Around the Lake and More!
August 27, 2005
by Jim CA2
Since I had never been on the road connecting Sisophon to Siem Reap, I wanted a clear picture of what the tourist were complaining about when they came overland from Thailand. This journey would encompass that and a beautiful segment between Battambang and Prasat Ek Phnom about 13 K north of the city. I also wanted to make a stop at Prasat Andaet, 20K north of Kampong Thom on the way home. I accomplished all of my goals and was elated to make a trip to the Pyramid Temple of Ko Ker, and find a few more temples between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh as well. This trip took 5 days and we covered about 1100Ks.
Day one I was destined for Battambang and got out of bed early enough, having time to spare to visit the temple at Ek Phnom in the same day. The road to Battambang is all good and with out stops you can get there in 4 hours. We made a brief stop at a wat about 20K out of town adding another half hour to our trip. A large Bayon headed gateway marks the entrance to the wat. Inside the grounds a group of school girls peered at the fish from a scaffold pier over a large pond and massive colorful statues decorated the grounds. It is well worth a brief look on the way.
Arriving in Battambang we passed the large statue marking the entrance to the city, then crossed the river into town to find accommodations. The Angkor Hotel on the riverfront was full, and the Teo Hotel had a group of white people getting out of a minivan getting ready to check in so we doubled back to the Park Hotel on the other side of the river. AC, cable hot water for 11 bucks in a new hotel overlooking a nice little park that had a pond with the classical mermaid and monkey statue (Suwan Macha and Hanuman) as the center piece. No sooner than we dropped off our gear and got ready to head out, the sky opened up with a heavy tropical downpour. We weren’t going anywhere. Local children took advantage of the rains and headed to the pool in the park. Climbing up the statue, they took turns doing back flips off of the mermaids raised hands. The rains would persist through the night, and our night tour of the city in rain gear only reinforced an early evening.
We wanted to get an early start the next day and the Khmers checking out and yelling through the corridors of the hotel the next morning guaranteed it. The clear skies and bright sun set the stage for a great day ahead. It was the road to the 11 th Century ruins of Ek Phnom that I was interested in. I had done the trip to the temple before under hurried conditions and back to Battambang in the dark. This time I had the luxury of taking my time. The road burrows through lush tropical surroundings. Banana trees and coconut palms cast shade upon the road as it weaves along a small waterway. Villagers were up early and many houses had flour egg roll wrappers on large grates aimed at the sun like solar panels maximizing the drying time. There were a few covered bridges arching over the waterway connecting the village on the other side of the river. A little girl crossed single poled foot bridge guarded by a resting cow while downstream a man fished with his young son. Every hundred meters I felt compelled to stop to photograph this little Garden of Eden.
A large grey Buddha looking to the east towered over the temple grounds and the ruins were in the back. There is a $2.00 fee that allows entrance to Ek Phnom as well as Banan, south of town. It was nice for once to see the sun shining on the front of a temple as my body clock usually only permits me see the sun lit west side of a temple. This temple is constructed of massive rocks and much of the fancy relief work has been pillaged, but other than that the temple is still in pretty good condition. A large wall surrounds the grounds. There is a country road leading away from the back side of the temple that we would take us to Route 5. Though more open and less picturesque as the way in, it is a nice ride. It was also interesting to see the various scare crows that the villagers had poised at the gates to their property. I don’t know what the intent, other than to scare away evil spirits, as animals and other people seemed quite cognoscente of their inanimateness. I was fascinated by the creativity that went into some of them. One had a kids mask for a face and a patterned scarf gave the illusion of a face on another. Another knelt leaning cross armed on a farm tool. The Wizard would have been more than pleased to give brains to these creations. This completed the Battambang leg of our journey, but one can easily take in Banan, Phnom Sampau and Ek Phnom on a 3 day two night trip from Phnom Penh.
Route 5 from Battambang to Sisophon is paved and smooth going. There are currently a couple of bridge projects in progress but nothing major to hinder any travel time.
Sisophon to Siem Reap. As many of Cambodia’s dirt tracks are replaced with nice paved roads, it is hard to believe that this heavily trafficked artery of tourist flow and commerce between Siem Reap and Poipet remains one of the best remaining dirt bike touring trails in the country (apart from the dirt track to Martinis)! I could believe the rumors of Bangkok Airways paying off government officials to keep this road in poor condition and I can also see how commerce between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap would stand to benefit cutting off the shorter movement of goods from Thailand. I stopped at the Sokimex Station on the east side of town to fuel up, oil the chain and wait for my partner to arrive, but some how we missed each other and would each do the segment solo. I peered past a sculpture at the motos, trucks and shared taxis lined up to take off as if cuing up for a muddy adventure ride at an amusement park. This was part of my adventure, but tourist describe it as the bus ride from hell. If they looked at it as a bonus adventure to this remote third world country, they might feel different about the experience. This is what it was like through out the country as little as 2 years ago. A 250cc dirt bike allows one the enjoyment of bouncing down the road, no waiting for hours at small bridge crossings, and rest stops at will to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the way. Not far into my journey was my first bad bridge crossing. Large trucks lined the side of the road making way for buses and taxis to line up for their turn. I moved right around to the front to follow a shared taxi being walked across the metal structure. Crowds stood by and watched as if having a side bet as to when the bridge would collapse. A large flat piece of metal bent skyward adjacent to the taxi and the metal pieces below weren’t in much better condition as they seemed to be draped over the cross beams forming a zigzag pattern. Apparently something a little too heavy had crossed recently.
I made a stop where two girls under orange umbrellas were on both sides of the road and a grass stall sat in front of a statue of 4 ancient soldiers flanking a lone horseman. They were collecting donations for a wat. A man in the grass shack began to pick up a microphone, but I immediately told him I stopped to talk to you and the girls, not the neighborhood (or the rest of the country for that matter). They got a kick out of that and it’s amazing how even in the remote countryside they know how to say mouy dollar. I thought my 1000 Riel note in each of the girls bowls looked just fine sitting on those little 100 Riel denominations.
Farther up the road 3 guys filtered the wetlands for fish at the base of a bell curved mountain with nets tied to bamboo poles. Five old women with umbrellas to shield them from the hot sun were walking a good distance to their village. They were coming home from a bon they had attended earlier. I asked if there were any old temples in the neighborhood and they said there were about 10 kilometers back, then up the road north. I marked the point with the GPS for a later date and continued on. My last stop along the way was for a little more diving competition at a shallow creek. Kids were jumping from the bridge and a few were doing flips from a tree on the bank. Pretty good stuff, but not recommended due to the muddy chocolate milk water hiding any rock or debris on the bottom. Not much farther I hit tarmac that went for about 30K into town. This picturesque 100k of the trip was pleasurable under sunny, blue rainy season skies, and I am sure the overland travelers on the busses still waiting to cross the damaged bridge thought so too. I had a few beers and another early night in Siem Reap, as the next day would be icing on the cake to what had already been a great ride.
The Ko Ker Superhighway. Two and a half years ago I read a piece on Ko Ker (locals will say Ko Kay) in the Pearnik. Since then a number of riders have shared some pictures of their journey to the temple. I could never make the journey. Now was my opportunity and it was well worth the wait. I have discovered living here that there is no riding season. Riding season often is described when the rain stops and people come from all over to escape miserable winters and get out to Cambodia’s remote areas when riverbeds are dry. Trees loose their leaves and the ground is covered with dead vines. Dust or mud, riding season is year round and you just have to choose what to see, when, and seasonably what is the best way to get there. Packing the right equipment for the conditions is paramount.
This would be my last early morning start of the trip as it is 130K to the temple from Siem Reap and we calculated possibly 3 hours each way. We raced down Route 6 to Dam Daek where we would head north. This is the same turn off for getting to Route 66 which I did just over 2 years ago. I was surprised to see the road work in progress to Beng Melea. Tarmac surface covers the first 15 kilometers north of Route 6 and replaced the dirt track I traveled before. The tarmac gave way to freshly graded dirt and 4 concrete bridges were going in. This only confirmed my belief that the heavier traveled Sisophon-Siem Reap road condition was intentional. The skies were dark ahead so at the turn off to Banteay Srey we stopped to talk to some local girls and donned the rain gear. Just as we got our gear on, the sky began to dump buckets of rain. The road was a muddy mess, but we pressed on. Once again we hit tarmac which would lead us to a roadside check point. We were told that there was a 10 dollar fee that would get us into the 12th century Beng Melea and 10th century Ko Ker sites. We made the donation but I could see that the country was aggressively getting ready to sell the hell out of these two sites. Get there soon! A girl washed her hair in the downpour and we hit the trail again. I wasn’t happy to see the tarmac turn back into a muddy mess again, but as with any shower in Cambodia the rains gave way to sunny skies within a half hour. This was my first opportunity to get the camera out and three girls walking down the road were going to be my subjects. They went into hysterics seeing their digital images on the back of the camera. I gave the one of girls the camera to take my picture and really get a laugh! In some places vines on both sides of the road reached out to make only a single lane on the two lane stretch. The hot dry season is the only check to keep the jungle from swallowing up the road. Construction was taking place for two more check points with restroom facilities designed to intercept any traffic that met the main road from alternate routes. Our first indication we arrived at the site of the temples was a turn out and a sign displaying an area around a temple cleared of mines. We headed up the road further and similar signs appeared. We turned down one of the roads and saw a blackened prasat standing alone. We drove around the area and saw a few more of the minor temples in the area as well as a baray. We were still looking for the main attraction, the stepped pyramid temple of Ko Ker. I stopped to talk to a happy old man cutting back the brush from the road and he said about 500 meters more. He also said that there were about 85 known temples in the area. I gave him the remainder of a bottle of water strapped to my bike and headed to Ko Ker. A sign marked the entrance to the temple and a few vendors were set up in the make shift parking area at the gates to the ruins. One family from Phnom Penh was having a picnic and had come for a small Buddhist ceremony on the pyramid. I drove by and followed the perimeter road looking for the pyramid. This did not resemble anything like the pictures I had in my memory from friend’s photographs in the dry season. I found a spot to park and hiked in at the halfway point through a gap in the wall. A baray to my left was overgrown with lush ferns, the trees were full and healthy, and vines latched on to anything they could. Off to my right beyond another large wall the stepped pyramid sat in an overgrown pasture with thick foliage growing off each of the seven terraces all the way to the top. We walked through the ruins back to the entrance admiring the variety of architecture of the buildings. There were brick structures, large stone structures and triangular facades like those at Preah Vihear, that once supported sloping rooftops. We intercepted the Khmer family making their pilgrimage and headed towards the pyramid. As we walked through one structure, there was some ancient inscription on the wall. I asked the Khmers what they thought it said and told them I thought it said “Tickets here, Khmers free and Barangs 200 riel” (trying to compute inflation over the last 1000 yrs). The old ladies in the group actually believed I had read Khmer and with amazement in their eyes did a double take on the carvings to verify the information. I then told them I was joking. We took a few group photos at the base of the pyramid then headed up the steep ladder to the top. I was surprised that the old women made the climb. Once on top I was taking in the 360 degree view above the tree tops. The temples below were under a canopy of vegetation. On top couple of very Indonesian looking monkey like sculptures holding a beam face north and remain in pretty good condition. Our new Khmer friends began their little prayer ceremony, lighting incense and chanting in harmony. With out a loud speaker at distortion levels it actually sounded really nice and enhanced our experience. I exchanged phone numbers with a guy in the group and told them that I had a good record of their journey and would give him a cd of pics upon their return to Phnom Penh. It was approaching our 2 PM deadline to return back so we left the group on the man made mountain and headed down the ladder. It was a hell of a lot easier going down.
The sun had dried out the road which could have shortened our trip back to Beng Melea, however taking in the gorgeous scenery and waving villagers kept us at a slower pace. We made it back to Beng Melea in time to get full value from our 10 dollar ticket and once again met up with our Khmer friends. A few more pics and off to Siem Reap where we arrived before dark. I got back to my room and got in the shower with all of my equipment and commenced a major mud removal task from my boots, rain gear and clothes. I met up with one of my friends working in Siem Reap for a few beers and told him that had his company provided him with a 250cc instead of some girly push bike he could have done the ride with us. He agreed.
The next day was a rest day and a chance for my gear to dry out. I also took advantage of my easy day to see “Aki Ra’s” mine museum. Well worth a visit, the mine museum is located on a side road paralleling the road to Angkor Wat. Make the last turn right before the ticket booth then head left at the next cross road, pass all the Khmer Karaoke houses and it will be on the right. Aki Ra who survived the Khmer Rouge, has worked clearing mines and training others to perform the task and eventually set up the museum. He also provides relief and education to mine victims. Here you can see leftover mines and un-exploded ordnance that has been cleared from the countryside. Its really mind blowing, no pun intended to think that more than the heaps of mines on display, still remain scattered about the country. I highly recommend a visit for bikers who get out to the more remote areas of the country. I made a donation and then headed to the bike wash to take a layer of mud off my bike.
Later that day, I caught up with my traveling partner and we raced 3K south of town to catch the sunset at Wat Athvea. This is one of the two ancient temples that face west (Angkor Wat being the other) and being the only people at the site made catching the sunset there even more enjoyable. This temple sites green gardens are well manicured and contrasted nicely with the sand colored tower and the rust and grey block walls surrounding the temple. If you make a visit there, say hello to Ray, a Khmer kid who speaks great English and will inform you about the site. I wanted to stay one more night in Siem Reap to avoid the Sunday traffic going back into Phnom Penh, but the night life there is more geared to the tourist trade. The deafening techno at the Siem Reap Martinis, and the trendy backpacker jazz groove vibe… stuff played in the other bars was enough to send me packing. Dollar fifty Beer Lao and Anchor in the smallest of bars made traffic a lesser of two evils.
Prasat Andaet was a temple I have known about for some time and last year I had made a stop at the reservoir 10K north of Kampong Thom only to find that I had passed the temple 10K earlier. I wasn’t going to miss it this trip. I got out of Siem Reap before my body clock had resumed normality and was on the road by 10:30 AM. Prior to Dam Daek I passed a large crowd gathering at one of the few road accidents I have been fortunate enough not to see in all of my travels over the past few years. A couple of Japanese tourist were on the scene and skid marks from a taxi heading south went off the road crossing the north bound lane and. It must have been a good one. A couple of police officers were investigating as a bystander poured a bottle of water on a blood stain in the road. I only hoped that no one was seriously injured and that if a speeding idiot shared taxi driver was responsible, he would get just punishment. I broke through the scene to clear roads ahead leaving a gathering crowd behind.
You can see where the money is, as the nicely marked shouldered road in Siem Reap Province turns to an unmarked asphalt pour entering Kampong Thom Province. About 40K north of Kampong Thom a yellow archway with a blue sign in Khmer with 1500 M caught my attention. I stopped at a roadside stand and ordered a koul joul (red bull). There were a couple of ladies sitting on the bamboo platform and another in a hammock. I asked how far down the road to Prasat Andaet and was told another 20K. I also asked about the road heading west through the archway. They told me it leads to a wat and another prasat. 1500 meters was a piece of cake so I went to take a look. The rice fields seemed to be delivering a banner crop and the farmers were happy. I told them how lucky they were as Prey Veng was hurting for water. I entered the wat complex and found the prasat. The locals call it Prasat Svay Eia. It is a single standing pre-Angkorian brick structure that I expected to find at Andaet. The only difference was the prasat appeared to be peering out of a small drained children’s swimming pool built at the west side of the newer structure. The blue wat around the prasat was well maintained as were the surrounding grounds. I gave the girls at the drink stand the thumbs up as I left and was told that had I gone east from the stand there were two more prasats 7-9K in but on rougher roads. Next time. The turn off for Prasat Andaet was pretty obvious and it was a 2.5 K detour along a large canal. It was similar to Svay Eia but wasn’t submerged into the construction of the adjacent wat. It is a bigger prasat and temple complex, but not as well manicured. A good stop none the less and the 3 old ladies and young girl in an old wooden building across the field thought so too as I made a donation to their up coming bon. I made a stop at the reservoir north of Kampong Thom and chatted with three guys from New Zealand that had hired a cab to Siem Reap. I told their driver about the temples so hopefully the got to benefit from my findings. I fueled up in Kampong Thom and headed 40k down the road where another sign caught my attention. Another temple, but this one was only 3-500 meters off the road according to the two sources. This much smaller prasat was the best of them all. There was brick work that resembled the almost Hindu patters on the temples at Sambor Prekuk, a Mayan style crown like the old prasat in the cave in Kampot Province, and elevated brick work similar to the prasat on the other side of the river from Kampong Chhnang. I asked the locals what was the name of the temple, but they just called it Wat Prasat, or Phum Prasat. I said yes it’s a wat and this is a phum (small town) and that’s a prasat. Up the road is Prasat Andaet and Svay Eia are you sure there isn’t another name. They were sure, but I’m not. It is amazing how many busses and taxis zoom by these places every day and I was pretty happy add the couple of hours to my trip to see them. Now it was time to race back to Phnom Penh and try to beat some of that Prek Leap traffic. There are a couple of new concrete bridge projects in Kampong Thom Province replacing the old steel structures underway, but the by passes are good enough as to not cause any delays. Be careful if you are doing any night driving.
I set out intent on the ride to Ek Phnom from Battambang, the Sisophon-Siem Reap road, and seeing Prasat Andaet. A little investigation and briefly battling the elements allowed me to include Ko Ker and two additional prasats in lush green surroundings, under sunny, blue rainy season skies, and it will still resemble paradise for the next few months. GPS-Ko Ker N13.78320 E104.53736, Svay Eia N12.86714 E104.60234, Andaet N12.79036 E104.71635, Wat Prasat N12.54995 E105.07230. Jim CA2
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