I had spent a good few days in Sen Monorom and met some amazing people who would leave a lasting impression on me. After taking a day to rest, I decided to move further northwards. This was the leg of my Cambodian journey that I was looking forward to the most. I was heading to Preah Vihear, a disputed territory at the Thai-Cambodian border and home to one of the oldest temples in the country. It was mostly off the tourist radar and I hardly knew what to expect of the place. The mystery made it all the more appealing to me. Getting there was an adventure that paid off in greater measures!
I woke up early the next day without having had enough sleep the previous night. It was cold and the blanket on my bed did not suffice. I took another one from an unoccupied bed but it made me itchy so I discarded it and curled up in the one I had. Lack of sleep and a silly spat with Parul had me in a foul mood early in the morning. This led me to a silly online debate while I sat eating an omelette at Greenhouse. The internet was abuzz with Narendra Modi’s supposed endorsement of Reliance’s new product, Jio. I was looking at half researched arguments and unbacked “facts” and took part in the pointless online tussle that I tend to stay away from. It would last the better part of the day.
The van that I boarded from Greenhouse took me till Banlung, the heart of Ratanakiri province. I tried sleeping when I could but the seats were not comfortable enough. Fortunately, the van raced on the well made highway and this leg of the journey did not take very long.
Driving through the Cambodian countryside
At Banlung I was supposed to change vans. The driver of the van I had taken from Sen Monorom, left me at a travel agency’s office and rushed away with the remaining passengers. I stood there explaining that I wanted a van to take me to Stung Treng and that the fare was already paid. The person that I spoke to nodded and told me to wait, though I doubt he understood what I was trying to convey. Within a few minutes though, a man came and asked me to follow him. He took me to the food joint a few buildings down the road and stuffed my bag into the boot of the van that was waiting on the road. I supposed that this was the van I was to take till Stung Treng and this man was the driver. He then acted out to ask if I wanted to eat. I declined initially but watching him go to the restaurant and sit down to eat, I took some time and decided to follow suit. I joined his table with some pork ribs and rice and was just getting started when my driver was wrapping up. My online debate occupying me intermittently, I was slow to eat and the driver urged me to eat up a couple of times. I nodded and got to it.
While I sat eating, I saw the driver get up and pay his bill. Then he closed the doors of the minivan and took off in it. I sat eating and the van was gone before I could react! The driver had not seemed too keen on running away with my bag so I decided not to freak out. I supposed he had just gone ahead to the booking office. However, I did hasten to finish my food and paid my bill and peeped outside. The van was not standing at the booking office! I forced myself to remain calm for a bit more. I had my valuables with me in the smaller bag and it might not have been impossible to track down a driver who had sat lunching with me in a restaurant. I asked the people at the restaurant if they knew where the driver had gone. The staff shrugged but another man at the table that we had sat asked me to sit down and wait. He was going to Stung Treng as well and told me that the driver would be back in a bit. I took his advice and waited with forcefully subdued anxiety. Just like he had said, the driver returned and asked us to get going. He had simply gone to pick up another passenger.
Pro Tip #16
Don’t leave your bag in a van while you eat! More generally, don’t part with your bags unless absolutely necessary.
This van proved to be much more conducive to somnolence. I woke up intermittently to a lush green countryside. We stopped a few times and went around a bit to find a few pick up points that the driver was trying to locate. It cost us a little extra time but I was in no hurry. I was too busy enjoying the scenery.
We were in the Ratanakiri province of Cambodia and the beauty and rawness of nature out here was mesmerising. 🌳💚🌳 I had initially considered staying here for a few days but Mondulkiri and Ratnakiri back to back would have been slightly monotonous. Once all the pick ups were done, we stuck to the highway and the driver picked up speed. I managed a small nap and woke up just in time as the van entered the lanes of Stung Treng. We got to the drop-off point shortly and, as if on cue, the pregnant skies let down water in a torrential downpour. I was looking for a shelter when the men from the adjacent police station called me into their modest one room office. I thanked them and sat watching the repeat telecast of a Leicester City vs Arsenal match on the CRT television. I tried talking a bit but the lack of a common language proved to be a hindrance. The rain kept at it for the better part of the hour and then slowed down to a drizzle. I thanked the cops once more, put on my poncho and headed out to find a place to crash for the night.
A rainy welcome
Stung Treng is the last Cambodian town on the way to Laos. It is a bustling town much bigger than a few I had seen in the last week but held little attraction for a tourist. At best, it was used as a stop-over for travellers on their way out of or in to the Cambodian nation. I walked to the hotel that everyone had suggested I take. This was right next to the drop-off point and these guys were giving me a big room for 6 USD. I refused, thinking I might be able to get a better deal for a smaller room somewhere inside the town. So I walked in the slight rain, looking for a suitable place to stay.
After two offers of 7 USD each, I decided to take the second one. I was just being obtuse and refusing to accept the normal rates of the country. Good Cambodian lodging came in the 7-10 USD range. Period.
Cambodia Tip #6
Cambodia is not really the place for cheap lodging. If you decide to go off the beaten path, forget all about those 5 dollar dorms.
I took the second one and settled in. I washed up and then left to figure out onwards transportation to Sra’em. I was still not decided on whether I would leave the following day or the day after but I thought it would be nice to know my options beforehand. But first, I decided to take a walk along the river.
Stung Treng riverside
As I walked along the river, clicking pictures and looking for a possible way to go down to the banks of the Mekong, I came upon two men loudly conversing in Bhojpuri. They were sitting on the embankment by the river and enjoying beers. I crossed them initially but then reconsidered and decided I must talk to them. I went back and asked them where they were from in Hindi. They immediately offered me a seat and a beer. These guys were from around Gorakhpur and had been living in Cambodia for 13 years now! The more seasoned one of the two had also lived in Thailand for 6 years prior to this and could speak Khmer. He showed off his skills by cat-calling some girls who happened to pass by. The girls seemed to take it sportingly enough and smiled back. These guys made good money by selling clothes. They lived in an apartment not far from where we sat and told me that there was a total of 8-9 of them living together. Pintu, the seasoned one, had a wife and two young children back home. The other one, Raju Sharma, was quite interested in knowing why I was in Stung Treng. He had also worked in Vietnam and expressed interest when I told him I had taught there for a month. We talked for a while and then the two left to keep some prior engagement. They asked me to meet them in the same place the next evening and warned me against walking all the way along the river. I heeded their advice and took a longer route back to the center of the town.
Yet another pagoda
I reached the main market and enquired at the Sorya office for a bus to Sra’em. There was none and the lady at the office told me to ask at the Riverside guest house right next to the minivan stop. I walked through the market and came upon a stall that was selling peculiar creatures. I had no idea that Cambodians ate squirrels, dragon lizards and lemurs! I stopped to look and felt a little uncomfortable with the state in which these creatures were stored and displayed. The owner of the stall noticed the camera in my hand and happily urged me to take pictures. I half-heartedly took one before moving on, realising the hypocrisy of my discomfit.
I walked to the Riverside guest house and asked about transportation to Sra’em. The woman quoted 13 USD which sounded reasonable but I told her that I would think about it and come back later to book. I enquired in another place before heading back to my hotel to rest a while. I made up my mind to head out to Sra’em the very next day and walked back out a little later to book the ticket and grab a bite. I went back to the Riverside only to find it’s doors shut! It was not even 7:30 in the evening and this was supposedly a guest house. I walked back thinking of grabbing a bite in one of the places I had seen earlier in the afternoon. Many of them were wrapping up or had closed shop. This town went to bed way too early. I finally found a small place a few doors down from my hotel and ate a bowl of rice porridge. It was hot, delicious and cheap!
I returned to the hotel without a ticket for the next day but decided to checkout and head to the minivan stand early the next morning to try arranging a ride myself. I called it an early night for I had nothing better to do in this sleepy town.
I checked out of the hotel early the next morning and headed to the minivan stop. My rudimentary research had told me that I needed to head to Preah Vihear first and then change for Sra’em. So I asked around for a van to Preah Vihear and a boy directed me to a van that was in the process of loading up. This van was the “normal” one and would cost me 5 USD. I was offered another, the “VIP” van which, I suppose, was faster and less crowded. This one was being offered for 7.5 USD and I agreed to the price. There was time for the van to leave so I sat by the riverside and had some food and coffee. It was a plate of chicken and rice for a dollar, a rate that I understand and like. We started around 8:15 AM and picked up a few passengers on the way out of the town.
Chicken and rice : Cheap and efficient breakfast
Cambodia Tip #7
In case you know where the minivan stop is, simply walk up to the stand early in the morning and book a seat then and there. Booking through restaurants, guest houses or travel offices affords an unnecessary premium.
We took the highway and the road was scenic as usual. There “VIP” van was living up to it’s expectation and had barely any stops all the way to Preah Vihear. This town was the center of the district of the same name. I had run into some confusion while researching online. The temple I was looking for was called the Preah Vihear temple and it was located in the Preah Vihear district but the Preah Vihear town was not the closest one to the temple! The closest town was Sra’em, which was around 50 kms north of Preah Vihear town.
The minivan dropped me at the taxi stand which was humming with action. As soon as I got out, I was jumped upon by drivers willing to take me to Sra’em, or wherever they thought I was going. The van driver helped me with the translations and I was looking at a Toyota Camry that was to be my next ride for another 5 USD. I stuffed myself into the sedan with the driver, 5 other adults and 2 children! If the setup sounds uncomfortable, let me add that there was an oversized lady in the car who had stretched out quite luxuriously and a drunk man between her and me who dozed off and slid into a sleeping position behind me. The only good part about this ride was the driver playing some Cambodian rock music that Shazam could not catch. But since the driver barely spoke any English, discussing music with him was rather pointless.
Stuffed in a Camry
A few people got off a little before Sra’em and I went to the front seat to sit comfortably for the remaining few kilometers. The driver asked me for my hotel and when I told him I did not have a reservation, he asked me if I wanted to go to Sok San. I shrugged my shoulders; why not? This hotel was a kilometer to the west of the main town. The main town itself was little more than a junction with lots of shops. I checked the room at Sok San and inquired the rates at the hotel next doors. I did not have many options and I was not in the mood to walk back to the town, so I settled for a dingy room in Sok San for 8 USD. They even had a motodop that would take me to the temple’s ticket counter and back for 10 USD. It was around mid noon and I expressed my concern about clouds and reduced visibility but the motodop rider’s confidence won me over and I quickly got ready to go.
Beautiful ride to Preah Vihear Temple
Sra’em was a complete unknown when it came to planning. I had looked up things online and the most recent information that I could find was at least 3-4 years old. Much had changed since then. The motodop rides had gone from 4 to 10 USD. The entry to the temple was no longer free. There was a 10 USD ticket which you needed to buy at a counter at the base of the hill. From here, one had two options. Either take a different motodop to and back, costing another 5 USD. Or else, one could climb the steps up to the mountain. I was evaluating my options while I sat behind the driver who rode me to the ticket counter. The road was nice and the weather seemed to be clear, which meant that I might get a good view from the top.
At the counter, I decided to take the stairs to the top. They warned me that it was roughly a 1.5 km hike one way and a whooping total of 2243 steps! They told me it would take me an hour and a half one way but I dismissed them. It would not take me that long even if there were no steps. I jumped back on the motodop and he took me to the base of the steps which was a little way away from the ticket counter. I foolishly miscalculated the time and told him that I would be back by 3, which was just 2 hours later. I should have taken another hour and asked him to meet me at 4. Anyway, I braced myself for the climb up ahead and started on the track that led to the steps.
An Ancient Temple
The Preah Vihear Temple is a sixth century Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. The temple and it’s surrounding area have been a constant topic of dispute between Thailand and Cambodia. It’s setting is supposed to be the most magnificent of all the temples built in the Khmer Empire. I took the wooden staircase that had been built to complement and replace the original stone paved path. This staircase was an extremely pretty one; probably the prettiest that I have seen. It was comfortably stilted on the boulders and wound up under the foliage of the verdant slope. A small stream flowed right next to it and at times overflowed on to the staircase.
Long way up
I was rushing and my heart was pounding in my chest all the time. My thighs felt heavy in a bit and the exhaustion of the arduous climb set in. I grew heady on exertion and realised why Shiva was always atop hills and mountains. To find Shiva one needs to be in an altered state of mind. Riding up the mountain on a motorbike will never show you Shiva in his entirety. This forest was Shiva; the sceneries I came across was him; the snake that slithered away into a bush on my approach was him. This was how you found Shiva, and not by taking motodops to the mountain top!
The stairs were marked every 10 steps. I found the last 1000 steps somewhat difficult. I had done the first half in 15 minutes and took another 25 for the next half. There were resting points at short intervals but I was attempting something of a personal challenge. I did not stop except for taking photographs. Military tents were in abundance all along the steps. The Thai-Cambodian border conflict was subdued by the threat still remained. In the last few tents some men sat beating a drum and drinking rice wine. They shouted out an invitation to me but I declined. I was pressed for time. Suddenly I felt stupid for not having taken the motodop rider’s phone number!
I finally counted the last of the steps and walked to the entrance of the temple. Throughout the climb I had not encountered one other tourist taking the steps. I sat a while on the broad pathway that led to the temple and looked around. There were a few tourists coming by bikes and I was at the end of a burst of about ten of them. These mostly seemed locals but for some reason I had imagined even less visitors to the temple. I suppose coming to the temple was a popular activity for the denizens of the surrounding area, much like local temples are frequented in India.
The paved path where I sat resting was unusually broad and lent a weird aspect ratio to the temple. The entrance (one of many) to the temple stood at the far end of the walkway and I started walking in that direction. A steep flight of stairs led to the entrance and it was followed by another (relatively) shorter path. The ruins seemed to be pretty well preserved. Most of the murals and carvings on the stones had lost their details but the structure itself was well preserved or restored.
Gates and frames
The green of the surroundings and the grey of the stone provided a serene setting. The occasional cloud passing over the mountain made everything misty and a slight drizzle broke in temperamentally.
This path led to the main temple complex and I walked in from one of the gates at the front. There was an outer area with auxiliary temples right before the main section. This section was strangely reminiscent of Somnathpura. There was a primary chamber for the gods and a gallery running all around. Lots of stones lay about, parts of an erstwhile structure that had not yet been restored. I walked about for a bit and went inside the temple for a look. A Buddhist monk sat performing ceremonies for those who sought his services. There were many idols kept in a dark corner and I could make out multiple Buddhas and a Ganesha among them. A few boys hung about, helping the monk, dispensing of the lit incense sticks and playing candy crush.
Approach to the main temple
I walked back out and around. There had been intermittent drizzle all the time I was on the top. We were high enough for the clouds to surround us leading to times with poor visibility. It let up for a bit and I saw a really nice view on one side of the temple. Then it got foggy again quickly and I walked around looking for tourist-less frames. Another burst of people had come trickling in but a little patience got me some good shots despite the huge open areas that a frame managed to cover out here. I was in total awe of the verdant greenery all around.
I was planning to head back since it was getting close to the time I had committed to my motodop driver. But the weather cleared up again and I thought I would quickly take a look at the rear side of the temple, the only side I had not seen till now. This turned out to be the point with the best view! There was an exceptional view of the landscape all around. We were at a pretty high altitude (2243 steps) and the land around was mostly low lying. There was another hill nearby and clouds visibly floated under our level. It was no surprise to find all the tourists accumulated here. Most of them were busy in taking selfies and I took a couple of my own. 📷 👹 I also talked to a man who was planning to start a home stay with bike rental facilities for tourists. That would be really nice for budget travellers. I enjoyed the scenery the best I could. I wanted to sit a while but it was already quarter to three. I took off.
Temple with a view
It took me 15 minutes to cross the temple and reach the beginning of the steps and another 20 minutes to run down them all. I could see better scenery on the way down. The guards I crossed kept asking me where I was from. Maybe they were intrigued by the only tourist taking the steps or perhaps they wanted to make sure that the Indian who had taken the stairs reached all the way down; an unofficial checkpoint of sorts.
Overdose of beauty
There are many more pictures of the beautiful temple in the album at the end of the post. 😊
My motodop rider was waiting for me when I reached the base and we took off immediately. I cooled down on the ride back. I was hot and my legs were trembling from all the exhaustion, but this had been worth all the effort and time. Mostly because of the lack of tourists and that exhilarating view!
The motodop ride must have been a total of 40-50 kms to and fro and considering that he had waited for me for 2 hours or so, the price of 10 USD seemed reasonable enough. I paid and thanked my rider at the hotel and then took a bath in the reeking bathroom. Then I thought I would head out to grab a bite before relaxing for the day. I had read about some volcano fire grilled food on the online blogs during my research about Sra’em, but I was told that the restaurant that served it was no longer open. I asked for other options but I was vaguely guided towards the market. I sat at a joint at the junction and ate some rice and food. I was in between meal times but it did not seem like the town saw much action other than van and truck drivers. A bunch of them sat a few tables down gambling over a card game. The restaurant ripped me off as well and charged me almost 4 USD for a plate of rice and vegetables.
The Sra'em roundabout
I dropped my plan of staying here for another day and went back to the hotel to tell them that I would take the van out to Siem Reap the next morning. Then I saw a movie and laid back in the bed to spend the rest of the evening indoors. My body deserved some rest after this tiring day.
Whether you enjoyed the post or not, do leave a comment!
Find the previous posts in this series here.
And here is the complete album of the Preah Vihear leg of the trip.