Thursday, May 18, 2006

Less Visited Khymer Temples, Part 2

2 April 06 -- Sunday
Kantharalak, Thailand to Preah Vihear temple to Nang Rong, Thailand (South Isaan region)


Today the agenda was to
  • take a motorcycle taxi from Kantharalak to Preah Vihear temple, just over the Thai-Cambodian border,
  • return to Kantharalak,
  • take a bus west, either to Nang Rong, the accommodation base for Phnom Rung temple, or all the way to Khorat to stage for Phimai.
To Preah Vihear temple
So, up at 6:10AM, trying to get an early start on the day. The lighting at Wat Phu during my visit from 10AM-12M had been pretty poor for photos. I had this fantasy that if I could get to Preah Vihear around 8AM I'd get better lighting.

The first thing to do was get an idea if the hotel could arrange transport, preferably motorcycle taxi, to Preah Vihear and return, with a couple of hours waiting time, without the hotel adding too much overhead cost. I considered doing the arrangements on my own, but I wasn't sure where the motorcycle taxi guys hung out and I didn't want to waste a lot of time tracking them down. The guidebook showed that they were supposed to be just across the street, but, if they were there, I sure didn't see them when I went to look. I asked the hotel clerk how much a mototaxi would be to Prasat Khao Phra Wihan (Thai people have their own name for Preah Viher) and she said B400. The guidebook said to expect about B250 for the 35km journey and the guidebook had been low for the cost on all of the bus rides so far, so B400 didn't seem too outrageous. I agreed, again without negotiating, which was probably a mistake.

The next thing was to get some breakfast. Somewhat surprisingly for Thailand, there weren't any street food carts or restaurants that were open in the immediate area of the hotel. Normally you can just put your hand out anywhere there are more than two or three people gathered in Thailand and someone will put a bowl of noodles or a couple of sticks of satay in it. With a little exploring it was clear why there weren't any food stalls right by the hotel. The morning market, with plenty of food opportunities, was in full swing just across the road and maybe 2 minutes walk.

The market had a full array of both grocery type items for locals to take home as well as prepared food and drinks. For B15 I got a pretty good imitation of coffee with milk and some Thai donuts filled with something not quite sweet that was pretty good. I sat down at the drink stall and watched the market activities for a while. I was the only obvious foreigner there, but no one seemed especially astonished that I was hanging around.

I went back to the hotel and checked out, leaving my bag with the clerk, and took just my day pack, as I had on the trip to Wat Phu. The moto guy was ready, so I climbed on and we took off. The road south, Highway 221, was good and sealed the entire way, with good signage. As we rode along I could see that people were assembling in their villages to vote. There were lines of 10-15 people in several villages, which to me showed more interest than I had been led to believe. The current government (before it fell into its present disarray) has a lot of support, I understand, in the rural areas, so maybe that explains it.

After a pleasant ride, we arrived at the ticket booth for the national park. Entrance fee: B200. My understanding is that the gate opens at 8AM, though we were there somewhat later. We headed up a fairly steep road and arrived at the Visitor Center around 8:45AM. On the way up the hill, still well within Thailand, there were areas just off the road that were cordoned off with warnings about land mines. After he stopped, the driver indicated that I should walk along the road and that he would wait there.

I walked along the sealed road, passing a Thai Army encampment, and was hailed by Yet Another Ticket Booth clerk and charged B5. The road was marked as a helo landing zone, suitable for several troop carrier helos. After a 5 minute walk down the road, the road ends and you're at a rock surface. There are a couple of obvious paths that bear to the right. The path that goes generally straight at first before veering somewhat to the right is a better path to follow. When I was there, there were other people coming and going, which made taking the correct path pretty simple. Also, some Khymer kids came along, hoping to be employed as guides, and they were helpful in leading the way.

After a couple of minutes, you come to a gate with some steps down, which I guess all there is of the formal border. Another minute and you come to a desk where the Cambodian Border Police will charge you $5 (try to have exact change). No one cares on either the Thai or Cambodian side about passport or visa, at least here. You don't get stamped out of Thailand or stamped into Cambodia. Presumably if you made your way down to the plain from the temple, you'd get challenged since it isn't a legal border crossing.

Preah Vihear Temple
Michael Freeman in A Guide to Khmer Temples in Thailand and Laos says that Preah Vihear occupies probably the most magnificent site of any Khmer temple and its hard to disagree with his assessment. I want to credit Freeman's book for details I mention here about placement, size, and configuration.

The temple is laid out on a north-south axis, extending approximately 800m. From the entrance to the highest point there is approximately a 120m elevation rise. By comparison, Wat Phu's highest terrace is approximately 30m above the lower level. There's no large water basin, or baray, at the entrance, such as Wat Phu.

The first staircase is 162 steps, which ends in a 30m long platform flanked by two very large naga, serpents. There's nothing delicate about these naga. They are very impressive, though the carving is less detailed than those at other sites such as Phnom Rung.

One then comes to the first of five gopura, or entry towers. Each leads by a combination of causeway and steps to the next, ending at the central sanctuary. The central sanctuary is perched on top of a cliff that allows somewhat obscured, but impressive, views of the plain below.

The modern military associations of the site are evident everywhere. There's a rusting artillery piece, a bunker, and evidence on the temple stones of bullet or shell impacts.

Simply put, Preah Vihear is definitely worth the trouble to get there, though it's pretty easy coming from the Thai side once you're in the general area. I understand the road coming from the Cambodian side is steep and difficult. One account with photos is at http://www.peaceofangkorweb.com/PreahVihear.htm. An advantage to visiting from the Cambodian side is that you can be there at dawn. Even at 9AM the light wasn't very good for photos.

I paid the kids who were guiding me around the site B100. I felt ok with this amount, which may be too little for some and too much for others. There are lots of vendors selling the usual t-shirts, drinks, and tourist junk. Some photos are hard to line up because of the vendor tables, but they generally don't chase you around.

I went back to the visitor center parking lot, told my driver to wait a bit more, and went up some nearby wooden steps. There are a couple of viewing platforms at the edge of the cliff, which were used when access to the temple was restricted. In addition, one can go down some steps and see some figures carved in bas relief. From one of the platforms one may observe, but not more closely approach, two small shrines that are unlike anything found at other Khymer sites. Except for their being unique in style, they seem unremarkable.

The visitor center wasn't that great so I just gave it a glance. There a decent restroom next door.

Return to Kantharalak and then to Nang Rong
It took about 40 minutes to return to Kantaralak. I picked up my bag at the hotel and had the moto guy drop me off at the bus station.

About this time I decided to go as far as Nang Rong to visit the Phnom Rung site. Once there I could go further west to Phimai or south to cross into Cambodia. There was one remaining bus that day to Nang Rong. So I bought a ticket, B130, and looked around for some lunch. Like most Thai bus stations there were several small restaurants and food stands around. I wanted a sit down place since I had to wait for about 40 minutes. I got directed to a place that offered stir fried veg and ordered that plus rice and a Coke, B60. I had a phone number for a guesthouse in Nang Rong, called it, and booked a room for the night.

Finally the bus showed up. Uh-oh. It was a through bus from Ubon to Khorat. And it was the last bus of the day. And it was a weekend day. And the bus was packed. At first, as I saw the masses pressing forward to get on, I didn't realize it was totally jammed. Then the penny dropped and I realized that my luck in getting seats on buses had ended. Well, I got some space standing up in the aisle and settled in for however long it took for people to get off to free up a seat. Maybe it wouldn't be too long. Except as we drove along, though the bus was jammed, the driver picked up even more people. And no one got off. Well, it was the last bus of the day, so I guess I see his point.

I got a chance to do some character development standing there in the aisle as the bus rolled along. One hour. Two hours. You get the picture. A few people did get off along the way, but not enough to reduce the sardine in a can effect. After a while it was a bit funny and I decided that I was going to insist the Thai Army guys on the bus sit down before I took a seat. Luckily there was a fan just about next to me since it was, guess what, boiling outside.

Four hours of standing up later, around 6PM, we pulled into the Nang Rong bus station. Of course it was raining. I could walk or take a moto or a real taxi. I decided to wait around for a while to see if the weather cleared. I got a Pepsi, B15, and had a humorous discussion with the drink vendor about what the word for "straw" was in Thai and in English. In the end, when the rain didn't stop, I capitulated and took a real taxi. B50. Big deal.

I got dropped off at the guesthouse I had heard about, the Honey Inn, which was pretty centrally located in Nang Rong, but enough off the main road that it had the potential of being quiet. I decided to spring for the air con room (B350, breakfast B50 extra). It was pretty nice with ensuite bathroom and western toilet.

Now, I am here to testify that my stay at the Honey Inn in Nang Rong, Thailand was one of my best hotel/motel/guesthouse stays ever. Sorry, Conrads in HKG, SIN, and BKK. Sorry, anyplace in Europe or North America. Well, there's a place that was about this good in Puerto Natales, Chile, but it burnt down. Anyway, the lady who ran the place is like your favorite aunt that is glad to see you, wants to make everything work out, but never bosses you around.

You want your laundry done? No problem. You want dinner? B100 additional for 4-5 courses of great Thai food. You want a beer? Grab one from the fridge (B45, settle up later on the honor system). You want a motobike? No problem, B250/day + gas.

I sat down at the dining room table that was set up outside the kitchen, had a beer, and looked through my guidebook. First a Canadian expat guy and, later, a German expat guy sat down and we talked about this and that. Both had been to the Plain of Jars in Lao, which was on my to-do list for a follow-on trip. Each was more or less on a visa run and had come to Nang Rong to check out the Phnom Rung site.

A couple of relatives of the manager came by to help with dinner. The son-in-law had run a Thai restaurant in Sacramento and had returned to Thailand to set up a restaurant. One of the expats and I had dinner at the guesthouse. It was great. After dinner we went looking for the other guy who had wanted dinner at a place on the main road. We had a couple of Beer Leo there, I found a LAN gaming place with very high speed network access, and after sending the usual, "Here I am in Asia," email, it was time to get some sleep.
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