overland-underwater.com - A charity drive from the UK to New Zealand
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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

A path less travelled..!

Written by Alex Towns. Uploaded 16 July 2006.

Cambodia, Country 21, Diary entry 15th-20th May 2006, Total distance in Cambodia: 2166 KM

Looking at our faithful Lonely Planet it told stories of an ancient Angkor road that used to link Angkor Wat, to Beng Mealea to Preah Khan running in an almost straight line west to east. No more than a bullock track and not to be undertaken lightly. Furthermore it became impassable during the wet season from May to November and definitely not for the faint hearted. Well it was only the third week in May and the rains so far hadn’t been that heavy and we were after a bit of an adventure… so why not..!

One of the first bridges we came upon

Leaving the main highway from Phnom Penh to Siam Reap at Kompong Thom the halfway town we stopped at before, we carried on north along a wide dirt road. Apart from the predictable pot holes requiring evasive manoeuvres, the going was relatively straight forward as we counted down the km’s to the left turn that would take us to Preah Khan. We entered a town on the fork of the road where apparently the left turn should be. The only not so obvious turn looked like an overgrown path to someone’s back yard! Calling on local advice we tried to track down someone who could confirm our route.

Our adventure begins

“Preah Khan?” I asked as I pointed to the gap in the bushes… nothing… “Preeh Kan?”… blank expression… “Prayer Caan?”… this wasn’t getting us very far. After a bit of wandering about we found someone who could speak English and were told that the turning wasn’t for a couple of km’s yet and well sign posted. We thanked all as it started to rain… hmm – challenging – adventurous – avoid in wet season… Tinfish could do it we were sure.

A few km’s down the road stood a huge sign against a reflective blue background which wouldn’t have been out of place on a motorway! Preah Khan, 34km on National Highway 66 – crikey we even had the road shown on the GPS. Maybe we’d arrived too late and the road had already been privatised and upgraded, ready to shuttle the many tourists in and out, in the luxury of their air-conditioned coaches. A little disheartened we thought well we’re here now, let’s just go see….

We finally reach the gopura of Preah Khan

And so we turned of the dirt highway and ventured into the unknown. Well it wasn’t too bad, not great, but a slow farm track style road that wandered into the jungle. It hadn’t appeared to have been upgraded, which was good and we were making a fairly good pace when after about 5km’s the track opened up into a clearing and seemed to disappear. Following in the rough direction across the clearing, we suddenly to our horror noticed a skull and crossbones against a red background… bl**dy h@ll mines..!! We retraced our track and tried over to the right and this time found ourselves surrounded by minefield warning signs!

I think we may have taken a wrong turn

We didn’t like this one bit and discussed our options, the anxiety swelling. Going forward seemed foolhardy, so the only thing for it was to retreat and perhaps find a local guide back at the village. We started to reverse backwards only to end up turning into the mud we’d gone through earlier. Not really concentrating on our offroad technique Maz hadn’t kept up the momentum and the wheels started to spin – great. Into low range and with all our diff locks engaged we tried to go forward again – nothing! The mud wasn’t deep it was just extremely slippery and all 4 wheels turned freely unable to find any traction – double great!

The cavalry arrives

Not enthralled with the prospect of winching through a minefield, there didn’t appear to be any other option available to us. With a few curses I opened the door only to catch sound of another vehicle heading our way and there into the opening sprang a truck loaded with locals hitching a lift back to their village – relief. Without a care in the world the truck pulled up alongside and everyone jumped out to have a look at what was going on.

Apart from our obvious current predicament I wanted to ask if they were heading towards Preah Khan as I had a feeling our much needed guide had magically arrived on cue! We went through the same connotation of various pronunciations of Preah Khan and even tried Wat and Temple, forming my hands into a triangle to try and mimic the shape of the wats. Being only about 30kms away and most likely on the very same track we stood on, you would have thought one of them would have twigged..!! Amongst the sea of blank faces, eventually an old lady from the back of the huddle exclaimed ’Preah Khan’. For the life of us we couldn’t detect a single difference in the pronunciation that we’d been running through continuously to the way that she pronounced it!

A lot of the carvings have escaped the destruction of art collectors!

After much laughter it transpired that they were going in that general direction. The driver spoke a little English so it was agreed that we could follow them. First things first, time to get out of the mud… easy, with about a dozen locals pushing we soon got the car free. The truck hared off across the clearing and came to an abrupt stop just past where we’d bottled it… problem, surely they must know about the mines, no another problem the boggy mud quire that the track turned into! Without hesitation the occupants of the truck leaped over the sides and spread out into the minefield to find a way around! Now we’d been seriously spooked by just seeing the signs, then it dawned on me… these locals have grown up here and have no choice but to simply get on with their lives. Yes there is a real threat of mines but they simply can’t restrict their lives to forever living on the beaten track.

The ruins of Preah Khan

The mine really is a terrible weapon both physically and psychologically, it knows no difference between friend or foe, doesn’t adhere to treaties or cease fires and has absolutely no respect for peace. Once laid, it will happily lay dormant until some poor unsuspecting victim, man, women or child, wildlife or domestic beast happens to put a foot wrong. The result is devastating, maybe a painful death as the leg is shattered up into the body or blown off completely, or at best for the lucky survivors a permanent disability preventing them from continuing to toil the fields and carry out a normal life, a permanent scar and reminder of war. There are many mine clearing NGO’s active in Cambodia, but the task they face is enormous and it will be many years before the children can play freely in the fields without a worry, a life that we so readily enjoy.

Before long a route around the mud had been found, so the truck loaded up whilst we reduced the pressure in our tyres to give us much better traction in the mud. Following close behind we negotiated the jungle detour and were soon back on the track. Progress was slow as the number of muddy stretches increased. Some we drove through, others they decided to drive around. We struck up quite a relationship with the guys and they appreciated it when we threw them a bag full of bananas as I hung out the side of our window filming. We were even given a flower by one of the girls.

Some of the carvings are exquisite!

We then stopped at a somewhat tricky stretch and when the scouts came back with no detour found through the jungle the truck driver said they would have to turn around as they couldn’t go any further. We walked the track and judged the numerous mud traps before the track regained its composure. Hmmm I think we can make it. I told our guide that we were going to give it a go and press on if successful. He scratched his head then said “what about the mighty river?”… Ah what mighty river..?!?! I enquired at just how mighty a river we could expect and an excited conversation rattled around the group who couldn’t decide.

Over in the jungle were others busy making a clearing by slash and burn, so they were also consulted? The conversation went around and around for several minutes before a decision was reached and a consensus of opinion was agreed upon, with one of the guys coming forward placing a hand to his chest..!! Okay these aren’t the tallest guys in the world, but that would still make it over waist deep! We’d come this far and if at worst we’d have to turn around and retrace our steps, at least we’d have had a fun day out.

An easy section of track between the bamboo

In preparation we got the winch ready just in case, shook everyone’s hand – twice – then Maz got into Tinfish and launched into the mud, expertly negotiating the four muddy troughs in quick succession, to the amazement of the locals. “Strong car” and a lot of ‘thumbs up’ all round. Once more we were alone and with another 15km of ox cart track and the mighty river ahead of us we pressed on at a slightly faster pace to hopefully arrive before dark. Tinfish did great and really proved her worth not needing to winch once.

Anyone for a paddle…. We reach the mighty river

We could see from the map on the GPS that we were slowly approaching a river, so we braced ourselves for the inevitable. Before too long the track reached the top of a steep slope that disappeared through the undergrowth and down. This was it… first a recce on foot to meet our adversary! We couldn’t hear a torrent of water so it must be a slow moving body of water cutting us off from the final few km’s to our target. Stumbling down the slope we laughed loudly when there at the bottom was a tiny stream trickling and burbling its way along! Relief. It was evident however that in the height of the rains this must indeed fill the gorge and be a formidable crossing.

Mine clearance activity is evident everywhere

Just as dusk was falling we caught our first glimpse of Angkorian ruins with the enigmatic face of Jayavarman VII smiling out of the jungle perched high on top of the central tower of Prasat Preah Stung at the western end of a massive 3km baray (reservoir). We continued to the main temple complex and parked up just outside the eastern gopura (entrance pavilion). There was a large sign just before the bridge over the moat, declaring that the area had been cleared of UXO’s so we felt a little safer.

As is customary no sooner had we put the tent up when two guys appeared from out of nowhere and informed us we couldn’t camp there..! They preferred us to enter the complex through the gopura and park just inside. To say the entrance was tight is an understatement and with the haphazard stone bricks which made up the steps, it took some negotiation to get Tinfish through. Satisfied with our new spot the guys left us alone to cook up some dinner before we crashed out for the night both tired after an eventful day.

The correct place to camp at Preah Khan

In the morning we explored Preah Khan, the largest temple enclosure ever constructed during the Angkorian period. Originally dedicated to Hindu deities, it was reconsecrated to Mayayana Buddhist worship during a monumental reconstruction undertaken by his nibs in the late 12th century. Its history is shrouded in mystery, but it was long an important religious site and something of a second city to Angkor Thom, connected by a 120km laterite highway complete with ornate naga bridges which we were hoping to find hidden in the jungle.

Unfortunately as recently as the late 1990’s thieves arrived seeking buried statues under each prang (temple tower). Assaulted with pneumatic drills and mechanical diggers, the ancient temples never stood a chance and many of the towers simply collapsed in on themselves. Once again, a temple that had survived so much couldn’t stand the onslaught of the 20th century and it’s all consuming appetite! It is still however worth a visit and being the only ones there you are left to your own devices to clamber around and explore.

Some of the prang's remain standing but shaken

With more ox track ahead of us, we stopped off quickly at Prasat Preah Stung to catch a snap of his nibs smiling face and then tried to find the onward track into the jungle. Not as straight forward as we’d hoped. With our only map being the small layout of the complex in the Lonely P, the track certainly didn’t start where they’d marked it. After a few false leads we found ourselves on a track heading in about the right direction, which seemed to be continuing – bingo. The GPS counted down the km’s to our next waypoint Beng Mealea.

Jayavarman VII smiling face

Obviously not as frequented as yesterdays track, it was relatively harsher terrain to navigate with more muddy bogs and regular fallen trees blocking the way. We soon got used however to detouring off the main track to make our way around an obstacle deemed impassable following well marked tracks and clearings made by previous traffic. Progress was slow but steady and we were really enjoying ourselves. Then at the next fallen tree there was no way round. Perplexed we studied the track on either side, but there was no obvious way round. Had Max been with us he would have thrown himself at the mighty tree, axe in hand, but keeping in mind this is a hardwood forest and the trunk was a good 4ft in diameter that would have been a good workout even for his wrist!

We battle the mighty river

No, we must have missed the detour back along the track, so with a quick 3 point turn we inched our way back scouring the track on either side for any sign of a path. Ah hah, what was that to our right, another track? We’d already realised that any split in the main track where it was impossible to say which was the original, sooner or later rejoined and was just another interpretation of the way forward. Spirits high we dived down our new route, but within a mere 200m the obvious track turned into slightly more than a faint outline in the scrub. Furthermore it was obviously intended for narrower vehicles than Tinfish.

We took a deep breath and continued, axe and secatures (yes they are ideal at snipping back the branches and thorns) in hand we inched our way forward. Before long it was impossible to negotiate without one of us leaving the safety of the car’s side steps and giving directions, to slip between trees and avoid sharp trunks and rocks sticking out of the ground. All of this with the constant thought in the back of your mind - mines! We desperately kept our feet in the track, but we were going nowhere fast. Keeping an eye on the GPS it kept threatening to take us back to the main track, but never quite made it. The stress was starting to tell and tensions were taught.

The track across the bridge is worn after centuries of use

Eventually enough was enough, this was stupid and we were getting ourselves into thicker jungle. We did catch a glimpse of some more Angkorian ruins, but going exploring was the furthest thing on our minds. Painstakingly we negotiated a 3 point turn, we were beaten. To make matters worse, we then caught one of the side steps on a hidden trunk and it tore it clean off as we tried to get ourselves free. 3 hours from leaving the main track we breathed a sigh of relief as we rejoined it back where we started, having gone only 4 km’s in total. We were exhausted, mentally a physically. The concentration over the last 3 hours had completely zapped us.

We started on the long drive back to Preah Khan, but within minutes, there in front of us was a convoy. A convoy of bullock carts carrying freshly cut timbers and they were heading Beng Mealea way! We pulled of the track to let them through and waved at each of the 15 in turn. Needless to say they were amazed to see a huge Land Cruiser in the midst of their jungle and past by speechless mouths agape. Well sooner or later they’d come up against our insurmountable obstacle and we were dam sure that they’d have the ingenuity to find a way round, so we simply tailed them, which had them confused.

One of the decorated outer buildings at Preah Khan

The convoy halted, but false alarm it was just a feeding stop for the bullock and they were released to roam into the jungle. We tried to sign that a tree had fallen just ahead, but I’m not sure they’re used to charades around these parts and our message was totally lost! Fortunately it was just a quick stop and the bullocks were soon tethered back to the carts and the guys up in the driving seat. Before we’d even got up to cruising speed we halted again… Ah a tree has fallen, why didn’t you say..?!!?!

As predicted they fanned out choppers in hand and made an assault where the jungle was thinnest without a second thought. They had some pretty decent hardware which sliced through vines in a single chop. I asked if they could pretty please make the gap wide enough for us to get through and they shinnied up trees to clear our way through. It was only a small detour, but neither of us had wished to leave the safety of the beaten track before and step into the unknown, rather leave that to the experts! After handing out water and a few beers, the convoy was off again at double speed.

More excellent carvings

Where they had the agility to turn on a six pence, Tinfish wasn’t quite so nippy through the restriction and as the last of the bullock carts disappeared from view we were left to do a bit more fine tuning with our axe before the old girl could get her big behind through. Being dark now we didn’t fancy carrying on so decided the fallen tree would make as good a camp as any and stopped on the track. A much needed beer in hand, we settled in to preparing dinner a luvely pork chop in whole grain mustard and Singha lager sauce… an adaptation from the normal cider!

We were already starting to love the jungle nightlife, where anything and everything is lining up to have a taster of what’s new on the menu. Bug spray just seems to be the favoured marinade of these parts. I’ve never experienced quite so many different types of biting ant. Big, small, red or black all of which would bite first ask questions later. Slapping and smacking ourselves we tucked into our grub, as I leant across for the black pepper, when… nooooo my dinner fell on the floor. It was too good to waste so I managed to salvage what I could.

The naga stand guard as Tinfish crosses the bridge

The onslaught of biting ants intensified, which was when we noticed the spilt rice on the floor black with ants. Nothing could sustain this level of attack so we moved the car forward before packing up for the night. The next morning not a grain of rice remained, just a few of the rear guard scurrying about just in case they found one. Having rested well our spirits were high again for the final drive to Beng Mealea, now tantalisingly close.

Believing that our convoy of carts last night would have cleared a path through anything, nothing could stop us now… except a wrong turn perhaps. We were just wondering whether we were heading the right way still, with the GPS showing us heading north rather than west, when up popped another friendly local on cart smiling and waving. Magically she somehow guessed where we were heading and redirected us back to the cross roads to take the other fork.

The impressive bridge of Spean Ta Ong hidden in the jungle

Our perseverance paid off, but we were almost across the bridge before we realised what it was hidden in a tangle of bushes. We counted the arches, but it was much smaller than the holly grail of bridges which still lay ahead somewhere in the forest. We crossed a few more smaller ones, before eventually finding it, Spean Ta Ong. At 77m long with 14 arches this stone bridge dating from the 12th century with its mythical many headed serpent naga guarding the route, is definitely an impressive sight and a welcome break from the closeness of the jungle.

We were now well on our way to Beng Mealea and the forest started to give way to signs of agriculture as we neared the villages. With one rather suspicious looking shallow lake that the track entered into avoided by cutting through a field, we popped out of the jungle and onto a tarmac road just yards from the entrance to the temple, exhausted after 3 days concentration and the ever present stress of mines. Civilisation again and a few very surprised locals who obviously weren’t used to tourists taking the long way round to avoid the brand new $10 toll road straight from Siam Reap – ah but anyone can do that ;o)

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Comment from Scooter & family
Your having a laugh, those muddy puddles are the same as the ones you had in Wales a year ago ;0) A bit tame, except for the mines of course !!!
16 Jul 2006 @ 20:25:50