A quick visit to Cambodia's 10th century capital
About once a year or so I get off my rear and set out on a multi-day motorbike trip with the idea of discovering the outer reaches of Cambodia, usually by crashing into those reaches.
Last year at this time I traversed the Cardamom Mountains (read the story), and fortunately for the wilderness, leaving behind considerably less destruction than your average chainsaw. This year, in the accompaniment of Paul Hay of Hidden Cambodia Dirt Bike Tours the plan was to head first to Preah Vihear by way of Anlong Veng (see related story elsewhere on this website), spend the night on the mountain, head the following day to Tbeng Meanchey spending another night there, onward to Koh Ker staying either at the temple complex or in the nearby village of Siyong, and then returning to Siem Reap by way of Khvau on the fourth day.
Paul and I headed out the morning of the 15th of January and as the road from Srey Noi to Anlong Veng is in fantastic condition, we managed an early lunch of unidentifiable jungle creatures at the Choum No Tror Cheak Restaurant. The road east to Preah Vihear is in equally fine condition save a few klicks in the end and the whole day, well over 200-kilometers, left hardly a scratch.
After a highly eventful night on Preah Vihear, the following day was another doddle and we reached Tbeng Meanchey at 10:30 a.m. taking rooms at the Phnom Meas Guesthouse. Given the near complete lack of sleep we had the previous night, the early arrival was welcome and I slept most of the afternoon.
Tbeng Meanchey is a small, friendly, spread-out and quite dusty town that reminds me a lot of Banlung but without the Chunchiet shyly wandering about.
Now, let’s back up a bit. Those of you that have been coming here for awhile may have read a story I posted to this site back in 2001 recounting my first motorbike trip in Cambodia and my uncanny ability to crash into everything around me (I think you can still see the indentation of my bike on one of the Battambang statues … I swear that statue moved). Two years later I don’t crash into things much anymore (touch wood) and I was rather confident of my ability to tackle anything the road to and from Koh Ker would throw at me. Hmmm.
Road construction has reached these parts and much of the first half of the way to Koh Ker, which would be to the town of Kulen, is on a newly built road where the maximum speed is as fast as you want to go. Nearing Kulen things get a little tricky, sand mostly, but nothing too challenging. False sense of security. Next up was the final leg to Siyong. Crap (sometimes literally – we’re talking ox cart tracks here). And sand. Sand like the Sahara.
Even the locals we met complained about the present state of things between Kulen and Siyong citing all the trucks as the cause of the more deteriorated condition of the road (sic) since only a year ago. Still, despite wiping out in the sand a few times and falling over an ox-cart rut, we made Siyong by 11 a.m. planting the insane idea of possibly seeing Koh Ker and making it back to Siem Reap all in the same day.
For the uninitiated, Koh Ker was temporarily the Angkor capital during the 10th century. The main structure is Prasat Thom, which translates into the obvious and hardly imaginative name “Big Temple”, which it is, being a 40-meter high pyramidal structure.
A few more frustrating sandpits and we reached the main temple where some kind of ceremony was taking place. About fifteen villagers and a couple of monks chanting about one thing or another were assembled in an open hut next to the temple.
Prasat Thom is fronted by a number of structures in rather decrepit condition that reminded me more of Beng Mealea, though on a much smaller scale, than anything else. With an entourage of locals, okay four girls plus Paul, I stumbled about the place before heading over to the pyramid.
It’s a seven-level structure and quite steep. Someone has had the great wisdom to construct a ladder to the top greatly easing the ascension to the apex and the spectacular expansive views that were mired in haze on this day. A few snaps and back to the bottom.
We moseyed a kilometer over to another group of structures where CMAC was hard at work. One of the de-miners described a temple of Angkor Wat proportions deep in the jungle but still inaccessible due to mines. Apparently there are dozens and dozens of temples in this area and one day Koh Ker is going to be one spectacular destination when the roads are in and the mines are cleared.
We rode our bikes through one mine field staying within the two meters or so of safety the markers afforded us, only to find more of the same simple tower structures the CMAC de-miners were clearing around.
Returning to Siyong for lunch, a local woman had cooked us up a very delicious meal and we practically had to force some money in her hands for the hospitality. Lunch finished and the time: 2 p.m. Could we make Siem Reap by night fall? Well, why not give it a try?
The first twenty kilometers south from Siyong provided some of the most fun motorbike riding I’ve ever done. A relatively flat logging road of hard packed dirt, the dense jungle whizzed by as we wound our way through the trees. Feeling a little sore from the earlier sand dunes disguised as roads, my confidence was rising due to the easy nature of this road. Then after passing between a couple of low mountains the road began to deteriorate before turning into some of the worst sand of the trip with the final fifteen kilometers before Khvau taking at least ninety minutes, maybe two hours. It was a true test of my resolve and patience and after falling down in the sand about twenty times and suppressing the urge to kick something (Paul, my bike, my other leg), the road opened up and we were in Khvau.
We reached Highway 6 and Kompong Kdei just before six resulting in the less than pleasant prospect of covering the final 70 klicks on the not yet reconstructed section of Highway 6 in the dark. Well why not? And at 7 p.m., tired and sore I stumbled into Siem Reap. Tbeng Meanchey to Koh Ker to Siem Reap in a day. Ouch.
Koh Ker practical
Any way you want. In late 2004 a proper road was put in and Koh Ker is now an easy drive from Siem Reap doable in any form of conveyance by anyone. Construction is presently underway to connect Koh Ker and Tbeng Meanchey with a proper road.
Hidden Cambodia offers personalized dirt bike and 4WD tours throughout northwest Cambodia, including Koh Ker as well as the destinations of Banteay Chhmar, Anlong Veng, and Preah Vihear. Paul Hay, the Khmer tour leader, speaks fluent English and is well versed at customizing tours to suit any level of riding skill, I mean, he got me to Koh Ker and back in one bit! For more information, visit their website at http://www.hiddencambodia.com, e-mail email@example.com, or phone 012-934-412. International dialers call 855-12-934-412.
You can camp at the temple or stay in the one guesthouse in the village of Siyong (about 30 minutes from the temple), which is a very friendly place and you can expect warm hospitality from the residents. Hopefully with the roads put in and the mines are cleared and half a dozen guesthouses pop-up, Siyong, which will no doubt become the gateway to the temple complex, won't lose this warmth.
A couple of basic rice and noodle shops in the village of Siyong.
Yes, there are many of them and though clearance has been going on in earnest for several years now around some of the temples of the Koh Ker complex as well as near Siyong, the usual rules apply: stay on well-marked paths that have seen obvious recent human activity.
All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.