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 achieved has only started to dawn on me in the last few years. It was when the findings of the Lidar survey surfaced that I grasped the extent of what was one of the world’s greatest civilisations.
Lidar in layman terms emits an electromagnetic pulse i.e. 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 the software that strips away the vegetation to show the topography and reveal previously unidentifiable 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 Amansara and on the banks of the West Baray. It wasn’t until Damian Evans (also from Sydney University) spoke to the guides 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 or lake 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 Lake Ta Neue
Nearby the corner of the East Baray, where we discovered a wall separating the Baray from Lake Ta Neue, is the 7 arched Spean Tor Bridge. Clearly visible by kayak from the water, we managed to reach it through the bush. We searched on the Baray side for a connection with Lake Ta Neue but none was 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 Tor Bridge
The main water flow in 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 stone blocks. Closer inspection revealed 1 large thick wall and 30 metres away another running parallel. These formed the sides of the sluice, the raised ground in front of us was a laterite weir. Kral Romeas acted over time 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 Lake Ta Neue via the bridge Spean Tor.
An outlet has also been discovered opposite in the West Bank at the far end of the Baray, which provided water for the wooden houses between Angkor Thom and fed into the Ta Prohm moat. 7km long and 2km wide the Baray seems to have been a huge body of water to supply what appeared as a compact area of habitation but it would also have been used for irrigation.
Damian put this into context by working out that the 50 million litre3 in the West Baray reservoir of similar size to the East Baray, could provide irrigation for 5000 ha of rice, perhaps 10,000 tonnes for each crop. The rice fed a population of hundreds of thousands of priests, the aristocracy and merchants who lived in and around the ancient 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 safe-guard for times of drought and flood.
The scale of these man made hydraulics are unparalleled in human history and mind-boggling. To truly understand you have to think about the 3 spatial dimensions in combination with a 4th dimension – time, the chronology of the kings and climate. History seems to have been determined by the weather as the peaks in the empire, first during the reign of Suryavarman II in the 12th century and second under Jayavarman VII in the 13th century coincided with the peaks in rainfall we saw from the ancient records on Damian’s computer screen.
The ultimate decline of Angkor was also linked to periods of extreme drought followed by flood years, which washed away this finely tuned hydrological infrastruture needed to supply water during the dry season and get rid of it during the flood. This is most clearly seen at Spean Thmor near Angkor Thom where the old bridge lies high up the banks of the Siem Reap River, which now runs meters below.
Prasat Tor (prasat meaning temple) and Troung Chruk (pigs temple) it’s ruined sister temple to the South lie between Lake Ta Neue and the East Baray next to an unexplained mystery, a 10 x 10 grid of a 100 mounds.
Prasat Tor and it’s 3 laterite towers
Similar grids have been found beside the River of a Thousand Linga’s, Kbal Spean at the West end of Phnom Kulen and Sambor Prei Kup near the modern day city of Kampong Thom, both associated with major water systems. No artifacts or remains have been unearthed to help solve the mystery of what the mounds are.
Walking across where the grids were revealed by Lidar, 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, which may help solve the mystery.
Most of what is known about Prasat Tor 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. The Sanskrit engravings were translated and available on line, which Damian translated for us in his office that morning. The stele had been installed by a Brahmin priest during the 13th century referring 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, also the site of another grid of mounds. The temple itself appears to predate the stele and may have been built at the same time as the 10th century East Baray.
Randomly cast on the ground around Prasat Tor were the now eroded but once richly carved blocks that 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.
Now set amongst brilliant green paddy fields in November, on the other side of Lake Ta Neue is Leak Neang Temple dated to the 10th century. A stele has recently been removed from the site to the Angkor Conservation but has yet to be translated.
Leak Neang with its single brick tower
The bricks themselves are another mystery as no kiln has ever been found. A theory speculates that the bricks were fired close to the temples then used in it’s construction. 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 was 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 West. Dams collected water from streams, which was released into the Great North Channel that carried the stone blocks South to Angkor.
At the Eastern end of the Kulen escarpment were quarries that supplied sandstone, which was carved into the marvelous facades of the temples.
A channel ran from Beng Melea past the Temples of Banteay Ampil and Chau Srey Vibol to Prasat Batchum inside Angkor. A path still connects these sites and makes for a great cycle ride with temple stops for sustenance heading East to the Tamarind Temple – Banteay Ampil.
We were beginning to get a handle on the Eastern end of the water connection, now it was time to explore the Western end. The Siem Reap River flows South from the Kulen Hills to the 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 was Jayavarman VII’s and his 2 wives, city. The largest of all the Angkorian Cities its wall’s 3km long enclose 9 km2, which is now mainly forest but once housed a thriving metropolis of wooden houses and their trapeang, 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 the city and through Runta Dev a canal that runs under the city walls into the Angkor Thom moat. We’ve got a stunning cycle route that runs along the 8m high walls of Angkor Thom to Prasat Chrung or corner temple – there’s one at each corner. 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 8m 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 one more 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 / lake 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 used to build the foundations of the J VII temples were carried by water released into the Great North canal which flowed to the North Baray and Preah Khan.
And the Western hydrological connection was made by the Siem Reap River coming from the Western end of Kulen flowing South 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.
A Kulen Mountain Bike Temple Odyssey
Phnom Kulen lit Kulen Mountain or Mountain of The Lychees is our mountain bike playground, bisected by the Kulen super highway (in fact a red earth road), which climbs the mountain at the Western end. Runs to the central tourist village of Preah Ang Thom and continues to the Eastern escarpment above the town of Svay Leu. It’s crisscrossed by routes across the rocky plateau, forest paths shaded by canopy 10 meters above, sandy tracks that turn instantly to mud whenever it rains and dry trails through the cashew nut plantations.
The plateau was isolated until the end of last century. Floating 500 meters above the Siem Reap plains and still harboring remnants of Khmer Rouge in what must have been thick forest across the 40,000 hectares of hills.
And you’ve got JII (Jayavarman II) and his God delusion that lead to the whole Angkorian business, which inevitably meant a lot of temples that over the centuries got overtaken by jungle.
We follow the main road from Siem Reap to Banteay Srei Temple past the palm sugar sellers who line the way. I admire their optimism of demand for palm sugar. We climb the escarpment and enter a cool green filtered light as trees close branches above the red earth road and shut out the dusty badlands we’ve left behind.
It all started 1200 years ago in the river, where JII crowned himself emperor of the world, as they knew it then. To mark the spot he left a ..
Symbolic phallic symbols carved into the riverbed to ensure the fertility of his reign – and lots of fish. And this being a good Hindu empire the images of Shiva and Vishnu can be made out beneath the glassy waters. A new bridge spans the Kulen River, its easy to miss this magical link to the past – unless you know its there.
A little further and we arrive at a causeway leading up a hill to the Reclining Buddha. A skyscraper size boulder fashioned into an enormous Buddha. A Khmer pilgrimage site where merit is obtained by stuffing 100 riel notes into every stone orifice.
The reclining Buddha at Preah Ang Thom
The Ministry of Environment Station is the start for our adventures accompanied by a wired together moto that mechanically shouldn’t work anymore. Mr Pum or whichever ranger is with us for the day has precariously strapped our cool box to his seat and we set off in search of adventure.
The Silver Langur forest butts up to the village. This is where these rare monkeys thought to be gone were rediscovered in 2013. The biggest trees on the mountain still penetrate the canopy, sometimes supporting chicken wing beehives hanging from the top most branches.
Squirrels bark and occasionally when the Kulen fruit are falling from the trees we spot a Silver Langur. Always spiders, great black and yellow shelobs spin their webs across our paths waiting to catch a tourist.
I feel for the precarious existence of the little red males clinging to the furthermost silken threads of the web.
Silver Langur on Mushroom Rock and Golden Orb Spider
We have trails that climb up to Chomran’s hole, nothing personal just an unusual rock formation containing a Buddhist shrine that Chomran climbs into. And descend through a bat-cave to the Kulen River, where we have lunch.
Chomran & his hole and the Bat-cave with a tomb bat
Today we’re slip-sliding through sand on route for Porpel Village and on to Phum Kla Kmum Village for our first temple. It’s a head over handle bar rutted oxcart trail that sort of dwindles to where we walk.
Soma-sutra at Prasat Krahom & Lors and his linga
So we leave our bikes and clamber over rocks to a platform above the forest and Prasat Krahom (lit. red temple). There’s a decorated spout or soma-sutra on the outside while inside the temple water falling onto the linga is caught in a yoni (the female part) and fed through the brick walls via the soma-sutra to be collected as holy water fit for a fertility or two.
Today we’re trying out a new trail across the cashew nut plantations to Sangke Leak Village.
Mountain biking on Kulen involves thinking about where your going to cycle and what gear you should be in before you need to change but don’t think too hard or you’ll end in a rut and on your ass. Then there’s the sand, ‘look to the horizon, pedal hard and head straight’. Or shout out expletives, “—-ing sand!” As our guests have been known to do.
Enjoying the scenery after a disagreement with the track
Kulen is carved into mounds – that you need to cycle up and down and a myriad of small streams that you need to cross. The gradient and terrain are the perfect habitat for a mountain bike.
Cambodia was once a big forest and it wasn’t long ago. The majority of forest has gone but the traditional chamkar or slash and burn agriculture remains. A few villagers across thousands of hectares clearing and burning a couple of hectares for small paddy fields was sustainable. Wholesale logging for cashew nut plantations forcing those villages to cut down what’s left is not but lets not spoil a good story.
Ganesha @ Perng Komnou
There are not many routes out of or for that matter onto Kulen. Scrambling through the burnt logs and small banana plantations down the steep slopes above Svai Leu Town at the Eastern end of the plateau was one not very good option that has now unfortunately got easier. A logging magnate is dynamiting a road up the mountain for an unknown reason. There’s not enough forest left for the obvious. Nearby are the petroglyphs of Perng Komnou (lit. rock shelter). 9th century engravings of Hindu deities like the Ganesha above chiseled into car sized boulders littered around the base of the hill. The excitement of stumbling across these archeological phenomena is one of the reasons I stay in Cambodia.
Today we turned right and avoided the ominous portent of what the road might bring. Phum Ta Pin, Pum Thma Chruon and Anlong Thom, sandy rutted roads between cashew clearings and through small patches of forest. Not great distances, not great roads and ever changing landscapes equal exciting riding.
Smoky mountain villages with towering coconut palms framing stilted wooden houses, chocolate and tan coated pigs plowing their snouts through the mud and litter. And chickens running for their lives as we ride into the village hungry!
Anlong Thom in the center of Kulen
Anlong Thom feels like the spiritual center of Kulen surrounded by remnants of its lost kingdom, temples that lie not far from the village.
Sweaty, disheveled but bright with the excitement of the ride we moor our bikes in the shade of coconut palms beside the local blacksmith. The cool box is unstrapped from the remains of the moto. Cold beer is served.
We wait while the lady catches one of those unfortunate chickens or a fish from the stream that runs at the bottom of the village and lunch is served.
The local blacksmith
The big wooden houses tell of a time when the forest canopy was raised by massive trees providing abundant timber. Lifting your room above the ground stops the rats that eat the insects and the snakes that eat them. Motorbikes, cows and timber are secure in the space underneath. Fires were lit to provide a rudimentary if risky heating system when the world was a little cooler.
We head out through the cashew that surrounds the village to the islands of forest (protected by Apsara the temple authority) hiding the ruins we’re searching for. Ok we’ve done it before but today we’re connecting a loop across the mountain. The first stop is the single brick tower of Prasat Thma Dap (below).
We cross the dam of what the 2013 Lidar survey revealed to be an Angkorian reservoir. Lidar is a laser strapped to a helicopter that records the topography of the terrain. Data fed through a supporting app strips away the vegetation to show the underlying structures of what was a conurbation 1200 years ago. No new Angkor Wat as the press stated at the time but just as astonishing.
Next are the three brick towers of Prasat Domrey Krab, lit. Temple of the kneeling elephant (left), and a short walk away Perng O Eisei (below).
A mysterious and shady hollow, once the home of a hermit, a small spring forms a clear pool with a rock fashioned into a turtle. A stone doorway carved into a boulder is flanked on either side by an Apsara or celestial being.
There’s the sense that the king might not be far away.
The 10m high brick tower of Prasat O Pong (above) and the pyramid temple of Rorng Chen are not far away. The latter sits on top of a small hill or is a small hill. We could make out the blocks of laterite that form its base but not much else. This was where JII hung out i.e. his palace.
The temples are not far apart but it’s easy to get lost hence the accompanying decrepit moto though of course its main function is to bring cold beer.
Perng Tbal is a first. Tbal means pestle and Perng carving. We didn’t see any carved pestles but a lot gets lost in translation.
A gully between great slabs of stone, not sinister but not explained, a space in a time of its own.
Reclining Vishnu @ Perng Tbal
Another turn in the forest will take you to the kitch Wat Preah Kral. A working pagoda where the wealthy buy their way to heaven via silver and gold stupas perched across the bare rock face. I reclined in Buddha’s chair to view Phnom Bok and on a clear day the Tonle Sap Lake. I sat on his carpet and looked at these strange rock formations. Today we carried on to The Srah Domrey, the most wonderful element of Kulen.
I can remember the hairs on the back of my neck electrified as I first caught sight of this two-thirds life size statue. In those ancient days eleven years ago when I first came to Cambodia there were few visitors to this exceptional place, relative to the swarming hoards that descend on Angkor, there’s not many that make it here now.
The Sra Domrey above and 3 stone lions seen through its legs.
The story finishes 10 kilometers away at Preah Ang Thom where it started. The mixed evergreen forest around the magical elephant gives way to dry dipteropcarp trees growing out of the rock. The cycle past the village of Phum Thmei and over the bridge across the delightful Kulen mountain stream, where we once swam in its cool pools. Then we’re back in Preah Ang Thom and the hiss of a cold can of beer as I pull the tab. A fitting end to another Kulen adventure.
The Race to the Middle of Nowhere – The Scramble for Kulen
About a thousand years too late but then it wasn’t for the first time, the Angkorians had been here before. And anyway the British, French, Germans and Italians took it in turns to claim large chunks of Africa. I reckoned all we needed to do was plant an Indochine Exploration flag on the top of Phnom Srok, Mr Leang said was the tallest hill on Kulen, to guarantee safe rights of passage across Kulen for our Grasshopper guests the following week.
Lors filled Kuong’s van with enough equipment to rival our pioneering colonial peers, a week perhaps? No just one night but that wasn’t the half of what he’d take for the customers. We were going to swing ourselves to sleep in hammocks under the stars but I wasn’t leaving it to chance and had my camping kit (Vallium, whisky and ear plugs) within easy reach.
The escarpment up Kulen marks a departure from the dusty plains and chaos of Siem Reap. The forest canopy contains a calm that penetrates even Kuong’s van. The MoE Station at Preah Ang Thom by association the furthest reach of our adventurous ancestors into the unknown. Pushing it but that’s where we start our trips from so we emptied the van onto Mr Chou’s Oxcart, while Phum rode round the station getting used to the mountain bike we’d brought him.
Setting off by oxcart
Lors fresh from his muscle contest in Phnom Penh rippling in lycra, conducted our expedition as we embarked on our mission to cross the empty quarter by way of Porpel Village to Kbal Spean. North of Porpel the path serves the chamkar hacked and burnt out of the original forest.
The forest over years painstakingly accumulates a fertility that the cashew nut plantations gorge on then slowly wither to a scraggy halt.
We halted where the path went back under the trees and waited for Chou and his cows. Lors had bought a chicken for them. I’d got a squashed breakfast bagel from Little Red Fox and then on in the adventure started. The chamkar and reason for using the path stopped including logging? Phum said so, incredible! He seemed to be right. It appeared that nobody had been this way for years. There was a path but it was well disguised such that when it changed direction I didn’t and came to an impromptu halt in the bushes.
Chest high grass gave way to forest as we reached the valley and the canopy closed in. Two years ago the saddest logging was taking out the remaining big trees. Now the vegetation was striking back, linking limbs to lock in the road and block the oxcarts that bore the bloodied corpses of the felled trees.
We emerged out of the jungle into a flower studded grassy veld bisected by the Kulen River. Our campsite was given away by rusty pilchard tins now hidden in the tall grass, evidence of Alistair’s search for Silver Langurs.
Relaxing on the trail and arriving at the campsite
It seemed impossible that Phum and Chou would get the oxcart down the escarpment with no apparent path and then through the jungle so we headed back, fully expecting to abort our mission and spend the night in Anlong Thom. We found them not far along the trail hacking at a fallen tree while the cows contentedly munched the leaves blocking their path.
Our mission to cross Kulen was back within our grasp. Chou had a kettle on the boil while Lors and Phum set up the campsite and I drank tea.
‘Nick get out of the way,’ warned Lors. Phum was flapping his hammock and stamping on the ground to get rid of black ants. ‘I cant get out of the way! Aaargh’ the little bastards stung, but they weren’t immune to deet.
Lors and other flowers of the veld
Only a trickle of water made it down the stream despite the recent rain but the bathing pool remained. I reduced its surface tension by soaping up in the slightly cool water then went back to the campsite to drink beer and watch Lors shirtless cook dinner.
One week on from coming second in The Angkor Body-building Championships, he looked like he could glide like a flying squirrel on his enormous deltoid muscles. Wielding a large bladed kitchen knife he alternated between slicing onions and swatting mosquitoes on Phum for some reason remaining immune to their bites.
We were missing Dean but in his stead he’d sent a family sized pack of chicken casserole supposedly just for Lors and I, actually enough for all of us and their breakfast the next morning. Beer then whisky as Lors and I contentedly chatted about nothing in particular. Mr Chou was wrapped in his hammock betrayed only by his gleaming white smile, 22 and with a baby on the way.
Lors and Pum preparing supper
A full moon appeared through the canopy and reflected on the bark of the trees that seemed to grow taller in the dark.
I lay in my hammock looking up through the branches at the stars. A simple camp in the forest worth a million times more than whatever the 5* Sachaya on Bintan Island had cost the week before.
The lingering chill from the night lifted as the sun lit up the leaves around us. Mr Chou and the ox-cart returned to rendezvous with Kuong, while we struck through the wilderness to find a route via the North Escarpment to Kbal Spean, not quite ready for how wild it turned out to be.
Our campsite at breakfast
Elephant vomit or pig-shit grass life a soft fur covered our way but unlike soft fur it sticks its scratchy seeds to your socks and in your shoes. Enchanted glades of open dipteropcarp deciduous trees gave way to dark caverns shaded by green and lit with white flowers on the forest floor.
The rocks and ruts were throwing me at every opportunity sapping confidence such that I pushed the bike as much as rode it.
Phum on the trail
We met Leang the policeman with Chomran from Porpel village and 2 rangers with guns though it seemed unlikely that they worked. A few months ago they’d arrested 2 loggers who were in jail presumably trying to find enough money to get out and fined 5 others $1250 each. They were confiscating every chainsaw they found and fining the owners, which explained why the road was disappearing as it had been the loggers that were using it. 3 months ago they’d seen the scratch marks of a bear at Kbal Spean though they reckoned they were still there in the Porpel Community Forest. An old bear had been hunted and killed for its bile. The hunter got $1000 and the middleman $6000 all for some fat, ugly bong thom and his libido.
The North Facing Kulen Escarpment
It had been logging central 2 years ago, oxen and carts congregated above the escarpment with crude cut planks from freshly felled timber below, hidden so they couldn’t be spotted from the Wildlife Alliance helicopter that was surveying the mountain. Piled and ready to be collected and taken out via the Forestry Administration HQ who extracted its toll and waited for the next batch to tax. Today there were no signs of logging.
Dr Livingstone I presume? Said Stanley, rather more usefully ‘would you like a beer?’ greeted us as we arrived at Kbal Spean. It had only taken 5 hours but as Dave Taylor had said while lying flat on the grass, ‘this is challenging,’ and technically not a mountain bike ride.
An Audience with a Northern Buff Cheeked Crested Gibbon
Etiquette is important in the ape world, or are they monkeys? It all depends on how long the arms are – long, so apes like us, which makes us relatives and our meeting a family call.
We invited the Northern …. Lets say NBCCG’s to visit us in Siem Reap and in days gone by when the North of Cambodia was covered in forest, they would have obliged and swung their way across the country, the slight issue of the Mekong River aside. The patches of trees left are barely enough to sustain a soaring stork so we were on our way via said Mekong to The Terres Rouge Lodge in Banlung.
Male Northern Buff Cheeked Crested Gibbon (NBCCG)
We being Jady & I accompanied by Naven from Conservation International and driven by Dy. He’s nearly one of the family now as he’s courting a Chheang, Sreymom, who excepting me pretty much run ICE. It’s a straight forward seven hour journey heading East towards Vietnam on new roads. The orgy of logging is desperate but that’s Cambodia for you.
We opened the car doors to delicious cool and colonial charm of The Terres Rouge Lodge beside Banlung Lake.
Jammy from Red Parrot tours was waiting at his restaurant The Green Carrot. It might have been the other way round. A true entrepreneur he was advertising the unique selling point of his company, which was apparently a free toilet. He’d made a laminate sheet with an explicit cartoon of a man doing his business under a double decker bus.
The Terres Rouge Lodge in the old Governors building
There was an adventure to be planned over the red wine and fish oops beer and chicken, a boat up the Sesan River and a trek to a waterfall, an indigenous cemetery then a motorbike ride to the edge of our cousins territory.
The morning light over the lake was a delight as we drank our Khmer coffee and waited for Naven. A smooth red earth road headed North as it descended into the Sesan floodplain and Kchang village where Sresh our boatman and guide for the day’s adventure was waiting for us.
We brushed aside some confusion as to what we were doing, with what and who and boarded Sresh’s narrow wooden long tail. A step up from the usual Sesan river craft as we sat on a dry mat not in the customary half inch of sludge.
Blurred blue hills fringed the horizon as we sped upstream past clumps of stilted houses nestling under shade trees. Ferry’s traversed the river while the inevitable sound of chainsaws reverberated across the water.
The Sesan River
Our boatman was emerging as Sresh our guide. Clad in not much more than rags hanging off his skinny frame, we found that he’d taught himself rudimentary English when he answered our questions in a gentle toned timbre.
Note; The day’s adventure was an adjunct to our appointment with the cousins as they were busy entertaining Lucky Carrot guests today.
Ferry across The Sesan
Sresh strode ahead in Wellington boots and ripped tracksuit bottoms. Jady and Naven reminisced on the biodiversity workshops they’d attended, while I hobbled behind on a dodgy hip. A cashew nut grove, a cow field then into the open dry deciduous forest with a picture post card view of a village spied through the trees. Bright green paddy fields surrounded thatched roof huts.
We wound our way up a rocky path and spotted a lump of dried turd. ‘Hmm?’ Said Jady, and ‘take a photo,’ ‘a new species?’ Perhaps a serow we mused. ‘Another photo,’ Jady pointed to an orchid implanted on a tree trunk. Our route descended into a riparian forest of bamboo. Sresh hacked at a stem and fashioned a cup, which he gave to me. I was a little crestfallen when the others got one too.
Sresh (below) and an orchid (above)
A beautiful walk beside a stream to where a waterfall fell out of the forest a level above. Cascades of spume enshrined the rock face and fell into an oval pool. We needed no invitation to plunge into the cool clear water. Draping ourselves over the warm black rocks, contentedly munching ham and baguettes while staring at the hypnotic diamond droplets of exploding water.
Back on board Sresh’s long tail our next stop was a gloomy tribal graveyard shaded by tall trees. Huts adorned with brightly painted 2D ships for the journey ahead or the one past. A man with shades and woman with boobs stood guard to keep an eye on an electric fan in case it got hot. Empty beer cans, you can get 50 Riel for the aluminum and mummified rice, which lasts forever.
Koh Peap Waterfall (above) and village cemetery (right)
The English speaking guides (that didn’t) including the handsome Noi were waiting for us at Veunsai to take us to the CI Station. Jady and I would have probably preferred to go back to The Banlung Lodge but we had an appointment to keep so we duly sat aside the beaten up old bikes, dangled our legs as there were no foot rests and squeezed the driver in my case Noi, with my thighs.
An earthmover had cleared the way and bulldozed the trees a year before which meant the road was deeply rutted and bereft of shade but interesting enough. At ITub Village we turned off to cross a marsh leaving us wading through the wetland to rejoin our bikes before the forest. Chamkar or slash and burn agriculture aside the trees became taller and our route easier under the canopy.
A crude wooden bridge crossed the river beside the station and on the other side a fenced compound of tall timbered buildings where we’d stay the night. A pleasant evening with Jady and cold beer, chatting with Noi the handsome (did I say that before) English speaking guide who tried but didn’t. There was a fan in my room until 9 when the generator was turned off but rain had cooled the evening and it felt good to be in the middle of the forest sipping whisky and listening to In The Psychiatrists Chair in the dark.
Conservation International Station at Veun Sai Siem Pang
6 hours later I was fumbling in the dark to find my phone and a light. I stumbled to the deserted kitchen shack and managed to light the gas for a cup of tea. Growled at Naven coz no one was awake then hobbled off through the mud in the pitch black following a ranger who seemed unaware I was there.
Note that although priority No 1 was to meet the family we’d also hope that the process of getting there would be up to the Albino standard, it wasn’t.
Grumpy by default at 5am in the morning I blundered on behind. So what if I got lost, well that would be their fault! Jady hung back to make sure I didn’t and as the predawn glow penetrated the trees my mood lifted with the mist.
Dawn at the edge of the forest
We’d agreed that the NBCCG’s would call leading us to their front door but damp from the night’s rain they were taking longer over their toilet than usual. We set off into the forest anyway in the hope of meeting at a favorite breakfast spot. Pockets of idyll remain and this was one of them. Like a priest in a cathedral our Gibbon conducted the service from his pulpit 10 meters above.
Sarah, a phd researcher and Naven referred to him as JII, which meant he’d built Angkor Wat. We could just make his buff cheeks (this is an objective statement). A little further and the female was spotted followed by 3 juveniles. Our breakfast was waiting on a crude table beside the trees though we’d have killed for a cup of coffee.
Breakfast at the edge of the forest
I said goodbye to Noi regretting he wasn’t my motorbike driver for the journey our through the swamps to Veunsai. The Sesan Ferry where the ferryman knocked a motorbike into the river and Dy on the other side for the drive to Banlung. One night and a big adventure felt like a lifetime as I hobbled around the spread out streets of the town.
The Mobileiron Mekong Challenge
The Mekong, its islands, public ferries and the East Bank, the antidote to a frenetic Phnom Penh on the other side of the river.
Areykhsat on the East Bank of The Mekong
Phnom Penh on the West bank of The Mekong
Khmer games; Climbing sugar palm trees to pluck sugar palm fruit, or strategically placed little bottles of sugar palm wine in grass baskets. Shooting slingshots, a blindfold bash of clay pots with more containers this time filled with Mekong Whisky. A tug of War in a cow field, volleyball heats at a pagoda, a muddy mountain bike ride and a Buddhist water blessing (they had to find the monks first).
Initially sixty, worn down by the ravages of the conference dinner leaving 35 survivors grouped in teams of 5 tech execs working for a multi national data protection company.
The Build Up
Buntha and I got off the ferry at Areykhsat and looked at each other, ‘what are we going to do next?’ Find a pagoda. ‘Can you bless some Americans?’ We asked a monk, then cycled along the road in search of a silk farm, a main road with the usual crazy Khmer traffic? ‘This wont do, ‘Buntha come back tomorrow and find an off-road route.’
Setting up the games with our Team the day before
First problem; there were too many bikes (60) and not enough space at the Prek Leap Ferry. Buntha called, ‘flying bikes have set them up at the pagoda,’ which pagoda I wondered? Which lead onto the third problem.
Second problem; bladders, probably abused over the conference week, they weren’t holding what they should in the midday Cambodian heat. Everyone wanted a piss. The men were easy, ‘go in the bushes,’ I waved in a wide sweep towards the pagoda’s bush-bereft horizon. The lady was more difficult but she disappeared with Ra and came back happy.
Third problem; ‘Follow me,’ I confidently cried, over my shoulder and headed off down a bumpy road in the wrong direction. The phone rang, it was Buntha, ‘Nick you’ve gone the wrong way.’ ‘False start guys,’ I shouted and turned round which left the Vice President and boss at the back and the slowest at the front. A little ruse I mused.
Like an unleashed tribe of braves on the warpath, they bore down on me and the ferry. The first casualty skidded up the ramp onto the deck having parted company with his bicycle but no obvious damage done.
Mobileiron Braves on the warpath
The boat had left the dock as a well-proportioned member cycled to the waterfront. ‘Too late’ I shouted fearing that the employee might try a death- defying leap across the Mekong. I was drowned out, his colleagues roared and the ferry returned.
Lors had done us proud placing the Mobileiron direction indicators at each turning except they were upsi down and read Wobileiron. Also in his zeal to help the teams he’d written the distance to the next challenge in kilograms, confusing his metrics and indicating that the Wobileirons would be 2kg lighter by the time they reached the Tug of War.
The Sugar Palm Challenge
Buntha had gone to incredible lengths to construct ladders akin to the bamboo poles that run up the side of the sugar palm trees.
They were metal tubes with welded lengths of steel for rungs, enough for a gravitationally challenged tech executive we thought except they started pinging like bursting pods and left our Wobileirons clinging on for dear life.
Wobileirons climbing the sugar palm pole
The Slingshot Trials
The incentive of winning and alcohol meant this didn’t deter them for long and soon they were off to shoot things. They loved it so the slingshots were a success with the Anglo Saxons. The Japanese kept hitting their hands and sending the pellets backwards.
On second thoughts perhaps a missed opportunity as we could have combined the palm tree challenge, slingshot trials and water blessing by shooting monks out of palm trees.
The ferry man had us by the balls and the more the Anglo Saxons screamed to leave and keep their lead the more he grinned and asked for another dollar.
I pointed out that they would need a competing team for the tug of war and volleyball so we waited for the Grey Team.
The Breaking Pot Bash
Across the river we’d tied clay pots to a Boddhi tree ready for the breaking pot bash.
The idea was for us to leap frog in front of the Wobileirons but the Anglo Saxons and the head office team were going too fast.
Sreymom was left trying to tie blindfolds on burly Singaporeans two times her height, spin them round then run for dear life as they started blindly bashing their bamboo staffs to hit the pots and reap the rasping reward of the Mekong Whisky inside.
The Anglo Saxons reaching the foregone conclusion that they’d won
Tug of War
We sent Lors, our adventure guide racing ahead to the Tug of War field. He found his métier as the macho muscle man and appealed to the Anglo Saxons.
Spectators @ The Tug of War (below)
The Japanese Team kept loosing so they asked the Anglo Saxons if they could have one more tug but this time with Lors. This time they pulled the Anglo Saxons off their feet then fell backwards as the rope came loose.
The Volleyball Heats
Wat Svey Chrum was just across the road. There was a Wobileiron sign but the VP and his financial director headed off towards Vietnam unnoticed until another of the Anglo Saxons suggested it might be PC to find him. We duly found them a few kilometers down the road and directed them back to the pagoda.
Buntha’s rules as interpreted by Jin appeared arbitrary but with only 3 pax on each team our brave contestants did their best. The VP fell in a leaping lung while another team member nearly killed a bystander so Jin speeded up the scoring to get one of the teams past 5 points.
Muddy Mountain Bike Ride
Buntha and I had carefully researched a particular route but the teams seemed to find quite a few, which they chose at random throughout the afternoon. I took advantage of my proximity to the Anglo Saxons to lead them along the prescribed path to Wat Areykhsat where they had to find a monk and receive their blessings.
The monks mindful of the promised payments per contestant found our teams then made them follow the ceremony with the appropriate and traditional respect. The contestants duly knelt and touched the ground with their heads then hands together bowed three times to the monks who represented Buddha.
The Anglo Saxons were still up for it though their team was dispersed across Kandal and possibly Takeo Province by this stage. They were on the first ferry across The Mekong then raced beside the river through Phnom Penh to the FCC unsurprisingly winning the race.
I leant on the railings above the ferry station with a blissful beer. Lors had just lead what we hoped were the last teams to the FCC. Buntha hung on the other side of The Mekong to look for lost Wobileirons in case they hadn’t made it.
The all clear came through, 35 counted out and 35 counted back.
We were lucky that the weather was kind and it helped that we chasing after 35 not 60.
Bunthy had chosen a restaurant half way between Phnom Penh and Battambang for dinner, which stopped being amusing after 50 minutes in the tuktuk trying to find it.
Once a beer had been placed in my hand and the manager dispatched to find wine I realized with a rising tide of pride what a fantastic team we are.
Oh and Jin sang a song and established that Lors would not interfere with him.
The Sangke River Kayak
This is the story of 5 men and their boats as they paddled across the floodplain of The Tonle Sap Great Lake from Battambang to Angkor.
We couldn’t let our muscles go to waste so despite we’d 3 days ahead of us and an unknown quantity of kilometers, the first objective on reaching Battambang was to firm up the engines that were going to drive us and find a gym.
Motors tuned in anticipation they now had to be fueled and this was where we split. The allure of Jaan Bai* was too strong and too expensive for the whole Team. ‘I’ll see you in the morning,’ I told them.
The next morning the call of coffee transcended our budget so we all congregated at Knyei** for a cup of arguably the best coffee in Asia before setting out on our voyage.
Prasat Prahoc*** lives up to its name, smelly – but it gave us a 10K head start.
Setting off at Prasat Prahoc, from left to right; Buntha, Ra, Jin, Lors and Nick
I had an unfair advantage but that seemed reasonable in light of a 30year disadvantage. The green hard hulled composite kayak cut though the water faster than our Gumotex war horses but given they had 2 prime paddlers per boat we were about matched.
* Jaan Bai; initially a David Thompson cooking school restaurant now run by Mark & Jose from Feelgood Coffee, also owners of **Knyei Café. Originally an NGO running cycling trips it now concentrates on amazing coffee in street 1 ½. *** Prahoc a Cambodian staple, fermented fish paste – an acquired taste.
Heang (above) concerned, intelligent, efficient was waiting with his motorboat. Don’t get me wrong, we were going to kayak but we might as well do it comfortably, which meant keeping the beer cold.
The sun was shining (about 40 degrees and humid, a minor point). The river high and most important the current was heading our way.
To set the scene we were traveling downstream with the Sangke as it flowed from the Cardamom Mountains to the West, past Battambang and onto Prek Toal and the Tonle Sap Lake. Our mission was to follow its length albeit with a shortcut at the end to the floating village of Maichrey, our final destination.
The Upper Sangke flowing through rural Battambong Province
‘2 hours then adventure bars*’ I shouted. All was well excepting Jin who was car-sick the day before and quieter than usual. And water, whatever we drank sweated straight out, perhaps 5 liters that first day.
*Adventure Bars; a special recipe created by Dean from Miss Wong, granola bars in global demand but only available on Indochine Exploration Adventures.
Buntha’s app told us we were averaging 7K such that after a couple of hours the river rose to meet the banks. The bamboo clumps and fruit trees thinned as we entered the middle Sangke, a region of endless rice fields.
I knew the route from the perspective of the Amanbala or whatever the motorboat I was traveling on at the time but from the kayak, under our own steam my relationship with the river was different and more connected.
Adventure bars and coffee as we entered the middle Sangke, where stilted houses give way to floating villages.
The current was cancelled by the rising lake, fast breaching the riverbanks and flooding the surrounding paddy fields. It felt like we were rising above the world to where the water met the sky.
On the patches that stood proud the trees were festooned with the strange fruit of weaver nests. Structures of woven grass attached to branches, which the birds entered like a diving bell from below. They sell these nests in Siem Reap, hanging them to their awnings thinking that the tourists will like the rustic impression they give but not caring for the birds that weaved them. It was cheerful to see them undisturbed next to the fishermen‘s huts.
Weaver Bird nests
Into the Tonle Sap Floodplain
It’s true that an army marches on its stomach and now past 12 there was mutiny in the air, rice was need quickly. We found a perfect spot and tied up to the remnants of an old wooden house now mainly underwater and home to a family of rats. A snake swam across the river to join us for lunch.
Clouds ominous, the boys had the rice on the boil as the heavens opened and the rain poured down while Lors entertained us with his sexual encounters, apparently he doesn’t like sucking nipples. Other valuable advice was to follow the beaten path so you don’t have to cut the bush? Oh and we also learnt that he weighs 72kg before a shit and 70kg after.
The encroaching lake
The rains have been good this year and the water was high so still with 2 months of flood to come we were able to cut off a 20K meander with a 5K cut through the seasonally flooded forest. An enchanted alley glistening from the recent rain, sunbeams splashing on shiny wet leaves.
I was thinking about Silver Langurs. Our hike through the Kulen Hills to the North of Siem Reap was set up to give the local villagers an incentive to protect the monkeys. But for all the talk honestly I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen them. On queue, perched on a branch just 5 meters away was a Silver Langur and a few strokes further more brought me close enough to confirm.
The shortcut, an enchanted alley cut through the seasonally flooded forest
The birdsong beckoned but we weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the narrow channel. Most boats slowed as they came near, a few young idiots threw a wake over our Gumotex coming to an abrupt halt when they met Heang and his motorboat.
Phum Bakprea, the halfway point where the Sangke meets the Monkul Borey River. A water hyacinth jam, we could see the telephone masts of the village but 10m of compacted weed meant it could have been the moon. Of course Lors the machine that he is could heave his way through but the rest of us waited for Heang to tow us.
Heang towing us out of a hyacinth jam
Heang threw a line to me and Buntha attached his rope to my tail, slowly we squeezed through the floating mat. The broad blades of his propellers were alarmingly close but after our recent battles see a water hyacinth workout, they were preferable to be being stuck.
Google Earth shows a road reaching the village in the dry season but for now its isolated in the The Tonle Sap floodplain. A river rendezvous where the tourist boats refuel on route to Siem Reap. A big sign advertised a Battambang boutique guesthouse complete with swimming pool somewhat at odds with the largest pool in South East Asia, where we were currently floating.
Phum Bakprea, picking up bananas
It was half past four, we’d been going since eight and were getting tired, a coconut stop. ‘Wat Chou Kmao 40 minutes,’ Heang told us. We could sleep with the monks at the pagoda.
Chased by rolling waves of angry grey clouds getting darker and darker pushing a wall of wind behind us we surfed down the river, flying in the face of the storm.
Chased by a storm down the river
As the storm surge subsided we approached a village looking for a place to rest. Despite the statuesque youth in underpants, the thump of amplified base persuaded us to keep paddling. A little further on was an empty platform but for some nimbi- ish reason it was off limits so we wearily continued in the twilight.
A pale flicker of light bathed the river as we put forward our paddles after 10 hours and floated towards our mother-ship, where we were going to sleep that night.
The clear water was alive with fish minus one as Lors caught a half kilo catfish on a thin bamboo pole, which together with a bucket of snails that kept escaping was lunch for tomorrow. Compelled by hunger the team had rice pots boiling and were dicing and cutting vegetables and meat. Caught in a limbo of disconnected and contented exhaustion I looked on with a cold beer while they cooked supper and contemplated my paddling companions. Ra an old woman but eternally nice, Buntha smart as always, Jin the baby but never complaining, so full of goodness he should be on the front of a breakfast cereal packet and indestructible Lors. I felt extremely fortunate.
The boys were content to lie on mats. I had a mattress. Under mosquito nets we lay across the width of the boat. The heavy and humid air was contained by blinds hanging on either side with the aim of stopping us getting wet. The rain started just as we were dozing off.
Lors and the boys cooking dinner.
Attempting to sleep the volume increased and it started to seep through the covers slowly filling the boat lapping at my mattress by now more of a sponge. Heang turned on the bilge every hour ensuring that only glimpses of sleep were snatched. I must have drifted off as a pale dawn penetrated my Valium induced torpor.
Lors was the first thing I heard. ‘How many nights do you need to get by without sleep before you get tired?’ ‘What?’ ‘He means shut up,’ Buntha interpreted and handed me a hot mug of tea. Heang lifted the covers revealing the grey green river-scape and the next day seemed possible.
Setting off a little less enthusiastically on our second morning
‘How far now Heang,’ we asked. ‘I think you do 55%,’ he replied rather too diplomatically. The prospect of another sodden night was enough for us to decide to try and make it back in one day.
The current had gone, the river was wide and meandering away from the prevailing Westerly wind that had propelled us the night before so we paddled by ourselves.
Heavy hanging grey clouds at least meant we weren’t being grilled by the sun.
It was a good call to have stopped where we did, Wat Chou Kmau was another hour from where we had moored for the night.
Heang was waiting after another 5km beside a pagoda in the center of a large stilted village.
The river was completely blocked by hyacinth so when we saw a seller boat heading off into the flooded forest on one side of the channel we reckoned they knew a way through. We followed and came out the other side, which was more than Heang managed and for some unfathomable reason he’d headed back towards Phum Bakprea. ‘Why don’t they clear it?’ I thought. Collective action for the benefit of all but it’s less effort to get a long tail with a reverberating 2 stroke and cut through alone – I answered myself.
Grey water under a grey sky, open stretches of river in shoulder aching straight lines between floating villages now the flood lasted longer than the ebb. Seasonally flooded forest fringed the river. A Black-shouldered Kite flew near an untidy nest of random twigs watched over by a Grey-headed Fish Eagle. I just made out a monkey on the far bank but too far away to tell what flavor, parakeets, pelican, duck.
Lors and Jin towards the end
Another floating village where we waited for Heang who’d lost us in the water hyacinth, coffee and adventure bars, well done Dean.
Approaching our lunch stop at Kampong Prahoc we saw the 3 telephone masts of Prek Toal, visible from a long distance as it wasn’t K. Prahoc but another village 30 minutes the wrong side. Buntha had an excuse to go to Prek Toal, we didn’t but we ended up paddling there anyway. ‘Why didn’t we take the shortcut?’ I grumpily demanded. ‘Water hyacinth,’ mumbled Buntha. The excuse for everything, I thought but didn’t say.
The short cut to Maichrey an hours breeze with Jady a few weeks back but today a balance between general ache and the freedom of well just being free.
How many thousands, maybe millions of paddle strokes did we do? Shoulders aching, back in seizure, legs cramping, twenty hours in the kayaks and 80 kilometers paddled. I nearly cried when we got to the boat station at Maichrey.
‘So tired, ‘ Buntha said the first morning now a lifetime away, no stress, work and self irrelevant, just us Heang and the river.
Lors, Heang, Nick, Ra and Jin at the end.