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Making The Most of My Last Oil Change

February 18, 2005

by Jim CA2

About 2000 kilometers is what I put on my bike between oil changes and it has been about a month and a half now and I am due for another. This time the kilometers between changes has taken me on a repeat journey to Sihanoukville, through Kampot retracing routes taken only a few weeks before, a small day run to Preah Theat via the Mekong, and a 4 day trip to Sen Monorom in the east while making a few more temple discoveries in Kampong Cham Province. It just a small drop in the bucket when compared to the trips some of my friends have been able to take through Thailand, Laos, along the Mekong back to Phnom Penh, but I have somehow slipped into the information zone. So from me to you here’s a few more getaway places that you adventurers at heart can visit in your spare time.

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Srey Ambel??? Yes, Srey Ambel. I had read in Adventure Cambodia of ruins in Srey Ambel. I wanted to see for myself. Take a brief detour on your next run between Phnom Penh and Kampong Som or Koh Kong. Past Lim Long gas station instead of taking the turn on the Koh Kong road head straight into Srey Ambel, and head past the market to the two hill temples. The first temple is typical but in the center of the grounds there are a few laterite blocks for you history buffs who carry your own carbon-14 test kit. The more fascinating site is the second hill temple named Prasat Angkor Phnom Klong (Angkor Style Temple on Klong Hill).

Upon entry to the grounds, a portion of an old French colonial fortress wall with a large tree suffocating it with its roots sits off to the side of the road. An old woman in the main temple structure told a similar tale of Phnom Proh and Phnom Srey in Kampong Cham. An older brother came to Srey Ambel to build a temple while the younger brother in Siem Reap was to do work on Angkor Wat. When complete they were to send up a flare indicating completion. The younger brother in Siem Reap deviously sent up a flare prematurely and the older brother stopped work, but not before this older brother completed some scattered primitive structures. The main site has a large newer square building adorned with the alligators churning out Apsaras motif built upon what was once the ancient temple. Legend says this old temple housed a giant alligator and it is buried in the ruins. Laterite walls surround the structure, and to the east, mounds of rocks and platforms align themselves with the main structure.

There is a viewing platform off the hillside where one can see the port of Srey Ambel and the Koh Kong ferry area up river. The surreal aspect of this site is the staircase that goes down to the river. Each step is flanked by soldier statues which by their weapons appear to be Chinese. I didn’t take the time to count them but I estimate there are about 160 of them. This was definitely the kind of place that would keep Rod Sterling up at night pondering its existence.

The Human Element In November I had written a piece where I stopped on the road back from Kampot to see some workers moving sand from carved out boats. My buddy Steve who was with me on this following trip didn’t know what he was getting into when I told him I wanted to make a brief stop to give the girls who were featured with a picture in the article a couple of copies of the story as well as additional photos.

We stopped at Wat Stoung near the bridge where only a few weeks before the group of girls were shoveling sand. The water level had dropped immensely. I asked a few guys if they recognized the girls in the photos. In the mean time Steve had made an eerie discovery of bones left over from the war in a lattice gazebo. This is quite common in wats through out the country…poke around various wats you encounter and you will be surprised as to how extensive the killing fields stretch. I managed to convince a couple of guys to hop on the bikes and take us off the main road to the girl’s village.

I don’t think Steve will be riding with me anymore as this journey took us on single track embankments bordering rice paddies with nowhere to put our feet down when we stopped. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Steve’s passenger had a friend that wanted to tag along as well so he was tripled up. We made a couple of stops in a couple of villages receiving strange looks from the occupants who were very stand-offish to our motives. Right at the entrance to our final village I dropped my bike and my passenger in the adjacent paddy. We lifted the bike back up the embankment and a familiar face appeared from the village. A girl wore chu k’bal white bandages across her forehead and became ecstatic when she recognized me. I told her I had pictures and a couple of magazines to distribute, and one by one the other girls in the photos appeared as well as the rest of the village curious as to these girls cross cultural contacts. I met a couple of girls fathers and explained the article in December's Bayon Pearnik featuring the girls. They were very happy that some recognition was given to their remote existence.

Steve who was dripping with sweat and not too happy with me after navigating the paddies with two passengers, but he also changed his disposition when he saw how happy these locals were. He really earned his wings on this one. We were given the customary coconuts and were bid farewell. Ironically we were directed on a much easier route back to the main road.

I repeated a similar experience on January 2nd. I took the Mekong river road that will take you to Kampong Cham. There is an old PTT gas station marking the turn off. Not the most scenic route but at times the villages bordering the road give way to beautiful Mekong River views. This is a nice alternative route on Sundays as on Highway 6 and 7 between Phnom Penh and Kampong Cham the idiot drivers with no regard to oncoming traffic are in abundance and pass each other regularly forcing you on to the shoulder.

I returned to Preah Theat to deliver the 100th Issue Pearnik featuring a girl named Henh and photos of other villagers. Unfortunately Henh wasn’t present but her mother was there to receive the Pearnik and quite pleased to see her daughter in print. An old man who was the caretaker of the ancient Buddha statues put on his Sunday best (traditional black silk pants and white shirt) and asked that I take his picture with his wife. A week later I returned with a group of guys enroute to Sen Monorom. The gentleman was pleased to have his pictures and Henh appeared to greet me this time as well and thanked me for her pics.

Kampong Cham Temples Temples and more Temples (in a nutshell). A regular visitor friend of mine was thinking of making a trip to Kampong Cham and was told there wasn’t much out there. Wrong. There are Angkorian and pre-Angkorian temples galore that an explorer could spend a week visiting, not to mention rubber plantations and waterfalls. I first got my exposure to Kampong Cham a few years back when Jake was doing some research for his book Adventure Cambodia. We went to a temple ruin southeast of Kampong Cham, near Moha Leap where the only remnants were a baray and ancient walls surrounding the new wat. We later went to Preah Theat which is easily accessible and I have returned to with many of my friends. To get to Preah Theat, head east from Skun about 23K to the town of Chrey Vien. Make a left at the market and head north until you cross a canal. At the canal make a right and head to the fork in the road and make a right into the Tuk Cha Resort. About 100 meters from the fork there is a small bridge on the right, cross it and follow the path to the Prasat. There are a couple of other ruins in the area and the locals there will point them out. And by the way, give my regards to the old man and Henh.

More popular is the 11th century site of Wat Nokor as you enter the city of Kampong Cham. About 20 kilometers north of Kampong Cham is the pre-Angkor Prasat at Hanchey on the hill overlooking the Mekong River. Adventure Cambodia and Lonely Planet highlight these sites and you can read more on Preah Theat in Adventure Cambodia.

About 40 kilometers east of Kampong Cham off Highway 7, there are at least six temples to be seen. Head out early as the road will take you past some picturesque scenery. About 10K out of Kampong Cham you will cross a bridge that overlooks large bamboo barges with giant drop nets. The water level here is night and day depending on the season. At the height of the rainy season water surrounds the road, and during the dry season the barges are cramped in a small body of water to the south of the bridge. Highway 7 also passes the Chub rubber plantation.

Forty kilometers from Kampong Cham is the turn out to Prey Nokor. You might miss the white archway on the south side of the road marking the turns to the Prasats. The dirt road passes through a couple of canopied villages. There is a right turn about 4 kilometers from the main road and this road will take you right to Prey Nokor. There are two Prasats side by side adjacent to a wat. Not far into the fields is another prasat that appears to have been converted into some kind of bunker. A local said there were a couple more temples there that were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

This story seems to be going off course so back to the original rides between oil changes. Five of us left Kampong Cham towards Snoul and Sen Monorom. I wanted to share a hidden prasat with them. Instead of heading south under the archway to Prey Nokor, we turned left and headed north about 4 kilometers. This place sure looks different in the dry season. We parked our motorcycles under some trees off the road and a couple of Khmer guys with bicycles wondered who these foreigners were invading their break time. These guys were in my parking spot and I was concerned about leaving my gear strapped to my motorcycle while I went to the temple. They were curious what we were doing there and I asked them if they knew there was a prasat in that cluster of trees across the rice paddies? “Nope didn’t know that” they said. “Well c’mon I’ll show you.” I replied. So these two Khmer guys and my entourage walked across dry rice paddies which I had waded through only a couple of months ago. Once in the cluster of trees and at the base of the prasat I again asked the Khmer guys “what you didn’t know about this?” “Naw, we only know of the one farther up the road.” What there’s more?

Sure enough we headed about another 4 K up the road to a village and took a left turn to a school. Across the field from the school surrounded by a large laterite stone wall another single prasat stood tall in the open. Like many other prasats that are scattered all over the country, the locals called it Prasat Angkor. I was originally told of a prasat in this location by a guy who helped build the tertiary roads in the area and now I was curious as to which one he tipped me off about. As usual, when the white man cometh to remote areas, villagers come out of the woodwork. Often times to practice their remarkably good English skills. Elated with this new find, I asked if there were more of these things in the area. An old man said if we headed back to the wat and made a right turn, the road would lead us to one more prasat, Wiel Somdai.

Three of us set out to investigate and the other two headed off to Snoul. We hit a cross roads and asked a vendor where the prasat was. She told us another 500 meters out in the clearing. Ok thanks. There was a vast rice field clearing but I wasn’t seeing a prasat. We hit the next village and the locals pointed across the fields and said there it is. All I could make out was a tree and a cluster of plants. One opportunist in the village jumped on the back of my bike and away we went over the dry bumpy terrain. Entwined by vines and plants two remaining walls of the prasat stood tall adjacent to a tree. The growth was too thick to approach the structure from the east. We hiked in but were warded off by red ants that still give me the shivers when I think about their bites. One of the other villagers said we could gain access from the west side. I hike into the thicket about 10 meters and then with two villagers then we crawled under vines to the base of the prasat. Ok mission accomplished. We gave our guides a tip and delivered them back to their village. GPS coordinates: Turn off from Highway 7 for these prasats and Prey Nokor N 11°49.565 E 105°47.004/ The first prasat north N 11°51.350 E 105°47.655/ Prasat Angkor N 11°52.807 E 105°48.438/ Wiel Somdai N 11°52.708 E 105°47.148.

Now it was time to head to Sen Monorom, but we stopped at a coconut stand on the way for a drink and bonded with the vendors. I met them on the rebound two days later and a guy there said there was another prasat on Phnom Penh in Memot district. Well this is going to have to be another excursion on a later date…..stay tuned.

Off to Sen Monorom. My Partners Mark, George and I caught up with Matt and Hugh in Snoul. The other two riders Bruce and Wayne had just left Snoul. Traveling in groups can be tiresome as everyone has their own agenda but keeping in the back of your mind that everyone can satisfy their own agenda and still gather for a meal, drinks or long hauls can add enjoyment to an excursion. The road to Sen Monorom is dirty and dusty. It will take you through some of the poorest villages in the country (if you don’t factor in the shacks on the south end of Chrouy Changvar or Bo-ding). The terrain changes along the way from thick forest and steep hills that are joined by small bridges crossing streams, to vast rolling hills patched with forested areas. The jungles along the way were very green, but the season has changed the rolling hills and forest near Sen Monorom to a warmer tone. It took me a couple of trips to learn that on dusty roads you need to space yourself about a kilometer from your partners as not to be covered in their dust. Some of my partners were still dealing with the learning curve. Leading the pack is best, but when Hugh went to overtake me I stopped at a village on the side of the road and sent the other trailers on their way when they wanted to make the stop also. I killed 10 minutes talking with the locals there, then set off. Good series of events as about 45K out of Sen Monorom, I came across Mark stopped in his tracks with electrical problems with his bike. A short kept blowing a fuse. He was able to push start the bike and we made it into Sen Monorom by sunset.

We stayed in Arun Reah 2 on the outskirts of town because they had hot water for 8-10 dollars a night. Electricity ran from late afternoon to early morning though the cable company ran their own schedule turning off service around 1 am the first night and 11PM the second night we were there. They also have internet at a pricey 4.00 an hour. Beers are 2500 Riel and the food is good.

Back to that group thing…there is not a lot going on at night (actually nothing) so sitting around drinking beer with our own party was kind of nice, but this group was going in every which way the next day. George and Bruce headed slowly back to Kampong Cham and Wayne did the marathon route back to Phnom Penh.

Pich Kiri Guesthouse in town provided Matt and I with a sketchy map of the Sen Monorom area. The owner there speaks some pretty good English. Matt and Hugh postponed their trip to Rattanakiri another day and headed out to Busra Waterfall. They said that serious paving is going on to Busra as with the main street in town. Good thing as cold nights, dust, and the lack of hot water is not a winning combo.

Mark had resolved his electrical problem and we headed for Sen Monorom Waterfall as this was closer, and only one day in Mondolkiri isn’t enough time to pack in all we wanted to do. We checked out the wat in town. Not much going on there except a little drama with a guy with a machete grabbing a dog for this evening’s meal. He ignored a woman screaming at him as he dragged the dog by his front paws back to his house. Went to fire up our bikes (before dinner started) and Mark's bike was acting up again. He returned to the shop only to find he would be spending the rest of the afternoon trying to resolve it.

The girls at our guest house told me there was a P’nong Village about 20K at Dacdam and another girl at Pich Kiri Guesthouse said there was karaoke there as well. Hill tribes were on the game plan so I set off solo to see if I could take in some P’nong culture and I’d much rather check out a village that had karaoke. I got to Dacdam and was able to see quite a few low roofed thatched P’nong houses scattered about. I drove through town to a hill that overlooked the town and met an elderly P’nong man and a couple of boys who were out collecting dung in their baskets with woven back straps. They spoke their dialect as well as Khmer. From a distance 4 girls carrying wood in their basket backpacks were friendly but not interested in this foreigner that had come to their village. Another man in his early to mid 20s came from a hut and practiced some English. I clicked off a series of pictures and needed to make my way back as daylight was fading. A woman at a small store said 4 karaoke shops were on the next street, but by the looks of this village, I gave it a miss.

Plan at least two full days in Mondolkiri as the place kind of grows on you and there are plenty of waterfalls, villages and lots of good rides in the area. The next morning Mark set off early to Kampong Cham as he was worried about his continuing motorbike issues. I took off to the market to spread a little cash around the local economy then passed Matt and Hugh setting off for Rattanakiri. I said my goodbyes to the lovely ladies that worked at our guesthouse and made my way to Kampong Cham to hook up with Mark. I arrived in Snoul wearing three days of dirt in my jeans and camel shirt to find a large contingent of 20 riders on the Angkor Dirt Bike tour in their extreme bright and shiny new riding attire and body armor just out of the box. They were getting a late start and would be rushed to get to Mondolkiri before dark. I warned one of the riders of a bad bridge area, but I can imagine the bridge might have gotten someone. And last I heard Angkor bike rental had quite a few repairs to make and the party was smaller by the time they reached Rattanakiri.

I got back to Kampong Cham just in time for Joe’s (of Mekong Crossing Bar and Restaurant) 40th Birthday. Can’t say it was similar to my 40th in Pattaya, but Joe you got a good thing going on, thanks for the cake and I wish you many more. Now that I am back in town, I think I’ll go get my oil changed. Jim CA2



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