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The temples of Preah Khan
Stung Treng (Cambodia), February 9th 2009

Preah Khan is one of the largest complexes of the former Angkorian kingdom in Cambodia and researchers thinks that the complex is built in the 9th century. Preah Khan is not often visited by travellers, because it is not easy to reach and because it is not in the vicinity of the other major Angkor temples at Siem Reap. But we decided to go and travelled therefore from Siem Reap by bus to the town of Kampong Thom.

The road to Preah Khan is very bad. It is advised to go to the temples by motorcycle or by a 4 WD jeep. However, the driver that we hired for this trip assured us that his 2 WD Toyota Camry would be suitable for the trip, so we decided to go with him. We leave kampong Thom at 06.00 o’clock in the morning. The trip seems to be 120 kilometres and after the first 20 kilometres, we leave the sealed road and enter a gravel road. The first stretch of the gravel path is ok, and the driver tells us that the most critical part of the journey will be the last 25 kilometres, which will take around 2 hours.

We drive through a vast agricultural area where we see many small farming activities. People live in small houses that are built on poles. During the day, people spend as much time as possible under their houses, to protect themselves against the sun. During the night, this placed is reserved for the cattle of the family. Along the whole stretch, children are waiving to us. It is great to see that people are welcoming us so spontaneously, especially for the parents of Ivonne who are travelling with us for seven weeks. One of the things that they really wanted to see is the real Asia. And this is it. We see ox carts everywhere and once in a while the road is blocked by water buffaloes. Along the road are small stalls where local villagers try to sell some of the food and drinks they offer to passing vehicles. Many of the people we see are still wearing the traditional Khmer fabrics on their head, and most women are wearing the traditional Khmer skirts.

View on the temples of Preah Khan

After the villages, we enter an area that is not used for agricultural activities. And within a couple of minutes we know why. Next to the road are red signs with skulls that warn the people for landmines. Big parts of Cambodia are cleared, but in some areas it is still possible to become a victim of land mines. When we make a stop to do a pee, we have to do it on the main path. It will take decades and decades to remove all the land mines. Most of the activities to remove the mines are paid by western aid organisations.

The last 25 kilometres of the ride to Preah Khan are very bad. The path consists of loose sand and the Toyota Camry has difficulties taking this road. The driver knows how to drive and steers his car professionally over this sand piste. The bottom of the car grazes once in a while over the sand path, but the car keeps going. After almost 4 hours of driving, we finally arrive at Preah Khan. There is nobody there, except for two men in official uniforms that look surprised at us from their hammock. Nobody exactly knows what their function is, but for a small donation they show us around. The guy that walks with us doesn’t speak any English, but at least he does his best to show us the best places of the temple complex. Preah Khan is not the place to go if you want to see the most beautiful temple. The temple is severely damaged and partly destroyed by gold diggers, who must have thought that they could still find treasures from the past. It is the location that makes this temple special. Some books write that the temple is still swallowed by the jungle, but that is not true. Most trees are removed, but the location is still beautiful. And another advantage of this temple is that you probably have the place for yourself. It is relaxed and serene. No other tourist and no sellers who want to offer you drinks, pineapples or postcards. But not for long for us. We see and hear a noisy group of local people approaching us. There are living in a village 35 kilometres away, and are visiting the temple to picnic. They have a child of three years with them, and when we smile to the little kid, she almost starts crying. Her mother apologises for her behaviour by saying to us that it is her daughters first time to encounter foreign people.

With the help of a 4 WD jeep, our car comes finally loose
The further we explore the Preah Khan temples, the more surprised we are about the bad condition of the temples. Most buildings are destroyed since the 1990’s by looters in search for statues and decorative panels. And it is easy to see that these looters were well equipped. They must have brought bulldozers, stone saw’s and pneumatic hammers to rob the temple of his beauty. It is sad to see that this temple survived more than 1000 years in the jungle, and that it is destroyed only in the last 20 years, by pure greed.

After spending a couple of hours at the temple, it was time to start with our return journey. These are the hottest hours of the day, and the sand seems to be looser than this morning. The colour of the car is changed in the colour of the sand. The driver is still doing a great job, but it is easy to see that the car has more difficulties than this morning. After 45 minutes of driving, the car gets stuck in the sand. The front wheels loose their grip and the car comes to a halt, while the wheels are still spinning. The driver gets out of the car and starts digging. In our opinion he makes the fault by trying to get the car out in the direction in where the car was driving. The result is that more and more sand disappears from under the front wheels, what results in the situation that the bottom of the car touches the ground. Now the car is really stuck, and we have to wait fro help. But we are extremely lucky today. A jeep approaches us in where a Japanese group of temple researches is travelling. They also visited the temple today and are on the way back to Siem Reap. This is real luck because the number of vehicles on this road is almost zero. And the first village is 15 kilometres away. The first attempt to pull loose the car fails, because the rope breaks. But fortunately the second attempt is successful and we thank the Japanese people for their help. They warn us to be careful because otherwise we will get stuck again. We lost more than an hour, but we are happy to be on the road again.

The remaining part of the journey goes by prosperous. At some stretches we are scared that we get stuck again, but each time our driver knows how to keep the Toyota moving. When we are back on the good gravel track again, it is time to have a breather and a drink. We stop at a small street stall where we buy fresh squeezed sugar cane juice. This is delicious! As soon as we arrive in Kampong Thom at the hotel, we are soon surrounded by taxi drivers that laugh at us in a typical Cambodian way when they hear our story. When they see the print of our hands on the car because of the pushing, they even laugh harder. And our driver? He has a good time too and smiles from ear to ear. We had a great day. The temples were not as impressive as we hoped them to be, but the adventure going there and coming back, was unforgettable.

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