Temple Hunting in The Angkor Countryside
The countryside surrounding Angkor is one of paddy fields and sugar palms. Dotted with small villages of traditional wooden houses built on stilts surrounded by fruit trees. Trapaeng or pools, vast ancient baray or reservoirs and the rivers and channels that still connect the ruins of ancient temples shape the landscape. Near Siem Reap it’s flat excepting the isolated Phnom (hill) Bok that serves as a compass to weary cyclists (and incidentally gave Jayavarman V an excuse to build a temple on top).
Lors and Zsuzsa looking out over the dam
Small sandy paths and red earth roads have been usurped by the new Korean ring road that speeds oblivious tourists to Banteay Srei or Citadel of The Woman, North of Angkor. Heads down and legs pumping we ate the Tarmac on our escape from the clutches of tourist town in search of temples.
Lors showing off on the rickety bridge
It was cheating slightly as a few weeks back we’d recce’d the ruins on dirt bikes with Dave the helicopter pilot who’d plotted them from the air. Our mission today was to find a path between the ruins and the West Baray, where many of our mountain bike rides finish. Google Earth had made it look easy but I made it hard, leading Lors and Zsuzsa along a track that finished in a ploughed rice field. ‘Boss listen to me, I know the way,’ Lors implored. I didn’t so we followed him and found the first landmark we were looking for, a dam across the Siem Reap river.
A Zsuzsa selfie with Prasat Sra Laos (and me) in the background
Not really a dam more a muddy earth wall broken by a concrete sluice and a couple of poles that served as a bridge.
A perfect pastoral scene was set in front of us. Farmers tilling their land with buffalo or their mechanical equivalent, kroyun – a sort of hand held tractor. Ladies up to their chest in the small lake formed by the dam gathered lotus flowers until gazing at three barangs cross a rickety bridge became too enticing, especially when one of them, me – fell in.
‘It’s just here Boss.’ Unfortunately Lors was right. I was going to have to pass on my Chief Exploration Officer title. An isolated patch of forest lay in front of us. Zsuzsa and I twisted our way through the tangle of vines and thorny branches into a gloomy clearing surrounding the ancient ruins of Prasat Sra Laos. A conical brick tower on top of a sandstone lintel and doorway. I looked inside to see if there were any bats.
Back at the bikes Lors had made friends with a a couple of happy rice farmers who’d given up on ploughing the paddy fields in favour of rice wine. We zigzag’d our way across the countryside on paths between rice fields, through bush and small patches of forest. Picking up sandy tracks all in vaguely the right direction. ‘How do you know the way Lors? This is amazing!’ I exclaimed. ‘I lucky, just find the right route,’ he glibly smiled (he’d checked out the route the day before).
In front of Prasat Cha, Sanscrit is carved into the inside of the stone doorway
Tall tree’s are valuable, there’s not many left outside the protection of the Angkor Park. Tall trees near ruins though are inhabited by spirits that are best appeased and not pissed off but cutting their home down. Google can show you where the temple should be but it’s the trees that give away where it is.
Prasat Cha was no exception. Unlike Prasat Sra Laos the shade kept the undestory at bay and created an enchanting glade around the artificial mounds on which Prasat Cha was built. The towers are made of brick & laterite, the doorposts (as shown) of sandstone richly ornamented with Sanskrit inscription, which dates back to the 10th century and Jayavarman V. A lot of what we know today about the Angkorian Empire has been learnt from just such carvings, which while mainly describing the temple and who built it give snippets of fascinating information. Or so I’m told – I don’t read Sanskrit, which is just as well as there’s a local story that tells of a five-headed dragon that confronts anyone who reads.
The rest of our way followed well worn paths we knew well, that is that until we reached a new channel cutting us off from the West Baray. We hoisted the bikes on our shoulders and filed across the big muddy ditch to the walls of the Angkorian Reservoir.
Our last challenge before the Baray.
Eight by two kilometres with no geographical help from a valley or hill, the West Baray was until the 20th century the largest entirely manmade reservoir in the world built a thousand years ago at the beginning of the 11th Century.
Unfortunately The Amansara Food and Beverage Team were not there to meet us with cold towels and iced lemonade, cold beer and lunch boxes. Instead we made do with lukewarm Kulen water
Looking out over the West Baray.
Nick and Buntha are delighted to take guests exploring the local countryside by mountain bike or hiking. Discovering hidden temples where our cold beers and lunch boxes will be waiting.
All adventures start with an extra hot latte crafted by Mex at the Little Red Fox Coffee Shop and the morning crew; Jady – temple water management and Darryl the Angkorian historian.
Feathercraft kayak on top of Dy’s electric blue Highlander, Solar kayaks, Lors, Bunthy, Visoth and me inside, another latte then pick up Buntha on the way to the lake.
Our route decided last week when we climbed out of REP Airport on our way to SIN (gapore). Five thousand foot above Phnom Kraum we could see pockets of bush surrounded by a sea of water and not the usual other way round. Direct channels lay clear to the open lake and onto the floating village of Prek Toal.
We launched where the water lapped Phnom Kraum Hill, Bunthy together with Lors, Visoth and Buntha. Laden with dinner and drink, two bladders of wine for the boys and merlot in the cool box for me.
From left to right; Visoth & Buntha, me, Lors and Bunthy
My Werner paddles were so light I barely felt them kissing the water as I effortlessly slid across the lake. The two Solars exploded with muscle like a moon rocket launch then stalled as Bunthy paddled one way and Lors the other. Buntha and Visoth quickly found a rhythm. Fizzing with excitement we set off for Prek Toal.
The lake was not quite so high that we could paddle unimpeded. Lead by lines of vegetation, fishing nets caught in the Solar fins as we zigzagged across the floodplain.
Past midday and Bunthy was running on empty, ‘when are we going to eat?’ He whimpered, while Buntha and Visoth the buffalo paddled on regardless of hunger, fishing lines and fences.
We entered the forest at the edge of the lake and moored to the branches beneath the canopy near the tops of the now submerged trees. We perched on the branches and ate lunch. Lors the gibbon swung from an outlying limb.
In the canopy forest at the edge of the lake
Climbing down from the tree trunks we made ready for the lake crossing just as the wind died and left barely a ripple on the dull grey expanse of water. The calm made a mockery of my safety briefing. ‘Tie down the equipment, stick together and wear life jackets.’
Above and below, Phnom Kraum behind, Prek Toal ahead
Lors inevitably started the horseplay by sitting up on the cool box at the back of his and Bunthy’s kayak nearly capsizing them both. They couldn’t get a rhythm going but his massive muscles powered through despite their lack of technique.
A huge cloud lay heavy over Prek Toal cumulating and shifting like an upset stomach. All the while darkening until the three telephone masts that marked out the village punctured its nebulous vapour releasing a wind that held us stationary and blew off my Akubra hat.
Bunthy and Lors’s calls for five minute breaks were becoming more frequent and faint as Buntha and Visoth, apparently unfatigued paddled on while I just sort of glided.
The whiffs of decomposing fish from the prahoc platforms and the reverberating staccato of the two stroke long-tail engines reached us before we got to the floating shacks at the edge of the village. We paddled between the more substantial houses buoyed up on clumps of bamboo lining the main channel.
Buntha’s pool hall, floating garden, crocodile cages and Mother in Law’s house lay opposite. ‘Do you want a shower Nick? Buntha asked me. ‘Not in your shit!’ The lake was high so well diluted but the crocodiles and Buntha were defecating on one side of the house while the family bathed on the other. I got back in the kayak and paddled away from the village with a bar of soap, managing to wash myself standing on the branches of a submerged tree.
The boys played pool, I scribbled notes then the family emerged from Mother in Law’s house with our dinner. Bunthy had bought plastic skins of cheap vinegary red wine, I’d put a couple of bottles of Chilean merlot in the cool box, which rapidly disappeared when Buntha found out how much nicer they tasted. We finished dinner. The alcohol combined with the day’s exercise, rounded off by five mg of Valium left me contentedly numbed. I turned off the Mother in Law’s radio lay down next to the crocodiles and fell asleep.
Saying goodbye to Buntha’s Family (excluding the Mother in Law)
A horrific fire had burned for day’s leaving half of the Core Bird Reserve reduced to charcoal. We paddled between the blackened branches saddened. The irrepressible Lors quickly diverted our attention and the presence of any wildlife with the continual noise he emitted.
The fire was an environmental disaster but still the floodplain is a wonderful and alien world of water and blissful quiet, excepting Lors.
Dy was waiting with his ice cold Highlander at Maichrey. It was past noon so rice was the priority. We diverted via the Baray now swollen with rain and a bamboo platform over the water for road kill chicken rice and tamarind paste, a look of total exhaustion on the boy’s faces. It had been fun!
Exhausted waiting for lunch at the West Baray
We are very pleased to take our guests on a day trip by motorboat to the floating village of Prek Toal with an early morning boat journey in the seasonally flooded forests of The Core Bird Reserve. On the return we explore the village by kayak with lunch on a floating platform then paddle to Buntha’s house and meet his family (and crocodiles).
If you have a bit more time an overnight stay means you start to get a glimpse of what life on the lake is really like. And we’d be delighted to paddle with you all the way if you’re up for the challenge!
In Search of a White Elephant
Our quest for the day was to find Boeung P’Rieng, a lake amidst flooded forests on the edge of The Great Tonle Sap that is subsumed when the back flow begins and the water levels in the lake rise.
Previous attempts had started in much the same way though today was Wednesday so it was Sister Srei not Little Red Fox, where we congregated for the essential injection of caffein before setting off on our quest.
The first try was thwarted by 2 flat tyres and a serious compromise in a sense of direction. I emerged from the forest beside the tourist boat channel at Chong Khneas no where near Boeung P’Rieng or nearby Chreav Village. The second attempt got closer but we reached the trips zenith in the corner of a big rice field where it met the channel leading to Boeung P’Rieng, a local family told us.
This morning’s adventure was a more serious affair; Buntha, Lors and I were joined by Bo our ubiquitous boatman and Mr Ly, the managing director no less of the Chreav Village Information Centre. In his spare time he had taken on the role of promoting the lake as a possible source of employment for the Chreav villagers in who’s commune it is situated. We assumed this might mean he knew where it was.
Lors, our guide receiving the tour guide treatment from Mr Ly, director of the village information center with Taylor behind the camera
As part of the party political broadcast we were taken to a well managed market garden in a pretty part of Chreav village where basil and other herbs were grown. An oxcart was included in the agenda but our bicycles gave us the excuse to continue in our search of the elusive lake.
A water stop. Left to right; Buntha, Taylor, Ly, Lors & Bo.
Bo’s plans for differentiation in the tourism industry became evident as Taylor and I became his unwitting models when we cycled between paddy fields behind the plume of white dust thrown up by his motorbike.
Our cares started to slip away as the horizon stretched to the distance. We spotted sandpipers on the moist earth and a Pied Kingfisher over the irrigation ditch. Two pranticoles skulked amongst the rice stubble. The impenetrable bush revealed when the Tonle Sap recedes had been cleared to make a path to where we assumed the lake would be.
Buntha and Lors cycling through the seasonally flooded forest
Circling pelicans soaring high confirmed that third time lucky and after a patch of proper forest we met our welcoming committee and The Lake.
Loading our bikes on board
Five years ago Bo had tried to persuade us to send bird watchers to what was designated a fish conservation area, hence the birds but as with many a well intentioned project in Cambodia, the fishing rights to the fish protection area were sold.
And setting off to explore the lake
Wallowing Water Buffalo in the shallow waters of Boeung P’Rieng (hence the renaming as Buffalo Lake)
Mr Ly according to Mr Ly was now the lakes protector and the fishing traps hauled out of the water and piled high to be burnt suggested that this time it might be more than words.
Spot-billed Pelicans taking off as we get too close
The community protected area covers 300 hectares and the lake itself twenty though that must change by the day. As we nosed our way through the sage green algae the scale was hard to fathom. Pools were funneled through channels to broad expanses of muddy suspension where buffalo wallowed pecked clean of ticks by white egrets, a prefect focal for a photo that never happened as they flapped off before I could press the shutter.
A cool forest lunch-spot for our guests
Bo’s enthusiasm for the birds was infectious as we struggled to keep up with the calls of new
species; Black-headed Ibis, Open-billed Storks everywhere, Painted Storks, prehistoric pelicans sailing like galleons, cormorants and a Grey-headed Fishing Eagle lazily flew off as we entered a new lagoon. Above all were the great flocks of duck, Spot-billed and Whistling, more than we’d seen at Prek Toal and only compared with the reservoir at Ang Trapaeng Thmor.
Our destination proved to be a patch of cool forest with a clear understory shaded under the canopy, the perfect lunch spot after a mornings meandering by kayak.
Birds, bikes, boats and Nick
I remembered that we had been able to drive our motorbikes here but now the route was cut by the channel that offered our only way out. Our impressively muscled boatman manoeuvred us along the twists and turns of the waterway between the trees and pushed our path through the congregated water hyacinth.
Bo releasing a trapped Water Cock
Something fluttered in a fish trap. A bird was caught in the cage. Bo’s good at this and confidently reached in and pulled out the distressed Water Cock, which calmed in his hands.
In quasi moment of religious release he cast the creature into the sky to regain its freedom, whereupon it nosed dived into the next fishing trap. There was a happy ending as it swam off underwater.
Disembarking from the Water Hyacinth Channel
The Floodplain around Phnom Kraum now a buffalo haven
Somehow Bo’s motorbike was where we disembarked then I recognised the community member who’d said goodbye and figured it out!
We set off across the dry paddy, which even in these dry El Nino years will be a meter under the flood in 4 months time. Where there was water the buffalo wallowed. I racked my brains to remember the path we cycled on.
Surely I’d been here? We’d turned off too late, it dawned on me as we crossed a bridge over the Siem Reap River on its way to Phnom Kraum and Chong Khneas, the ugly tourist port.
Next was a promotional detour engineered by Bo, who sort of seemed to be taking over the day. A new homestay venture complete with wi-fi and a bar. Surely that makes it a guesthouse? I thought but obviously Bo reckoned that business lay with a homestay and the activities there with as now modeled by Taylor and Nick.
Recharging after the morning’s exertions
More to the point and definitely on cue, Mr Doitch an Indochine Exploration driver had cooked us lunch, chicken and cabbage, chnang! (delicious).
Boeung P’Rieng is a birding spectacle on the scale of the world famous Prek Toal 15km as the adjutant flies to the South. And a testament to the work of My Ly and his community members in enforcing the protection of the fish conservation area that attracts the birds.
Indochine Exploration is pleased to support this project with an out of the world adventure combining combining bikes, boats, birds and a paddy field Jeep tour (pulling apart a chicken carcass is optional).
PS The white elephant reference is that white elephants are hard to find and make you very happy when you do!
The rise and fall of the Angkorian Empire, which lasted 500 years from the 9th to 14th century, was centered in what is now Siem Reap Province, around its greatest monument Angkor Wat. A population of a million in an area of 1000 km2 serviced the empire and built the religious structures the remnants of which we see today.
Angkor Wat Moat
Key to the success of the civilization was the management of water in a region of inundation and drought. An elaborate system of canals and barays or reservoirs channeled water from the Kulen Hills to the North into the city.
The availability of water ensured that food went in and shit went out. Canals facilitated the construction of the temples conveying the stone from the quarries to the North. And the temples were built with defensive moats that maintained ground water levels preventing their subsidence.
Runta Dev, the tunnel under the 8m high walls of Angkor Thom that channeled waste-water into the moat
It is now thought that the decline in management and maintenance of the hydrology coincided with that of the empire.
In recent years the importance of these systems has been recognized again as the massive increase in tourism has lead to ground water levels falling and the potential collapse of the temples. It is no coincidence that the best preserved are those with functioning moats.
One man has been championing the restoration of the Angkorian water management. He has overseen the construction of canals that channel the Siem Reap River into the North Baray, the moats of Preah Khan, Ankgor Thom and even Angkor Wat. Reducing the possibility of Siem Reap flooding as it did in 2011, while maintaining ground water levels and preventing the temples falling down.
Overseeing our progress up the North Baray Channel
These small matters aside obviously the most important function of Angkorian hydrology is to allow us to paddle through the Angkor Park, Cambodia’s best preserved 400 km2 of lowland mixed evergreen and deciduous forest.
And so it was one Monday morning that his excellency the Director of Water Management at Apsara and now Director General, facilitated by Jady together with Buntha and myself kayaked through the heart of a Unesco declared world heritage site. Jady and I had previously recced Peou’s canal that diverts the flow from Siem Reap into the North Baray and round to the West Baray. This time we didn’t get lost and anyway Peou knew the way, but – we hadn’t followed the river as it heads South towards the Tonle Sap Lake.
The current had cut deep into the soft ground leaving 7meter high banks that we had to scramble down with our kayaks and then awkwardly get in them.
Paddling down the Siem Reap River
A few fallen branches had accumulated enough flotsam and jetsam to block the river with no way through but a messy scramble. Jady and Buntha paved the way. Poeu and I made it easy.
There are 700 Angkorian structures inside the Angkor Park but only 180 of them can be called temples, they’re the ones with moats. These monumental stone edifices need solid ground for their structural integrity, without it they crumble to a pile of stones. Siem Reap is a built on a light sandy soil, water gives it substance, which is what the moats do for the temples.
Contemplating our adventure
A few hundred meters on either side there were no doubt bus loads of Asian tourists but here in the heart of Angkor we paddled passed explosions of bamboo erupting on either side. White-collared Kingfishers taunted Buntha to catch a photo. A Snake Eagle followed our progress from above, while a Shikra watched us with disinterest from a fallen branch. All manner of other birds sang from the trees on either side obliterating any thoughts of tourists or even other people.
We’d catered for 5 pax kayaking but one of the water management guys came along for the ride so the third kayak was one paddle power short and we had visions of Kosal, Jady’s assistant unable to move his shoulders for a month or 2. They’d had the sense to share the work and caught up beaming and claiming the big adventure.
Our driver had accumulated helpers by the time we reached the sluice gates at the French Bridge (confusingly built by Americans), who pulled us up the steep stairs to Jady’s vehicle.
It took a while to sink in that we had paddled through one of the wonders of the world, visited by 3 million people but seen none, instead thick riparian forest as if we were discovering it for the first time.
NEW KHMER ARCHITECTURE
Architecture was part of a new exuberant and modernistic Khmer movement encouraged by King Sihanouk and expressed in music, dance, film and architecture, not seen in neighboring parts of Indochina when Cambodia gained independence in 1953. The movement lasted until Sihanouk was deposed by Lon Nol in the 1970 coup, which heralded the start of the civil war.
Vann Molyvann was foremost among the city’s architects during this time, designing nearly 100 public and private projects. He’d studied in France and drew inspiration from Le Corbusier and his five principles of design, most of which can be seen in traditional Khmer wooden houses.
The five principles being;
- The building is raised from the ground
- It has an open facade
- The columns are not connected
- There is a roof top garden
- Concrete and wood are used in the construction
Together with the UN expert Gerald Hanning, he advised the King as to how the city should be developed.
The Institute of Languages The last work of Molyvann before he left the country in 1971 and Sihanouk overthrown was the Institute of Languages, where he used all the devices he’d developed in adapting to the climate with his own unique style. Among these were;
The first floor is larger than the ground floor providing shade below in a style of passive protection, while the whole building is raised on columns from the ground as with traditional Khmer architecture.
A polygon roof separates the working space from the glare and heat of the sun and channels the breeze giving a natural cool. Vertical panels provide shade to the interior
The Institute of Languages showing the cooling polygon roof and shading vertical panels
The building is orientated to shade the stage and those inside who can see out and those outside in, connecting them by visualization.
The ground floor as with traditional Khmer wooden houses was open though now outside walls have been added on some of the buildings, somewhat of a design travesty but the Ministry of Education doesn’t speak to the Ministry of Culture.
The main building in The Institute of Languages showing the larger 2nd & 3rd floors shading the ground floor and stage
Arial walkways over pools connect the different buildings offering a view over the forty five hectare campus and shelter from the rain and sun underneath. They give an example of how Molyvann incorporated Angkorian design, which uses bridges to cross the temple moats. He even finished off the handrails with nagas or snakes.
The four lecture halls appear as jumping frogs creating a sense of dynamism, while the double walls faced by brick divert heat from the laboring students inside. And sculpture not painting is used to play with the shadows.
The 4 Lecture Halls
The library (not shown) is shaped like a Khmer straw hat, where outside columns support the building with no structure inside. The gutters act as fountains falling into a surrounding pool cooling the building without the need for air-conditioning (in case of the library aircon was used to control the humidity). A Le Corbusier inspired style called ‘brise soleil’ seen in Chandigargh India, where the walls are protected from the wind, rain and sun, was also used by Molyvann.
The Conference Hall
The conference hall, not designed by Molyvann, is a parabolic shape supported from outside and traditionally open sided which killed the sound and allowed a breeze. Now the sides have been filled with glass it has to be air-conditioned and there’s an echo to even the smallest sound.
There were air vents in the ceiling to further cool the space but they have been covered. There’s a mistake in the orientation of the hall as it faces South West catching the sun unlike the Institute of Languages.
The Hundred Houses The next stop on our tour of new Khmer architecture was The hundred houses, built between 1965 – 1967, providing social housing to National Bank of Cambodia employees who were entitled to the buildings after 20 years paying rent.
A Hundred House
The design incorporates that of a Khmer wooden house and modern architecture. The houses appear to be randomly orientated but are actually carefully laid out to maximise the view and space.
The open space underneath is important providing an area for shelter and storage like a traditional Khmer wooden house and there’s an Angkorian style pool in every garden. There are 2 staircases, one into the living room and a back stair to the kitchen and the WC so guests would avoid the smell and traipsing through the house. Unlike most Khmer houses Molyvann designed big windows the size of doors for ventilation and light.
The main columns are made of concrete not wood as are the beams between them. This is so the thickness of the beams can be increased and the span widened, allowing more space. The roof is like a policeman’s helmet raised above the walls and channeling any breeze from outside in.
In 1975 the estate became a military camp and every house got a number. After the civil war the Vietnamese Air Force took them and in 1986 they were given back to the people. Today most are being demolished or altered as land becomes increasingly expensive.
The National Stadium The most spectacular project was saved for last on our tour. The Olympic Stadium started in 1962 was planned for the Asian Games in 1963 but actually finished in 1964. In 1966 it was used for the Non-aligned Asian Games. The architect was Molyvann who worked with a Ukranian engineer named Vladimir Bondetsky.
The royal pavilion (top right) with a War of the Worlds timing box over the VIP seats
External staircase and tiered seating showing the ventilation holes
The building was Angkorian inspired and became known as the second Angkor Wat consuming most of the national budget in its construction.
The materials excepting aluminum panels were all Cambodian. As with Angkor Wat the indoor stadium is surrounded by pools fed from gutters.
One of the pools surrounding the auditorium showing the guttering and reflecting the stairs
External stairs allow for a speedy and non claustrophobic exit. There are no walls as such just tiers of seating surround the auditorium, each seat has an open space underneath providing cooling ventilation to the entire area. The ceiling is supported by 4 columns 2 meters wide, 25 m high allowing a span of 32 m resembling a square mushroom. The ventilation allowed a breeze and light to get through during the day and the building to glow with light at night.
1 of the 4 columns supporting a square 32m span and the tiered seating illuminating the auditorium
As you leave the indoor stadium you pass under a low ceilinged corridor, the contrast with the vast space of the 70,000 seat outdoor arena is stunning. As Frank Lloyd Write said detail is the key, this can be seen in all of Molyvann’s designs and the Olympic Stadium is no exception. Originally covering a 24 ha site the different aspects of the complex mirrored each other, while the 4 towers on the roof of the stadium provide orientation around the 4 cardinal points.
View across the pitch to central auditorium, Royal Box and VIP seating with towers at the 4 cardinal points
The elevation of the stadium is the same as Angkor Wat’s and allowed the seats facing East to towards the river to see the Royal Palace. It was built up using the soil from the pools surrounding it, saving money on concrete and speeding up the construction process.
The National Stadium is now under threat and on the World Monument’s Fund watch list. Much of the original 24 ha has been sold for development, the original buildings demolished and construction has started on skyscrapers. There’s talk of a new Chinese funded national stadium on the outskirts of the city, which will increase the pressure to release what is now valuable land.
Phnom Penh can be overlooked in the rush to see the temples from Siem Reap but this Vann Molyvann focused architectural tour along with others concentrating on religious and colonial architecture are a good reason to extend your stay by a night or two.