Saturday, March 6, 2010

Remembering Koh Ker

Okay, I look like a shaggy sheepdog but in my defense I'd just spent 8 hours on a moto
Reading about the project to turn Koh Ker into a world heritage site took me back in time to my first visit to the temple complex in November 2001 with my pal Sokhom and his trusty Daelim moto. It was a wonderful adventure, one of many I've had in the company of Sokhom, and although Koh Ker had yet to reveal many of its treasures that you can see today, I was chuffed to bits to be one of the first visitors to get to Koh Ker under our own steam, though it was a gruelling journey, there and back. Here's my story from that first-ever Koh Ker adventure:

The journey by moto along Route 12 from Kompong Thom to Tbeng Meanchey was gruelling and uncomfortable enough but paled by comparison to the 70 kms of road to Koh Ker. However, more of that soon enough. The tenth century royal capital of Koh Ker had been a magnet for me for a long while after Sok Thea, a Khmer friend of mine blazed the trail there just under two years earlier. In a remote and inhospitable corner of Preah Vihear province, for so long under the control of the feared Khmer Rouge and in an area awash with landmines, Sok Thea's stories had whetted my appetite for a similiar adventure and with Sokhom's help, it became a reality. Koh Ker became the centrepiece of the Khmer kingdom in 928 when Jayavarman IV built a series of colossal monuments in a twenty year period of frenzied temple construction. When the capital returned to Angkor, Koh Ker fell into disrepair and has remained isolated and inaccessible ever since. The Koh Ker period of Khmer history is renowned for its architecture and sculpture on a monumental scale and the museum in Phnom Penh has many key pieces on display that prove the point. Recently, the Cambodian government has earmarked the site as a key historical attraction which they plan to develop in a bid to attract foreign tourists, so I was desperately keen to visit the complex before that happens.

After our first night in Tbeng Meanchey at the 27 May guesthouse, Sokhom and I rose early and took the road heading west, after breakfast at a nearby cafe. It was just before 7am and little did I know our eventual destination was nearly eight hours away, although Sokhom had an idea as he'd made the trip once before. We immediately got a foretaste of what was to come as the road surface alternated between heavily rutted and sandy and quickly turned into little more than an ox-cart trail rather than a navigable road, once we'd taken a left turn at the village of Thbal Bek. Parts of the track were underwater and we had to detour into rice fields to avoid some of the flooded stretches. Apart from a couple of ox-carts, we saw very few people until we stopped a motorbike rider for directions. Remarkably, Sokhom knew him as an aid worker with Health Unlimited in Kompong Thom and he told us of the poor state of the road ahead. Three hours into our trek, we arrived at the village of Koulen, at the half-way point, and time for a well-earned rest, while Sokhom brought out his repair kit and tinkered with the engine and suspension. We ate some noodles and quizzed the local policemen about road conditions, safety and other ancient sites in the area. Suitably rested, the track continued in the same vein as before, with the sandy surface making it impossible to drive at anything more than a crawl. The route remained flooded in places and whilst crossing one stream, we lost control of the moto and had to pick it, and ourselves, out of the water. We stopped one of the few ox-carts we encountered, to buy a couple of bunches of bananas, whilst a noticeable feature of the flooded areas was the abundance of brightly-coloured butterflies.

As the trail wound its way through a heavily wooded area, I was relieved that Sokhom had made the trip before as I'm sure we would've got lost. At times, the route ahead was blocked but he somehow found a way forward and kept us on track. The sound of a helicopter overhead suggested some visitors to Koh Ker had decided on the more comfortable travelling option, and who could blame them. My back and bottom were aching and sore, my face was red from the sun and the rest of me covered in dust and dirt. Then, as if sensing my desire to curl up and go to sleep, Sokhom announced we had arrived. Imagine my surprise when he stopped the moto and pointed off to the right, where through the trees I spied a large laterite tower and wall. My tiredness evaporated and my sense of excitement took over as we walked through the light brush towards a hole in the laterite wall surrounding the tower. It was just under eight hours since we'd left Tbeng Meanchey and our arrival at Prasat Neang Khmau, the southernmost temple of the Koh Ker group, was a great relief. The temple itself faces west and is a tall, dark laterite tower inside a walled compound. Through the sandstone doorway with carved colonettes and below a cracked and defaced floral lintel propped up by a large wooden pole, a large pedestal and broken linga litter the inside of the sanctuary. Back on the moto, we covered a kilometre or so to the state temple of the whole Koh Ker complex, Prasat Thom. The eastern gopura entrance was blocked by fallen sandstone columns and vegetation had taken a firm hold around the other sanctuaries and galleries as I quickly made my way through the ruins to catch my first glimpse of the giant sandstone pyramid - the complex's crowning glory.

Keen to organise our overnight accommodation before the sun went down, Sokhom and I made the short hop to the nearby village of Koh Ker and quickly located the village chief, Yuon. He was only too happy to let us stay at his home for the night, so we dropped off our hammocks and water bottles, booked our chicken supper and returned to Prasat Thom to watch the sunset. While Sokhom took the opportunity to wash off the dust and dirt of our trip in one of the royal ponds, I carefully negotiated the rickety wooden ladders that straddled each of the terraced pyramid's seven tiers. The square pyramid is 36 metres high with the steep stairways on the east side ravaged by time and replaced by the wooden ladders to make access to the summit a little easier. From the top, the view over the surrounding forest canopy with the Kulen mountains in the far distance was simply breathtaking, enhanced by the glow of the setting sun in the west. There wasn't a great deal of room at the top, as I sat down next to some broken carvings of lions and elephants and enjoyed the peace and quiet, noticing a column of smoke rising from the village nearby. At the foot of the pyramid, I could just make out Sokhom in the deepening gloom as I cautiously made my way down the ladders to join him and we returned to the village.

At the top of a much smaller ladder, Yuon welcomed us into his two-roomed bamboo home on stilts and introduced us to his wife, five children and brother. As headman of the village, his home is one of the largest in the hamlet and under the slatted verandah, where we hung our hammocks and mozzie nets and an hour later ate supper, was his collection of family animals including two dogs, chickens, pigs and piglets and tied up closeby, two oxen. Yuon's wife served up our supper of chicken, rice and vegetables as we all sat cross-legged in a circle under the naked flame of a lighted torch, with Sokhom translating the conversation. It was just before 8pm when we thanked the family, the flame was extinquished and we climbed into our hammocks. Any thoughts I had of falling asleep were forgotten as the family continued with their chores in complete darkness, a Khmer language radio was switched on and under the house a fire was lit and neighbours stopped to chat. It was another two hours before everyone settled down for the night, leaving the occasional animal sound and the creaking of the bamboo structure as the final sounds I heard before I fell asleep.

Awakened first from my slumber by a crowing cockerel at 3am, two hours later the whole village erupted into a similar morning chorus that signalled the start of the day. Sokhom and I arose and in the glow of a lighted torch - the village had no electricity, or water-pump for that matter - we ate the remainder of the previous night's chicken with the family, thanked them for their hospitality with handshakes and a small payment in riel and paused for photographs. Sokhom's moto had aroused considerable interest as no-one in the village owned one and a farewell party had gathered to wave us off at 7.30am, as we returned to a deserted Prasat Thom for one final look. The early morning dew and fine mist gave the temple an eerie feel as we clambered across the broken entrance gopura and reached the large tower known as Prasat Kraham ('red temple'). Broken statues and pedestals littered the floor of this massive structure and the mist lifted as the rays of the sun pierced the tree cover and highlighted a headless apsara on a doorframe. Dense green vegetation throughout the complex restricted exploration to the main pathways as we ambled past a series of nine small identical brick towers with weather-worn lintels and colonettes in situ, and made our way to the giant terraced pyramid at the rear. The unsteady wooden ladders didn't fill me with sufficient confidence to attempt another ascent of the tower, so we retraced our steps, investigating a few broken lion statues, more lintels and carvings amongst the ruined structures.

Our final visit to Prasat Thom lasted an hour before we headed back out of the complex, past faded 'Danger Mines' signs on our left and the remains of a laterite wall in the wooded undergrowth on our right. I signalled to Sokhom that a wall usually meant a temple, so we parked the moto and went to investigate. The brush was waist-high but not too thick as we traversed the wall and headed for a clump of large trees. A ruined brick gopura with broken carved colonettes signalled the entrance to another temple but the vegetation was simply too dense for us to inspect the large laterite temple any closer without a machete or scythe. Frustrated, we returned to the moto as I checked my map and decided that this must be either Prasat Bak or Prasat Chen, most likely the latter. There are believed to be up to 35 major monuments in the Koh Ker group and we'd only just scratched the surface. Our village friends were unaware of the location of the other structures as much of the land surrounding their village was potentially mined and unsafe even to collect firewood. I'm sure the Koh Ker group has many more delights to offer the adventurous traveller once the mines have been cleared and the land has been made safe and with the government earmarking the site for development, that might be sooner than later. Koh Ker is already attracting a small trickle of visitors, as we were told a group of five motorcyclists had spent a night camping at the main temple the night before we arrived.

The route back to Srayang, where we stopped for running repairs, was as bad as I remembered it. The sandy track, tree roots and stumps posed as many problems as the waterlogged sections but it was a slippery slope that undid Sokhom as he ended up knee-deep in mud and his moto submerged underwater. Fortunately, I managed to jump off the back of the bike at the last moment. We eventually completed the first half of the trip back to Tbeng Meanchey in four hours, with a noodle and petrol stop at Koulen, accompanied by loud music bellowing out from loudspeakers, celebrating a wedding party next door. Three hours later and with my bottom and back in agony, we arrived back in town. Covered in dust, I was grateful for the cold shower I had after booking into the Mlop Trosek guesthouse and the beef and chicken meal at the Mlop Dong restaurant as I reflected with Sokhom, what a wonderful adventure the trip to Koh Ker had been. It was a tough test for the two of us on his moto, my aching bones were testimony to that, but Sokhom had once again come up with the goods when it mattered. I can't speak highly enough of my resourceful friend.

Sokhom (left) and Yuon, holding his son, alongwith family and friends at their home in Koh Ker village

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Old friends

Vun Em, left, is the co-ordinator and singer with the Messenger Band
Last night I caught up with a few friendly faces when I met Sokhom, my long-time pal from Kompong Thom at the restaurant that sits under the Dara Reang Sey Hotel on Street 130, and also chatted with Dara, one of the sisters that run the hotel, who I hadn't seen for a few months. Sokhom was in town for 1 night alongwith a customer-friend in the shape of Thierry from Belgium. They had just arrived after spending an enjoyable night in a floating village near the southern mouth of the Tonle Sap Lake as part of their adventures in the north. Thierry is a regular visitor to Cambodia and always hooks up with Sokhom during part of his travels. After a bite to eat at the hotel, the three of us headed to Meta House to listen to the Messenger Band doing their bit to spread the word about workers rights, their hopes and fears, and highlighting the plight of female workers in Cambodia. All of the band's members were or are still garment factory workers and they take their message around the country to educate and entertain their audience. Some of their acappella songs are sad, some are less serious, all of them inform. They dare to talk and sing about topics that are often taboo and deserve great credit for their brave and courageous stance. They sang five songs and chatted to the audience before we watched a film made by the Meta House team called I Am Precious, which followed a fashion competition aimed at exposing the talents of garment factory workers in designing their own dresses and t-shirts.
The Messenger Band members enjoy a lighter moment during last night's performance

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Water everywhere

I've just arrived in Siem Reap thanks to the spot-on schedule of the Mekong Express bus company. We left at 8.30am and got in at 2.30pm, with a 30 minute stop at Kompong Thom, where I said hello to my friends Sokhom and Chhunly as I munched my way through some chicken friend rice. Very noticeable along the route was the amount of water virtually everywhere but particularly as we passed through Kompong Cham and Kompong Thom provinces. Parts of the main road were flooded at Kompong Thmor though we drove through it easy enough, showering the pedestrians closeby the roadside. Work has been slow for Sokhom though a contract with Waseda University for ferrying students to Sambor Prei Kuk has kept him ticking over during the low season. I didn't have time to visit his new house but I will try on my way back in a few days. Chhunly has just finished high school and has hopes to go to university in Phnom Penh but the age old problem of finances may prevent her doing that as her parents can't afford it. Meanwhile she has been continuing her dance practice and gave me a picture of her in her traditional dance costume, and tells me she has a part-time job at the American restaurant in town. I'm just typing this in my room at the HanumanAlaya then I'll be out the door and heading to Angkor to catch the sunset (though its unlikely to be much cop with the weather we've been having) at one of the outlying temples. I have some vip clients arriving tomorrow morning and I'll be spending the next three days with them. It'll be interesting as I reckon I haven't had a formal tour guide experience around Angkor for more than a decade. Also lots of people to catch up with whilst I'm here especially Now, who I've booked for dinner tonight. She even has some of her own photos from her recent Preah Vihear trip for sale at 4Faces - another first for this young lady who has a suitcase full of them over the last couple of months.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

All change

A very quiet start to the week as far as I'm concerned - though my skin problem is already returning as I reduce the volume of my medication - though lots going on for some of my friends. Vy, who lives and works in Sihanoukville, is off to see friends and former work colleagues in France at the start of next week for three weeks. It's taken a while to get her visa processed, even though she's been abroad before when she went to India as a representative of Cambodia's youth a few years ago. It'll be a great experience for her I'm sure. Last night she went out with Sophoin, to celebrate the latter's birthday at a disco in S'ville - they both have hangovers this morning they tell me. As for Sophoin, she has recently got involved with an NGO to provide schooling and help for young girls in Phnom Penh as part of her tie-in with the Soroptimist group in Australia that provide the funds for her own university studies. On the domestic front, Sokheng (pictured right), who has been a godsend to me since I moved here to live a couple of years ago, helping me with a myriad of things and generally making my life easier, is getting engaged on the 28th of this month and will have a party in Kien Svay. It's a bit of a surprise and as I'm having lunch with her today, I will find out more. Sokheng works with Wildlife Conservation here in the city. In Kompong Thom, my best pal Sokhom is moving house. He's lived in a small wooden shack on the side of National Highway 6 for many years and after a court battle with a neighbour claiming his land, he and his family will move to a new house next to his in-laws, just around the corner. At Angkor, Now (pictured left) has recently changed her location for selling souvenirs. For a long while she's been selling from her pitch amongst the gaggle of stalls that line the walkway on the north side next to the pond at the front of Angkor Wat. However, as she doesn't work for herself, she has to go where the need is, and as a result she has switched to a much quieter pitch at the eastern entrance of Banteay Kdei. On the plus side it's not far from her home. In the next week or so she will leave her stall for a few days to help her family with rice planting, which she says is back-breaking work in the scorching heat of the day, but is also a good time for the family to work together and enjoy each other's company. And in Cambodia that is very important.

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