The next day we set off to Phnom Penh with a small detour to Sambor Prei Kuk… We had explored many different options and had particularly liked the idea of taking the boat down the tonle sap. However once we realised that Sambor Prei Kuk is not located at the shore of the lake, but rather 80km inland, we realised that as tempting as it sounded, it was just not feasible. So in the end we decided to use the same taxi driver that had driven us around the Northern part of Cambodia once more.
One of the first thing to notice, when driving over longer distances in Cambodia is that the street don’t belong to the cars but to everyone. Indeed, we were mostly driving in the middle of the road as the local villagers used about a meter on each side of the road to dry their roots and beets outside of the villages. Inside a village things got more even more creative. It seems we visited at the prime wedding time and since a wedding is a 3-day affair in Cambodia, every village we passed sported one or more weddings. The weddings had built large tents onto the road to house the guest. These varied in size from just bordering the road to being tall enough so that you could drive through underneath it. There was music and celebration everywhere and we realised that what had kept us awake the previous days had been a wedding as well.
Unfortunately not everything is sunshine and happiness on Cambodia’s roads and we crossed a number of quite horrifying accidents on the 300km from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh: Turned over trucks, cars and more. Extrapolating the amount of accidents that must happen each day on Cambodia’s roads gave me a chill. They had all just happened shortly before we came through and large groups of people were amassing around the scene. First I thought that these were the same typical “gaffers” as we would see on our streets, but I quickly realised that these people all stopped to help as best they could. It was only afterwards that I realised that these people were the only help that was going ti cine. There’s no number to call an ambulance or the fire fighters that’ll come with all the necessary heavy equipment.. So you try what you can to free someone from within a truck or car. No matter how unlikely the happy ending.
Luckily our driver drove us safely to Sambor Prei Kuk, where we were greeted by a local villager that told us all about the communal project they had set up around these ruins. People from different villages in the surrounding area were trained to become guides, the kids were allowed to sell scarves and other items after school or on the week-ends. We were happy to take him as our guide and he told us much about the history of the place, which pre dates Angkor Wat by some 100 years. But he also told us about how the project taught them to preserve the ruins and the environment. I’m a sucker for these type of projects, especially when the local people are as enthusiastic as our guide was. He was very hopeful that Sambor Prei Kuk would become as famous as Angkor Wat and that they would be able to live off of the tourism. While Sambor Prei Kuk can not compete with Angkor Wat, it has some very lovely statues and interesting, octagonally shaped temples. It was also by far the cleanest site we visited.
While a lot of the temples are completely overgrown, there was one item that remained completely spotless. It was the most surprising cubic building, if I had had to date it I wouldn’t have guessed that it was older than 50 years. It was though, by some 1000 years. We learned that this cubicle was previously inside a temple, a temple of which we couldn’t even see the foundations any more, and that for many years this temple had kept the natural forces at bay. This explained the condition it was no in.
An hour into the visit we ran into a group of local teenagers climbing the ruins and causing some (minor) noise… Our guide ignored them at first, but we could see that he was bothered by them. After a moment he asked us if we could excuse him for a moment, so that he could go and explain the kids why they needed to take care of those ruins. Of course we agreed. We always like to do some exploring on our own and so we let him set off in their direction. When we eventually caught up with him some 15min later, they were sitting around him, listening intently to what he had to say. Such a beautiful thing to see happening.
When we crossed paths again with the group at several of the other temples in Sambor Prei Kuk, we did not see them climb any of the statues or temples again though.
We took our time in Sambor Prei Kuk and it was past noon when we reached our car again. Our driver was impatiently awaiting us and told us that we needed to go now as we were late. We were a bit surprised by this, as we’d already covered half of the distance. Nevertheless he got very queasy when we started talking with our guide again and after 30min he insisted we leave NOW. As we were not all that familiar with Cambodian customs and we didn’t know the road to Phnom Penh, we followed him to the car and he set off at top speed. We were a little uneasy, thinking back to the accidents we had seen and the speed we were travelling and resolved to ask him to slow down once we reached the large streets. This turned out to be unnecessary.
We rejoined the main road in Kampong Thom and could see our driver relax almost instantly, after another 3-4 minutes he stopped and told us to “go drink a coffee or something”. We were a little surprised, but since we had stopped near a market and said market was selling some fascinating food items, such as fried spiders and cockroaches, we went to take a look (but not a taste). When we returned we saw our driver sitting in a small restaurant fried fish in one hand and a huge portion of rice in front of him. I’ve never seen him happier. After the threat of instant starvation had been eliminated, we regained the road and the drive was much more relaxed and enjoyable from there on. Even if the road became much worse.
We arrived in Phnom Penh in the early afternoon and if the smile of our driver during lunch hadn’t been enough, the arrival time in Phnom Penh made it obvious that lunch had been the reason we so urgently needed to leave Sambor Prei Kuk.
We settled into a nice little hotel in the center of Phnom Penh for our last two days and enjoyed the relaxed vibe the city has.