Temples, temples, temples
Jan 23, 2007
|We joined up with Kay and Richard
(from Australia and New Zealand respectively), who we'd met in Kratie, for an amazing road trip from Phnom Penh, up to Kompong Thom, Tbeng Meanchey and then to Prasat Preah Vihear on the northern border of Cambodia and Thailand. The trip took several days and we stayed at several dusty and neglected towns along the way. Our driver, Mab,
was brilliant, negotiating some really hairy roads in the 4 x 4 while we hung on tightly and got relentlessly bounced around. On our first day, we did a trip that was the equivalent of going to Devon and back in one day!! (Not in distance terms but in time and on tracks one could scarcely believe were possible to negotiate. Indeed, most of the jungle tracks we followed are only just negotiable during the dry season and, at times, we had to work hard to persuade Mab (who had last undertaken such a trip three years previously) to keep going.
We were particularly careful to stay on the tracks as this part of the country is still littered with mines and, every once in a while, we came across a mobile camp of de-miners working in the relentless heat under canvas.
At Prasat Preah Vihear,
we had to abandon our car for four individual motorcycles to take us up the 35 degree incline - a hair-raising journey (both going up and coming down) of about 20 minutes. It is planned to repair the track from the Cambodian side but for the time being, it is not a journey for the faint-hearted (unless you are approaching from the Thai side, in which case there is a smooth road all the way!)
If anyone asks me what I think of Cambodia, my abiding memory will have to be of the thick red dusty tracks with deep craters and ridges - the so-called infrastructure remains undeveloped bar a couple of tarmaced roads between the capital and Siem Reap.There is also a massive nightly 'slash and burn' that takes place throughout the entire countryside, making it resemble a war zone, scarring the forests and making one feel as if you are in the midst of bush fire with smoke-filled nostrils.; and then, there are the hidden and inaccessible treasures in the way of hugely elaborate temples covering many kilometres, each with wide reservoirs that have existed for over a thousand years. There really are like something out of Raiders of the Lost Arc.
These temples, are invariably reached by myriad tracks in the jungle, f
flimsy bridges and the occasional dirt poor villages along the way. Not surprisingly, these out of the way structures
are little visited and we seldom encountered any other visitors along the way, although, to our surprise, gaggles of kids
would appear from nowhere to try and sell us handmade bracelets and silk scarves. Instead, we walked alongside them, exchanging language lessons and there are now at least 10 Khmer children who know the word 'Octagon'. (Unlike the ones in Siem Reap who have been taught that Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland and that Londoners all say "lovely jubley" and "me old mate"!)
Fortunately, most of our road trip was in daylight hours because, as we discovered, driving at night is extremely hazardous with pigs, kids, motorcycles with no lights, tractors, chickens and cattle hopping out in front of us at every turn. Our driver, Mab, beeped and tooted his way through the countryside and we were relieved to get back in one piece each night!
We stayed at some fairly scuzzi guesthouses (but cheap at $7 for the two of us), so it was relief to find a really nice place (with swimming pool to Alan's delight) in Siem Reap, a busy town that caters for the coach loads visiting Angkor Wat and its surrounds. This was the former capital of Cambodia and it's difficult (if not impossible) to convey the scale of temple and citadel building that took place between around 800 AD and 1200 AD. Everywhere is evidence of a sophisticated ancient civilisation that moved mountains of stone over 50 km (by river and elephant) to build the most monstrously large and intricately carved religious buildings in the whole world. We figure that the entire population of 1 million must have been entirely deployed in the building and decoration of these temples, which show the Hindu, and Buddhist cultural influences that ebbed and waned. Sadly, there is also evidence of considerable looting and damage and, in one instance, one of the major temples was in the middle of some serious reconstruction work in the 80s when, thanks to the Khmer Rouge, all the careful labelling and classification of the rocks that had been dismantled was lost, leaving archaeologists with perhaps the largest jigsaw puzzle in the world.
Cambodia is about the size of England and Wales, 23% of which is designated as national park (although the ability to police poachers is severely limited). Around Siem Reap, however, there are some magnificent trees which have successfully survived to reach heights of around 35m. Tomorrow, we are doing our usual early morning start in order to see The Big One (Angkor Wat) as dawn breaks at 6.00am. After that, we think we'll be catching a six hour boat to Cambodia's third city, Battambong, on the massive Tonle Sap lake, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia and linked to the Mekong. During the wet season, this lake increases from 2500 sq km to 13,000 sq km and more than 10m deep from 2m. This must be quite a sight!