TOWN AND COUN­TRY

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Get­ting off the track in lit­tle-vis­ited Kam­pong Thom

leads a drove of oxen across the road. Fam­i­lies lounge in the shade of their stilted homes.

After a lazy af­ter­noon, we drive to Ph­nom San­tuk, a Bud­dhist her­itage site lo­cated roughly 17km south of Kam­pong Thom. Set about 200m above sea level, vis­i­tors can reach the site’s spires and pago­das by climb­ing more than 800 steps. Less in­trepid trav­ellers, such as this writer, can take a by­pass­ing 2.5km road.

“We should move our bikes,” Vothea says at the top. “The mon­keys will knock them over.” He is re­fer­ring to the horde of macaques that rule Ph­nom San­tuk, feasting on do­nated, dropped and pil­fered goods from tourists.

Close to the peak of Ph­nom San­tuk is a cliff where, along­side a few pri­mate friends, vis­i­tors are af­forded a view of the coun­try­side’s seem­ingly end­less rice pad­dies. We spend more time than might be nec­es­sary gaz­ing out on the provin­cial land­scape, dot­ted, as it is, with stately sugar palms and del­i­cate rum­duol trees.

Ph­nom San­tuk it­self is a col­lec­tion of pago­das and stu­pas pep­pered with stat­ues of na­gas, dragons and 15th-cen­tury re­clin­ing Bud­dhas, cracked and age­ing. Vothea points out a bell made from the tip of a B52’s bomb. The deep, dis­tant boom­ing of a drum gath­ers Ph­nom San­tuk’s monks for an evening cer­e­mony.

We leave them and walk back to our mo­tor­bikes, the sky dark­en­ing. The drive down the moun­tain is som­bre, my visit to Kam­pong Thom nearly over. The clam­our of Ph­nom Penh seems closer than I would like to ad­mit.

River­side: a wooden boat rests by the

Stung Sen river. A sun­set boat trip along the wa­ter­way is a great way to see the more in­ti­mate reaches of Kam­pong Thom prov­ince

Trail­blaz­ing: (cen­tre) Chin Vothea is a knowl­edge guide to Kam­pong Thom; (clock­wise from far left) Prasat Chrei is a gem within the Sam­bor Prei

Kuk tem­ple com­plex; mo­tor­bikes are use­ful to reach some of Sam­bor Prei Kuk's more re­mote tem­ples; a group of macaques lounge at Ph­nom San­tuk; a fallen tree adds some nat­u­ral drama to a tem­ple at Sam­bor Prei Kuk

Friendly faces: (from left) a nun of­fers bless­ings at Ph­nom San­tuk; a fish ven­dor hawks her wares on the road near the Stung Sen river; a man lights a cig­a­rette while the sky darkens be­hind him; one of Ph­nom San­tuk's monks re­laxes on a par­ic­u­larly balmy day

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