CAMBODIA TALES 2001
Photos to follow
For my seventh visit to Cambodia, I arrived in Siem Reap at 10.30am after a tiring twelve hour flight from Heathrow via Singapore. Sat next to me on the final leg of the journey was Phirum, who left Phnom Penh in 1979 as a stowaway on a Red Cross aircraft and was returning to collect his father's ashes. These days he owns a restaurant and real estate in New Zealand. Amid the throng of moto-drivers touting for business outside the airport, Kim Rieng's beaming smile stood out a mile and we moto'd into town heading for the Angkor Conservation depot, where I dropped my rucksack at the nearby Hanuman Alaya guesthouse and we spent the afternoon visiting some of the smaller temple sites west of Siem Reap town and surrounding the Western Baray.
First stop was Prasat Patri, where laterite foundations, two poor quality lintels and a broken pedestal are all that remain, in a field just metres from Highway 6. A further three kilometres north, in the grounds of a modern pagoda, Prasat Kok Chork was a pleasant discovery, surrounded by a clump of trees and comprised two brick towers with colonettes and a couple of lintels, one of which showed garuda on the tail of a naga. Fifteen minutes later, we were next to the man-made lake, the Western Baray, 8kms long and with water all year round, and I had my first look at the original brick pyramid temple of Prasat Ak Yom, believed to have been constructed in the 7th century. Remnants of the three-level stepped pyramid, pre-dating Rong Chen on top of Phnom Kulen, are in a clearing where sandstone and brick ruins, including the bases of three smaller brick towers and a well at the centre of the main structure, are surrounded by trees and the sounds of the forest. Continuing along the western and northern edges of the baray, along a bumpy and desolate track that a year before was regarded by Rieng as dangerous bandit territory, we located the remains of Prasat Phnom Rung with the help of a woman tending her oxen, a small rise with three sandstone pedestals amongst the undergrowth. According to the locals, the nearby ruined temple of Prasat Roluh, was inaccessible due to flooding, so we carried on to Prasat Kok Po, with its two brick towers with a moat, a weathered lintel lying on the ground and covered with thorny bushes.
Keen to catch the sunset from Phnom Bakheng, we made our way along the airport road to the western entrance of the Angkor Park, which is free to enter after 5.30pm each night, stopping briefly for a sugar cane juice. As we approached Bakheng, a helicopter carrying Prince Ranariddh was flying low over the hill and Angkor Wat. The buses and cars parked at the foot of the hill indicated the tourist hordes were on top and so it proved, once we'd navigated the steep climb. At the first level we met up with an old friend, Noung, who had her kramas and t-shirts spread across a mat to sell to the visitors. An hour after sunset I met up with Nick and Kulikar at the Red Piano bar in Siem Reap for dinner. Earlier that afternoon, they'd guided a British tv crew around Angkor, and we were now sat in a bar that was the watering-hole for the stars and crew of the film, Tomb Raider, which Nick and Kulikar helped make possible a year before. Nick told me about another film where he'd been scouting locations with the Hollywood director Jean Jacques Annaud including some large stone animal monoliths on Phnom Kulen, which sounded like a good excuse to return to Kulen sometime in the future. I was back at the Hanuman Alaya, owned by Kulikar's Hanuman Tourism company, by 10.30pm, excited at the prospect of a couple of days in Sisophon and a visit to the massive ruined temple of Banteay Chhmar.
Following my Banteay Chhmar adventure and the next day's visit to 'discover' more temples near the village of Svay Chek, I left the Auberge Mont Royal early next morning and returned to the Hanuman Alaya, with its exquisite rooms and helpful staff. After a quick visit to the two brick towers of Preah Einkosei nearby, one of which had a superb Indra lintel in situ, I purchased a day ticket and headed for the little-visited south west corner of Angkor Thom. It was 9.30am when we reached the South Gate and drove up onto the earthern embankment that sits alongside the parapet of the massive city walls. A pleasant, shaded drive took us 1.5 kms towards Prasat Chrung in the south west corner, though we stopped to see a small five-arched laterite bridge called Run Tadev and a pond known as Beng Thom. There are four Prasats, one situated in each corner of the city and the name translates as 'shrine of the angle.' The one we visited had defaced apsaras on the walls and broken pediments and a pedestal lying on the ground. We carried onto the West Gate of the city and the tiny Western Prasat Top temple before stop-offs at the Bayon (where I took lots of pictures of the giant enigmatic faces), the Baphuon, the Eastern Prasat Top and Chau Sey Tevoda. At the latter, re-construction work meant that parts of the temple were roped-off and, not for the first time, one of the policemen on duty asked if I wanted to buy his shiny badge.
A flying visit to Ta Prohm, a temple very much like the Bayon which is always worth returning to, and we ended the morning at the tenth century East Mebon temple. With its five brick towers, libraries, elephant statues and high quality lintels and colonettes, this temple once sat in the middle of a large reservoir, the Eastern Baray, but which is now bone dry. Rieng and I returned to town and I grabbed some lunch at the Ivy bar and sent an e-mail to my wife before a 2pm return to Angkor, to spend the afternoon at Angkor Wat. Our first stop was at the souvenir stalls to the left of the causeway, sheltered under trees, to say hello to Noung and her family. Both her mum and dad arrived soon after and the other stall-holders all appeared to know who I was and made me feel very welcome. Noung, always the consummate saleswoman, used her language skills to entice the Japanese and French tourists to her stall and always seems to have more success than her neighbours. That energy and determination I spotted some years earlier was still very much in evidence, as was her penchant for mischief.
To catch the sunset, I climbed to the very top of Angkor Wat with Rieng, where we picked our spot as the crowds grew to quite a considerable number. It was literally a case of standing room only in the doorways and on the ledges as the sun dipped behind the forest covering. Immediately it had disappeared, Apsara personnel cleared the temple, it was 5.45pm, and I said my goodbyes to Noung until my next visit to Siem Reap. Back at the Hanuman Alaya, I had a surprise visitor by the name of Kazuo Iwase, a Japanese e-mail friend who lives in Bangkok and who enjoys searching for ancient temples as much as I do, posting his photos onto his own website. It was a brief visit to say hello and to put a face to the exchange of e-mails we'd had for the preceding months. I finished off my last day in Siem Reap with dinner at the Continental Cafe on my own and an early night, ready for my trip to Kompong Thom in the morning.
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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