Friday, July 6, 2012

Svay Chek adventures

Painful on my feet in Svay Chek (2001)
I simply don't get out of the office enough to be able to enjoy the type of adventures that I used to get up to on my annual visits to Cambodia. Take November 2001 for example, my seventh trip to Cambodia. I'd already been to the massive complex of Banteay Chhmar for the first time on this trip and I wanted to explore some of the forgotten Angkorian temples that lay outside the main Angkor complex. So I teamed up with Kim Rieng, my moto-driver and part-time policeman, and we headed out to the village of Svay Chek, some 25 kms northwest of Angkor. It was already 9.30am and Rieng had been at work for a couple of hours when I rang him, he made his excuses and left, collected me from my hotel and we stopped by the main ticket booth to get the thumbs up to our trip without paying the normal entrance fee. Our route took us past Angkor Wat, through Angkor Thom and then just past the western entrance to Preah Khan, we took one of the World Food Program roads due north, stopping from time to time to ask directions.
An hour after setting off, we drove into the village of Svay Chek and were confronted by a sizeable crowd of villagers milling around a large Cambodian Red Cross lorry. To find out what was happening and to locate the temples I knew were nearby, Rieng and I sought out the commune chief and moments later, Man Poeun appeared and introduced himself. He explained that each household in the village would receive two sacks of rice to supplement their meagre food supplies, and that he knew of three very old prasats that we could visit within his commune. However, he was concerned about my safety and said that his local police chief, who he introduced as Ith Raksmei, would go with me. I thanked Man Poeun, who proudly posed for a photograph before we took a short ride to Raksmei's home, which also doubled as the village's convenience store, for him to don his police uniform.
With the three of us on Rieng's moto, we left the main track and headed out across the rice fields towards a wooded area in the distance. Ten minutes later, we left the moto and walked through the forest for a few hundred metres before we came upon the first of the ancient temples, which Raksmei called Prasat Sampou (the 'ship' temple). It was quite a substantial laterite temple, much larger than I expected and in fairly good nick. A Rahu lintel was still in situ above one of the two entrances at either end, while along just one side of the elongated structure was a series of sandstone windows. Rieng, who is a qualified guide for the Angkor temples, guessed it was built in the tenth century and as we were leaving, I spotted a second lintel on the ground, hidden under a bush. Back at the moto, Raksmei told us about an original Angkorean bridge, Spean Thma, that was nearby but was inaccessible as that area was still under water, a result of the rainy season which had ended the month before. We retraced our route back to the village and were joined by another uniformed policeman, named Veng, who had his AK-47 slung over his shoulder and was riding his bicycle. Raksmei explained that before venturing to the next two temples, even the police chief felt safer when accompanied by an armed colleague - his smile didn't exactly fill me with a great deal of confidence when he told us that banditry had been an occasional problem in recent years.
A few kilometres later, we left the moto at the home of another off-duty policeman called Houng, who also joined our party, which now numbered five. As we walked through a combination of field, bush and then forest, Houng led the way and used his scythe to good effect to cut a way through the undergrowth. Often the path was under water, detours were necessary and it was thirty minutes before Raksmei announced we had arrived. "Hello to Prasat Kpok," he shouted. The forest was so dense, it was impossible to see the temple from distance unless you were literally standing in it. The main structure had a sandstone shell with laterite foundations with a tree and its roots engulfing one side and a single poor quality lintel still in place. Closeby was a series of seven smaller brick towers, all in various stages of ruin. Taking photographs was proving difficult for two reasons, firstly the light was poor under the canopy of trees and shade and secondly, those infamous temple guardians, the Cambodian red ant (ang krang) was making sure I didn't stand in one position longer than a few seconds. Boy, do those ants pack a powerful bite. We were also joined by a cheerful old gentleman, who claimed to be the guardian of the temple and proceeded to hack away at the vines and branches obstructing our view with his machete.
It was now midday and the overhead sun was streaming through parts of the forest covering, making the walk to our final destination, Prasat Phnom Dei, a hot one. Houng and Raksmei deliberated on the best way to approach the temple, again hidden in dense forest, as our way was blocked by waterlogged meadows and trails. They both agreed that fording the flooded track was the only answer, so off came my shoes and socks, as we waded up to our thighs through parts of the route. Whilst their feet are hardened to such conditions, the broken branches and debris underwater made it a painful experience for my delicate soles, much to my companion's amusement. We also crossed two deep streams by balancing along a precarious tree branch that doubled as a bridge while Houng continued to hack a way through the almost impenetrable forest. Forty minutes later, we arrived at the temple, located on a small rise, but still deep within the wood. Prasat Phnom Dei consists of three brick towers inside a large laterite wall with an entrance tower. It was difficult to make out the true layout of the temple but up close, it was clear that its remote location hadn't stopped the looters from stealing or defacing some of its treasures. Two Rahu lintels were still in place but had suffered at the hands of the robbers, while other lintels lay broken in pieces on the forest floor. Inside the entrance tower, Rieng noticed a large stone stele, which after scraping away the moss, revealed an inscription in Khmer which the robbers had either missed or decided was too heavy to carry away. These inscriptions usually tell the story of the temple's construction but none of us could decipher the ancient text.
On our return trek, Raksmei confirmed that landmines were not a concern despite the whole area being under Khmer Rouge control until 1993, but that snakes and scorpions were a threat. He also gauged that we'd walked around seven kilometres since we'd left the moto, no mean feat in the heat and humidity, not to mention the various obstacles in our path. After re-negotiating the flooded trail, streams and undergrowth, we stopped for a brief respite with a small group of farmers who were threshing rice and shared some of their palm wine and cooked rice with us. We continued our walk back and whilst following the mesmeric clip-clop of the sandals directly in front of me, I failed to spot a few branches at head height, so beware of making the same painful mistake. Arriving back at Houng's home, I thanked him and Veng for their sterling efforts and we moto'd back to Raksmei's house-cum-shop to meet his family, to catch our breath and taste his homemade palm wine. It was now mid-afternoon, so Rieng and I said our goodbyes and returned to meet some friends at the Angkor temples. Another adventure completed.
PS. A National Geographic documentary later captured the rescue of the stone stele at Prasat Phnom Dei by the head of the EFEO conservation team at Angkor, as he heroically drove into the forest on his trails motorbike, found the stele and had it transported back to Angkor. You can read more of my 2001 adventures here.
My temple helpers. LtoR: Houng, Veng, Rieng, Raksmey, guardian

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