I was supposed to have been on my way to Kompong Cham on Christmas Day but decided instead to just stay put and spend an extra day at Siem Reap. I didn’t fancy another bus ride after the border crossing all the way from Bangkok. The guy at the front desk came knocking on my door at 6am to remind me about the bus pick-up but I reminded him that I had bought a ticket for the next day. It occurred to me that since I was awake and had nothing really planned to do, I might as well stick to my original plan. There was another bus at 9:30 which I could take he said. Knowing that I had nothing planned, he offered to take me to Phnom Kulen (which he hadn’t gone to but knew how to get there) and a side trip to a floating village and the flooded forest.
Christmas Eve the previous night wasn’t any different from the usual scene at Pub Street. Checked out Linga Bar but it was full of rent boys and their aging admirers. Angkor What was crowded and rowdy as usual. The same food stall Francis and I used to have dinner with every night during our stay at Siem Reap a couple of years ago was still there. In fact, the nice woman running out called out to me and fortunately there was a vacant table. Her cute kid was a little bigger now. The food was still good and the service, especially for a hawker stall, impeccable.
The long ride to the mountain.
“It’s okay,” my driver/guide told me when I pointed out to him that I didn’t have a helmet. “I need to wear one because of the police,” he further explained. I told him I was not gonna get on the back of the moto without wearing one. He went back to the hotel and came back with a flimsy cracked one.
It was more than 50k to the mountain along a reasonably sealed road past some busy towns and some lovely countryside. We took a wrong turn thinking it was the turn-off to the mountain. It was some sort of police outpost. Asking for directions cost me $2 in lieu of cigarettes the guy manning the post asked for. Welcome to Cambodia!
Back at the main road, “I thought you knew how to get here,” I commented. My butt had began to hurt by then. Actually, an hour into the trip, I had questioned the sanity of taking this long trip with my driver/guide. He didn’t really seem to know how to get there and he didn’t seem to be a good moto driver. We kept going over bumps and rutts and at times, I had to shout, “Huuuummmmppp!”
We finally reached the entrance to the national park where the mountain lay. I paid the entrance fees and we headed up the dirt track that wound its way up the mountain amidst lush foliage. “Watch it!” I kept saying. More bumps and holes and he didn’t seem to take notice.
Finally just when I thought I could not take it anymore, we reached the temple complex lined with souvenir and food stalls and our front wheel promptly fell on a small hole which required a little help to get out of. He said something in Khmer to the guy who helped us out and we went to the village behind the temple. The wheel needed mending. It was because of the bad road, he explained to me. I wanted to say it wasn’t the road’s fault. Bad driving was more like it. There were other motos heading up and none of them needed any mending. There was no one at the repair shop. He called the number printed on the sign in front and the guy who answered said someone would come in an hour’s time.
Stone steps lined with beggars lead all the way up to the top of the mountain. “I want to give them some money but I don’t have,” pined my driver/guide. I would hear more of this later one which led me to believe that this chap was in a sad-story mood. Later at lunch he would say that he wants to visit his teacher in his village but he can’t as he would be obliged to bring gifts with him and he doesn’t have the money for it. I look at him blankly. It can be quite tiring hearing sad stories especially if you’re on vacation.
This is a very sacred site to the Khmer which explains the number of locals there on a seeming pilgrimage to pay their respects to an enormous stone sculpture of a reclining Buddha on the summit. The view from the small temple at the top housing the Budhha is not as spectacular as I imagined but beautiful nevertheless. It is crowded in the temple as groups of monks and locals line-up and drop coins on the bowls. Be sure to leave your footwear on the bottom of the steps before heading up.
A few pictures here and there, mostly of monks, and I tire of it all and head to a woman dispensing some coconut milk-based dessert in white ceramic bowls. It looks and tastes like cendol. Slurping spoonfuls of it later and I am totally refreshed. I look at her sitting on the ground surrounded by her portable stall and then I start to wonder how the heck she washes the bowls and the spoons. Hmmmm… Maybe at the restroom. Well, it’s still better than just simply wiping it dry.
A large family of worshipers are seated at a shady spot having a picnic lunch and I’m reminded that in spite of the
dessert, I am still hungry so we head back to the base of the complex lined with eateries serving mostly grilled stuff. My driver/guide says he’ll bring me to a good one. We pass a few stalls and settle at one. I think the only reason he chose this particular stall is the table of Caucasians there which meant it was probably “for tourists.” Except for them, the stalls were largely empty.
The chicken skewed on a big bamboo stick looked kinda scary so I chose a fish which looked like dalag. It was a little raw so I didn’t eat much of it. So much better was the grilled sausage with its sweet-salty taste like a Chinese sausage. I tried this smelly stuff wrapped in banana leaves which my driver/guide said was like cheese. It had a nutty and sourish taste that that left a little tartish feel on the mouth. The more you ate it the more it tasted quite good especially when eaten with rice. It would have probably tasted better when eaten with the grilled fish.
Rested a bit then back to the village to see if the moto had been repaired. It was quite a bit of wait as the guy had to finish servicing about two others. It was sheer genius how the teen (really he was just in his teens) could find all the stuff he needed amidst everything placed in old boxes and plastic jars around the small yard that made up the shop. It was interesting how he mended the blown tubing with a sticker-like patch. He placed it back on the tire, pumped some air, then it was back on the bike then we were off down down down to the mountain and back on the main road.
Next stop— the floating village and the flooded forest. But before we reached that, we got lost again as he had missed the turn-off to the village which was on the road to Siem Reap. Fortunately we hadn’t gotten very far before he stopped to ask for directions.
The Village on Stilts
From the main road, we headed to a dirt road past some villages until we reached the white concrete building where I paid the entrance fee. A couple of hundred of meters after the entrance, we parked the moto and paid $20 for a wooden motor boat that could seat about 6 people.
About 10 minutes out of the narrow channel from the boat dock, the first stilt houses came into view soaring above the brown murky water. Unlike the floating villages I saw at the Vietnamese side of the Mekong River, the houses and other structures at Kompong Chnang were built on long stilts rather than on plontoons. It was really more of a stilt village rather than a floating on. Some houses were nice and pretty but most were dingy. The poorest of the poor didn’t live in houses but in tiny boats with straw roofs.
It was late afternoon and very few people were there except for women washing clothes on the water while children played and others lounged around on the doorways. The boat headed further out past the houses and onto and even more out-of-this-world scene with trees submerged on the water. We were at the so-called flooded forest. You could get into smaller row boats from out of the restaurants on the water but given that I would be sharing the cost with no one, I decided against getting on one. It would have been nice to navigate around the forest though.
Out of the forest and we were in the middle of the Tonle Sap. It was so big it looked like we were in the middle of the sea and I was a little scared that there would be waves. We didn’t venture as far as the other boats though. On the way back, I lay on my back at the boat deck.
It was about 30 minutes back to Siem Reap on the main road.