In Search of Cambodian Temples – 1,000 Kilometers by Motorcycle (Part 2 of 3)

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After spending the morning at Koh Ker and the surrounding temples it is time to get back out on the road for my next destination. For the past year I have had my eye on Preah Khan/Kompong Svay. This is a very large temple complex that is far enough off the beaten track that few people visit. Researching maps for the last year I still have not been able to find a ‘good’ route to get there.

The Cambodian Route 66 would take me from Beng Mealea to Preah Kahn/Kompong Svay. I tested the road a couple times last year but never made it all the way. At first the road had too many water obstacles. After the rainy season ended I went further – but being so far away in the middle of nowhere brought out a bit of apprehension and had me turning back before I got in to trouble.

My plan is to take a leisurely ride to Preah Vihear City, an easy sixty-five kilometers, and spend the night. Tomorrow I will head down into unknown territory towards Preah Khan. The road from Koh Ker to Preah Vihear City is wonderful compared to the roads around Siem Reap. Smooth pavement and no random craters waiting to separate me from my motorcycle. The drivers drive with respect and common sense – something I have not seen in a long time.

Preah Vihear City

Preah Vihear City is a typical Cambodian city complete with traffic circles and innumerable motos. The drivers here are not as crazy as they are in Siem Reap therefore allowing me to loosen up on my usual death grip. My guest house is at the south end of town with plenty of local places to eat nearby. Although it looks like I am the only guest here my basic room is three floors up. It is a nice room with air conditioning, a comfortable bed, hot water for the shower, cable television and fast wifi. For $15 a night I can’t complain.

From the looks I get at breakfast I don’t think too many foreigners make a stop here. Everyone is friendly and the ubiquitous Cambodian smiles make me feel at home here. Preah Vihear City seems like a very pleasant place to spend a night or two. After breakfast I head south and I am again faced with some wonderful pavement and mountain views.

My plan to get to Preah Kahn is still sketchy at best. Just because there is a line showing a road on Google maps does not mean it is a good road. Every map I look at is a bit different. A line on the maps can be anything from good pavement to a cow path. If you look at the map below you can see that Route 66 and Route 64 look the same. According to the map legend they are both ‘Other National Roads’. Cambodia Map

This is a bit deceiving. The north-south Route 64 is a two lane smoothly paved road that passes through village after village. The east-west Route 66 is little more than a cow path in the middle of nowhere where you will be lucky if you see another person. You can see how difficult planning is if I rely on maps of Cambodia. For me that is part of the intrigue. But it is also something that needs to be continually considered when I head out on the road.

Below is a picture of Route 66 taking you to Preah Khan. As you can see it would not be considered an ‘Other National Road’ by most standards. It gets narrower in spots where I have to squeeze through with the foliage brushing both sides of my body.

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After this trip I stopped into Khmer for Khmer motorbike shop for my post-trip oil change and chain tightening. Dierk, the main instructor and supervisor, told me he took Route 66 to Preah Khan about ten years ago. He said it was tough back then but a good ride. He also gave me directions for the ‘best’ way to go from Siem Reap to Preah Khan. It looks like I have to do two more trips to try them out.

Something made me stop in one of the villages I passed as I made my way south. I took out my phone and looked at the map. It looks like the road on my right is one of the ways to get to Preah Khan. Because I have no way to know if this is a good way or not I am a little worried but the ‘lines’ on the map actually do make it all the way to Preah Khan. Okay. Off to the right I go.

The road turns into a potholed stretch of dirt road limiting my speed and pushing my swerving skills to the limit. After I put a few kilometers behind me I make it to the first village on the road, Sangkum Thmei. When I stop for water I have to endure lots of giggles and hiding games from the children who were there. I am sure that few westerners make their way through this village and while few may pass through even fewer ever stop for a drink of water.

Schoolboy in Sangkum Thmei

Schoolboy in Sangkum Thmei

There is something inviting about this village and I will try to stop on my way back and get some drone footage. That is assuming I can make my way back along the same route because I still have my doubts that this is the best route.

When I left the paved road the dirt road turned north and then curved to the south as I passed through Sangkum Thmei. The road going south turned into a pretty good paved road with few obstacles. There was just about nothing to be seen along this stretch of road other than people heading in my direction or the other. Soon I make it to the road into Preah Khan. This was much easier than expected!

Preah Khan

Preah Khan has a number of surrounding temples and I try to visit as many as I can. I stop at Prasat Damrei, Mebon Temple, Preah Stung Temple and Kat Kdei Temple before making it into Preah Khan. While Prasat Damrei is right along the road Mebon Temple takes me along some narrow cow paths that crisscross the area. Just before the entrance I stop for a drink and some conversation. Maybe a little light in the conversation.

Roasted frogs anyone?

Stuffed frogs anyone?

There is a guard near the entrance of the main temple of Preah Khan. A lonely, bored looking guard. I have to pay a five dollar fee to get into the temple. Without speaking anything other than our respective languages I ask him if it is okay to fly a drone at the temple. Because I am the only person here he doesn’t seem to have any issues with my flight plans.

This Way to Preah Khan

This Way to Preah Khan

Preah Khan is large. Very large. The only sounds I hear are some birds and an occasional rustle in the nearby bushes. I think of all of the people at Angkor Wat trying to get a picture without other people getting in their way. Here I am with this huge temple all to myself. The outer walls of the temple are just over four kilometers square. The inside main temple area is about one kilometer square. Lots of room to spread out and wander around without a single thought of crowds. Preah Khan is probably the best temple/size/crowd/beauty ratio I have been to so far.

I pull out the drone and run through a couple batteries getting some footage. I feel odd being in such a historic place with no people. But since I am alone I take advantage of the opportunity to fly without people hoarding around me as I fly. I don’t mind the interest people have in the drone but sometimes I need an image or video without a crowd in it. Today that is not an issue because I haven’t seen another person since I paid my entrance fee.

After flying the drone I decide to backtrack along Route 66 to see if I can get to a couple other nearby temples. To me it seems like another good idea so I head out from the main temple and turn to the west. Immediately the road turns to a path and the feeling of remoteness is undeniable. I hit a couple minor water obstacles before I get to the first temple, Aur Chheuteal Thom. It is right alongside the path so it is impossible to miss.

Aur Chheuteal Thom Temple

Aur Chheuteal Thom Temple

Riding past here it begins to feel even more remote – something I didn’t think was possible. There is another temple on my map about two kilometers ahead but I hit a wet, boggy spot that looks unlikely that I can pass. Getting stuck in knee-deep mud out here probably isn’t the best thing to do. Turning around now gives me a little extra time to explore the village of Ta Seng before I have to ride back to Preah Vihear City.

Ta Seng is a typical small Cambodian village. No pavement in sight, dust flying from the motos riding up and down the main drag. Small shops line the road where anything you might need is probably available. Judging by the way people are looking at me I don’t think they have a large number of western visitors here. According to Google maps and some of the sites I have read on the internet there is supposed to be two guest houses here. I ride around a bit trying to find them for future reference but I am not successful.

After a stop for a drink, and a fleeting thought for a quick drone flight, I head north towards my guesthouse in Preah Vihear City. For some reason return trips always seem to go quicker than the initial rides. While I don’t think the actual time is any different it just feels quicker. There is still enough daylight left therefore I stop in Sangkum Thmei and send the drone up for a birds eye view of the area.

In the past I would throw away any damaged drone propellers. Now I save them and hand them out to a kid in the crowd of people watching the drone. It seems like a small effort on my part but the kids seems to love it.

Souvenir propeller for the kids

Souvenir propeller for the kids

The sun is getting lower in the sky as I leave the village. It is still a few kilometers on the rough dirt road before I hit pavement again. Right at sunset I make it to the main road not leaving me much time before darkness takes over. Luckily the road is good all the way to Preah Vihear City and I pull into my guesthouse without any road incidents.

Tomorrow I continue north towards Preah Vihear Temple. Along the way there are two or three remote temples I will try to find.

Next: Part Two – Preah Vihear and Anlong Veng.

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