The Temples of Cambodia
I never really warmed to Phnom Penh and I cannot really put my finger on why. It cannot be the noise, the fumes or the amount of people as I have visited places that were more crowded, noisier and had more air pollution than Phnom Penh and which I still liked better. However, I guess it is still worth spending a day or two in Cambodia’s capital. Phnom Penh is a relatively small city which can easily be navigated on foot, which I generally like as it gives you a better feel of the place. So I spend a day ambling around Phnom Penh walking from my hotel to Wat Phnom (the highest point in Phnom Penh at about 30m), via the Royal Palace, the National Museum and the food section of the Central Market, where I had lunch consisting of noodle soup and Rambutan. The Central Market is absolutely huge and if you are into shopping it is probably an interesting place to visit.
The most interesting museum in Phnom Penh and unfortunately also the most depressing is the Tuol Sleng Museum, the former High School that was taken over by the security forces of Pol pot and turned into the Security Prison 21 (S-21). The security services kept meticulous records of all the detained and the photographs of the prisoners , most of which where taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and killed, are now displayed in the museum making for a pretty harrowing visit.
My plan was to go from Phnom Phen to Siam Reap via Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Vihear Khan in the Preah Vihear Khan Province, Prasat Preah Vihear, Koh Ker and Beang Meala. Thus after two days in Phnom Pen I took the bus to Siam Reap and got out in Kompong Thom where I dropped off my rucksack at the Sambor Village Hotel before meeting up with Mr. Vothea of the Tourist Transportation Association Kompong Thom (TTAK) with whom I had arranged to take me to the various temples before leaving for Cambodia. Arranging this tour with the TTAK was very easy as Mr. Vothea promptly replied to all my e-mails and provided me with all the details I needed. The 4 day trip cost about $320 (not including accommodation and food). This is probably not the cheapest way to see these temples but it had the advantage that I was driving in a modern air-conditioned SUV and that I did not loose large amounts of time trying to get there by public transport or by hitch-hiking. Preah Vihear Khan is especially difficult to get to and the only way I could think of doing it was either hiring a driver from Kompong Thom or from Siam Reap.
Sambor Prei Kuk
Before setting of for Preah Vihear Khan and Prasat Preach Vihear, I visited Sambor Prei Kuk which is only 30 km north of Kompong Thom and can be easily reached from Kompong Thom either by tuk-tuk, moto or car. Sambor Prei Kuk consists of three different complexes: the North Group (Prasat Sambor), the Central Group (Prasat Tao) and the South Group (Prasat Yeay Poan) all of which can be reached by foot> Moreover, there are other small temples dotted around the site. When I visited Sambor Prei Kuk at the beginning of July I had the whole site virtually to myself which was a pleasant surprise. I can only put the lack of visitors down to the fact that I was travelling slightly off the beaten track (only very slightly) during the low season, which in my opinion is the best time to visit Cambodia if you want to visit the temples. Moreover Sambor Prei Kuk was probably not that much on people’s radar at that stage. However, this might well have changed now as Sambor Prei Kuk, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site round about the time I visited.
The temple complex at Sambor Prei Kuk is one of the oldest in Cambodia and dates back to the Pre-Angkorian Chenla Kingdom (late 6th to 9th century A.D.), established by king Isanavarma I in 613 A.D. as central royal sanctuary and capital, known then as Isanapura. The Chenla Kingdom, a direct ancestor of the Khmer Empire, first appears in Chinese Chronicles as a vassal of the Funan Kingdom. Around 550 C.E. The Chenla Kingdom became independent and over the next 60 or so years it succeeded to conquer the Funan. Most buildings were built under the reign of King Isanavarman I and are mainly constructed out of brick, a characteristic of pre-Angkorian structures. Later on, Chenla was divided into north and south states, of which the Chinese Chronicles refer to as ‘Land Chenla’ and ‘Water Chenla’, respectively. The centre of the northern Chenla was at the Champassak province in today’s southern Laos, where you can find the impressive temples at Wat Phu. Southern Chenla occupied the former Funan’s territory along the Mekong Delta and the coast. In 715, both Chenla states were further broken up into several smaller states. In 790 a young Cambodian prince, claiming to be descended from the rulers of Funan, was consecrated in eastern Cambodia under the title Jayavarman II. In 802 A.D. the Khmer empire was founded, which saw a switch of power from Isanapura to Angkor Wat (near Siem Reap), which would be the centre of power in the area for the next 600 years.
The day after visiting Sambor Prei Kuk, we left Kompong Thom for Preah Khan which is about 150km north of Kompong Thom. The drive took about 3 to 4 hours (including a lunch break) as not all the roads are fully surfaced and some of the dirt roads contained some large potholes. However, overall the roads to the temple seemed to be in pretty good nick and I got the impression that it should be possible to get to the temple all-year round. From what I gathered when reading up about the temple this has not always been the case. After visiting Sambor Prei Kuk I thought that the number of tourists could not possibly decrease any further, but they did – here I was the only visitors, even the guards at the entrance said that they had not seen a single visitor in a day or two. When you get you Preach Khan make sure that your driver takes you to all the small temples which are dotted around. The one I liked best was the one located in the middle of the barray, called Prasat Preach Thkol, although this might require getting your feet wet. The other two temples I visited are the ‘Elephant Temple’ (Prasat Damrei) at the west end of the barray and the ‘Temple of Four Faces’ (Prasat Preah Stung).
Preah Khan (Preah Vihear Province)
Preah Khan in the Preah Vihear Province is another temple thaat was pretty much devoid of visitors, even though it is the largest single religious complex ever built during Angkorian era. The whole complex covers more than 25 square kilometers. The main complex of the temple was built during the reign of three kings: Suryavarman I (1011-1050), Suryavarman II (1113-1150), and Javavarman VII (1181-1215). With regard to the general layout of temple, it is surrounded by four enclosure walls. The main sanctuay and outer enclosure are suggested to have been built by King Suryaravarman I; the second enclosure dated to the period of Suryavarman II. ; and the 3rd and the completion of the 4th enclosure, and baray are attributed to King Jayavarman VII.
Unfortunately, large parts of the complex have been damaged by thieves while looting sculptures and carvings. In particular the central tower collapsed in 2004 during a looting attempt.
Overnight we stayed in a ‘homestay’ in a small village close to Preah Khan. Before dinner I wandered around the village and watched people harvesting the rice from their rice paddies. Dinner, which was very tasty, consisted of some form of ‘lemony chicken’ and rice, which was very different from what you are normally served in restaurants. Unfortunately, I was not able to ask how to prepare it as I would not have minded having it again. Looking it up on the web so far has not been successful.
The next morning we left for Prasat Preah Vihear, breakfast consisting of deep-fried bananas which Mr. Vothea purchased on the way. Prasat Preah Vihear is located in the north of Cambodia on the border with Thailand and the drive took another three hours or so.
Prasat Preah Vihear
Unfortunately private drivers are not allowed to drive right up to the temple, which is situated on top of a cliff overlooking Thailand and Cambodia. Thus my driver dropped me off a the information center in Kor Muy from where it is another 5km to the temple itself. At the information center you buy your ticket and arrange for transport to the temple. I choose to ride at the back of of a motorcycle which was fine for the first few kilometres where the road was in a good condition and the ascend was not too steep. But the last two kilometres are extremely steep and the condition of the road gets worse and worse until you are basically driving over rock. I have to say I was happy when I got off the motocycle and did not quite look forward to the way back. As it turned out the way back was actually worse as there was a torrential downpour!! This was indeed one of the few days where the rain started to come down earlier than I expected and I got completely soaked. You can see the ominous build up of clouds, which resulted in a more dramatic atmosphere, in some of the pictures below.
From Prasat Preah Vihear we drove to Sra Em where we stayed overnight before driving to Siam Reap via Koh Ker and Beng Meala. Of these two temples I much preferred the former one. For some reason I found Beng Meala a bit disappointing but I am not entirely sure why. It is definitely impressive as most of it is covered in dense vegetation and you get a good idea what it looked like when it was first discovered assuming your imagination allows you to blend out the many tourists. Maybe that was the cause for my disappointment – after Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Khan and Prasat Preah Vihear which I virtually had to myself, this was the first temple where I encountered large crowds. Moreover, as there is only one path through the temple the crowds cannot really disperse and you end up jostling for space.
Trip to Banteay Chhmar
In order to get to Banteay Chhmar I took the bus from Siam Reap to Sisophon (also called Banteay Meanchey) where I was picked up by a driver from the Community Based Tourist Association Visit Banteay Chhmar . They provide homestays and drivers/guides to the Banteay Chhmar temple and its satellite temples, as well as further afield such as some small and little-visited temples on the Thai-Cambodian borders. I have to say that the homestay they provided for me was excellent, the people were very friendly and the room was very clean. Dinner was provided at the CBTs centre in Banteay Chhmar.
The main attraction is obviously the Banteay Chhmar Temple which is very similar to Beng Meala in the sense that it is completely overgrown and it gives you a good sense of what this places must have looked like when the first European archaeologists turned up. In that sense both temples are pretty atmospheric. However, I much preferred Banteay Chhmar to Beng Meala since you can just wander around the temple complex as you wish and, as it is relatively remote I only shared the place with one Canadian and one Russian tourist.
Banteay Chhmar is surrounded by 9 satellite temples and slightly further afield is Banteay Top. Somebody from the CBT Association took me around to these temples on the back of a moped, which, this time round, felt more comfortable than the trip up to Prasat Preah Vihear.
On my last day in Banteay Chhmar I visited several small temples on the Thai-Cambodian border one of them, Prasat Ta Muen Thom, doubling up as a military camp. It is possible to visit the temple without any problems although turning up with my CBT guide and a bag full of cigarettes probably helped a lot.