Off the Beaten Track

Trip Start May 04, 2011
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Trip End Oct 08, 2012


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Where I stayed
Mariya Hotel
What I did
Wat Nokor
Wat Maha Leap
Mount Pros and Srey

Flag of Cambodia  , Kâmpóng Cham,
Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Making my way south I skipped Kratie and a visit to the Irrawaddy dolphins, going straight to Kampong Cham instead. Because there is little foreign investment and no massive tourism this city is quite poor, yet not lacking in French architecture from the colonial period. The people of Kampong Cham are especially friendly and open to engaging with tourists.

Apparently the third largest city in Cambodia, the best way to get around is by motorbike. So once again I tested my riding skills and set off to explore the surrounding areas. I spent the first afternoon visiting Wat Nakor, an Angkorian temple dating from the 11th century, before jetting over to Mount Srei and Pros, Man and Women Hill respectively. If I hadn't been so spooked trying to dodge the flock of monkeys blocking the stairwell, I might have made it up the 308 stairs in time to catch the sunset. Meanwhile, I was so winded at the top I couldn’t help but think how ridiculous "running the Santa Monica stairs" sounds to me right about now.

Tonight and nearly every meal thereafter I gladly ate at Smile restaurant; conveniently located next door to my hotel with decent Khmer food and free Wi-Fi. The best thing about this place is that it is a vocational training facility for the poorest of the poor, started by Buddhism for Social Development Action (BSDA). BSDA, based on the premises of Wat Nakor is a local NGO established and still run by Buddhist monks. Their primary focus is reaching street children, orphans and vulnerable youth in order to educate them for a brighter future.

Day two in Kampong Cham had me on a mission to find Wat Maha Leap, one of the few, entirely wooden Buddhist pagodas left standing in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge. All I can say about this day is thank God I had a chance conversation with a local guide during my morning coffee, who happened to mention a few landmarks and exact mile markers to look out for along the route. Although on occasion I didn’t realize how important some clues were until I unwillingly stumbled upon them. I gladly took his advice to take the longer but easier way via the main highway. As noted I found the little hut at kilometer 16 where I was to turn right, continue past the young rubber plantation and then proceed through many villages. Not once on this 50 kilometer excursion did I cross paths with another foreigner and the furthest I got with any communication were heaps of smiling kids shouting “Hallo” as I passed.

Finally I arrived at a school with the sign Maha Leap written above, but nothing making it obvious that this was indeed the famous wooden pagoda. My timely arrival coincided with their morning break, so all the kids in uniform were out mingling. Clearly lost and confused one teacher addressed me in her best French, to which I replied in English, until it was obvious that neither of us understand one another. As it turns out, the school neighbors the deserted wooden structure built in the 11th century. Nowhere near as interesting as the villages I passed on the way, it goes to demonstrate how little there is to see in Kampong Cham.

I proceeded on the same road for another eight kilometers, in pursuit of a new silk scarf. The same travel site where I had learned about Maha Leap highlights the silk weaving villages nearby. However; without a guide all I saw for the next 8 kilometers were two houses with rows of dyed silk thread hanging in the sun. Plus further down the road were a couple of typical houses on stilts where a few women sat weaving new projects. Unfortunately, no one had finished product to sell so I left there empty handed.

Not convinced that I could find my way back I had to stop a few times to ask for directions. The best was when I reached a crossroads where a few men gathered, and asked, “Excuse me which way to Kampong Cham?” The response was a typical Wizard of Oz Scarecrow reply; with two men pointing in opposite directions and a third guy shaking his hand no to the one pointing to the right. Guess which road I took? It wasn’t until it seemed obvious that I was merely getting deeper and deeper into the village that I realized I was on the alternate route home, clearly the one that my friendly guide had so adamantly warned me against.

This route required driving down a steep dirt road onto a bamboo raft in order to cross to the other side, where another steep dirt road off the river would lead me back to my destination.
Standing there in fear of sliding down the path reminded me of sitting at the top of a black diamond run wishing for a toboggan to take me down. I stood next to the bike until another passenger came along. Using hand gestures and pleading eyes I was most appreciative that the local climbed back up the hill to drive my rental onto the platform. Not so willing to repeat the favor on the other end, luck had it that my bike was blocking another passenger who by default became savior #2.

Compared to the road ahead, I had no business being scared before. Thanks to meditation I just kept reminding myself to breath as I navigated the pot holes and sandy road. I was relieved when I could finally see the bridge and city in the horizon but realized that it was still another 8 or so kilometers in the distance. Oh what a day. I’m ready to go to Phnom Penh, find a clean guesthouse and go to the spa.
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