No time expended considering the possibility of walking up, we were happy to find the driver of a Toyota four wheel drive truck and I was placed in the front seat with the driver while Eddie and Donald climbed into the back. Today, the road up is under construction, being built with proper machines and Caterpillar road equipment was very noticeable along with water trucks to dampen down the dust. Remnants of the old road still remain, the hard way up, once climbed by motos with fearless travelers clinging to the back seat. Gone are the rickety bridges and the skeletons of vehicles, causalities of war, blown up and left to rot along the side of the road. In ten minutes, with every little effort and no discomfort, we reached the top. Apparently, we lacked up to date information as we were surprised by the ease of the trip.
The temple is situated on the sloping side of the mountain, reached by a long processional walk way followed by a set of steep stairs. The path to religious purity was purposely made difficult. Before, we had to walk a gauntlet of aggressive vendors willing to sell in dollars, Cambodian riel and Thai bhat. Today, they are no longer there. Not necessarily missed, we just wondered what had happened. The Lonely Planet promised there would be vendors selling Vittorio Roveda”s book on Preah Vihear but they too were absent. Several years ago, Donald had flown Roveda over his areas of interest and in a previous book, he acknowledged and thanked Donald Cooney, the pilot.
The sun had found the top of the mountains and thankful for the cooling breeze, we slowly walked our way to the top. Retracing centuries of Angkorian architecture, we walked through galleries, in places positioned close to the edge of the cliff, which often dead ended, into blank wall or piles of fallen stone. We paid close attention to the ceilings, finely hewed corbel constructions. In want of a keystone, the Angkorians never managed a proper arch. While Donald and Eddie were setting up GPS coordinates, I spent time looking at the decorative carvings on the door frames with special attention to the lintels and the tympanums, located above the lintels. The few that remain are excellent examples of Khmer stone carving at its best, reflecting the high quality of craftsmanship achieved at the temple of Bantrey Srei. The figures, portraying Hindu mythology, were imbued with vitality and carved is such high relief they appeared to deny their connection to the stone. However, either due to ancient or recent destruction, a large amount of the temple lies in ruins.
Different than before, there were only a few tourists. I counted three other Westerners and a small bus load of Khmers, no Korean tourist nor Japanese nor Vietnamese. Faced with threats from the Thais, the Cambodian government is not missing an opportunity to make a political statement. The blue and white UNESCO World Heritage flag flies alongside the Cambodian flag. There are signs reminding the visitor that this is a “Khmer temple” and signs which state “I am proud to be born a Khmer”. The area no longer appeared to be an active military encampment. Soldiers in camouflage were walking around, quick to smile, they seemed friendly. The soldiers carried more cell phones than rifles. Several offered to be our guide and a captain engaged us in conversation, happy to practice his English. When questioned, he remarked that all was quiet.
The most striking aspect of this temple is its magnificent setting, two thousand feet above the Cambodian plane. Stepping up to the edge of the escarpment, we absorbed the bird”s eye view. Looking into the distance, feeling closer to the sky, we felt the world around us expand. A large portion of north western Cambodia was spreading itself out for our review. But unfortunately one of its most distinctive features was the proliferation of the slash and burn fires consuming the fields below. From this height, we watched as plumes of dark smoke billowed into the air, blotting out the horizon and turning the otherwise blue sky into a dirty grey. In the distance, the Kulen Mountains, which can be seen from here, were hidden by a murky curtain of haze.
Walking down to the parking lot to find our driver, Eddie decided he would return to spend the night and enjoy both a sunset and sun rise. Our driver found us first and on the way down he pointed out the gang of people chipping away at a rock face. From experience, they looked like a road crew making gravel out of large rocks but the driver kept saying gold, gold. With his limited English that is all I found out and he certainly could not tell us why there was no longer a charge for visiting the temple.
Back in the parking lot, Donald handed the driver 10.00, which we thought had been his price. Immediately, he looked confused as well as anxious. Eddie, whose management of the language has not improved since the departure of his girlfriend, attempted to communicate by calling out numbers in Khmer. He kept staring at the 10.00 bill shaking his head. Donald handed him another 10.00 and the situation was immediately cleared up. Seeing money being exchanged, sent the girls racing over to try again and we pulled out of the driveway to the refrain of “you remember me, I remember you”.
RETURNING TO SIEM REAP
For the return trip, Eddie chose a different route. Maybe he knew that the last time I was confronted with returning the same way I came, I called for a helicopter. (That was several years ago while trekking to Mustang, Nepal). We would drive past the temple complexes of Koh Ker and Beng Mealea, and on to Dam Dek, a market town. Here we would make a right hand turn, putting us back on National Highway 6 heading toward Siem Reap. During a portion of this trip, we would be riding on paved roads, compliments of the Chinese.
Making good time, we stopped at a guest house near the ticket booth at Koh Ker. Both Eddie and Donald knew this area well as they had flown archeologists over the temples several times. We ordered soft drinks and lunched on our bags of snacks. No need to break out the Laughing Cow cheese because there was no bread. I asked the young woman in charge for the bathroom. My request bounced off her blank face. Having exhausted my vocabulary of words for the toilet and even failing a break through with “pee pee”, I was returning to the car for my Lonely Planet guide book, when Eddie made some kind of action she understood.
It was 2:00 when we were back on the road, exchanging the paved surface for gravel and red dirt. The thin layer of gravel was no match for the dust, stirred up by each passing vehicle. The Khmer God of Fire, Agnidevaputra, must have been invoked and in places the burning fields had reached the sides of the road. Reddish dusty air infused with ugly grey smoke, a cocktail so dense it was able to conceal one passing car from the other. As before, this passed and we were back on a sealed road, rolling down the windows. Eddie, Eddie, I thought you had fixed the air conditioning. Who knew, but soon that was not to be our only problem.
Before, we had seen scruffy woodlands but now we thought we were passing through a second growth forest, considering nature does not plant trees in a row. Here the land was under cultivation and we passed fields of banana trees and orchards planted with mangoes, their fruit the size of a small fist. Going strong, we quickly passed through the market town of Svay Lev and then back into the countryside. Similar to what we had seen in the morning, the area was sparsely settled and there was very little traffic.
Then we came to an unexpected speed breaker in the road prior to crossing a small bridge. Unfortunately, Eddie did not see it. The car went over the bump, came down with an exceptional loud thud, propelled itself over the bridge making such a screeching sound that we thought we had hit something and was dragging it along. Eddie immediately pulled to the side of the road and all of us quickly got out. With one look, Eddie knew the problem. No good, no good he repeated. The front right suspension had collapsed, allowing the tire to rub up against the fender. But he did not know which part had broken until he jacked the car up and removed the tire. Another look told him the large nut holding the sway bar had come off. It had unthreaded, so much for the Khmer mechanics who had previously worked on this part of his car. In this condition, we were not going any further. Optimistically, we searched up and down the sides of the road and when we did not find it, we decided Eddie would go back to Svay Lev to try to find another nut. He flagged down the next motor cycle and with enough hand motions and a few Khmer words, the young man understood and Eddie was last seen going down the road on the back of a moto.
SITTING BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD
Location, location, we were in a place that was in the back of the beyond, located between nowhere and nowhere as Svay Lev, might be on the map but it should not be considered somewhere. For a while, we passed the time by standing on the bridge and looking down at the dried up riverbed, deciding from the cuts in the stones, that blocks had been quarried out of there, probably used in constructing Angkorian temples. That accomplished, it was time to sit down. We could not sit in the car because it had been jacked up so we sat down on the side of the road, back to back, to support each other and we waited. We decided things could be worse: it could be raining, it could be hot, we could be besieged by mosquitoes instead of the lone one buzzing around our heads and we could be lost, which we were not. The only threat, besides my uncertainly of the outcome, was the impending night and the nasty red ants which were climbing up and down the tree next to us. All for the want of a properly sized nut.
In Cambodia, barang cannot sit long without being noticed by the locals and soon we attracted the attention of five small children. Wearing an assortment of raggedy clothes held together by strategically placed safety pins, they seemed happy enough and soon they sat down around us. Everyone smiling, we worked our way through the usual questions, “what your name, how old you are and where you from”. They ask questions but did not understand the answers and having expended their English vocabulary, Khan, apparently the leader whose pants had the most safety pins, took four marbles out of his pocket. He told us he was ten years old and with the snap of his index finger he sent one marble smashing into another. He backed up, making the distance longer, and then slowly pulled back his finger, made another snappy release propelling the marble accurately toward its destination. Again, at an even farther distance, he was still accurate. The kid was amazing and if there was a demand in the world for his skill, then Donald and I discovered a prodigy. Showtime over, they retreated and at a distance, they sat down to watch Donald and I waiting for Eddie”s return. It was now 3:30. Eddie has been gone thirty minutes.
LIFE IN THE COUNTRYSIDE VIEW FROM THE SIDE OF THE ROAD
It is very quiet on the side of the road, the children sit in a hushed silence, no gurgle from the stream, which is mostly dried up and too early for the chirping of the cicadas, which will start in late afternoon. Time is not on our side, yet it passes very slowly. A woman on a motor bike attached to a long wagon, often called a ricky moto, comes down the road. She passes, we wave, an old country woman, her head covered in an artfully wrapped krama. She stops in front of the small store that is on the other side of the bridge. Two women come out to greet her. She is selling vegetables. We watch as she sets up her scale, pulls green leafy objects out of plastic bags, discards a few plastic bags onto the street, as if it was a rubbish bin, weighs, collects money, turns her mobile vegetable stand around, we wave again and she disappears down the road from which she came. In the distance, we see a wiry old man with spindly legs tottering down the road. We assume he is staggering under the weight of his load, a pole slung across his shoulder from which hang hollowed out tubes of bamboo, maybe 18 inches long. He too stops in front of the roadside store. This time a man comes out; they speak. The old man hands the store keeper one of the tubes, he takes a sniff, hands it back, is given another tube, takes another sniff and nods in agreement. The old man is selling fermented sugar palm sap, called palm wine if bought in the store or arrack by the locals. He then takes out a smaller tube, fills it will the liquid, swishes it around and then pours it on the ground. Maybe this was an attempt to give him a clean glass, as he fills the tube up again and hands it to the store man. Two gulps is all that is needed; another tube please and this one consumed in one long swallow. As anywhere else, the store man wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He disappears into his store and soon returns with a stack of green leaves. The two men roll up the leaves, light the end and sit down on a bench to enjoy a smoke. Eventually, the old man continues on his way. We see him approaching, we wave, he nods. He passes us, leaving in his wake an invisible veil of tobacco smoke and palm wine fumes hanging in the motionless air. He is not wobbling from the weight on his shoulder, he is just drunk.
It was 4:00 when we saw two motor cycles approach. We look carefully, yes, Eddie is on the back of one but who is the other guy? Eddie has found several nuts in the market along with a few washers and approaches the car carrying a large wrench. Total cost 4.00. We all crowd around Eddie as he reaches under the car to find out if he had found the right size. Dusk is not that far off, the cicadas are warming up. Eddie, Eddie, did you find the right part?
TO BE CONTINUED
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