Thursday, June 28, 2007

Notes from Siem Reap : Part 2

LtoR: Rieng, Heang, the author and Phalla, Siem Reap, January 2007.
Here's part 2 of the final travelogue from my 2007 Cambodia Tales. Now I have to post lots more photos onto my website to accompany the travelogues.

Notes from Siem Reap : Part 2

Morning began with tearful goodbyes over breakfast to Kim, who was due to fly to Australia around midday. I, on the other hand, headed west along Highway 6 to enjoy a varied day of sightseeing with Rieng and Heng in their 4WD Pajero. Its a good road these days, busy and flat until you get to Sarsadam, where the tarmac ends and a very bumpy and dusty rode begins. Our first stop was in Prey Chrouk village – which is Rieng’s home village – where we visited the primary and secondary schools, side by side, to look in on the new school building (five classrooms) donated by a joint venture between ADB and the Sage Insights travel company in Siem Reap. With over 1,000 students at both schools, another brand new two-storey building, donated by Prime Minister Hun Sen no less, was locked and empty as there were not enough teachers to use the classrooms! I stood in front of two grade 9 classes, ages ranging from 16-20, to say hello and spotted Rieng’s younger brother, Ratha, in the second row. When Rieng lived in the village there was no secondary school, so he had to cycle to Sarsadam for his education.

Continuing on, just after 11am we reached the roundabout in Preah Net Preah village - 88kms from Siem Reap said Heng – and then headed west for three kilometres on the lookout for Phnom Arayacontra (or Prasat Preah Net Preah). It’s the biggest hill there so you can’t miss it. 200 steps later we were enjoying a wonderful view from the summit. Its an interesting site with old and new mingling together – old, in the form of broken colonettes and an unusually large pedestal, three undecorated lintels and a blue corrugated tin stupa housing two more pedestals and a small inscription on a doorpost. Alongside were the remains of two demolished brick towers with sandstone door frames. A friendly nun, Tre Chantha, told us the four resident monks and two nuns were off at a celebration and took us to a locked room to show us an inscribed boundary stone and some other sculpted pieces, as well as some carved figures on large sandstone boulders.

Retracing our route along Highway 6, we stopped briefly at the pagoda at Prasat Romduol village on the hunt for Prasat Tayrin, but were assured that the colonette we found was all that remained and the thigh-deep river that barred our path dissuaded us from checking ourselves. By 2pm we’d stopped at Kralanh for lunch – fried chicken and vegetables, chicken soup and dried fish plus drinks, all for $5, before we headed east towards Tek Chou. The village pagoda had some friendly children but nothing else of note, though Wat Char Leu was a different story, housing a laterite tower with red sandstone doors though minus its lintels, situated next to the old vihara. It was a site I’d visited before. Returning towards Siem Reap, we stopped at Prey Chrouk again to visit Rieng’s family home for an hour where I met his mum, dad, granddad, two sisters and two brothers and a souvenir photo for my album. Like Rieng, they are lovely people. Back at Siem Reap by 6pm, I joined up with Rachel Wildblood - a VSO fisheries worker I’d previously met in Kompong Thom – for dinner at the very popular Khmer Kitchen. I enjoyed an excellent chicken curry and a chat with the owner Sophal about her successful business which now employs forty staff. Back at the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse, we were joined for a drink by David Musa, an Israeli archaeologist-cum-tour leader, who I knew by email contact before my trip began.

More temple adventures were the order of the day as we set out next morning for Beng Mealea at 8.30am via the town of Damdek. The road toll for the 4WD was $5 and the temple pass another $5 as we arrived at a temple I’d first visited in 1999. In those days, it was a serious adventure and extremely hard work – nowadays the temple sees between 50-100 tourists each day and wooden walkways make exploration very straightforward. Not one to follow the crowd, Rieng and myself investigated the rarely-visited east gopura and its impressive array of naga heads and lanterns leading along the 400 metre long causeway, accompanied by beautiful bird song all around us. At the eastern entrance large stones blocked our way in so we had to climb up and over the massive gateway, perching precariously on top of the gopura before heading for the north library and taking an anti-clockwise route around and through the whole temple. Beng Mealea is an extraordinary size and deserves its new found popularity. There’s so much more to see than on my previous visits, though the prize you have to sacrifice is the real adventurous feeling I used to experience. During our exploration I met Shinto Asano, an English-speaking Japanese girl who was gushing in her praise for the temple. At midday, with Rieng translating, I renewed acquaintances with Chheng Chhun, the temple guide who showed me around in 1999 and at 72, he’s still very sprightly for his age. He told me he was born in the area and is proud to show people his temple. As an added bonus, he told us about a trio of smaller temples lying east of Beng Mealea along the ancient Royal Road and agreed to be our guide for our afternoon exploits. I’d been on the Royal Road before, around the village of Khvao, so this was an opportunity to see another part of the highway.

At 12.30pm, with Chhun in charge of directions, we joined the old royal highway that linked Angkor with the former capital of Jayavarman VII at Preah Khan at Kompong Svay, and the laterite base is still in use today, albeit with a sandy covering. We passed through an area under the control of CMAC de-mining teams, and onto the substantial village of Chantrea, and the waves and smiles of villagers not used to visitors. The sandy surface made driving tricky - though Heng is a magician when it comes to negotiating difficult tracks - past the so-called Japanese stream, one of three riverbeds we crossed, and lots of tree-felling before arriving at our first ancient laterite bridge, Spean Khmeng, complete with ruined sandstone balustrade. Ten minutes later we hit upon Spean Teap Chei – another laterite arched structure – and at 1.15pm arrived at our farthest target, Prasat Teap Chei, or more precisely the village of the same name, some 15 kilometres from our starting point. With Chhun leading the way, we ploughed through very thick undergrowth without much success for twenty-five minutes and almost gave up until we encountered a large laterite wall and the eastern gateway to the temple. With one central sandstone tower with a porch and four doors, two smaller libraries and one solitary eroded lintel, it was cloaked in the forest and impossible to photograph, not to mention the humidity and stinging sweat in my eyes. As for Chhun, he didn’t even break sweat. Back on the Royal Road, we turned for home, stopping at two more temples we’d bypassed earlier. Prasat Kongpluk has a central laterite pyramid tower, somewhat ruined, with four sandstone entrance gates in a surrounding laterite wall. Scattered amongst the debris were colonettes, a worn lintel, two broken lions and lots of red de-mining tape warning us to avoid certain areas. Closeby, another temple, Prasat Chrey, had already been de-mined. It’s a good size, a sandstone and laterite mix with a lantern causeway leading to one central tower opening to the east with a sandstone porch, two libraries and three gates in the laterite enclosing wall. It was a nice setting and a good temple, just five minutes from Beng Mealea, to end our expedition.

In a small café opposite the entrance to Beng Mealea, we stopped for noodles, rice and chicken and thanked Chhun, who pedalled off into the distance with a big grin. At 4pm, we took the road that leads to Banteay Srei on the hunt for our final temple site of the day. Turning south at the temporary home of a de-mining unit, the track was getting a bit tricky and the area remote and another forty-five minutes into our ride, the bumper fell off the 4WD. Rather than risk further damage, Rieng and I walked on and used two young men to guide us to Prasat Banteay Ampil. Another fifteen minute walk, along a flooded path and across rice fields near the village of Andong Pei, we arrived at the temple. And what an excellent find it was. Amongst the trees and sounds of cicadas, and with the 5pm golden light shining on it, the temple looked at its best. Inside a large laterite wall with sandstone gopuras, are two libraries and one substantial central tower with a porch, open to the east and west and housing some attractive carvings and lintels. It was tricky as the path through the temple is by picking your way around the rubble underfoot but its definitely a temple worth more time than we could allow. With the light fading fast we headed back to Heng and the 4WD, leaving us no time for a look at another ruin nearby, Prasat Lich. Prasat Banteay Ampil is about 8 kms from the main road to Damdek, but local help is essential to locate it. By 7pm, I was back at the Shadow for a long, hot shower and then out to Rieng’s home for a gorgeous home-cooked supper with Rieng, Sovann, her parents and three sisters, and lots of chatting and practising English with Phyrun, Kadka and Dary. At 11pm I climbed into bed for a well-earned sleep.

For my last full day in Siem Reap, I opted for an easier day, especially as the next leg of my trip with Sokhom would be the usual endurance test. A late breakfast, I had an hour at the internet café and then joined Phyrun, Rieng’s sister in law, at her vegetable pitch in the heart of the old market, much to the amusement of her fellow vendors and customers alike. An hour later, I met with another good friend of mine, Heang, for lunch at the Khmer Kitchen and continued my chat with Sophal, the owner, who took over the restaurant seven years before after being a cook for Medicins Sans Frontieres. As Phyrun had moved her pitch to a new location in the market, I repeated my retail apprenticeship in vegetable-selling, without much success but great fun nonetheless. I’d arranged for a 6.30pm meal with Socheata, Now and Plon at the Shadow restaurant but they were an hour late coming from their Angkor homes, so we had less time to chat and eat our amok, chicken curry and spaghetti before the 9pm arrival of some more friends. I said my goodbyes to Socheata and welcomed Rieng, Heang and Phalla – three great friends of mine – to celebrate my last night with some drinks and friendly banter at a couple of Khmer restaurant-bars, until midnight. We recalled lots of great memories from previous trips together and it was a suitable way to end my stay in Siem Reap.
Link: Cambodia Tales.

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