Posted on November 7, 2017
Have you ever been to a place that for some reason unknown to you feels so right and so comfortable? Maybe a city, small town, natural site, a building or even a road? It turns out for me one of those places is Kampang Chhnang.
Why do I like it? I don’t know. It isn’t something I can actually verbalize. It is more an internal feeling that I can’t describe. Why do I like Brussels Sprouts, anchovies, the smell of skunks and the smell of durian? Don’t judge me!
Kampong Chhnang gives me a good feeling. The kind of feeling that keeps me interested and motivated to find new places. The kind of feeling I never want to stop feeling.
After leaving Phnom Penh on my bicycle my first night was spent in Kampong Chhnang, about a one-hundred kilometers ride for the day. The road out of Phnom Penh has drastically changed in the past two years. The last time I was here it was more of a pothole-filled disaster of a road filled with mud and dust. Much of the way is new smooth road taking me north towards Battambang. It was a welcome change from my past experiences in the back of a taxi being thrown about as the driver maneuvered the minefield.
Being a relatively short ride for the day I had time for a few stops for lunch, photographs and drone flights. I pulled in to town with plenty of time to explore and eat before the sleep Cambodia town of Kampong Chhnang went to sleep. The Garden Guesthouse, just outside of ‘downtown’ is where I will rest my head for the next two nights. I have plans here so I will add a second night to give me enough time here.
Kampong Chhnang literally means ‘Port of Pottery’. Riding around the backroads I find many places that make pottery. The main road through town is full of local stores selling pottery to all who stop and browse.
Kampong Leaeng District
I wake up early to head out to the ferry for its 06:30 departure. I am heading over to Kampang Leaeng District which is only accessible by water at this time of year. It is almost like an island with a couple of mountains in the middle. The road circles the mountains and flooded flats surround the district. There are four pre-Angkorian temples that are my focus for the day.
The ferry costs 2,000 riel, or fifty cents for the trip over for me and my bicycle. Being the first ferry on a Monday I think it is more used than other days. It is easy to squeeze my bicycle between all of the motorbikes, carts, trucks and cars. As usual I stand out like a sore thumb. I am used to that in Cambodia.
The ride takes about forty-five minutes and as soon as the plank is lowered everyone shoots out like it is the start of a race. The town here is bigger than I anticipated with an easily followed road taking me to the loop I will ride. Along the way I stop at a small family run restaurant for breakfast. I doubt that they have seen many, if any, westerners here traveling by bicycle. Pork and rice. Delicious.
The road soon turns from asphalt to dirt. It is a good dirt. Smooth and well packed. The kind of dirt road I love riding on. I wonder if I will be so lucky as to have it continue this way for the next fifty kilometers.
Going in a counter-clockwise direction I ride through traditional Cambodian villages with stilted homes, small family run shops, cows, motos and various livestock crossing my path.
In less than twenty kilometers I reach my first temple, Prasat Thnorm Bdey. I usually worry that any quest for a new temple could result in a failed attempt or difficult trekking to get to the temple. It is not unusual for me to come out with some blood trickling down my arms or legs after fighting the jungle foliage in search of a hidden temple.
Prasat Thnorm Bdey would not be one of these temples. From a distance the two small towers are easily spotted sitting alone in the rice fields. The smaller road that takes me there passes a small school and then a lot of nothing. I find a tree that will provide me some shade when I fly my drone and I take a seat next to a curious farmer. He seems to enjoy seeing his daily surroundings from a new vantage point in the sky.
Prasat Srei is located in a Buddhist Pagoda in a small village. Easy to find and pretty impressive. I always wonder how they build the new structures so close to the ancient ones without causing damage or destruction.
There must be a school nearby as I am soon surrounded by curious Khmer school children. They follow me around the temple as I get some images and I have to be a bit creative to get some images without the kids in them. There is a lot of laughter, probably at my expense, but I will never know since my Khmer is minimal.
Two more temples to go. Will they be as easy as this one to find? I can always hope. I have read the next temple is surrounded by water in the rainy season. I try to keep my hopes in check as I continue onward to see what I can find.
This one takes a little more maneuvering through the rice fields to find. Along the way I run into many people traversing the paths and working the fields and tending to their cows. I finally have the next temple in sight but the way to get there is not apparent to me. I stop near a family working the rice fields and using my best charade moves I ask the best way to get to the temple. They laugh as they point and direct me to where I want to go.
If you were looking at the face of a clock representing my circular ride around the mountains I would be passing the twelve o’clock position at this point. This is where civilization seemed to end. I had one more temple to see but I doubt I will be sharing it with anyone.
Prasat Phnom Punn Reay is at the top of a hill. As I approach the location I try to see if there is a definite path to the top. I take the first dirt path off to my right to skirt around the hill hoping that the way up is right around the corner. Or the next corner, or the next. Nothing looks obvious to me. The path begins to disappear the farther I ride until it becomes obvious to me, despite my obstinate state, that this is not the way.
I circle back and retrace my tracks to make it back out to the road. In about a hundred meters it is clear that this is what I should have done in the first place. There is a small structure next to a set of concrete stairs that take me directly to the top. No getting lost here, just a little huffing and puffing to make it to the top.
This is the most overgrown of the four temples. I am sure this is due to a lack of visitors whether local or foreign. There would be a pretty good view of the surrounding rice fields from up here but the trees and bushes block out most of the view.
The rest of the loop takes me through empty land with no villages and few homes. The road continues to be a nice dirt road but the feeling of isolation can not be denied. I am beginning to wish I had stocked up on food and drink before I hit the last temple.
There are mountains on the right and the left and the view is beautiful. It is around this point where I am looking for more signs of civilization. A few motos and carts pass by which puts my mind at ease if I had a mechanical breakdown but I am looking forward to making it back to a little increase in the population density.
My wish comes true and soon I find myself heading towards the departure point of the ferry. The plan was to make it on the 1:30 return ferry to bring me back to Kampong Chhnang in time for a cruise around the area.
This time the ferry is not as full as the initial trip over in the morning. At about the halfway point the two ferries cross paths on their opposite trips through the rain swelled river. Structures below the water line can be seen as we cruise through the shallow waters separating Kampong Chhnang and Kampong Leaeng District.
The ferry landing/departure point in Kampong Chhnang alway seems to be full of activity with smaller boats transporting goods to be distributed throughout the area. An aerial view of the area shows how much is under water at this time of year.
Although I only rode forty-five miles today there was a lot of activity interspersed between the time I was on the move. Tonight I will sleep well as I look forward to the main reason for my stop in Kampong Chhnang.
Kampong Chhnang Airport
As I wake in the morning my thoughts point to my destination for the day – Pursat – about sixty miles away. But I have a stop to make just outside of Kampong Chhnang – the old, unused Khmer Rouge airport that was built under extreme secrecy with the help of the Chinese back in the 1970’s.
The process of building this airport was so secret that many of the workers were executed after the construction to maintain the secrecy. In addition thousands of workers died of injuries, exhaustion and lack of food. Riding the almost pristine decades-old road leading to the airport gave me an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach as I thought about the level of torture and death that affected the people pouring the concrete that rolled beneath my wheels.
There is a single guard sitting in a small structure just outside the runway area. I stop to talk – or more appropriately mime – to him to see if he is okay with me flying my drone. He seems more intrigued than worried and I set everything up to get in a good flight.
No go. DJI, the manufacturer of the drone recently added flight restrictions to the software making it impossible to take off at the airport. This glitch is something that I can not explain to the guard but I think he gets the idea that something prevented me from flying. This is more than a bit annoying since this airport has never been and is not currently active. No options are exist so I pack up and head out for a ride down the runway on my bicycle.
Looking at the condition of the runway one would never know it is decades old. Never being an active runway there were very few landings or takeoffs that ever took place here. Other than me there are only a few dozen cows that I can see. I speed down the center of the eight-thousand foot runway with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” blasting in my ears. That is an experience that I am confident I share with no one.
At the other end I see a couple local people tending to their cows or picking some food. Even out here it is not a problem getting a smile!