Whilst I’m living out in beautiful Siem Reap, working to make enough cash to pay my way, I’m also trying to see as many other places in Cambodia as possible. I’m incredibly lucky that I have some awesome friends who have planned some pretty cool trips and don’t mind if an extra body and a plastic Minion join them. Most recently, I had the pleasure of visiting the temples of Koh Ker and Preah Vihear, in a private minivan complete with fantastic A/C but with the most infuriating beep every 15 seconds. There were seven of us altogether and we had a blast! Our trip itinerary was Siem Reap – Koh Ker – Sra’ Em for the night – Preah Vihear – Siem Reap, and we were not confined by public bus schedules or routes which invariably all go through Phnom Penh (…which is just infuriating. Just imagine if you wanted to travel anywhere in your home country by public transport, you had no choice but to get a bus to the capital city and then another to your final destination! Madness!). On reflection though, our minivan was approximately 350 times more comfortable than my last cross-country trip in Cambodia, so I really shouldn’t complain about a mildly irritating beeping! Other advantages included if anyone wanted to nap, we could just tell everyone to shut up without fear of offending anyone… and we could enjoy each other’s company without worrying about disrupting other passengers. Naturally, we took advantage of this time to give each other spirit animal names, because why on earth wouldn’t you? I was the first to be named as the green elephant. Whilst some may be offended at being described as a traditionally “fat” animal, I was assured that this was not the intention. The rest of the crew was made up of an orange owl, a burgundy turtle, a purple flamingo, a rainbow rabbit, a blue cobra, and a white peacock. Did I mention that we were an enigmatic bunch(!)?
Anyway, I digress, back on topic: Koh Ker is around 75 miles from Siem Reap and the temple complex is on the UNESCO tentative list. For a short period of time near the beginning of the 10th Century, Koh Ker was the capital of the Angkorian Empire, and is home to an impressive number of temples. We climbed the main one, Prasat Thom, (prasat means temple) which is a beautiful pyramidal structure reminiscent of the three pillars of Angkor Wat but only one, built on a much larger scale. In fact, it is the highest prasat in the Kingdom of Wonder, stretching 36m high. The temple is believed to have been dedicated to the Hindu God Lord Shiva, but the linga that was enshrined in the main chamber of the temple has been long destroyed.
We visited a couple of the prasats, and took some wonderful pictures. The sky was a brilliant blue, but when we reached the top of Prasat Thom, there was a massive black cloud above us. With the threat of rain, we made our way to the next prasat, where the temples have been over-grown with strangler trees and the sun was beating down through the canopy of leaves providing us some great lighting for photo-taking, without a grey cloud to be seen. Nature – who can predict it? Later on we had a lovely lunch at one of the little eateries at the entrance to the temple complex, a quick laze in a hammock and then we set off again to find our bed for the night in a rural town called Sra’ Em.
We made great time and checked into our guesthouse a lot earlier than we had anticipated. Heading out for a stroll before the heavens opened, we took a walk around the town, stopping for a coconut and buying local food for dinner, that a few people in our crew have previously nick-named “the pots”. Basically, rather than a restaurant, local people make a variety of dishes and sell them, buffet-style. Its street food, but not as you know it. Generally speaking, food in SE Asia is pretty tasty, but when you eat “local food” that has been made for the local palate, you realise just how tasty (and cheap) you can eat. With a good 9km clocked on my iPhone, we decided after a quick can of beer, that it was indeed bedtime, agreeing a 6.45am meetup for the journey to Preah Vihear.
The main topic of conversation on our 30minute ride to Preah Vihear Temple was whether we would walk up the hill, which is around 500-odd metres to the temple or take a truck. The walk would be 7km, and take us around two hours. Uphill. One by one, we were peer-pressured into agreeing to the walk. We paid for a truck to bring us back down, but we decided that we would complete the pilgrim’s walk, through the trees with great photo opportunities and a fair amount of shade. Bad move. We didn’t complete the pilgrim’s walk at all. We were directed to a concrete road. With trucks and motorbikes zooming up past us on a road with little to no shade at all, and with returning motorbikes tempting us with honks of the horn and shouts of “moto to the temple?” I wasn’t the first to give in; I made it to around 5.5km and up the first of the steepest hills before I finally caved and took a motorbike to the base of the temple. At some of the steepest parts, the incline must have been more than 60 degrees, and whilst three of us chickened out on the walk, the other four toiled through and had the satisfaction of saying they completed the hike.
At the top, we stopped for a coconut drink and then we continued our walk up to the temple which truly was beautiful, even through the sheets of rain that then fell from the heavens. Having taken refuge in a little leaking wooden shelter for a good 45 minutes, we decided to brave the rains with a $1 plastic raincoat. I took a picture of a man-made water reservoir just as the rain started, and then got another one at the end of our journey. This reservoir or “barai” was pretty big, maybe 75-80m across, so that wasn’t an insignificant bit of rain… what do you think?
Preah Vihear is on the very border to Thailand, physically accessible from both countries. Whilst history has been fraught with territorial conflict, eventually in 1959, the temple has been officially claimed by Cambodian authorities. I’ve done a fair bit of research and have come across numerous different stories regarding access to the temple from Thailand. Some sources state that after the last lot of territorial rioting and fighting in 2013, the Cambodian authorities closed the temple to Thailand, but others state it is still possible to access the temple. At any rate, on the return journey, we all sort of split up. I managed to take a wrong turning, getting completely disoriented and going down some steps that looked a little unfamiliar, but I didn’t think too much of it. I took a picture at the bottom, looking up and then tried to continue my descent. Some non-official looking people (non-official as in, luckily for me, they didn’t have guns and they weren’t wearing uniforms) were sitting around at the bottom of these steps and in very broken English they told me that over the barbed wire approximately 10m in front of where I standing was Thailand. I had on my trusty “Siem Reap” tourist shirt and pointed at it, saying “Cambodia?”. All of the people looked at me, quite concernedly and shook their heads. I pointed back up the steps and repeated “Cambodia…?” to which they kind of smiled, kind of grimaced and nodded. I’m not going to lie, at this point I was pretty panicked. I was cursing myself for splitting from the group, I wasn’t able to call anyone because there was no reception and I had a wholly unnecessary climb ahead of me. All of the people I had smiled at on the way down were now staring unashamedly as I climbed the steps again, but fortunately, when I reached the top, the way down to Cambodia was perfectly apparent, and I could even see a few of my friends! Breathing a sigh of relief, I caught them up, and I wasn’t even the last to arrive back at the truck, and I guess I do have a fairly amusing story to tell.
When we got back to the bottom, we got some lunch at a local place and collectively decided we would go straight back to Siem Reap, rather than stopping off anywhere else. We made it back around dinner time, and although we had eaten pretty late in the afternoon, I took the opportunity to have a parting dinner with my new travel buddies, plus got a takeaway burrito for my lunch on Monday. Win-win! So with all of my extra walking, I managed to rack up 17.75km for the day. Not bad, if I may say so myself. And though I slept like a baby overnight, waking up at 6.15 to teach my lovely Year Ones was a painful experience from head to toe!