The Dry Season Temple Hunting Jeep Safari
We travel in reverse chronological order starting with 2 temples from the Bayon period.
The Buddhist king Jayavarman VII (or JVII for short) crammed into his thirty year rule the largest building program ever undertaken during the Angkorian era. At the center of his empire was the city of Angkor Thom and his state temple the Bayon.
Not far from the North Gate of Angkor Thom, off a red earth road and down a sandy track is Prasat Chan Ta Oun, once upon a time a Buddhist monastery.
The central tower of Chan Ta Oun
A divine figure from Buddhist mythology
looking into the inner enclosure of Banteay Thom
Banteay Thom also close to Angkor Thom* is built on a larger scale and harder to find, which is part of it’s charm.
*Thom being the Khmer word for big and Prasat means temple
There are two laterite walls with a moat in between and an entrance from the East. The inner enclosure is surrounded by galleries that can still be entered but not recommended for arachnophobes.
The central towers of Banteay Thom
The three central towers that have been dug out for treasure are looked on by carvings of Buddha in his Bodhisvatta state of enlightenment.
Phum Char (or Char Village)
Small roads through stilted villages in countryside not much changed since the temples we visit were built. We’ll stop on our way to have a wander through and learn a little about what life is life in rural Cambodia.
We head back in time 200 years and along a red earth road to find Prasat Char (lit. temple of the palm tree) commissioned by Jayavarman V. There are clues as to its construction from the Sanskrit engravings in the stone doorframe.
An uncertain fate is said to befall the translator as a five-headed dragon awaits those who understand the meaning of these runes.
Another 200 years back in time and we’re swapping the Angkorians for the preceding Chenla period when the Hindu brick temple of Prasat Kok Po was first built. ‘The Island Temple’ appears just that, set on a rise and surrounded by a rainy season moat.
Prasat Kok Po
Restored by JIII in the 9th century as detailed in further Sanskrit engravings but this time with no dragons involved.
Spean Memay or Bridge of the mirror now crosses a dry field but once it lead from the North West corner of the close by West Baray, and headed to the Western borders of the Empire in Thailand.
The bridge 79 meters in length and made up of 29 arches built in the 12th century survived Typhoon Ketsana, which washed away many modern bridges in 2009.
From Spean Memay we drive up onto the banks of The 11th century West Baray, which at 8km long and 2km wide was until the industrial revolution the world’s largest entirely man made reservoir.
The West Baray
A permanent body of water that is still used to irrigate the rice fields to the South and Siem Reap’s beach resort. The traditional Sunday pass time for the family is to lie on a bamboo platform overlooking the water, drinking beer and gnawing BBQ’d chicken.
We’ll finish our temple hunting with a picnic lunch or a cold beer looking out across the water to the forests of Angkor behind.
A BeTreed Blog or The Adventures of BeTreed
BeTreed by myself in January 2017 (A BeTreed Adventure; https://indochineex.com/blog/a-betreed-adventure),
Then the Phnom Tnaut hike with Buntha and the boys. Hiking in the hills along snake trails and dodging trees while hanging from a zip-line.
And now retracing the forest paths to Preah Khan that we’d cycled with Laura and Ra.
Manus leading the group on the forest path to Preah Khan
This time with Manus, my partner. I want to see the forest, he said. Buntha and Sreymom, my colleagues and friends – also wanted to come, then Veasna Buntha’s wife and Pov, the van driver, what was he going to do while we were playing in the forest? And finally Mengly the chef, we had to eat so he was welcome.
BeTreed is a lodge that Ben and Sharyn built from fallen timber, where guests can stay (including the fabulous tree-house) to experience the 6000Ha of community forest that Ben is protecting with a few rangers. It’s in the middle of a fast contracting no-where that’s difficult to get to in the dry season and now the rain is here it’s nigh impossible, as we found out.
There’s not much time, said Ben. The waters coming, he added. It all seemed to be going so well. NR6 was clear and Stoung within easy reach of Siem Reap. The new red earth road North had actually been paved most of the way. No rain, no wrong turn through three provinces all the way to the Preah Khan Baray, though we shouldn’t have been at Preah Khan or its Baray.
It was at this point the rain did come. A gentle drizzle at first but before long the clouds were spewing great blobs. We rang Ben but that didn’t help much. I can’t understand what he says face to face but over the phone impossible. Go back to the main road, which main road? The one you were on. That didn’t help. I tried a different tack, which village should we head for? Ben speaks better Khmer that English so I gave the phone to Buntha and we seemed to be on the right road for Ta Bos Village. That’s what I asked!
Ben was waiting in the village with his new pickup truck from the Ministry. We’ve got to go. We threw five of our bikes plus enough food to last a month, which was probably how long we’d be there if it didn’t stop raining, into the back of the truck and set off along the dirt track. Pov was locking up his van and had to run, jump and was caught by Manus and Mengly.
A forest flower
Buntha and I cycled crazy into the rain fuzzed night after the diminishing tail lights scared we’d loose the way.
We thought the car had sunk under the first torrent we crossed just in time to see it emerging on the other side. Energized we followed along the forest track to BeTreed. Drainage ditch planked crossings, rocks and fallen logs we couldn’t see. The trees blanked out what little light there was. Spasmodic bursts of lightening lit up the dark. Where the road turned we carried on into the bush then made a wrong turn. What to do lost in the forest in torrential rain?
Eventually after retracing our route the welcome chaos of BeTreed beckoned and we climbed the steps.
Veasna and Buntha
Buntha and I made puddles, Pov hovered while Mengly directed Sremom, Veasna and Manus as they sliced and chopped their way through the ingredients of dinner, which was spread out across the table as a vast array of food. I made introductions to Ben, Buntha and Sreymom who work with me, etc. and Manus. The relentless rain just kept pouring. Only 5% chance of precipitation today according to the forecast but more like a hurricane’s hit us, said Ben.
That didn’t help as we made our way up the hill to the tree house along what was now a river. At ten meters high there was a fair chance that the water wouldn’t reach our platform but it was doing its best to get through the roof, which sounded like a kettledrum from exploding water drops and thrashing branches.
We must have slept when the rain stopped and woke to a sodden forest so saturated that many of the branches were broken.
Sreymom, Manus and Try our guide
The forest was lush, it almost wobbled as we cycled. Mud filled ruts caught our wheels and prevented pushing the pedals. A dripping landscape of infinite biodiversity, Manus and Mengly who were leading the way saw a family of pigs. Sreymom fainted and traded her bicycle for Try, our guide’s motorbike. He followed ready to push her out when she got stuck. Veasna harrumphed and Buntha waited for her.
We left the forest into an illegal chamkar or cashew nut clearing. After Ben and his team cut down the saplings the farmer sprayed it with a sabotage of Roundup in 2017. Despite this it was already sprouting the green precursor to a forest.
Manus the self declared best biker was near the front at least until he got indigestion from eating too much, which coupled with exhaustion from the day meant he was going to die that night.
Left to right; Buntha, Veasna, Pov, Try, Nick, Manus and Sreymom
The hard exercise scarcely dented Try our guide. Also Mengly our chef appeared unfazed. I was tired and aching but kept going.
Prasat Preah Steung, part of the Preah Khan complex of temples
Finally we reached Ta Siem, the gastronomic capitol of Preah Vihear and had a nice omelet and cold beer in the local restaurant, while a child watched War of the Worlds set against a muddy market.
Manus soaked in sweat after the ride
We cheated and sent Pov ahead to fetch his van so we could look out over the soaked countryside from the comfort of the aircon vehicle in contrast to a mud clogged mountain bike.
Ta Siem Village where we had lunch
We regrouped at Ta Bos Village only to be met by a lake on the other side where the day before there had been a river. There was a bridge that Ben had built with most of Ta Bos village but not the owner of the paddy field, which you had to go through to get to it. A push me pull you of gods and demons as good and evil see-saws back and forth. There is no good that cannot be bad and visa versa (see Churning of the Sea of Milk. https://indochineex.com/blog/churning-sea-milk).
The thugs that helped Ben build the bridge later wanted to burn down his house. The paddy field owner thought only about her field and not the rest of the village.
The ‘road’ from Ta Bos village to BeTreed that we’d driven the night before
That was the easy part. The next flood had no excuse. There hadn’t even been a river the day before. But still we had to wade through, floating our bicycles across then return for the motorbike. Unsurprisingly the engine like everything else was flooded so we sent for Ben and his tool.
After a ‘cup o tea’ and a blissful bath in that empty period before dinner when we should have been supping a cold beer, I asked Ben to tell the story of Ta Bos Village and the Rosewood Tree.
Dense slow growing trees with a rosy tint to the wood and incredibly valuable, there was one big one left. They tried to cut it down with a handsaw but it was too dense so they came back with a chainsaw. Ben found it the next day and placed his rangers around the fallen trunk to catch the loggers when they came back to collect.
A tree so valuable was such big news a timber merchant got to hear of it and offered Ben $100,000 if he could get it legally signed off by the MoE. The provincial governor and minister agreed that Ben could sell the tree and use the money to help the local community.
Carrying the motorbike across
Back to the gods and demons, the commune chief wanted it for himself so he whipped up the local thugs who surrounded BeTreed and threatened to burn it down with or without Ben’s family inside. Ben called the governor who sent an army of military police with guns, which scared the thugs. They burnt the forest as they left.
Give it to them, said the governor. The commune chief and his thugs got the tree, sold it for a fraction of what it was worth and kept the money. It’s a daily battle that Ben wins while he can pay the police but he’s running out of money, what next?
Molly the Pileated Gibbon
Too much! The table groaned under the weight of food, the team groaned with indigestion and Micky the three legged dog groaned with delight as copious left overs made their way onto the floor.
Manus the other gibbon
Palming a beer or two Manus and I left for the tree house, ten meters up amidst the forest canopy and now calm in the quiet evening after the crashing rain last night
The calm didn’t last as Manus woke me for the third time with a plaintiff plea for medicine. We traipsed down the hill past a poised pit viper to the lodge to get our first aid kit. Just give him Paracetamol said Ben when we woke him, which meant go away. Combined with Valium and Ibuprofen it was enough to make Manus pass out, snore all night and wake refreshed.
Breakfast was another enormous meal. Don’t eat too much. Can I cycle? No you were dying last night. Ben took those that didn’t want to ride and their bikes in his truck with the idea that he’d drop them off at the high tide’s edge. As fast as it had come up the water had receded so he drove through to the village.
I glowered at any young man who came into eyeshot and felt that no one gave a fuck about anyone else or anything. Like the emaciated dog that got caught under Ben’s truck and now lay in the middle of the road with its brains leaking out. Even Try who’d been my hero the last time I came now won’t work for Ben after he’s taken guests and got a tip.
I swallowed a big lump after Ben had dropped us off in Ta Bos village and said goodbye. The enormity of what he’s trying to achieve for people who don’t care struck home. Uncouth certainly but a hero who dedicates his life for what he believes in; conservation, biodiversity & beauty when the world seems set on greed, destruction and uniformity.
The Team at the East Entrance to Preah Khan including Mengly (2nd left)
Preah Khan -Kampong Svai (that’s where it is). We got here yesterday but were too tired to take in the temple. JVII’s first, he built it while amassing an army to oust the revolting Cham from Angkor. (read https://indochineex.com/blog/angkor/story-jayavarman-vii-told-temples)
Inside Preah Khan
Ta Prohm with its twisted tree roots and Beng Melea with its meandering boardwalks, are described as the jungle temples of Angkor but its Preah Khan that really feels like the forgotten forest temple.
A few structures remain relatively intact and there’s been some restoration or shoring up, but most of the complex is littered with carved blocks adorned by butterflies that damp morning.
It seemed too soon that Manus was calling for me to leave as the rest of the team waited by the van.
The other gibbon inside Preah Khan
And that was the end of the adventure or so we thought but not quite as we still had fifty meters of flooded road to cross, South of Ta Siem, pulled by a kroyun for 15,000R (~$4).
Just when we thought it was all over – heading South to Stoung
A flower to finish
Indochine Exploration is pleased to partner with and support BeTreed www.betreed.com with mountain bike and hiking adventures. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Churning of The Sea of Milk
The bas-reliefs on the walls of Angkor Wat are perhaps the pinnacle of Khmer Art. The carvings 2 meters high, stretch for a staggering 600 meters around the temple and depict scenes from the great Hindu stories, including the phantasmagorical if fundamental Churning of The Sea of Milk, which goes something like this;
The outer corridor alongside the Churning of the Sea of Milk
The Gods and Demons decided they had had enough fighting and it was looking like they were going to destroy the world so they went to Vishnu for advice.
Vishnu suggested they put all the medicine they could lay their hands on into the Sea of Milk to create the elixir of life that would bestow indestructibility amongst many other amazing things to whoever drank it, then have a big tug of war to see which lucky team got the joy juice.
Ravana an Assura (demon) with the head of Vasuki (snake king)
The recipe for Amrita as the elixir of life is known, goes something like this; take one ocean and churn thoroughly with a celestial blender until the ocean thickens, a thousand years is suggested. A good test of when you’re getting close is buxom Apsara or nymphs will start to evaporate from the seminal waters.
But what could they use for a blender. A rope that hundreds maybe thousands of hunky Demons and Gods could tug on and something to tug round was needed. The serpent that lived at the bottom of the ocean of course, actually he was Vasuki king of the snakes and Mount Mandara.
Buxom nymphs or Apsara arising out of the seminal fluid in anticipation of amrita
The Demons got the head* and the Gods the tail and they tugged for a thousand celestial years (which is a very long time), round the mountain in the middle of the ocean.
*Read on to find out why Vishnu tricky as ever and it has to be said a little biased in favor of the Gods had advised them to take the tail end and leave the head to the demons.
They tugged so hard that the mountain sank. Vishnu in his second reincarnation (there were ten in total) came to the rescue as a convenient and rather large tortoise lifting up the mountain on his back.
Vishnu sitting on his avatar (reincarnation) the Turtle encouraging the tugging Divas (Gods)
Meanwhile Vasuki, the king of snakes was getting pretty fed up of being tugged by hunky Gods and Demons for a thousand celestial years. Exhausted he sprayed the Demons (since they’d got the head) with halahala that was definitely not going to bring joy to the juice, there was also the small matter of destroying creation.
Shiva to the rescue, he sucked up the halahala thus saving creation and the rather wingy Gods but in the process got a sore throat and turned blue. His wife Parvati was so alarmed that she used Shiva’s chariot to dig a lake, which cooled his throat.
Anyway that’s about the end of the story. It seems in the end everyone was happy and there was enough joy juice to go round. The Gods got lots of divine nymphs while the demons got the grumpy goddess Varuni, who had a bit too much halahala. Vishnu got a new wife Lakshmi and Shiva, now recovered got a moon to wear on his head.
All the creatures of the ocean getting churned in the Sea of Milk
Another ending to these celestial shenanigans was that as the thousand years stated in the recipe were up and the ocean turned into the elixir of life. There was much singing and dancing. Apsaras flew up from the waters and white elephants trumpeting the occasion also had a go at flying.
The Gods, Demons and cosmic blender, Vasuki had done their job turning the ocean into joy juice now born in an urn by a heavenly physician. Quick as flash the demons grabbed the urn from the Doctor’s arms and were about to drink when the most beautiful girl in the world appeared.
Hanuman, the monkey god making sure the Divas keep tugging
Will you give me anything I want? She pouted her lips and thrust out her bosom, anything, anything, they cried. Will you give me your joy juice? We will we will, they sighed exhausted. Snatching the moment the beautiful girl, actually Vishnu, gathered up the elixir of life and scarpered over to the Gods, who rubbed whatever Gods rub in anticipation of their impending transformation. They were already Gods so I’m not sure what they were getting transformed into but they were very happy.
This ‘story’ doesn’t end there because the Demon Rahu, who knew what a tricky character Vishnu was, that is if you were a demon. Had managed to get a quick slurp of the amrita but not before he’d been spotted by the sun and moon who told Vishnu what he was doing. Vishnu now back in his chiseled form cast his discus to cut off Rahu’s head. Rahu had managed to get in a quick sip but hadn’t swallowed yet so while his head was impervious to the oiled God’s manly manipulation of his orb, Rahu’s body died.
Not one to forget a grudge Rahu or his head had it in for the Sun and Moon and plunged the world into darkness but his bark was worse than his bite so the Sun and Moon laughed at him and moved out of eclipse.
The rise and fall of the Angkorian Empire, which lasted nearly 600 years from the 9thto the 14th century, was centered in what is now Siem Reap Province, around its greatest religious monument Angkor Wat. The metropolis of Angkor comprising nearly a million people covered a thousand square kilometers servicing what remained the largest city in the world until London eclipsed it seven hundred years later.
Angkor Thom Moat, one of the great waterways that maintained ground water below the temple and prevented subsidence
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 bringing food security in the form of rice and flood mitigation during the monsoon.
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 subsidence (as well as looking pretty).
Runta Dev, the tunnel under the 8m high walls of Angkor Thom that channeled waste-water out of the city into the moat
Just as water was the key to the empire’s success it is now thought to be instrumental in its decline. Not long after the death of the great king JVII in 1218 the kingdom was hit with a double whammy. First 30 years of drought followed by exceptional floods, which washed away the elaborate and sophisticated water management system that JVII in particular had built.
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. His excellency Hang Peou now Director General of Apsara, the authority responsible for managing the UNESCO world heritage site, 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. And maintaining the ground water levels that prevent subsidence of the temples.
Peou 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.
Peou and Jady with Buntha contemplating our adventure
And so it was one Monday morning that Peou, then Director of Water Management at Apsara, facilitated by Jady, a consultant working with Apsara together with Buntha and myself kayaked through the heart of the Angkor Park. Jady and I had previously recce’d Peou’s canal so this time we didn’t get lost and anyway Peou knew the way, but – we hadn’t followed the river as it heads South to the city.
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*.
*Evidence of the destruction of JVII’s waterworks as floods washed away his canals and gouged deep scars through Angkor.
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.
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 Peou and Jady’s vehicles.
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.
Spain May 2019
Panic on the M23, it was shut, Gatwick terminals are panic at the best of times. The plane left on time for my cycling adventure / Spanish sojourn. Pink Prosecco fueled the flight, the stuff of 3rd division footballers wives. Premier league would drink Crystal.
Twenty minutes early but an hour later and no sign of a taxi, certainly not the one I’d booked. I discarded the bike box and managed to load the frame, saddle, two wheels, panniers etc. into the back of an estate car. The driver bit his nails while looking over his shoulder, which wasn’t exactly soothing around midnight. I was even more nervous when he communicated that my hostel was in the middle of Bilbao’s old town, a pedestrian zone. As it turned out only few hundred meters from where he dropped me but it could have been the other side of the moon as I staggered with the above constituents of a bicycle, to my room for the night. Half an hour later I was installed in a shoebox listening to Desert Island disks drinking whisky and restoring sanity.
The Mozart Bar in Miranda de Ebro was busy. Wine was randomly splashed in the direction of customer’s glasses. A flux of townsfolk surged and ebbed as they stopped off on route for lunch. A table of local ladies drinking Cinzano were set for the afternoon.
Miranda de Ebro Station
I munched my tapas then went to catch the train pretty much where I came from except a little further North. San Sebastián is only 70km along the coast from Bilbao but no train line has managed to bore through the mountains direct so we came inland then headed back again.
At the far end of San Sebastián or most distant from the railway station was my hosts apartment block. An ugly building but once you were inside that became irrelevant as you looked back over the bay from my verandah. Nice hosts recommended a bar adjoining a concrete square. Delicious food, I went the next night as well.
San Sebastian Bay from my apartment block (below). The facade and interior (next page) of The Church of Saint Mary in the old town
Sodden Sebastián and no strangers at the bar, The Church of Saint Mary and the start of the Santiago de Compostella Pilgrimage from the woods behind the apartment block.
From verdant mountains sheathed in mist and showered with rain to the Atlantic foaming gently on the sandy beach for the benefit of the San Sebastianites. I made my way to the old town and the Church of Saint Mary. A stunning façade and vaulted interior led to crypts with gory religious memorabilia.
As the clouds parted I climbed the hillside behind the apartment block to the start of the pilgrimage trail.
I left my gentle hosts the next day to the the barks of their soppy dog waking up the household at 6am and cycled through the sleepy town. A few people going to work and kids emerging out of nightclubs at daybreak.
No bike the conductress told me. Ok I take the wheels off. It had worked from Bilbao, not so easy here. She eyed me suspiciously and wagged her finger when the saddle still stuck out of the luggage rack. Ok I take the seat off and invited her back to check, grudging acceptance until the process was repeated with a more officious conductress. The train effortlessly pulled out of the station and I and my bike were still on board.
We slowly snaked our way through valleys and under hills cloaked by beech and oak. The first couple of hours were so slow that I was wondering if we’d make it to the other side of Spain and Barcelona. The hills gave way to dusty plains and wind blown balls of scrub rolling across the semi desert like the setting for a spaghetti western. A few scratched fields waited patiently for rain, towns in the middle of nowhere.
Storks peered out of their untidy nests built on chimney tops and pillars beside the railway tracks. We reached Zaragoza, the center of nowhere then the train sped up.
The café bar on the Alvina cross country RENFE semi-high speed train was alive and had the same effect on my sleep deprived self. A beer, a dried ham sandwich and happily back in my seat I watched Spain roll by. Barcelona was just round the corner.
‘You’re very lucky,’ said the German proprietor of the third floor hostel, set in an elegant town house. And I suppose I was with a big spacious room lit by shuttered windows opening onto a balcony ledge above the street below. And as a special favor, since I was so lucky, I could keep my bike in the room. My phenomenal good luck was a little overwhelming.
Like a demon possessed I set upon Barcelona to find a bike box – unsuccessful, the Reich kinder boy dismissed my request as absurd. I found another bike shop – warm, call on Monday. A gym, the gym that I went to when I was staying with Tom in what I reminisced to be a remarkably nice apartment. The bars and restaurants we went to around Avenue Parallel. I’m probably going to have to wrap the Trek – my bike, in a Sargasso Sea swirl of plastic to get it on the plane – Plan B.
Showered and clean I headed back to Av Parallel from my incredibly lucky hostel but didn’t make it and had dinner at a formulaic Spanish restaurant on the main road. It was still good.
Bilbao, San Sebastián and Barcelona connected by RENFE great but my stressed itinerary induced paranoia and in turn blotched skin. The distance flies with the gradient but against one kilometer is worth three and this afternoon’s cycle traversed a thousand meters from the station at Ripoll to Borredà Village. A biting wind blew head on as I turned right and North to the mountains and their snow capped peaks.
Species extinction was headline news as we rush headfirst into environmental Armageddon but not here – yet. Within minutes of leaving the main Ripoll road I heard a cuckoo, now absent from Sussex and as the forest closed in and the countryside descended so the stress departed.
View up the valley from Borreda (It’s pretty countryside)
A sigh of relief when I got here, that is El Querol Vell a fourteenth century farmhouse in Borredà where I’m staying for the next five days.
The towns seem closed for a lot of the time, their inhabitants guts tuned two hours later than mine. So I’m having tea now I’ve got some when I want dinner, which is at 8.30 or what feels like a midnight feast. Breakfast is 12 hours later at 8.30am and that took some negotiating. Signor El Querol of the same name except as I later found out it was Ignacio, and I became buddies excepting a slight misunderstanding over temperatures. I suggested it was a little above freezing as recorded and shown on the internet, that’s the next valley, the one not supporting Catalan independence I expect.
There’s a box circuit from Borredà to Berga then La Pobla de Lillet where Tom, David and I came off the Haute Pyranees at 1800 meters last year. I remembered the two self-congratulatory beers that were the killer as we had to climb back up again over the fifteen hundred meter pass to get to Sant Jaume de Frontanya and on to Borreda.
This time I stopped to pay respects to the 11th century church that lit up when I stuck a Euro in the slot. Despite this it was a spiritual place; the thousand year old chapel surrounded by a little hamlet and a friendly dog.
Gentian on the roadside & Sant Jaume de Frontanya
Berga wasn’t in the slightest bit spiritual my first stop on the box circuit but I found some tea. On route was the Embarasment of Balls ok a clumsy slapstick for ?? (Read on) that I rode across to get to Berga. Past Berga I was on B-roads, which allowed for a little wobble when I was looking at the new growth bursting out of the trees.
One place seems to stay open in Catalonia and that’s the bar by the church in the center of the village (Borredà). Anywhere else that one might purloin a service from has only a brief window in their daily calendar allowing the customer the privilege of purchase.
The central bar has a supermarket though the lights have to be turned on from behind the bar and a hardware store but I made do with a couple of Estralla’s, the Spanish beer. Still it wasn’t time for dinner so I watched CNN debating facial recognition in China AKA Huwaei.
Exerting exercise or exercise exertions. Not much sweat in this dry chill environment so soothed and calm if a little extended, restored by being here but eventually dinner is served. What can I do when I’m exhausted? Read a book. I am but it’s disturbing and provocative. Adam should be the dream companion; hunky, beautiful, programmed for sex, biddable but is he? A robot, but when the main character try’s to turn him off Adam breaks his wrist. Way more complex with many issues examined but central to the story is what do we want and when we get it what are the consequences.
I walked through mixed pine-woods along the GR4 long distance footpath, which continues to the French side of the Pyranees. The countryside rang with the sound of birds. Species long declined in the UK. Apart from the sound of cuckoos and the crested tit I saw yesterday, a treecreeper and an eagle, its brown plumage was a disguise, like a cloak over its shoulder.
An 11th century chapel, Saint Sadurni de Rotges. In the middle of nowhere like Saint Jaume yesterday but also still used.
Terraces where once there was agriculture, now glades of trees. Wire fences hung with signs warning Reserva de Caca’s, no hunting I understood. My hackles rose but it gives this mainly or recently unspoilt landscape a purpose and belongs to someone, so it has a chance of preservation. Huge cement works on the way to Guadiole with a fantasy castle for the owner, like the Brecon Beacons in Wales now depopulated and reverting back to nature. And everywhere the yellow flags for Catalan independence.
True to form Vilada was shut. Visions of a non-sandwich lunch faded as the village came to an end with no apparent restaurant but there was a bar. And a little supermarket so lunch was grapes, chocolate and beer more than made up for by the view over the town from the top of the hill.
Saint Sadurni de Rotges
Walk tall like a lobster. Some bizarre story David, my brother had told me from a self-help book no doubt designed to make him rich. Lobsters don’t walk they sort of scuttle, not helped by having disproportionately large claws get in the way. I think it meant stand up straight so I shrugged the fatigue from my shoulders and strode into town.
Trains, buses, roads, electricity though we had a power cut, sportive zona industriel all thrown at the Catalans as a sop but it sort of makes it worse. Judging from very brief and ill informed observations that maybe this is not the most broad minded or educated region. It feels like everyone’s each other’s cousin when you walk in a bar.
There’s a village not far from Berga called Baga so when you see a sign pointing towards Baga Berga you wonder if anyone has a sense of humor.
A Swallowtail butterfly
I was getting close, the man in the bike shop in Berga found a bike bag – on his computer, that’s what you want, he stated proudly, Yes I said ruefully. I called the Aryan nation AKA Barcelona bike shop, who said they had a consignment of bikes being delivered so would have a bike box, when?
A piece of piss, I thought bathed in the arrogance of my recently returned cycling fitness as I spun my way basically down hill to the Emballisment de Baels (see before). There’s a little bit of hill into Berga but then it’s a big road beside the reservoir to where I was going to turn off on D roads to La Nou.
Emballisment de Baels
The road up to the Village of La Nou was steep, not for very long but on a par with the pass to St Juan so I admired the old guy (older than me!) with calves like wire hausers powering up the hill. His face was grimaced in what appeared to be agony so I couldn’t imagine he was enjoying himself but then maybe I look like that.
Of course today when I bought my picnic in Berga to have in the mountains of Nou (La Nou de Bergueda) each bar I went into on route, two in fact, appeared to offer delicious things for lunch and my picnic was anything but; a mango rotten in the middle, a bottle of vinaigrette purporting to be rose, flannel bread and a tasteless tomato. There was some quite nice cheese.
The Church at La Nou
I had my compromised lunch with a massively muscled bull, whispering sweet nothings in the ears of his bell clad cows in an alpine meadow. I know she’s pretty but your clang is more alluring he snorted at another bovine beauty.
In the mountains of Nou with my Trek
Grhcargh very fast, that’s how Catalan sounds when the boys in the big boots talk in the bar, which filled a little of the yawning gap of time between what was reasonable for exercise and finally dinner. In between Estrella’s I thought about the silver ring that I wear. It’s silver because I’ve got a silver relationship, beautiful but not as good as gold. I was thinking about bringing Manus here – as in Spain. We’d have to sort out food, rice especially but the countryside and El Querol, Laor Na! (Very good in Khmer).
Borreda and its history on a mural in the centre of the village
Talking of which, or not, Ignacio formerly known as El Querol is triggering my nascent French, not that there’s much nascent-cy but its better than a complete absence of Spanish.
A one hundred kilometer circuit South of Borredà and Berga. I came here to enjoy not endure I told myself but looked wistfully at the map and wondered how hard it actually was, so set off the next day.
The twenty four kilometers of small D road between Borreda and where it emerged onto the C road, was one of the prettiest routes I’ve ever cycled running beside the Riera de Merles. Wasted as it was nearly all downhill, so over in an hour. I could have stopped.
You could see a gradation of rainfall in the thickness and height of the forest from where I started to where I turned West onto the main road. It was a hard slog broken when I headed up to the little village of Orvan. The best cold coffee I’d had, it was supposed to be hot. A steep hill before the Berga Valley, a deer leaped in the fields beside the road.
Ignacio was telling me about the depopulation of the Pyranees and you can see it in the now forested terraces and abandoned cement works. Great for tourists or so you’d think except that Spanish tourists apparently care more about cost. It’s not cheap to offer a service in an area where there aren’t many, so maybe the caca is a blessing.
I stopped at a bar and watched a pair of Collared Doves, who while very pretty were not very good at building a nest. The male’s job was finished when he put a twig on the females back. She looked at him as if to say, what did you do that for and the twig fell on the ground. He flew down picked it up and took it back to her. Ok you want me to put it in our nest and she made an effort to incorporate it into the untidy pile of twigs she’d assembled. The egg when it does come is going to give the bar’s customers below an unexpected omelet.
I had a proper lunch in Berga. Paella to start, skate with ratatouille and a tart half way between crème caramel and cheesecake with a bottle of wine and coffee for eleven Euros. Meanwhile I wistfully noticed that Catalans have a healthy disregard for the bodywork of their vehicles, most were scraped or dented.
Enterprise obviously hadn’t made it to this part of Spain yet, I thought as I checked in for my hired car at Gatwick a few days later. This is a different lifestyle and makes Berga for all of its ennui a worthy place. I pushed my bike along small alleyways around the old church and up to the hospital to where I’d been yesterday to avoid the Tunnel de Berga.
Back in Borreda the boys in the bar were gobbling like turkeys as they talked in Catalan when I went for a last beer.
Cuckoos trumpeted my departure, a concerto scored for all participating songbirds. I remembered the route as downhill all the way. I try hard to maintain a healthy pessimism in my approach to life but my mind gave me away. The first four kilometers were straight up and it wasn’t until the last ten that the gradient shifted. The bursting woods, birdsong, roadside flowers and hills gave this last ride an edge of sadness as I was leaving this beautiful place, Ignacio, El Querol, Borreda. After five days I needed someone to have dinner with but I’d found peace there.
HYDROLOGY MADE SEXY
Angkor is an amazing place. You cannot fail to be impressed even stunned by the grandeur, detail and scale of the monuments. The true wonder of the Angkorian Empire and what it had achieved only started to dawn on me in the last few years. It was when the findings of the Lidar survey were published that I grasped the extent of what was one of the world’s greatest civilisations.
Lidar in layman terms emits an electromagnetic pulse – a laser that is strapped to a helicopter and fired as it passes over the ground to be surveyed. The reflected light is fed through software that strips away the vegetation to reveal the topography and previously unidentified structures.
The results are phenomenal! Phnom Kulen had a city on top. Angkor Thom was laid out in a grid of roads and canals framing wooden houses and their trapaeng or pools. There were thousands of temples not hundreds, and it was all made possible by the management of water in a climate where at the best of times 6 months of rain is followed by 6 months of drought.
I also began to realise that many of our cycle routes, hiking trails and even kayaking adventures followed these ancient waterways. I’d heard Roland Fletcher give fascinating talks at the Amansara Resort and on the banks of the West Baray. It wasn’t until Damian Evans (also from Sydney University) spoke to the guides I was managing that I knew he could tell us what we needed to understand Angkor.
The Water Connection
Boeung Ta Neue – our Secret Lake where we kayak, was an Angkorian reservoir formed by an extension of the North Wall of the East Baray, a much larger reservoir connected with the Angkorian cities of Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom. Boeung Ta Neue caught the rain run off from the
Kulen Hills to the North, which fed the Baray and in turn the conurbations of Angkor.
Kayaking on Boeung Ta Neue Angkorian Reservoir (Secret Lake)
Nearby where the Baray finishes and the wall extension starts, is the 7 arched Spean Tor Bridge. Clearly visible by kayak from the water, we managed to reach it through the bush from the red earth road where Damian* had parked.
*Damian Evans archeologist working for Sydney University
We searched on the Baray side of the road for an exit but with none to be seen we couldn’t work out the purpose of the bridge though to be sure a thousand years ago it had one.
Spean Toh Bridge (named after the nearby temple Prasat Toh
The main water flow into and out of the East Baray was through Kral Romeas, a sluice built into the banks of the East Wall. Cycling and hiking through Phum Samre, the village that lines the walls I’d noticed large laterite blocks and dismissed them as scattered from some Angkorian ruin, which they were. Closer inspection revealed 1 large thick wall and 30 metres away another running parallel forming two sides of the sluice. The raised ground in front of us was a laterite weir. Kral Romeas depending on time of year and water level, acted as an inlet and outlet to the East Baray and may have been connected by another laterite wall running parallel with the East Bank, to Boeung Ta Neue via Spean Toh.
An outlet has also been discovered opposite in the West Bank of the Baray, which fed into the Ta Prohm moat and then onto Angkor Thom. The East Baray at 14 square kilometers, 7km long and 2km wide would have supplied water to the two cities of Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom as well as the houses in between. It would also have been used for irrigation.
Damian explained the scale by comparing the East with the West Baray of similar size containing 50 million litre3 in the West Baray which provided irrigation for 5000 ha of rice, perhaps 10,000 tonnes for each crop. Feeding a population of hundreds of thousands of priests, the aristocracy and merchants who lived in and around these temple cities.
The West Baray at the end of the rainy season
It was also unlikely that the 3 great water reservoirs of the West, East and North Barays were in simultaneous use but acted as a stabilising backup during times of drought and flood.
The scale of these man made hydraulics are unparalleled in human history and truly mind-boggling. The 3 spatial dimensions have to be combined with a 4th chronological dimension as the kings and climate changed over time. History seems to have been determined as much by the weather as the peaks in the empire. First during the reign of Suryavarman II in the 12th century then under Jayavarman VII in the 13th century, which coincided with the peaks in rainfall we saw from the ancient records on Damian’s computer screen and heralded the construction of the great temples of Angkor.
It is now suggested that the ultimate decline of Angkor was linked to periods of extreme drought followed by floods, which washed away the channels needed to supply water during the dry season. This is most clearly seen at Spean Thmor between Ta Keo and Angkor Thom where the old bridge lies high up the banks of the river now running meters below.
An as yet unexplained mystery is the adjacent 10 x 10 grid of a 100 mounds a few hundred meters from Prasat Toh. Similar grids have been found beside the ‘River of a Thousand Linga’s’ at Kbal Spean and Sambor Prei Kup near Kampong Thom, both associated with major water systems. No artifacts or remains have been found at either site that give any clues as to what the mounds are.
Walking through the site with Damian we spotted fragments of curved roof tiles in a papaya plantation that in an act of unintended vandalism, has been planted right over the mounds.
Most of what is known about Prasat Toh comes from a 4 sided stele (a stone pillar with carved enscriptions) discovered by the French in the 1930’s and now stored in The Angkor Centre for Conservation in Siem Reap. The Sanskrit engravings were translated and available on line. They explained that the stele had been installed by a Brahmin priest during the 13th century and referred to the Great King Jayavarman VII. The inscription mentions the Ganges River in association with water, which may have had something to do with the Kral Romeas sluice and was the same as an inscription found at Phnom Dai temple to the North, the site of another grid of mounds. The temple itself appears to predate the stele and is maybe contemporary with the 10th century East Baray.
Prasat Toh and its 3 laterite towers situated near the North West corner of the East Baray
Randomly cast on the ground were the now eroded but once richly carved sandstone blocks that had adorned the structure including the stone crown that sat atop the central tower. Interestingly it had a hole in the middle, where a bronze finial in the form of a trident could have been positioned. Possibly removed at certain auspicious times of the year to bathe the Goddess Shiva sitting 15 meters below in sunlight.
Set amongst brilliant green paddy fields on the other side of Beoung Ta Neue is Leak Neang or Hidden Lady Temple. Dated to the 10th century and built at the same time as the spectacular brick temple of Preah Rup. A stele, which may give some clues to its origins has transferred to the Angkor Conservation for translation.
Leak Neang with its single brick tower
The bricks used in the construction of the structure are themselves a mystery as no kiln has ever been found. A theory speculates that the bricks were fired in a dedicated kiln close to the temples made of bricks, which were also used. The apparent black scorching seen on the walls seemed to support this idea.
Not only was this masterly management of water used to supply The Angkorians and irrigate their crops, it also conveyed the enormous amount of stone required to build the temples. Laterite is an iron rich clay that is soft and easy to dress into blocks when it comes out of the ground. On exposure to the sun it becomes very hard but relatively light making it ideal for the foundations but not the decoration as its pock-marked surface is not easily carved. The laterite quarries lay in the hills to the North West. Dams collected water from streams which was released into the Great North Channel that carried the stone blocks South to the North Baray from where they were used in the construction of Angkor.
At the Eastern end of the Kulen escarpment were quarries that supplied the sandstone, which was carved into the marvelous facades of the temples. As part of this network another channel ran from Beng Melea near the Eastern Kulen escarpment, past the Temples of Banteay Ampil and Chau Srey Vibol to Prasat Batchum inside Angkor Park. A path still connects these sites and makes for a great cycle ride.
We were beginning to get a handle on the Eastern end of the water connection, now it was time to explore the West. The Siem Reap River flows South from the Kulen Hills to the city and then onto the Tonle Sap Great Lake but during Angkor it was diverted into the North East corner of the Angkor Thom Moat. History is being repeated as subsequent to the floods of 2011 the channels have been reopened and another dug in parallel on the North side of the moat as the river is diverted into the West Baray with the aim of stopping the floods in Siem Reap. The fact that now the town of Puok to the West floods instead is not part of the discussion – tourists don’t go there.
Angkor Thom the largest of all the Angkorian Cities, was the capitol under Jayavarman VII. its wall’s 3km long enclose 900 hectares or 9 km2. Now forested but once the site of a thriving metropolis of wooden houses and trapeang (pools), surrounded by a grid of canals and roads as the Lidar survey revealed.
View over the moat from the walls at the S.E corner of Angkor Thom
The data was detailed enough to show the individual houses, which can be extrapolated to give a guessed population of 70,000 based on an assumed family size. This would need a lot of water but during the rainy season any excess flowed out of Boeung Thom reservoir in the South West of Angkor Thom and through Runta Dev a canal that runs under the walls of the city into the moat. We’ve got a stunning cycle route that runs along the 8m high walls of Angkor Thom to Prasat Chrung or corner temple. A great late afternoon spot for watching the sun set over the moat, paddy fields and palm trees beyond. We didn’t realise the engineering marvel that lay 8 meters below us until Damian lead us down the inner banks to a stream that on closer inspection disappeared into a laterite tunnel under the walls and out to the glinting light of the moat 30m away.
The West Baray 500m to the West is yet another mystery. How was this vast body of water replenished and released during times of flood? The current outlet of the Angkor Thom moat is a canal running parallel with the road through the West Gate dug by the French, which destroyed any trace of what was there before. It is possible it was a replacement otherwise how did 50 million litres of water get into The Baray?
Runta Dev runs under the walls of Angkor Thom
What had we learnt that morning?
We understood that water running off the Kulen Hills to the North fed streams, which flowed into the reservoir of Beoung Ta Neue in turn feeding the East Baray, which was a water supply for the population of Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.
Damian confirmed that our cycling path to Chau Srei Vibol and on to Banteay Ampil, lay along the route a canal had taken bringing sandstone from the quarries at the Eastern end of the Kulen escarpment via Beng Melea to Angkor.
He explained how the laterite blocks used to build the foundations of the Jayavarman VII temples were carried by water released into the Great North Canal which flowed from the quarries at the Western End of the Kulen Hills to the North Baray and father temple of Preah Khan.
And the Western hydrological connection was made by the Siem Reap River coming from the Western end of Kulen flowing into the Angkor Thom moat and maybe on into the West Baray.
And much else besides!
With great thanks to Damian Evans for a really fascinating morning and apologies for any misinterpretations.
Indochine Exploration with Smiling Albino Cambodia is pleased to take our guests on a introductory investigation of the main temples along the water courses described or an adventure to experience this incredible landscape on foot, by bicycle or kayaking.