Kampong Thom was only a 5 hour ride from Kratie by private car ($120, ouch!) with Cambodia Private Taxi with a very kind driver who stopped along the way for snacks and bathroom breaks. We had another Mekong River crossing by small ferry. Surprisingly, even though the Mekong is a major river running completely through Cambodia there are only a few bridge crossings, plus a few ferry crossings. While we waited for the ferry we watched children swimming in the river and playing along the river bank. We got a great many hellos from the kids. The standard phrases are: How are you? I am fine. Where do you come from? Hello. Goodbye. These are accompanied by many giggles and laughs. As a matter of fact, the Cambodian people,both young and old, are very friendly and have no shortage of smiles for strangers.
We were taken from Kompong Thom to an authentic homestay 45 minutes away by tuk-tuk. The homestay was arranged by Mr. Teng of Isanborei, a local cooperative that encourages visitors to support the local community by staying in the villages. We were welcomed in the home of Mr. Phea and his wife Parin and we were able to briefly experience something of what rural life in Cambodia is really like. They fed us well with food grown and raised on the farm with plenty of hot tea. There was no running water, only one water source in a cement cistern that the family used to bathe, flush the toilet (bucket method), etc. It was blazing hot during the day and cool at night. There were no markets nearby, only locally grown food. Our hosts raised chickens in the dry season and grew rice in the wet season. It was a real educational experience for us and we feel privileged that our hosts shared a part of their lives with us.
The following day we rode to the ancient temples of Sambor Prei Kuk by bicycle. This is one of Cambodia’s most impressive group of pre-Angkorian monuments that were built about 500 years before the more famous structures at Angkor Wat. The structures at Sambor Prei Kuk are constructed from handmade bricks and include Hindu religious artwork carved in brick and sandstone. Most are overgrown with trees so that the monuments and the trees have become one. The construction reminded us of the structures we have seen at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, although the Chaco structures are built of hewn sandstone “bricks” rather than manmade bricks. Like the Chaco structures, the ones at Sambor Prei Kuk may have been arranged along astronomical lines. For example, our guide told us that structures with pyramidal roofs were built so that at certain times of the year the sun and moon were visible through the opening at the top.
We were taken back to Kompong Thom to the Vimean Sovann Guesthouse ($14 per night for a double room with air con). It was very clean and comfortable for the price and there was a coffee shop downstairs with good Cambodian food and strong coffee. The following day, we went by tuk-tuk to the holy temple mountain of Phnom Santuk with 809 steps leading to colorful wats and stupas at the top. There were many pesky macaques (monkeys) along the way. Luckily we were not any carrying food as we found out later that the monkeys would grab the food right out of your hand. We have run into very aggressive monkeys at times in our travels, but fortunately these pretty much ignored us, probably because we knew to be aware of them, to not carry food with us, and to act passively toward them. While coming down the mountain we ran across a group of school children who predictably practiced their English on us. After the standard “hello” and “where are you from” one of the children said to Denise “You are very old”, which was funny to hear, even though it’s true. Denise’s response was “And you are very young”, but we are not sure whether or not the children understood.
We will hang out here for one more day and then take a private car to a place called BeTreed Adventures where we plan to stay a few nights in either a tree house or a stilt house on property bordering a protected area northeast of Siem Reap. While there we will do some hiking before heading further north to near the Cambodia-Thailand border to sample more Angkor-era temples. After that the plan is to either head further west along the border to sample more temple sites and then down to Siem Reap, or just go directly to Siem Reap. We’ll figure out the details as we go along.