Sunday, September 17, 2006

Less Visited Khymer Temples, Part 3 of 3

3 April 06 -- Monday
Nang Rong, Thailand (South Isaan)

(Ok, after a l-o-n-g break, I'll finish up the Thai temples part of this report and do the remaining trip segments, overland to and through Cambodia and back to Bangkok, piecemeal.)

Current location: Honey Inn , 8/1 Soi Sri Koon, Nang Rong, Buriram, 31110 Thailand; (mail checked once per week); Telephone: 0-4462-2825 (+66 44 622 825 int'l)
Mobile: 0-1075-9972 (+66 1 075 9972 int'l); Lat 14.629/Lon 102.799

Agenda for today:

  • visit Phnom Rung, as well as the nearby Muang Tam, Khymer temple sites
  • decide whether to leave Nang Rong on an afternoon bus for Khorat/Phimai or stay another night.

In talking to the expat Canadian and German fellow guests last night, I got their thoughts on traveling out to Phnom Rung and the nearby Muang Tam temple sites. One had gone that day by a combination of bus and mototaxi; the other by hired mototaxi. There was a third option of hiring a moto from the guesthouse and driving out to the sites myself.

The bus/mototaxi combination seemed ok, but time consuming. And, frankly, after spending what seemed like half my life on the bus yesterday coming from Kantaralak, spending a lot of time that day on local buses and, of course, waiting for local buses at the roadside bus shelters in the April heat, didn't appeal to me all that much.

The idea of hiring a mototaxi with driver sounded ok, as I had done in Kantaralok to get to Preah Vihear, but, if it seemed reasonable to navigate to the sites myself, well, why bother with the extra overhead of a driver? Hiring the mototaxi/driver in Kantaralak worked out ok, but, having seen how riding was done in the more rural parts of Thailand, it didn't seem all that daunting to ride there myself. After all, I didn't kill myself when I hired the moto in Lao and facilities here in Nang Rong were much better. (For instance, there was a hospital just a block away. I guess I'm trying to provide some of the "traveler tradeoffs" I weigh when on the road.)

Ok, Thailand is "drive on the left," which didn't thrill me, but, while there was traffic, it wasn't all that bad. The larger vehicles didn't seem to actively try to nail you as you drove and, once outside the more built up areas, traffic dwindled to nothing.

It turned out that, in addition to the map in the pages of Lonely Planet Thailand that I had brought, the guesthouse manager, Mrs. Phanna, had a strip map showing the route. Thailand highway signage is pretty good, with highway numbers clearly marked, so I didn't have a lot of concerns about getting lost. The best plan, then, seemed to be to hire a moto from the guesthouse (B250/day, including helmet, but gas extra).

Mrs. Phanna, whipped up breakfast including eggs, which I generally never eat unless it seems to be expected of me, as here; endless toast and jam; a basket of peel-it-yourself mango, and as much coffee as you could drink. B40. It was quite nice sitting at the dining table without feeling extremely pressed to link up with a driver and get going. Based on the previous two days experiences, I had already missed the best light, which was at dawn when the sites weren't open anyway, so I might as well cool it a bit and get going when things felt right. I wasn't going to be that late anyway out to the sites and, if it was roasting by the time I returned, well, that's life. I filled up my water bottle from the cooler (free water from the cooler, or you could get bottles), got my day pack, and I was ready to head out.

There were several motos to choose from, all of which seemed to have working brakes, so I took the one with the most gas (checked visually). I managed not to make a repeat performance of my incompetence in Pakxe, Lao in getting the moto started, once I got some assistance in finding the choke. The road in the immediate area of the guesthouse was pretty quiet, so I had a minute to get oriented, make adjustments, and work out the bugs before I got to the main road. At the main road, after turning left, east, the strategy was pretty simple--hug the shoulder and maneuver carefully around large objects, such as local buses.

After leaving the main part of town behind, just a couple of km, I was heading east on Highway 24, which, though a main east-west artery in this part of Thailand, wasn't all that heavily traveled. Just right for a marginally competent moto rider. After perhaps 12km, I saw signs for my next turn, onto Highway 2117 at the village of Ta Ko, and turned right, south, at a traffic light. Exactly at the intersection it got a bit busy with buses arriving, loading, and departing near the intersection, but after that it became quieter than Highway 24. Around 5km on 2117, I came to a well marked T-junction where I turned left, east, onto Highway 2221, marked on the guesthouse map as the village of Don Nong Nee.

Another 5km or so, past a Thai military Airborne training site, the road to Phnom Rung continues up a hill. After a couple of km one comes to a couple of back gates to the site, spaced about a km apart, but don't stop at these. A bit further and there is a large developed area, a bit obscured, on the right and a smaller one on the left. If you continue on 100m or so , you come to the entrance for the parking area on the right. There are the usual vendors, though much more geared for local Thai people than foreigners. I parked among a bunch of other motos and, after a couple of moments thought, left my helmet on the moto, as others had done.

Phnom Rung
There's a small visitor center with an interesting model showing both Phnom Rung and the nearby Muang Tam sites. Ye Olde Ticket Booth was a bit beyond. I didn't write down the price, but the guidebook says B40, which sounds about right. Same price for Thai people and foreigners, I believe.

Once again I'll take some of the details of the description of the site from Michael Freeman's book A Guide to Khmer Temples in Thailand and Laos. The site is located atop a 383m inactive volcano, 190km to the west of Preah Vihear. The site has been extensively restored and has much less of the tumbled down effect of the usual Khymer sites. The site is oriented east-west, with the entrance at the east.

At the modern entrance to Phnom Rung is a cross shaped terrace measuring 40m north-south and 30m east-west. This is followed by a 160m causeway paved in pock-marked, laterite stone.

At the end of the first causeway is a terrace with naga, serpent, balustrades. From here a staircase leads to the sanctuary. At the top of the stairs is a terrace with four artificial ponds. There is a second naga bridge on this terrace. I wouldn't have known it except for the description in Freeman's book, but a very interesting feature of the balustrades is that the naga at the ends are actually being disgorged by a makara, a marine monster. The body of the makara then forms the remaining part of the body of the balustrade.

The terrace leads to the eastern gopura, or entry tower, which in turn leads to a series of doorways through the enclosure to the sanctuary. There are elaborate carvings on the pediments and lintels. It really helps to have a guidebook that describes the details (plug for Freeman's book or equivalent.) The sanctuary has a magnificent tower with elaborate carvings. For those who have seen the towers in poor, eroded condition at Angkor, it's revealing to see the decorative details of the Phnom Rung tower.

After a couple of hours I left Phnom Rung and headed to Muang Tam, the "Lower City," which is about 8km away. One leaves Phnom Rung the opposite direction from arrival, turning right from the parking lot and heading down the hill, hoping that the brakes were in good shape. After 3km, turn right following the sign for Muang Tam, which is 5km further on, south of a large 1150m x 400m baray, basin. Parking is across the road at the visitor center where there are also some vendor booths, toilet, and a restaurant.

I went to the ticket booth across the road, B40, I believe, and talked for a minute to the ticket vendor and some Thai police that were hanging around the booth eating some typical, unidentifiable Thai sweet snack, which they offered me (and which I took). Then, somewhat to my surprise, the police officer in charge of the small detail wanted to sit in the shade and talk a bit. It turned out that they were traffic officers. He offered me another snack and asked me how I got out there. Well, here I am with no driver's license, on a moto from the guesthouse thinking, what should I say. So, I told him I came out on a moto, which surprised him. He told me to watch out because there were a lot of accidents on motos, etc. etc. I assured him I was careful, etc. etc. We sat there and ate snacks and talked about nothing for a while. His English was a lot better than my Thai, but eventually things wound down and I excused myself to see the temple. Nice guys.

Muang Tam Temple

Muang Tam, which, like Phnom Rung, has been restored, is a very unlike other Khymer sites. It has an outer enclosure with four gopura, entry towers, at north, south, east, and west. Inside the outer enclosure are four L-shaped ponds surrounding an inner enclosure. Within the inner enclosure are five brick towers, arranged in a front row of three and a back row of two. Also within the inner enclosure are two "libraries."

The ponds are a very attractive, defining feature of the temple, adding to an air of serenity, though the site is quite close to modern dwellings. At the time of my visit there were, perhaps, five other people at the site, a nice contrast to the hordes at Angkor sites or even the lesser crowds I encountered that morning at Phnom Rung.

After leaving the temple I walked back across the street to look for some lunch. There's an ok outdoor restaurant with the usual Thai selections and, I believe, an English menu. In any event, ordering was no big deal. For B77 I had shrimp with mixed veg, rice, and bottled water. Somewhat amusingly, or alarmingly, depending on your perspective in this time of concerns about avian flu, were the number of chickens, along with a few ducks, that were running around the area. At one point a customer who went to the cashier to pick up some take out grabbed a chicken that was in his way and tossed it to the side.

To return to Nang Rong from Muang Tam, one could retrace the way to Phnom Rung and then along Highways 2221 and 2117 to 24, or take Highway 2075 west to Lahan Sai and then Highway 348 north to Nang Rong at the 24/348 junction. I decided to take the brute force approach of retracing my steps, which I thought might also allow me to better understand the back gates to Phnom Rung. It was a pleasant, straightforward ride.

I had plenty of gas and decided to wait until I got to Nang Rong proper before filling it up. Once off Highway 2221 and heading north on Highway 2117 traffic came to a standstill as some sort of village celebration in a parade of pickup trucks came south with people waving and singing. The nice thing about riding a moto is that you can take your time and just stop and enjoy the scene.

Back on Highway 24 and in Nang Rong I pulled into a gas station. Once again, as in Lao, it was full service with two attendants helping me. I checked the gas and found, to my surprise, that I didn't really need any. Though the gauge showed about 2/3 full, it seemed about 3/4 full, plenty in that heat. So, once again, I guess the gas gauge was broken. I decided to tell Mrs Phanna, the guesthouse manager, and offer to settle up when I paid my bill. I got back to the guesthouse in about one hour from Muang Tam.

By the time I got back, I wasn't ready to hop on another bus to Khorat/Phimai, so I decided to stay another night in Nang Rong.

That night the expat Canadian and German guys and I were joined at dinner by a middle aged French couple as well as a German girl and her companion. Once again the dinner was great, especially for B100, with 4 or 5 courses.

After dinner the plan was to walk up to the 7/11 on the main road for some ice cream with the Canadian and German guys. After a while, including checking email at the local LAN gaming/cheap high speed Internet place, I ended up back at the guesthouse, helped myself to some beer from the refrigerator, read for a while, and zonked out.

So ends the tale of traveling to see the less visited Khymer temples in Laos and Thailand. I didn't make it to Phimai on this trip, which was a major omission. The rest of the trip was travel to Siem Reap overland, then to Snookyville by way of Phnom Penh; by boat, truck, and minibus to Trat; and bus to Bangkok. I'll cover those segments separately.
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