|Comprehensive guide to historical sites and Wats|
Chapter 1: Yesteryear.
Chapter 2: Today and Tomorrow.
Chapter 3: The River Road South to Banan.
Chapter 4: The Phnom Sampeou Area.
Chapter 5: An Outing to Aek Phnom.
Chapter 6: East of the Sangker River.
Chapter 7: Pailin and Samlot.
Chapter 8: Further Afield.
Chapter 9: Ecotourism at Prek Toal.
|Children playing in APC shell|
I left Battambang in 2003. Upon my return in May of 2006 my first impression was “Nothing has changed”. At the same time, my old friends were saying things like, “You probably won’t even recognize the place because it has changed so much.” There was clearly a difference in perceptions. Is change, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?
I admit that my first stroll down memory lane was along Street 3, which has changed a lot less than some other areas of town. Phsar Nath (the Market), the Hotels Chhaya and Teo, the Pailin taxi stand up by the Phsar Leu – all were pretty much as I had left them. One change that stood out noticeably was the absence of the old Paris Restaurant, where for years I had gone nearly every morning for my chicken noodle soup.
But then I walked along and across the river. The government has done a good job of preserving the riverfront from developers by creating an agreeable atmosphere of parks. I am always struck, however, by the way Cambodian cities set up parks by cutting down all the trees so that people can while away their Sunday afternoons sitting out in the blazing Cambodian sun.
Another striking change along the eastern bank of the Stung Sangker is the absence of NGO row. Just two years ago, there were at least a dozen NGOs along the river, including CMAC, World Vision, Handicap International, CVD, all in their conspicuous mansions and sporting fleets of Land Cruisers. Now they have all but vanished. Is this a strategy on the part of the NGOs to be more low-key? Or is it just coincidence? Or maybe the boom in land prices has led to higher rents in this prime area of town.
Overall, Battambang is clearly prospering. My Khmer friends are doing well. With recent land speculation all over Cambodia, the construction industry is booming. Tourists can well be impressed with the look of things.
But there is a seamier side to this development. Thousands of poor people are being thrown off the land. In some cases, families who have squatted on land for decades and who do not have land titles (and even those who do), are being evicted by the rich and powerful. In other cases, families who experience emergencies like HIV/AIDS sell their land to buy health care. HIV/AIDS is having a dire economic effect that is often overlooked by development experts.
I entered Cambodia via Poipet. I arrived at the border post just before it opened in the morning. It was an unforgettable experience to witness the thousands and thousands of day workers flooding across into Thailand to perform menial tasks for starvation wages. These exploited workers are the peasants who have been thrown off their land and wind up in the ghettoes of Poipet, which is still, in my opinion, one of the most evil places in the world.
On the positive side, I was happy to wander down the Stung Sangker river in the countryside to see a life where time seems to stand still. Monks peacefully beg for alms just as they have for centuries. One would think that the Khmer Rouge nightmare interlude, when most of the monks were killed or defrocked, had never happened. You can still have a bowl of noodles under a big tree along the riverbank and pretend you are back in 1950. In fact, if you go out to Aek Phnom or Prasat Banan on a quiet weekday, you can almost pretend you are back in the year 1150.
A lot of tourists still come to Cambodia to see ‘killing field’ monuments of skulls and atrocities, but I think (and hope) that such ‘voyeur tourists’ are becoming fewer and fewer. True, you should see these things, ‘lest we forget’, and a visit to the ‘Killing Caves’ of Phnom Sampeou should not be missed, but for me the drawing card for the Battambang area is the peaceful village life, and even the charm of the sleepy city of Battambang. Included in this charm is the beautiful smile of the Khmer people. When your entire day is lighted up by one of those endearing Khmer smiles, it makes the heat and the dust of the journey all worthwhile.
Another reason for tourists to get out into the countryside is to see the widening divide between city dwellers and country folk. In particular, one should visit one of the projects of Tean Thor Association, be it their orphans centre or their HIV meditation centre. Such a visit may open one’s eyes to the enormous needs of large numbers of people who are somehow sheltered from the eyes of most tourists. At the same time, for those who may have grown cynical about the NGO Landcruiser-Villa syndrome, it is good to see that a lot of good is being done by some local NGOs. The more you look around, the more you understand that it is impossible to tar all NGOs with the same brush.
Evenings in Battambang, granted, are not as exciting as in Phnom Penh. Relaxation is the operative word. And where better to relax than the Riverside Balcony Bar? Phnom Penh has nothing to compare with it. And although I am usually not given to hyperbole, I would say that the Riverside Balcony should be listed as one of the ‘Great Bars of the World,’ and is not to be missed under any circumstances. And if you really want to chow down on good Khmer food, you can go right next door to the ‘Cow’s Stomach’(romantic name, eh?). You can often tell the best Khmer restaurants when you see lots of people eating, but no live music or sexy beer girls. People are there for the food.
Another change for the tourist is the improvement in transportation. The new Highway 5 and the cheap bus service not only make it easier to visit Battambang, but also to fan out from BB to formerly inaccessible places like Moung Russey and Thmar Koul. Even Sisophon, formerly a two-hour torture chamber away, is now an easy hour-plus cruise.
I have been comparing Battambang with what it was three years ago, but it is also eye-opening to go back only a decade or so, when the Khmer Rouge were still active in the area. Battambang was shelled and evacuated as little as eleven years ago. When I first wrote The Cambodia Less Traveled, back in 1996, I noted that Battambang was still not safe for tourists. The KR were just beyond Phnom Banan and the area around Banan was a minefield. Moung Russey was pretty much off limits. Foreigners were not allowed on the trains after the 1994 murders of three tourists near Kampot. Phnom Penh – Battambang by road was an all-day ordeal, and cars (there were no buses) were advised to travel by convoy, especially through the Moung Russey area, where a major Khmer Rouge trail crossed Highway 5.
Today, of course, the KR are a thing of the past. What a change a decade can make! But one of the last outposts of the KR was the Samlot-Pailin area. You can travel easily to these areas, which look pretty much like any other Cambodian rural area, but whose residents are largely the former Khmer Rouge cadres. As is well known, the Brothers 2, 3, and 4 (Nuon Chea, Khieu Sampanh, Ieng Sary) still live with impunity in Pailin, but there are hundreds of little-known KR general and cadres with a lot of blood on their hands living down in Samlot, now just ordinary farmers, schoolteachers, and government officials.
But if you visit Samlot and Pailin just to see the Khmer Rouge, you will be disappointed, as they look just like other Khmers. Samlot and Pailin have beautiful, remote spots with jungles, waterfalls, and mountain walks. Yes, the tour guides still talk up the old killing field stories, but it is best to witness the entire country on its own terms today. Cambodians have largely put the KR nightmare behind them. The fact that it all happened over 30 years ago means that most present-day Khmers were either born too late or have no memory of the Cambodian holocaust.
One of the major objectives of this book is to entice visitors to spend an extra day or two in the Battambang area. Battambang is not just a nondescript town on the way to Thailand. It has something to offer that necessitates more than a cursory stopover. In my descriptions in this book, I have tried to incorporate elements of Khmer culture, including legends, customs, and local colour. I hope this type of information will render your visits to the various tourist sites more informative and enriching. This update of my book on Battambang was made possible through the funding of the German NGO Evangleischer Entwicklungs Dienst (EED) as part of a project to help AIDS orphans and monks and nuns who raise community awareness of HIV issues. All proceeds from the sale of this book will go to help the monks and the AIDS orphans. For this reason, I am extremely gratefull to EED for the opportunity to revise this book in order to contribute to the sustainability of the Project.
Chapter 1 Yesteryear
Even today, the street between the Old Stone Bridge and the Ta Dambong statue is lined with all sorts of educational institutions. Incidentally, the Ta Dambong statue was also reconstructed during the 1960s. Further out, the University of Battambang was established. Although it was closed and partially destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era as well as the Vietnamese occupation, It was refurbished and reopened in 1999 as a branch of the National Institute of Management, and recently enlarged to become the National University of Management. Battambang suffered the same fate as most of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge debacle. The city was emptied as the populace was moved to the countryside, where many people died. The Khmer Rouge were especially hard on former government employees and people attached to the military. They were rounded up, transported outside of town, and slaughtered. Phnom Teppedey, down Highway 5 towards Moung Russey, was the scene of a particularly gruesome bloodbath. North towards Thmar Koul an old temple ruin served a similar purpose, and it became known as the “Killing Temple”. The Khmer Rouge were also known for their hare-brained watercourse schemes, as they attempted to rival the great water masters of the Angkor Wat era.
Chapter 2 Today and Tomorrow
I. History– Phnom Banan
The elders reported that there were previously many crocodiles that bit people every year. But since placing magical formulae in the river, the crocodiles in the river from Kampaung Seyma to Peam Seyma floated on the surface because of the power of these seyma. The seyma stones at Kampaoung Seyma can be seen during the dry season when the water is low. Because the crocodiles could not dive under the water, people could see them so crocodile attacks did not occur.
The name Chhoe Teal is the name of a tree, known to many tourists from the O Chhoe Teal Beach in Sihanoukville. (O means ‘creek’.) The tree has been important to the local Cambodian economy because it provides the resin for patching leaky boats around Cambodia. The Forestry Act states clearly that it is illegal for loggers to cut Chhoe Teal trees, because the resin forms the livelihood for thousands of poor forest dwellers. But the government has allowed its friends in high places to cut down the Chhoe Teal trees as timber, and the local residents, having lost their livelihood, are hopping mad.
The wat itself lies within walking distance of the market off the main road. It is a wonderfully serene site along the river in the quiet shade away from the hustle and bustle of the market and the main road. The tourist is well-advised to stop for a few minutes just to sit or walk around in the peace and quiet of the wat compound. The road through the maroon archway to the left of the main road at the marketplace leads to the river. There are a few drink stands just in front of the pagoda by the river, where a very large tree with gnarled roots grows on the river bank, conveniently located for you to sit and sip your drink. You can walk around the village or even cross the river using one of those rope-ferry crossings. The road past the wat continues along the river and eventually rejoins the main road a couple of kilometres further on. This road is much less noisy and dusty than the main road. Not far from the wat along this back road are some Chhoe Teal trees, as one might expect.
The wat is generally known as Wat Chhoe Teal, but the official name is Wat Hemanaram. It houses a relatively large number of monks: 55. It is relatively intact since its construction in 1951, although theKhmer Rouge destroyed the wooden roof and Buddha statues inside.
It is worthwhile to visit the wat complex near the base of Phnom Banan. The monks here work closely with Tean Thor Association in helping families of persons with HIV/AIDS. These monks will receive the benefits from the sale of this book. Of additional interest is the kru khmer or traditional herbalist associated with the Tean Thor project. The kru khmer command enormous respect from rural Cambodians. Cambodians will consult a kru khmer long before seeing a western doctor, even if they can afford it (and they usually can’t). What is interesting is how these herbalists have integrated themselves into the fabric of Buddhist society. Buddhism in these parts is the age-old mixture of religion and superstition, and the villagers see no contradiction between magic potions and the Buddhist religion.
Speaking of red liquids, on the way back we stopped at a winery along the road, called Chan Thai Chhoeung. A large sign is very visible on the east side of the road (the left as you head towards Banan). The lady in charge has set up a quaint little wine-tasting table in the shade of the entry to the vineyard. You can taste a sample of her red or rosé wines while she proudly shows you photos of himself tasting her wine. She markets her wines in nicely woven wicker bottle holders that make a bottle of her wine a fine gift to take back to wherever you are going. The package of bottle and wicker holder costs $15.
Chapter 4 - Phnom Sampeou and Beyond
Phnom Sampeou is well-known to all Cambodians because of the legend of Rumsay Sok, as told below. All the mountains, big and small. There is a mountain representing each of these characters, all visible from Phnom Sampeou.
The road from Battambang to Phnom Sampeou is dusty and bumpy. It can become horrible in the rainy season, but in the last year or two it has been kept in a reasonable state of repair. A direct trip takes about half an hour, depending on conditions. The moto drivers know the situation, and may take you on some back roads to reach Phnom Sampeou. In fact, it can be a less stressful experience to let the moto drivers take you on a winding trip through the countryside to avoid the noise, traffic, dust, and mud of Highway 57. The main entrance to Phnom Sampeou was completed only in 2000, and shows the junk (sampeou) from the Rumsay Sok story on top, floating in a sea of blue water. Until recently, the gate was guarded not by the usual yieks with magic wands, but by statues of modern-day soldiers with rifles, an interesting twist on the old tradition. One of the soldiers even wore sunglasses.
Instead of entering the main entrance and climbing the steep stairway, it is much easier to walk up the road to the left for a hundred metres or so, and go up the mountain on the gradual road winding around the left side of the hill. This road emerges at a small shrine from which you can see the two ‘killing caves’ or l’ang pikiep. Khmer Rouge victims (usually soldiers and other officials of the former Lon Nol regime) were thrown down the shafts of the caves to their deaths. According to some guides, there was one killing shaft for men, one for women, and one for small children.
Apparently there used to be a lot more bones scattered around the caves, but they were starting to disappear to tourists, so the remaining bones were gathered up and placed in cages to prevent theft. In fact, according to some guides, Ieng Sary, former Khmer Rouge no. 2 under Pol Pot, paid villagers a bounty for the bones so that tourists to Phnom Sampeou would not learn about Khmer Rouge atrocities. A cage of arm and leg bones appears in the larger cave, while skulls are found in the smaller cave. A close inspection of the skulls reveals that they are intact, unlike the fractured skulls found at the ‘killing fields’ near Phnom Penh. The victims, it is said, fell to their deaths or had their throats cut. There is even a tale of electrocution, mentioned in the Guide Routard, but that seems unlikely to me, since the Khmer Rouge probably didn’t have electricity on the mountain.
Phnom Sampeou is known to all Khmers as one of the most common sites in folk legends and songs. Even popular songs include references to Phnom Sampeou. The all-time great Khmer singer Sim Sisomut wrote a well-known song called, “Your House is near Phnom Sampeou.”
But by far the most well-known reference to Phnom Sampeou is the legend of Neang Rumsay Sok, “The girl who let down her hair.” It is worth repeating here, because Phnom Sampeou itself, as well as the surrounding hills, are all part of the legend.
Reachkol, son of rich merchants, is taken to a hermit who matches him to be married to Neang Rumsay Sok (‘Neang’ is just a woman’s title, like ‘Miss’.) to whom he gives a magic jewelled pin to tie up her long hair. But Reachkol falls in love with Neang Meka and marries her instead of Rumsay Sok, and has a son by her. After three years of marriage, Reachkol runs away from his wife and rejoins Rumsay Sok. Meka sends her faithful crocodile Atonn to catch the boat of Reachkol and Rumsay Sok. Seeing the ferocious crocodile, Reachkol throws down a cage of chickens to appease Atonn, then a cage of ducks. But Atonn is not appeased and continues to menace the boat.
The climax of the story is reached when Rumsay Sok lets down her hair (tied by the magic pin) and drops the magic pin into the water. All around that spot the land dries up, and the boat (sampeou) comes to rest on one high rocky spot. The crocodile comes to rest on another dry rock and dies. Reachkol rejoins Rumsay Sok and they live happily ever after in some versions of the story.
But often there is more. Meka herself comes to do battle with Rumsay Sok, on the flat land beyond Phnom Sampeou, now called the Plains of the Crying Woman (Veng Neang Yum). Rumsay Sok is the victor. She not only captures Meka, but slowly tortures her to death, places her head on a long bamboo pole atop another nearby mountain, Phnom Sang-Kbal (‘raise the head’), and chops up her insides to scatter on the land.
This is a rather strange story, because its moral seems to be that if you have a faithful wife and child, you should run away from them to find a beautiful young maiden instead. And if your wife tries to get her husband back, she will suffer beheading and disembowelment. On the other hand, Rumsay Sok was the wife promised by the families, and Reachkol broke the taboo of arranged marriages, so perhaps the moral is that a non-arranged wife must suffer. Of course Reachkol, the adulterer and real violator of the arranged marriage taboo, goes unpunished.
Hills in the area around Phnom Sampeou are named for characters in the Rumsay Sok story. The main mountain is the junk (sampeou) itself, while the higher mountain next to it is the sail of the junk (kdaong sampeou). From the top you can see two very small hills to the north. The one with some houses on it is Chicken Cage Hill (Phnom Trung Moan), while the little green knob to its left is Duck Cage Hill (Phnom Trung Tie). The larger mountain off to the left is Crocodile Hill (Phnom Krapeu). It doesn’t look much like a crocodile, but from the Pailin side you can see the head and the tail. Reachkol has his own mountain, too, but it is far north of Battambang near Mongkol Borei.
In February of 2001, Duck Cage Hill hit the headlines of the Cambodia Daily when three local schoolteachers died in a cave there. There are many versions of the story, but it would seem the teachers were just having after party and went for a midnight swim. In diving from one cavern to another under water, they took the wrong channel and were not able to surface for air.
At the base of Phnom Krapeu you can see a little hill with a white pagoda on top. This hill is called Turtle Hill (Phnom Ondaek), although the turtle has nothing to do with the Rumsay Sok story. The monastery on Turtle Hill used to be famous for its activism in social affairs and for its meditation retreats, but those days appear to have ended with the death of the former head monk and head nun. But the place is still known as the place where unhappy young girls whose fiancés have left them go to renounce the world and become nuns. Thus, there are a lot of beautiful young nuns at the place. There are 60 nuns and only 20 monks at Wat Ondaek. Wat Ondaek lies on the turnoff to Kamping Puoy.
The cave sites on Phnom Sampeou are actually quite beautiful and peaceful, worthy of a visit even without the gruesome reminders of Cambodia’s recent past. In fact, they might be more enjoyable without the cages of bones to lend their macabre touch. Before the 1970s, dramatic plays were held in the larger cave (the one with the reclining Buddha), and for this reason its name is l’ang lkhaong or ‘cave of plays’. The smaller cave is called l’ang pich or ‘diamond cave’, but no one seems to know whether diamonds were ever found in the cave.
A rather rocky path leads from the cave area up to the top of Phnom Sampeou. Sturdy shoes are advisable for the climb, which otherwise is not taxing. Slightly hidden off to the right side of the path near the top is a large gun, perhaps and anti-aircraft gun. But it may be removed by the time this book is printed. The guns have already been removed from Phnom Banan.
The path leads to a small pagoda, which is not spectacular but contains some rather older paintings of interest. The bottom row of stories is the usual Vessandaar sequence, painted in the usual poses found in most Cambodian pagodas. The sequence, starting at the far left from the entrance, is:
1. 1. V. gives gifts to Brahmins
2. 2. V. gives away royal elephant
3. 3. V. gives away chariot
4. 4. Banishment to forest
5. 5. Chuchook and young wife
6. 6. Dogs Chase Chuchook up tree
7. 7. Chuchook asks hermit for directions
8. 8. V. gives away children hiding under lotus pads
9. 9. Wife meets lion, tiger, and lion-dog
10. 10. Gods protect children while Chuchook sleeps in trees
11. 11. God (green, disguised as Chuchook) asks V. for wife
12. 12. Children reunited with parents
13. 13. Giving thanks
14. 14. Children get married (yes, to each other!)
15. 15. V. reinstated at palace
These Vessandaar paintings were completed in 1994. The top row of pictures, on the other hand, was completed in 1968, and represents a very different style from the Vessandaar sequence underneath. Indeed, these top pictures depict Buddha stories rarely found in other pagodas, and are worth describing here for their uniqueness. They are also unique in the sense that they are painted as dyptichs or two-panel paintings to show more of the story.
Starting at the rear left, there are two scenes of the Buddha and his father. In the first, the father has just fallen ill, while in the second he is at the point of death.
The second pair of scenes begins with a simple man sitting before a hermit with his two children. The man had been a king, but had abdicated in the desire to become a god. The king of the gods, Preah An, tells him that he will have to sacrifice his children in order to become a god, and he accepts the challenge. So the gods turn him into a horrible giant, and he proceeds to eat his own children. While he is shown biting the head off one child, the other child is saying that she accepts the bloody death in order to make her father a god. And so he succeeds.
The third pair of scenes shows the Buddha finding bodies that have been killed by the evil regime and left in the forest for wild animals to eat. The Buddha takes pity on them and turns them into devedas in heaven, where they present him with their shrouds.
The fourth pair shows the story of Tikiakomar, a young boy who doesn’t know his parents’ names, but sees them killed by the king for no reason known to him. In the second scene, Tikiakomar manages to meet the king on an excursion to the countryside and, while the king is sleeping, is at the point of killing the king. However, he decides against it, and when the king wakes up, confesses his intentions. The king, impressed with his honesty, adopts Tikiakomar as his own son.
The fifth story is that of Suppotriya, who wants to become a nun. While bathing, a statue of the Buddha appears miraculously in the water. She and her friends place the statue under a tree, and then cut flowers to place around the statue. In the second scene, the king has summoned 121 beautiful women to compete for the honour of being his bride and queen. He has brought a fierce elephant, named Sotunn Sutnoun, so that any woman who can tame the elephant will become his wife. After rejecting the first 120 women, the elephant bows down before Suppotriya and even allows his tusks to be cut off. In this way Suppotriyas becomes the queen.
Some of the remaining stories are not so interesting, but the last one deserves mention. This is the bizarre scene of a skeleton sitting before the Buddha. The beautiful lady Kemaas on the left is regarded as the most beautiful lady around. But the Buddha wants to show her that beauty is ephemeral, and so he tells her that he will bring the most beautiful woman in history to fan him. Of course, this most beautiful woman, long dead, is now a skeleton. Note the fan.
Behind the shrine is a small path leading up to the very top of the hill, where there are good views of Battambang to the east and of Phnom Banan to the south. The temple on top has one picture of the Great Renunciation, one of the Ride Through the Clouds and the Cutting of the Hair, and two pictures of the Starving Buddha. Rather out of place is the scene of the Buddha’s wife and child coming to him asking to join the movement and for the son’s inheritance. On the ceiling are the four previous reincarnations of the Buddha along with the future Mittreya Buddha. On the outside, each doorway is capped with a different Hindu god. The front door has Vishnu shooting his bow; around to the left is Ganesh the elephant god of wisdom; at the rear is Indra on his three-headed elephant. The scene on the west side is the story of Vessakam, who built a palace to give food to the monks.
As you come down the mountain, probably via the main stairwaythis time, you can detour at a main intersection of paths, turning left to go down to two more tunnels. They are located in a peaceful and secluded spot with a couple of Buddha statues. One tunnel leads for about 50 metres on a level course to the left, while over on the right, you can climb up a shaft for another 50 metres to exit from the cave area.
II. Around Phnom Sampeou
Rumsay Sok Cave
From Phnom Sampeou you can look south to see the ‘sleeping lady’ called Rumsay Sok, heroine of the famous Khmer legend.
The mountain contains many caves, but one in particular has been partially developed by the Buddhist monks as a place to visit. To reach the cave complex, take the road south towards Banan until you come to the short cut back to Phnom Sampeou. After traveling a kilometer or two towards the visible Phnom Sampeou, turn left under an archway and travel parallel to Rumsay Sok Mountain for about a kilometer. At a large tree with park benches underneath it, turn left and head straight to Rumsay Sok Mountain, where you can see the stairs up to the entrance to the main cave.
At the crossroads is a typical Khmer cultural artifact, a salaa chau tien, or traditional resting place for travellers. This one is not spectacular, but I found it amusing to read the inscription “Port Landmain”. I interpreted this as meaning that the donor of the edifice had been from Portland, Maine, in the USA.
The small Wat Borukbatdaram at the base of the mountain has only 8 rather old monks and 4 nuns. Most came to set up the place from Prey Veng in 1995. They were very friendly to me and helpful in explaining all the legends of the various sites in the vicinity. They said that many visitors come to this sacred place to ask for blessings like health, wealth, and babies. They explained that a woman who could not have children once came here and prayed, and was shortly thereafter blessed with a baby girl.
I walked up the steep, uneven steps to the cave, turning around often to see splendid views of Phnom Sampeou through the trees. Along the steps is a statue of Rumsay Sok letting down her hair. To her right is a small boat carrying her lover Reachkol (and his attendant), coming from Phnom Sampeou to fetch her. No crocodile appears in the tableau.
At the cave mouth more steep steps descend immediately an equal distance into the cave. Down, down, down I went into the darkness. There are no lights (the monks had lent me a flashlight, but I recommend you bring your own if possible.) although a series of tube bulbs indicate the possibility for lighting. Down at the bottom there are the usual Buddha shrines, but the real attraction is the many beautiful marbled brown-and-white stalactites. Some have been broken off to reveal quartz crystals.
Back at the wat, the monks explained that Rumsay Sok had lived in the cave, but that there were other caves nearby as well. Her teacher or ‘guru’ lived in the large L’ang Kru, or the Guru’s Cave behind a small hill to the left. called Phnom Kdau, where many weddings are held these days. A second cave, further along, is called L’ang Neak, or Dragon’s Cave, where another adviser of Rumsay Sok stayed. To the right of the wat is another large cave in Phnom Reachetrap, where provisions for weddings are stored. Far away towards Phnom Banan is yet another cave where Rumsay Sok’s parents stayed. The monks claim that you can reach that cave through an underground passage directly from the bottom of the main Rumsay Sok cave. I asked whether the temple on Phnom Banan played any role in the story, but the monks said that the entire Rumsay Sok saga took place well before the construction of the Banan temple.
Just to the left of the road is a small shrine with a picture of an older woman. The monks explained that this was Yiey Rumsay Sok, or the old lady Rumsay Sok. As the story goes, she was not able to marry Reachkol after all, and in her disappointment she became a nun and lived in the cave for the rest of her life.
The tourist sites at Phnom Sampeou remain roughly the same as they were a few years ago. There is now a huge new temple at the top, and the two entrance poles have bright lights that can be seen from Battambang at night. Otherwise, there is nothing new to be said about Phnom Sampeou – killing caves, interesting temples on top, a long hike up, etc.
At the bottom of the mountain, the new wat has been completed. Unfortunately, that shape appears to be one of a giant battleship, seen if you approach along route 57. There are new bright gold temples at the entrance, built in the style of the libraries of the Angkor Wat temples. I find the whole wat complex overly gaudy, with every color of the rainbow represented in the most garish juxtapositions.
I had never been behind the mountain, and I had seen steps going up the other mountain, so I figured there might be something up there. One February day I set out from Battambang with a familiar motodoupdriver. He took me out the small country lane route, as he now does with most tourists in order to avoid the awful dust along Route 57. We passed through the charming village of Andong Pring and then to Wat Rokar, which sticks up high above the plains and can be seen from miles around. Now Wat Rokar intrigued me, because I had heard that the rokar tree is well-known in Khmer folklore as the thorn tree in Buddhist hell that adulterers must climb. The painting of Buddhist hell can be seen in most pagodas in the area. So I wanted to see a real rokar tree. Unfortunately, the monks at Wat Rokar said they had cut them all down. After all, evil thorns trees from hell are not conducive to monasteries.
Wat Rokar turns out to be a nice little Adulterers in hell climbing rokar tree rural wat with some interesting sculpture —Wat Kampong Seima on road to along the front of the classical scene of ‘Churning of the Sea of Milk’. That’s the scene where the two teams of giants are pulling on nagas to turn the churn in the centre. Above this scene is a nice Reahu monster. I recently read a new account of the Reahu story that connects it to the milk-churning story. Indeed, Reahu drank some of the forbidden sacred milk. He was seen by the sun and the moon, who reported him to Vishnu, the god usually shown with at Reahu causing an eclipse of the sun least four arms holding different sorts of weapons. Vishnu threw the spiked discus at Reahu and cut him in two. That is why only his head is ever shown on the temples. Since then, Reahu has been angry at the sun and moon, and whenever they come near him, he tries to eat them, thus causing an eclipse of the sun or moon. So on many wats, Reahu is shown as a head eating the sun, as at Wat Rokar.
Moving on from Wat Rokar, we moved on around back of the mountain to the other mountain, called Phnom Kdaung. You may recall that in the story of Rumsay Sok and the crocodile, the kdaung was the sail on the ship represented by Phnom Sampeou.
We reached the daunting stairway, where there is a small wooden wat. It is tended by a little old man with tattoos all over his body. In fact, we learned that in local lore, tattoos are made using the thorns of the rokar tree mentioned above. Not only that, the entire mountain of Phnom Kdaung is covered with rokar trees, so I got to see plenty of them.
The little old man had lots of stories to tell. First he pointed out the names of all the mountains on the skyline, including especially the ‘sleeping lady’ mountain of Rumsay Sok, heroine of the story in which all the surrounding mountains play a role. To her left is Phnom Kdaa, which represents the flat floor where she taught her children. And further to the left is Phnom Dey Saa, which represents the chalk she used in teaching them. According to the man, the bump on Rumsay Sok’s throat is called Phnom Bankuen, or Toilet Mountain, but he could not tell me the significance of the toilet.
He told us also that part of the story was that Rumsay Sok found an egg, but when it hatched it turned out to be a crocodile egg that gave birth to the crocodile of Phnom Krapeu. When the crocodile attacked the boat of Phnom Sampeou, it knocked the boat over and split it. That is why the sail mountain is separate from the rest of the boat mountain, and why the boat mountain is actually listing heavily to one side.
But the best part of the old guy’s story was his own story. He had been a soldier for the French and then in the Lon Nol army, fighting against the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge. When the KR won the war and started killing all the Lon Nol soldiers, he fled to a nearby village and pretended he was a corn farmer. The KR ‘interrogated’ him, by which I think we can infer ‘torture’, and would have killed him had the local villagers not saved him by swearing to the KR that he really was a corn farmer.
We climbed the steps, where I paused to photograph the rokar tree and to rest. Further up the only other tree with a little shade for a rest was a tamarind tree, also well known in Khmer culture. The ampil tree is the Khmer epitome for sourness. They use its fruit in sour soups and in a local drink which combines red peppers and tamarind to make a hot-sour drink. There is a Buddhist story about it as well. The Buddha once asked what the most sour thing in the world was, and his interlocutor replied quickly, ‘the tamarind’, but the Buddha said, no, the most sour thing was a person with a sour disposition.
At the top of the steep steps there are three small caves, each well used and occupied by various funky Buddha statues. In the middle cave we found a blind man living by himself, assisted by an old woman. He told us his story: a former soldier, his walking stick struck a mine and he was blinded. At first he wanted to commit suicide, but monks gave him faith and strength to go on living as a hermit in the cave (but not a full-fledged monk).
There is a shell of an uninteresting temple at the top of the steps to the left of the caves. Further to the left is a path leading down the mountain; in fact it was once a road usable by cars. There is a lot of rubble, suggesting a pagoda and a lot of activity there several years ago. The little old man at the bottom of the mountain confirmed that there had been a large pagoda up there before the Khmer Rouge days. We asked whether the road down was mined, and he said yes, it had been mined, but the many cows up there had essentially demined the area by getting themselves blown up. Still, I don’t think it is a good idea to go poking around up there.
We stopped for a sugar cane juice in the shade of the charming nearby village, Phum Kdaung, where the villagers were holding their annual ceremony to the spirit protectors of the village. They had constructed an enclosure of palm leaves with a pile of sand inside, representing the mountain. Little spirit flags were stuck in the sand mountain, a bit like Christmas tree decorations. The villagers explained that people brought rice and food to the ceremony to distribute to the poor, especially the elderly.
We carried on around the mountain only to find a huge stone quarry. A goodly portion of the mountain has been dug away and it is not particularly a pretty sight. There is a small bar/brothel there where we had another drink. Nearby is a cave visible up the mountain, which they call Bat Cave. It is from here that emerge the thousands of bats around sunset. From long distances along the main highway you can see this enormous cloud; it takes a few seconds to realize that it is a cloud of bats.
III. Kamping Puoy
The reservoir at Kamping Puoy (the name of a nondescript aquatic plant) fascinates some tourists because it was the scene of much misery and death during the Khmer Rouge regime. Millions of man-hours of labour went into the construction of this massively long dam, and most of the workers did not survive the ordeal. The moto drivers/guides may tell you that people were sent to work on the dam as a form of execution, to work until they dropped. The guides may also tell you that children were forced to carry large baskets of earth to the dam site from far away.
Kamping Puoy Puoy Today, there are no monuments to the victims of Kamping Puoy. There is only this large lake out in the forgotten hinterlands of northwest Cambodia. Some Battambang residents come out to Kamping Puoy for picnics, as evidenced by the large number of food stalls and drink shops. They enjoy eating the wild ducks and geese that are not going to be there much longer at the present rate of slaughter.
If you are a wildlife enthusiast, such as a bird watcher, there are interesting creatures to see. Along the right side of the dam, away from the lake itself, is a large marsh area that is home to many herons, egrets, and the like. You can also take a boat to the opposite shore of the lake to where there are no villagers and where more birds nest and roost. In 2001, the Asian Waterfowl Census sent a team to count birds here. They counted over one hundred pygmy cotton geese, whistling ducks, both species of lily-trotters or jacanas, as well as a possible booted eagle, which would be the first sighting of the species in Cambodia.
But the residents of the area are destroying the wildlife as fast as they can. Large nets and poison are killing off the birds. Fleets of boats cross the lake each day to cut down the trees for firewood. So while at present Kamping Puoy has tourist attraction for its wildlife, very soon it will be of no interest at all, except for those who want to see a large lake where thousands of people lost their lives.
You can reach Kamping Puoy from Phnom Sampeou . Just continue on the Route 57 about a kilometre past the village. There is a clearly marked turnoff to the right. Some guides may point out that the rocky road was built by the Khmer Rouge or their victims, but this story is probably false. It was built in the 1980s by the Cambodian army to speed up transport of troops to the front lines beyond the lake. After you pass the turtle pagoda, Phnom Ondaek, it takes another half-hour of bone-jarring roads to reach the lake and see…well, just a lake. So why bother?
The easier way to reach Kamping Puoy is from Highway 5 north of Battambang. There are signs indicating a turnoff to the left of Highway 5, followed by an immediate jag to the right after the railway. The road passes through a large rice-producing area, thanks to a large irrigation project financed initially by the Italians.
Now that there are two easy roads to the “Killing Dam” of Kamping Puoy, many more tourists are going out to the lake these days. They have a rather morbid fascination with seeing the dam where thousands of people were worked or starved to death by the Khmer Rouge at the site. But there are a few other things to see on the way.
As is often the case, the 1901 book by Aymonier was the primary reason for me to make a couple of trips out to Kamping Puoy. Back before there was ever a lake or a dam here, Aymonier went looking for ancient temples in the area, and indeed he found some. I decided to go looking for the same temples to see what, if anything, remained of them.
Most important for Aymonier was Ta Ngen, because the village possessed a stela with a long and legible ancient inscription. In fact, the inscription contained a curse, which said that anyone who destroyed the gifts left at the spot would suffer ‘the 32 levels of hell.’ I found this quite appropriate for Kamping Puoy, because the temple was indeed destroyed, perhaps in the building of the dam, and a lot of people surely suffered the living hell of the Khmer Rouge.
The old men of the village said that there was another temple in the area, located at Wat Anlong Seng in Prey Pday Village. To get there, start to take the road that goes straight back to Chrey and Battambang (not via Phnom Sampeou), but when the road turns right to cross a bridge, leave that road and carry on straight for six km. You will pass Prey Pdau school before coming to a wat arch without any wat attached. Just beyond that is the usual raised rectangle (toul) surrounded by its moat (sras), common to most ancient temple sites. There is no structure remaining, but you can see a short section of what was a laterite base. There is also one block of sandstone that is now used as a knife sharpener. That’s about it.
But there are a couple of interesting stories and legends connected with Prasat Anlong Sen in Prey Pdau village. The land is guarded by its land spirit or Neak Ta, who was once a general named Kamrinn in charge of the prasat. There is a small shrine to him as the protector of the prasat. He has put a curse on the hole dug in the middle of the temple site, to the effect that anyone who tries to fill in the hole will suffer a horrible death. Sure enough, two monks recently tried to fill in the hole, and soon thereafter they died. As legend has it, there are nine Buddha statues buried in the hole, but people have dug to a depth of 7 metres without finding anything. Apparently digging in the hole is not covered by the curse.
Another piece of folklore is that when the temple was standing and its moat was full, a magic crocodile made of mercury would appear on holy days.
The only other noteworthy information is that the big house across the road from the prasat belongs to the Governor of Battambang Province.
It would seem that Anlong Sen was not noticed by Aymonier, as it is not mentioned in his book. We asked the old man who accompanied us about one other temple in the Aymonier book, called Phnom Proie Snaa. The old man said that it did exist, but that correct name was Chroie Snaa, and, as Aymonier had said, it contained some caves. Aymonier had mentioned an altar in the caves, but the old man said there was nothing at all in the caves. To get there, he said, cross the Kamping Puoy dam and turn left. Go for 5 km and look for a small wat. We were short of time, so we didn’t attempt the journey and headed back. Once we were headed toward Battambang, my guide said that the old man had finally said that, yes, there really is a tablet with an inscription at Ta Ngem, but that the monks had hidden it in the local pagoda to keep it from robbers.
Finally, on the way back to Phnom Sampeou, we stopped in at the Vipassana Meditation Centre, well-marked with a big sign. The Centre is a big operation with a large meditation hall for 280 persons. Dormitories, a large refectory, and a library are also under construction. People will come from all over the world to learn the Vipassana or ‘mindfulness’ technique of meditation. The Centre is not really related to any one religion. There are no Buddhas or any other religious icons to be seen anywhere in the Centre. The large meditation hall has only cushions for the meditators, and a battery and cassette player for listening to tapes on meditation techniques, either in Khmer or English.
From my conversation with the person temporarily in charge, it seems that the Centre is not really the place for an occasional meditator who happens to drop in for a day or two of meditation. Rather, it is for those who take the 8-day course to get the full Monty of the meditation course. People I talk to who have taken this or similar courses suggest that eight days is a minimum to get your body and your mind to ease down from the rat-race of daily life into the tranquility of the meditative state.
Chapter 5 The Northern Loop to Aek Phnom
I. Aek Phnom via Highway Five
The direct route from Battambang to Aek Phnom is about 13 km and takes less than 30 minutes. The road is usually good, but can get muddy or even flooded in the rainy season.
Just the trip out to the temple is worth the effort. You can take the longer route out along the stream, as most tourists do, or you can make the loop out Highway 5. I recommend Highway 5 early in the morning. That way you avoid the hot, dusty road in the heat of the afternoon, and relax in the shade along the stream during the heat of the day.
Take Highway 5 out to where the road bends to the right at a yellow school building. This is exactly the point where the cutoff road comes in from Phnom Sampeou, so you might want to do this as part of the Phnom Sampeou trip.
There is not much to see along Highway 5. You pass an area of brick factories. This is an old, traditional activity in Battambang, and there are still over 40 brick Aek Phnom Unpainted Buddha factories. Conditions are primitive and working conditions are harsh. A typical wage is 3000 riel per day, or about $0.75. On the right side of the highway, Don Bosco runs a literacy centre for those children of brickworkers who cannot go to school. Either they must work for their parents, or else their families are too poor to pay the bribes needed to attend regular primary school.
Further out, you pass a park/restaurant called the Phnom Ta Hok. It has some rather bizarre decorations, including trees covered in (fake) white egrets, zebras, and giraffes.
This area is called Kbal Kmaoch, or Ghost Skull. People in the area say that hundreds of years ago, people digging a canal unearthed a skull. But little is known of what ghostly properties the skull possessed. The name lingers on.
Chrey Village might be a spot for a bowl of noodles or a coffee if you are headed out this way in the morning. There are small restaurants on the left side of the highway where the people are friendly. Otherwise, Chrey Village has little to offer besides a large rural market.
Near Chrey Village is Wat Kau Kou, which lies just off Highway 5 past the village. The turnoff is through an old brick archway with Angkor Wat reminders on top. The vihear of Wat Kau Kou is in very bad shape, to the point of imminent collapse. It has been destroyed by time and neglect, not by any malevolent forces like the Khmer Rouge. The simple architecture includes a very wide cantilevered gable, carved with a scene of the Buddha’s Night Ride carved on a wooden pediment. There are flying garuda as well.. Over the entrance is a large Reahu monster, this one eating the moon (to cause the eclipse).
The paintings inside the vihear are rather ordinary. The middle of the vihear is covered by canopy, perhaps to protect the people below from defecating bats. There are statues of gods riding animals. This is a common feature in many wats of the region. The animals are signs of the zodiac, reminiscent of the Chinese year cycle. Thus, one statue signifies that some event occurred in the year of the bull, another in the year of the chicken. In some wats you can actually see gods riding rats, since there is a year of the rat.
One of the first things the visitor notices about Wat Kau Kou is the very young monks. Not only are they very young, but they are dressed in smocks with pockets rather than the traditional robes. This may be related to an older custom noted by Tauch Chhuong in his description of Battambang in the old days:
Another discarded custom is that of the samaner or novice. The
samaner wore no outer robe, only a loincloth with an angsak and a
yellow scarf over the left shoulder. The ceremony for becoming a samaner was not held in the temple but at the monk’s house. When receiving alms from the people, the phikku [normal monk] wore a belt in which to carry his food pot; younger monks had to carry the pot in their hands as do monks of the Thommoyutte sect today. The samaner did not eat with the phikku. They later ate the phikku’s leftovers. The samaner ate with children who were the monks’ students, but according to the rules, the samaner ate three spoonfuls ahead of the children. It is encouraging that the practice of apprentice monks has been revived and is in full swing around the country. This revival was probably due to the need for rapid expansion after the decimation of the wats and monks in the 1970s.
The village of O Taky is named for the stream that passes under Highway 5. Scores of thatched shelters have sprung up along the stream for visitors to picnic and go swimming on a hot afternoon. Wat O Taky is a small wat that participates in the Tean Thor monks/HIV project, although there are only 18 monks there. The wat is of little interest, except that there is a painting of a story that I have found in no other pagoda in Cambodia. This is perhaps a lesser-known Jataka story, about Preah Botom. Botom’s mother has been bitten by a poisonous snake. To save her from dying, Botom cuts out his heart with a sword and feeds it to his dying mother, thus saving her. The painting shows the snake, the bloody hole where Botom’s heart was, a bloody sword, and the mother about to eat the heart.
Near O Taky is Wat Trang. When Highway 5 bends back to the left after Chrey Village, the road to Aek Phnom goes on straight through a large wat archway. About 5 km further on is the village of Trang, where you will see a light blue archway over the small path leading to the right back to the wat. The monks of Wat Trang are willing participants in the Tean Thor monks/HIV project. There are many AIDS patients in the Trang area, and the monks’ work is welcome in the villages.
Wat Trang was built in 1937, was used by the Khmer Rouge to house chickens and ducks and then destroyed except for the pillars, and was then rebuilt from the old pillars in 1982. The main entry arch is even newer, built in 1999, alas, with the wild mixture of blue, red, green, et al., typical of many modern wats. All this construction in a relatively poor rural area is made possible by donations from Khmer Americans, as evidenced by their names and the amounts they donated, written all over the wat.
The wall paintings are quite new and numerous, although not of great interest. One may note the following:
The picture of the meal at Pava, in the southwest corner, shows that the man who poisoned and killed the Buddha (by accident, actually) has a very Vietnamese look, typical of many wats around Cambodia.
The Buddha’s meeting with his abandoned wife shows her at his feet with a cloth. It seems that about 40% of the depictions show a cloth, while 40% (not in the Battambang area, however), show her covering his feet with her hair, and the remaining 20% show her actually touching his feet. This distinction is interesting in light of the Buddhist taboo against monks’ touching women. Probably the cloth is used to avoid the sacrilegious act of having a woman touch the Buddha.
On the outside of the vihear are more pictures. They are almost identical to the ones outside Wat Aek. Since Wat Trang was painted first, one may speculate that Wat Aek felt the need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ and paint as many pictures as found at Wat Trang, perhaps even by the same painter.
The road from Highway 5 past Trang leads to a T-junction, at which you turn right. This country road winds around a bit, but eventually leads to the back entrance of Aek Phnom. However, most tourists tend to go out to Aek Phnom via the river road from Battambang.
II. To Aek Phnom via the River Road
If you go out along the stream, go north of Battambang along the river road on the city side of the river, past the boat dock. You will pass several wats – Wat Leap, Wat Rumduol (also called Wat Chankar Samraong ), and my favorite, Wat Slaket.
Continuing along the road, you will note, among the many trees lining the route, the tall, thin Areca palms (slaa) that yield the betel nuts. Just beneath them you are likely to see the vines from which the ‘lime’ for betel nut chewing is picked. You need both the betel nut and the lime to make the red juice that contains the astringent chemical for the slight drug effect.
At the village of Daun Teaw the main road turns right across a bridge. Just across the bridge is a large compound that used to provide jobs for many residents of the area: a jute factory. This was constructed as one of the highly visible development projects under Prince Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastre Niyum programme of the 1960s. But for several reasons, including the ASEAN treaty that made jute imports from Thailand very cheap, the factory closed in 2000.
Daun Teaw is well-known in history for at least two reasons. It was the scene of a fierce battle between a Thai backed faction and a Vietnamese backed faction. The Thai faction won a decisive victory that led to the Thai take over of the area in 1795 which lasted until 1907.
The other reason for Daun Teaw’s notoriety is that it is inhabited by a ghost. The wife of the Thai ruler Chavfea Baen was named Neang Teaw, from which the name Daun (fort) Teaw is derived. She became homesick and tried to escape to return to Thailand. But the governor’s soldiers caught her at Daun Teaw, killed her and buried her on the spot. Locals to this day regard her as a strong and vengeful spirit needing to be propitiated with gifts.
As you continue on the road to the temple, one thing to look out for on this stretch are the houses specialising in making the rice paper used to wrap the local nem or spring rolls served in many restaurants and street stalls. Look out for the silver looking discs hanging out to dry like chili peppers at regular intervals, on wooden frameworks outside local houses. The process of making them is aided by the heat of the rice chaff after which they are laid out to dry.
If you want to take the time to see Cambodia on its own slow time, rent a small boat along the stream. That will get you away from the constant noise of motorcycle engines and into a world of your own. A boat ride along this lazy stream has probably not changed much in the last century. Aek Phnom An early morning or late afternoon visit catches the golden sunlight coming in from the sides, providing a magic ambience for a stroll and a drink under the shade trees.
Aek Phnom is a favourite picnic spot for residents of Battambang. This tradition has been in place for quite some time. The Pavie Mission in 1881 stated that the population of Battambang all went out to Aek Phnom for the Khmer New Year celebrations. Tauch Chhuong, in his descriptions of Battambang around 1907, stated that at the Buddhist festival of Chenh Vossa (the end of the rainy season), the inhabitants of Battambang placed candles on small rafts and floated them down the river, a practice which they continue to the present day. On the following day, People took their boats to enjoy themselves at the ruins of Wat Aek Phnom. There was a large body of water in front of Wat Aek Phnom which today has disappeared. The body of water was called Rohal. Many people went to race their boats on Rohal.
Tauch Chhuong also stated that at Khmer New Year people also went to Aek Phnom, but not in such numbers as on Chenh Vossa. Today, Aek Phnom is still a favourite New Year’s Day spot.
At the base of the temple there usually sits an old fortune teller. For 500 riel he lets you put a pack of fortune-telling cards to your forehead and, while you concentrate on your future, you cut the deck with a small wooden stylus. The fortune teller then reads the card, which is often related to some of the Buddha stories. In my case, he said I was as wise as Mahasot (the Jataka story of the wise man and the cave seen in most pagodas).
An inscription on the eastern entrance fixes the tributes to be paid to the king by the province of Amoghapura (meaning ‘the infallible city’ and verified as present-day Battambang). It states that the temple was built in 1027, in the reign of Suryavarman I (1002-1050). This dates it before the construction of Angkor Wat. Thus, it is a Hindu or Brahminist temple rather than a Buddhist one, as evidenced by friezes of Indra on his three-headed elephant, and Siva seated on his bull Nandi.
The Lonely Planet guidebook states that the temple was built in the 10th century. There may be a good reason for this probable error. Before the Pavie Mission, a document had been brought forward stating that the temple was much older. But this document was shown to be a forgery. For one thing, it had stated that the temple had been built for or by Oknha so-and-so, but then it was learned that in those days the title of Oknha had not been invented yet. But the dates and names contained in the forged document continue to circulate.
On the lintel over the left-hand entrance (south) you can see a Reahu monster, also called Kalaa in the Hindu mythology, mounted by Kalaq, the god of duration. On the pediment above Kalaq is a scene of Vishnu relaxing beside his consort Lakshmi on the naga called Ananta. From his navel springs the lotus from which Brahma was born.
Visiting the ruins now costs tourists two dollars. It is not clear who keeps the money, or whether the charge is even official. But it is still worth the entry fee to walk around the old ruins. Merrily Hansen has compiled a lot of material on Aek Phnom in an unpublished booklet on Battambang sites. She makes several notes on the carved lintels. For example, she explains that on the east side of the central sanctuary, there is an excellent rendition of the Churning of the Sea of Milk, with “Vishnu steadying the pivot while the god Brahma looks on from on high.” Above that carving is a scene from the Ramayana in which … a weeping Sita is being closely guarded by two female demons or rakshasi. …Hanuman (the monkey god) holds out Rama’s ring to Sita as a token of Rama’s devotion.
Merrily suggests that you bring binoculars to Aek Phnom. Some of the carvings are up high and rather far from your vantage point. Binoculars are also handy to watch birds in and around the nearby lily ponds. For example, you may see the jacana or lily trotter, a bird with large webbed feet that allows the bird to walk on top of the lotus leaves.
Inside the temple is another lintel. This time it is Indra on his three-headed elephant. Since this same icon appears on pagodas today, we see that the reverence for Indra in this region has not Churning the Sea of Milk – Aek Phnom changed in nearly a thousand years.
Wat Aek Phnom (the pagoda, not the old temple) was slowly reconstructed from 2000 to 2003. It is one of the most garishly coloured wats in the area – reds, oranges, yellows, in short all the colours of the rainbow mixed together with little thought to aesthetic combinations. This gaudy array of colour is in stark contrast to the somber tones of the ruined millennium-old prasat in the background. Like the prasat, the vihear is based on an Indra motif, with a bright blue three-headed elephant high up on the pediment. The wat was completed only in 2003, but already it is showing signs of age. The bright colours are fading and the paint is chipping away. Birds are nesting in the gate archway and a boddhi tree is sprouting from one of the chedai.
The pagoda has one of the most complete collections of Buddhist wall and ceiling paintings in all of Cambodia. There are scenes all over the outer walls and ceilings, as well as triple rows of paintings on all walls of the interior. Many of these paintings depict stories found in perhaps no other pagoda in the country, except of course, its predecessor Wat Trang, from which the paintings were undoubtedly copied.
To the north of the vihear an enormous Buddha statue is under construction, with the Buddha, like the vihear, facing east. Along the sides of statue are the Buddha’s disciples, led by the two favourites Mokkalean (left) and Sariput (right). However, construction on the statue has been stopped. The reason given is that the statue is higher than the Aek Phnom temple; such height should not be allowed out of respect for the national heritage. Whether or not that is the real reason, I find it strange that it is the government officials who want to tear down the statue and move it away from the temple, while the local monks and villagers want to keep the statue right where it is.
Behind the statue are two unused buildings, or rather, they are used as toilets now. Formerly they were a silk-weaving cooperative that operated more or less successfully for a few years while the foreign donors were still funding them. Unfortunately, when the donors pulled out the project proved unsustainable and fell away to nothing.
III. More Sites on the Way to Aek Phnom
More and more tourists are enjoying stops along the way to Aek Phnom. Frequent stops make the trip a very pleasant one because of the variety of interesting sites along the way.
Most motodoup guides will take you to the crocodile farm, located a bit further on from the Sour Kea balcony. To find it by yourself, turn left at the blue and white sign for ILDO, the Islamic Local Development Organization, worth a visit itself. The unmarked crocodile farm is on the right along a row of tall and wispy tamarisk trees. Once inside the farm, you cross a small field before entering the croc area, where perhaps 30 crocs are lazing around and in the circular pool. You can ask the guide or the manager the usual questions: how many crocs? where do they come from? where and for how much are they sold?
On the left you pass the former Pepsi-Cola bottling company, where you can still see the Pepsi logo. The reason for the construction of the Pepsi bottler back in the 1960s, so the story according to Dickon Verey goes, is that over in Thailand, Coca-Cola gained a legal monopoly on producing soft drinks. So rival company Pepsi-Cola built its factory across the border in Cambodia in the 1960s and exported its products to Thailand. You can still go into the factory, which is a rather eerie experience. All the machinery is still there, along with thousands of bottles destined for delivery in 1972. The factory closed during the Khmer Rouge era beginning in 1975, even though the KR sporadically used the place to make ice. The factory is open again, this time for making drinking water.
Wat Sla Ket
There are several pagodas along the river road, mostly pretty ordinary. But one wat worth a visit is Wat Sla Ket. It is a large wat, tastefully painted in cream and grey colors. You will recognize it as you go around a curve by the two large elephant statues in front, as described below.
Aymonier’s 1901 book mentions Wat Sla Ket as one of the oldest in the area, and states that it houses two old Angkor era stones. I had never heard of these stones, so I decided to visit the Wat to see whether the stones were still there a century later. Lo and behold, they were!
One is located inside the main vihear to the right of the main Buddha statue. I could not see the engravings mentioned by Aymonier, but he states that they tell a tale of the stone’s origins. Aymonier’s account relates that the stones come from a small hill near the Bassaet ruins called Tuol Tot Boh. He claims that in 1901 the engraved letters were ‘in a perfect state of preservation’, but in 2003 I could hardly see any letters at all. The stones were part of a Siva temple built in the reign of Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat, in the year 1145 A.D. The inscriptions describe the belongings of six stone buildings, contents including named slaves, incense, honey, robes, and bronze and gold platters.
The other stone is placed in an interesting shrine outside the vihear, to the right and the rear. The shrine contains the carved arm of an apsara from Angkorian times, which may or may not be Aymonier’s second stone. I could not see any inscriptions on the stone, and it seems Aymonier would have described the carved arm. To me, the more interesting relic is a spherical stone which was used as a seima stone.
When wats are constructed, such spherical stones are given magical powers and are buried beneath the main wat building. The seima markers found at most pagodas mark the spot where the magic stones are buried. Wat Sla Ket has some of the best and largest examples of seima markers in the area, and the spherical stone is probably the only actual seima stone you will ever see. According to the head monk or atikaa, this stone, along with the two ancient relics, came from Angkor Wat itself, although Aymonier claims otherwise. Aymonier makes no mention of the seima stone.
I should mention the black Neak Ta statue in the shrine. Most pagodas have small external shrines to the local god or Neak Ta of the area. Each Neak Ta is the protector of a given piece of land, such a village, and there is often even a hierarchy of Neak Ta gods for villages, communes, and districts. This practice must be a carryover from ancient animistic religion, but it is interesting how modern Buddhism has incorporated both the Hindu gods and the local animistic gods into its pantheon.
Apart from the relics, Wat Sla Ket has some other interesting features, notably its statuary. There are two large elephant statues in front of the wat, each depicting a different story related to Cambodian Buddhism. On the right is the story of Vessandar, the previous incarnation of the Buddha who cultivated the virtue of generosity to the point of giving away his own children. The story opens with Vessandar as a Prince who gives away his father’s (the king’s) prize hunting elephant. You can see this gift on the side of the statue at the bottom.
The other statue is of a not-so-common folk story of Chat Tawn, a hunter who persuaded an elephant to allow him to cut off his tusk. When Chat Tawn sold the tusk to the king (lower right of statue), the elephant complained to the other elephants (lower left), who hunted down Chat Tawn and killed him.
Other statues both inside and outside the vihear show various animals of the oriental zodiac. It may appear odd to see a funerary stupa with a rat and a dog in front, but that only signifies that the husband was born in the year of the dog - while his wife, buried with him, was born in the year of the rat. Other statues inside the vihear show other zodiac animals indicating birth years of former head monks.
The ‘Cheese Factory’
In the lobby of the Chhaya Hotel is a list of tourist attractions that includes a so-called ‘cheese factory’. I had never heard of cheese in Battambang, so I asked one of the guides about it. Turns out that they are referring to a prahoc or fish paste factory. Prahoc is the staple protein of most Cambodians’ diets, and is a paste of sauce made from fermented fish. It stinks to high heaven. The motodoup guides tell me that tourists like to visit the prahoc factory and market and to laugh at the fact that the Khmers can find delicious anything that smells so horrible. But I suppose it is an acquired taste, like some Western cheeses covered with mould and bad odours. That comparison is probably how the Chhaya came to call the place the cheese factory.
Tourists usually bypass this ordinary-looking wat along the river about a kilometre before crossing the bridge. But the paintings are well worth a stop. Look for the Peam Ek Secondary School gate on the left side of the road. The wat entrance archway is just beyond that school entrance.
Wat Somonos is hardly a Buddhist wat. Almost all the iconography around the outside and the paintings inside treat Hindu themes. Each window is mounted by a different Hindu god or local deity. The monks do not know the names for most of these creatures, but you can easily identify Ganesh the elephant god. Over one doorway is a scene of the churning of the sea of milk, while on the western exterior wall is a Ramayana scene with mermaids, crabs, turtles, and other creatures. The moustached guy on the East exterior wall is the local god Preah Komlong. This painting is unique because local gods are not usually part of the vihear itself. You can always find little shrines to these Neak Taa situated well away from the vihear, but this one is painted right onto the vihear, and is the chief god of the local district. Just as there is a political leader for the district, there is a god/leader for the ‘dark’ or spiritual world district. In front of the vihear is a large garden area. Note the fountain with the Earth Goddess Neang Kang Hing, the crocodile, and the forces of evil. At the rear of the vihear is a list of donors atop some very creative tigers emerging from their caves.
But the best reason for a visit to Wat Somonos is the interior. The paintings are of a story that I have not encountered in any of the hundreds of pagodas that I have visited. It is the story of Mahachumpuu. It is such a crazy story that I want to take the time to relate it.
The story starts, as usual, at the far right side, where Chumpuu fights with King Bimbisara over a piece of land, and wins by magically changing himself into a naga (seen in the air). In the next scene, Bimbisara asks the Buddha for help, and is changed into a garuda, known to be able to subdue nagas. Up in the sky you can see the garuda defeating the naga. Note the jackfruit tree in the foreground.
After Bimbisara thanks the Buddha, the defeated Chumpuu goes to Indra (Preah An, shown henceforth as green, the usual code for a god that becomes a person) to ask for more power. Preah An comes to earth and defeats Chumpuu in an archery battle shown on the east wall. The again-defeated Chumpuu fetches an elephant to ride in search of the Buddha. But Preah An changes into a giant (south wall) and tells Chumpuu not to ride the elephant, because atop the elephant he might look higher than the Buddha. From then on, Preah An serves as a guide to Chumpuu.
They first pass the Thomea market, where maidens bring them food. They meet a balding French general. Note the French Air Force in the sky, and the French navy ships in the sea. They then buy fruit at the same market. Note the cool-looking Frenchman (the French representative of Battambang at the time) with hat and tie, hands nonchalantly in his pockets. The horses in the background are simply sent by the Buddha to show Chumpuu the magnificence of all creatures of the world. At another market called Sochetraa they buy more fruit. These may be names of local villages earlier in the 20th century.
On the north wall, Chumpuu meets the four-faced Brahma, but refuses to give the respectful sampeah sign with his hands. Brahma changes into the Buddha, but the arrogant Chumpuu still refuses to sampeah. So they engage in an archery battle (shown behind the Buddha statue). Brahma wins, and Chumpuu is forced to sampeah.
They then meet the real Buddha, who shows Chumpuu the horrors
of hell. Chumpuu is so frightened that he submits and asks to become a monk. He is shown taking off his warrior’s garb and donning a monk’s robe. The final scene at the lower right is of Chumpuu’s wife and son accepting that Chumpuu has become a monk, so they return home alone.
Further paintings along the bottom of the interior wall are perhaps just daily scenes from the French occupation, including a well-preserved painting of a French colonial house. Further to the right is a scene of the Buddha reincarnated as a tiger meditating in a cave and refusing (difficult for a tiger!) to eat meat. Finally, there is a picture of a European city with rows of modern buildings lining the street.
About a kilometre past Wat Somonos the usual route to Aek Phnom crosses a bridge over the Prek Peam Aek, but the dredging of the creek has left that road in bad shape, and it may be easier to continue on along the left bank to the temple instead of crossing the creek.
To return to Battambang by a different route, you can cross the stream at any of dozens of bridges and continue along the other stream bank until the main road at Daun Taew. Once you are near the Sangker, there are several small ferry crossing where motorcycles can cross to the other bank near Norea Village. From Norea you can proceed on out to Wat Samraong Knong, Tapon, and Bassaet.
Chapter 6 East of the Sangker River
I. The Northeast: Bassaet
To reach Bassaet temple, one route crosses the New Stone Bridge, turns left to Norea Village, then turns right out into open countryside towards Tapon Village before continuing on to the temple. The road first passes the Catholic Church, there is little to see except the sign ‘Eglise Catholique’. There used to be a very large and impressive Catholic church on the site, built at the end of the 19th century. In fact, the Jesuits brought Christianity to Battambang as early as 1790. As in most of Cambodia, the Catholic Church caters mostly to the very poor and to the Vietnamese. Thus, the Church here has little money beside what is donated from outside. But numbers are growing, and in 2000 Battambang received its first bishop, so there is for the first time a Diocese of Battambang, encompassing the entire northwest of Cambodia from Preah Vihear to Pailin.
There is also a Cham or Islamic community along the river here. They are reportedly of the mystic sufi sect, and have resided in Battambang for a long time. During the Thai occupation, according to Tauch Chhuong, The governor liked the Muslim Khmer very much because they possessed potent magical powers, they could not be stabbed and they could not be shot. The Lord Governor trusted Muslim Khmer as brave soldiers, especially during the Ta Kae battle.
You will pass a couple of mosques along this river road. The most picturesque is Mosque Muhammadi, on the left just before you reach Norea Village. There are several nice old wats such as Wat Balatt and the big old Wat Sophie along this road. Near Wat Norea, at Norea Village, there is a road turning off to the right through a market area past Wat Norea and its school towards Tapon. This is the road out to Prasat Bassaet. It emerges into open rice paddy and after a few kilometres reaches Tapon Village, identified by a large wat on the left. After the turnoff at Norea, you can take the first turn to the left to ride a kilometre or two along a beautiful, shady stream to one of the most picturesque old wats in the area. This is Wat Samraong Knong. It is the epitome of the classic Romanesque style – low, wide, squat, with thick square pillars and a very large wooden gable.
There are no noteworthy objects inside, but the outside of this century-old architecture is quite worth seeing. In addition, there is a large and very ancient stupa on the grounds. The monks could not say how old it is, but it must be several hundred years old, as evidenced by the trees growing there.
Wat Samraong Knong was a favorite picnic spot for Battambang residents, even more than a century ago. Tauch Chhuong reports:
People gathered to enjoy themselves for each new year celebration at Wat Samraong because there were ancient ruins, spacious yards, and large shade trees. At Wat Samraong people played popular games, such as … toat seydak. The toat seydak game was well known and played with skill, …men’s and women’s groups in which they responded in verse to one another, leaving propriety aside. Not leaving propriety aside here, we shall comment only that the game of toat seydak is the popular game played today, in which a circle of young men kick a feathered object to one another. You can certainly see this game being played anywhere in Cambodia, for example, along the riverfront in Phnom Penh. Tapon itself is not a bad place to stop for a drink under the big tree opposite the wat. The tree is called Chen Tiri in Khmer and I have seen it called Century tree in English. Is the Khmer a corruption of the English, or is it the other way around? Or maybe there is no connection at all. A good linguistic puzzle.
The wat, while not particularly interesting to look at, is of recent historical interest. Under the Khmer Rouge, Tapon was the seat of Zone 4 in the Region they called Peyop, signifying northwest in the Old Stupa, Wat Samraong Knong Pali language. Every year the Khmer Rouge held a ceremony at the wat to celebrate their victory over the Lon Nol regime. People from the area told me of how the Khmer Rouge held ‘elections’. Each voter would be given pictures of three candidates (most of the electorate was illiterate) and were ordered to place one of them into the ballot box and the other two into the wastebasket. That is, they were told exactly whom to vote for, probably on pain of death if they put the wrong picture into the ballot box.
Bassaet village is just a kilometer or so on the road east of Tapon, and you cannot miss the temples on the right side of the road. In fact, residents will tell you that the temple complex used to be much bigger in the 1960s, with several structures of striking magnitude. Indeed, Aymonier, in his 1901 book, calls the temple the best one in the area. You can see the remains of several other structures to the left of the main structure as well as behind the collapsed one. There are a lot of plinths and other carved stones lying around, but not enough to build several large structures.
Prasat Bassaet is a pre-Angkor temple made of sandstone and in rather poor repair. Its two separate buildings were built in 1036 and 1042 by Suryawarman I. It is nicely located out in the countryside, and there are a few nice monks around. A few of the reliefs on the lintels are in pretty good shape, but have been painted blue and yellow. There are several bodyless Reahu monsters on the lintels. The fact that the Reahu monster is a common feature of present-day wats shows that the Reahu myth goes back a long way in history. Poking around the temple, consisting of a front shrine and a larger temple in run-down condition, is very enjoyable in the rural setting, but it takes only a few minutes to see it all. But as usual, getting there through the countryside is half the fun.
The French explorer Menri Mouhot visited Bassaet, as well as Phnom Banan and Aek Phnom. Of the three sites, he spent more page space describing Bassaet than the other two sites. It appears that he was much impressed with Bassaet, even though he admits that it was in poorer condition than the other two.
There are interesting stories of how the Khmer Rouge destroyed most, but not all, of the structures.
As the story goes, the KR started tearing down the structures to use the stones in building a dike or dam at Daun Teav, along the road to Aek Phnom. But then why, one must ask, didn’t they tear down Aek Phnom, which is much closer to Daun Teaw?
Anyway, some magic events caused them to desist. First, they found that their machine guns and cannons would not work when fired from the temple compound. Then, ghosts came out of the waterworks and inhabited the bodies of local people, warning the KR not to destroy the remaining templeS. Finally, when digging under the temple in search of gold, they unearthed a bronze stand called a chumpean on which to place holy writings. Indeed, the holy writings were there in the form of a parchment manuscript, but the uneducated Khmer Rouge general did not know what he had found. Since there was a shortage of paper, he tore up the parchment and used it to light his cigarette. Upon inhaling the cigarette smoke, his lips immediately swelled up to twice their original size.
So as a result of the unfiring weapons, the ghosts, and the swollen lips, the Khmer Rouge decided not to continue the destruction of Bassaet temple. That is why there is still one temple standing and another collapsed one whose stones have not been taken away.
The area to the left of the main temple is a quiet, shady place to sit on the stones and take in the surroundings. Be sure to choose a stone that is not covered with red ants! This peaceful atmosphere is a far cry from when I first visited Bassaet back in 1996, when the entire area was a minefield with no entry possible. Now the mines have been cleared, so that the possibility of stepping on a mine does not cross the mind of the visitor.
Further information on the temples can be found in the old Aymonier book, as well as a more Prasat Bassaet recent but unpublished document by Merrily Hansen. Back in 1901, Aymonier described it as “well cared for and covered with beautiful sculptures”. The largest wall measured about two hundred meters on one side, an indication of the immense size of the place. There were five towers surrounding the inner sanctuary. There were also many inscriptions that gave information on the dates and on the reasons for construction. They show that the first buildings were erected just after the reign of Suyavarman I, around the year 1042. But the reason for the construction was unclear to Aymonier. There were signs that it was a Buddhist temple, although there was a statue dedicated to Bhagavati, a wife of Siva, thus a Brahminist (Hindu) theme. But most mysterious is the fact that the temple was dedicated to a god called Sri Jayaksetra, a god whom he could not identify as either Buddhist or Brahmin. Merrily Hansen states that the kala figures (which I called Reahu monsters), always shown as heads without bodies, are ridden by the god Varuna, god of the ocean and the sky. Another Varuna is shown riding three sacred geese. We went next door to the new lemon-colored pagoda in hopes that some of the original statues had been preserved by the monks. They said that most of the statues had been preserved back in the 1960s, when the government collected them and took them to the National Museum. I wonder….. There were a couple of old nuns at the pagoda who corroborated the stories about the Khmer Rouge era, even the one about the general and the cigarettes. The old lady claimed to be 73, and said she could remember when she was young the huge old banyan tree in the courtyard was there already. She told us that there used to be some magic stones there belonging to a goddess. People could ask the goddess for food and clothing, especially if the food and clothing were for a ceremony like a wedding. The magic stones had the property that if you struck them they rang like iron rather than stone. There are plenty of stones from the temple scattered around the wat as decorations. For example, some of the pillars decorating the windows of the temple now form the borders for a flowerbed. But there are no real carvings to be seen. The most interesting thing is an old pond or sras with laterite steps leading down the sides. This is in surprisingly good condition. The nuns said that the pond at the bottom used to have a lot of water, but it dried up miraculously for three years while the Khmer Rouge occupied the temple, another reason the Khmer Rouge were frightened of removing the stones there.Some magic prevails to the present day. The old sras is said to fill with water in the dry season, but to dry up during the rainy season.
Aymonier states that another temple was to be found in the area. So we asked villagers whether they had heard of it. They said yes, it’s only a kilometer or so away from Bassaet near the old Angkor era reservoir, called a badak, something like a small baray. So off we went to find the badak, and sure enough, it is still there, although not much to look at. There is a mound of earth surrounding the lotus pond that is mostly mud.
We had a rather hard time finding the Ponkae ruins, probably because they don’t really exist. One man living less than 100 m away from the ruins had never (he said) heard of them. But another neighbour led us through the weeds and briars just beside the road to an area that had been thoroughly dug up. We could find only a few old stones to prove that there had once been a temple there. The older villagers said that back in the 1960s there had been a temple there, and that in fact 40 statues of gods and apsaras had been taken off to the National Museum.
Aymonier calls the place Ta Ke Pong, or Ta Pong Ke and describes it as “an isolated tower” with two sandstone stelas with readable inscriptions. They show the temple to be Buddhist with a reference to Jayavarman VII who reigned in the year 1162.
He also mentions a couple of other ruins in the area, one called Pram Damlaung or “Five Potatoes”. We asked older people in the area about that, but no one had ever heard of it. Aymonier also mentions a Tuol Tot Boh, where the stela now housed in Wat Slaket in Battambang is said to originate.
It is worth your while to continue along the road past the temple to Wat Samdech, if you are interested in ‘killing field’ monuments. The wat itself is of several ghastly shades of pink and it almost hurts your eyes to look at it. The golden monument is located behind and slightly to the right of the vihear. Dozens of bones are encased in glass. You can see that one skull is cracked and another is bashed in. The old achar of the wat, who lived through the period, told us that the killing was done with a steel rod. He pointed out the place were the killings were carried out. He himself was just a rural laborer and survived by keeping his head down and doing what he was told.
The achar also pointed out dozens of Angkor-era temple stones lining the paths. I asked whether they came from Bassaet temple, but he said no, they were from small temples just to the north and south of Wat Samdech. The temple to the south might well be the Ta Ke Pong described above, and perhaps the one to the north was Aymonier’s Pram Damlaung.
The Khmer Rouge had spared the original wat because it was very old. In fact, the name Wat Samdech comes from a visit of the Thai king Sitathorn in the days when this part of Cambodia belonged to Thailand. The king visited this area in order to view wildlife in the forests. The old vihear was destroyed well after Pol Pot in order to build the new eyesore, but there is a chedai of between 60 and 100 years of age with some old, nearly destroyed paintings.
To Bassaet temple via National Route 5
Most tourists who stay in Battambang for two or three days do the regular visit to the temples at Banan and at Aek Phnom, and a few venture out to see the ruined temple at Bassaet. They usually go along the east bank of the Sangker River to Wat Norea and turn right towards Tapon. But there is a more interesting way with more things to see along the way. That itinerary takes you out Highway 5 towards Phnom Penh.
About three kilometres past the Ta Dambong monument you come to the suburb of Anlongvil, administrative seat of Sangker District. Not too much to see there – a sprawling market, District government buildings, a couple of wats. On the right, past the market and the primary school on the left, is one wat worth a visit, called Wat Anlongvil, an older wat with Khmer Rouge connections. There is in fact a ‘Killing Fields’ monument, complete with the required skulls. In 2005 construction of a new vihear was begun, right on the site of the skull monument, so the skulls were moved into the big, grey, pointed chedai directly east of the vihear. You must go to the monks’ house to ask them to open it for you. Inside is a small shrine with many silver and gold funerary urns containing the ashes of the dead. Only the skulls were not cremated.
Wat Anlongvil is better known to locals, however, as the seat of a powerful local goddess, Luk Yiey Ess, whose shrine or ‘ashram’ is located along the main road under a large banyan tree. Locals give offerings to Yiey Ess before embarking on any important venture. She has magical powers to bring clothing and food to people who ask her for it, especially clothes and food for special occasions like weddings.
The wat itself is rather interesting. There is a large stupa with a four-faced Bayon motif, and the seima markers (marking the burial sites of the magic stones that give the pagoda its power) are of a unique lotus-bud design. Wat Anlongvil is also the site of a training center for a well-known local NGO called Buddhism for Development, which does a lot of development projects with a traditional Buddhist flavour.
Killing Fields monument, Wat Anlongvil
Behind the wat and to the right is a peaceful, shady pond across a small footbridge. A giant bamboo shades the remains of the old O Dambong, the river that was dammed so that the water would flow through Battambang along the Stung Sangker.
From Anlongvil, there are several ways to move cross-country to Bassaet, all of which can be rather confusing. There are several identical streams in the area, and they wind around so that when you travel along a road you never know whether you are coming to a switchback of the stream you just left or to a new stream. This side of Highway 5 the stream system is not called O Dambong, but Steung Chas (old river), a reference to the fact that it used to be the main branch of the Sangker.
All these streams are branches of the old O Dambong, the stream where the famous Bat Dambang magic stick was lost, according to the legend. No one ever found it, but legend has it that it is still in the O Dambong. This stream used to be the main branch of the Sangker River that runs through Battambang, but it was sealed off in the 19th century to make the Sangker the main branch, and is mostly just a trickle now.
However, the roads wind through a very beautiful, shady area, reminiscent of the ride out to Aek Phnom, along the banks of the various branches of the O Dambong. The easiest way to keep from getting lost is to turn left under the Wat O Meuni sign just after you pass the grey Wat Anlongvil arch on the right. This is a pleasant road along the stream called O Meuni that leads after a couple of kilometres to Wat O Meuni. This wat does not have much to offer of tourist interest, but it is an important one, as in April of 2003 its new building was dedicated by none other than Prime Minister Hun Sen himself.
Just after the wat, the road jags right and heads into open countryside until it comes to another stream. Continue across this stream and soon you will reach the commune seat of Rokar (name of a common thorn tree depicted in Buddhist paintings of hell). Rokar is a beautiful, peaceful Khmer village, with lots of shade trees and a hint of the old colonial era. There is also a wat here, a big one with an ornately gabled roof, but not much else of interest. After going around the wat to the left, the road turns left away from one stream and towards another stream, or perhaps another winding of the same stream. Follow this road out into the open countryside again until you come to another stream. You can follow either side of this stream the remaining couple of kilometers to Tapon. If you feel lost, just ask anyone for Tapon.
We headed back towards Anlongvil along a slightly different set of roads and streams, this time passing by a lovely wat in a peaceful setting along one of the shady streams. The nicest thing about Wat Taa Haen was its collection of trees. Out front is a huge Konghal (fan) tree and inside is a nice old Phlok tree, complete with its spirit house for Neak Taa Kok Phlok, a black, moustached spirit that resides in the tree. Actually, the wat itself is named for the spirit or god of the local land, called Neak Taa Haen. His shrine or ashram is the blue structure located outside the pagoda along the river bank, and strangely there is nothing in it, not the slightest statue or sacred object.
The wat itself is very tastefully decorated. Instead of twenty garish and clashing colors, as found in many local wats, the color scheme is a very pale green with red decorations over the doors. The gardens are well kept, including some statuary of the Buddha and his five original disciples under a beautiful banyan tree behind the wat.
At Tapon you meet the main road out from Battambang. Turn right and go a kilometer or so to the Bassaet ruins.
II. The Southeast
Instead of going down to Banan on the main, dusty road, you might try the slower journey along the east bank of the Sangker, as described in the Banan chapter above. Just cross the Old Stone Bridge in Battambang and turn right (south). This is a much more peaceful road, lined with trees and good views of the river. It passes several old, French houses, now in bad condition, and offers a glimpse of what Cambodian life must have been like in the old days.
The first landmark you come to after crossing the railroad tracks is Wat Temum, a large and beautiful old wat painted light blue. It is surrounded by tall trees – almost jungle, including koki trees, often planted near pagodas and a source of wood for making racing boats, as well as chhoe teal trees, for which Chhoe Teal commune across the river was named. The eaves of the vihear are home to several large beehives. The floor inside the vihear is covered with dead bees. This old wat used to be the home of the head monk for the entire district of Battambang, so it has played an important part in the history of Battambang.
You can continue on down the river past Wat Kwaeng to the point where the (disappearing) stick stream (O Dambong) used to fork from the Sangker River. This is where Ta Dambong Kranhoung allegedly threw the stick that disappeared and for which Battambang is named. There is not much to see, but the place is quite historic, even in addition to the incident of the disappearing stick. The following is a description by Tauch Chhuong:
Once upon a time  the Vietnamese invaded. People then blocked the old river to prevent a swift invasion by the Vietnamese, since the river was very straight. The last time it was blocked, a number of logs were placed across the river along with a large boat of offerings holding food and other items. People prepared ritual offerings, and pregnant women were forbidden to cross in front of the ritual shelter. While they were chanting the ritual offering, a pregnant woman suddenly crossed in front of the ritual shelter. The woman was seized, killed, and placed inside the boat to protect the bottom of the dike, and soil was filled in. After completing the dike, elephants were led back and forth along Aur Sangke to break up the ground, thus enlarging the waterway. But the dike could not contain the water, so it was often breached. A small spirit house was built near the dike to shelter three statues: one Buddha forming a barrier with his hands, a Buddha on a naga, and one Preah Noreay [Vishnu]. Subsequently the dike was never breached.
The old channel of the O Dambong can still be seen, and in fact you can walk in what used to be the streambed. As the trench gets farther from the dike, however, it starts to become a stream again. The Sangker River in the old days was about the same size as this stream, so you can see that the Sangker has grown considerably over the years.
The moto ride along the bank is a lovely, shady trip, and after much winding and branching of this country lane, you arrive at the railroad tracks near the old train station of O Dambong.
A Nori Ride
‘Lories’, or ‘Nories’ as they say it in the Battambang region, are small contraptions for riding on the railroad tracks. They are marketed to tourists as ‘bamboo trains’. They are ingeniously simple: a set of wheels, a flat bed of bamboo, and a small generator attached to the wheels. They are becoming increasingly popular along the rail line all through Cambodia as a means of transporting people and goods to market towns. They are also becoming increasingly popular with tourists as a fun and adventurous new mode of transportation. If you are riding a motorcycle, you can just load it onto the Nori, ride as far as you want, and then get off and continue your moto journey. That is exactly what some Battambang tourists are doing.
In 2006 the nories of Battambang were featured internationally in a five-minute item on BBC World television.
The nories are not allowed to leave from Battambang station. You have to go out to O Dambong station, where you will almost certainly see one or two preparing to head off for Phnom Teppedey, about two hours journey southeast towards Moung Russey. I say ‘almost certainly’ because at times when the real train is scheduled to come along, the nories vanish. But right after the train passes is the moment when, at least in the direction of the train, you can travel without meeting any traffic. You can travel to Phnom Teppedey and return by moto along Highway 5, a difficult ride compared with the smooth ride on the Nori.
One problem is that there are many nories traveling along the railroad track, so you will meet several along the way. When this happens, the less heavily loaded one must be completely disassembled and taken off the tracks for the other to pass. Everyone gets off while the driver takes off the generator, the flatbed, and finally the wheels from the tracks. When the other nori has passed, he puts the whole thing back together. This is all very amusing the first couple of times, but on a hot day, when you have to stand out in the hot sun while all this is going on, it can get a little irritating. Be sure to bring hats, kramahs, sunscreen, or umbrellas to protect you from the sun.
The noris let you see a real slice of Cambodian life. They also take you to parts of the countryside where roads do not go. You are therefore away from the dust of the main roads, and the ride along the rails is much smoother than any motorcycle ride can ever be.
In the south of Cambodia, the nories, called lories there, are a bit different. There, a hole is cut out of the flatbed and a motorcycle is inserted. Instead of a generator, the motorcycle engine itself provides the power. And the rear wheel is slotted onto the track so that you actually ride the motorcycle on the railroad tracks.
A more direct way to get out to the nori terminus at O Dambong is to go out Highway 5 east past the new market. This is a large and rather uninteresting market whose official name is 13 January (13 Makara). This is interesting because other places in Cambodia, including a former market in Battambang, are named 7 Makara, the date on which the Khmer Rouge were driven out of Phnom Penh.
However, it was not until the 13th of January that Battambang was liberated, so 13 Makara is a more appropriate name for Battambang rather than 7 Makara.
Only a kilometre or so south of the O Dambong station is an interesting restaurant where you may wish to take your lunch. The restaurant is famous for its goat meat (poapei). The goats are raised down in Samlot District and the meat brought to Battambang. You can sit in small gazebos and eat goat soup or goat steak. The place is cool and shady, owing to the many sapodilla trees. In fact, the restaurant’s name is Chamkar Lemut, or Sappodillo Orchard. If you have never seen or eaten a sapodilla fruit, this is the place to do it. The sapodilla is a brown, egg-shaped fruit that has a very distinct flavour, resembling, in my mind, cinnamon.
Phnom Teppedey is a small mountain that sticks out of the plains northwest of Moung Russey District, and is visible from Highway 5. It lies at the end of the nori ride, where the tracks cross the road that goes down into Kos Kralor District. Otherwise, you can drive out Highway 5 for 31 kilometres (just past the kilometre 260 marker) to the southeast before turning right in sight of the mountain. The rather poor road takes you straight to a small market at the base of the hill. It then turns sharply left to go into the former Khmer Rouge territory of Kos Kralor.
There is a small pagoda on top – Wat Souvann Tiri (‘Golden Mountain Pagoda’), but it is not much to speak of, even though the hill itself is of historical interest. It was here that the Khmer Rouge brought the captured troops of the Lon Nol regime for mass slaughter in 1975. A major killing field, the area has no monuments or any other evidence of the massacre. The hill is still mined: MAG signs along the path to the top warn you not to leave the steps for fear of mines. The last time I checked, there was a large old gun near the top of the stairway, but the government has recently launched a campaign to clear up old artillery left around the countryside, so the gun may have been removed by now.
Kos Kralor was for a long time controlled by the Khmer Rouge. In the past few years it has been the scene of a large resettlement of internally displaced persons, and a new district has been set up. Unfortunately, the internally displaced people (IDP’s} who were invited to settle were not told one crucial fact: there is hardly any water. So many IDP’s arrived only to find that farming was impossible. Of course, any land near water was immediately snatched up by the rich generals, so that now all those IDPs are working as low-wage labourers on the land of the rich.
Kos Kralor made the national headlines in August of 2006 when one of the rich landowners, an oknha (someone who buys a title) was kidnapped on his way back to his estate in Kos Kralor and held for a reported ransom of $300,000.
You can continue your moto drive into Kos Kralor along a very good road, but there is not much to see except for a lot of flat, undeveloped bush country, and some very poor people trying to eke out a living here. Actually, they say, the land is quite fertile, but the problem is lack of water. People here really have to struggle to get the land to produce. These people are real pioneers moving onto unknown land and making a living. One might expect this to be a real wild-west place where anything goes, but the feeling is more the wild-west of Willa Cather’s frontier hardships than that of Zane Grey’s cowboy shootouts. In other words, Kos Kralor is pretty boring.
Chapter 7 Pailin and Samlot
I. The Road to Pailin
Should you visit Pailin (and you should), there are a few things to see along the way. It is even possible to spend the night at a guesthouse in Sdau, located about halfway to Pailin. The road has been renumbered a couple of times, but most people still refer to it as Route 10, so don’t be confused if you see some other number, like 57 or 76.
The road to Pailin begins at the crossroads at the Phsar Leu in Battambang. There is a tourist sign there that lists the tourist attractions out that way: Phnom Sampeou – 12 km, Snoeung Monument – 20 km, Popuh Pich Chenda Torrent –41km, Sek Sak Torrent – 56km, Kamping Puoy Barrage – 38km, Banan Monument – 25km, but oddly enough, not Pailin. This beat-up old tourist sign is still lit up at night – the only light visible at the intersection. The road is the usual route out to Phnom Sampeou. It is dusty, bumpy, and not very interesting.
Beyond Phnom Sampeou, the road crosses a long, monotonous stretch of rice paddies, made interesting only by the “Sleeping Lady Mountain” that figures in the Rumsay Sok story. You will see the sleeping lady off to your left, after passing the crocodile mountain on your right. Then don’t forget to stop in Snoueng to see the small temple with the wonderful carved friezes, as well as the three brick towers behind the town’s main pagoda. The locals do not seem interested in the old temples. On my last visit, at the rear of the brick temples a volleyball game was in progress. Near the stone temple by the road, some girls were praying in a small shrine to the local gods or Neak Taa. They were asking the god to tell them the winning number in the weekly lottery.
As you go through the town, keep you eyes on the left side for the small temple. You might miss it! It is basically a pile of rocks with a few carvings that have not been looted. A little further on you will see a modern-day pagoda on the left. Behind that pagoda are three brick temples from a very early period.
According to the Pavie Mission, who reported on the area in the late 19th century, the temples were full of Hindu carvings: Vishnu lying on his fantastic Rajasinha, and the turtle holding up Mt. Mandara. There was also a large set of stories from the Mahabharata. The friezes over three of the four doors are still there and in amazingly good condition. Considering Snoeung’s remote location, far from any foreign protection, it is quite remarkable that these fine carvings were not stolen long ago.
The temple dates back prior to Angkor, to about the year 1000. It was a Hindu temple dedicated to Siva. There is a Siva linga at the right, and the lintels over the doorways contain beautiful Hindu friezes. As the Pavie Mission reported, Siva is seen lying on his favorite lion-dog. To the rear, a gnome-like god is seen atop a pole resting on the back of a turtle.
The temples behind the big wat are very old, from the pre-Angkor period when temples were made from bricks. They are probably from around the year 950. Although the brickwork is a sign of antiquity, the red bricks make the temples look as though they were constructed yesterday. They are not very picturesque or photogenic. There is one elaborately carved lintel with a typical headless reahu monster, but otherwise, any carvings of interest were looted long ago.
Further along the main road you reach Sdau, the District Headquarters of Rattanak-Mondul District. You know when you are nearing Sdau from the long mountain ridge called Phnom Banang (different from Banan).
Rattanak Mondul District was the center of fighting all through the early nineties. The Khmer Rouge controlled the territory west to Pailin, while the Government controlled the land east to Battambang. That put the road between Sdau and Treng on the front line of battle. The Government tanks and vehicles would advance during the dry season, and the KR would take the territory back during the wet season.
A few years ago I visited Sdau just a couple of weeks after the Khmer Rouge surrender of Pailin. The entire district was deserted, except for a few squatter huts of newly arrived internally displaced persons. All the buildings of Sdau were thoroughly obliterated. Today, the district is returning to a normal kind of life. The hospital has been rebuilt by the Christian organization World Vision, and the school across from the hospital has been partially restored by Hun Sen, whose blue-and-yellow logo can be seen atop the rear school building. The script letters in his logo are the Khmer equivalent of H.S.
I spent a weekend in Sdau in order to explore the surrounding area, where I had heard there were caves and some old monuments. Indeed, my moto guide told me that Padak Cave was located north of town, so away we went. The area is pretty much a blank on the map. The road is difficult because of deep sand in places. The population dwindles until you reach the small commune town of Raksmey Sangha with its Cambodia Mine Action Centre (CMAC) camp. I learned that the road is the only one passing to the right of the mountains into Pailin, and so it must have been of tremendous strategic importance during the Khmer Rouge wars. It was heavily mined. That is why there are so few people here.
However, with the slow-but-steady demining progress, more and more people are settling in this region in search of land and a new life. In past years, they settled on the land and began demining it themselves, figuring that if CMAC got to the land first, it would be given to some high ranking general or rich person. Nowadays, this situation is much improved through the government Mine Action Planning process.
We continued on for another 10 km on relatively good road to the small village of Padak, where there is a school and a very small old wat with mine signs all around it. Only a week earlier CMAC had found a mine on the wat grounds. We asked the monks about the cave, and they found a couple of kids to guide us along a small path which led around the right side of the mountain into very beautiful forest.
The cave was spectacular. Had it been located in a tourist area it would have been a major attraction. Not only was it very large and deep, but it was decorated with all sorts of stalactites and stalagmites of interesting shapes and sizes. At one point I thought we had discovered the skull of a mastodon fossil, complete with teeth and tusk, but after some thought decided that it was just a formation of the limestone.
I stayed overnight in Sdau at the Guesthouse for $5. After the Pailin traffic finishes for the hot, dusty day, Sdau becomes a peaceful little town in the evening. I very much enjoyed sitting out and watching the world go by. The main restaurant has a big Foster’s beer sign, even though they haven’t sold Foster’s beer for years. The restaurant also has a woodcarving shop where you can buy beautiful little knick-knacks very cheaply, made of wood from the nearby mountains.
Of the many types of wood harvested for timber, three stand out as being the most valuable: Nimeung, Beng, and Kranhoung. Nimeung is usually considered the most valuable of all, and can be identified by its almost purple colour. Beng is second best, and is a very red colour. Kranhoung is a hardwood, known in Khmer folklore as the wood of which was made the famous magic stick seen on the large black statue at the route 5 roundabout in Battambang. The full name of the statue is Ta Dambang Kranhoung, which means “Old Man with the Stick made of Kranhoung.” In the shop I bought, for a dollar apiece, three little polished carvings representing the three types of local wood.
The main wat in town, Wat Kiri Balang, has some interesting statuary and is laid out in the shape of a boat. The donor, one army general named Taa Nong, is commemorated by a statue of the general surrounded by soldiers, reminiscent of the famous Chinese terracotta warriors. The temple itself has a large god in front, named Niyeay Sampeou, or ‘Lord Vishnu of the Boat’, complete with trident and anchor.
I also took a trip south of town, to a famous old wat called Wat Traak. This was heavy Khmer Rouge territory, and in fact, the mountain that you can see from Sdau, called Phnom Way Chaap, was the first place ‘liberated’ by the Khmer Rouge back in 1968. That is, the KR controlled this area before they controlled anyplace else. I asked an old guy about the history of the area, and he said that in fact Way Chaap had been a liberated area of the Khmer Issarak fighting against French colonialism back in the 1950s.
Wat Traak was a disappointment, as it had been decimated by the Khmer Rouge. The place is still famous for a monk who could meditate so deeply that he could stop bullets. He was able to protect himself and his students from the Khmer Rouge bullets. His picture is still on the altar of the new wat structure.
Also nearby is a place called Thnal Spean, or sometimes Thmar Spean. The word ‘spean’, meaning ‘bridge’, led me to believe that I might find an ancient bridge there, but in fact the name means only a series of natural rock formations where you can cross the river. The reason that Thnal Spean has become important in recent years is that it is a proposed site for a huge hydroelectric dam scheme. The dam, if it is ever built, will connect Way Chaap mountain and Chibang Mountain to create an immense reservoir to the south and west.
The Road to Samlot
About 20 minutes past Sdau, at the town of Treng, the highway splits, as the left fork goes off to Samlot District and the right fork continues on to Pailin.
Treng was the village that was taken and retaken dozens of times by the Government and Khmer Rouge forces. We stopped at a small shop where a one-legged man was doing a thriving business in roof thatching. We had a good chat with him about the area. What was the biggest problem for development in the area, we asked. Without hesitating a moment he replied, “mines”. Indeed, Rattanak-Mondul and neighboring Samlot Districts are by far the two most heavily mined districts in all of Cambodia.
For this reason, adventure tourists are advised not to stray too far from the main road. The road south of Sdau, as well as that south of Treng, is considered safe, but to the north, there is no telling what danger lurks. The roads are of course traveled every day, but the danger comes when two vehicles pass and one must leave the main roadway, even by a metre or less. Anti-vehicle mines along the side of the road, not triggered by pedestrians, can be activated by heavier vehicles even after years in the ground. World Vision and the Mines Awareness Group (MAG) have erected mine-awareness billboards all along the roads, and they mean business.
You can take the road south from Sdau towards Phnom Way Chaap. The road is so good that many people take it as part of a detour to avoid stretches of Highway 57. The state of the road has an interesting story, according to my World Vision host. Several years ago World Vision built the road at a cost of over $20,000. In 2000, a former Battambang governor put in some repairs at a cost of about $1000 and proceeded to erect a sign claiming that he had built the road. World Vision was not too happy about that.
Back on Highway 57 again, there is a local tourist attraction off to the left. It is a rushing stream bringing clear water down from the Cardamom mountains, and is called Pich Chenda, related to a story about a girl named Chenda who is as beautiful as a diamond (pich). The story forms the basis for a Sim Sisimuth song. There is a blue-green sign pointing off to the left of the highway, with the name written in English. Notice that in order not to exaggerate by calling it a waterfall, the sign calls it a ‘torrent’. A Ministry of Tourism register of tourist sites states that Pich Chenda, along with another site called Sa Ang, have prehistorical sites.
Just before the village of Phcheav, a reminder of the past wars is an armored personnel carrier sitting to the left of the road in the shade of a large tree. You can miss it if you are not watching for it. In fact, as a part of a removal campaign, it may not be there at all any more. There are usually a bunch of kids playing on the frame of the old vehicle, from which everything else of any value has been stripped. The children cavorting on the old war remnant make for interesting photography.
To the right is a primary school where World Vision have set up a ‘children’s club’. We visited this club on a Sunday when lots of children were playing with the jigsaw puzzles there and having a great time. The ‘teacher’ has materials for some interesting activities with them: awareness of children’s rights, notions of participating in village development, awareness of child trafficking, and information about HIV.
Just past the school is the turnoff to the left leading to Samlot District. This important road was constructed by UNHCR to lead to its large resettlement of refugees in Samlot. You will almost certainly see the anti-mining CMAC trucks going that way, or stopped at the intersection for a drink. Foreign donors severely cut back CMAC funding in 2000, after a string of corruption and million-dollar embezzlement scandals involved the Cambodian CMAC Director. When the government decided to thumb its nose at the donors and reinstated the corrupt Director, the donors pulled out.
However, the situation has been rectified and CMAC is back in full operation after promising to be good boys. CMAC is very active in demining in the area; you will probably see demining activities along the road, and you will certainly see lots of CMAC vehicles.
Only 7 km along this very good road is a local tourist attraction called Sek Sau. It is best described as another ‘torrent’. On holidays it teems with picnickers who make a lot of noise and leave lots of litter behind. I visited the place on an off-day, when I was the only person there. But I was very much turned off by the heaps of plastic bags littering the entire area. The ‘torrent’ itself, while itself rather pleasant, is not surrounded by trees, so on a hot summer’s day there is no place to sit in the water in the shade. Furthermore, the day I was there CMAC deminers were carrying out operations just across the stream. Every few minutes the silence of the countryside was interrupted by a loud boom caused by a mine being exploded. A man with us looked at his watch and explained that if a boom occurred at certain times, it was probably the deminers, but at other times it could only mean that someone had stepped on a mine. Litter, noise, mines, heat, bad road… In short, Sek Sau is hardly worth the effort of getting there.
Like Pich Chenda, Sek Sau is also the subject of a Sin Sisamuth song. He (or his songwriter) must have lived in this area, for several of his songs, including one about Phnom Sampeou and another two about Pailin, mention sites in or near Rattanak Mondul District.
II. Samlot District
Why go to Samlot? Not everyone will be interested in going to such an out-of-the-way place. But for those who like the edge of civilization, forests, mountains, and a visit to a former Khmer Rouge stronghold Samlot is one of the most exotic places imaginable. In wildness, it has taken the place of Rattanakiri as the back of beyond, since Rattanakiri has become overrun with tourists, and the forests around Banlung have all but disappeared. In southern and far northern Samlot there are still tigers, bears, and rare species of birds and other flora and fauna in the towering Cardamom Mountains. ‘Towering?’ you ask. Yes, Kbal Laan Mountain is perhaps the most impressive mountain in Cambodia, and is covered with lush, uninhabited jungle.
Samlot is the most war-torn place in Cambodia. It was the first place to be taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1968, and the last place to give up Khmer Rouge control in 1998. Yes, the residents of Samot were under the control of the Khmer Rouge for thirty years. Just think of an entire lost generation without education or health services for all that time. I prefer not to think of all Samlot residents as Khmer Rouge supporters, but rather as simple Cambodians who suffered under the yoke of the KR. That said, there are still plenty of KR higher-ups still living in Samlot, just as the KR leaders such as Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, and Khieu Samphan still live freely in Pailin. Indeed, it was in Samlot that Duch, the infamous jailer of Tuol Sleng prison, was found working for an NGO.
In 1997, after the Khmer Rouge leaders in Pailin had made a deal with Hun Sen not to fight any more in exchange for relative freedom to exploit Pailin, the KR in Samlot decided not to go along with the deal. Fighting continued on a small scale, but in July, after the coup d’état in Phnom Penh, things got really out of hand, with Funcinpec leaders fleeing Cambodia proper and attempting to side with the KR in Samlot against the CPP. With all three major players in on the action, the fighting became quite vicious. The entire population of about 15,000 fled, about half to refugee camps across the Thai border, the remainder as a diaspora around Cambodia (known affectionately as IDPs — Internally Displaced Persons).
With all the fighting among several factions, Samlot became one of 7the most heavily landmined areas in the world. Long after the fighting stopped, the District was the world capital for landmine victims. As late as 2001, Samlot was producing more landmine victims than the rest of Cambodia put together. Even today, it sometimes seems that everyone you meet in Samlot is missing a leg or an eye.
When the refugees and IDPs returned to their villages in 1998, they found their homes destroyed and their lands confiscated by the conquerors. In many instances, whole villages of returnees picked up stakes and moved to another location. This has led to a huge confusion over place names, because these villagers took their village names with them. So nowadays, if you refer to a village such as O Samrel, it is not clear whether you mean the old O Samrel or the new one. So be careful if you ask for directions.
In 1999, UNHCR brought back the refugees and launched a huge and difficult reintegration project. While I am not always a big fan of United Nations projects, I have to admit that UNHCR did the job in Samlot. Roads were demined and reconstructed, large databases of relocated persons were set up so that the most vulnerable could be helped, and a consortium of NGOs set up a network of social services and infrastructure projects. By the end of 2000, UNHCR had finished its work, leaving the rest to NGOs and especially to the deminers of CMAC and MAG. As a result, Samlot has now slipped to second place among Cambodian districts in mine casualties (next to Sala Krao in northern Pailin). One problem, however, is that people with small plots of land are beginning to clear land further away from the demined areas, and many new mine casualties are appearing on the rolls.
Samlot used to be pretty much off limits to visitors due to poor roads and lack of any place to stay. Nowadays you can get around pretty easily on the main roads, especially in the dry season. More importantly, the NGO Emergency has opened a guesthouse near the market in centrally located Tasanh Commune. Tasanh is the District headquarters and is growing rapidly as new NGOs set up offices and as commerce increases with Battambang along the improved roads. Emergency is an NGO that treats mine casualties.
The forest is rapidly being chopped down and replanted with peanuts and bananas along the main road south to Tasanh. But as the road rises out of a long valley, you suddenly behold the panorama of the Cardamoms spread out before you, and you know you are in for something special. You will probably stop somewhere in Tasanh, perhaps at the Emergency Guesthouse, perhaps at the Samlot market, perhaps at the Rikreay Restaurant. From anywhere along this stretch you can look out towards the Cardamom mountains. The place has a very frontier, third world atmosphere, and there is plenty of cheap beer. Klang (‘strong’ ) Beer seems to be the preferred brand, but the locals prefer to call it damrey saa, meaning White Elephant because of the label. The Thai baht is the unit of currency here, not the riel. You can change money at the market at slightly disadvantageous rates.
If you return along the road for about 3 km you will see about four identical houses on each side of the road. This is a project funded by movie star Angelina Jolie. While she was filming Tomb Raider, a former UNHCR worker brought her to see the poverty and the many handicapped mine victims in Samlot, and Angelina’s heart melted. She first funded these houses for handicapped people. Then she funded a small school further along the road, and finally she funded the large wildlife reserve north of old Samlot Village.
Next to the main primary school is the Samlot Office of Education. Nothing special to see, but it was here that the law finally caught up with Comrade Duch,, Commandant of the infamous S-21 Tuol Sleng prison of the Khmer Rouge. Duch slipped out of sight to Phkoam village near Sway Chek north of Sisophon during the 1980s, became a born-again Christian when his wife was murdered, and started working for the American Christian organization American Refugee Committee under the assumed name of Hang Pin. (Some people say he was working for World Vision, but according to Nic Dunlop’s The Lost Executioner, Duch occasionally worked with World Vision, not for them. ) He was recognized in a photograph, and again went into hiding, this time as District Director of Education for Samlot. It was in the small office in Tasanh that he was finally found. His son still works there. When discovered, he was detained in prison, where he has remained, waiting for the Khmer Rouge tribunal. It is probable that the authorities, looking for scapegoats, will throw the book at him.
Northwest of Tasanh
The main road bends around to become an east-west road, a fact that can at times be confusing. Just a couple of kilometers along the road is a school where you can see one of the silliest and most wasteful development ideas I have ever seen: the high jump pits. Constructed with a view to giving some sports and exercise to schoolchildren, the pits almost immediately became unusable due to mud, cow dung, and mostly lack of interest from the local kids, who are not going to jump into the mud in their school uniforms.
The road continues until you come to a T-junction. The road to the left leads south while the road to the right goes west towards the Thai border. At the small Angelina Jolie school, you can turn right to go to old Samlot Village, while continuing straight takes you to the Thai border. Before the wars started in the late sixties, Samlot Commune was the only developed zone in the entire area. But after 30 years of neglect, the place has reverted to jungle. There are a lot of old roads here, leading nowhere. There is an eerie atmosphere of being in a jungle that was formerly civilized. There are huge durian trees, far taller than I ever expected durians to grow. Large fruit trees of all kinds abound, evidence of the Khmer Rouge policy of planting as many fruit trees as possible.
If you carry on north through several intersections, the road will eventually bend around to head west. Right where it makes a sharp bend to the left you will see a track leading straight into the woods. This track leads through about 300 metres of lush forest to a waterfall – not large or spectacular, but intimate and peaceful. The Samlot waterfall lies in a secluded and tree-rimmed depression and is therefore shady for most of the day. There is a deep (in both senses) blue-green pool of water just right for swimming. The waterfall has a cave behind it, so you can swim in behind the falling water. There are all sorts of ferns and creepers along the banks, but especially beautiful is a large tree with one of the most intricate root systems you will ever see. Angelina Jolie has paid, so the story goes, $350,000 per year for the next 15 years to rent the land across the river from the falls as a wildlife preserve. But the first signs of civilization are appearing around the falls, in the form of litter, plastic bags, and rotting food. By the time the place has been developed for tourism, it may already have been trashed.
You can walk through the reeds downstream for about 100 metres to reach the larger Sangker River, the same one that eventually makes it way to Battambang. Here, however, it is called the Banlang. When I was there, the water was surprisingly brown and muddy, due, to the search for precious stones upstream. After all, this area is very near Pailin, famous for its gemstones. Across the river is a mountainside of untouched primal forest. Late in the afternoon this place has an unforgettable atmosphere, with the sun coming in along the river from the west.
In a few years, when Samlot gets its tourist act together, the waterfall will be its number one tourist draw, and it may suffer the same fate as Phnom Kulen or other original sties that have now been trashed. But if you can get to the falls now, before the rubbish begins to accumulate, you can experience a pristine pool that is close to paradise.
The road continues into Old Samlot village, where only a few people live now. The road becomes impassable and is probably mined as it goes west to Peam Tatoeung Village before heading south to O Rokrok. I don’t recommend this.
To reach all points in southern Samlot, you must take the road that leads south from the T-junction where the Tasanh road comes in. The land quickly becomes more hilly and less populated. You are in real forest here, although it is not the dense jungle you might expect, but the more open, grassy forest you see around Rattanakiri and Preah Vihear.
The road is difficult for cars, especially in the rainy season. You must ford two streams. The crossing at the big old ruined bridge may be impossible in the rainy season, although there is a rather improbable suspension bridge at O Tatiek suitable for motos. This was heavy Khmer Rouge territory, and one might assume that the bridge was destroyed in the war, but in fact it died of natural causes. A heavy storm caused a flash flood that washed it out. It was repaired twice, and twice again the floods washed it out. There are plans to build a solid bridge there, but these plans have been delayed again and again.
After O Tatiek there is a bit more population, and a few kilometers further is an intersection and something like a small town called O Nonong where you can buy drinks and basic supplies. The bad road to the left goes two kilometers to an old suspension bridge. It is in such bad shape that I would not risk crossing it in a car, although some people have done it. Beyond the bridge the road is impossible, and probably mined both to the north and the south.
Continuing south from O Nonong the road is better and leads to some of the most stunning scenery of all Cambodia. You head down this secluded valley with the huge Kbal Laan mountain in front of you. There are lushly forested mountains on all sides.
The road south past the broken bridge leads to some very beautiful country indeed. This was formerly a road into Thailand, and is still used as an illegal outlet for taking logs into Thailand. After a makeshift and improbable border gate, the road to Thailand forks right. That road is impassable, except for large logging trucks, so instead of turning right, you can continue straight over the hill. When you emerge at the top of the hill, you are smitten by what is in my opinion the most beautiful view in all Cambodia. You look down into a secluded valley, with the gigantic mountain called Kbal Laan (car’s bonnet) looming over it all in the background. At the bottom of the hill is the small village of Peam Ta. The village chief is a former Khmer Rouge soldier who has lost an eye and a couple of limbs, but who is a cheerful and very hospitable soul.
Peam Ta is such a special place that during the Water Festival of 2003 I asked the village chief if I might bring a group of my friends to spend the weekend in his village. He agreed to provide a place for us to stay, and so one fine Friday afternoon about 15 of us descended upon the tiny village of Peam Ta. We even prepared a concert of music that we would perform out by a waterfall on the river that flows swiftly down from Kbal Laan, and so we called our weekend ‘Samlot-stock’.
When we arrived, the chief directed us down a small track into the forest. You can hardly see the track, but it soon diverges into a cluster of houses hidden back in the forest. This, we later learned, had been the secret hideout of Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders, and the center of their operations in Samlot. One Khmer member of our group became rather spooked and refused to stay in Pol Pot’s house.
We had our wonderful Samlot-stock concert in the full moonlight down by the falls, attended by wide-eyed locals. They all told us to be very careful to stay on the paths because there were landmines everywhere. We were especially warned not to cross the river because the other bank used to be a main Khmer Rouge road south into Veal Veng District and there were thousands of mines. In fact, the villagers convinced us to cancel our planned hike out to a small mountain waterfall the next day because the mine situation was too dangerous.
The second night we switched to another complex of houses about a kilometre downstream by another small waterfall, where we repeated our antics of the previous evening. This time we were lodged at the houses of the chief of O Traeng Village along with the commune chief, surprisingly both women – petite but tough former Khmer Rouge fighters who now were taking an active role in rebuilding their community. We spent most of the day swimming in the river, but went to the shops at the crossroads for coffee and noodles. Samlot-stock was a great success, one of the most relaxing and beautiful weekends imaginable.
That was a close call that could have so easily resulted in disaster, but it makes one wonder if there have been other situations around Cambodia where danger was not detected. Have there been deaths and maimings of children that have been hushed up to avoid embarrassment to NGOs and donors?
Minorities – the Por
You probably never thought that there were ethnic minorities in Samlot a la Rattanakiri, but there are indeed. Many of the groups from Eastern Cambodia are represented in the Cardamoms – Phnung, Jarai, Tompoen, etc. These live in small, isolated, and widely scattered groups throughout the Cardamoms and are quite inaccessible.
On the other hand, one concentrated group called the Por live in a remote area called Phnom Rey. This is located on a very bad road that branches right (west) off the main road south just before the O Tatiek ford. It is totally inaccessible during the rainy season. A colleague of mine once tried to go to Phnom Rey in September and found the villagers wading neck-deep to cross the river near the village.
There are some 80 families living in Phnom Rey; about 90% are pure Por, the other 10% Por-Khmer mixtures. They have their own language, but the ubiquitous children in the streets speak in Khmer and are ashamed of the Por language. There are a few old people who carry on the traditions of the Por – mat and basket weaving, etc. But the culture is clearly dying. How do they survive? I suspect that smuggling and illegal logging play a part. There are plenty of deep ruts from large trucks along the track leading to the Thai border.
There is a local tale that the real name of the place is Phnom Preah, and that Phnom Rey is somewhere else. Because Thai interests wanted to take something (timber? gems?, ore?) from the mountain, the villagers switched the names of the mountains to confuse the Thais.
The forests of Samlot are disappearing fast. Tigers were seen in Tasanh as late as 2000, but now the entire Tasanh area has been deforested and there is just vast farm land. Crops grow well in Samlot. As the roads improve, the residents can market their crops to Battambang and Thailand, and this encourages the increased deforestation. Even Angelina Jolie’s forest preserve has seen encroachment from squatters. If you want to experience Samlot’s forest beauty, you must go there soon and go further and further from Tasanh. But there are still places of great splendour to be behold. In a sense, it is the landmines in some of these remote areas that are preserving the land from deforestation. So if you go there, stay on the main paths!
III. The rise and fall of Pailin
Most Khmer people hold Pailin dear to their hearts as a cradle of Khmer culture. The great singer Sim Sisamuth wrote songs like ‘Goodbye Pailin’, and ‘Pailin Rose’ (from the famous eponymous novel by Nheck Tem, as described below). In fact, Sim Sisamuth came from the town of Snoeung, on the road to Pailin, and he wrote several songs about places in the area. In fact, the story of the lost stick of Battambang begins in Snoeung, where Taa Dambang finds the magic stick and uses it to become king.
The area between Battambang and Pailin is rich in tradition, including, of course, the legend of Rumsay Sok and the crocodile. You can see the mountain of the sleeping Rumsay Sok all along the road to Pailin after you pass Phnom Sampeou. But to most Khmers in the region, the legend of Pailin is one of the best-loved stories.
Many people used to hunt for wild animals, so the story goes, in the forests around Pailin, and the gods were worried that they would kill all the animals. So the gods, in the guise of an old woman named Yiey Yat, told the people to look in a stream and if they promised not to hunt the animals, they would find something valuable. When they went to the stream, they saw an otter (pai) playing (leng) in the water. The otter opened his mouth, and in between his teeth the people found many gemstones. So they called the place where the otter was playing ‘Pai-leng’, or today, Pailin. You can see a statue to the otters at the main roundabout in Pailin.
In the legend, the people were said to be of a minority group called the Kola, possibly related to the Burmese. Little is known of their origins, but an old name for Pailin is sometimes heard from the locals, who call it “Baw” instead of Pailin. This may be the old Kola name, but I have heard another interesting possible derivation. Back when the road was navigable, there was a daily bus to Pailin from Battambang. According to one source, it is possible that the English ‘bus’ was corrupted into ‘baw’ (the Khmers don’t pronounce final s’s anyway). People thought of Pailin as the place where the bus went, and so they just called it ‘Baw’.
The history of Pailin in the last half-century has not been so rosy. The region became a center of operations for the Ieng Sary – Khieu Sampanh branch of the Khmer Rouge, where they ran an enormously profitable trade in gemstones and timber, backed by Thai army generals. As a result, the Khmer Rouge had one of the best equipped armies in Southeast Asia.
Of course, the Cambodian government coveted the riches of Pailin, and so the road to Pailin was a constant battle zone in the early 1990’s. For only a few days, the army was able to take the city and to go on a looting spree. You can still see some of the results of the looting spree at the old Pailin Hotel (or ’40-room Hotel’ as the locals call it). The soldiers stripped the hotel of all its furniture and fittings, right down to the electric wiring. So even today, the (closed) hotel, owned by Ieng Sary, has no electricity or other fittings except for a refurbished meeting room on the ground floor.
The battles raged for several years, with government troops advancing in the dry season and retreating in the wet season. The main battle line wavered between Sdau and Treng. Both towns were leveled and deserted of people. Both have been rebuilt now, but the roadsides are still being cleared of thousands of landmines. You can see one sign that claims “This minefield funded by the United States of America”. Could that be true in the literal sense?
In 1996, Hun Sen made his famous deal with Ieng Sary, according to which the Khmer Rouge would remain neutral in the CPP-Funcinpec fighting (or perhaps even support the CPP), in return for which Ieng Sary & Co. would be left in peace to exploit the gems and timber of Pailin. It was this deal that upset the delicate balance of power between the CPP and Funcinpec and led to the ‘events’ of 1996.
So for a couple of years, Pailin became the private fiefdom of Ieng Sary, who became very rich. The road from Battambang to Pailin, even as late as 2001, had an official ‘border’ crossing, complete with passport checks, about 10 km outside of Pailin. The road, which from Battambang was in the worst possible condition, suddenly became a smooth tar road on which taxi drivers could speed at 130 km /hr., thanks to the financing by Khmer Rouge rubies and sapphires.
With the end of the fighting and the opening of the ‘border’, thousands of Khmers from all over the country piled into Pailin to look for gems, cut down hardwood trees, or get other jobs supporting the boom town. All around town one could see pits where people were digging for gems. The steep dirt road coming down from Phnom Yat was filled with hundreds of people, especially after a rainstorm, sifting through the sediment for gems. One man showed me a nice blue sapphire he claimed he had just found, but a self-styled ‘expert’ at the Capitol Guesthouse informed me that sapphires are not naturally blue and need to be treated to give them their color.
Gradually the gemstones have run out. The new governor (Ieng Sary’s son I Chien) has banned digging for stones within the city. The road down from Phnom Yat has been paved. Hundreds of people who had hoped to get rich quick are now destitute. Pailin has gone from boom to bust, and is now little more than a neglected provincial backwater. Hotels and restaurants opened in the boom days are now closed or have no customers. The once paved streets are becoming very pot-holed. Indeed, the road from Battambang has now flip-flopped in its fortunes: from Battambang to the now non-existent border the road is very good, but the last 10 kilometers to Pailin are so rutted and potholed that you can barely tell that it was paved only a few years ago.
Pailin Town .Travel and Lodging
Taxis leave for Pailin from near the Phsar Leu, at the south end of Battambang. This is at completely the other end of town from the main taxi park and bus stops. I took the front seat of an overly-air-conditioned taxi for 300 baht. Most taxis leave early in the morning, but there are others throughout the day. The trip takes about 90 minutes and is rather boring but not uncomfortable. The taxis arrive at the central market in Pailin, within 100 meters of at least 4 guesthouses of varying quality.
Three cheap guesthouses in a row stand opposite the taxi stand. These are the Ponleu Pich (‘Shining of the Diamond’), the Heng Heng, and the Lao Lao Kang. They cater to local businessmen and run 100 baht per night for a basic room with fan. Just up the street is the new and more up-scale Kim Young Heng, with 30 air-conditioned rooms at $10 and a couple of fan-only rooms for $5. The main hotel in town, visible on the other side of the market, is the old stand-by, the Hang Meas (Golden Phoenix), with air-conditioned rooms at $11 and $14. These prices have not risen, and some have even gone down since the end of the boom days of 2000. Earlier guidebooks may speak of other guesthouses around town like the Chheng Leng near the other roundabout, but they have closed down for want of customers.
If you want a quieter place away from the bustling market area, try the bungalows called Kilo Lake down to the left of the big Town Hall. The name ‘Kilo Lake’ has an interesting etymology. The original name was Boeung Kilo, which translates as ‘Kilo Lake’. In fact, for a while the sign was mis-translated as ‘Kilo River’. Well, I thought this meant that there was a lake one kilometer outside of town, but no one seemed to know what I was talking about. It turned out that Boeung Kilo was just a mis-spelling of ‘Bungalow’ and this mis-spelling was then translated back into English as ‘Kilo Lake’.
Oddly enough, as I learned three years later, there is a lake one kilometer out of town. It is signposted along a small, muddy road around to the left of Phnom Yat. The sign advertises a ‘resort’ called the Pailin Rose at, you guessed it, one kilometer around back of Phnom Yat. The place is beautiful, with the usual Khmer thatch huts and views of Phnom Khieu (Blue Mountain). Unfortunately, the place seemed to be closed, so I returned to Pailin.
There are plenty of restaurants around town, mostly Khmer or Thai fare. I always have breakfast at the Cow Soup restaurant (with the laughing cow sign) up the hill from the market. The most up-market place in town is the Phnom Khieu, along the upper street of the town’s triangular layout. A quieter place is the small beer garden coming down from the other roundabout.
On my way back from Pailin Rose Lake, I asked the moto driver whether there was a restaurant where most tourists eat. He said yes, there is a place about three kilometers outside of town, so I told him to take me there. We headed out towards the Thai border, and I thought he was going to take me to the big brothel area out at the Phsar Thmey, but in fact we turned right at Phsar Thmey and continued on towards Thailand. To my surprise, we arrived at a marvelous new complex called the Beng Bo.
The Beng Bo is in fact both a hotel and a restaurant complex. There are luxurious bungalows made from the rare and expensive Beng wood and which have beautiful orchids blooming on each patio. These run for $15, while the cement bungalows run for $12. The restaurant, also the most expensive in Pailin, has a wide menu catering to the Cambodian elite. The cars in the parking lot almost all bear government or military license plates.
Because of the Beng wood, and because ‘Bo’ is another kind of tree, I thought that the name Beng Bo referred to trees or wood. Wrong again. Like the Boeung Kilo, the Beng Bo is also a corruption, this time of ‘bamboo’, so it is really the Bamboo Restaurant.
The town of Pailin itself can be a pleasant place to walk around, especially in the evening. Unlike places like Sisophon and Pursat, Pailin is not really on the way to anywhere, so it is not your typical road town. The roads are paved, so it not your hot, dusty market town either. There are hardly any vehicles; Pailin can be really sleepy. The triangular layout of the small town makes it easy to get around on foot.
The town used to be chock-a-block with gem shops. It was, and still is, possible to buy an inexpensive ruby or sapphire of low quality for under $10. It’s a good tourist souvenir. You can have it mounted on a ring or pendant and show your friends your Pailin gemstone.
The other obvious feature of Pailin town is the abundance of beautiful hardwood furniture. The cheapest guesthouse or eatery has heavy chairs and tables which would cost hundreds of dollars on the international market. You can buy small varnished statues of Beng and Kranhoung wood, bearing in mind that a beautiful forest tree had to fall in order to make your statue.
At night, the roundabout area near the otter statue is home to food and drink stalls. During the boom years there were rides for kids and a generally loud, festive atmosphere, but now it is just a peaceful place to have a fruit shake or a beer under the stars. In the right season, sellers roast corn on the cob and coat it with a coconut-butter sauce that is really delicious.
After my most recent evening at the food stalls, my moto driver cum translator said he wanted to show me the ‘coloured lights’. He drove me out to the Phsar Thmey, where dozens are brothels are covered in bright lights. This is truly the ‘red-light district’ of town, where hundreds of prostitutes service a few soldiers each evening. While we drove around, it appeared that almost all of the girls had no customers and just sat around bored. Perhaps it was still early…
Any tour of Pailin must include Phnom Yat, the hill and pagoda complex at the Battambang end of town. Because of the legend of Yiey Yat, people go to the shrine of Yiey Yat on her sacred mountain to ask her to help them find riches. You might say that Yiey Yat is the patron saint of gemstone miners. There is a statue of Yiey Yat at the shrine, along with a statue of the magic otter. In fact, there are a lot of interesting statues on Phnom Yat, notably the scenes from Buddhist hell, which include liars having their tongues pulled out, and adulterers impaled on a thorn tree.
There is an old stupa at the top behind everything else. This is the burial place of the ashes of Rattanak Sambat, the father of another Cambodian literary figure named Khum Niery. This true story was written up in the novel Pailin Rose by Nheck Tem. In the story, Chao Chet, a poor orphan who came to work for Rattanak Sambat, fell in love with Sambat’s daughter. But the father wanted her to marry the governor of Sangker District (east of Battambang) named Balatt. The car broke down on the way back to Pailin, and they were attacked by a robber. Balatt proved to be a coward and hid under the car, while Chao Chet was the hero and saved the day. As a result, Rattanak allowed Chao Chet to marry Khum Niery.
The formerly well-paved streets of Pailin have become potholed and most of the town looks pretty shabby. The sole exception is the government area. The roads down past the newly constructed government buildings are in good shape. There is nothing much to see down that way, though, except the big old Russian gun down past the hospital. People call the gun ‘125’. It still has a shell in it.
Trips Around Pailin
Pailin is known for its mountain and forest scenery, especially its waterfalls. When I first went to Pailin in 2000 and asked about waterfalls, a guide took me up the mountain on a very small trail. We cut through the forest over the mountain and came to a lovely waterfall in the middle of the forest.
In 2001, when more tourists were coming to the area, I returned to Pailin and learned that tourists could visit a waterfall out past the Phsar Thmey, sometimes called the Mittapheap Market, three kilometers west of town. A guide took me by moto to the left of the main road. We jagged right through a fruit orchard, and then left again up the mountain. When the road deteriorated off a hard right, we walked straight along a 4-5 kilometre track that curls around behind a mountain into a lost jungle valley. The first part of the walk is uninteresting, but as you enter the valley, there are fine views of the rain forest across the stream. The slope is gradual and the walking is easy, but after a half-hour of constant climbing you can work up a sweat. There are all sorts of bird calls that I could not identify, although the birds don’t show themselves much in the forest. There are no tigers or other dangerous animals here, but snakes are common. I almost stepped on a small cobra, but no one seemed to get excited about it. They just shooed it away, without bashing it to smithereens as most people around the world would do. There are also very large pythons here. As proof, I saw one in a cage at a filling station on the road out of town. It had been captured very near the path on which we were walking.
Finally, we left the path after a rickety bridge and scrambled up the rocky stream bed for another 10-15 minutes before reaching the pools at the base of the several falls. They are ideal for just sitting, immersed up to your neck, and listening to the sounds of the rippling water and the birds in the surrounding forest. The water is very cold, but it is refreshing after the walk up the mountain. It is very clear and clean, coming off the uninhabited mountain.
The entire journey from Pailin took about 5 hours, but you could spend more time wandering about the falls area. Apparently this is not a heavily mined area, but I wouldn’t stray too far from the path. The jungle is also a malarial zone. You should cover up and bring repellant, but we didn’t see any mosquitoes during the day. Anyway, they say that malarial mosquitoes feed at night.
Tourist guides may speak of Phnom Khieu Falls, but this is a misnomer. The entire ridge along Pailin is called Phnom Khieu (blue mountain), but in fact there are several distinct mountains: from right to left, Phnom Kut, Phnom Puk, Phnom Krapeu (crocodile, but not the same as the Crocodile Mountain opposite Phnom Sampeou), and Phnom Taq Lieng. The first waterfall mentioned above is probably on the O Chra stream between Phnom Kut and Phnom Puk. The middle falls are listed in a Ministry of Tourism register as the O Eb, or Eb Stream falls.
Nowadays, tourists are directed to yet another ‘Phnom Khieu Waterfall’ on the O Tavauv between Phnom Puk and Phnom Krapeu. This is a well-developed tourist site on the road to Battambang, conspicuously marked with a sign with pictures of two waterfalls and an arrow pointing 6.5 km to the south. The road is not bad and leads to an entry gate where a guard sells you a ticket for $1. From the gate it is another kilometer or two uphill to the falls area.
The falls are privately owned, by none other than I Chien, governor of Pailin and son of Ieng Sary. This is not a National Park, and is yet another example of the Cambodian elite using their official position to further enrich themselves. And yet, they are performing a public service. It is the same system that cannot collect taxes for education but which gives you Hun Sen schools.
There are in fact seven waterfalls along the Tavauv Stream. At each place there are the usual Khmer relaxation places, both high on the bank overlooking the falls and right down along the riverbank. Food and drink are available. The forest setting up in the mountains is idyllic and cool. The trees are marked with both Khmer and scientific names, in case you want to learn what Beng trees look like. I noticed many species of multi-colored forest butterflies along the stream, some of which I had not observed elsewhere in Cambodia.
I was the only visitor to the park on this Tuesday, but I was told that on weekends the place is full of picnickers who drive in from Battambang for the day. It occurred to me that this is only possible with the new road from Battambang, but it means that people no longer need to spend the night in Pailin and in fact the hotel and restaurant business is in deep decline.
The Ministry of Tourism document cited above places the O Tavauv scenic site north of town on the way to the border. The present site southeast of town is a new one, but the same stream, the Tavauv, flows on to the second site.
The Road out to the Border
The Thai border is 20 km from town. There are several ways to get there, but the usual way is to go out to the Mittapheap market and turn right. After a couple of kilometers you come to a T-junction. There is a new bridge that replaces what for years was a broken-down suspension bridge that obliged traffic to ford the Stung Kach river below.
The road out to the bridge passes through a village called Chamkar Café. Back in the old colonial days, the French set up coffee plantations here, where you can still see the large cement drying floors. You can also see hundreds of bullet holes in the walls of the old buildings, reminders of the Khmer Rouge wars. I keep hearing rumors of new attempts to plant coffee, but I have yet to see any coffee trees.
A few kilometres further along is (or perhaps was, after planned CMAC removal) another piece of Khmer Rouge memorabilia, near the top of a slope leading up to Phnom Paut. The old tank is partly hidden in grass just to the left of the road. My moto driver said it was a Khmer Rouge tank destroyed by the Cambodian Army. The only indication of its origin is a series of numbers with a couple of Russian letters on the motor at the rear. My guide said that the driver was killed and that his body is still down at the bottom of the tank somewhere. I could not, however, see any signs of bones or clothing.
The pagoda that you pass on the main road is of little interest, except that it is called Wat Beng and has a beng tree beside it. This is the prized wood for making most of the hardwood furniture that you see in Pailin.
You know you are approaching the border zone when you pass through a shantytown of border dwellers. There are some very poor people here, forced from their homes by war, mines, and poverty. But just over the hill, things become much more prosperous. Just beyond the Border Market is the Malaysian-owned Pailin Casino, the smaller of the two border casinos.
The Pailin Casino was supposed to be a much larger resort complex, called the Flamingo Resort, but it appears that the hotel construction at the rear has been stopped due to lack of funds. You can see an assortment of license plates parked out front: Thai plates, green Cambodian government plates, and especially the red and blue Cambodian military plates.
Inside the casino are the usual hordes of Thai gamblers, even though, unlike some other border casinos further north, Cambodians are allowed to gamble here. There is a VIP room (empty when I was there), and there are some nifty game machines, including an automatic roulette wheel and a very sophisticated horse race game. The horse race has an animation on the screen at the same time as little horses on wheels gallop around the track. At your betting station is a racing form, listing the win-place-show record of each horse along with a meaningless comment such as ‘an occasional winner’.
The much larger Caesar International Casino is set back from the road. It is reportedly Cambodian-owned. There, by far the most popular game is baccarat. I was told that baccarat is popular because you play against another player called the banker, instead of against the house, which merely takes a percentage cut of the winnings. That way, the casino has no way or reason to fix or rig the game to cheat you.
In front of the Caesar is a Heineken Beer Garden, a very enjoyable place to spend an evening in the open air eating seafood and drinking (only Heineken beer). The upper classes in Pailin travel all the way out to the border at night for their entertainment, usually a meal at the beer garden. As in other places in Cambodia, the upper class restaurants are located outside of town as a sort of conspicuous consumption for those who have ‘wheels’. Witness, for example, the string of restaurants across the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh.
A trip to the border might also include a short 3 km jag north of the border crossing. O Chheu Krom village has become a popular spot on weekends. It boasts a pleasant mountain stream suitable for swimming. The water is deep and cool and clear. The stream itself is actually the Thai-Cambodian border. But don’t even think about walking around on the Thai side. This is one of the most densely mined areas in the whole world.
In fact, relaxing in the cool waters of O Chheu Krom is an eerie experience with all those landmine signs around. There are a couple of mines per square meter in this area, so a step off the main path means almost certain loss of a leg or two. And yet, on weekends you can see hundreds of happy Cambodians besporting themselves in the water and in the food and drink stalls along the Cambodian riverbank.
The road out to the village is pretty bad. About 1 km north of the official border crossing is an unofficial border crossing where most Thais and local Cambodians cross. I could not learn why so many people choose not to cross at the official border post. In fact, I am puzzled why this now international border post has not become a major crossing point between Cambodia and Thailand. It would make a lot of sense for tourists to cross here on their way into Cambodia on their way to Battambang and Siem Reap.
The village of O Chheu Krom is composed of 40% original inhabitants, i.e. those who lived there all through the Khmer Rouge years, and 60% IDP’s, or Internally Displaced Persons. They moved here from Samlot District just south of Pailin during the fighting of 1997. They are all very poor because they cannot farm this heavily mined land. The villagers have tried to demine some areas by themselves. That causes problems because one is never sure whether they found all the mines there. Every so often a cow gets demolished, as had been the case the day before my visit. There are a lot of one-legged people in this village.
If the mines can be removed and tourism promoted in O Chheu Krom, this could be a lovely site for swimming and picnicking. There are proposals to demine three kilometers along the road, so I look for this area to open up significantly in the next few years, especially now that the border is open to international travelers.
A Trip North to Phnom Kuy
Another day trip from Pailin is a moto ride north to the Pailin-Battambang border some 20 km away. The destination is a beautiful river called Stung Kuy with rapids and a couple of large swimming holes.
The trip out to Phnom Kuy is quite pleasant. Go out to the old cable bridge on the way to the border and cross the river. If you are going by motorcycle, take the first turnoff to the right (north). There is a culvert that cars cannot cross, so if going by car, continue towards the border and turn right just past the old tank.
The road is pretty good as far as Sala Krao, Pailin’s other district seat. The road was constructed in 1993 by UNTAC and was used to fight the Khmer Rouge ensconced in the hills across the Stung Kach. The area is hilly and a very pleasant ride as far as the very rocky Phnom Sbung. On the far side of Phnom Sbung is a large Thai gem mining operation, one of the few systematic operations still going on in the Pailin area. Apparently the entire riverbank area along the Stung Kach has been exploited to the point that there are few gems left.
Sala Krao is the administrative center for northern Pailin. It is a market town with restaurants and drink stands. It would make a good stop for a rest and a drink on your trip to Phnom Kuy. There is not much of interest there, however. To the north there is a CMAC demining camp two km off to the east. The bad road leading east from Sala Krao is a back road to the ‘Killing Dam’ of Kamping Puoy, where thousands of people lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge era.
North of Sala Krao the road becomes terrible. The countryside is flat, dull, and uninhabited, largely due to the huge number of landmines. All along the road are signs of CMAC demining activity. You can see marked places where mines have been found. But even when (if) the literally millions of mines have been cleared from Pailin, the area will still be a malarial zone, so it may be quite some time before the population settles in.
The village of Phnom Kuy is very poor indeed. There is not much economic activity here. The road continues to a ford of the river, uncrossable during the rainy season. Motos and pedestrians turn off to the left towards the hill, a Japanese primary school, and a shabby pagoda. Then you arrive at a suspension bridge, not wide enough for cars to pass. It was constructed in the UNTAC days. It is very scenic. You can take good photographs of it and from it, as it spans a rushing torrent far below. There are good places for swimming in the clear water both above and below the rapids.
The far side of the river is Battambang Province. The much better road leads to another suspension bridge and eventually to Kamrieng, the next casino town along the border. That 16 km trip should only take another half hour. Another road, this one in bad shape, leads east from Stung Kuy and takes you to Bavel in the heart of Battambang Province.
Economic Development in Pailin
Pailin’s economic situation is rather different from that of the rest of Cambodia. It has benefited from its gemstones, but these have largely run out. The majority of Pailin residents came to the city during the boom years, looking to find gems or at least provide service industries for the booming economy, but now those days are over and many residents are just hanging on. My moto driver came to Pailin with his family in 1996, when his father opened a barber shop. Now business is poor but the family survives.
Back when both Cambodian and foreign tourists were coming to Pailin, a symbol of the place’s development was the string of small eateries and beer gardens as you drove into town. Typical of these was Toul Snae, or Love Hill. As we were having a quiet drink in this peaceful sunset atmosphere, a woman drove up on her motorbike and raised a loud row, shouting that her military husband was there with his mistress, and demanding they appear. So much for “Love Hill”.
For a long time, the NGOs avoided Pailin, either because they were afraid that war could break out again, or perhaps because it was politically incorrect for an NGO to be seen helping the former Khmer Rouge. Now that Pailin has been integrated into the Cambodian political system, however, the NGOs are piling in, but mostly with small projects to help the many poor people. Angelina Jolie’s project has an office here, since her forest reserve is just over the mountains in northern Samlot District. Buddhism for Development has a visible presence due to its main street office with Internet services, and CARE has set up its office just across the street.
In this hilly region near the Thai border, rice is not the main crop, as it is in most of Cambodia. There are large fields of corn and other crops. A lot of corn was planted after the Thai government reportedly agreed to buy corn from Cambodia at a fixed price. But for some reason the Thais reneged on the deal, so that the Cambodians were left with tons and tons of unsold corn on their hands. At least this was the story told to me by one farmer.
There is also talk of reviving the coffee industry. The climate and soil are satisfactory for growing coffee trees, as evidenced by the former coffee plantations out at Chamkar Café. But coffee prices have been low ever since the Vietnamese flooded the market. And transportation and marketing problems make small scale coffee production a losing proposition in this remote area. Perhaps the opening of the Thai border will stimulate trade in coffee.
Maybe the biggest economic activity in the area is smuggling. Petrol is much cheaper in Thailand than in Cambodia, so drivers will remove the seats from their cars, take jerry cans into Thailand and fill them with cheap petrol, pay a small bribe to get it back across the border, and sell it in Battambang for a tidy profit. Car theft is also reportedly big business at remote forest border crossings all along the Thai border. Allegedly, you can order any kind of car you want while in Cambodia, and the car thieves will go and steal it for you in Thailand.
In the other direction, there is undoubtedly a lot of tropical hardwood that sneaks out the back door into Thailand. Clearly, you do not see any trucks laden with logs headed into Battambang. If there is illegal logging and timber smuggling, it is not visible. The forests seen on Phnom Khieu are not being cut, so if there is logging, it is in the forests behind Phnom Khieu and it is being hauled out on smaller tracks into Thailand.
One morning in 2002 I awoke at 3 a.m. to hear the low, Doppler drone of a low-flying airplane over Pailin. It did not land in the city itself, but where could it have landed? Some hidden airstrip out in the bush? And if so, what was it carrying? Drugs? Arms? Soldiers? In fact, Pailin has two places dubbed as ‘airstrips’. According to people I talked with in Pailin, they were designated by American interests as assistance to Pailin nearly a decade ago, when the Khmer Rouge were still a potential threat to the Hun Sen government. Recall that the American government always supported the Khmer Rouge against Hun Sen, so these airstrips may once have been part of this strategy.
The Khmer Rouge are no longer a force to reckon with, although it is quite surreal to think that in this sleepy town some of the world’s most notorious mass murderers are walking around cot free. I was told that Khieu Sampanh often walks into the Internet café. The same source says that when he occasionally walks into a restaurant or some meeting, the people stand up to show their respect for him. Ieng Sary no longer spends much time in Pailin, and Nuon Chea has long kept such a low profile that most people would not even recognize him if they saw him. And then there are the dozens of second-tier former KR officials who have now become just ordinary citizens of Pailin and who have long been forgotten.
In 2002 I led a group of Battambang NGO workers on a field trip to Pailin to assess the needs and opportunities for development projects. I asked government officials if we might interview one or more of the old Khmer Rouge leaders about development in Pailin. I promised that the interview would be limited to current issues and that I would not ask questions about the Khmer Rouge era or about the upcoming tribunal. I was surprised when the government said that I, and I alone without the NGO workers, could interview Khieu Sampanh. Even our driver was not allowed to take me to his house, because they were still maintaining the myth that the KR leaders were staying far outside of town. In fact, they live right in town, and so it took only a few minutes for a motorcycle driver to deliver me to Khieu Sampanh’s house.
So I talked for nearly an hour one-on-one with one of the world’s most notorious mass murderers. He certainly did not appear to be an evil felon, but rather a kindly old man, very alert and intelligent, as I had hoped, a highly educated person who looked at the broader scope of things. But I could see from his answers how he, Pol Pot, and the Paris-educated intellectuals could treat a country of 8 million human beings simply as an abstraction and, so to speak, ‘not see the trees for the forest.’
We talked, as promised, almost entirely about Pailin and its future. But Khieu Sampanh did volunteer an occasional remark about the past.
I think I would not be doing him a disservice by mentioning a line of thought or two from the interview.
For one thing, I came away with an insight into his way of looking at history. History, in the eyes of many, consists of the interplay of forces, and individuals only serve to unleash these forces. In this view, individuals are not particularly responsible for the devastating consequences of their actions. When you do anything, you cannot know what forces will be unleashed and you cannot come close to predicting the results of your actions. Remember that Pol Pot and company were Marxists, but in fact this view of history is a bit different from the Marxist view of a deterministic march of history towards a foregone conclusion. Rather, Khieu Sampanh saw Cambodian history, in retrospect, as a march of forces with a random element that could sway results in radically different possible outcomes.
Thus, you can look at Cambodian history as the interplay of antagonistic forces between groups of people. During the entire 20th century, pressure was growing between the city dwellers (the ‘new people’) and the country dwellers (the ‘old people’). The urbanites in Phnom Penh were getting richer at the expense of the country folk, and the old people were looking for revenge. The American bombing of the countryside in the 1970’s probably exacerbated this feeling.
So, in the mind of Khieu Sampanh and the other former KR leaders, they pushed a few buttons and nudged history in a certain direction. “We tried to provoke a movement,” he said. The results, as we know, were catastrophic, but the real blame should be placed on those who allowed the repression, hatred, and revenge to develop. In the opinion of some, it was bound to happen anyway. The KR, according to Khieu Sampanh, had certain economic ideas that they put into play, unleashing forces that they could not have imagined. In his approximate words, “I don’t excuse the massacres (and there were massacres). To this day even I don’t know what happened.”
There is another line of thought which I think relevant. I asked Khieu Sampanh whether he respected Buddhism. (Recall that the KR tried to stamp out all religion as superstitious obstacles to progress.) His answer, perhaps surprisingly, was that he was brought up in the Buddhist traditions, and so is “Buddhist to the soul.” But that said, he did not go so far as to endorse Buddhism today. He rather ducked that issue and simply stated that people need to find peace and reconciliation.
Back on the theme of Pailin’s economic development, he had some rather un-Marxist ideas on that subject. He felt that the present system of small farmers was not viable. There was no large-scale transport or marketing system. A poor farmer without a truck could not afford to get his produce to markets in Battambang and Thailand by himself. The solution? Pailin needs a large, multinational company to set up in Pailin and grow crops on a large scale. Those farmers who continued on a small scale could still avail themselves of the transport facilities of the corporation. Was I talking with Khieu Sampanh, CEO of Pailin, Inc.?
He was optimistic about Pailin’s future, even though he did not even mention gems, timber, or tourism. Pailin will clearly remain an agricultural base, as the soil is fertile and there is sufficient water. Marketing seems to be the key rather than production. I left Khieu Sampanh’s house on a pleasant, cordial note and returned to discuss the interview with my NGO workers.
One would think that the opening of the border crossing would turn Pailin into a bustling tourist center, but sadly this has not materialized. When I visited in late May, 2006, I did not see a single tourist. The ‘resort’ area at the Tapav waterfall was totally deserted, and the Pailin Rose Resort behind Phnom Wat was deserted and perhaps even closed. The carnival rides and dodg’em cars at the main roundabout have long ago disappeared, leaving only few quiet food-and-drink stalls in the evenings.
The military presence is still strong, although much reduced from 2000. The government has invested a lot of effort in retraining and replacing the former Khmer Rouge in government posts. As a result, the only thriving sector of the economy is the military-government complex, and so much evening activity is found at the huge brothel area outside of town, conveniently located just a kilometer or so from the fancy Bamboo Restaurant, so the generals and public administrators can eat and drink well before adjourning to more fun and games.
Outsiders tend to fear the former Khmer Rouge in Pailin, but the place is pretty secure, and certainly is a lot safer than Phnom Penh. You can walk around the streets at night without fear. There was an incident in 2000 in which a bomb exploded in the garden of a politician. The story has been covered up, and so we will probably never know who planted the bomb or why. The official government version (probably true, I guess) is that it was just the mistake of some drunken soldiers.
Still, I rather enjoy the slow pace of Pailin town. There is always a sweet melancholy about places that have seen brighter days and have reverted to forgotten backwaters. That is clearly the atmosphere that I feel in Pailin, which I find quite agreeable.
Chapter 8 Further Afield
There are some other interesting places to visit in Battambang Province, although these are rather off the beaten track and moto drivers may not all know where these places are. Taxis leave from the New Market across the river to go to eastern destinations like Moung Russey, or from the Boeung Chhouk Market to go to the western destinations of Bavel District or the Thai border districts. It’s fun and interesting to explore these rarely visited places. Luckily, there are guesthouses in most district towns so you can stay overnight and get that ‘miles-from-nowhere’ feeling.
I. Moung Russey
A century ago there were two towns, Moung and Russey. The town of Moung on the main highway grew in importance, but the district retained the name of Russey. Now the names have merged, but many people still refer to the town as ‘Moung’. Most travelers in Cambodia have passed through Moung Russey and know it only as a dusty road town between Pursat and Battambang. Back in 2001, Highway 5 was so bumpy that it took two hours to cover the 45 kilometers between Battambang and Moung Russey. Now it takes only about 40 minutes.
In the 1980s and 90s, the town found itself in an unfortunate location along the main Khmer Rouge route between their southern bases in Kos Kralor and Samlot, and their northern strongholds in Anlong Veng. There was frequent fighting, and the town of Moung itself was often shelled, as evidenced by the present condition of the railway station.
The main thing to see in Moung is Wat Soriya, which might be called the ‘funkiest wat in all Cambodia’. Its collection of statuary is truly bizarre and not like anything you will find elsewhere. For one thing, although it is a Buddhist wat, almost all the icons are of Brahmanist (Hindu) themes, although it is quite common in Cambodia to mix a few Hindu deities with the usual Buddhist scenes. But Wat Soriya really takes the cake.
As you enter the main gate, you see three large statues of Hindu gods Siva (Iso in Khmer), Ganesh (Kuness in Khmer) and Vishnu (Nireay in Khmer). The largest and most obvious statue portrays the Cambodian legend of the brothers Preah Riem and Preah Liet. To demonstrate his power, Riem changed himself into the god Nireay (Vishnu), while his younger brother Liet turned into a tiger. Another statue to the right of the big tiger depicts the well-known Cambodian folktale of two other brothers, Preah Kou and Preah Kau, the first of which was born in the shape of a cow.
There are plenty of other statues around the grounds. None of the monks could tell me the significance of the large lion. There is also a horseman with a hole in the head. This enables tourists to climb up on the horse and stick their head through the hole to be photographed.
There are plenty of other wats around town. The only one of interest is Wat Bo, located along Highway 5 on the north side of the street nearer the Battambang end of town. There is a curious statue of a giant mushroom, which, according to the monks, is only decorative and has no particular significance.
The other point of interest in Moung town is the train station, located about a kilometre to the south of town. It is an old building riddled with bullet holes from the Khmer Rouge wars. The nearby engine shed is almost totally destroyed, with gaping holes from mortar shelling. In the 80s and early 90s, the KR would often come up the railroad tracks from the east, seize the station, set up heavy artillery, and shell the town. I ate lunch at a small restaurant to the right of the guesthouse, whose owner showed me the shrapnel holes from such bombardment. He described how several customers in his restaurant had been injured in the blast.
For those tourists who like to travel by train but who do not want to spend 12-18 hours traveling from Battambang to Phnom Penh, a short train trip from Battambang to Moung might be a good way to get a taste for the Cambodian railway system.
The Road from Battambang
Because the new paved road is so good, a day trip by motorcycle from Battambang to Moung might be considered. If so, there are a couple of things to see along the way. The first is Wat Kechretech, which might be called the ‘Killing Wat’. Tens of thousands of people were tortured and killed there, although there is not much to see nowadays. The monks will show you the torture chamber, which has now been painted several times to cover the bloodstains. There are also statues of Buddhas that were beheaded by the Khmer Rouge. These have now been reassembled, but some of the heads have obviously been placed on the wrong statues.
A similar historical site south of Highway is the ‘Killing Dam’ of Ang Thani. Located only a few kilometres from Moung on the Battambang side, this series of waterworks was constructed by the Khmer Rouge at the cost of thousands of lives. All that remains today is a long dike that holds back a rather large lake or marsh area, and an old sluice gate to control the flow of the water.
Ruins in Daun Tri
A rather good road goes north from Moung towards the Tonle Sap lake. About 20 km out, there are some Angkor-era ruins in good condition. A friendly head monk or atikaa can show you around and explain the temples. There are two large lintels carved with Indra and his three-headed elephant Airavata. Aymonier states that the earliest of the inscriptions was constructed as early as 966 A.D. but the atikaa claims that the temple was built by Jayavarman VII (builder of Angkor Thom). In his honor, there is a modern-day statue of Jayavarman, a copy of the well-known statue with eyes closed and without arms. Other modern-day statues of interest include a large, yellow local god with a big stick, reputedly a relative of Taa Dambong Kranhoung, the big black guy in the roundabout statue in Battambang. But this statue has an iron stick, and so is called Taa Dambong Daek.
Bavel is a sleepy country backwater located west of Battambang in the rich rice-growing area about 30 minutes west of Thmar Koul (Highway 5 northwest of Battambang). It is not located on any major road, and so it is very quiet – just my favorite kind of place to hang out for a relaxing weekend. In 2003 a comfortable guesthouse was built, enabling one to spend the weekend in style while exploring the region during the day, and returning to eat noodles and drink beer in the local restaurant or fruit-shake stand in the evening. Taxis to Bavel leave Battambang from the Boeung Chhouk taxi stand. The Phka Rumchang Guesthouse in Bavel is located 150 meters back from the main street on a quiet side street.
Bavel is an old town, which was described in 1901 by Aymonier as “a beautiful village that today is populated by half-breeds, the result of the crossing of Cambodians with these aboriginals.” The aboriginals were the original inhabitants of the Pailin area, called the Chong, and who figure in the Pailin folktales about the otter and the old woman.
There is not much to see in Bavel town. Just outside the town is an old French dam, built, according to my guide, as early as 1869. There are reportedly Angkor-era ruins in and around Bavel. I was surprised to find one right in the middle of town, located in the back yard of a small barber shop. There is a small spirit house to mark the place, and the rear floor of the shop is clearly the floor of the old temple. This must be what Aymonier in 1901 called the temple of Preah Theat (‘holy relics’).
About 45 km west of Bavel is a popular local picnic spot called “Toek Pus” (’boiling water). It is quite a raging waterfall, but since no trash service is provided, the surrounding riverbanks are a mass of rubbish. Worse, as no toilets are provided, you had better not venture off the main paths.
If you are exploring by motorcycle, one of the nicest rides is from Bavel north to Mongkol Borei along a meandering river through pleasant countryside. You can stop at the town of Lovea, with its shady, grassy area along the riverbank. In my exploring in the surrounding countryside, I was able to find some old Angkor-era ruins. It’s fun to find these places, even though they are quite unspectacular, consisting only of rubble or a few old stones.
III. Thmar Koul
Thmar Koul town is located on Highway 5 northwest towards Sisophon, about 30 minutes from Battambang. As such, almost every tourist in Battambang goes through Thmar Koul on the way to or from the Thai border, but almost no one has ever actually stopped there. Thmar Koul is a typical Cambodian road town, with plenty of roadside ‘fast food’ restaurants, meaning of course places with vats of prepared food for you to gobble on a quick travel break.
The name Thmar Koul means a marker stone, such as a road marker. Just at the town centre where another main road veers off towards Bavel District and the newly opened border districts, there is a glassed-in rock atop a naga fountain, obviously an ancient thmar koul from which the town derives its name. Oddly enough, it is not the only thmar koul in town. There is another, nearly identical one at Wat Koh Kduech.
This is rice country. There is not much of tourist interest along Highway 5 surrounding Thmar Koul, but there is plenty of rice. During the rice harvest each January there are dozens of rice mills, hundreds of blue threshing machines, and thousands of sacks of rice everywhere. A few years ago the rice sold for about 4000 baht per tonne, when there was a demand from Thailand. But recently there has been a crackdown by the Cambodian Government to force the farmers to sell within Cambodia for only 3000 baht per tonne. This amounts to a tax on the farmers, with which they are none too pleased.
Thmar Koul is the capital of Thmar Koul District. The district structure is very important to Cambodian politics, so it may be useful to describe it here.
Each of the 24 provinces is divided into 8-12 districts, which you might think of as ‘counties’. The Khmer word is srok, and the district capital is the sala srok. Cambodians tend to identify where other Cambodians come from by their district. Battambang Province has 13 districts, of which the most accessible are Battambang, Thmar Koul, Banan, Aek Phnom, Sangker, and Moung Russey.
Each district is divided into 8-12 communes, or khum. The word ‘commune’ should not be thought of as some communist throwback where villagers are expected to live communally. Rather, it is simply the administrative division. Finally, each commune is further subdivided into 8-12 villages or phum.
Wat Koh Kduech
To reach Wat Koh Kduech coming from Battambang, go past the centre and market of Thmar Koul town and turn right just past a large rice mill with corrugated metal siding. Follow this side road for a kilometre or two. The Wat will be on your right. Koh Kduech means a high ground where a kind of wild cassava grows.
The thmar koul stands right in front of the vihear. The rock is of slightly post-Angkor vintage, dating from the 13th century. It has no recognizable carvings or inscriptions. It was not found on the spot but was brought here from several kilometres away. It is not spectacular, nor is the wat, which is surrounded by several small seima markers with images of Nieng Kang Hing, the Earth Goddess who defended the Buddha in his fight with the forces of evil after his Enlightenment. One curious feature is the small shrine to the local spirit god or neak taa right on the porch of the vihear. In most pagodas, shrines to the neak taa are located out under the trees, away from the main vihear, which is reserved for true Buddhist worship.
Wat Thmar Koul
This older wat on the main road presents a good picture of the vihear style of the early twentieth century. Although no one at the wat knows exactly when it was built, an old achar (lay custodian) there says he can remember it there over 70 years ago. During the 1970s the Khmer Rouge destroyed all the monks’ houses and peripheral buildings, but left the vihear intact for use as a storehouse. The downstairs portion of the vihear is not much used because there is fear of a ghost that haunts the vihear at night. Behind the vihear are nice lily ponds, with the crematorium behind the ponds.
The most striking features of the vihear are the large Buddha uncharacteristically seated outside the vihear, and the three-coloured staircase. This is a reference to the Buddha descending the jeweled staircase after visiting his deceased mother in heaven. Notice the colours on the staircase: always gold, silver, and green, representing the gold, silver, and jade from which the ‘stairway to heaven’ was constructed, according to Buddhist scriptures.
The 25 monks of Wat Thmar Koul are especially active in the TTA monks/HIV project. And they need to be, for, perhaps surprisingly, rural Thmar Koul has one of the worst HIV infection rates in the country. One reason is undoubtedly that it is a road town where the disease can be brought in from all over Cambodia and Thailand. But another reason, according to the monks, is that one woman, bitter at being HIV-positive, has personally infected some 60 other men in the town.
Wat Thmar Koul is the only wat in the area whose monks belong to the Thommayut sect rather than the ubiquitous Mahanikkae sect. It is difficult to distinguish the two sects, but they wear their robes slightly differently. The Thommayuts tuck in the robe flap to form a sort of sleeve to cover their arm, while the Mahanikkaes leave this flap open. Another way to tell the difference is that when begging alms, the Thommayuts carry their rice bowls openly, while the Mahanikkaes carry their rice bowls in a pouch. Finally, the two sects chant their prayers in different ways, but foreigners would be unable to tell the difference. I spoke to one source that said that one sect always goes barefoot while the other wears sandals, but from my observations, this distinction is not valid.
Beyond Thmar Koul
Highway 5 to Sisophon offers little of interest. After flat, monotonous countryside, a few hills appear along the left (west) side of the road. One of these, Phnom Touch, or ‘Small Mountain’, has a historic wat that is not very interesting. Almost to the peaceful town of Mongkol Borei is Phnom Banteay Neang, home to a very large Buddha built only in 1997. One of the mountains further off to the left is Reachkol, named for the husband in the Rumsay Sok tableau visible from Phnom Sampeou.
The only place worth stopping is between Phnom Touch and Banteay Neang, at the small town of Phnom Thom or ‘Big Mountain’, which is actually a lot smaller than Phnom Touch. Many Cambodians making the trip north from Battambang stop at a well-known restaurant there, famous for its beef soup. The small hill to the right of the road has a pagoda and is inhabited by monkeys. There is also a famous fortune teller (not a monk) there. Finally, you may see a bizarre old man over seventy years of age either sprinting up the mountain, or else running around the village on high bamboo stilts. Just to keep fit, he says.
Old temples around Thmar Koul
Aymonier’s 1901 masterpiece on the temples of northwest Cambodia provided the spark that sent me to Thmar Koul in search of the temples that he had described over a century earlier. Did remnants of these temples still exist?
Luck was with me on my first quest. Chandor Swaa, mentioned by Aymonier, is right in Thmar Koul town. Just turn left under an old blue wat sign and go straight to the railroad tracks. Wat Chandor Swaa is just beyond the tracks. We asked the monks whether they knew of any old temples in the area, and they said that they themselves were keeping some old stones under the big tree just 10 metres from where we were standing.
And sure enough, there they were. One carved column in the shape of a small temple had been painted blue and yellow, but was still mostly intact. Behind it was the female half of an old Siva linga, indicating that the temple had been Brahmin and therefore pre-Buddhist and pre-Angkor Thom.
The old guys sitting around the wat said that the stones had been dug up by a farmer in 1993 near a ruined temple at Sel Ngour. In fact, Sel Ngour is the next temple described by Aymonier. Unfortunately the four towers and large basin at Chandor Swaa, and the five brick towers from Sel Ngour are no longer in evidence.
The monks did say, however, that there was an old temple at Tampoung, the next ruin described by Aymonier. So we rode back to town and east of town past Wat Koh Kduech, where we stopped to see the monks we knew from TTA’s Monks-HIV Project. We asked them about the big stela set up in front of their wat, but they knew nothing about it. They did say, however, that it was found right where it sits today. It seems odd that Aymonier, who was obsessed with stela and inscriptions, mentions neither this stela nor the one at the crossroads in the middle of town, for which the town is named (Thmar Koul means Stone Marker).
We rode the 6 km out to Wat Tampoung, a lovely, peaceful rural wat, one of the most beautiful I know of. It is painted in a tasteful blue and gold motif instead of the garish gamut of colours found at many modern wats. But the only remains of the ancient temple is a carved stone hidden behind a new Buddha statue. The rest of the temple site, clearly indicated by the typical raised rectangle (toul) surrounded by a moat (sras), had been ploughed over and buried.
Just a kilometer north of Thmar Koul is the very old and distinctive wat of Chroy Mteh. It is off to the right of Highway 5 and is easy to find. The monks describe it as 140 years old. It escaped destruction by the Khmer Rouge because they used it as a military hospital. The vihear is built in a distinctive style not found elsewhere in the region. Especially refreshing are the frescoes around the outside of the vihear, painted in a stilted, primitive style so different from the stereotyped paintings of most modern wats. Of special interest is a mural of the journey of a person from birth through life to death.
The monks showed us some ancient carved stones, including a decorated column and a Siva linga. There are also three other large stones located around the grounds. The column and linga were found in 1996 by a fisherman in what was probably the moat of a temple at nearby Krasang village. Aymonier makes no mention of Phum Krasang. I thought perhaps Krasang might be Aymonier’s Ang Russei, so I asked whether they recognized that name. The said that three kilometers to the east of the wat is Ang (no Russei) Village. There are no vestiges of any temples
Toul Prasat – the Killing Temple
Toul Prasat (‘Temple Hill’) is an old temple site where the Khmer Rouge killed hundreds of government officials and soldiers of the Lon Nol regime. Turn west about two km south of town. The road is quite bumpy but passable in dry weather (probably not in wet weather). After 3 km there is a t-junction, at which you bear left to reach Toul Prasat only a couple hundred metres further.
There are dozens of old temple blocks strewn around the raised toul area. Most are just building blocks without carvings, but there is an old Siva linga that does not seem to be held as sacred in any way. Toul Prasat probably has the most remains of any of the temples in the Thmar Koul area (which isn’t saying much), but Aymonier makes no mention of it. We asked the villagers whether this could be Sel Ngour, but they said Sel Ngour was a few kilometers away to the northwest. It seems strange that Aymonier would have missed this temple.
We also asked about the Khmer Rouge era. The villagers said that Toul Prasat was not actually the place where the killings took place. That happened in nearby Roem Ampil Village. The significance of Toul Prasat was that the KR sent unmarried persons there to do especially hard work, so that many of them died of overwork and starvation.
IV. The Border Districts
The territory along the Thai border was in recent years controlled by the Khmer Rouge. After the deal of 1997, when the Khmer Rouge agreed to join the government, these border areas came under government control. In order to stimulate development there, they created three news districts: Sampeou Loun, Phnom Proek, and Kamrieng.
Sampeou Loun is the farthest north of the three new districts carved out of former Khmer Rouge territory along the Thai border. It can be accessed from the north, that is, from Sisophon and Malai, or from Battambang, along the road past Kamping Puoy, or from Pailin in the south. All of these routes are rather remote, and the quality of the roads varies, but the Kamping Puoy route is probably the easiest.
Just a few years ago, this area was pretty much virgin forest, but it has now been totally burned and cleared for farming. The landscape is not your typical Cambodian rice paddy. Rather the hilly land is used more for corn and other vegetables, including sesame and various beans.
Actually, this region has little to offer to tourists, except for its remoteness. There is a guesthouse, so you can stay overnight and feel that you are at the end of the universe. Adding to the remote, rustic touch are the strings of coloured lights made from those coloured containers of Vietnamese laundry soap. Just put light bulbs inside some of these and you get a Christmas tree effect.
The surreal thing about Sampeou is that it seems a million miles from nowhere after your 4-5 hour ride from Battambang. But within walking distance of the town is the Thai border, where you can see paved roads and modern conveniences just a few tantalising metres away. When I was there, locals were allowed to cross into Thailand, but not foreigners.
The fact that locals can cross into Thailand makes the area economically a part of Thailand. The Thai baht is used, and Cambodian money is scarce. These former Khmer Rouge soldiers are getting richer on selling large-scale produce to Thailand.
But as we stopped along the road to fix a flat tire, the locals seemed rather down-and-out, and complained that there was no water. Apparently the large-scale farmers, comprised of generals and other members of the elite, have been able to rig up water pipes for irrigation, thereby siphoning off the downstream water from local creeks and water tables. So it’s the same old story of the rich taking from the poor, even way out here in the boondocks.
South of Sampeou Loun is the district of Phnom Proek (‘morning mountain’), which is of scenic value. The large mountain can be seen from a long way in any direction. Unlike the usual green, round Cambodian mountain, this one is rocky and craggy – quite an impressive sight. The town of Phnom Proek also has a guesthouse, so you can overnight here. The town is far enough south of the mountain that you do not really get a good view of it from there.
Kamieng is the furthest south of the three new KR districts, located just to the north of Pailin. Access from Pailin remains difficult, although there are suspension bridges that motorcycles, not cars, can cross without difficulty. The best access to Kamrieng is via the Kamping Puoy road to Sampeou Loun; there is a turnoff that goes south to Kamrieng.
While of greater economic importance than Sampeou Loun or Phnom Proek, Kamrieng looks about the same: wooden shacks, a rundown market, litter, dust, squalor.
As we sat in front of the guesthouse enjoying a drink, I noticed a large cement-block wall, perhaps 5 meters high, topped with vast quantities of barbed wire, and flanked by guardhouses. “I didn’t know there was a prison here,” I asked my colleagues. “Is it perhaps a former Khmer Rouge prison, or a Cambodian military prison?” They laughed. “That’s the casino,” they clarified.
And thus it dawned on me what Kamrieng is all about. The casino is an ingenious invention. No Cambodians are allowed to enter, hence the wall and prison-like demeanor. The entrance is placed squarely on the Thai border, and a small bridge crosses the dividing creek to the casino, built on Cambodian soil but accessible only from Thailand.
But the situation is even more complicated! The large gate on the Cambodian side is used by the Cambodian workers and cleaners for entry during the day, but closed at night. However, gamblers can easily bribe a guard to allow them to enter Cambodia for a few hours at night. So the entire town of Kamrieng is given over to the sex industry. It is wall-to-wall brothels at night, hiring perhaps as many as 300 prostitutes to service the large number of Thais illegally sneaking out of the casino. The girls are the usual story: sold into prostitution by their parents, or tricked into it, thinking it is some other job that they can use to pay off a debt. But the girls are charged for all sorts of expenses, so as to keep them in perpetual debt, and thus in perpetual servitude to the brothel owners, most likely Cambodian police or military officials. Many girls are even given drugs to keep them hooked and therefore subservient.
I met a government worker who asked me if I wanted to say hello to Son Sen. This surprised me, since I knew he was dead. You will recall that Son Sen was the Khmer Rouge leader who disagreed with Pol Pot at the very end, wanting to negotiate with the government rather than continue the struggle. For his disagreement with Brother Number One, Son Sen was accused of treason, murdered along with his entire family and their bodies run over several times by trucks.
Well, it turns out that Son Sen’s now empty house is next door to the Kamrieng District office. There are now only a few soldiers camped out. There is no furniture – only a white board used for giving English lessons to the soldiers. The most recent English lesson was still written there: “Write a paragraph about your last job … f**king pretty.” Well, these are soldiers, you know. The soldiers worry about ghosts at night, but apparently the haunting has nothing to do with Son Sen or his family.
Chapter 9 Ecotourism at Prek Toal
Prek Toal is a unique eco-system located near the Tonle Sap Lake about halfway along the boat trip between Siem Reap and Battambang. The boat from Siem Reap leaves the Great Lake and enters the Stung Sangker system, where there are vast tracts of wetlands. The boat trip itself is fascinating, as it passes through fishing communities that use large contraptions to net the fish. The wooden superstructure of perhaps 10 meters in height is lowered into the water to scoop up hundreds of small fish at a time.
Along the winding watercourse you will almost certainly see large pelicans and other waterfowl. Henri Mouhot traveled this route on his way back to Angkor Wat in 1858. He described the Tonle Sap as “la petite Méditeranée de Cambodge”. He saw thousands of pelicans, and described the egrets sitting on the trees by the thousands along the river as resembling “enormous snowballs”. On your trip along the river, picture yourself as the explorer Mouhot in this vast wilderness. Just sitting on deck of the boat viewing the vast marshlands is an experience. Be sure to bring along your sunscreen.
The breeding colony of Prek Toal is one of the largest in all Southeast Asia. Every year from January to June flocks of storks, adjutants, pelicans, ibises, cormorants, and more come to nest in the flooded forest around the Tonle Sap. 120 species of water and forest birds are present, among which are 15 endangered species such as the greater adjutant and the masked finfoot.
The fisheries productivity of the Tonle Sap freshwater is among the highest in the world, due to high temperature and the annual flooding. More than 200 species inhabit the lake. Next to rice,fish is the most important cimonent of the Cambodian diet.
When you visit the lake during the fishing season (December to May) you will notice huge arrow-shape bamboo fences in the lake shore; these are the visible parts of the fishing lots. The Tonle Sap is divided into 18 fishing concessions that are auctioned every two years. They are industrially intensiv fishing operations and there is debate about the sustainability of the system as the lake may become overfished.
Villagers cannot fish in the lots and have only access to less productive open waters (lakes and rivers). Family-scale fishing gear includes rafts, mounted liftnets, cone-shaped nets, scooping nets, and oblong traps.
The Tonle Sap increases five-fold in area from 2500 km2 in the dry season to 12500 km2 in the wet season, due to the Mekong floods that reverse the Tonle Sap river flow and fill the lake like a huge reservoir. Most of the flooded areas surrounding the open lake consist of swamp forest, a unique eco-system which sustains a rich bio-diversity. The typical trees of the flooded forest are Barringtonia acutangula and Diospyros cambodiana, and are adapted to seasonal fluctuations. Aquatic and floating plants inhabit the forest, such as water lettuce, red water lily, and water smartweed.
The importance of this unique eco-system was recognized through the Royal Declaration of the Tonle Sap as a protected area in 1993, and as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1997. Prek Toal is one of the Reserve’s core areas.
In the floating village of Prek Toal, people lead an entirely aquatic existence. Several hundred familes live on the water in houseboats or houses built on bamboo rafts. Homes are served by floating shops, barbers, petrol stations, and all the amenities of any village on land. The only buildings on stilts (more than 10 metres) are the pagoda, the spirit houses, and the school.
The economy of the village relies mainly on fish. Processing of the fish comprises prahoc (fermented fish paste), toek trey (fish sauce), as well as dried and smoked fish. Some alternative activities are animal raising. Crocodile farming is thriving in the village: some families can raise more than 100 crocodiles in floating cages. Fish raising is also popular with pengasius fish brought as fingerlings from the Mekong as they are resistant enough to tolerate captive conditions.
Osmose is a villagers’ association helping to preserve the human and natural habitat of the Tonle Sap Great Lake. Being aware of the interconnection between birds, fish, flooded forest and people, Osmose aims to work in harmony with all these elements focusing on birdlife conservation. By visiting Prek Toal and the Tonle Sap as a responsible visitor and nature lover, you will contribute to the protection of the waterbird colonies and the well-being of the local communities.
How to get to Prek Toal
The only way to go to Prek Toal is by boat. The village is the last one situated on the Sangker River before it flows into the Lake. The Sangker River connect Battambang to the Lake and then to Siem Reap. From Battambang (except from March to June when the water level may be too low). Boat to Prek Toal arriving in Battambangspeed boats leave Battambang to siem Reap at 7 a.m. for a price of $15 per foreigner. For the same price, you can ask to stop at Prek Toal, which is a half-hour before the Siem Reap harbour (Chong Kneas, Phnom Kraom). The trip can last anywehere from 3 to 8 hours along the Sangker River, where you will progressively pass through the rural lifestyle to the fishing lifestyle. You can also rent a private wooden boat for the trip, but the price is variable according to the season, the boat driver, and your budget. In this case the trip from Battambang to Prek Toal takes about 5 hours. The meeting point in Prek Toal is the environmental research station (Icom number 14537, call-sign Icom Prek Toal). They will provide you the entrance ticket to the bird sanctuary ($10-20 per person, depending on how far their speed boat or paddle boats will take you to observe the colonies). You can have lunch and dinner at the station for $3 per person.Everything, except for the fish, is imported from Battambang or Siem Reap, which explains the higher prices. There is another place to stay, or at least to eat, which is Ravy’s house (Icom number 14137, call-sign tchouk so). Ravy is a young Khmer-Chinese woman who cooks delicious fresh food and offers a nice family atmosphere to eat, relax, and sleep for $2 per night per person if you do not need private bathroom and comfortable toilet. This family raises crocodiles and you will have three floating cages with more than 100 crocodiles around you while you sleep!
Be aware that transportation may be a problem as there is barely any way to walk to the village.
From Prek Toal to Battambang, you can wait at the environmental station for the speed boat coming from Siem Reap at around 7:30 a.m. (check with the staff) for the price of $15 per person.
From Prek Toal to Siem Reap you can either take the regular boat leaving Prek Toal daily at 7 a.m. for around 10,000 riel per person and a two-hour trip, or the speed boat from Battambang at 10 a.m. for the same price, but and hour and a half trip to Siem Reap harbour.
From Siem Reap to Prek Toal: same solution with the speed boat leaving at 7 a.m. or the regular boat (kanot dou) at 2 p.m.. If you want your own boat, you can hire one for a day or more from the drivers at the boat association. I can recommend you Mr. Bo (te. 012 961 386): he has a thorough experience on the Tonle Sap, this interior sea that can be really dangerous at times. He has a good knowledge of the flora and fauna of the Tonle Sap, but he does not speak English. Visitors from Siem Reap should bring along their own translator.
Keep in mind that, while the boat trip can be very enjoyable to the tourist, it has a negative impact on the local environment and on the people in the area. You will note the disdain and contempt that the boat drivers have for the locals as they zoom past dugout canoes, forcing the people in them either to cling to bushes along the sides of the river or else be swamped by the speedboat’s large wake. Locals have been known to throw things at the speedboats as they pass.
More significantly, the strong wake is quickly eroding the riverbanks. Near Battambang, the fields along the river produce thousands of watermelons in March, April and May, and the disappearing land along the river in essence deprives the locals of prime land for their watermelons. Worse, in 2000 the early flooding along the river destroyed much of the watermelon crop for farmers late in harvesting them.
It is not known what effect the erosion of the riverbanks is having on wildlife in the region, but it cannot be good. Thus, the speedboat traffic is causing ecological as well as economic damage to the area. In fact, the residents of the area went to the National Assembly in Phnom Penh to complain to the Government. I leave it to the reader to guess how effective their complaints were.