Saturday, May 16, 2009

One helluva ride

A young girl in the village of Mlu Prei with her kapok pods
For much of the time, the track we followed was actually better than I had expected. Admittedly it was the dry season and it was only the rain of a couple of nights before, that has left the surface water on top. The track was easy enough to follow, there were a handful of villages en route to ask directions and though it would be impossible to take a motorized vehicle along the same route as us, it was straightforward for motos. Yes it was a bit boring at times, 11 hours on the back of a moto isn't my ideal form of relaxation, but we saw a variety of birdlife, the villagers we met were ultra friendly, the children fun and playful and it is always interesting to push yourself to the limit of your endurance from time to time. After we left Stung Treng and Thala Borivat behind, the road remained good for ten minutes before it turned bad, lots of large puddles to navigate around or through and no people whatsoever. An hour into the ride we suffered our first puncture and then an attack by wasps and at 10am, our first village, Thmor Thmei. The children at Chhvang, where we paused for a water-break, were adorable and after initially running away screaming, they returned for a photoshoot and smiles all round. It was here that we flooded the exhaust and spark-plugs and had to wait a while for them to dry. The forested wilderness was punctuated by villages such as Veal Veng, Sralau, Chhaeb, Saem, Sgkear before we reached the district HQ of Mlu Prei. At Pou Teap I suffered an acute attack of diarrhea though my stomach had stood up well until that point, as well as both Tim and I falling off the motos. It was pitch black as we reached the Sen River and crossed the wooden bridge at the gateway to Tbeng Meanchey, our home for the night and the motodops had done well to navigate in the dark for a good half an hour, without lights and in a forested area. The end of the most difficult day of our trip but one that will remain with us for some time to come.
A muddy main road through the village of Saem
A community hall in the village of Saem
The police station in Mlu Prei
A rickety wooden bridge in Mlu Prei
This Mlu Prei girl looked great in her krama but took it off for the photo!
Leaving Pou Teap via a small wooden bridge over a temporary waterway
A tree trunk bridge across a river in the middle of nowhere
We're just about to see the last of the sun and we're still many kms from Tbeng Meanchey

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The ride from hell

Less than 10 minutes out of Thala Borivat and the previous night's rain began giving us problems
So how bad was the ride from hell? Well, for me it wasn't too bad as I've experienced worse during my Cambodia travels over the years, especially in the early days of no roads or tracks and we had to make it up, but for Tim, it was a nightmare. He's too tall to be a passenger on a moto anyway and he has a bad back too, but for 11 hours, on bumpy, uneven tracks through what is effectively wilderness except for a handful of villages, it was enough to try anyone's patience. He'd been well pissed-off when his motodop tried to accelerate through a wet patch, and there were many, and only succeeded in dropping the bike, himself and Tim onto the hard, and wet, floor. After we stopped for our 4th puncture repair in the gloom of the early evening, still some way off our eventual destination, he was ready to throw in the towel. He didn't, but it was close. We finally arrived at Tbeng Meanchey's Malop Dong restaurant at 7pm, exactly 11 hours after we'd left Stung Treng, and we rolled into town on a flat tyre. We stuffed our faces with food and cold drinks before retiring for a well-earned sleep at the Phnom Pic, aka Diamond, guesthouse. Paul and Dom were our motodops, two members of the Stung Treng moto-mafia, and to be fair, they were good drivers, mine in particular was older and had done the trip before so he was the safer of the two and he only sent me off the back of his Daelim once, which for such a long trip through poor road conditions, wasn't a bad effort. We never warmed to them because of the dealings we had with them, and their mafia buddies at the start, but they did the job we asked them to do and at least it gave Tim a taste of the adventures I've been enjoying for years in the Cambodian countryside.
A nice flat stretch of road and that's me in the distance
Its a downhill slalom of the muddy variety as we approach a dried-up riverbed
The view from my driver's perspective: Paul turned out to be a safety-first man
Not a rest-stop, its another puncture repair stop - fortunately they came prepared
Quite a bit of the track was underwater after some rain on the previous days
An adorable group of children at the village of Chhvang
The smoldering cut forest surrounding Veal Veng village, part of the extensive Prey Lang Forest region
This part of the forest disappeared a while ago, but much still remains untouched
The water-babies of Chhaeb village, enjoying a cooling dip in the afternoon heat
Tim again asking "why me?" as the going gets tough, and very wet and muddy

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The sacred bull

Thala Borivat's sacred bull at Prasat Preak Ko
It was time to leave Stung Treng and our negotiations with the local moto-mafia had given us two motodops who knew the way overland to Tbeng Meanchey though the price was considerably higher than I'd expected. But they had us over a barrel and they knew it. What I didn't like was when we found two motodops to take us at a more realistic price, the mafia descended on them and threatened them with violence if they took us. The two motodops disppeared immediately; the mafia had maintained their control over the moto-drivers and the local pricing strategy. It left a sour taste in my mouth about the mafia and about Stung Treng in general. At 8am we caught the ferry from Stung Treng across the Mekong to its west bank and the village of Thala Borivat. There are a few small sites to visit in the village but we only had time to look in on Prasat Preah Ko, the main site, dedicated to the scared bull, a sandstone statue of which sits in front of the temple. We only had a short time as the 'ride from hell' would take us all day, and I was desperate to go to toilet after enduring an upset stomach overnight. There was a Khmer family visiting the temple, which lies at the end of the village, and they had just given some banana offerings to Nandi, the bull. The 7th century rectangular brick temple is missing its roof, and has no carvings to speak of, but the walls are sturdy with some shelf-like indentations inside the main shrine, which faces east. A Neak Ta of a wise old man holding a teapot is nearby. With my need to find the nearest bush, we left Preah Ko to begin our 11-hour marathon to Tbeng Meanchey. More on that later.
Our local wooden ferry, 5,000 riel for the moto & me, from Stung Treng to Thala Borivat
A Khmer family at Prasat Preah Ko in Thala BorivatThe front entrance, facing east at Prasat Preah Ko
Inside the central shrine with its unusual shelf-like wall indentations
The central shrine of Prasat Preah Ko - you can see the corner of a pedestal buried under the ground
A Neak Ta of a wise old man holding his teapot is located nearby

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Friday, May 15, 2009

The ravages of time

A makshift shrine at the site of Prasat Theat Ba Daeum with bricks and sandstone slabs
It's all been a bit hectic recently so my posts from my trip into northern Cambodia at the end of March have taken a back seat. Well now they are back. And today's helping are a few photos from three ancient temple sites that I visited in the day and 1 night I spent in Stung Treng, the largest settlement on the Mekong River before you hit the border with Laos. After the 2-hour minibus trip from Kratie, we hooked up with Nak, also known as Richie, who we'd met before, as soon as we arrived in Stung Treng. We booked a couple of rooms at the Sekong hotel and headed straight off to visit the Mekong Blue project, about 4kms out of town. Then we headed for a ruined temple site I'd seen on the EFEO map of the province, called Prasat Theat Ba Daeum. Some way off the main road and after scrambling over a series of very large sandstone boulders, we found a hole in the ground, with the inner brick walls still standing but the temple itself levelled to the ground and just a few sandstone slabs lying around a makshift shrine. It was like many temples sites I've seen scattered across the countryside that have literally been demolished either through the activities of temple robbers or by the ravages of time. Often a haphazard pile of old bricks is all there is left to show for the remains of the country's cultural heritage. The temple, believed to be one of a small group in the immediate vicinity, was sat about 500 metres from the Sesan River behind the village of Ba Daeum. Next stop was the more promising Prasat Phnom Theat, which is located in the town of Stung Treng but on a small hill directly behind the military base, so access is with the permission of the Army. We walked up the slight incline to an open-sided shrine that housed four very badly-eroded lintels, a damaged somasutra and a large pedestal and some other minor carved stones. The style on the lintels suggested 7th century. Not exactly the find I was hoping for. I did a quick recce of the surrounding bush to see if I could locate the remains of the temple itself, but without any success. Our final temple visit was to see Prasat Pros, sat on the edge of the corner where the Mekong and San Rivers meet, but some dispersed bricks were the only items of note. The rest of the afternoon was spent eating at Richie's Place, inspecting the next-door and new Golden River hotel, getting into a heated debate with the moto-mafia about our need for two motodops to transport us overland to Preah Vihear province the next morning at a sensible price and enjoying a tikalok on the riverbank before an early night. Early start the next day for our long, and potentially very difficult 'ride to hell' trek across to Tbeng Meanchey.
Nak stands above the brick-filled hole in the ground at Prasat Theat Ba Daeum
The petite pagoda at Wat Komphun, opposite the Sesan River
Boats on the Sesan River opposite Wat Komphun
A large yoni at Prasat Phnom Theat with other carved stones
A female figure inside a central medallion on one of the eroded lintels at Prasat Phnom Theat
The outline of a figure on the left and the lintel elements of the 7th century at Prasat Phnom Theat
A large but damaged somasutra-headed water channel at Prasat Phnom Theat
A view from Phnom Theat down to the military base and the San River beyond
Scattered bricks and a small wooden shrine are all that remain of Prasat Pros
A beautiful view of the Mekong and San Rivers where they join, just in front of Prasat Pros

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hamming it up

A strange guy I found hanging around in the forest
Some people will do anything for attention and my brother Tim is no exception. We were half way into our gruelling 11-hour 'ride from hell' marathon on the back of moto's as we travelled across country from Stung Treng to Preah Vihear province a few weeks ago. It was a tough day. Our moto drivers had stopped to fix yet another puncture so Tim and I walked ahead and found a vine, in the shape of a noose, hanging right across the track, hence Tim's impression in the picture above. Looks pretty scary doesn't it - actually, Tim looks scary most of the time! I hope this doesn't upset any young children, it was just for fun and Tim suffered no ill-effects after his stunt...but whatever you do, don't try this at home folks.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Mekong Blue

Silkworms doing what they do best at Mekong Blue in Stung Treng
With football taking a front seat in recent days, the topic to suffer has been the review of my recent trip along the Mekong River and into the northern reaches of Cambodia. I have already brought you my adventures in and around Kratie and then we continued north, by minibus to Stung Treng. I don't know if its something to do with border towns, but I didn't really warm to the town or its people as readily as I do elsewhere, but that was probably due to the motodop mafia that we encountered and who certainly left a bitter taste in our mouths, but more of that later. One visit we made, where we were warmly welcomed, was to the Mekong Blue center a few kilometres outside of town. I'd been aware of this Stung Treng Women's Development NGO for a few years but this was my first chance to visit them in person and though it was lunchtime when we arrived, and nearly everyone was asleep or resting, we had a quick tour with their latest volunteer, Mike Cussen, where we saw the process from silkworm feeding to production of a very high quality silk product, which they sell online and in their Phnom Penh showroom. Over 50 women are employed making Mekong Blue products, giving these otherwise vulnerable women a skill, confidence and development and a safe haven for them and their children. They are a thriving enterprise with big plans for the future to carry on and expand the wonderful humanitarian work they have completed so far. Long may they continue. Link: Mekong Blue.
These are cocoons of naturally produced yellow silk collected from the silkworms and ready for boiling
In a specially sealed room, the silkworms are fed on mulberry bush leaves
These are the spinning wheels that produce the long silk threads ready for dyeing
These silk threads are left to dry - they look like long yellow hair extensions to me
Two girls from the natural dye shed hold the silk that has been 'washed clean' of all imperfections
At Mekong Blue they have over 30 looms to make their quality silk products. Here Srey Mao takes time off her lunchbreak to show us how they work.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cambodian wetlands

The designated wetland regions of Cambodia are under threat from all directions. One of two key sites is located on the Mekong River between Stung Treng and the border with Laos, this is called Ramsar Site 999. The biodiversity of the area is rich in fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and vegetation. Along this stretch, the river is fast flowing with deep pools and numerous channels running between rocky and sandy islands; the seasonal variation in water height is 10 metres. It was designated as a Ramsar Site in 1999 because it contains a unique seasonally flooded riverine forest habitat, and is also home to the Irrawady Dolphin and the Mekong Giant. More than 10,000 people live in or close to the Ramsar Site, and most of them rely on the Mekong for their food and livelihoods. Fish is the major source of protein and is also harvested to be sold. Many other species are also used, such as snails, crabs and frogs for food, and various plants for fuel wood, building, crafts and medicine. The regular flooding of the river supports rice farming using paddies. An exhibition of fine art panoramic prints by Paul Stewart from Ramsar Site 999 will take place between 27 April thru til 31 May at the FCC in Phnom Penh. Take the time to see the endangered Cambodian wetlands for yourself.

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Week old memories

Sunset from the riverbank at Kratie
Happy group of girls in the village of Chhvang on the trip from hell between Stung Treng and Tbeng Meanchey
A reminder for any Thai visitors at Preah Vihear when/if the border re-opens

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