More Tomb Raidering
Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
80Trip End Apr 08, 2006
People questioned my motives on friday afternoon ("Why are you going to Kompong Thom?") but I believe that is because they knew nothing of what was there. The town supposedly had no attractions itself, but just 30km away lay the largest group of pre-Angkorian ruins in the country, the city of Sambor Pre Kuk. That alone would take up half a day, and word from my elementary class was that Phnom Suntok could fill an hour or two the following morning. This was confirmed by a fellow teacher at ACE, "You know, Phnom Suntok is ALMOST worth visiting".
My friend Jono, a fellow Australian training judges in Phnom Penh, and I met at central market around 7:30am on saturday morning to catch a bus bound for Siem Reap. After my share-taxi disaster on the way back from Tbeng Meanchey in May, I was not willing to subject myself to that torture again, and I assured Jono I knew where we had to jump off the bus. The ride was uneventful, and we arrived in Kompong Thom at about midday, after a short stop for lunch. We checked into a nice hotel overlooking the river running through the town (whose level had risen considerably in the month since I'd last passed through) and then sought out a place that would let us rent motorbikes for the afternoon.
Sambor Pre Kuk seemed easy enough to find, however after about 20 minutes on the road I soon forgot about our destination. The month of July was certainly a wet one, and this showed in the countryside of Kompong Thom province. No longer was the countryside a dusty brown, but instead a vibrant green, promise of a massive harvest in the coming months. Children by the side of the road stopped and stared, and ox-carts refused to give any room on the road. Which was fair enough really, considering they were the main form of transportation in these parts.
We arrived at Sambor Pre Kuk around 1:30pm. According to my map, the complex was made up of three sites, about 300m apart. The first was uninspiring to begin with. There were 8 small temples, remarkably similar to those near Koh Ker and the Khleangs in Angkor Thom. One main difference was that the central one was octagonal, and this was pointed out to me by a young girl who came running over as soon as she saw me. She brought with her a group of about a dozen children, all whose main aim was to sell a krama to Jono or myself. This site, known as "Prasat Sambor" was a little interesting because of the crumbling ruins, pre-dating Angkor Wat by 400 years, however they were difficult to appreciate because of the children who were hounding us.
Jono soon put his headphones in, and we started wandering off on our own, towards another small temple that was just visible through the forest. The kids refused to leave, and in the end we decided that they were going to be part of the experience, and we weren't going to shake them off. Oh well, I guess if I had a choice between cute (albeit a little loud) Khmer children and obnoxious snap happy Japanese tourists ruining the serene atmosphere, I know which I'd have chosen!
We continued south to the next set of ruins, Prasat Yeau Puoen, around 300m from Prasat Sambor (with kids in tow). The site that greeted me here, a little before Jono, was as breathtaking as those I saw in Siem Reap a month earlier, although in a much more subtle way. As the sandy trail began to bend, I could see between some trees what I thought was the doorway to a temple. Then it disappeared, and all I could see were trees. Then it flashed in front of me again for a split second. As I got closer, the site revealed itself. A giant strangler fig had completely destroyed a small temple. And I don't mean that it was growing on top of the temple, as those at Ta Prohm and Beng Mealea were, but it had totally destroyed it. All that remained of the temple was the doorway and one wall, held in place only by the root of the tree. Grazing below this temple were about 20 cows, each with there own bell. The sound of cow bells and khmer children singing at the site of a 1400 year old temple, with no other souls to be seen! I imagine the site that greeted people at Siem Reap soon after the Khmer Rouge regime and Vietnamese occupancy was not dissimilar. It was bliss!
Jono and I (and the kids) sat at the site of this temple for about twenty minutes, taking in the scene behind it. We could see about 10 temples of similar size, in between the trees. This place was totally unlike any other temple complex I'd visited. Sure, the temples were familiar, but it was the layout that really impressed me. There was no massive temple mountain with towers, or centrepiece to astonish, but instead simply numerous small temples dotted throughout the jungle. The kids followed Jono to one of these temples, where they began climbing a tree. It was at about this point in time that I realised I didn't want the kids to go anymore, but I wanted them to stay with us. There was something really special about them. I could see it in their eyes. A wisdom I don't think I ever had as a kid. They seemed innocent enough, and I felt really glad to think that I was being given a guided tour by the direct descendants of the people who built this ancient city in the 7th century. They were a really beautiful group of children, and I tried not to think of anything else about them that would change my mind.
We stayed at Prasat Yeau Puoen for quite a while looking inside a number of the temples, including the biggest one, which Jono and I both agreed was "the mothership"! The clouds were beginning to gather, and the children were obviously a little anxious to show us the third site before the heavens opened. We followed them to Prasat Tao, which was nothing but a few bricks in the middle of the jungle except for the centrepiece, being the biggest temple at the site. Flanking the entrance to this temple were two ornately carved stone lions.
We followed the kids back to our motorbikes where we bought them some drinks and bade farewell. I felt they had been wonderful company! We rode to one other small temple, a nice surprise in the middle of the jungle, again completely engulfed by a strangler fig. An old man walked by with four cows, a log and an axe, reminding us of the remoteness of the location. However, it was now 4:45pm, and we'd agreed to have the bikes back by 5/5.30pm, so we decided to make tracks.
The first fifteen minutes of the journey was serene. The green countryside, with beautiful rice paddies and flat pools of water was a spectacular site. Jono, riding in front of me, pointed south to one of the huge black storm clouds that seemed to have come out of nowhere. No more than five minutes later the rain began. It only took me thirty seconds to get my raincoat on, but in this time I was already saturated from head to toe. This was a fierce downpour. We contemplated taking shelter, but decided that the light was only going to get worse, so we pressed on. It took about an hour to get back to Kompong Thom, and the rain didn't cease. It was horrendous. There was one awful patch of about five minutes where we were riding head on into the wind, and the rain seemed to pick up. It was difficult riding, but we made it! We grabbed a very Khmer dinner at a small restaurant I remember eating at on my way to and from Tbeng Meanchey in May, and then went to bed around 10pm.
We planned to ride out to Phnom Suntok the next morning, however Jono was feeling a little under the weather, so I went at it alone. Phnom Suntok was much less remote than Sambor Pre Kuk, so I had no concerns about riding a moto out there on my own. Phnom Suntok was described in my guidebook as being "a buddhist theme park", with carvings of the buddha made into boulders at the top of the hill. This was reached by climbing no less than 980 steps! And it was a mission to get there! It was quite surreal at the top. Colourful temples, stupas and statues amidst the forest, with huge boulders scattered around, between which was a magnificent view over the rice fields below. I spent about 45 minutes here, before heading back to Kompong Thom where we got a bus back to Phnom Penh.
It was a fantastic weekend away, and I feel rejuvinated enough to take on the rest of term now. I have decided to stay on in Cambodia for a third term, simply because I am enjoying teaching at ACE so much, and I am really settled here. There are many more trips on the cards, with a two week venture in Northern Laos at the end of term being the one I'm really looking forward to. Hopefully the fact my visa will be in a cancelled, damaged passport won't cause me any problems!