TOWN AND COUNTRY
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 theStung 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 PreiKuk 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