Preah Vihear Province, Cambodia – If Cambodia had a dust bowl, this was it: Anlong Veng. And I’m not talking about the rim of the bowl. I’m talking about being down in the bottom where the crusty bits of dried cereal build up.
Anlong Veng was pretty much a no-horse town comprised of some wooden buildings crowded along a roundabout. The road we took from Siem Reap was paved, but once we hit town, the pavement ended where the buildings ended. Both of which could be seen from the center of town.
On the bus, I got talking to an American and a chatterbox of an Italian. The American was from the mid-west – the Italian from Rome – who was working for a non-profit in Phnom Penh. He spoke a little Khmer so when we got off the bus, he hooked us up with some local moto drivers to work out a deal for getting to the temple. We had talked with the Italian about joining up, thinking that the more of us there were, the better the price we could get. But when the bus dropped us off, he did the skedaddle, leaving the two of us to work it out.
The motor drivers gave us a free ride to the guesthouse hoping we’d hire them for the temple drive. After getting a fair price, we agreed to meet the next morning at 7am. Then Tina and I set out to find a phone to call the only guesthouse near the temple and reserve a room for the next night. Along the way we ran into the Italian who had worked out his own deal which turned out to be a blessing because I couldn’t deal with his incessant talking.
We came across a lake near town next to a health center, which is interesting because the lake was made for Ta Mok (AKA Brother Number Five in the Khmer Rouge). The lakes ended up killing all the trees in it, leaving a forest of rotting bare skeletons, which given history, was quite appropriate.
While overlooking the lake, a man who worked at the hospital came up and started talking with us. We mentioned we were looking for a phone. He walked us down the street and asked someone at a shop if we could use their phone. Calling the numbers we had got us no where so we said thanks, and went to look for something to eat for breakfast the next morning – also unsuccessful.
For dinner we went to Sheang Hai, the only restaurant we could find. The menu was in English, but that didn’t matter since the staff couldn’t read it. So about five minutes after we ordered, I saw people huddled in the kitchen looking at the menu and at our table, arguing. I walked over to the kitchen and a woman who had just taken a shower, and only wearing a towel, took charge and we had a long conversation about what Tina and I had ordered.
Confusion about what we order has been a pretty common experience during this trip. But it could be avoided with one simple trick: write it down. Most times the person taking our order doesn’t write anything down. Usually someone has to come back and clarify what we chose. But I’m not sure that would fix things – even when they write it down, we usually get served something different anyway.
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Prasat Preah Vihear is an Angkorian temple sitting atop a hill on the Cambodian/Thai border. It took hundred of years to build and was constructed by seven consecutive Khmer monarchs. It has also been in the news the past year as a point of conflict between Cambodia and Thailand culminating in military build up on both sides with occasional gunfire exchanged closing the temple to tourists. It had just reopened on the Cambodian side a few weeks before we visited, but remained closed from the Thai side. The conflict is over the land around the temple. Thailand wants more so it can build up the tourism on its side.
The LP calls the journey to Preah Vihear a “modern-day pilgrimage almost equal of any undertaking at the height of the Angkorian empire”. Needless to say, we left the next morning on the back of the motorbikes expecting the worse. It was a tough ride down terrible roads that beat the behjesus out of us, but I won’t call it a “pilgrimage”. It was way too blue collar for that. I’m still glad we did it, tho, as they are working on paving the roads leading to the temple in order to make it easy for tour buses to make the journey. Then it would be more sacrilege then pilgrimage.
About 30 minutes into the ride, a sudden rain storm hit forcing us to pull over and wait it out in some random shed along the road. Three hours later we started getting closer to the village at the bottom of the hill, which meant getting closer to the border, which meant more military. The last half an hour we rode by impromptu army bunkers stationed along the road with big machine guns and lots of guys in camo. Thankfully the road was much better.
As we rounded the corner to the village, a flock of motorbikers came out of no where and and shepherded us into town like some kind of welcoming posse. These were the guys who actually take you up the hill. They have “bigger chains” as my driver said – they had more powerful bikes and could actually make it up the steep road with a passenger.
The ride up the hill was where things got weird. First, the road was incredibly steep – up to a 35% grade in some parts. Secondly, it was lined with sandbag bunkers with huge machine guns and grenade launchers – all pointed across the valley to Thailand. They were manned by solders who, as we passed by, gave us huge smiles and waved. Friendliest army ever.
Things weren’t much more normal at the top. It was a mix of ancient temple, military outpost and village – which more closely resembled a refugee camp. There were solders (some armed, some in flip-flops) and villagers living in wooden homes or canvas tents.
We checked into the guesthouse nestled in the village and were told it only had power from 6 to 10 pm, and that we could use the buckets of water for a shower. Next to the guesthouse was a bar filled with solders watching some bad sci-fi kung fu movie. Without much else happening in town, we headed towards the temple.
We climbed the Monumental Stairway – taking you from the village to the temple – and begun walking towards the southern end that had “stupendous views” of the valley below. As we started walking up the stairs, we started feeling the effect of the ride. Everything hurt. We were whooped. And filthy. The drivers didn’t have extra helmets, so anything not covered with clothes was now covered in dirt. When we saw the Italian later that afternoon, he said he didn’t remember me having red hair.
The place was crawling with solders and tourist police. One police officer came up to us and asked where we were from and about our time in Cambodia. He then started talking about the temple and mentioned that he used to be a tour guide at Koh Ker but transferred to Preah Vihear this year. This meant that he talked mostly about Koh Ker, and not about Preah Vihear, so he wasn’t very informative.
We tried to walk off and he followed and kept talking mentioning good places to take photographs. Then I realized we had been suckered. He wanted money for his services even though we hadn’t asked for them. So I started talking about how tired I was and asked if we could sit down for a bit – thinking he’d get bored after a while and walk away.
I was determined to wait him out. After about five minutes he mentioned that he had to go make rice for lunch. Awkward silence. Then he asked if we would give him a tip for his guiding. Sure, I said, then gave him what amounted to fifty cents figuring that he would get the picture.
After he left, we walked out to the lookout and ate lunch and took a little nap. This was a mistake because the sun came out and drained us of whatever energy we had left. So we walked around to a shady part of the temple and found some flat sections and took another nap We commented on how quite the temple suddenly was and how much we enjoyed the cool breeze coming from Thailand.
After sunset we made our way back to the village and set about finding something to eat. There was one restaurant so we couldn’t be too picky. When I asked for a menu, the woman shook her head and pointed to the front towards a cart that looked like what a street vendor uses.
I followed her over to it realizing that what ever was in the tin pots was what we were having for dinner. The first pot had some rice that might have been made that morning. The second pot was filled with my worst nightmare. I don’t know what was in there, but I knew we weren’t going to eat it.
We walked around the village hopping that one of the stalls would have some fruit or something else to eat. It was late at this point and no one was selling much of anything. As we were wandering around, we passed the woman who owns the guesthouse. She asked if we were looking for something. We said we were looking for fried noodles. She offered to make some for us so we went back to the guesthouse and waited for our dinner.
Since we only had power from 6pm till 10pm, we decided to get ready for bed while there was still light. The village was still hopping but we assumed it would quiet down once the power went out. When 10pm came the power went out – just in our room. The rest of the village still had radios and tv’s going. It was going to be a long night with earplugs.
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We had planned on getting up for the sunrise. But when my alarm went off I looked out the window – it was still dark and was looking kinda cloudy. So we went back to sleep. A while later we got up and hiked back out to the viewpoint where we missed the sunrise by about 30 minutes. It didn’t look that spectacular anyway.
We met our rides at eight near the guesthouse for the ride down the hill. If going up was scary, going down was even worse. The bikes whined as we rode slow down the hill – my driver kept turing around to talk to me about learning English. We passed a solder who was cleaning a pile of RPGs in the street.
When we got down the mountain, my moto driver looked relieved to see us. He said that yesterday afternoon there was gunfire exchanged and the army wanted any tourists off the hill. He had ridden up there and looked for us but couldn’t find us anywhere. This was right around when we were napping in the shady part, and ironically, commenting on how deserted the temple felt.
We weren’t looking forward to the ride since we were still a bit beat up, but knew the first part wouldn’t be so bad. However, our drivers had changed plans and were taking us on a different set of roads back to Anlong Veng. Their reasoning was that even though the roads were worse, there would be less traffic (less dusty) and it might even be shorter. On the way out of town my driver pointed out some blue tarps in the woods. Under them were anti-aircraft guns.
The roads were horrible. Maybe even worse then the previous roads. Thy were being used by the military for securing the border as well as logging companies to continue their massive clear-cutting of Cambodia that is contributing the the dust bowl effect.
In the end, our drivers made the right call about the roads. Even though they were worse, it shaved off about 45 minutes travel time. But even when we hit the paved roads around Anlong Veng, we felt as if we had lost a street fight. Everything hurt.
Since there was only one bus a day back to Siem Reap, which left early in the morning, we decided to take a shared “taxi” – someone’s personal car – which leaves when full. We were told that the local price was $5, which we knew was way off – locals don’t pay $5 for anything – but we could hire the entire car for $25. After some bargaining, we got the taxi down to $15 for the two of us if they got other passengers.
We paid the moto drivers then went to the roundabout in the taxi and waited for people to fill the car. While the driver was walking around looking for passengers, a man wearing a military uniform got into the taxi and turned the car around and started driving. I looked back and saw the taxi driver looking helplessly as we tore down the road.
We headed out of town where he turned down a dirt path and parked outside a dilapidated wooden house. He got out and started walking around like he was looking for someone. Five minutes later he came back with another guy who got in the passenger’s seat. They didn’t say anything as we drove what we hoped was back to the city.
Turned out the military guy wanted to fill the car so he could get a good price for another solder who ended up riding with us back to Siem Reap. We were never sure if the guy who was picked up from the house actually wanted to go, or was just told to. But by how the military guy carried himself, we assumed it was the latter.