18 January 2011

Templed out!

Another two days of templing – a verb invented specifically for Cambodia.

On 7 January, Victory over Genocide Day, our group of four barang and four Khmer set out early for the three-hour drive south. Marianne and I joined Marilyn and Marg from Grace House, together with Tola (who also volunteers at Grace House) and one of their teachers, Loung, plus a driver and our tour guide Noun, to explore yet another temple complex. This was Sambor Prei Kuk, a pre-Angkorian temple complex dating from the beginning of the 7th century, with some of the oldest structures in Cambodia amongst its 100 temples.

We were a merry band of travellers. Loung had brought along his English dictionary and kept asking questions: ‘What’s the difference between expensive and expansive?’, ‘What’s the difference between coast and beach?’, and ‘Can you embalm a fish?’. He was a good student! When I tested him on the journey home, he remembered everything we’d discussed. In return, he told us stories from Khmer culture … or were they? I do wonder whether he was inventing the stories just to amuse us. For example, do you know why the cashew seed grows outside the fruit, rather than within it as is more usual? Well, it seems the fruit went out to a party one night and got very drunk. When it finally made its way home, all the doors and windows were shut, so it had to sleep outside … and it’s been sleeping outside ever since.

After 30 minutes driving, we stopped for breakfast at a roadside restaurant. I was tempted to photograph the toilet facilities. There were 3 toilets, each with a sign in English above the doors: Toilet (male), Toilet (female), and Welcome. This didn’t confuse only me – a local man, who obviously couldn’t read English went into the female cubicle. I crossed my legs rather than tempt fate.

Our journey continued south on the main road to Phnom Penh. This is a busy highway and traffic is always chaotic. Officially there are road rules in Cambodia, but they seem to be more suggestions than rules. Vehicles drive on the right, but it’s not unusual to see traffic driving in four directions at once on the same piece of highway. The centre line seems also to be just a suggestion – perhaps it’s there to help the drivers steer straight. At one stage I was convinced there must be a mattress sale in the next village as we first passed a truck stacked high with mattresses and then two motorbikes, with three mattresses each strapped behind the driver. These were double-size mattresses, not single. I’m not sure how the moto drivers kept their balance.
At Kompong Thom, we turned off the main highway and continued for perhaps 20 minutes on a relatively good dirt road. But then we turned off again and the last 14km were on the best example of a dancing road I’d experienced in Cambodia. By the time we arrived at the temples, our van had developed an alarming knocking sound and we had decided a new road sign was required for this type of road – something like ‘Sports Bra Required’!

The temples of Sambor Prei Kuk are surrounded by jungle and have delicate carvings, much damaged by weathering. They are brick-built structures, rather than stone, and have impressive towers, many of which are threatening to fall apart at the seams. Various archaeological groups have added wooden support structures to stop their destruction. The name of the largest structure, Prasat Tao, means ‘Lion Temple’, hence the two large lions guarding its entrance.

The temples were almost deserted, though as soon as we arrived we attracted the usual group of Khmer sales-children, who accompanied us for the two hours we spent exploring. Their patience was amazing; I guess they knew that their perseverance almost always defeats barang tourists. As we wandered, tiny voices would pipe up: ‘Octagonal temple. Eight-sided’, and ‘Careful the stones’, and ‘Bomb crater’ – these temples had been bombed by the Americans. At the end of our tour, we lined the girls up and bought one scarf from each of them to share the day’s sales evenly between them. None of us needed yet another scarf; it was more like a donation towards their education. Noun also gave an elderly local man a small payment for sharing his knowledge with us. It was yet another great day (and we had just enough energy to go to Rosy’s pub quiz that night – the proceeds of the quiz went to Grace House, so we couldn’t possibly not go.)

Slaves to culture, or suckers for punishment, Marianne and I spent the following day templing as well. To be honest, it was as much for the tuk tuking, which we both adore, but each temple is so different that we couldn’t resist exploring another six – yes, six! With Vibol as our driver, we set off at 8.30.

First were three temples in the Angkor Wat area, East Mebon, Ta Som and Banteay Samre. East Mebon is like a temple mountain, though its moat is now dry. It has impressive elephant statues at each corner and was ‘silent except for the distant chatter of Koreans’ (Marianne’s words). I circled the complex while Marianne climbed up, and yet again I was sought out by a young female salesgirl. She had an amusing sales technique; when I said I didn’t want one of whatever she was selling, she replied ‘Well, buy two then’. I managed not to!

Next came Ta Som, which has beautiful Bayon-style faces and a huge, strangling tree above its gates. Intriguingly, a Korean girl asked to take our photo posed amongst the ruins – we still don’t know why. We had an early lunch (of spring rolls again) before heading down a quiet country road to Banteay Samre, an isolated and so sparsely touristed temple. It was very beautiful but very hot, so the cooling interiors of the shrines and galleries were very welcoming.

From there, we set off across country to the temples of the Roulos group. Lolei is very ruined, with five towers that are now surrounded by rural village buildings and a pagoda. Preah Ko is quite a small complex, with six towers and three impressive kneeling bull sculptures sitting patiently in a row out front. They give the temple its modern name of ‘The Sacred Bull’. Its brick towers have been partially rebuilt so you could easily see the contrast between their construction materials of small pink bricks and large grey slabs of stone. And last, but certainly not least, was Bakong, a five-tier pyramid-type structure, surrounded by a walled enclosure, which is in turn surrounded by a water-filled moat. The countryside round about is very lush and the temple complex includes a range of interesting shrines, gopuras and galleries.

It was an impressive end to my Cambodian temple explorations but I confess to being exhausted by the end of the day and, though I hate to admit it, after exploring 12 temples in just 17 days, I was templed out!