WESTERN AND NORTHWESTERN CAMBODIA

WESTERN AND NORTHWESTERN CAMBODIA

WESTERN AND NORTHWESTERN CAMBODIA is the home of the Cardamom Mountains, the last refuge of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, Thai-frequented casinos, a spectacular Angkor-era temple that Thailand and Cambodia fought a mini-war over, and the world’s most god-forbidden roads that can make travel to some destinations bone-rattling in the dry season and impossible in the wet season.

PURSAT PROVINCE is the fourth biggest province of Cambodia. Located in the western part of Cambodia, it borders Battambang Province to north, the Tonle Sap Lake and Kompong Chhnang Province to the east, Kompong Speu and Koh Kong Provinces to the south and Thailand to the west. Pursat offers access to both the Tonle Sap and the Cardamom Mountains. The name of Pursat refers to a type of tree.

For the time being, Pursat receives few travelers and the two main attractions, the Cardamoms and the Tonle Sap require a little initiative on the tourist's part to visit. Pursat is predominantly accessible by the National Highway No 5 form Phnom Penh and Battambang. There is also an old slow train working between Phnom Penh and Battambang, which stops outside (2 kilometers) from Pursat.

Pursat province covers 12,692 square kilometers. The province consists of typical wet plain areas near the Tonle Sap Basin, with rice fields and other agricultural plantations. The Tonle Sap covers a big part in the province’s northeast area. Much of the province is occupied by the Cardamom Mountains, a green, forested mountain range in the southwestern part of the province, near to the border with Thailand. The highest elevation is the 1,813m high Phnom Aural in the Southeast corner of the country.

The population in Pursat Province is about 442,973 people or 3.1 percent of the country’s total population (2007, provincial government data), with 214,651 male and 228,342 female. The population density is only 35 people per square kilometer. Pursat's economy is dominated by fishing and rice and fruit agriculture in the north of the province near the Tonle Sap Basin. The harvesting of sandalwood oil, which fetches huge prices in Asia is another livelihood for locals but sandalwood trees are disappearing fast in Cambodia. Unfortunately the illegal logging of precious hardwoods and the poaching of endangered species give some people an additional income.

Pursat’s average temperature throughout the year is definitely lower than in other areas of Cambodia (except Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri Province). In Pursat cool season is from November to March with temperatures ranging from 18 to 28 degrees C. The hot season is from March to May with temperatures ranging from 22 to 34 degrees C. The rainy season is from May to October. Temperatures are 23 to 32 degrees C, with humidity up to 90 percent.

Pursat Town (174 kilometers from Phnom Penh and 106 kilometers from Battambang) is the middle between the Tonle Sap and the Cardamom Mountains on the riverbanks of the Stung Pursat. There isn’t that much to do in this small town. Most tourists that come here are on their way to Battambang or Phnom Penh. For people just driving by, the impression of a boring ordinary town remains. The only tourist attraction in town is the marble workshops near the bridge on the main street. The precious marble stones originate from the Cardamoms. Marble objects are sold near the Lam Siv Eng Restaurant. About 5 kilometers from town is the tomb of Khleang Meung.

Getting to Pursat Town: Buses and shared taxis are available from Battambang or Phnom Penh and other towns.

Accommodation in Pursat: 1) Phnom Pich Hotel: (tel: 052/951515) is about 200 meters North from the main bridge on the westbank of the river. The smart and modern hotel offers clean and very spacious room equipped with Western bathroom, satellite TV and air-con. The attached restaurant has a very good reputation in town. The prices range from US$6-15. 2) Vimean Sourkear Hotel: (tel: 052/951466) looks old and rundown outside but inside it has air conditioned rooms and hot water. It's probably the cheapest hotel with air-con in town. 3) New Tounsour Hotel: (tel: 052/951506) is long-running by friendly people and offers quite the same standard as the Phnom Pich Hotel. Clean and very spacious room equipped with Western bathroom, satellite TV and air-con. Don't wonder about the kitschy dcor it's just a Khmer update. Prices from US$5-10.

The next two places have similar good locations, close to the river and market: 4) Thmar Keo Guesthouse has is a nice outdoor terrace here. The best bet is the fan room with a Western bath and single bed for US$ 5. An air conditioned room goes for US$ 10. Hotel T'mei, Next to the Hotel Vimean Sourkey, was still under construction in the late 2000s. Looks like it will be the best spot in town when it's finished.

Two places near each other and just off National Highway No 5: 5) Hotel Orchidee is a A very friendly place run by a mother-daughter team. There is a common living room, TV area on the second floor that has some nice Khmer artwork on display. Rooms with a Western bath, h./w shower and two beds go for US$ 7 with fan, and US$ 10 for turning on the a./c. 6) Hotel Than Sour is probably a step up from the Orchidee, and is a friendly place as well. Nice rooms with TV, Western bath and fan go for US$ 5, a/c for US$ 10.

Tonle Sap from Pursat: Pursat province offers a magnificent opportunity to see one of the larger and markedly less touristy floating villages without a significant investment in time or money. In fact, there are a number of floating villages in the province only accessible from the lake, Peach Kantil, Kbal Taol, and Prek Kr, but you can only see Kompong Luong for the cost of the day-rate for a moto ($6-8) and the cost for a boat ride once you get there. See Tonle Sap

Central Cardamom Mountains from Pursat: Pursat offers a relatively easy way to the Cardamom Mountains. Accessing the central Cardamoms from Pursat is not too difficult as there is a road from Pursat to Veal Veng, a small village between the Mt. Samkos and Mt. Aural Wildlife Sanctuaries. There's no organized transport from Pursat to this place, but if you ask around you should eventually get satisfactory results. There is a road from Koh Kong to Pailin, which cuts through the Cardamom Mountains on the western edge of Pursat province.

CARDAMOM MOUNTAINS

CARDAMOM MOUNTAINS(near the Thai border in southwest Cambodia) are named after the sweet spice that grows along the mountain’s slopes. It is home to lovely waterfalls, moss-covered rocks, wild orchids, tigers, clouded leopards, pileated gibbons, sun bears, Siamese crocodiles, giant blue-winged butterflies and other rare animals. Rain forests cover more than three million hectares and are in remarkably pristine conditions.

The Cardamom Mountains of Koh Kong and Pursat provinces are said to be the most pristine wilderness area remaining in Southeast Asia. The western edge of the Cardamom region abuts the Thai border, while the easternmost part ends about sixty miles northwest of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. The region's area is 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares). The highest point in the range (and in Cambodia) is Mount Aural, at 1,813 meters (5,946 feet). There are five main rivers that run through the Cardamoms, creating dozens of waterfalls. About 25,000 people live in this region, some of whom are ethnic minorities, such as the Porr.

Khmer Rouge guerrillas retreated to the Cardamoms after losing power in 1979, and for the next twenty years, no one wanted to enter that area for fear of the KR and the mines they placed in it. As a result, the region remained untouched and undeveloped. Thousands of Cambodians left the country before and during the KR holocaust by walking over the Cardamoms into refugee camps in Thailand.Today, the Cardamom Mountains region is the largest wilderness in mainland Southeast Asia, preserving a remarkable number of species that are endangered (and in some cases extinct) elsewhere in the world. However, without proper conservation and protection, this area and its inhabitants are now at the mercy of logging interests, as well as poachers.

Nick Boulos wrote in the Washington Post, “Until recently, the Cardamom Mountains were simply off-limits. War raged in these quiet emerald peaks, named for the heady spice that grows here, until the mid-1990s. The area was the last stronghold of Khmer Rouge rebels who retreated here after the 1979 collapse of Pol Pot’s brutal regime. For more than a decade, bloody battles continued to break out between the guerrillas and local villagers. When the guns finally fell silent, the locals had lost everything. Forced to exploit their natural resources to survive, they hunted wildlife and destroyed the forests. But despite their dark past and a back story worthy of the Hollywood treatment, the Cardamoms remain a place of astounding beauty. And with peace has come tourism.[Source: Nick Boulos, Washington Post, August 10, 2012]

“With the help of the Wildlife Alliance — an American nonprofit organization that works alongside national governments to promote conservation and alleviate poverty in Southeast Asia — the communities here have reclaimed their destiny. Landmines have been cleared, former battlefields have become prime trekking territory, and the men who once fought the rebels now lead guided walks along deserted trails. The women, meanwhile, have opened their homes as guesthouses, with all in the community benefiting from the profits.”

Today, the rainforests are threatened mostly by land concessions for monoculture plantations. At one point the Cambodian government announced it would not be granting any new economic land concessions—which have cut out swathes of forest for plantation even in protected areas—but since then has announced several concessions.

Flora and Fauna in the Cardamom Mountains: The Cardamom Mountains are rich in wildlife and contain some of the best rainforest remaining in Southeast Asia. The French used to hunt for rhinoceros and black leopards here. More than 250 bird species have been counted and the largest population of Asian elephants in Cambodia, numbering about a hundred individuals, roams the forest. A survey of the area in the early 2000s revealed seven new species of amphibians, perhaps one new snake species, several new species of small mammal and as many as 800 new insect species.

One reason that the forests are still so alive is that the Khmer Rouge had their last stronghold here. They planted so many mines that loggers and settlers have been reluctant to move in. This is changing however. Already squatters have moved in and timber has been harvested in places where mines have been removed.

Despite the minimal area under observation the survey identified 30 large mammal species, 30 small mammal species, more than 450 birds, 64 reptiles, 30 amphibians, and many other plants and insects. To name just a few of the animals indigenous to this area would include elephants, tigers, clouded leopards and a variety of other mammals such as the Malaysian sun bear, pleated gibbons, and Siamese crocodiles all of which are high on the endangered species list and the only significant population thought to exist anywhere.

In 2000, Fauna and Flora International, Conservation International, and the Cambodian Ministry of Environment and Wildlife Protection Programme conducted a joint survey that covered only a small part of the vast expanse of unexplored land. The Cardamom Mountains are now known to contain almost all the country's known mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. This is partly due to the very high diversity of habitats, some of which occur nowhere else in Cambodia, such as large expanses of fire-regulated ferns, upper montane forest, high elevation marshes and blackwater rivers.

The Cardamom Mountain Wildlife Sanctuaries Project—a joint venture of Fauna & Flora International and Cambodia's Ministry of Environment— aims to ensure the long-term conservation of a landscape of global importance and its biodiversity while reducing poverty and ensuring essential national development. The focus is to establish and maintain management systems in two protected areas in south-west Cambodia: Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary and Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary.

Wildlife Sanctuaries in the Cardamoms: There are two wildlife sanctuaries in the Cardamoms, both of which were decreed by King Norodom Sihanouk in 1993 solely on the basis of aerial photographs. Mt. Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary is in the western part of the range, and Mt. Aural Wildlife Sanctuary is in the east. These are "paper"parks only: they exist only by law, with none of the active management necessary for a wildlife preserve.

Mt. Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary on the Thai border occupies the eastern part of the Cardamon range. Mt. Aural Wildlife sanctuary, west of Phnom Penh, occupies the eastern side. There is some discussion about turning the central Cardamon mountains and forests there into a reserve. If all goes according to plan the reserve would be linked with Mt. Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary and Mt. Aural Wildlife sanctuary, creating the largest green corridor in mainland Southeast Asia with a total area of 2.44 million acres. There is a lot of resistance to the plan, particularly from logging companies that already have concessions there.

Chi Phat (in Koh Kong province, three-hour drive and a two-hour scenic boat ride from Phnom Penh) is the main access point to the Cardamom Mountains. It is a small town situated directly in the heart of the Cardamom Mountains near mainland Southeast Asia’s largest remaining tract of rainforest. With natural attractions such as mountains, mangroves and low land swamps and cultural artifacts such as burial jars and wooden coffins, Chi Phat and its surrounding area has a variety of attractions to offer both to local and international tourists. Tourists can take a walk through the forest trails and meet warm and friendly village people.

The Chi-Phat commune consists four villages:Chi-Phat, Komlot, Chom-Sla and T'k La'o. The commune population is estimated around 3,000 inhabitants. According to the Washington Post: Car and boat transfers to Chi Phat can be arranged by the local Community Based Eco-Tourism (CBET) office (011-85-9-272-0925; www.ecoadventurecambodia.com). Accommodations in Chi Phat are booked via the CBET office. Options vary from guesthouses to homestays, which cost $5. The facilities are basic, but rooms are private and clean, with mosquito nets provided. Bathrooms are shared and usually consist of bucket showers and Western toilets. Home-cooked meals with your host family can be arranged for $5. Sothun Lodge, set on a private island, is Chi Phat’s most comfortable accommodation option. The eight bungalows overlook a river and boast modern bathrooms, fans and mosquito nets. Rooms cost $20. [Source: Nick Boulos, Washington Post, August 10, 2012]

Trekking Packages are available through the CBET office, varying in distance, duration and difficulty, and including overnight camping. Mountain Kingdoms (www.mountainkingdoms.com) offers a 16-night guided tour of Cambodia, including four days in the Cardamom Mountains. Prices start from $2,170 per person, excluding flights. River cruises on a traditional rowing boat, mountain biking, bird-watching, night fishing and visits to mountain communities may be booked through the CBET office.

Getting to Chi Phat: Chi Phat is located on the Stung Phipot (Phipot River) about 20 kilometer upstream from Andong Teuk village on Highway 48 – the main highway linking Phnom Penh with Thailand, through the provincial capital of Koh Kong. To get to Chi Phat you will have to travel to Andong Teuk village by bus and from Andoung Teuk to Chi Phat by boat, the journey from Andong Teuk to Chi Phat is a scenic river trip passing mangroves and forested mountains. [Source: Wikitravel]

Transportation to Andong Teuk village: From Phnom Penh: The bus departs Phnom Penh at 7:00am or 8:00am from Mao Tse Tung Blvd, near Psar Domhkor (Domhkor Market) to Koh Kong town and arrives in Andong Teuk village around 10:30am or 11:30am. From Sihanoukville: The bus departs from the central bus station at 8:00am for Koh Kong town and arrives in Andong Teuk village around 11:30am. From Koh Kong Town: The bus departs from the central bus station at 8:00am to Phnom Penh and arrives in Andong Teuk village at around 10:30am. Remember to ask your bus driver to drop you off at Andong Teuk village!

HIKING IN THE CARDAMOM MOUNTAINS

Nick Boulos wrote in the Washington Post, “It wasn’t the greatest first impression I’d ever made. Arriving at the small, dusty Cambodian village of O’Key, where dogs scampered around the handful of bamboo houses, I smiled and waved at the mother and daughter sitting in the shade of a banana tree. The young girl stared at me. Then, lip trembling, she burst into tears. “Don’t take it personally,” my guide, Lok, reassured me. “She hasn’t seen very many Westerners.” Only 1,000 or so travelers a year make the journey to this region, which is a three-hour drive and a two-hour scenic boat ride from the capital, Phnom Penh. Their efforts are rewarded with world-class hiking and local interaction that’s a far cry from the commercialized “cultural” treks found elsewhere in Asia.[Source: Nick Boulos, Washington Post, August 10, 2012]

One housewife-turned-hotelier is Ming Tha, who proudly showed me into the second bedroom of her humble home, built on wooden stilts, in Chi Phat, the main village in the mountains, where my trekking adventure began. Settling in, I could see Ming below me through the gaps in the floorboards. There she sat, busily picking coriander leaves as dogs and ducks, chickens and children ran around the courtyard. The cicadas sang sweetly as the rain clouds moved in, the heavy droplets falling like bullets on the iron roof. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.

The next morning, I strolled along Chi Phat’s main road, a ruler-straight avenue where petrol and potent rice wine are sold in identical plastic bottles. My guide from Phnom Penh, Lok, introduced me to Kan at the community center that doubles as the town’s only restaurant. Kan, born and raised in Chi Phat, was to lead our trek. We planned to walk about 22 miles over the next two days, although, with so many trails of varying lengths and difficulty, choosing our route proved to be a challenge. More than 87 miles of trails have been carefully carved through the mountains, with a number of thatched structures erected in clearings for camping in comfort. Well, relative comfort.

The prospect of trekking here was an exciting one. “It’s world class,” said Lok, glancing toward the forested peaks that rise to heights of nearly 3,000 feet. Home to more than 70 species of mammals, including Malayan sun bears, clouded leopards and the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, the Cardamoms bring together 16 different ecosystems.They also form part of the last elephant corridor in the world — a route that herds of the long-trunked creatures travel over several months toward the coastal resort of Sihanoukville. Sadly, the elephants’ numbers have plummeted in recent decades because of rampant poaching, and it’s thought that fewer than 100 remain in the area.

Joined by our cook, a man of few words nicknamed Mr. Crab — he never revealed his real name — we set off, making an exciting discovery within minutes. Scattered across the narrow trail, carving deep holes on the moist forest floor, were elephant tracks the size of dinner plates. Kan, however, seemed more interested in a nearby tree. Hacking at the blood red bark, the thud of his machete echoing through the silent forest, he stripped away a clump and promptly rubbed it over his exposed legs and ankles. “For protection against leeches,” he said, over the loud call of a gibbon. Grabbing a handful myself, I followed suit as the bloodsuckers appeared seemingly from nowhere on the moist ground.

For hours we walked through untamed nature of inexpressible beauty: giant ferns growing beside delicate and exotic plants, small gecko snakes vanishing beneath fallen tree trunks. Best of all, though, there wasn’t another soul to be seen. That evening we set up camp in the heart of the forest. There was little for us to do except tie our hammocks to the bamboo pillars of a special open-sided structure erected in a small clearing. Mr. Crab immediately set about rustling up a feast. Hunched over a sizzling wok on an open fire, he fried slivers of spicy beef as night began to fall. Suddenly, every animal call, every rustling of the trees, grew more mysterious and sinister.

There was little time to dwell on this, however. I was keen to learn more of the local history from those who had lived through it. Like many, Kan and Lok both bear the scars of recent history. Kan, born in Chi Phat and now in his 40s, started fighting the Khmer Rouge when he was just 15, while Lok, in his mid-30s, lost loved ones to the regime, as did countless other Cambodians. “I don’t seek revenge on those who killed the people in my village when I was a child,” he said. “My father was among the dead and my mother feared that we would all be separated, so we fled. I lost my father and my home.”

The next morning, I awoke to the sound of crackling firewood. Mr. Crab was serving breakfast, coffee bubbling away in his well-used tin kettle. Day two of our trek had more wow factor: epic scenery and ramshackle villages hiding ancient secrets. We crossed vast plains carpeted with pale grass that crunched underfoot. Rising gently and majestically all around us were the Cardamoms. Out there somewhere was Cambodia’s highest peak — Phnom Aural, which stands at 5,948 feet. Following the snaking route of a gushing stream, I peered into the murky water, looking for the rare Siamese crocodile, once found in abundance here but rarely seen today.

It’s hard to underestimate the cultural and natural significance of the Cardamoms to the Cambodians. The region has been home to pockets of people for centuries, and some of their customs have long been lost. Lost but not forgotten. While they no longer practice them, locals continue to respect the ancient rituals of their forefathers.In the 13th century, during the height of the Khmer Empire, the deceased were not interred in the ground. A different final resting place awaited them. Bones and other remains were placed in ceramic jars and left in secret spiritual locations, some of which have recently been discovered. Kan and Lok wanted me to see one for myself, so after meeting the locals at the village of O’Key — and reducing one to tears — we ventured deep into the forest, to a cavernous hole at the bottom of a cliff. Sitting in mounds of sand and dust was a collection of ancient and weathered pots and jars. As we gazed at them, our mood turned somber, yet at the same time, I felt a strange sense of excitement. There was no denying how fortunate I was to be in such a sacred and secret place.

Until recently, talk in villages such as O’Key had been of nothing but the Cambodian government’s controversial plans to mine the mountains for gold and titanium. Had the proposal gone ahead, it would have spelled catastrophe, destroying the elephant corridor and centuries of heritage. Opposition campaigners, led by the Wildlife Alliance and local environmentalists, put up a strong fight, and the plans, thankfully, were shelved last year.

We returned to Chi Phat both exhausted and exhilarated, but Lok had one last place to show off. I hopped onto the back of a motorbike, and we drove down a long bumpy track out of the village. We crossed a river, walking gingerly over slippery rocks near fizzing rapids, and came to a stop before a patch of woodland. “This is our tree nursery,” Lok said proudly. And he was right to be proud. Reversing the widespread deforestation of days gone by, the Wildlife Alliance has replanted about 2 million trees here — ebony, mahogany and sandalwood. Mist lingered over the treetops; the faint chimes of cowbells rang from the distant flatlands. The past may have been dark, but the future’s bright.

BATTAMBANG PROVINCE

BATTAMBANG PROVINCE was the leading rice-producing province in Cambodia before the years of war and Khmer Rouge domination. After the outbreak of the Cambodian civil war in 1970, the Battambang-Phnom Penh road was a prime target of the Khmer Rouge insurgents, who, by capturing it, severed Phnom Penh from its major source of rice.Battambang did not give way to the Khmer Rouge movement until after the fall of Phnom Penh, but was the center of the government-Khmer Rouge conflict after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 pushed the genocidal regime out of Phnom Penh and to the Northwest. Until the surrender deal of Ieng Sary—Khmer Rouge number three man, who was based in Pailin—in the mid 1990s, Battambang was under Khmer Rouge control.

In its earlier history Battambang flip-flopped back and forth between Thailand and Cambodia. It's been a part of Thailand most of the time since the 15th century, with Cambodia regaining control, due the French, in 1907. The Thais grabbed it again, with Japanese assistance, in 1941 and kept the region until relinquishing it after World War II in 1947.

The Allied Forces helped persuade the Thais that the region was originally part of ancient Cambodia and the world community would not take kindly to the Thais holding onto it further. Like the rest of the Northwest, there is still a lot of Thai influence apparent. The main currency is still the Thai Baht and many people are able to converse in Thai. But the area is very Khmer, with ancient Khmer ruins scattered around, and even the ways of life are much more similar to the rest of Cambodia than to Thailand.

Battambang Province has a total land area of about 11,702 square kilometers with around 67.7 inhabitants per square kilometer. The provincial capital of Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia. It is located in the middle of one of the biggest rice-growing areas in Southeast Asia. The average altitude of the province is around 50 meters. The province is bordered to the North by Banteay Meanchey Province, to the West with Thailand, to the East and South with Pursat Province and the great lake Tonle Sap.

The population census in 2007 shows that Battambang is a densely populated province with 511,378 male and 525,145 female inhabitants and total population of 1,036,523 people. The population density is 68 per square kilometer, which is slightly higher than the national density of 64. The population of this province constitutes 6.9 percent of the whole Cambodian population. Battambang rice and rubber were principal export of Cambodia, but exports fell sharply after the onset of the civil war in 1970s, which put most of the rubber plantations out of operation. By the 1990s, however, rubber plantings had been undertaken as part of a national recovery program. Battambang oranges are famous in Cambodia. recently, inadequate transportation hampered exploitation of the province’s vast forests, but by the mid-1990s timber had become the largest source of export income. Exploitation of mineral resources like phosphate rock, limestone, semiprecious stones, and salt supports important local mining operations. Inflation was 1.6 percent in 2002, whereas official unemployment figures amounted to 2.6 percent. Due to closed Thailand there is quite a lot of financial influx from foreign (Thai) investors

In Battambang the cool season is from November to February with temperature averaging around 26 degrees C. The hot season is from March to May with temperatures ranging from 28 to 35 degrees C. The rainy season is from June to October. Temperature average above 31 degrees C, with humidity up to 90 percent.

BATTAMBANG CITY

Battambang (291 kilometers from Phnom Penh and 103 kilometers from the Thailand border) is Cambodia's second-largest city and the capital of Battambang Province. Founded in the 11th century, it is the former capital of Monton Kmer and lies in the heart of the Northwest of Cambodia. Before the war years and Khmer Rouge domination, in which almost all of its infrastructure was destroyed, it was the center of the leading rice-producing region in Cambodia. The name Battambang or Batdambang, literally means "loss of stick" referring to a legend of the Preah Bat Dambang Kranhoung (Kranhoung Stick King). The population is around 250,000 people

Battambang was acquired by Thailand in 1809 and returned to Cambodia in 1907. It is a riverside town and home to some of the best-preserved, French colonial architecture in the country. It also has a technical university. There are fruit and cashew plantations outside the city. Until the 2000s, Battambang was off the map for road travelers as it was a Khmer Rouge stronghold, but facilities have recently been improved and it makes a great base for visiting the nearby temples, such as Phnom Banon and Wat Ek Phnom, as well as the closeby villages.

Battambang city is a peaceful and pleasant place these days. The main parts of the city are situated close to the Sangker River, a tranquil, small body of water that winds its way through Battambang Province. It is a nice, picturesque setting. The network of charming old French shop houses clustered along the riverbank is a highlight A small museum has a collection of Angkorian-era artifacts, and beyond the town there's a number of hilltop temples, yet more Wats and a pretty large lake. One of the more famous hills is Phnom Sampeau (Ship Hill) with the notorious killing caves.

Battambang is the main hub of the Northwest connecting the entire region with Phnom Penh and Thailand, and as such it’s a vital link for Cambodia. Located on both the highway and railroad linking Phnom Penh with Thailand, it is also a secondary hub on the overland route between Thailand and Vietnam, and if the National Highway No 6 from Poipet to Siem Reap is ever upgraded it'll become an even smaller hub.

Tourist Attractions in Battambang: Wat Tahm-rai-saw (White Elephant Pagoda) is one of the visited tourist spots in the city center area. This famous temple is located in one of the busy districts of the city and is known for its elaborate architectural. If you are to visit this popular tourism destination, you are to take one of the roads known to be Road 2 or Road 3. Road 2 is comparatively busier than Road 3. There are road side shops and eateries on the two roads. Many hotels and lodging places are nearby. The best time to visit the White Elephant Pagoda is during Khmer New Year, when the temple and the adjacent streets are decorated with various colorful ornaments and an important festival takes place. Classical dancing accompanied by traditional music is sometimes performed at the temple, particularly at the time of Khmer New Year, when people also throw plenty of water mixed with colored powder at people on the street as a good luck wish and to bless them with fun and prosperity.

Getting to Battambarg: From Phnom Penh to Battambang it's about 291 kilometers via national road number 5. Battambang is also accessible from Thailand via Pailin, Banteay Meanchey. Siem Reap to Battambang can be reached overland. There are no flights between Battambang and Siem Reap at this time.

Speed Boats to Battambang: During the rainy season, it's a good alternative to the shared taxi. The road from Siem Reap to Sisophanis is quite lousy. So therefore it's best to take the opportunity of a nice and relaxing boat trip. The dry season eventually makes this impassable as the river water level goes down. Departing from Siem Reap taking the 7 am boat, you'll arrive at Battambang about 10:30 am. The cost is around US$10-15 per person, depending on demand. So it's negotiable. Departing from Phnom Penh taking the 7:00-8:00am boat, you'll arrive at Battambang around 3:00-4:00pm. The cost is around US$ 16-22 per person.

Shared Taxi from Battambang: Battambang to Phnom Penh 300 baht (US$ 10) Battambang to Sisophon 50 baht (US$ 1.7) Battambang to Pursat 100 baht (US$ 3.4),

Train to Battambang: The old saying goes there is no such thing as a free lunch, but in Cambodia, the old train is still free. for foreigners, that's it. However, it will just cost you some time (maybe some officers will ask you for a creative donation). The Phnom Penh to Battambang journey usually takes about thirteen to fourteen hours, if no mishaps occure. The scenery is not nearly as stunning as parts of the Phnom Penh-Kampot-Sihanoukville routes, but you certainly will get a good sampling of rural agriculture scenery. Train Schedule: Phnom Penh to Battambang -departs between 6:20 & 7 am daily Sisophon to Battambang -departs at around 2 pm daily Battambang to Phnom Penh -departs between 6:30 & 7 am daily Battambang to Sisophon -departs between 6:45 & 7:15 am daily.

Motorcycle Touring: Riding by motorcycle is the best way to see the countryside and the sights along the way. You may stop by at some pagodas or ancient temples on the national road No 5. Battambang to Phnom Penh: It's a tough but definitely doable road if you are on a motorcycle circuit tour. They are slow resurfacing sections between Battambang, Pursat and Kampong Chhnang, from which the road is then pretty fair to Phnom Penh. On the Battambang -Phnom Penh highway, daytime security is not a problem, but at night scores of military checkpoints spring up with logs being put across the road so that vehicles stop. They just want a toll fee but it's not a fun time of the day to be dealing with the soldiers as they are pretty liquored up by then. Avoid possible problems and just ride of taxi during daylight hours.

Battambang to Sisophon: The trip is about 64 kilometers and takes about 1½ hours. Battambang to Pursat is about 103 Battambang kilometers and takes about three hours. Battambang to Phnom Penh takes about six to eight hours, depending greatly on whether you are riding yourself or in a share taxi (which mostly takes longer). The road between Battambang and Pailin is a very rough road that has only a few decent stretches -it's a lot better than it was a few years back, but that knowledge won’t mean much to your sore tail-side.

Security is not a problem. Getting to Phnom Banan is easy-just head south on the River Road (Road1) about 20 km, which at a moderate pace should take just over half and hour. You can't miss the big hill with the temple on top, visible on the right side of the road. Turn right at the dirt road that runs smack into the middle of the hill. There are drinks and snack stands near the base of the stairway going up. There is also a dirt road going to the left by the stands that you could take up, but take the stairway as the Khmers did at the time the temple was in use.It's part of the fun. A round-trip moto-taxi from Battambang is approximately 120 baht (US$ 4.5) including their waiting time.

SIGHTS NEAR BATTAMBANG CITY

Tourist Attractions in the Battambang Area: Dang Tung (54 kilometers from Battambang) is a wildlife preserve very popular among nature lovers. It is located in Danng Tung Village at Rattanakmundul District and takes about three hours to reach from Battambang. Gold Buddha Hill (60 kilometers or so from Battambang) is on the way to Sisophan. It's easy to spot from the road.

Barseat Temple (15 kilometer from Battambang) is located in Barsaet Villlage, Tapoan commune, Sangke District. It was built in the 11th century, between AD 1036 and 1042, during the region of King Suryavarman I (A.D. 1002-1050). This temple was seriously damaged, and only the door frame remains. Next to this temple, there is an ancient pond that is 20 meters long, 12 meters wide and 10 meters deep. It hold water year round.

Wat Ek Temple (Piem Ek commune in 14 kilometers from Battambang) adapts the architecture of 11th century and was built in 1027 during the reign of King, Sorayak Varman I (1002-1050).

Ba Nan Temple (15 kilometer from Battambang) adapts the architecture of mid 11th century and the end of 12th century the temple was first built by King, Ut Tak Yea Tit Tya Varman II (1050-1066) and finally by King Jarvarman VII (1181-1219). The temple is located on the top of a 400-meter-high mountain at Koh Tey 2 commune, Ba Nan District. It is reached by the provincial Road No 155 parallel to Sang Ke River. At the mountain’s valley, there are Ku Teuk and two main natural well, namely: Bit Meas and Chhung or Chhung Achey.

This Angkor-era mountaintop temple is definitely worth a look. At the top are beautiful views of the winding Sangker River set amidst sugar palm trees, rice fields and small villages. To the south you will see a mountain range that features a crocodile shaped mountain. The temple itself is beautiful looking from the ground as well as the top. The structures are pretty much intact, but unfortunately like so many Khmer ruins, they have fallen victim to massive looting. Still, there are some interesting works to see. There are five temple structures, like Angkor, with the middle being the largest. (Use caution around the entrance to the center structure-there is a large hanging block-a headache-in-waiting for some poor soul).

As with Preah Vihear Temple (close to the Thai border in the province of the same name), there are a couple of big guns on the mountaintop next to the ruins. The guns are still pointing down at the surrounding area as they were during the more recent years of the government-Khmer Rouge skirmishes.It's part of the sad irony of Cambodia that a place built for worship, harmony and tranquility was utilized as a place for making war. Looking down the hillside to the southwest you can see more of the ruins. As always, if you go looking around, STAY ON THE WORN PATHWAYS AND TRAILS- there may still be undiscovered landmines.

Prasat Snung (15 kilometer from Battambang) features three separated stupas made of brick, located on a hill having 30 meter length and 20 meter width, in Snung pagoda’s area, Snung commune, Ba Nan District. According to the style at the gate, the temple is similar to other temples from the 12th century. Behind the temple, there is another newer temple.

Phnom Sam Pov Resort (12 kilometer from Battambang) is located along the National Road No 57 (the former National Road No. 10) at Sam Puoy commune on a 100-meter-high hill. On the top of Sam Puoy hill there are temple and three natural wells, namely Pkar Slar, Lo Khuon and Ak So Pheak. Next to Sam Puoy hill there are some mountains, and the natural sites: Phnom Trung Moan, Phnom Trung Tea and Phnom Neang Rum Say Sork. These mountains are prominent in the Cambodia folk legend of Reach Kol Neang Rum Say Sork.

Boeng Kam Pinh Puoy Resort (35 kilometer from Battambang) is located between two mountains, named Phnom Kul or Phnom Ta Nget and Phnom Kam Pinh Puoy, at Ta Nget village, Ta Kriem Commune. Boeng kam Pinh Puoy has 1,900 meter width, 19 kilometer length and can load 110,000,000-cubic meter water.

Sek Sak Resort (50 kilometer from Battambang) is a natural resort, which has been popular since before the civil war time. Sek Sak stretches along the river bank full of plant, trees and bamboo-green nature in 500 meter length. Near Sek Sak, tourists can also visit other attractive sites like Po Pus Pich Chen Da Dong Tong and Sa Ang speak—pre-history sites five kilometer to kilometer in distance from each other. Sek Sak located Treng commune, Rotanak Mondul District along the National Road No 57, the former National Road No 10.

Kamping Pouy Bassin (35 kilometers west of Battambang) was gigantic civil-engineering project was central to the Khmer Rouge’s plan to irrigate the countryside around Battambang. Tragically, the construction of the Kamping Puoy Reservoir resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Unlike the victims of S21 and Choeung Ek most of the deaths on the Kamping Puoy project were caused by malnutrition, disease, overwork or mistreatment. The deaths were in short, preventable.

A gripping, visceral and painfully honest account of life in Battambang under the Khmer Rouge was written by Haing S. Ngor, the Cambodian doctor, actor and community worker who won an Oscar for the film The Killing Fields. His book “Survival in Cambodia's Killing Fields is perhaps the most eloquent account of day-to-day life during the Pol Pot period. It is laced with insights into the Khmer psyche and is ultimately a heartbreaking read.

Located between two mountains—Phnom Ku or Phnom Ta Ngen and Phnom Kamping Pouy—in Ta Nget Village, Ta Kream Srok commune, Kamping Pouy Bassin is six meters long and 1,900 meters wide. During the rainy season the basin can hold 110 million cubic meters of water, which is used primarily for agriculture. Kamping Pouy basin is vital to this area. It is now a popular picnic site for residents of Pailin and Battambang because of its fresh air. Lotus flowers grow in the water and nearby you can buy lotus seeds to eat (they are delicious and taste a bit like sweet, uncooked peas). Takream Commune in Banan District is the nearest settlement. See History.

Phnom Trong Morn Trong Tea (fifteen kilometers, forty minutes from Battambang) is a wildlife preserve. The place boasts of various types of wild animals. The location of Phnom Trong Morn Trong Tea is in the region of Samnagn Village which is located in the Phnom Sampov Commune. This place is situated in the district of Banann. Various kinds transportation make the rough journey to the entry point of the Phnom Trong Morn Trong Tea. The journey tough but is filled with lots of excitement and fun.

PAILIN

PAILIN (near Thailand) is a small municipality in the West of Cambodia very close to the border of Thailand. The provincial capital is called Pailin City and is known to much of the world as being the area where many of the Khmer Rouge leaders came from and retreated after their fall. Up until the surrender deal of Khmer Rouge's number three men, Ieng Sary, in 1996, the townsfolk lived under the strict rules of the KR hierarchy, with little freedom of expression and most aspects of life being completely controlled by the paranoid regime.

Until the year of 2001 Pailin was part of the Battambang Province, but was then elevated to city status and thus became a province and autonomous zone of its own. As of September 2007, Pailin's remaining Khmer Rouge leaders were being rounded up to face justice by an international tribunal. They included Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea. So after years of the governmental dump contemplation regarding the crime of the Khmer Rouge, its time for lasting enlightenment of what has happen. See History

Pailin was the major revenue producer for the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, being a major gem producing area as well as a prime logging area. While gem production seems to have tapered off a bit, other business opportunities and the lifestyle have attracted prospectors to the town. Poipet is now more and more becoming a boomtown attracting Cambodians from around the country seeking to make their fortune, or at least a better salary than back home.

Pailin municipality is the second smallest so-called province in Cambodia, covering 803 square kilometers. It's located in the West of the country surrounded by Battambang province and bordering Thailand to the West. In the North, the small municipality consists of a typical wet plain area for Cambodia, with rice fields other agricultural plantations. Pailin City itself is located on the foothills of Chuor Phnom Kravanh, an extension of the Cardamom Mountains. The southern part of Pailin municipality is quite hilly and with mountains reaching a height of 1164 meters. The province also features some smaller rivers coming from the mountains.

The population of Pailin municipality is about 35,234 people or 0.25 percent of the country's total population (2007, provincial government data), with 19,059 male and 16,175 female. The population density is 44 people per square kilometer. The area surrounding Pailin City was rich in a variety of gemstones which were mostly mined out to support the Khmer Rouge. They also logged the area to create personal wealth with no regard for the effect on the environment. Nowadays all you can find is low-quality, cheap, hand-faceted gemstones at the market in Pailin downtown.

After fully exploiting the region’s natural resources, the Khmer Rouge invested their money in casinos around Pailin. Pailin is located in the most heavily mined area in the world, so be especially careful. Stay only on marked roads. Don’t wander off into the bushes to pee. In Pailin the cool season is from November to March with temperatures ranging from 22 to 28 degrees C. The hot season is from March to May with temperatures ranging from 27 to 34 degrees C. The rainy season is from May to October. Temperatures are 24 to 32 degrees C, with humidity up to 90 percent.

Pailin City (19 kilometers from the Thai border) was the former stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. Ruled until the early 2000s by the Khmer Rouge defector Ieng Sary, it is a pleasant place with some of Cambodia's cleanest and well-kept guest houses and brothels, a busy marketplace, billiard halls, casinos, gambling halls, gas stations, karaokes and restaurants. The first brothel opened in September 1997. Soldiers in the town are prohibited from carrying guns.

Pailin has traditionally been a gem-dealing town.

Roaming around town are gem dealers who offer rubies, sapphires and diamonds to Western visitors and anyone else that passes through. As the gem-producing areas of Pailin are mostly played out many of the gems originate form outside the region. Many of the visitors these days are high-rolling Thais who play baccarat and roulette tables in open air casinos and larger places like Caesar International Casino, a building that looks like an airplane hanger and offers “Disco, Dance, Karaoke, Restaurant, Massage” as well as gambling.

Many of the Thais come just for at night to gamble and then go home. The town has its share of drugs and Khmer and Vietnamese prostitutes. There are a few visible remnants of the war and Khmer Rouge occupation other than some tanks that children climb around on and suspicious looks by local people towards foreigners. Bright warning signs and white tape show where mines are potentially located.

During the 1980s and 1990s Pailin was a major Khmer Rouge strongpoint and resource centre. Even after the death of their brutal leader Pol Pot in 1998, many Khmer Rouge leaders still remained there. Some of the leaders went into hiding in fear of punishment for their crimes, although other leaders or henchmen lived openly in the province. It is said that almost 70 percent of the area's older men were fighters for the Khmer Rouge.

During the Khmer Rouge occupation and after Pailin was like Wild West town in the gold-rush days of California. People seem to be everywhere in the hills sifting through mud puddles and scratching at the dirt, looking to strike it rich with the find of a nice gem. Even though the gems are mostly gone Pailin still seems to attract more people rather than kept them away. The influx of residents from other parts of the country has produced a friendlier Pailin. Nowadays the mixed lot of Pailin residents seem happy to see foreigners coming in for holidays and check the place out, realizing that their presence means that normalcy and revenue are arriving in Pailin. Even the Vietnamese residents seem to have been accepted, which is truly amazing given the hatred the Khmer Rouge generally showed them.

Pailin is worth checking out. The town is nestled in a beautiful valley with picturesque sunsets over the mountains that separate Cambodia and Thailand close by. Wat Gohng-Kahng is very famous and features the much-photographed landmark gate of Pailin town that you face as you arrive on the highway from Battambang. This wat is the center of holiday festivities these days in Pailin and was the scene of the official Pailin reintegration ceremony in 1996, after the Ieng Sary faction of the Khmer Rouge worked out surrender and semi-autonomy deals with the Cambodian government.

Getting to Pailin: Minibus/Shared taxis:For getting from Phnom Penh to Pailin please have a look at the Battambang section. Coming from Battambang is the only wise thing to do, except if you're coming from Thailand over the international border crossing. Pailin itself lies about 83 kilometers southwest of Battambang and is just 19 kilometers from the border with Thailand. The Major Road 57 from Battambang to Pailin has gone to pieces and makes it a pretty hard ride. The road can only be managed by smaller lighter cars such as minibuses, pick ups or shared taxis due to its wimpy condition, but its still better than it was a couple of years ago, with many new bridges. The scenery along the road heading to Pailin is nice and there are a couple of interesting places on the way. One is Phnom Sampeu, a mountaintop temple, which has memorials set up with skulls and bones of Khmer Rouge victims. It's located 15 kilometers from Battambang on the Pailin road. Security is not a problem. Never go off the street as there are many mines still remaining in the ground. The ride from Battambang to Pailin (4hours) with a share taxi or minibus costs around 160Baht and with a pick up 120Baht (inside) or 80Baht (on the back).

Pailin to Koh Kong: It's now possible to make a journey from Pailin to Koh Kong through the scenic Cardamom Mountains of Pursat and Koh Kong provinces. This route takes in areas that are considered to be the most pristine and untouched in all of Southeast Asia. Ask the pick up drivers. The route from Pailin to Krong Koh Kong is a challenge for hardcore bikers with plenty of off-road experience. It starts in the Treng district, just 25 kilometers East on the road to Battambang. Than it runs down South through former Khmer Rouge strongholds such as Samlot and Veal Veng, which is 275 kilometers from Pailin and the last place to refuel. Good luck!

Cambodia-Thailand International Border Crossing: The Cambodia-Thailand border crossing is just 19 kilometers west of Pailin town. It's supposed to be a full-service crossing issuing tourist and business visas. Crossings however, can sometimes take some time while the border officers try to ask you for more money for the visa issue. The border is opens daily between 7:00am and 8:00pm. To get from Pailin to the border crossing take a moto (50-100Baht) or a share taxi (40Baht). Don't wonder about the two big casinos there, where mostly Thai people try to chase their luck. There is also a small market if you need something.

The Thais present no problem at the border crossing and will issue you a Thai visa or stamp you out between 7 am and 5 pm. The problem is on the Cambodian side as the immigration police say that it’s not an officially sanctioned crossing and there is no way that a foreigner can cross here. So for now it’s best to sticks with Poipet and Koh Kong for land crossings. Getting to the border is the interesting part.

About 5 kilometers on the way from Pailin is a small wooden bridge going over the Oh-chah-rah River. The water coming down from the mountains is clean, so a swim here is an inviting prospect. You also pass by the bombed shell of a tank, reminding you which side of the border you are on. Tank bodies just sit where they die in Cambodia and simply become another part of the landscape. The border is easy to get to. It takes just under a half hour and is around 180 baht for roundtrip moto.

Bah Hoi Village (near Pailin) is an internal refugee camp from different areas of the country that were formerly under khmer Rouge control and are now in the hands of the government. The people feel more safe around their own kind (ex-Khmer Rouge) and—with the Pailin faction of the Khmer Rouge still having effective control of the area—they don’t worry about government soldiers hassling them. The people are quite friendly and don’t mind a chat.

Border Crossing and Casino Area Near Pailin: Locals refer to this area as Pbrohm. This was a main lifeline of the Khmer Rouge during the years of fighting with the government: Food, supplies and weaponry were brought over from Thailand here. As of the late 2000s the Flamingo Casino was open for business and another under construction. Thai people represent the vast majority of customers. Pailin. There are also a few seedy looking karaoke bars with ladies working near the casinos and border.Thousands of tourists visit Ceasar Casino. There is also a Ceasar pub located in the same complex. Both the pub and the casino are frequented by Thais and tourists.

Goh-Ay Mountain (near Pailin) boasts a river that’s great for a swim. Talk to the people at the English school next to the Hotel Sang Phi Run if you want to venture out this way, as they can help with direction aor take you out there. Definitely stay on the worn trails by the river area. There are land mines around. Kbal O'Chra (five kilometers from Pailin) is a Nature and Wildlife Preserve located in O'Chra village, Toul Lwea Commune, Kan Pailin. attractions in Pailin City. Steung Kuy (20 kilometers, or one hour from Pailin) is another Nature and Wildlife Preserve.

BANTEAY MEANCHEY PROVINCE

BANTEAY MEANCHEY is a Cambodian province in the northwest of the country. Its capital is named Sisophon. Like Siem Reap and Battambang Provinces, control of the province has changed hands many times between the Thais and the Khmers in the more distant past, and the Khmer Rouge and central Phnom Penh government in recent decades. With the final demise of the Khmer Rouge (locals, however, firmly believe the Present national reconciliation only the Khmer Rouge trick), the province and towns are striving to rebuild their culture and economy.

Banteay Meanchey is a very friendly place with the locals genuinely happy to see foreign faces and the stability that it implies. Normally just a passing-through spot on the way to the border, or between Battambang and Siem Reap, the area has a few sights that warrant a visit, such the Banteay Chhmar temple ruins, the only other Khmer temple ruins besides the Bayon (Angkor) and Preah Khan ( Preah Vihear Province ) that features the famous four-faced monuments.

This area was part of the extensive Khmer empire, with its most notable remains the Banteay Chhmar temple (built in 12th and 13th century) in the north of the province. In the 17th century the Siam took control over Cambodia, and made the area of the modern province part of Sisophon Province. In the year 1907 the Siam had to cede control to the French, and the area was then included into Battambang Province. In 1988 the province Banteay Meanchey was split off from Battambang.

Banteay Meanchey is located in northwest Cambodia. It borders Thailand to the west and north, with Oddar Meancheay Province also to the north, Siem Reap Province to the east and Battambang Province to the south. The province is mostly covered by extensive lowlands, with a few uplands to the north and east. The entire province covers 6,679 square kilometers. The main rivers are the Mongkol Borei River and the Sisophon River.

The total population of Banteay Meanchey is 816,382 or 5.2 percent of the total population of Cambodia (2007, provincial government data). There are 402,201 males (49.11 percent of the population), and 414,181 female person (50.89 percent). Of the 654,033 people that live in the province, 93 percent are farmers, one percent are fishermen, five percent are traders and one percent work as government officers. Because of it's border with Thailand, the casino business is booming and becoming the main economy to the province.

The average temperature in Banteay Meanchey is between 30 degrees C and 33 degrees C. The province receives 885.30 millimeters of rain a year, with 3.37 millimeters a day during the August-to-October rainy season. The cool season is from November to February with temperature averaging around 27 degrees C. The hot season is from March to May with temperatures ranging from 28 to 35 degrees C. The rainy season is from June to October. Temperature average above 32 degrees C, with humidity up to 90 percent.

Sisophorn (359 kilometers from Phnom Penh via national road number 5) is the main town and capital of Banteay Meanchey Province. It is mostly a quiet place that only gives hints to its turbulent past upon closer examination.

Getting to Banteay Meanchey and Sisophorn: Sisophan is about 359 kilometers from Phnom Penh via national road number 5. You may also reach the Province from Bangkok via Poipet border. There is not alot of choices to get to the province. You either take your own motorcycle or take a shared taxi. But wait; let's not forget the train. Or maybe we should, because it's very slow - the railroad doesn't even want to quote you an correct arrival time, because it’s never going to be the same.

The road between Sisophon to Siem Reap is a terrible bomb-cratered road that you will need to go slowly on. The road from Sisophon to Battambang is fairly decent in certain stretches, not so nice in others, but definitely the better one of the two roads. The Sisophon to Poipet stretch has some pretty fair stretches for a motorcycle, with other stretches having some humps in the road that are big enough to make any rollercoaster operator envious.

The train from Battambang arrives in Sisophan sometimes between 10:00 - 11:00 am (usually). The trip takes around 3½ hours, which is about double the time that the shared taxies need for, but unlike most things in life, it’s free ! This won't last for long as the poor Khmer people are paying, while visitors are not. The government just hasn't organized the train service for tourists yet.

Shared Taxies, per seat, approximate rates: 1) Sisophon to Siem Reap 120 baht, US$4; 2) Sisophon to Battambong 50 baht, US$2; 3) Sisophon to Poipet 30 baht, US$1.4; 4) Sisophon to Phnom Penh 250 baht, US$8.5; 5) Sisophon to Samrong 100 baht, US$3.5. These rates are the same going in the other direction.

Sites Near Sisophorn: Banteay Neang (11 kilometers from Sisophorn) takes 20 minutes to reach by car from Sisophorn. There are several historical sites and colonial buildings. It is located in Road No. 69A of Banteay Chhmar Village, Banteay Chhmar Commune, Tmar Puok District. Banteay Torp (55 kilometers from Sisophorn) means the army base. It was the biggest army base during the civil war that began in 1970.It is located in Road No. 69A of Banteay Chhmar Village, Banteay Chhmar Commune, Tmar Puok District. Today, it is a historical war place. Cheung Krouh (63 kilometers from Sisophorn) is a wildlife preserve that takes about 2 hours to reach by car. Wildlife here is preserved with help from the WWF organization. It is located in road 69A of Banteay Chhmar Village, Banteay Chhmar Commune, Tmar Puok Dis

POIPET

Poipet (near the Thai border) is a grimy town with casinos that cater to Thai businessmen. Poipet is a key crossing point between the two countries, and also extremely popular as a gambling destination with lots of casinos (gambling is popular, but illegal in Thailand). There is a strip of casinos, guesthouses and hotels between the Thai and Cambodian passport control counters, enabling Thais to gamble in Cambodia without needing to go through Cambodian immigration. Poipet is adjacent to the city of Aranya Pratet on the Thai side of the border.

The Aranyaprethet/Poipet border crossing is ideal if you want to start your visit to Cambodia in the north at Battambang and Siem Reap. From Bangkok, you can reach Aranyaprathet by train (7 hour) or by air-con bus (4 hour). The border is open daily (7:00am-5:00pm) and visas are issued on arrival. From Poipet, onward transport by shared taxi or pick-up is readily available to Sisophon (for Siem Reap) and daily boats from Hong Kong to Sre Ambel (for Phnom Penh) and to Sihanoukville. The nearest train station is in Sisophon.

Ang Trapeang Thmor (about 100 kilometers from Siem Reap town) is a wildlife preserve located in Banteay Meanchey Province. It is a unique wetland ecosystem giving home to over 200 bird species including the endangered Sarus Crane. The population of the Sarus Crane species in this area has risen constantly within the last years to number more than 300 birds today. A total of 18 bird species found in Ang Trapeang Thmor have been classified as near threatened. A project in Ang Trapeang Thmor tries to help prevent the birds from disappearing. Birds can be watched throughout the whole year but the best time for seeing the Sarus Crane is from February to May. Ang Trapeang Thmor also harbors the globally endangered Eld’s deer. From Siem Reap Town it is a two hours drive during dry season and a three hours drive during rainy season by minibus, taxi or motor taxi. To have access to the forest it is indispensable to have your own 4-wheel drive vehicle.

BANTEAY CHHMAR

Banteay Chhmar (15 kilometers from the Thai border, north of Poipet, and 60 kilometers north of Sisophorn) is an enormous temple that covers more than 500,000 square feet and contains splendid bas-reliefs. Often compared to Angkor Thom in size and structure, this enormous complex, which was a temple city, is one of the most intriguing in the Khmer empire, both for it's scale and it's remote location. Never excavated, Banteay Chhmar fits the picture of a lost Khmer city with its ruined face-towers, carvings, forest surroundings and bird life flying through the temple. It has a romantic and discovery feel to it. It is possible to camp out at the temple. However, getting to it entails hours on very bumpy and dusty dirt roads.

Like Preah Khan, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom,Banteay Chhmar originally enclosed a city with the temple at the heart. No traces of the city that surrounded the temple remain. Banteay Chhmar dates from the late 12th to the early 13th century. It name means Narrow Fortress. It is thought to have been built by Jayarvarman II. It was later rebuilt by Jayarvarman VII as a funerary temple for his sons and four generals who had been killed in a battle repelling a Cham invasion in 1177.

The Banteay Chhmar temple area covers two kilometers by two and a half kilometers. It contains the main temple complex and a number of other religious structures and a baray to its east. A moat filled with water and a huge wall inside of that encloses the center of the temple. This moat is still used to present day by locals for fishing and daily chores. A bustling small market and village bounds the east and south east and perhaps there has been continuous habitation there since the founding of the temple.

Inside the mote, a stone rest house and chapel can be seen. The highlight of Banteay Chhmar is the bas-reliefs, which are comparable with the Bayon. They depict battle against the Chams, religious scenes and a host of daily activities. In parts, the outer wall has collapsed. On the west side a spectacular multi-armed Lekesvara can be seen. The temples central complex is a jumble of towers, galleries, vegetation and fallen stones. Beautiful carvings can be seen throughout.

Nowadays, the temple is damaged because of war and gangs of looters who have stolen statues and the temple stones to sell in Thailand. NGO workers at the temple want to install temporary, low-impact viewing platforms, so guests can see the complex from a bird’s eye view. The platforms would allow visitors a safe way to experience the heart of the temple, which currently is inaccessible because of unstable stone structures. For now, visitors walk on the ground amongst the ruins, witnessing the temple as westerners first discovered it. About 40 percent of visitors spend a night in one of the villages’ six homestay locations, the only overnight option.

Other members of the local community provide ox cart rides, silk weaving, woodcarving, traditional music concerts, rice wine distillation, beekeeping, bike tours and the women’s cooking group. While more tourists are exactly what the community needs, busloads may be unfortunate. The isolation is what gives Banteay Chhmar its charm no matter what time of day you visit, you are likely to be the only visitors. For the time being, there is no waiting for the hordes to move so you can snap a photo without people. There are no tuk tuks, no elephants, no mega-buses. There is just the temple, nature and friendly people there to help.

Banteay Chhmar is located at Thmar Puok District, along the National Road No 69A, about 59 kilometers north of Sisophorn. A paved road scheduled to start construction this year is bound to increase visitors. In addition, there are some other temples in Ban Teay Mean Chey province such as Pra Sat Preah Chhor and Pra Sat Pram as well that have mostly been abandoned and not arranged.

Banteay Chhmar has been the target of looters. The bas-reliefs along the surrounding wall of the temple are some of the finest in Cambodia. Yet the stories are incomplete due to sustained looting, which continued as late as 2002. Huge sections of the outer wall have been chiselled away. While the loss is felt as you wander around the massive complex, it also drives home the importance of visitors to this remote site. These tourist dollars lead to the long-run stability of the temple and the surrounding villages. Such is the hope of Global Heritage Fund (GHF), a non-profit organisation based in California, that is helping restore using people from the local community and provide security for the site.

Visiting Banteay Chhmar: John Burgess wrote in the Washington Post, “I'm standing at a 12th-century moat. Traces of mist hover above the lotus leaves that dapple the water. Across a causeway, through a tumbled-down gate, lies Banteay Chhmar, one of the largest temples ever built by the ancient Khmer Empire. My friends and I are going to have the place all to ourselves. We walk in. It turns out that we do end up sharing it, with a local man who brings his cows onto the grounds to graze. And with an affable mason who leads us across acres of fallen stone to see a message from the past, an inscription chiseled into the doorjamb of a holy tower. This kind of company we welcome. [Source: John Burgess, Washington Post June 21, 2009]

“Go beyond Angkor and you can find places that serve up the old solitude and sense of discovery. You can explore at your own pace, to the sounds of birds and the breeze that stirs the leaves overhead. In postcards and e-mails home, you will search for words worthy of your sentiments of wonder. Banteay Chhmar is among the most spectacular of these places. I stayed the night, and it turned out to really make the visit... I rose early, as everyone here does, and took a walk in clean country air. I passed mother hens foraging with their chicks, boys tending to a mud oven in which charcoal was being made. I was seeing not only a temple but a way of life.

“Today several thousand people — rice farmers, cattle herders, market vendors — make their homes on all four sides of the temple. They grow vegetables on the banks of a series of moats; they pile straw within the walls of lesser ancient buildings that dot their settlement. The ancient and present day coexist.

“Banteay Chhmar was created in the Khmer Empire's last great burst of construction, under the 12th-century Buddhist king Jayavarman VII. His engineers were thinking big even by Khmer standards: To contain a great settlement, they built earthworks and moats that formed a square measuring roughly one mile on each side. At its center, within another square moat system half a mile on each side, they built the temple. More than a century ago, French archaeologist Etienne Aymonier found the temple to be in a state of "indescribable ruin." Exploring it means climbing over huge piles of large fallen stones, something to be tackled by only the sure-footed. We passed ruined towers, courtyards and ceremonial walkways. Sometimes the stones were so high that we were walking at roof level.

“The temple is no longer a formal religious site, but Cambodians believe that it, like all those that their forebears left behind, remains a holy site. In one surviving chamber we found a small contemporary shrine, with a Buddha image wearing a cloth robe, where people made incense offerings. When rain is needed, local people are reported to walk in a procession around the temple, imploring heaven to help.

“One of the best parts of this temple is the many hundreds of feet of bas-reliefs on its outer walls. We had to scramble up more stones to get a good view. Before us was a full sample of life 900 years ago: processions of elephants, prominent ladies tended by maids, children roughhousing, villagers in a sampan, servants tending a stove. There were also many scenes of war with Champa, the long-vanished rival state to the east: The temple is in large part a memorial to four generals who lost their lives in that long conflict. On land, the men of arms go at one another fiercely with spears (you can identify the Chams by the curious blossom-shaped headdress they wear). On water, rows of men pull at oars from galleys as others strike at the enemy with spears. There are also images of the divine, notably the god Vishnu, with 32 arms arrayed like rays of light emanating from the sun. The carving style is similar to that of the Bayon temple reliefs in Angkor. The difference is there's no need to fight for a view. We did cross paths for a few minutes our first day with a party of about 20 French-speaking tourists. We saw no other visitors that day or the next.

“Late in the afternoon, we went for a look at what the ancient Khmers could do with water. Just east of the temple, they created a reservoir that measures roughly a mile by a half-mile. Academics disagree over whether this body, and others like it, did only symbolic duty as earthly stand-ins for the mythic Sea of Creation, or were part of a vast irrigation system, or both. Whatever the truth, I was awed by the scale. The tree line way, way off in the distance was the northern bank. The reservoir was now largely dry, but because its floor is low and collects water before the surrounding land does, it has been divided into rice paddies. We went for a stroll, walking along paddy dikes to keep our feet dry. We said hello to members of a farming family who were tinkering with a small tractor. A woman had caught a bucketful of paddy crabs and insects, which she would sell as food. In the final daylight, we passed a group of young men bringing cattle home.

“ Members of our party slept at a formal homestay, the term given to guesthouses as well as family homes that accept paying guests, a few steps from the temple's gate. It had two rooms with large beds covered by mosquito nets. Downstairs there was a basic bathroom with a squat toilet and scoop bath. Later we went exploring on foot. Mixed in among wooden homes were the stone walls of lesser 12th-century relics that had been monasteries or small temples. The ruins of one temple's gate lay foliage-shrouded just a few steps from a house. Little boys ran about, and a teenage girl ironed clothing. We had breakfast at a stall in the town's market; there are no proper restaurants. It was noodle soup with chicken, and very good. I first visited Angkor in 1969. Back then, you could be alone in the big temples even there. I once walked through the largest of them, Angkor Wat, encountering hardly a soul. It's good to know that such an experience can still be had. You just have to work a bit harder for it.”

ANLONG VENG, LAST REFUGE OF THE KHMER ROUGE

Anlong Veng (100 kilometers east of Oddar Meanchey town) is the village where Pol Pot spent his last years. The hut that he lived in during that time and died in final days in has become something of tourist attraction. As of early 2004, all that one could see in the hut were some broken bits of toilet seat and some empty medicine bottles. The place where he was cremated is marked by a simple blue sign. Pol Pot chose to live here because the village is very remote: the jungle is very dense and if necessary he could quickly escape to Thailand. He died here because there was nowhere else he could go. Nearby is the brick and concrete structure he lived in before he died. Local people say he stashed his riches in the basement. Near this is a stream was dammed for Pol Pot’s swimming pool. See Pol Pot, History.

Susan Spano wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Anlong Veng has the insubstantial look of a Wild West town, with a single basic guesthouse, a few cafes and street carts heaped with tiny freshwater clams, a popular snack food. Its hospital, dike and dam were built by Ta Mok, On the way to Pol Pot's last lair and cremation site near the town of Anlong Veng, we passed rickety houses built on stilts, boys fishing for dinner in drainage culverts, card games in front of country stores selling gasoline in recycled Johnnie Walker bottles. As little as a dozen years ago, the area was still in the hands of the Khmer Rouge, scattered but not gone.”[Source: Susan Spano, Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2011]

Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, A shack on the main road, the Anlong Veng Tourism Office, lists the sites, showing faded photographs of weed-filled plots labeled as the former homes and swimming holes of Khmer Rouge leaders. Tiny enterprises opened — food stalls, gasoline sold in recycled Johnnie Walker bottles, pirated videotapes, hair dressers and vendors selling cigarettes, duck eggs and mobile telephones. The past and the present mingle as thin white cows wander among the parked motorbikes. And that is where development has stopped, at the bottom rung of Cambodian poverty, except for the wide blacktop road that runs through it, with its incongruous yellow center line. “Gift from Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Royal Government of Cambodia, 104 kilometers of road built by the Army engineering unit,” reads the town’s only monument. If tourists ever do come, the smooth road will speed them nine miles up into the mountains to the weed-filled lot where Pol Pot was cremated, [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, August 12, 2006]

Many tourists go to Anlong Veng to see and photograph the sites and activities associated with the former regime, and the government has discussed turning this area into a historical site to attract even more tourists. Pol Pot’s home has been designated a historic tourist zone to prevent uncontrolled development. According to one tourism official, “The plan is not designated to glorify Pol Pot. It will preserve the bitter history for the young generation to learn that anything tat goes against the law of human progress cannot last long.” There are plans to develop the whole site into a tourist attraction. A tourism official had found the sofa, tables and chairs that had been looted from the house in the home of a carpenter who built the original hut. There are also plans to restore the entire village, which contained the Khmer Rouge headquarters, courthouse, office, a jail, guard posts and other facilities and charge tourists $2 a head to visit and build hotels and restaurants.

Anlong Veng is a pretty remote place. It is located in a malaria-ridden jungle. It is reached along dirt and single-lane roads in the Dangrek Mountains near the the Thai border where Khmer Rouge holdouts fled after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979. The roads are often not passable in the rainy season and difficult to manage even in the dry season. The journey from Siem Reap can take all day. It is easier to arrive from Thailand. A new border post was opened up nearby in the early 2000s. There are still land mines in the area.

Ta Mok’s House (in Anlong Veng) is located in Anlong Veng district, along Road 68, in Oddar Meanchey province. The house was owned by former Khmer Rouge Commander Ta Mok. From 1979 until late 1997. This area was organized and controlled by the Khmer Rouge armies. Some remaining statues describe the way the rebels lived and how they arranged their troops during their bloody struggle against the government. Susan Spano wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Ta Mok, a Khmer Rouge official nicknamed "The Butcher," died in prison in 2006, awaiting trial. His former communications aide Mork Dett showed us the way to Ta Mok's lakeside villa, where Khmer Rouge adjutant Son Sen was killed along with 13 family members in 1997 on the orders of Pol Pot.”

Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, “The only site that draws a regular trickle of visitors is Ta Mok’s concrete villa in the center of town, with its irrational maze of big, bare rooms and its underground bunker.Its broad balconies look out over a swampy artificial lake dotted with the skeletons of dead trees, a vista created by a man who seems to have felt a kinship with death. When Ta Mok’s harsh utopia collapsed, the outside world flooded in, bringing colored clothing to replace the black pajamas of the Khmer Rouge. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, August 12, 2006]

Pol Pot’s Burial Site (near Ta Mok’s House) is a pile of tires in a muddy, weed-choked field in the forest and hills of northern Cambodia. Pol Pot it is said was cremated and buried here. See History.

Mydans wrote in the New York Times, “Pol Pot was cremated 980 feet from the border with Thailand. Once abandoned in the mountain overgrowth, the cremation site now seems forgotten in the midst of a burst of small-scale construction. The buzz of cicadas is drowned by the whine of power saws as small houses crowd the edges of the fenced-in lot. As in the rest of Cambodia, the future is being built on the ruins of a devastated past that has never been faced, where skulls from killing fields still lie in piles and three decades have passed without any formal accounting. “They’ll all be dying soon,” said Loan Pheap, who pumps gasoline next to Pol Pot’s cremation site, “all the old grandfathers. They are already shaking with age. They’ll all be gone before anybody can put them on trial.”

Spano wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “ Even now, little is known about Pol Pot, except that he was born in 1925 with the name Saloth Sar and educated at a Catholic school in Phnom Penh. As a young man he traveled to Paris to study electronics and join the political underground, imbibing communism from tomes by Marx and Lenin he once admitted he did not fully understand. No one can say what turned a revolutionary into a mass murderer. Nor do all historians think that he was chiefly to blame for the Cambodian holocaust. Standing at Pol Pot's grave, I mentally retraced the road I'd taken through Cambodia, showing how all the conditions were present that had allowed the Khmer Rouge to take power: poverty, ignorance, misgovernment, radical ideology, foreign intervention. The only additional element needed was the psychopath buried at my feet.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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