sent to collect more coconuts from the top of a nearby tree and for an hour we chatted about his life in Cambodia and my life in England, with each translation into Khmer absorbed by the audience. With handshakes and large grins, we said our goodbyes and our return to Angkor took us just an hour. We took a different, quicker route on a better road, through villages demined by Halo over the last two years, lots of hello's and goodbyes, but we hit a dog a glancing blow and although it limped away, it was clear that Rieng was very upset. Outside the entrance to Angkor Wat, I rang Noung on Rieng's mobile and she came out to see us, inviting us for dinner at her home later that evening. Back at the Red Lodge, I needed two hot showers to wash off the dust from our day on the moto whilst Rieng, as punctual as ever, arrived at 6.30pm for the trip back into the Angkor complex and to Noung's family home near the Srah Srang lake. Since my last visit, they'd built a much larger wooden house on tall concrete pillars, just behind their old home. Mum and Dad welcomed us and had already set out mats on their wide verandah, whilst Noung showed me the family photos on the walls of the main room, including a framed photo of myself - I felt very humble at that point. As we sat on the mats to eat, three of Noung's girlfriends arrived, Trob, Poeut and Reay, followed by her two brothers, to join us. We told Noung's father about our plans and he told us about a collection of temples between Kantuot and Svay Leu, though cautioned us that landmines and possibly bandits could be a problem and suggested we wait until the area is demined before visiting. He was stationed in that area whilst in the Army and family members still live out that way, so his information was current. We left our hosts after 9.30pm, thanking them for our tasty meal and good company, to return to Siem Reap, having decided to change our plans for the next day.
Rieng arrived at 7am and with the village of Tbeng as our new target, we drove through the Angkor Park and out to the village of Pradak, where we stopped for coffee and noodle soup. We continued past Phnom Bok and through small villages unaccustomed to tourists, judging by the stares and nervous waves. Two hours after setting out, we reached Wat Tbeng where the monks pointed towards a small hill in the distance that housed a 'prasat'. We took a quick look around the village before heading towards the hill, which the monks called Phnom Veak, though midway there we encountered half a dozen men by the roadside, who blocked our way and forced us to stop. It turned out they were recently demobbed soldiers with nothing else to do but drink and even though it was just after 9am in the morning, they were already pretty drunk. Rieng suggested I give them a few hundred riel each as a gift and that did the trick, as they grinned inanely and we carried on towards the hill. The place was devoid of people as we climbed the many steps to the top of the hill where a massive Buddha statue took pride of place and off to the left, we saw a large tower. The undergrowth was thick but not enough to stop us reaching the tower, which had collapsed at the front, leaving three sides still standing and constructed in an unusual style with a laterite base, brick middle section and a laterite top. There were the usual signs of looting as a deep hole had been dug inside the tower and lying in the bushes nearby we found large fragments of pink sandstone octagonal colonettes, some carved, others not. Rieng felt the mountain was a holy place. It was certainly peaceful and the numerous beautifully coloured butterflies that inhabited the hill were worth the hike in themselves.
The monks at Wat Tbeng knew of no other 'prasats' in the vicinity, so we headed back to Angkor, where we saw Noung on the road near Banteay Kdei and I inivited her and her friends to dinner at the Bayon restaurant in town that evening. We stopped to visit the Tonle Sap exhibition at Krousar Thmey on the Angkor road and then called into see Rieng's family at the house of his wife's parents. Sovann and newborn baby Nara were at home, as was Sovann's two sisters, Rieng's grandmother and his in-laws, and after a few photos, I tied a gift of money to the baby's arm, a traditional way of celebrating a new birth. Everyone was so proud and had smiles stretching from ear to ear. I had lunch at the Continental Cafe and walked over the bridge to Wat Damnak to meet John Weeks and to get an insight into the work of the Centre for Khmer Studies that he was part of. The Centre has established an excellent library in a refurbished building at the wat and the selection of books in English and Khmer is extensive. During my visit, the library was full of Khmer students, whilst John also let me spend some time on the internet, to check my emails. I then popped into the Ta Prohm hotel to catch-up with Merrily, who was resting after a day at Angkor and then met up with Matti Kummu at the Bakong guesthouse, who's working with a team from Sydney University looking at the Angkor water system. At 7pm, I arrived at the Bayon restaurant at the same time as Noung and eight others, mum and dad, two brothers and four friends, in a convoy of moto's, and we took a table on the first floor balcony of the recently refurbished restaurant. During our meal, we were entertained by a shadow puppet show and Noung demonstrated how well her command of English had improved, as she acted as my translator throughout. They left at 9am and I crossed the river to meet Garrie Maguire and friends at the new FCC bar, including Constance Alburger from New York. The company was great and we were the last to leave the FCC at 11.30pm. I walked back alone to the Red Lodge, pleased with my brief visit to Siem Reap and safe in the knowledge that there's much more to explore on future visits.
Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales:
Cambodia Tales 2
January 2003 marked my ninth 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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