CAMBODIA TALES 1998
Tonle Bati - A dip into history
After an enjoyable visit to Phnom Chisor in the early part of the morning , we broke the return journey to Phnom Penh with a stop-over at Tonle Bati lake and the impressive Angkorean-era temples nearby. Thirty-five kilometres south of Phnom Penh along Route 2, a large beer hoarding alongside an archway signalled the turn off to our destination, renowned as a favourite picnic spot for locals and Phnom Penhois at weekends. Crossing a wooden bridge over the Bati river where youngsters were splashing around with the family buffalo in the water below, we took a right turn at a sign welcoming visitors to 'Bati Development Corporation'. Driving into the grounds of a modern wat and school, I handed over a $1 fee in return for a 'foreign guest ticket' - it was 11am and I was their first foreign visitor of the day.
The approach to Ta Prohm, the main temple and constructed late in the twelfth century by arguably the greatest of the Khmer builders, King Jayavarman VII, was bedecked with a colourful array of flowers. The site is heavily frequented during national holidays and at weekends, although the ubiquitous souvenir seller was unable to clinch a sale on this occasion, as I politely refused to buy one of the silk kramas or sarongs she was carrying over her arm. It was immediately obvious that great care and attention had been lavished on this ground-level laterite temple as Sothy, my guide and I walked through the outer wall of the compound. On the floor, just before the main east gate, a carved lintel depicting the 'Churning of the Ocean of Milk', a famous bas-relief also found at the contemporaneous Angkor Wat, was in good condition (left). Through this second gate, we stepped into a small, well-kept courtyard containing the temple's main cross-shaped sanctuary, two libraries and lots of intricate carvings.
Built to venerate Brahmanism and later Buddha, on the site of a much earlier shrine, Ta Prohm and its smaller sister temple, Yeay Peau, are shrouded in local legend and folklore. Both are lovingly maintained by a group of nuns and their lay attendants, eager to place incense sticks in your hands to offer to the spirits or to read your fortune with playing cards. In the background, someone was playing a flute or suchlike and the atmosphere was relaxed and serene despite the unrelenting sun beating down overhead. Large Buddha statues and lingam occupied the five chambers of the main sanctuary, while a well-polished but damaged statue of Preah Norey was on display in the north gate. Impressive lintels and frontons were dotted haphazardly around the site and single apsara carvings abounded on the walls of the central complex. Other unique features were the half-drawn baluster curtains and bas-reliefs of a woman carrying a box on her head and the King's wife being trampled to death by a horse for her unfaithfulness.
At the west gate, a grandmother selling rice cakes and palm wine and her three shy grandchildren posed for a picture. In return, I gave the kids some souvenirs of my own and that was their cue to follow me for the rest of my temple tour. Across the road leading to the beach, with my entourage in tow, the tiny temple of Yeay Peau (according to legend, the mother of Prohm) was sat right in the middle of the entrance to a modern Buddhist pagoda, Wat Tonle Bati, but both buildings were shut, the doors padlocked and entry denied.
A few hundred metres north-west is a waterfront beach and a few open-sided shelters, popular as a weekend picnicking spot for Khmer families. We sat ourselves down in a couple of deckchairs, purchased some refreshing drinks from Chea, the owner of the only food stall open for business and Sothy offered me a sausage sandwich, which he'd prepared earlier in the day. Initially alone on the deserted beach, we were soon joined by a small group of children, who showed off their swimming talents in the shallow lake and afterwards readily accepted my gifts of necklaces and pens with smiles all round (right). My only regret was not being able to visit a memorial site to the victims of the Khmer Rouge at a former training college called Trapeang Sva on the far shore of the lake. The absence of a boat to ferry me across had made it impracticable. Nevertheless, rested and refreshed, we returned to the car and our patient driver, Serey and bade farewell to Tonle Bati and our new friends for the drive back to the capital in time for a late lunch at the FCC on Sisowath Quay.
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