Saturday, 26 December 2009

Could They All Be Cambodian Girls?

From the Google map the great temple of Banteay Chmar in north west Cambodia shows as a square block and to the east is the huge baray or lake, now mainly cultivated as rice paddies, with an island temple in the middle.

The only boat is too small so the only way is to walk it.

I boldly waded across the swamp, at first with my shorts on.

On the island there's a dry moat so there should be a temple here somewhere.

Now we've found part of the stone lining to the moat.

The first glimpse of stonework is really exciting.

And I foolishly try to climb the wall to get inside.

We find some really fine stonework and carvings.

And the Hulk takes some pics of us just for the record.

I met him on the internet as one does and we went off to Cambodia together looking for what he calls ‘his girls’.

He is totally focused in his quest, he cannot get enough of them and totally adores them, obsessively photographing each and every one. Given that at Angkor Wat alone, there are precisely 1,780 of these girls, that’s no small undertaking.

To him they are supremely beautiful, mysterious, bewitching, even though they are of course much older women and are carved in stone.

It had all happened like this.

Some time ago I’d posted a blog article called, “Thai School Girls Turned Apsara”, (16 March 2009), about the traditional dancing in our local Khmer temple at Sikoraphum in Surin province. This post included pictures of the temple’s very fine carvings of these ‘devata’ as they are called and in no time at all he’d got in touch. Soon we’d struck up a firm cyber friendship, as one sometimes can, and the emails were flying to and fro.

It’s strange how quickly you get to know someone just by exchanging emails but somehow I was finding it hard to remember his name. Was he Clark Kent or Kent Clark? Indiana somebody perhaps, but was it Thomas, Davis or Jones?

He was both scholar and publisher, an explorer across the ages, but could American parents really have named their son after a small county south of London that grows vegetables?

Kent Davis then foolishly allowed me to go with him on a great adventure to Cambodia, and he proved to be amazing company, tolerating me for what was a very memorable week indeed. He was unfailingly energetic and enthusiastic and, in the best possible way, irrepressibly American!

I’ve heard it said though, perish the thought, that Americans can on occasion suffer an irony deficit, especially about themselves. Kent however scoops the pool. He was always ready with a rapier sharp quip. He does irony in buckets and spades, often garnished with a world weary cynicism that can be hilariously funny. Together we boldly waded across a treacherous swamp to find and photograph the hidden temple on the island and he always kept me smiling.

We were way off the beaten track at Banteay Chmar, the deserted ancient Khmer complex in the north west of Cambodia. (See the blog article below.) We’d spent many hours that day out in the heat exploring this huge site and now I’m ready to drop.

‘There’s a mebon temple on an island in the baray a few miles away,’ says Kent, his eyes lighting up, ‘and I just have to see it in case there’s more devata there’.

‘How do we cross the baray though?’ I ask with no small hint of scepticism.

‘I’ve booked a boat and a guide. It’s easy,’ said Kent, brimming with optimism.

Mine was not to reason why and our driver eventually found the place where the boat was supposed to be waiting. We got out, scrambled up a dusty slope and there spread in front of us was a vast lake, spotted with rice paddies and in the blue distance an island covered in trees.

Then we found our boat. It was just a small dugout canoe, a bit wider than my thumbs and next to it in the water stood our guide. A cool looking Cambodian youth in jeans, his tee shirt bore the one word, “HULK”.

‘You don’t think we’re all going in that thing?’ I say, aghast. ‘It’s hardly big enough to take a tailor’s dummy, let alone you!’ Kent looks a little put out.

‘But it’s an amazing design… I love traditional boats,’ I add to lighten the mood. ‘Who made it and why the strange rounded bow?’

It turns out that Hulk himself had carved the dugout from a big tree and the bow was his own idea. It was, he says, inspired by the shape of the bombs the Americans had dropped on Cambodia in such dreadful numbers.

Kent no longer seems dismayed and grasps the nettle. ‘If we can’t go by boat, then we’ll have to walk,’ he says. ‘How deep’s the water?’ he asks the Hulk.

The Hulk stops smiling and indicates his armpits.

‘But it’s probably infested with leeches and scorpions, with water snakes, crocodiles, mines and mosquitoes,’ I mutter to no avail. Kent is now smiling encouragement.

Five minutes later I’m wading up to my armpits in deep mud, my shorts on my head, my camera, mobile, money, passport and dignity all at serious risk of a fall into the mire.

It’s heavy going but eventually we’re stepping ashore on the island where no tourist can have gone before and I have a soggy sense of anti-climax. It’s covered in trees and scrub and our guide has no idea where to find the temple, even if there is one. Have we got ourselves so wet and muddy for nothing?

Then we find what appears to be a dry moat of the kind that surrounds most ancient Khmer monuments and spot what is clearly the laterite lining of the moat. We persist for a few more minutes and soon discover some substantial stone work. There is a temple here after all so there must be some girls too. Kent’s getting excited.

We force our way through the undergrowth and we’re standing below a wall of vast stone blocks. The Hulk scrambles nimbly up it and I follow somewhat less nimbly, aware that he’s a third my age. More sensible to have a major accident near a world class hospital in Sukhumvit than stuck out here in the back of beyond.

Then I realize I can get into the temple by going round the wall rather than over the top of it. Kent is close behind me, his camera recording the stonework. And yes, there are some fine carvings and devata and we tear away the vegetation for a closer look and a photo or two.

Clearly this is an important site, the lake temple a holy of holies set on the island in the baray, a man made lake that had both spiritual significance for the Khmers and practical significance as a water source. When Kent later gave me a Google map, I could see how the ancient site of Banteay Chmar and the baray lie alongside each other and somehow it’s spellbinding. Everything is so overgrown that it’s difficult to see it on the ground but with the map all is crystal clear and its sheer scale is breathtaking.

That day was another great experience on a memorable trip and what’s more we’d found some girls. I’d flicked a deadly scorpion off Kent’s shoulder, there’d been plenty of male bonding and at the end of it all we came back for another beer. I was learning stuff too.

I was beginning to get an idea why Kent is so interested in the devata on the temples and in the current renaissance of classical dance since Cambodia’s darkest days. He told me of his publishing ventures (see, and he posed the question to me, why is it that so many images of women dominate the monuments at Angkor? What is their significance and why are they all so very different?

Their poses differ, he pointed out, as does their clothing and head dress. Their body shapes vary from young, slim girls to older women with pucker marks around the navel who have clearly borne children. Their features again suggest that these are real individuals and not just mass images of mythical women.

Kent even plans to try to analyse their facial structures as their racial characteristics seem to differ widely. They could all be Cambodia girls but just as likely some are Chinese, some from Java or Thailand and from regions that paid tribute to the great kings at Angkor. (See

How fortunate I was that day, following Kent through deep, deep mud out to the mebon temple as he loudly hummed a repetitive Beach Boys theme. My bare legs were lacerated by the undergrowth, the mosquitoes had made a meal of me and my muscles ached for days afterwards.

But it was all worthwhile.

If it wasn’t for him, I’d have missed all of this, have stayed comfortably at home and to this day I’d still not know what a devata was.

Copyright Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog December 2009

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Lost Khmer City of Banteay Chmar

A figure guards the entrance to the temple at Banteay Chmar.

Modern politics intrudes on the timeless scene at the temples

The site was first mapped by the French and is extensive.

The Cambodian flag flies over the front entrance to the temple.

A collapsed section of the wall is being pieced together.

The stones are massive and it's all done by hand.

The work of reassembling the low reliefs on the wall is under way.

Khmer soldiers present severed heads to their masters.

As always the stonework is lavishly decorated with carvings.

In the extensive workshops, a smith uses a forge.

Peter and Kent explore the ruins.

Indiana Tucker almost bashes his head on the temple of doom.

Every turn finds a new chaos of ruins.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia, one of the greatest ancient temple sites in the world receives hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors a year. There are traffic jams around the sites and it’s hard not to feel oppressed by the sheer volume of tourists that now overwhelm the temples. After decades of political instability it is good for Cambodia that tourism has taken off so fast but there are risks. I was first there at Angkor nine years ago and it was very different indeed.

The whole experience of visiting the Khmer ruins has to some extent been spoiled as, visiting now in 2009, you’ve come at least ten years too late. However, there’s more to the Khmer kingdom than Angkor and Cambodia still offers some hidden surprises.

I’ve just come back from seeing the ancient temple at Banteay Chmar and it was a remarkable experience.

We crossed the border at Chong Jom in Thailand’s Surin province and drove in a hired 4x4 on dusty roads for an hour or two before coming to a poor little town. It was only different from the others we’d passed through because it had a tree lined moat on the other side of which you could see some extensive stone ruins. This was our objective, the ‘lost city’ of Banteay Chmar built by Jayavarman VII, Cambodia’s hyperactive builder of vast stone temples.

While this huge complex was first recorded by the French, its physical isolation, the civil wars in Cambodia and the cultural heritage existing at the centre of the Angkorian empire means that work on clearing the site was only started about eighteen months ago. For us arriving here at this early stage must thus be how it was when visitors came to Angkor many decades ago. Things may now move quite fast though and a well-attended conference in August 2009 discussing the management of the temple and the possibility of application for listing as a World Heritage Site has stimulated considerable interest.

Our first task was now to find somewhere to stay. There are no hotels as such in the town so our driver found us a ‘homestay’ down a dusty side street. There seemed to be a choice of two and ours offered three clean rooms in a well built local house.

As for lunch, there were no restaurants apparent either, though we found an eating place just opposite the entrance to the ruins, run by a pleasant couple who even spoke a little English.

Food sorted, it was time to enter the temple.

Passing a pair of stone figures and a sign recording the recent de-mining programme, we crossed the causeway over the moat and reached the walls of the city where the Cambodian flag was flying. To our left was a closed off site where workers were sorting out the scatter of fallen stones and rebuilding a section of the wall and gallery. On the walls all around the temple precinct are carved low reliefs similar to those on the Bayon temple at Angkor, showing an exotic array of characters and battles, both human and mythological. Warfare is ever present and one particularly grizzly relief shows the victors displaying the severed heads of the enemy.

Inside the walls was a world that time has forgotten, a chaotic tumble of massive blocks of stone, of standing ruins and shattered towers, all encroached upon by huge white trees and bathed in dappled light. The glory days of the temple were almost a millennium ago but there was now only a few hours before another day drew to its close. It’s size was astounding and we had it all to ourselves, a magical other world for us to discover and explore.

On arriving I’d seen on one of the site notices the name of John Sanday who I’d met on two earlier occasions when visiting Preah Khan at Angkor where he was directing restoration work on behalf of the World Monuments Fund. On producing his card from my wallet, we were immediately taken to his office on the edge of the town where he very graciously dropped the more important things he was doing and took us on a tour of the site.

It was fascinating to be taken round by someone of his knowledge and experience and to hear the story of how he had initiated this project, now working with the Global Heritage Fund. Within a very sort time he has cleared the site of all vegetation, has stabilized some of the more precarious structures and started building wooden walk ways over the fallen rocks as access is difficult and dangerous.

Having set up site buildings and workshops, including a forge, he has also focussed on the important task of training local staff. Two stone naga heads have been found in good condition at the front of the temple and he hopes to restore the platform to allow for dancing and other events. Most importantly the fallen stones from the low reliefs to the left of the entrance have been moved, numbered and laid out on the ground and progress is being made on rebuilding the wall.

Most exciting of all, he told us of the project to develop a computer software that could assist in solving the most difficult jig saw puzzle in the world. It’s supposed to work like this. Each stone would be suspended and a digital image taken of all its surfaces. When the stones for a section of wall have all been scanned, all you have to do is press control/alt/delete or whatever and hey presto the computer tells you exactly how the stones fit together. At least that’s how it’ll happen in an ideal world and it would be a significant breakthrough if so.

Even with the help of a thousand computers though, many a life time is needed to achieve much progress with this site. The scale of the ruins makes the prospect of restoration totally daunting, a truly herculean task, and all the king’s men could never possibly put it all back together again. Perhaps therefore they should not even try to do so.

There may be considerable political pressures to recreate the structures as they were for the benefit of tourists but this is always a questionable aim. Reconstructed Khmer monuments often look a bit of a mess. Far better in my view, to prevent further dilapidation but otherwise to leave a rare virgin site such as this in the historical condition in which it is now found. A few sections of low relief should perhaps be reconstructed to show visitors how they once were, but otherwise the ruins should be left much as they now are.

What matters more than reconstruction is archeology, that the site be studied in order to learn more about the Khmers and how they used their buildings. Far more important than cobbling ruins back together again is to discover historical information. It is of course important to ascertain what was on the collapsed reliefs, but generally rebuilding the site would be intrusive and mistaken.

A far better alternative is to produce computer simulations and on-site panels with pictures and text interpreting the ruins for the visitor. At the many Angkor sites themselves, huge effort has gone into piling stones back on top of each other but there is precious little museum-style interpretation for the visitor. I get the impression too that the huge burden of managing monuments of this magnitude has also drawn resources away from the important task of pure archeology in and surrounding the temples.

How to conserve sites such as these is of course fiercely debated and my two penny worth adds nothing. I can only say though that it was a privilege to have seen Banteay Chmar as it begins to awaken from its long slumber.

John Sanday told us that one of the things that will inhibit the development of hotels and other facilities for tourists is a severe shortage of water. Perhaps, I wonder, seeing the frenetic pace of construction at Siem Reap, that might in the long run be no bad thing.

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl’ Blog December 2009

Friday, 11 December 2009

Isaan to Angkor Wat - Where, Why, How?

It's beauteous at the temples and you can end up with too many scarves.

It can be a long and dusty road to get there though,

And many of the outlying villages are pretty poor.

Siem Reap town itself is a pleasant base for temple hopping though.

It's full of old markets and patient faces waiting for a sale.

The people are delightful and family life revolves around the children.

To get to the temples you take a motorbike tuk tuk for the day.

This temple in the town is a gem but is untouched by the foreign hordes.

Life in the countryside goes on as a new rice crop is sown.

Isaan to Angkor Wat – Where, Why, How?

I’ve just boldly been to Angkor Wat and I’m amazed because it now takes only two hours by the new road from Thailand’s Si Saket border crossing.

So why did I want to go to Angkor in Cambodia?

Because it’s so close to home here in Surin province, because it’s one of the greatest ancient temple complexes in the world and because it haunts my mind and I just can’t keep away.

The trouble is that it’s been hard to get there as the roads have been so bad. My map shows the main access road from Aranyaprathet/Poipet to Siem Reap as ‘impassable in the wet season’ and I well remember in the dry season of January 2002 bumping along it at walking pace, the old pickup dropping down into the water courses where the bridges were broken and slowly negotiating the deep pot holes and craters. We’d paid extra to be in the cab and not outside in the dust and sun. Trouble was another six people had paid to be in the cab and with the windows jammed closed and with no aircon, it was more than hot!

In my novel, THAI GIRL, the girl in a travel agents shop in Khao San Road, (Bangkok’s backpacker centre), tells Ben and Emma about taking an open truck from Aranyaprathet to Angkor. “Road no good but very cheap. Twenty people in the back, hot and dirty… nine hours, maybe twelve. Better you fly aeroplane if you care your ass.”

That time I took her advice and flew from Bangkok into Siem Reap but suddenly everything has changed. The major routes are now in good condition and the 150 kilometres from Aranyprathet/Poipet to Siem Reap for Angkor can be done in under three hours. Another time I went from Trat to Koh Kong in Cambodia, took a boat to Sihanoukville, a bus to Phnom Penh, a boat six hours up the river and to the end of the Great Lake and then a motorbike into Siem Reap. It took five days and I’ve just got back to the Surin border in exactly two hours.

For me now living in Surin province in Isaan, there’s no more any need to travel two sides of a triangle five hours westwards to Aranyaprathet and then three hours east again to Siem Reap. These great temples lie directly to the south of us, perhaps only 100 kilometres from the Thai border and now it’s possible to get to them that way. Or is it?

I’ve found it extraordinarily difficult to find out about the roads, but having just gone in a circle, crossing the border from Surin, going anti-clockwise to Angkor and returning to Si Saket, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned.

The major border crossing across the massive natural barrier of the Dongrak Mountains in southern Isaan has always been from Surin’s Chong Jom to O’Smach in Cambodia. Here on the Thai side there’s a huge market and a four lane highway that sweeps you smoothly up to the border. As you cross, there’s a glitzy casino and a big resort and it’s all horribly slick and impressive.

After that though as you enter Cambodia, it’s all downhill in more ways than one. The unsealed road plunges down the Dongraks in a series of bumpy hairpins, the dust billowing and the car plunging wildly. It’s hard to think this moonscape of a road can be passable in the wet season, except with four wheel drive. The next 100 kilometres or so is then a reasonable dirt road, before it reaches the Poipet road and you turn left in a dog leg eastwards to Siem Reap.

To promote international friendship and cross border trade, a new route has now been developed from Chong Sanggam in Si Saket province with substantial Thai money being spent on good sealed roads. On Thailand’s Route 24 at Ban Lalom just west of Phusing the big blue signs now show the turn off to Angkok Wat. The road across the border on both sides is so new, it probably doesn’t appear on your map but it does exist and is well signed from Route 24.

Once in Cambodia the road is direct and fast and coming back and completing our circle we covered the fast road from Siem Reap to the border in exactly two hours. The only problem is that, unlike Chong Jom, the border crossing itself is totally undeveloped, a dusty road through the dry jungle with a few barriers, push carts and portakabins.

Using either entry point, you’ll have to be dropped at the border as leaving your vehicle there would be more than risky. You also ideally need to have booked a Cambodian car to meet you and to take you to Siem Reap, though I’m not sure about mobile phone coverage across the border. (My well-connected friend had booked a car and our 4WD arrived twenty four hours early just in case!)

We were charged 2,500 baht by Keo Sotheara for a comfortable return trip from Siem Reap to Chong Sanggam. He is near Chong Sanggam at Anlong Veng and speaks good English. His card shows (855) 1267-7544 (Cambodia phone) and 086-343-7091 (Thailand phone).

Alternatively Chan Sovan of Siem Reap is on 012-843992 or (855) 92-89-0005 (though another card says 374-374 prefixed either by 011 or 012 or 013 or 090. Confused? So am I!).

We used a nine seater mini-bus to take us round the temples and between the three of us paid US$25 per day for the vehicle. (Dee, our delightful driver was great value too.) See and (Email him perhaps and ask him to send a car to Chong Sanggam?) See also Sorry if I’m a bit vague on all this as I didn’t do the phoning for cars.

Alternatively, on crossing the border at Chong Jom, there could be some cars waiting for business or not far away. At Chong Sanggam it would also be possible to get someone to call a car from Anlong Veng (twenty minutes away), or even from Siem Reap. People are always friendly and helpful especially when it opens wallets.

One small thought… returning to Chong Sanggam by car, arrange to stop off at the exquisite small temple of Banteay Srei and also at Kabal Spean to see the ‘River of a Thousand Linggas’ as they are en route and well out of town. (For Banteay Srei, you’ll need to have bought an extra day on your temple access card, available at the main entry to the temple park. It’s US$20 per day, US$40 for three days and US$60 for seven days. It seems you can opt for the days not to be consecutive… six days running could cause total exhaustion.)

To get round the temples most visitors use a tuk tuk which is a motorbike towing a covered trailer that seats two in comfort and costs US$10 to 15 per day according to how far you want to go.

Pick up a “Siem Reap Visitors Guide” (‘Canby guide’) in a hotel or restaurant when you arrive. See It’s a remarkably good free guide book with coverage of the history of the Khmer empire and of each temple, as well as the usual comprehensive tourist information on everything you can possibly think of.

As to accommodation, there’s a huge range of choice from US$5 a night. We paid US$15 a night (yes, 500 baht!) for the Reaksmey Chanreas Hotel which is on the right at the bottom end of Sivatha Boulevard, the main drag in town. It had beautifully appointed rooms with fridge and TV, all to a very high standard. There were excellent baguettes and breakfasts and pleasant staff whose aim in life is proving that cleaning rooms and serving the ‘barang’ is the most fun thing you could ever do. Highly recommended! Most of the expensive hotels are stuck out on their own but this one is right between the old market and the tourist night market and all that the town has to offer.

And Siem Reap certainly has a lot to offer. Ten years ago when I was first there, it was a dusty little provincial town trundling with ox carts and amputees, but now it’s a dusty big town with many attractive bars and restaurants and more cotton scarves for sale per acre than anywhere in the world. Something of its innocence has been lost though but that’s ‘progress’’ and at least it has been well done. If only the Thai tourist traps could manage a fraction of the style and good design that seems to be second-nature to the Cambodians.

As for money, my Kasikorn card produced US dollars from an ATM machine in town and I didn’t have to use it too often. Thai baht are widely accepted but when spending either currency you end up with handfulls of Riel as change which at 4,000 to the Dollar is a pain. With three currencies and a pocketful of zeros, it’s exceptionally hard for the numerically challenged such as me.

After some great experiences, on getting back by car to Chong Sanggam, I called Cat and we arranged to meet at our favourite Thai restaurant by the lake. The pickup we hired to take us there from the dust and mess of the border then ran over Peter’s toes as we were loading our stuff into the back, but that was the only disaster in the whole week.

If I now review the best weeks of my life, this one would have to be high on the list. Angkor and all that the ancient Khmers have left behind is truly magnificent.

My next posts on this blog will tell you all about what we did, including seeing the ‘lost temple city’ of Banteay Chmar, wading through the swamp to the temple on the island in the middle of the Lake, photographing a thousand devatas at Angkor and meeting ‘Miss Saigon’ in the Zanzy Bar in Siem Reap. Well some of it anyway!

It was non-stop action and now I really think I need a holiday.

Finally, do please post a Comment with any questions on all this and with additional info (or corrections) that could be helpful, especially for other Isaan resident travellers.

There’s nothing much to do around here in my Surin village, but I’ve just discovered that one of the world’s greatest religious monuments is now only a few hours from home. It wasn’t that easy to find out though.

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog December 2009