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Along the Angkor Highways

July 24, 2004

by Jim CA2

As the Kingdom develops, much of the rich heritage will be lost as major commerce centers are connected by newly paved roads that mirror what were once the lifeblood of Angkor history. Today many of the Angkor Highways have been discarded and exist only as lines that once connected the abandoned temples and major commerce centers of Cambodia’s past. With a few old Toul Tom Pong military maps in hand and the Gecko map, Philippe and I plotted out what might be a rewarding ride into areas we haven’t heard too much about but looked like they might be worth investigating. I wanted to seek out some of the prasats (old temples) and speans (bridges) that aren’t publicized nor often visited. Some are dotted on the maps as ruins and some are not even plotted. We were to cover an area northwest from Angkor Wat (what the maps tell us is route 81 out of Psar Pouk) weaving through the countryside towards Samrong. From there we would look around Banteay Chhmar’s lesser prasat neighbors before heading south to Sisophon.

Mark and Ed joined us and we set out late on a motorbike journey that would take us from the start on an ancient highway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Here lie many bridges that have been used for centuries. In the town of Kouk Thlok Kraom there is one of the most notable spans. Everyday thousands of Khmers and tourists travel along this Angkor Highway unaware of the fact that they are traveling on an ancient thoroughfare.

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Here the bridges connected the land as water from the highlands connected to the Tonle Sap Lake beneath them. The section of road south of Kampong Thom is completely paved now and concrete bridges to replace the ancient spans should be finished within the next year. As the road is much better, so is the rate of speed of the vehicles, but fortunately the abundance of cows could help keep traffic in check along the way. We arrived in Siem Reap as the sun was setting but not before stopping at a half dozen small bridges and getting a few pictures along the way.

In Siem Reap we met Lee, the owner of the year-old Temple Bar, with dollar Anchors and two dollar long island ice teas. After that we popped in on Carl and Steven at the Ivy Bar and Guesthouse for dinner.

The next day we set off for Samrong to the northwest, but not until we checked out an abandoned span high and dry at the NW corner of the West Baray. After a few missed turns and many questions to villagers, Philippe picked up a kid from the village and we were able to zero in on the bridge. It was a land locked reef 50 meters long and in the middle of rice fields.

After zig-zagging on levies and trails we missed the exit for NW Angkor Route (Gecko map) 202 to Samrong and wound up on the business route 6 where we were able to pick up the 202 from Psar Toul Pouk a few kilometers up the road.

The road was a little sandy but accessible for 4-wheeled vehicles. Small concrete bridges overshadowed laterite blocks in the channels below. This was a nice ride on tree-lined villages along the way, only interrupted by the sole of my shoe blowing out and a detour to find some 502 superglue. A few "ot miens" up the road I finally got my glue and made the repairs. We were headed for Koul where Mark had seen a small Prasat three weeks earlier on a journey back from Thailand through O'smach. Off to our left farther up the road was construction of a new wat on a laterite base that once stood the Prasat of T’nuang. A quick investigation of the site revealed remains of a brick structure on the other side of the wat. Leaving the wat we hit a clearing and a fork in the road.

But damn we missed the exit for Koul and went left when we should have gone right. One village later where big trucks were bringing in dirt and putting this village in the artery of bigger roads, we opted to turn around and go back to the exit, but of course not before spreading some hospitality to villagers at a house with dump truck maintenance going on in the driveway. In the village of Baeng we asked directions from an ox cart driver to ensure we were still on track. We cut west down a channel in a deep river bed. A rickety wooden bridge possibly capable of handling our bikes connected a levee and below sat rubble where an ancient bridge once stood. A girl of about 16 coming from the opposite direction pushed her bike loaded down with field tools up the loose dirt embankment. Twenty or more meters ahead was an identical scenario (without the girl on bike). A carved stone lay partially buried in the sand on the Koul side of the bridge. We were close.

After a few more kilometers, we arrived at the small Prasat of Koul. Two small stone structures within fortress walls were playing host to a couple of trees. Roots crept down one of the structures to the ground, as a tree gained additional height, reaching for the sky above. A few photos and cuisine of baguettes a la can of tuna dip timed our departure.
Asked a couple of curious locals if there were any more of these things around and they said yes up the road a few hundred meters. Inquiring the name of this Prasat and the next one we were given Wat Koul for both. Not too cool as I made entry for Koul 2 in the GPS, but the family sitting under the house next door pointed it out eliminating all confusion. This place was big. It stretched for a couple of hundred meters. Broken down buildings and fences capped the various mounds they were built on. Four lathed stone pieces lay on the ground. Mark said, "wow, man, look at this." What? Didn’t you see this thing three weeks ago? A hundred meters off the road, and possibly a chicken crossing the road could only be the reason as there were no exits here to be missed. Investigating this temple was cut shorter as we were losing daylight. We wanted to make the north major junction at Moung and get as close to Samrong as we could with out losing daylight. This was Angkor Highway Route 68. This road was better, but still very much country road. Fifty clicks from Samrong we lost daylight. Stopped in a village and contemplated the rest of our journey over a tukralok.

No moon or artificial light allowed the stars to cover the sky horizon to horizon 360 degrees. Stopping the bikes to take this in, I have never seen the big dipper so camouflaged against a sea of stars. With the North Star pegged and traveling north we pushed on knowing that there were no missed exits. A few damaged wooden bridges with planks missing sprung up out of the darkness ensuring we stopped and chose routes appropriately.

Prior to the Samrong traffic circle Philippe got sevah and his phone immediately started ringing. He stopping for a brief chat and I waited at the traffic circle as the others traveled ahead. What kind of conversation is Philippe having? I think I would rather wait down the road where I passed a small drink stand. Half way to the drink stand Philippe had met me. I don’t think this really had any bearing on the scenario but rooms in Samrong go fast. I got the Masonite/plywood suite with the padlock door in the back, down the corridor from the bucket showers. On the bright side, It did have a mosquito net and power for my battery chargers.

Long day, I crossed the road and had a couple a beers on the main drag. Philippe joined me later as Mark and Ed had taken off to a restaurant around the corner. I mentioned to a German guy doing some kind of relief work there, that we're headed off to find some prasats and speans in the country side. He was unaware of such sites and warned us of the imminent land mine danger.

The plywood walls dividing my corridor weren’t too conducive to sleep with snoring next door and the transistor radio from one of the hotel workers playing at 6:30 AM. Ok, finally an earlier start.

Loaded up with Sisophon in mind for the night we ventured south on the 68 to seek out some ancient stuff. My Toul Tom Pong military map indicated ruins starting at Ta Pen 15k south on the road we came in on. Stopping to ask a group of women selling meat at the side of the road, a woman of about 40 seem to be saying O'le Lordy, there are prasats over there and over there. This is music to my ears. Asking names and how far up the road these sites are, a curious crowd gathers around. A short 39-year-old man named Jien Savuang wrapped in just a plaid krama banters in. Ok, you know? What are you doing this afternoon? Saving me a lot of time? Great! He says just a minute and runs off to his house to change into some more appropriate riding gear. He hops on the back of my bike and off into the country side we go. I am not enjoying this as I am loaded down with gear and there is sand and a few ox cart channels. At no more than 29k per hour winding out in first gear hoping not to dump my additional human cargo we start looking for sites.

Our first one was Prasat Ampil, and no more that small brick rubble surrounded by spiny vines which would be par for the course among our following discoveries. We asked if there was any mine danger, but Savuang said Halo had been through the area. Hiking around the sites, however, thoughts crossed my mind of the most important statistic….how many mines in cleared areas go off. After more sand, trees and thin stumps we pulled up to Prasat Preah Angkor, which is a more intact larger prasat with an adjacent pool. A place for a God King to jet off for the weekend perhaps. Savuang didn’t know and I could only speculate. The structure and pond were constructed in larger stones and again entangled in vines.

We were off to our first bridge Spean Meang about 10k away. This was a low structure covered with trees and overgrowth sitting in the rice fields. Time had changed the water patterns as some water pooled at the opposite end of the bridge. A man net-fished in the pond. There was another bridge 1k up the road. This one was not as spectacular. The river ahead had chosen another path over time. This spean could have dammed itself with earth leaving no visible arches, or was it just destroyed over time with a few exposed rocks? I didn’t bring a shovel (or a more needed machete) that day to find out. I suspect drawing a line between the two bridges would have pointed us to another one, but we moved south to join the old highway to have a glimpse at three bridges lined up with in 5k of each other. We would make a stop first at a leveled prasat on a mound engulfed in thorny vines.

We then drove through a nice neighborhood with grass patched lined trails, stopping two times for directions. This was a planned community laid out in a grid pattern and this is where Philippe relieved me of passenger duty. On the outskirts, Savuang exchanged words with a woman friend passing by explaining his reasons for hanging out with the Barangs that day. We took the paths into cleared out rice fields to pick up the Angkor highway again.

The first of our three bridges was the smallest and was in a collapsed state. The nice thing about these ancient bridges….even in a collapsed state there is still a passable route above water as the size of the stones doesn't leave much room to settle in. The wind picked up here and a storm cloud passed to the south, just missing us. The subsequent two spans proved to be larger, more impressive and intact. The second bridge probably covered a pond most of its life but the lack of water this season has left it high and dry.

The sun partially broke through as fast as the storm cloud had appeared at the previous site allowing for some decent snap shots here. A few sections of railings were intact on the second bridge but possible artillery damage had cut two blocks deep into two of the columns on the west side, as it's hard to imagine that the builder received a bad batch of base stones. A laborer cutting massive stones day after day would have seemingly made this discovery so I will leave to the archaeologists the task of surmising a grudge and finding a fossilized whip.

The third bridge in this series was even more magnificent. You can rest assured that this thing will remain standing over the pond for centuries to come. This pond was an oasis for additional vegetation that impeded any chance at getting an encompassing photograph. I climbed down a tree from the bridge to share Philippe’s lower vantage point on the other side of the pond. We took group shots on the bridge and Mark enlightened Savuang on the finer points of digital photography. Savuang was a pretty sharp guy as by the end of the day he had the GPS concept down as well.

It was getting late in the afternoon and we still had two sites left to squeeze in. Mark and Ed decided to give these sites a miss and head back to Samrong. They chose O'smach as their destination for the evening and wanted to make it by sunset. Philippe and I had already decided that another night in Samrong would be fine for us provided we got back in time to get a better guesthouse.

We cut back east and hit the main highway back to Ta Pen south of Chong Kal. Philippe, Savuang and I head south thinking, "man, is it nice to be on decent hard pack again." We travel a few kilometers to a metal bridge and cut right down a trail before crossing it. Not far from the road is Prasat Amkaul as Savuang relates it. A lone single tower with a lotus flower carved out of the top adjoins an enclosed courtyard with windows topped by massive stone headers on the east side wall. The back of the tower has a curved archway.

Back to the metal bridge and southward to what has to be the godfather of all the Angkor bridges. Driving south on the 68 we hit a jungle area and without realizing what lay beneath, we were looking at tree tops and overgrown shrubs growing out from the edge of the road concealing a bridge below. Only small sections of railing peeking out of the growth would indicate this.

This Spean Oh Jeeit spans 100 meters and towers10 to 15 meters above the ground. I looked through the bushes over the edge and can see its not a good spot for an unsuspecting motorist to fly off the road. We were awestruck. Waterlines on the bridge indicated the need for the height of such a structure but the magnitude to employ the bridge building techniques of ancient times makes this all the more remarkable. Having filled a day where one site consistently outdid the previous, it was time to head back to Samrong and grab a decent room.

We stopped back in Chong Kal for refreshments before taking Savuang back to Ta Pen. Once in Ta Pen we rewarded Savuang generously for showing us the wonders of his back yard.

About 7km up the road we got hit by our first rain. We ducked into a covered vacant roadside stand. Philippe immediately grabbed the hammock. I laid back on a wooden platform. We were soon joined by some curious children from the neighboring houses. A pick up truck full of bac packers that probably got in thru O'smach drove by. Philippe and I talked about how they were going to pass right over that massive bridge and not have any idea of its existence. A big blue Russian truck loaded down with what-have-you passed us heading north. They’re more likely aware of the bridge, but probably more concerned with getting their goods to market. We got into Samrong before dark and checked into the Stang Toek Guesthouse for five bucks. I don’t mind two and a half times last night's price for concrete walls, bath and TV. Unnecessary AC will run another five. We ate a nice dinner down the street and around the corner towards O'smach. A few drinks in the watering holes on Main Street then a much welcomed night’s sleep.

Philippe and I got an earlier start and headed west out of Samrong towards the site of Banteay Chhmar under overcast skies. The road is relatively good hard pack with some potholes tossed in to keep your attention for all the dangerous wooded bridges along the way. We passed four military guys on a pair of motos, stopped and were passed, passed them again, and so on. I had a bottle of water wedged between my bungee cords that fell off somewhere. I had written it off, but when the military guys passed again and I recovered an airborne hat that blew off one of the guys, I was rewarded with the return of my bottle of water. We made another stop along the way where villagers were pulling fish from a mud pit that was once a pond. A small boy shared his catch of baby snakes he had stuffed in the half shell of a coconut. We snapped a few shots and exchanged some words with the locals and made our way to Banteay Chhmar.

Arriving in Banteay Chhmar I stopped to get a few pictures of the temple from across the moat. Philippe continued on to the market. Banteay Chhmar wasn’t on our itinerary this time as I had made a visit last November with Jake who was then doing some finishing touches on his book Adventure Cambodia. Philippe had also previously visited the site. Banteay Chhmar is indeed a fantastic site and is worth visiting. One will notice similarities to the Bayon in Siem Reap; walls with fantastic relief work surround the temple and inside are Apsaras, Vishnus and Nagas sitting adjacent to towers with the famous four-headed Bayon faces. Entry to the site is negotiable at two to five dollars. Looters have ravaged this site, but there are efforts to preserve much of the fantastic carvings that remain there.

I met up with Philippe at the market at one corner of Banteay Chhmar. We had some fruit and shared some laughs with the vendors. A group of girls challenged me to participate in Klah Klok, the board gambling game with six pictured squares in which you place your money. They laughed at this barang knowing the names of Klah (tiger) and the Dtray (fish) pictures on the board; however the girl running the game became scared when my initial 500 riel turned into 3000 riel. Luck was on my side, but wanting to get out of there alive I made an effort to gamble it away back to the house. The girl was relieved and I tipped her 200 riel for the enjoyment.

Back in discovery mode Philippe and I headed beyond the local wat and down a country road. Where is the prasat we asked the villagers? They told us 500 meters up the road so after a kilometer we figured we missed the exit and turned around. Some guys on a trailer towed by one of those multi purpose tractor/plow pieces of machinery said go farther up the road. We turned around again and cut left on a trail the first chance we got. Out of the trees a wall of laterite stones appeared. This wasn’t just a small wall, this turned out to be walls of a massive baray. No wonder we missed the prasat as it sat dead center of the dried out baray easily a couple hundred meters from us. A couple of boys pointed out the cluster of trees in the center of the baray and said the prasat was in there. “OK, show us!” As one thing I learned on this trip, employing the help of the locals really saves a lot of time.

We drove across the rice fields, parked our bikes at a tree line and hiked into the bush. We walked over a levee that revealed another large dry moat, crossing a second levee where another small moat surrounded the prasat. The boy called it Mebon. I contemplated if it was consistent that prasats in barays are named Mebon such as the Mebon in the west baray at Siem Reap or the Mebon in what used to be the east baray. Mebon was shrouded in thorny vines. A series of small rectangular structures with carved relief work made up this site. Ornately carved cross-legged seated wise men with beards are a dominate theme here. Some are well preserved as indicated by the lines of hair carved in their beards. After investigating this site we tipped the boys for the tour and watching our bikes and moved on. We made an effort to follow the baray completely around the site but the trail became thin and started to cut through high sectioned rice fields with little clearance for our bikes. We turned around and made our exit back into town through the wat across the street from Banteay Chhmar. If you have the Gecko map and locate Banteay Chhmar, you will see a square section of water. This is in fact a man made baray. I suspect if this season had not have been as dry as it was; we would have had to cross water filled rice paddies in order to reach the temple.

When you arrive at Banteay Chhmar from Sisophon following the road straight at the big sign marking the site instead of going right, there is a school project on the left that teaches traditional silk weaving. We made a brief stop there and spoke with a French woman running the school and some of the students. It is worth a visit and there are some nice pieces available for sale. Twenty dollars well spent we took off to the south on the road to Sisophon.

About 7km south of the sign marking the Banteay Chhmar site on the east side of the road is a laterite sign in Khmer marking the turn off to the site of Banteay Toup. We made a left turn and on a high levee road, we traveled another 2km. There Banteay Toup sits across rice fields with its three towers reaching for the sky. Along the road to the base of the temple we could see the wall construction that made up the outer walls of a moat. A couple of terraced walls created the pedestal for the temple grounds. One of the towers has partially collapsed and another seems content to follow as it appears to be leaning. But what an architectural feat to construct massive towers over the large arches at the base. Squared off columns with headers that stood alone surrounded the site and at one time must have made up a series of promenades. We spent a good hour and a half at the site marveling at its construction and wondered what it must have been like when it was active centuries ago. The clouds gave way to some sun light and blue skies creating a great photo opportunity.

Banteay Toup was the icing on the cake for a trip that rewarded us with more prasats and speans that we had imagined. The rest of the journey to Sisophon is on decent road and one can easily make the journey in a hired taxi. The rest of my journey to Sisophon was highlighted by smiling girls on bikes transporting large plastic containers of water and a moto driver transporting a pig twice his size on the back of his moto. Moreover this was topped when I stopped to photograph and oxcart in a pool with a motorized pump, extracting water into a rice paddy. A guy on a moto pulls up and says “Hey you want to buy an eagle?” He pulls out a baby eagle from a krama around his waist. “No I’m not in the market for any eagles today.” And besides my bike's too loaded down to transport him.

We pulled into Sisophon before sunset and secured a room at the Phnom Svay Hotel. Air-con, cable and hot water will run 10 dollars and the booked-out fan rooms run half that. Over the bridge on the road to Battambang we had dinner in one of the few Preak Leap style restaurants that are springing up. A nice meal and a few beers later I hit the rack.

The next morning we left Sisophon about 11:15 AM under drizzling conditions. Donned the raingear on when it seemed eminent that the weather wasn’t going to cooperate. The road to Battambang is nicely paved. We passed a nice temple site with a Buddha on a hill but will make that stop another time. Forty five minutes later we were in Battambang. Philippe made a brief stop and I continued on. The road to Battambang from Phnom Penh is pretty much completed. There is still work taking place between Pursat and Kampong Chhnang but it was a lot closer to completion than it was last November. We made an hour stop in Kampong Chhnang for dinner and made it to Phnom Penh around seven PM just in time for the Saturday night dahleng traffic all the way down the riverfront.

If you decide to see Banteay Chhmar and don’t have your own wheels, buses leave the Central Market regularly to Battambang and Poipet. It's about a six to seven hour journey to Sisophon. Hire a moto or a taxi to take you on a day trip to Banteay Toup and Banteay Chhmar. Tourist and travelers with a little more time on their hands should also stop in Battambang for a couple of nights where you can see four prasats and the wat on top of Phnom Sampauv. – Jim CA2



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